Home > Economics - General > The end of the Great War — Crooked Timber

The end of the Great War — Crooked Timber

October 8th, 2010

A few days ago, Germany made the final payment on the reparations imposed in the Treaty of Versailles, bringing to an end the formal consequences of the Great War that began in 1914 and continued, in one form or another, throughout the 20th century.[1] Many of the new states that emerged from the war (the USSR, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia) have now disappeared, though the consequences of the breakup of the Ottoman Empire and the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement are very much still with us. I don’t really have the basis for a post on this, but I thought this event deserved some kind of acknowledgement anyway.

Over time, the Great War has played a larger and larger role in my thinking about the world. It marked an end to a century of relative peace and to what seemed (at least to the people with whom I’m most in sympathy) like steady progress towards some form of internationalist democratic socialism. From 1914 until 1945 the world spiralled downward into one horror after another: militarism, Nazism and Stalinism, followed by the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs and the threat of global annihilation that seemed imminent for much of my lifetime and remains a grave danger.

Despite the emergence of the ever-present nuclear menace, 1945 marked the low point of the 20th century in many ways. At least on the Western side, the peace settlement was far less draconian, and far more successful, than that of 1919. And, for several decades after the end of war, there was fairly steady progress towards a version (scaled-down in important respects, but more ambitious in some others) of those pre-1914 aspirations.

While that progress has stalled, there has, I think, been steady growth of a body of antiwar thinking and feeling that is making it harder, though sadly still not impossible, for governments to mobilise support for war. The horrors of the Great War represent, for me at least, the starting point of such thinking and feeling.

fn1. Hat tip. I saw this in various places, but first as a Facebook update by John Humphries.

Posted via email from John’s posterous

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  1. October 8th, 2010 at 17:07 | #1

    As that linked article does make clear, this isn’t the end of actual reparations (which happened quite some time ago), it’s the end of the follow-on, rolled over debt – much like Haiti’s overseas debt following on from paying indemnities to France after independence, indemnities which were actually paid off quite early but only by bond issues which kept getting rolled over.

    For Haiti, it would be a quibble to object that it isn’t “really” still paying that off, but for Germany it isn’t a quibble since it is so much more connected to other finance between and among different countries. As that finance is fungible, it is hardly fair to infer that it took this long to pay this debt off, when it was really a matter of prioritising which accounts were to be dealed with first. Indeed, this lot isn’t strictly the original reparations anyway, but the result of a contingent liability being triggered by German re-unification, a contingent liability that was incurred as part of settling earlier rounds of debt; as a result, there is a definite discontinuity between this and the reparations. Any connection is only of symbolic significance (though it does suggest that we could revive claims to indemnities for US independence, despite the gap and the separation of Australia from the original combatants).

    In other respects, that article is unsound:-

    - “Adolf Hitler who flat out refused to give anyone anything” is wrong, e.g. he gave chunks of Czechoslovakia to Hungary and Poland, and a little bit of France to Italy, if I recall correctly – and, notoriously, a chunk of Poland to the USSR.

    - Something appears to be missing from “[t]he first reparation demands were 266 gold marks [emphasis added], which amounted to roughly $63 billion then (close to $768 billion today)”.

    - “British economist John Maynard Keynes famously stormed out of the Paris Peace Conference…” is much exaggerated. I know of no evidence of any such undiplomatic, and indeed career threatening, behaviour on the part of that as yet far from untouchable figure.

  2. Alice
    October 8th, 2010 at 17:48 | #2

    According to this link Keynes was not happy with the Paris Peace conference
    “Given his position at Treasury, Keynes was to take an active part in the war effort, and, indeed, he was part of the British team sent to the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. The result of the conference was not, however, to Keynes’ liking. On his return to England, Keynes resigned his position with Treasury and turned bitterly to writing out his thoughts on the peace process. In the fall of 1919, out came his book, The Economic Consequences of the Peace. ”

    http://www.blupete.com/Literature/Biographies/Philosophy/Keynes.htm

    and this (according to this article Keynes did storm out of the Paris Peace process).

    http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:2jbgf_JuWWYJ:news.yahoo.com/s/time/20101004/wl_time/08599202314000+did+John+Maynard+Keynes+leave+the+Paris+Peace+conference%3F&cd=16&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=au

  3. may
    October 8th, 2010 at 18:25 | #3

    this reminds me of Marilyn Waring the 1980′s Kiwi MP who wrote

    “Counting for Nothing”.

    The cost of war doesn’t end when the shooting stops.

    ever.

  4. wilful
    October 8th, 2010 at 21:06 | #4

    there has, I think, been steady growth of a body of antiwar thinking and feeling that is making it harder, though sadly still not impossible, for governments to mobilise support for war.

    I wish i could share your optimism. Faced with declining support for the human cost of war at home, and no draft etc, the military has, inevitably, extended the distance of wars from the comfortable first world tax payers existence, through drones, “smart weapons”, wars by proxy, and new languages such as collatoral damage. The human costs every year remain incredibly high. A lot less white people die though.

  5. October 8th, 2010 at 23:08 | #5

    Alice :
    According to this link Keynes was not happy with the Paris Peace conference
    “Given his position at Treasury, Keynes was to take an active part in the war effort, and, indeed, he was part of the British team sent to the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. The result of the conference was not, however, to Keynes’ liking. On his return to England, Keynes resigned his position with Treasury and turned bitterly to writing out his thoughts on the peace process. In the fall of 1919, out came his book, The Economic Consequences of the Peace. ”
    http://www.blupete.com/Literature/Biographies/Philosophy/Keynes.htm

    Certainly, and I agree that that was his position – but that’s a long way short of storming out. In fact, I have read that book myself, and one of the reasons I suspect he didn’t was that he made no mention of doing so in it. (I actually found the most interesting part was his introductory material surveying the economic history leading up to all that.)

    and this (according to this article Keynes did storm out of the Paris Peace process).
    http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:2jbgf_JuWWYJ:news.yahoo.com/s/time/20101004/wl_time/08599202314000+did+John+Maynard+Keynes+leave+the+Paris+Peace+conference%3F&cd=16&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=au

    That’s not a source independent of the article JQ linked to; in fact, it has many of the same phrases, even the bits about “Adolf Hitler who flat out refused to give anyone anything” and “t]he first reparation demands were 266 gold marks”, so it clearly derives from the same original. That means I still haven’t seen anything to confirm that Keynes did storm out of the Paris Peace conference (it wasn’t a “Paris Peace process” – the process was everything between the run up to 11.11.18 and the actual signing of the treaty, and took place in various locations – and actually the treaty negotiations and signing weren’t at Paris but at Versailles, which I suppose I should have pointed out was also an error in that linked article; it’s like conflating Sydney proper with Parramatta or Melbourne proper with Melton).

  6. Ikonoclast
    October 9th, 2010 at 09:27 | #6

    JQ writes:- It (The Great War of 1914-1918) marked an end to a century of relative peace…

    I’m not sure this is correct. There were some significant wars in Europe (talking Europe only at this point) between 1814 and 1914. To name one, in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, France lost about 138,000 dead, 143,000 wounded and 470,000 captured. Prussia lost about 44,000 dead and 90,000 wounded. All the wars from the Napoleonic Wars (and even earlier) up until WW2 can be seen (from a European perspective) as attempts by the first rank powers (England, France, Prussia – later to be Germany, Austria-Hungary which eventually declined and Russia) to establish hegemony over Europe either solely but usually with allies. This involved constantly changing alliances. Only WW2 seemed to finally create a European accomodation between these powers, probably because of the nuclear deterrant.

    There is a case that the Napoleonic Wars were WW1 (great Britain was at war with the US in this era), the Great War was WW2 and so-called WW2 was in fact WW3. They were all part of the fight for hegemonic status as I outlined above. The period between WW1 (Naopleonic Wars) and WW2 (The Great War) was not peaceful, The notable peace is Europe is after the WW3 of this nomenclature.

  7. Doug
    October 9th, 2010 at 10:23 | #7

    Robert Fisk in The Great War for Civilisation notes that the wars he ended up reporting on for much of his career had their roots in the attempted settlements following World war 1.

  8. Alice
    October 9th, 2010 at 14:42 | #8

    @P.M.Lawrence
    In this comment you may have a point PM on the matter of storming out …
    “In fact, I have read that book myself, and one of the reasons I suspect he didn’t was that he made no mention of doing so in it.” Yet to some extent writing about the consequences of the peace process in a professional manner would perhaps have been uppermost in his mind, rather than mentioning that he “stormed out” even if he did so?.
    I guess we would have to dig a bit deeper for historical evidence on the matter of Keynes “storming out” . Perhaps he merely politely excused himself and left – he was an englishman after all!. I have some dim memory of reading something vaguely similar re Keynes at Bretton Woods – either he threatened to leave or others threatened to throw him out?. So Im still out on this one myself.

  9. Peter T
    October 9th, 2010 at 21:12 | #9

    The history has moved on. A number of studies have pointed to the depth and scale of tensions in European societies pre-1914, the continuing solid grip of old elites, the comparative weakness of social democracy, and the apparent inability of industrial liberalism to provide adequately for large sections of the populace (starting with Polanyi and Dangerfield, but also Mayer, Sandra Halperin, John Darwin and others). In short, the war is increasingly less seen as a tragic accident or as a blunder, but as the outcome of some very real dilemmas.

    I agree we could not fight a war on this scale today – we lack the reservoir of economic and social surplus to do so. But the dilemmas re-appear – this time in environmental form. And we are as divided, as clueless, and as certain of the value of old medicines.

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