A Convulsion of Nature

Written by:
1 February 2015
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One generally expects a book about the First World War to commence its narrative at, or before, 1914. Adam Tooze starts his book The Deluge in 1916—or to be more precise, on the morning of Christmas Day in 1915 with a speech in Glasgow by British munitions minister, and soon to be prime minister, David Lloyd George.

The speech gives the book not just its starting point, but also its title. On that winter’s morning Lloyd George argued that the war, defying initial expectations that it would be over quickly, had now become ‘the deluge’—an undertaking of such scale that it was ‘a convulsion of nature … bringing unheard-of changes in the social and industrial fabric’.

Lloyd George’s prediction was certainly proved correct. The sheer scale of the changes the Great War unleashed was mind-boggling. They included the collapse of the Hapsburg, Ottoman and Tsarist empires; nationalist uprisings in Eastern Europe, Ireland and India; massive dislocation to the world’s financial system; and rapid social change.

It is this transformative effect of the war that interests Tooze. However, he is also perceptive enough to recognise that the war did not represent a simple break point between a staid ancien regime and the 1920s modernity of American capitalism, Soviet communism and fascism. As he comments, the imperialism which precipitated the war was itself ‘a radical and novel force, not an old-world hangover’. Indeed, it was so new that the word imperialism itself had only come into popular use around 1900.

Tooze skilfully shows that, while imperialism and militarism were key drivers of the war, there were still strong liberal elements within the participating countries, even in Germany. For instance, in July 1917, the Reichstag called for a negotiated peace based on liberal principles of free trade, freedom of the seas, and the establishment of an international judicial organisation.

However, earlier that year, their more militaristic counterparts had taken a decision which made the prospect of a negotiated peace much less likely. By escalating their U-boat attacks on American merchant vessels, the Kaiser’s government made United States participation on the side of the entente almost inevitable.

Beginning his narrative in the middle of the war helps Tooze highlight the one change that stood out above all the others during and after the war: the United States was now central to world affairs. By 1916, the US was already financially crucial for the war effort and the key question was whether it would become militarily so as well. The answer came in the aftermath of the U-boat attacks.

Wartime Democrat President Woodrow Wilson is a central character in this book and Tooze finds much to critique in his actions. For most of the war, Wilson opposed US participation but, as Tooze explains, this was not because Wilson was a typical isolationist.

Rather, Tooze argues that Wilson had an even more inflated view of the destiny of his nation than did the likes of former President Teddy Roosevelt. Roosevelt wanted the US to participate in the war to prove that it was the equal of other countries. Wilson did not want America to be the equal of the old countries of Europe: he wanted to prove that it was superior. And the only way to be superior was to be above the fray.

A key aspect of Wilson’s position was his desire that no European power should emerge from the war in a strengthened position. Thus, for most of the war, Wilson wanted ‘peace without victory’. Having reluctantly been drawn into the war as a participant, Wilson often continued to act, as Roosevelt colourfully put it, more as an umpire than one of the Allies.

Wilson’s problems often seemed to have related to his timing. For instance, in 1917, after the first Russian Revolution, he lectured moderate leaders such as Alexander Kerensky on the need to continue the war. By early the following year, after the Bolshevik coup, he was expressing sympathy for the Russian desire to end the war.

As Tooze comments, ‘we can only imagine how Russia’s struggling provisional government might have acted if they had dreamt in June or July that a bid for an immediate peace would receive the kind of praise that Wilson was now showering on Trotsky’.

Tooze takes issue with John Maynard Keynes’ interpretation that the liberal peace Wilson proposed in early November 1918 had deceived the Germans into making peace while still highly competitive in the war. According to Tooze, Keynes’ assessment ‘inverts reality’ as the Germans were in disarray by the start of November 1918 and were saved from implosion by Wilson’s armistice proposal, which sought to secure a peace before Germany was routed. Wilson continued in similar vein at the post war peace conference which culminated in the Treaty of Versailles, often taking a tougher approach to his allies Britain and France than to the enemy Germany.

Historians have tended to juxtapose Wilson’s internationalism with the era of isolationism which followed. Tooze argues that this dichotomy ‘perpetuates contemporary polemics as historical misunderstandings’. What is more striking to him is that both Wilson and his Republican successors were united in their espousal of American exceptionalism and pre-eminence.

Another historical error which Tooze is keen to expose is the serious underplaying of the significance of the recession of 1920, describing it as one of the most underrated events in the history of the twentieth century and demonstrating its political impact. The Deluge has a strong economic history component, as one would probably expect from a historian whose previous book analysed the workings of the Nazi economy.

Tooze seamlessly melds the impact of the balance of payments, inflation and unemployment into his broader political and social narrative, with a theme highlighting the growing impact of the United States on the whole world. As he comments, the US did not just replace the United Kingdom as the world’s leading financial nation; it put it in a position of ‘unprecedented dominance’.

Another of the great strengths of Tooze’s work is its breadth. The Deluge covers a lot of countries and Tooze is as adept at describing the internal political battles in Beijing and Tokyo as on Capitol Hill or in Whitehall. He describes the multitude of problems in the British Empire as the natives of countries as diverse as Ireland, India and Egypt grew restless in this period, all symptomatic of ‘the post-war crisis of liberalism’.

However, despite this apparent crisis, Tooze demonstrates that, at a very basic level, liberal and democrat forms initially proved quite robust after the Great War. Fears that Soviet communism would spread beyond Russia were not realised and, apart from the success of Mussolini in Italy, extremists such as Hitler failed in their initial efforts to seize control in the 1920s.

However, even in the democracies, pure liberalism was in retreat. Two examples, relating to the free movement of people and goods, stand out.

In 1924, the United States cut immigration numbers from 800,000 to 150,000 which, as Tooze comments, was ‘the most decisive break between the liberal modernity of the nineteenth century and the increasing centrality of nation-state regulation in the twentieth century’. Across the Atlantic, in 1932, Britain decisively jettisoned the commitment to free trade which it had maintained since 1846—a move which Tooze sees as ‘initiating the death spiral of protectionism and beggar-thy-neighbour currency wars’.

The one slightly odd aspect of this book is that it does end up taking its readers as far as 1932. Having taken 460 pages to get from 1916 to 1924, the remaining sixty pages provide a quick dash to remind us that any optimism about the resilience of the post-Great War settlement and global financial situation by the mid-1920s was going to be crushed by the Depression.

Tooze highlights the scope of the world’s failure by pointing out the sheer scale of the arms race that was taking place by the late 1930s which dwarfed what the imperialists and militarists had attempted prior to 1914.

Tooze has produced an outstanding work of history. With nuanced writing and clever use of counterfactuals, he shows just how difficult the problems facing world leaders in this period were, and how often many of them made the wrong

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