There are at least three ways to look at the period around the end and just after the World War I, from 1916 to the early 1920s, which provides both chronologically (in terms of the years covered) as well in terms of the relative size of the book, the core of Adam Tooze’s “Deluge”.
The first approach is “imperialist-socialist”. Not only is the cause of the war seen to lie in imperialist competition, but the carnage of the war as well as inequitable peace that followed it, are used as illustrations of the predatory nature of capitalism. Successful socialist revolution in Russia, and the failed ones in Germany, Austria, and Hungary, are only a natural response to such a system and a pointer of the better days to come. In other words, socialist revolutions directly emerge from the womb of rotting capitalism.
The second approach is “realistic”. The Great War is viewed like many others in the past and those that are yet to come, as a struggle of great powers for pre-eminence in Europe and the world. Most books written around the hundredth anniversary of the War’s outbreak fall in that category.
Adam Tooze’s book belongs to the “democratic” strand. The war is seen through the prism of the struggle of democratic powers (with Russia uneasily aligned with England and France) against militarist autocracies of Germany and Austria-Hungary.
Putting democracy at the center-stage provides coherence to the book and clarifies the narrative. Not unlike in the “imperialist-socialist” narrative where the revolution is the “rightful” culmination of the war, here the same role is played by democracy. Tooze discusses in some detail the democratic transformations of Russia in February 1917, Germany in October-November 1918 and China in 1913 and 1917. He describes a number of episodes that are perhaps not sufficiently well-known, such as the fact that Russian election for the Constituent Assembly (that was, after the elections, unceremoniously dissolved by the Bolsheviks) was the largest exercise to date in mass democracy with three times as many voters as in the American 1916 Presidential election or that the number of voters in China exceeded 20 million vs. only 1 million in Japan.
But using as the central theme the struggle that pitted the “freedom loving” peoples of the United States, France and England against the Central Powers has its limitation.
The first is the already noted incongruent role of Tsarist Russia as a key ally. Such alliance can be much more easily explained by the appeal either to the “imperialist-socialist” narrative or to the “realistic” narrative. Within Tooze’s approach, the February revolution plays the role that the October revolution plays in the “imperialist-socialist” narrative. The February revolution transformed Russia from an autocracy to democracy and thus provided, Tooze argues, consistency to the natural alignment of democracies against autocracies. But every realist could equally (or perhaps more) persuasively argue that the Entente’s support for the Provisional Government had much less to do with democracy than with Anglo-French hopes that Russia will remain in the war and not sign a separate peace with Germany. Likewise, the intervention of the Western Powers and Japan against the Bolsheviks can be more easily explained by the fear of socialist contamination or by great power politics (approaches 1 or 2) than as a war of Western democracies against a nascent dictatorship.
The “democratic” narrative becomes quite threadbare when the question of the peace with Germany and Austria-Hungary emerges. Suddenly, the new democratic, and presumably “freedom-loving”, Germany is severely punished for the crimes of Kaiser’s regime with which its population and the freely-elected political class (the coalition of SPD, Liberals and Centrists) have decisively broken off. The inconsistencies pile up: if the war is waged for democracy why is the new Germany not treated as an equal of France and England? If the war should lead to “peace without victory” as Wilson famously claimed, why did Versailles treaty look like a Carthaginian peace, or to use a closer contemporary example, why was it so similar to the Brest-Litovsk peace that a militaristic Germany imposed upon Russia? Was not the zone of German influence in Northern and Eastern Europe envisaged in Brest-Litovsk replicated in the French-dominated “cordon sanitaire” directed against Germany? If the war was fought for the right of national self-determination, why were many peoples denied it, many decisions so clearly made in breach of the principle, from absence of the plebiscite in Alsace and Lorraine to the ban of Austria ever rejoining Germany, not to speak of the non-existent right of self-determination for Africa and Asia, whose soldiers, paradoxically, played such a big role in Western allies’ victory?
What the Entente powers and the US did was, in the words that Harold Nicolson in “Peace-Making 1919” acribes to Italian observers, “to feel in terms of Thomas Jefferson but to act in terms of Alexander Hamilton”, in other words to divorce their rhetoric from policies. Hence the not unreasonable charge of hypocrisy that Adam Tooze, indirectly, tries to explain away.
There are two other aspects of this extremely well-researched, erudite and well-written book, that may be worth mentioning. One is the reassessment of Woodrow Wilson. In most of the books I have read (and this may not be an entirely random sample of the literature) he comes very close to the portrait immortally drawn of him by Keynes: a pretentious, preaching hypocrite. In Adam Tooze, Wilson has a much more sympathetic observer who, while not excusing all of his many wrong decisions, is cognizant of the conditions of the time and exigencies of politics. These “wrong” decisions do not affect the basic thrust of what Woodrow Wilson, according to Tooze, stood for: democracy, anti-imperialism, and a qualified national self-determination. Very American, moralistic foreign policy, with the warts and all, but still basically right—so much so that one would not be remiss to draw a straight line from Woodrow Wilson to Carter to Obama.
The second topic is Tooze’s description of America’s (somewhat) reluctant rise to the pinnacle of world power. Tooze argues that the global power of the United States was never as high as in 1918-19. Not in 1945, when, although economically even more powerful than at the end of World War I, it had to face the Soviet Union; not even in 1989, after a victory in the Cold War, when the Chinese challenge was already looming on the horizon.
At the end of each of the three big wars that the US waged in the past 100 years and which it all won, its power peaked, but never so much as at the end of the First War. That this power was in the subsequent twenty years dissipated and wasted because of many domestic and foreign policy mistakes is a part of the book with which I cannot deal here but is also a part that today’s US policy-makers (if any of them have the intellectual stamina to read Tooze’s book) may well be advised to reflect on.
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