Adam Tooze’s powerful new history follows the roads not taken after the First World War

The aftermath of the Great War could have been very different, according to Tooze's new book, which recounts myriad squandered chances.
Woodrow Wilson, seated fifth from left, with Clemenceau of France and Lloyd George of the United Kingdom, at the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, whose harsh terms laid the way for the next war. Sir William Orpen / IWM via Getty Images/ May 2014
Woodrow Wilson, seated fifth from left, with Clemenceau of France and Lloyd George of the United Kingdom, at the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, whose harsh terms laid the way for the next war. Sir William Orpen / IWM via Getty Images/ May 2014

As war raged in 1915, the British prime minister David Lloyd George spoke before a meeting of trade unionists about the unfolding situation. “It is a deluge, it is a convulsion of Nature, bringing unheard of changes in the social and industrial fabric,” he intoned. “It is a cyclone which is tearing up by the roots the ornamental plants of modern society. It is an earthquake which is upheaving the very rocks of European life. It is one of those seismic disturbances in which nations leap forward or fall backward generations in a bound.”

Lloyd George’s words may have been bombastic, but they matched the gravity of the hour. When the war ended in 1918, the world had been turned upside down like no time ever before or arguably ever since. The years 1945 and 1989 come close; but in the aftermath of the First World War, the basic structure of the global political system was in play.

The war had killed 10 million soldiers and maimed millions more. A large swath of France’s most vital industrial areas lay wrecked, the trenches of the Western Front running like a scar across its northeastern departements. The Austro-Hungarian Empire had been swept away, as had the Ottoman Empire. Germany, a defeated power, had reconstituted itself as a republic, one that would be burdened with a vast reparations bill. In the east, the Bolsheviks had come to power in Russia, poised to spread revolution through Europe and beyond.

This is the setting for Adam Tooze’s extraordinary The Deluge: The Great War and the Remaking of Global Order []. In The National’s 2013 year-end round-up, I picked this book as the title I was most looking forward to in 2014. I’m not remotely disappointed. If anything, it has exceeded my expectations, which were already high. Many books will be published this year as First World War commemorations kick into high gear; this is one of the very best.

Tooze, author of the acclaimed The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy [], has written a book of the highest calibre, one that will alter your understanding of 20th-century history. He takes on many myths of the era after the First World War. He has hammered away at the dead weight of received wisdom, smashing the conventional takes on the interwar years. Nearly every page yields a startling observation or inversion of conventional thinking.

The story Tooze tells revolves around a central issue: the problem of American power. This is a familiar tale, how the last century came to be defined as the “American Century”. Tooze complicates the narrative considerably. What he shows is how the United States struggled to assimilate itself into the new world order. The old-style war power politics had shown themselves to be bankrupt; they had killed millions and left victor – both France and Britain owed Wall Street billions – and vanquished alike with enormous burdens of debt. America had reluctantly entered the war, and did so only as an “associated” power. US president Woodrow Wilson was deeply suspicious of imperialism, European-style. This was a menace to the world; indeed, Tooze reminds us that Wilson regarded Great Britain – not just Germany – as much a menace to global stability as he did the Kaiser. “His mission,” Tooze writes, “was to ensure not that the ‘right’ side won World War I, but that no side did.”

Tooze revises the usual story about Wilson. The bad guys in the story are usually the British and French, who bamboozled the president, outflanking him to shape a peace that advanced the interests of bad old Europe. Not so, says Tooze. Instead, it was the British and the French who led the way in an effort to form a liberal global security order. The United States was a reluctant partner in this effort. Imperialism, as it was understood in 1919, was an all but dead relic of the 19th century. “The actual situation,” Tooze argues, “was that the former imperialists were of their own accord arriving at the conclusion that they must search for new strategies appropriate to a new era, after the age of imperialism.”

Tooze ranges from London to Paris to Moscow to Beijing to Tokyo in a series of remarkable chapters as he sketches the diplomatic, military, economic and political situations unfolding around the globe. All were connected. Tooze reminds us of a series of nearly forgotten democratic moments across Eurasia, and suggests an alternate future, one that does not lead to Communist China and the Soviet Union. China, riddled with factions and warlordism, was struggling to shore up its republic. In Russia, the revolution had unleashed breathtaking experiments in freedom. Tooze dubs the elections of November 1917, where some 44 million Russians cast votes, “a milestone in the history of 20th-century democracy”.

But it was a stillborn moment; America kept its distance from such developments, preferring to let them play out own their own. America stood Janus-faced to the world, facing both inward and out.

Its economic might propelled it to the top of the heap; politically, it was more ambivalent about post- war developments. Wilson has been depicted as a crusading idealist who set out to transform the world. Again, this is another misperception. Wilson, argues Tooze, was an exponent of “conservative evolutionary liberalism” whose mission was to maintain America’s preeminence and keep it out of European entanglements. (The phrase “self-determination”, often attributed to Wilson, actually appears nowhere in his famed 14 Points. It was Lloyd George, a key figure on these pages, and the Bolsheviks “who tossed this explosive concept into the international arena”.) The League of Nations would be founded without a key member: the United States.

On the other side of the Atlantic, it was the British and French who were pushing in progressive directions. There were differences of opinion – Britain was reluctant about the prospect of being dragged into another continental struggle and it had its own imperial problems, in Ireland, in India, in the Middle East, to sort out – but, along with Japan, each tried to forge a new security order. The Treaty of Versailles was a flawed process; but it pushed towards something like a global security regime. Critics have picked it apart ever since it was signed.

Yet the democracies pushed peace in the 1920s; indeed, as Tooze notes, pacific policy was not delusional or naive – it was the new norm, one that looks like a failure in the light of the 1930s and the rise of Hitler, but drove many of the diplomatic efforts of the decade. In 1922, Great Britain took the almost unprecedented step of offering to reduce its navy. It was a stunning development, one that Tooze compares to “Mikhail Gorbachev’s retreat from escalation of the Cold War in the 1980s”.

Though his energies culminated in failure, in 1921 Lloyd George undertook “the boldest peacemaking effort of the post-war period”, attempting to resolve, in one stroke, Franco-German tensions, stabilise the European economy and bring the Soviet Union back into the capitalist fold, while shoring up his credentials as a standard-bearer of the centre-left. Later in the decade, Aristide Briand, the French foreign minister, won the Nobel Peace Prize for his initiatives to secure Europe’s post-war borders, as did German foreign minster Gustav Stresemann.

But peace prizes do not bring peace – or stability. The French sought in vain to find a means to guarantee its always-perilous security. The decade following the war was convulsed by the acrimonious politics of Germany’s reparations bill and the fraught issue of inter-Allied war debt. An expert economic historian, Tooze lays out these issues with a keen insight; whatever Wilson’s reservations about Europe, American banks and investors had involved themselves in politically charged debt deals that were left to subsequent administrations to sort out.

The coming of the Depression tore at the fragile liberal order that had so carefully been put together over the decade. It did not necessarily have to turn out this way – indeed, the kind of European cooperation Tooze outlines here anticipates the tenets and practices now enshrined in the EU – and Tooze’s powerful book suggests many alternate paths not taken along the way.

Matthew Price’s writing has been published in Bookforum, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe and the Financial Times.

Published: May 29, 2014 04:00 AM


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