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Paris, 1919: History’s Slingshot

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It feels urgent to revisit the events of early 20th century Europe right now. Reading about that era feels like watching someone draw back the slingshot whose energy still propels much of modern politics, including the conflict in Gaza and Israel.

“Paris 1919,” by Margaret MacMillan, traces the negotiations of the Paris peace conference, which eventually led to the Treaty of Versailles. Although that agreement is now best known for the burdensome reparations it imposed on Germany, creating resentments that Hitler fanned and exploited in his rise to power, MacMillan does a good job of explaining the misguided idealism that guided negotiators as they redrew the map of Europe, carving nation-states out of collapsing empires.

Some of the negotiators had the foresight to see the disastrous consequences of their actions, but no ability to stop them. Robert Lansing, Woodrow Wilson’s secretary of state, predicted that the promise of national self-determination that was used to justify many of the new states’ borders “will raise hopes which can never be realized. It will, I fear, cost thousands of lives. In the end it is bound to be discredited, to be called the dream of an idealist who failed to realize the danger until it was too late to check those who attempt to put the principle into force.”

I picked up “Postwar,” by Tony Judt, after a historian friend texted to remind me of this quote in response to my newsletter a few weeks ago: “At the conclusion of the First World War, it was borders that were invented and adjusted, while people were on the whole left in place. After 1945 what happened was rather the opposite: boundaries stayed broadly intact and people were moved instead.”

Judt once wrote that Paris in 1919 was “the best starting place” for anyone wishing to understand the Israel-Palestine hostilities, a subject of lifelong interest for him. He was a fervent Zionist in his youth and volunteered for the Israeli army during the Six-Day War, but later came to see Israel as an oppressive colonial power. In a famous (or infamous, depending on whom you ask) 2003 essay in the New York Review of Books, he proposed what is now called the “one-state” solution for Israel: that it become a single integrated country for Jews and Palestinians.

He grounded his argument in history: The same ideas about matching a “people” to the borders of a state that drove the Paris peace conference had also helped to justify the founding of the state of Israel. But then, he argued, those founding principles prevented Israel from adapting to the political norms of the modern world, leaving it ideologically isolated.

“The founders of the Jewish state had been influenced by the same concepts and categories as their Fin-de-Siècle contemporaries back in Warsaw, or Odessa, or Bucharest,” Judt wrote. Israel “imported a characteristically late-nineteenth-century separatist project into a world that has moved on.”

On a lighter note — though perhaps I should warn you that, despite the glamour of its stars and the bright pastel palette of its design, the show isn’t actually that much lighter than a pile of books about war — I watched Apple’s “Lessons in Chemistry” miniseries. Its tone was very different from the novel, which had a much zanier energy. (Including telling much more of the story from the perspective of the main character’s dog, who got comparatively short shrift in the TV version.) But I still really liked it.

And it paired well with “The Man Who Ate Everything,” one of my favorite not-just-a-cookbooks, in which Jeffrey Steingarten marries recipes and technique instruction with essays about his own quests to find, master and perfect various foods.


Ines Cook recommends “Lyrical and Critical Essays” by Albert Camus:

About ten years ago, I’d written about the nature of words — how we use them, how they develop, and what they eventually become through use. I felt I’d identified in myself the different ways words and sounds pass through my mind, and the reasons why words, unlike sounds, rarely come out the same way they went in. It wasn’t until I’d read one of Camus’ critical essays — “On a Philosophy of Expression, by Brice Parain” — that I was able to piece a few things together. It changed not only the way I write, but the way I think.


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