The Economic Consequences of the Peace

We shall never be able to move again, unless we can free our limbs from these paper shackles.

Entangling alliances or entangling leagues are nothing to the entanglements of cash owing.

I suspect that, next to Karl Marx, the name of John Maynard Keynes is at the top of the list for making American conservatives froth at the mouth.  Keynes is given general credit–or liability depending on your view–as firmly establishing the idea of using budgetary and monetary devices to play the economy’s swings and roundabouts.  That’s not too offensive, but increasing spending and the volume of money does, for some, amount to blasphemy.

Well don’t worry, The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919) doesn’t really touch on any of that business.  If you’re the sort that likes to get your panties in a twist, Essays on Persuasion (1931) is more what you’re looking for (I’m given to understand).  No, The Economic Consequences of the Peace, which I will refer to as “this book” from here onward, is actually about the Treaty of Versailles after World War I:  who was involved, how it was formulated, and what will result from its literal enforcement.

I separate the book into three parts in my mind:  (1) the interesting bit about the conference, (2) the interminable litany of numbers in the middle, and (3) his view on how things should have gone.

I sort of gave the game away when I referred to it as the interesting bit, didn’t I?  Well, it’s true.  The real value of this book is in providing an intelligent individual’s first-hand observation of the major characters involved in the treaty.  It brings the event home in a way that modern Americans aren’t typically treated to.  Not only do we see the characters, but we also see behind the curtain into high international politics.

I had a similar experience in reading Why the Crimean War?: A Cautionary Tale (1985).  (I read it for a class, I’m not much of a nerd.  Alright, maybe a little.)  You get an idea that these great events costing lives and livelihoods turn on questionable mental states.  People tend to take war very seriously after the fact and not particularly seriously before the fact.  So you end up going in without thinking much about the consequences and leaving without caring much about the consequences (so long as your enemy’s in the dirt).

In this book, the most interesting character is George Clemenceau, played by Ben Kingsley in my mind.  He took being invaded and his country destroyed quite seriously.  According to Keynes, his object was to de-ball Germany as well as he could.  He’s a smooth operator who will work Humphrey-like without compunction.  “He had one illusion–France; and one disillusion–mankind, including Frenchmen, and his colleagues not least.”

David Lloyd George, played by Colin Firth, is a character much the same Jim Hacker, to continue my Yes, Minister (1980-88) analogy.  He starts with a reasonable view of things and likely to support a measured peace.  Then, he insanely declares a general election which, as we can see in our own etch-a-sketch politics, causes Lloyd George to fly to the Germanophobic  cause.

Woodrow Wilson, played by a younger, American Max von Sydow, is a bit thick.  Contender for America’s most intelligent, or at least best educated, President goes to France and shows himself completely out of his element.

…[H]e was not only insensitive to his surroundings in thee external sense, he was not sensitive to his environment at all.  What chance could such a man have against Mr. Lloyd George’s unerring, almost medium-like, sensibility to every one immediately round him?  To see the British prime Minister watching the company, with six or seven senses not available to ordinary men, judging character, motive, and subconscious impulse, perceiving what each was thinking and even what each was going to say next, and compounding with telepathic instinct the argument or appeal best suited to the vanity, weakness, or self-interest of his immediate auditor, was to realize that the poor President would be playing blind man’s buff in that party.  never could a man have stepped into the parlor a more perfect and predestined victim to the finished accomplishments of the Prime Minister.  The Old World was tough in wickedness anyhow; the Old World’s heart of stone might blunt the sharpest blade of the bravest knight-errant.  But this blind and deaf Don Quixote was entering a cavern where the swift and glittering blade was in the hands of the adversary.

The world lost one hell of a novelist when J.M. Keynes got into economics.  This style is what makes the beginning of this book so completely enjoyable.  It is also what makes me utterly certain that there’s a film or miniseries in this at the very least.  We need to work on casting Wilson.  Maybe George Clooney?

Part 2: Counting the…Everything

Reading this on my Kindle Fire was fine until the tables came.  They came in great numbers and weird archaic words like “milliard,” which I guess was another great number.  They overwhelm me not with their size, but their absolute incapability of looking anything like a table.  Fair enough, I read the free copy which is just a scan.  That means words with “rn” will very often be “m” or the letter “l” will be substituted with the number “1”.  I can get past the little things, but the tables were just too much.

And really, reading this thing as an historical document makes the numbers irrelevant for a milliard of reasons.  First, because of inflation, I can’t really comprehend their magnitude.  Second, when we’re talking billions (even in present day), I can’t really comprehend their magnitude.  Third, what do I care what the progression of coal production was from the 19th into the early 20th century?  We’re talking about some heavy comparisons being made here to prove a point that I’d accept in the good old fashioned way.  I’m usually a show-don’t-tell sort of reader/watcher, but this is too much.

Part 3: You Could Have Skipped Part 2, You Plonk

As I say, the concluding chapter basically informs us of all the insanity that the numbers are given to prove.  The reparations proposed were ludicrous both in theory and in practice.  The system proposed for enforcing these reparations was an astounding intrusion into the workings of the defeated powers (or rather, Germany)–treated, in fact, “as bankrupt estates to be administered by and for the benefit of the creditors.”  His final and glorious point is that what we should be doing is rebuilding the European economy rather than “questions of territorial adjustment and the balance of European power”.

On the whole, what I get from Keynes is the image of someone infinitely reasonable and measured.  He tries to defuse the tensions and antagonism we hold after the war.  That leads me to some thoughts on propaganda.

Americans don’t have much of a conception of World War I–at least not until War Horse (2011) came out.  That’s to be expected since our involvement was brief and we are inundated with films and History Channel specials on World War II.  Yet, the level of bloodshed and destruction in WWI was great and its execution disturbingly stupid.

For me, there are two premises at work.  First, as far as I know, it is universally taught that the seeds of WWII are sown in the peace treaty WWI.  That translates in the mind to “the parties of WWII are the same as WWI.”  I would be terrified to see a poll whereby Americans list the belligerent alliances in WWI.  The second premise is the Holocaust.  I almost feel silly in linking that.

The conflation of these two premises creates, I think, an image of Germany and WWI as a war involving racism, fascism, and genocide that would, perhaps, evaporate on further consideration.  But who watched War Horse (full stop?) without second guessing whether we were allowed to like the German character.  I’d also point out how the stupid but brave Tommies are presented on horseback in pasture while the Hun are using horses to bear tanks through the mud and muck.

The reality is that WWI was not really any different (in terms of goodies and badies) from the Franco-Prussian War, the Crimea, or the Spanish American War.  We don’t endow those nations in those wars with moral personality.  We may do so when we read a book or watch a movie on the subject, but that’s a different kind of projection.

What I’m really talking about is the conflation of “German” with “Nazi.”  To read that someone was pro-German in 1919 probably sounds like they were fascists.  After all, we were “making the world safe for democracy”.  Were we bollocks.  I believe submarines had a little more to do with matters.  Still, the propaganda leaked between the wars and gave us a false impression of Germany prior to 1939.

What I really should have done was to couple this book with something like A School History of the Great War (1928) and The World Economy between the Wars (2008) to give me some kind of guide as to whether Keynes was near accurate in his prediction.  That I did not do.  Or maybe Paris 1919 (2001) by Margaret MacMillan which covers the same event for comparison.  Nor did I do that.

As a well-rationalized second best, I should have at least read the history book to put me in the place of an informed observer of the period.  Then I could say that being completely ignorant of the past (or imagined future) would be an asset.  Since the part of the book where that’d be most helpful is excruciating to read through, I don’t think I lost much to be honest.  Still, the economics book might be worth a look.

About Prof. Ratigan

A semi-lawyer and amateur enthusiast.
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