24 FEBRUARY 2001, Page 40

A tale of four cities

Jane Ridley

1918: WAR AND PEACE by Gregor Dallas John Murray, £25, pp. 615

hole libraries have been filled with books about the first world war, but few books have examined how the war ended. This is the subject of Gregor Dallas's brilliant 1918: War and Peace. It's quite unlike any history book I know. Like a film, it moves from sweeping wide-angle shots of the battlefields of northern France, rooted in a geographer's grasp of the north European plain, to detailed snapshots of what life was really like in war-torn Paris or revolutionary Berlin, zooming in on characters like Lenin or J. M. Keynes. The hinge that bolts all this rich, vivid, anarchic material together is a big historical question: how was it that 1918/19 produced the disastrous peace of Versailles, which by punishing Germany laid the foundation for Hitler and another war?

Few British historians, trained to peer at historical events through the narrow prism of the archives, are able to achieve this enviable breadth of vision. Gregor Dallas writes history which is far closer to French Annales historiography: the longue duree of geography and weather (there's plenty of rain in the book) is brilliantly juxtaposed and balanced against the short cycle of daily life. Like the French historians, Dallas prefers cities and geography to states and institutions, and the book is loosely organised around four cities, Berlin, Paris, London and Moscow.

London emerges as barely affected by the war. With its richness and sparkle, it seemed almost indifferent, a provincial city where people didn't talk about the war but complained about the servant shortage. On Armistice Day an American commented that in New York the bells were ringing, but 'in England you remain silent in the hour of your triumph . . . It is perfectly amazing.' (A. J. P. Taylor's assertion that in London on Armistice Day 'total strangers copulated in doorways' turns out to have been mere wishful thinking.) In Moscow Dallas uses little-known sources to take the lid off the Bolshevik revolution, evoking an unforgettable picture of a civilisation sliding into hell. Buried in snow, Moscow became moribund. Shops were destroyed, houses commandeered, the city plunged into darkness and Spanish flu devastated the starving population. Moscow became a mediaeval city once more, returning to the days of Genghis Khan.

Things were not nearly so bad in Berlin. Many Germans refused to accept defeat, and the war in the east still continued. The 1918 revolution gave birth to the weirdly compartmentalised culture of Weimar Germany, with its contrasts of poverty and wealth, despair and hope, violence and beauty. In a sense, the real enemy for many Germans was not France or Russia but England and Victorian hypocrisy, and the war of liberation against the English they certainly won. Drawing on the cult of the Volk, of youth and the Nordic spirit, the Free Corps was formed to stamp out the Bolshevik enemy without and the communist Spartacist enemy within.

The people's hero in 1918 was President Woodrow Wilson, who crossed the Atlantic with a mission to sweep away bad old Europe and the balance of power and create a new world with his League of Nations. Crowds cheered him, but Dallas paints him as a dangerously deluded idealist, a mystic who thought he could play God. He shut himself in his study and refused except once to visit the battlefields, He irked the British and French by refusing to acknowledge their suffering in the war. American troops had won the war, claimed Wilson, and this entitled America to dictate the terms of the peace. Dallas shows brilliantly how Wilson's blinkered idealism led to the one thing he was determined to prevent: a peace settlement which made another war inevitable.

'The war is over ... now we are all fighting each other again,' said Churchill. The quarrel at the Paris peace conference, vividly described here, was about war loans. The Americans had made loans to Britain and Britain made loans to the Allies. When the Americans obstinately refused to accept the burden of Britain's Allied loans, Keynes minuted, 'It almost looks as if they took a satisfaction in reducing us to a position of complete financial helplessness and dependence.' American meanness forced the Allies to cover their debts by demands on Germany, making Germany responsible for bearing the full cost of the war. This was the origin of the notorious 'war guilt' clause, which led to such disastrous consequences. Keynes warned about crippling the German economy, and Woodrow Wilson opposed squeezing Germany until the pips squeaked, but the policy had its origins in America's niggardly refusal of credit to the Allies. In the east, meanwhile, the war had never really stopped. Twelve million people died in Russia's post-armistice civil war.

This brilliant, ambitious book fizzes with insights, colour and energy. As a way of writing history it succeeds triumphantly. Like all the best history books it changes the way you see things. 1918 will never seem the same again.