am 31. Mai 2014
Adam Tooze's latest book is another excellent work to be added to his previous ones on the Nazi economy, and the statistical innovation in Germany between 1900 and 1945. Both of these were ground-breaking and were books of unusual originality and meticulous research. Previously at Cambridge University he is now Professor of History at Yale.
In his new book he addresses the events of 1919 to 1939, and asks 'Why did the western powers lose their grip in such a spectacular fashion?'. His thesis is it was America's failure to 'cooperate with the efforts of the French, British, Germans and the Japanese to stabilise the world economy and establish new institutions of collective security ' that caused the problems that emerged after the Great War ended in 1918.
After the Armistice, an error that allowed Germany to claim she had not been defeated, representatives laboured for 6 months before signing what came to be called the Treaty of Versailles. They had faced enormously complex problems in a world fragmented and in turmoil. 65 million men had been mobilised from around the globe. At least 9 million lay dead, and some 21 million more were wounded, diseased or mutilated. It has been estimated that each day deaths on the battlefield were 10 times greater than in the American Civil War. Some 22 million civilians had been killed or wounded. Famine was rife across parts of Europe-Germany was still blockaded. In many capitals there was bitter fighting. At least 14 wars raged. Thousands of square miles of France had been devastated. In Poland, and elsewhere there was rampant inflation-prices in Russia had risen by a factor of 400,000,000! Revolutions broke out in Germany, Hungary, Austria and Poland and in other parts of Europe. 4 Empires had gone. A major civil war that involved the West was being fought in Russia. Boundary changes were bewildering, and hanging over everything was nationalsm fostered by the war and Wilson's 14 Points.
The European economy was in ruins. The war had cost an estimated $603 billion. Gradually Europe slid into a major depression by 1920 that has almost been ignored by historians. From 1918, an influenza pandemic swept the world killing some 12 million, 5 million in India alone. It killed more Americans than did the war.
In the midst of this turmoil the peacemakers bickered and battled-often among themselves-to bring order and peace. Wilson threatened on more than one occasion to leave Paris and return home. How to deal with Germany was a major issue. The only state that emerged almost unscathed from the war was America. France and Britain were no longer world powers. This is why Tooze believes America should have used its power and led the world on a path of peace instead of withdrawing behind the walls of fortress America. His is a painstaking analysis but is he perhaps a little unfair in his attack on Wilson and those that followed him in the White House?
This reviewer thinks he is, for the following reasons:
America was not the economic and military superpower in 1918 that she was in 1945;
America had several major domestic problems of her own to deal with; the US constitution placed severe consfraints on Wilson that hampered his diplomacy; Wilson's personality and beliefs about peace were in sharp conflict with many in his party and in the Republican Party, and the sheer complexity of the issues facing Wilson and the other peacemakers in 1918, in some respects these were greater than those post 1945.
The President was not worldly-wise. He was a scholar who was never highly regarded as a President. He suffered ill health for much of his life, and his political opponents in the Senate gave him no rest. Also we should not forget that relations between America and the other key peacemakers were at times frigid and highly suspicious. British imperialism was detested in many parts of the USA. In particular, several Republican senators were angry about our refusal to grant Ireland independence. Finally, even an historian of Tooze's stature is perhaps a little guilty at times of basking in the comfort of hindsight.
A book to be be read alongside Macmillan's outstanding 'Peacemakers', and Mulligan's 'The Great War For Peace' in order to get a balanced picture.
These books and many others demonstrate it is much more difficult to forge a peace than fight a war. The failure to ensure peace was not America's fault. It was the delberate actions of Hitler, Mussolini and the military gang in Tokyo. Even if America had not become isolationist this would not have stopped those intent on taking their frontiers for a walk. Remember also that the League, even without the US, Germany and Russia, was not a complete failure in all respects.
At Versailles, the peacemakers had no experience of formulating a peace treaty, the only 'template' available was that of Vienna in 1815, and that was useless given the conditions that faced Clemenceau and others.
Wilson denigrated the long-established European system that had governed the previous 100 years but his vision of a new system spelt out in his 14 Points proved to be premature. Harold Nicholson pointed out the organisational faults of the Paris Conference. The lack of coordination, the numerous committees, the haphazard agendas, the underestimation of the importance of economic matters, and the failure to take into account the needs of the smaller powers were only a few of the problems that bedevilled and prolonged the Conference. It was again Harold Nicholson who said at the time that if we had known the US would withdraw from active participation, 'the Covenant and the Reparations details would have been drafted quite differently'. He added that 'there is a tendency to expect too much from America'.
Of the utmost importance was the fact that the key peacemakers were all politicians; they were all therefore subject to pressures from their party, the opposition, the media and the public. Time pressure was yet another problem. In the end, the Treaty of Versailles and the other treaties, were thrown together in a great flurry. Few present had even read the whole treaty on the day it was signed.
Tooze also pays insufficient attention to the fear among the peacemakers of communism spreading after the coup of 1917. Demands by Trotsky, and others for world communism did little to appease these fears. Hence, the worry that if Germany was treated too harshly she might not form the necessary barrier to the spread of communism. Foreign Office files make this all too clear. Not for nothing was communism frequently referred to as a 'virus'.
The retreat into isolationism by America was undoubtedly bad for peacemaking after 1918 but many, many other reasons contributed to the 'deluge'. The war was America's first serious encounter with European conflict and global diplomacy. She had deep suspicians about the intentions of the other Powers, an intense dislike of colonialism, a view of world justice that was both messianic and naive. America was and is a 'salad bowl' of peoples. Many were pro Germany and anti Entente. Their elected representatives reflected these views in Congress making Wilson's job all the harder.
Ironically, Tooze castigates the US for failing to pick up the leadership baton in 1918 while others attack her today for trying to act like the world's polceman. Thanks to her and the Soviet Union Hitler was defeated in 1945. During the Cold War, and various 'hot wars' since, America has, fortunately for the rest of us, used her superpower status to lead the West despite criticism, some of it justified.
Although not everyone will agree the author's judgements on a very complex, question, this is an outstanding book.