Friday, November 11, 2005

Academic scribblers and the inspiration of madmen

November 11th is a day for remembering the sacrifices and sufferings of veterans and part and parcel of that is not squadering what they've achieved. With that in mind, here is Robert Fulford on Margaret Olwen MacMillan's book 1919: Six Month that Changed the World. MacMillan, an Oxford D.Phil. in history, provost of Trinity College and professor of history at the University of Toronto, has a thesis that is perennially relevant:
In 1919, after serving as a Treasury official with the British delegation at the six-months-long Paris peace conference, Keynes wrote The Economic Consequences of the Peace, arguing that the peace treaty imposed impossible conditions on Germany. His book was a best seller, particularly in Germany, where his views became Holy Writ. In 1936, on another subject entirely, Keynes would explain how politicians and dictators unthinkingly repeat the wrong-headed ideas of faded academics: "Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back." He didn't understand that he was already the most significant scribbler of his day, the inspiration of madmen. Keynes undermined the authority of Allied governments in their later dealings with Germany and encouraged both pre-Hitler governments and the Nazis to defy, again and again, the restraints that Versailles had placed on them, notably disarmament. Others have since argued with the views of Keynes, but MacMillan in her quiet way demolished them. In future, everyone who writes about The Economic Consequences of the Peace will have to deal with her measured, fact-based analysis. The real problem, she showed, was that the Germans did not acknowledge their guilt for the First World War and didn't even believe they were defeated - though their generals told the Kaiser it was all over and he had to sue for peace. MacMillan believes it would have been better, in the end, if the Allied armies had marched straight to Berlin, so that the Germans could have understood precisely what had happened to them. Instead, the German army was welcomed home by a president who said "We greet you undefeated." That began a propaganda campaign that convinced Germans they had been stabbed in the back by disloyal politicians and forced to accept peace terms that lacked legitimacy. Understanding how this worked will alter permanently many common ideas about the course of the last century. The folklore of betrayal turned into a lie that spread mass paranoia, made every German feel wronged, and eventually brought Hitler to power. Nationalists argued that financial reparations imposed at Versailles emasculated Germany and caused both inflation and unemployment. They continued to believe this even after they became, in a mere 20 years (1919-1939), capable of making war on the rest of Europe. MacMillan, introducing a little realism into a hysteria-driven argument, showed that reparations were far, far lower than most of the world imagined.
I've read 1919 and it is an interesting look at interesting times. MacMillan's thesis is a reminder that while the lives of veterans can be squandered in foolish wars, as the pacifist left never tires of telling us, they can also be squandered through diplomatic and political failure to deal charitably with human nature as it is. It's no use treating with saints (or devils) when what you're dealing with is human. Postscript: See here.

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