A Bit of Chaos

Margaret MacMillan

  • The Deluge: The Great War and the Remaking of Global Order by Adam Tooze
    Allen Lane, 672 pp, £30.00, May 2014, ISBN 978 1 84614 034 1

A common and still widely accepted story of the origin of the Second World War is that it was the direct result of what happened in 1919 at the end of the Great War. The French were recklessly vengeful towards the defeated, the British callously indifferent to what was happening on the Continent, and the Americans smugly isolationist. The Allies made Germany sign a humiliating treaty and forced it to pay exorbitant reparations, enabling the rise of the Nazis to power. In this version the 1920s were merely the interlude before the consequences of a deeply flawed and wicked peace came home to roost. It is much too simple an explanation of course – apart from anything else what was everyone doing in those years? – and fails to take into account both the very real difficulties which faced the peacemakers in a world turned upside down by the Great War and the very real promise of the 1920s that the world would recover and build a stable international order.

Zara Steiner, among others, has obliged us to look again at that decade and treat it on its own terms as a time of achievement and hope. The world did eventually recover economically from the war and by the late 1920s production in most European countries had reached prewar levels. True, the US had failed to join the League of Nations, which Woodrow Wilson had nearly killed himself trying to create, but Americans were at its headquarters in Geneva as observers and the US worked with the European powers throughout the 1920s towards the objectives of the League.

In a sign of how wartime passions were fading, Germany applied for membership of the League and was accepted. Even Russia, by now the Soviet Union, which had at first defiantly made itself an outlaw state dedicated to promoting world revolution, appeared to be settling down and behaving much like any other power, signing trade agreements and treaties and exchanging ambassadors. In the east a liberal Japan was still following the path of constitutional government and international co-operation, while China looked as though it might finally get an effective national government in the form of the Kuomintang.

Of course the world of the 1920s was not completely happy and serene. The nationalist passions and hatreds stirred by the Great War hadn’t gone away, nor had the resentments created by a peace that couldn’t satisfy everyone. The Italians had suffered much and, from their point of view, gained little in what they called the ‘mutilated peace’. Many Germans, especially on the right, hadn’t accepted the fact of Germany’s defeat and believed that the Treaty of Versailles was neither legitimate nor fair. The French knew what victory had cost them and feared a resurgent Germany with its higher birthrate and stronger economy. The new ethnically based states in Central Europe had fallen to quarrelling with one another as soon as they came into existence. Further afield, nationalist movements were challenging the Western empires. Crucially, the economic revival rested on increasingly shaky foundations, such as cheap short-term credit from American lenders, while in the US itself and across Europe stock exchanges were seeing a frenzy of activity which often bore no relationship to the underlying value of the companies being traded. With the Great Depression, time ran out.

Zara Steiner has aptly described the years from 1929 to 1933 as ‘the hinge’, when too many people around the world gave up on capitalism and democratic institutions and put their faith in the solutions being peddled on the right by the varieties of fascists and on the left by the communists. It is possible even so to imagine that earlier and more forceful government intervention and international co-ordination at the start of the Great Depression might have mitigated the worst of its effects. Accident and human folly played their role: Hitler was invited to become chancellor by conservative political leaders who thought that they could use him and his movement.

In The Deluge, Adam Tooze, an economic historian who in 2006 published a wonderful study of the Nazi economy, has set himself the immense task of explaining what went wrong. He also wants to show the intimate relationship between domestic and foreign policies, arguing, for example, that the punitive peace of Brest-Litovsk that Germany imposed on revolutionary Russia in 1918 was as much about a struggle over the future of Germany as it was an attempt to secure peace and resources in the east. The result is a highly original, provocative and at times tendentious book which will make us think again about the Great War and the subsequent peace as well as the perennial question of how to establish a durable and fair international order.

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