The 20-year armistice

One of the striking discoveries of the Internet age for me is that, no matter how original and idiosyncratic you imagine your thoughts to be, someone else has already thought them[1].

My book-in-progress, The Economic Consequences of the Pandemic is largely about the mistakes made between 1919 and 1939, and what we can learn from them. This period is usually called ‘interwar’, going along with the conventional naming of World War I and World War II, implying two separate conflicts.

I’ve long thought of these conflicts as one long war, with the Cold War that followed as a falling out between the victors. In this context, it struck me that the ‘interwar’ period 1919-39 would better be described as a 20-year armistice.

In formal terms, the Armistice of 1918 was ended by the signing of peace treaties between the Allies and the defeated Central Powers, most importantly the Treaty of Versailles with Germany, signed on 28 June 1919, five years to the day after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

The starting point of my book is Keynes’ critique of the Treaty of Versailles, The Economic Consequences of the Peace. Given the failure of the Treaty to secure peace, it makes sense to regard the subsequent 20 years as one long armistice, ending in a renewal of the same war. Going to Wikipedia to check info on some technicalities of the Versailles Treaty, I found the following statement attributed (as usual, dubiously [2]) to French Marshal Ferdinand Foch “”this (treaty) is not peace. It is an armistice for twenty years.” So, Foch (or whoever actually coined the phrase) was way ahead of me. Foch’s view was that the treaty was not hard enough on Germany, and would therefore not remove the threat of German aggression

Whatever its provenance, I’m adopting the term[3], even if I can’t claim credit for it.

fn1. As with most things attributed to the Internet, this idea was around much earlier, a notable example being Merton’s discussion of multiple discoveries

fn2. The quote can’t be traced back before 1939 suggesting a case of what I would call prophetic hindsight (the technical term, it appears is vāticinium ex ēventū Foch’s position directly opposed to Keynes who was concerned with the economic part of the peace, notably reparations, rather than with the military and territorial clauses) . Both saw the Treaty as unlikely to secure peace.

fn3. It follows, I think that the best term for the entire conflict from 1914 to 1945 is The Great War, the name originally given to what is now called World War I.

29 thoughts on “The 20-year armistice

  1. Seeing World Wars I and II as part of the same general conflict has been the historical norm for some time now.

  2. I don’t know that there’s any point in trying to find a new label for the period 1914-45, and using one that’s described the First World War for a century would be very perverse. ‘World War 1 and 2’ are useful constructs in the Anglosphere; trying to conflate them involves needless complications like explaining how two of our allies in the first conflict being major hostile powers in the second. Some historians have argued the events in Europe over the period should be known as a single ‘European civil war’, presumably leaving the conflict with Japan to be treated as a separate conflict, but that would raise the question of how the US and the Commonwealth countries came to be involved.

    The nomenclature is well-established and doesn’t cause any significant problems as far as I can see. Best to leave well enough alone.

  3. @1 Yes, that’s consistent with what I said in the opening para.
    @2 Previous European wars also dragged in large parts of the world, but are rarely described as World Wars (what numbers would they get).

  4. The Napoleonic Wars including the (American) War of 1812 are called World War 0 by some commentators and historians.

    “Locations: Atlantic Ocean, Caucasus, Europe, French Guiana, Indian Ocean, Mediterranean Sea, North America, North Sea, Río de la Plata, West Indies.” – Wikipedia.

    The Encyclopedia Britannica notes “The Napoleonic Wars were massive in their geographic scope, ranging, as far as Britain was concerned, over all of the five continents. They were massive, too, in terms of expense.”

    Others claim the Crimean War and associated theaters of war as World War 0. I would go with the Napoleonic Wars.

  5. It was not even a 20-year armistice. Military conflicts continued after 1918 in the form of the Russian civil war and the Soviet-Polish war 1919-1920. WWII should really be defined as beginning with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, or at the absolute latest with the Japanese invasion of North China in 1937.

  6. Might be worth extending the historical frame for a look at how and why the victors in 1945 (apart from Stalin) got their occupation policies right, in contrast to 1918. Did Keynes’ book have a delayed impact? More likely is the effect of the demand for unconditional surrender, making the occupiers fully responsible for the conquered populations. The cancellation of debt must have helped too. The need for recovery clashed with the search for justice for slave labourers, in Germany anyway. Recovery won and the industrialists got off very lightly.

  7. James, that contrast is crucial in the argument. Both the Economic Consequences and the General Theory has a big impact. It was only after the contrast between the 20-year armistice and the Trente Glorieuses had been forgotten that anti-Keynesian economics was able to make a comeback

  8. Keynes had a great and positive influence on the economic side of things, sure. But his optimistic social-democratic technocracy both supported and was supported by wider changes in attitudes, including much less vengefulness by the western victors in 1945. At one point in the San Francisco conference drafting the UN treaty Harold Ickes took the delegates on a trip to a grove of ancient coast redwoods, to give the negotiators perspective. That was nothing to do formally with economic policy, but it all hangs together.

  9. Keynes had a great and positive influence on the economic side of things, sure. But his optimistic social-democratic technocracy both supported and was supported by wider changes in attitudes, including much less vengefulness by the western victors in 1945. At one point in the San Francisco conference drafting the UN treaty Harold Ickes took the delegates on a trip to a grove of ancient coast redwoods, to give the negotiators perspective. That was nothing to do formally with economic policy, but it all hangs together.

    I don’t know about attitudes and perspective, but it seems plain to me that the treatment of Germany after the Second World War was much harsher than the treatment of Germany after the First World War.

  10. J-D wrote: “…it seems plain to me that the treatment of Germany after the Second World War was much harsher than the treatment of Germany after the First World War.”

    It doesn’t seem plain to me that it’s easy to make a comparison given the quite radically differing circumstances in Germany after each of the two wars, but I think it can be said that the Western allies (specifically the UK under a Labour government and the US under a New Deal Democratic administration) did contribute constructively to the establishment of a viable democratic nation-state in the Federal Republic of Germany, and resisted the temptation to follow the advice of those who were advocating, among other things, a pastoralisation of post-WWII Germany to prevent it reindustrialising. This was in sharp contrast to the Treaty of Versailles that inflicted punitive terms on a nascent democratic republic in Germany at exactly the time when it was most in need of TLC.

  11. J-D If you are making this claim wrt ordinary Germans in what became West Germany it’s bizarre. If wrt the Russian zone, plausible but irrelevant. As regards the treatment of the war leaders, the whole point was that individual guilt was the criterion, unlike 1919 when the whole population was subject to collective punishment, while the leaders were left free to foment another war.

  12. None of the leaders of Germany in World War 1 ‘fomented another war’. The Kaiser and his family went into exile. Ludendorff and Hindenburg, effectively the military dictators of the nation under the Kaiser, did nothing to encourage a new war. The former flirted with the Nazis until he participated in Hitler’s farcical 1923 attempted insurrection, after which he was discredited. Hindenburg was elected president of the Weimar Republic but did nothing to encourage a new wave of militarism. In fact one of Hitler’s biggest challenges in the 1930s was to overcome resistance from the German general staff to his planning for war. The 1939 war criminals had little connection to the leaders of Germany in 1918.

  13. Ludendorff was the first major proponent of the “stab in the back” myth and Hindenburg an early backer. That was the starting point for the central elements of Nazism: revanchism and anti-Semitism.

    The military class as a whole did their best to undermine democracy in Germany, though they expected that they (not a jumped-up corporal) would be the ones to take charge when it fell. They started rearmament well before Hitler’s rise to power, though at that stage it had to be concealed.

    This is all well known and (I thought) uncontroversial.

  14. If wrt the Russian zone, plausible but irrelevant.

    How so?

    As regards the treatment of the war leaders, the whole point was that individual guilt was the criterion, unlike 1919 when the whole population was subject to collective punishment, while the leaders were left free to foment another war.

    What collective punishment was imposed on the whole population in 1919 that was not imposed on the whole population in 1946?

  15. J-D: Debt cancellation. In my limited understanding, Germany at least started with a new currency. Old Reichsmarks and debts denominated in them were worthless. No new reparations debts were created. Corrections from experts and information on Italy and Japan welcome.

  16. @ Ikonoclast February 14, 2021 at 7:33 pm

    I’d go back a bit further to the Seven Years War that Churchill called WWI. The Napoleonic wars would be WWII. We even have major protagonists France % Britain duking it out in both wars

  17. jrkrideau,

    Fair point. The Seven Years War certainly has some claim to being called the first world war. This all raises the issue of definitions and categorizations. I am still rather attached to the idea that Pluto is a planet. This is no doubt because I learned in childhood that, “My Very Easy Memory Jingle Seems Useful Naming Planets.” The discovery of Eris was a sore blow to my wish to a get a novelty t-shirt made that said “Pluto is so still a planet.”

    “The discovery of Eris forced the IAU to act on a definition. In October 2005, a group of 19 IAU members, which had already been working on a definition since the discovery of Sedna in 2003, narrowed their choices to a shortlist of three, using approval voting…

    The IAU therefore resolves that planets and other bodies in our Solar System, except satellites, be defined into three distinct categories in the following way:

    (1) A “planet”1 is a celestial body that: (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (c) has cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit.

    (2) A “dwarf planet” is a celestial body that: (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape2, (c) has not cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit, and (d) is not a satellite.

    (3) All other objects3, except satellites, orbiting the Sun shall be referred to collectively as “Small Solar System Bodies”. – per Wikipedia.

    This suggests that the argument about what is a world war is not resolvable unless an august and accredited body, such as the International Committee of Historical Sciences, makes a determination. The definition possibly would have to revolve around the number of countries, regions or continents involved and the overall size of the war(s). Personally, in some ways I feel only WW2 was truly a world war. But there seems to be a trajectory of major wars getting larger and more globalized each time.

  18. It has long been my understanding that the term “world war” first came in, in around 1914, to highlight the fact that major hostilities were taking part in all parts of the world, from a naval point of view (which was the point of view they had). The Seven Years War, Napoleonic Wars, etc. had very little going on in the Pacific Ocean, and apparently this was was a meaningful distinction to observers in 1914.

    This whole discussion risks entrenching the historical error of projecting modern measures, values and assessments onto past actors and observers. They weren’t counting where combatants came from as much as we would, for instance.

  19. A good argument for sticking with the current “WW1” & “WW2” descriptors is they were the first wars where the majority of the world’s population were affected significantly. While plenty of people in China, India, and Brazil today can’t give a good explanation of who Hitler was and certainly not Kaiser Wilhelm II or that guy who shot an ostrich because he was hungry — trade and political changes from the war did have a material effect on those regions.

  20. Except for fn3 (“It follows, I think that the best term for the entire conflict from 1914 to 1945 is The Great War, the name originally given to what is now called World War I.”), the argument set out in JQ’s post makes sense to me. That is, he introduces the historically given labels for 2 major military conflicts that involved more than 2 countries, namely WWI and WWII [fn1] and the label ‘interwar period’ for the period between WWI and WWII. He then introduces two opposing positions regarding why WWI turned out not to be the Great War to end all wars (in Europe) and therefore proposes to view the interwar period as a 20 year long armistice. One of opposing positions was provided at the time by J.M. Keynes, an economist, like JQ. This, I imagine, will lead to a review with regards to opposing positions in contemporary life. But, I of course have to wait what follows, rather than assume the conclusion.

    Footnote 3 in JQ’s post suggests to me that by adopting an appropriate definition of ‘world’ there is permanent war – past, present and future. If so, why bother with any analysis of any kind.

    [1] As PM Lawrence reminds, what constitutes ‘the world’ depends on the perception horizon prevailing at the time, particularly those who write about it in chronological time.)

  21. It’s the definition and categorization problem. Your definitions determine your categories. I made that point above with my “parable of the planets”. Pluto was a planet when I was a kid. Now, it’s not a planet. The planet/dwarf planet of Pluto has not changed significantly, observably speaking, in the last 55 years. What has changed is the definition of a planet. The new compound definition for a planet makes supportable logical sense (I think). This involves the relatively simple task of defining physical celestial objects.

    An ABC or SBS station advert promoting some stupid show asks rhetorically, “Did you know the Egyptians invented make-up?” Well, that depends on one’s definition of make-up. Ceremonial face-painting has a good claim to being called make-up as in ceremonial make-up. I am pretty sure that the Australian Aborigines did that well before the Egyptians arose as an identifiable kingdom.

    So, the key first is to come up with a supportable logical definition of “world war”. With our definitions we create our facts. Kind of scarey isn’t it? I still hold to a philosophical position that objective realism holds water as a theory but the class of empirically supportable objective facts (not definition-constructed facts) is probably a lot smaller than most of us fondly believe.

  22. +1 “If so, why bother with any analysis of any kind.”

    I am personally hard pressed, with the exception of the Consequences book’s concept support and aims, to see this ‘philosophical’ definition /s and catagorisation effort and scholarship, will assist us today and tomorrow.

    How would ‘The Great War’ effect gdp, models, outcomes?

    As to Ikon’s need for catagorisatiin, we need to define both war, world war, and peace and interwar and armistice.

    To what end? I hope TECOTP clears this up. I fear it will only serve to provide fodder for the pedantic with a barrow, lessening the important aim if information transmission. ymmv

  23. Categorialism.

    “Aristotle’s Categories is a singularly important work of philosophy. It not only presents the backbone of Aristotle’s own philosophical theorizing but has exerted an unparalleled influence on the systems of many of the greatest philosophers in the western tradition. The set of doctrines in the Categories, which I will henceforth call categorialism, provides the framework of inquiry for a wide variety of Aristotle’s philosophical investigations, ranging from his discussions of time and change in the Physics to the science of beingqua being in the Metaphysics, and even extending to his rejection of Platonic ethics in the Nicomachean Ethics. Looking beyond his own works, Aristotle’s categorialism has engaged the attention of such diverse philosophers as Plotinus, Porphyry, Aquinas, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Brentano, and Heidegger (to mention just a few), who have variously embraced, defended, modified or rejected its central contentions. All, in their different ways, have thought it necessary to come to terms with features of Aristotle’s categorial scheme. “…
    https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-categories/

  24. JQ could argue quite reasonably that he is not categorizing definitively but simply interpreting. I wonder when an interpretation becomes so compelling it becomes a definition for a category? I certainly don’t know any general answer to that question. It seems more of a case by case thing. Did we not have the debate a while ago about the definition of a “hole”, via both word and mathematical definitions?

    Even many questions which might seem to have a simple objective answer do not. What is the length of a coastline? The measured length gets longer and longer the higher the resolution of the mapping and measurement. Then there’s tides, estuary banks etc. etc. Where does an estuary bank become a river bank and not part of “coastline”?

  25. I don’t think it’s worth getting too worked up about names of wars, but the Dutch-Portuguese war in the 17th century was the first truly global war, with very important long run effects for hundreds of millions of people. Fighting in South America, Africa, Asia and the Pacific. The Seven Years War was also global, as were the Napoleonic Wars, and arguable the War of the Spanish Succession.

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