Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Recommended: Guilt Trip: Versailles, Avant-Garde & Kitsch by Roger Kimball

Ever and anon into the hearts of men sounds the enchanting whisper: “Ye shall be as gods.” But humanity-worship is so profoundly inadequate to the true aspiration of man...that it must end almost fatally in some form or other of individual or collective self-worship, and indeed it ends not infrequently in devil-worship pure and simple.
—Étienne Mantoux

What a vast difference there is between the barbarism that precedes culture and the barbarism that follows it.
—Christian Friedrich Hebbel

"Les Demoiselles d’Avignon",  Pablo Picasso, 1907

In Europe’s Last Summer, his brilliant book about the origins of the Great War, the historian David Fromkin dilates on the seductive beauties of the summer of 1914. It was, he notes, the most gorgeous in living memory. That serene balminess seemed an objective correlative of the rock-solid political and social stability that Europe had enjoyed for decades. To be sure, percipient observers discerned troubling clouds on the horizon. As far back as the 1890s, Otto von Bismarck predicted that “One day the great European War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.” And his anxiety was later echoed by many statesmen who regarded the extraordinary arms race in Russia and Germany and the Balkanization of the teetering Ottoman Empire with trepidation. In 1912, Helmuth von Moltke, then chief of staff of the German Army, opined that war was “inevitable,” and “the sooner the better.” A world war, he admitted, “will annihilate the civilization of almost the whole of Europe for decades to come,” but Germany would eventually have to confront an ever-strengthening Russia. Better now, when Russia was still fledgling and Germany was taut with Prussian vigor.

On the other side, there were plenty of soothing voices to point out that the world’s increasing economic interdependence rendered any serious conflict “impossible”—that was the reassuring word one heard repeatedly. There had been no war among the Great Powers for nearly half a century, ergo the status quo would persist for decades, maybe forever. There would always be honey then for tea.

War was “inevitable.” War was “impossible.” Between the horns of that dilemma the world trod the mournfully contingent path of the actual.

When war did finally break out, it was greeted in many quarters as a lark, a holiday, a deliverance from the tedious routines of everyday life. Yes, there were some cautionary voices. “If war breaks out,” warned Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, at the end of July 1914, “it will be the greatest catastrophe that the world has ever seen.” On 3 August, when the German armies were swarming towards France and the “Rape of Belgium” was about to begin, he somberly predicted that “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our life-time.”

But in early August, Grey’s was a minority perspective. “We’ll just pop over to France next week and be home by Christmas.” That was the popular refrain. In Germany, the mood was triumphalist. Even a moralist like Thomas Mann welcomed the war as “a purification, a liberation, an enormous hope. The victory of Germany will be...a victory of soul over numbers.” “The German soul,” Mann wrote, “is opposed to the pacifist ideal of civilization, for is not peace an element of civil corruption?” What contempt Mann had for the “nation of shopkeepers” across the channel.

Then in September came the first battle of the Marne. Its unprecedented slaughter exacted half a million casualties in a week. It is accounted a great victory for the Allies. But although it halted the German advance, it also paved the way for four years of that butchery by attrition that was trench warfare in the age of total war.

It is often said that the primary existential or spiritual effect of the war was disillusionment. Barbara Tuchman, for example, notes in one of her classic studies of the Great War that the war had many results but that the dominant one was “disillusion.” She quotes D. H. Lawrence, who observed that “All the great words were cancelled out for that generation.” Honor, Nobility, Valor, Patriotism, Sacrifice, Beauty: Who could still take such abstractions seriously after the wholesale slaughter of the war?

Protest at German Reichstag over the Versailles Treaty

But it’s worth interjecting two points. First, it is sometimes said that the Great War, because of its body count, the tactics of its generals, the as-it-turned-out false promise that it was “a war to end all wars,” was therefore meaningless. I submit that, on the contrary, it was instinct with significance. As David Fromkin put it at the end of Europe’s Last Summer, “it was fought to decide the essential questions in international politics: who would achieve mastery in Europe, and therefore in the world, and under the banners of what faith.”

Second, on the matter of culture, it is worth noting that most of the primary innovations in form and sensibility that we associate with that spirit of disillusionment predated the war. Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907, ushering in decades of ugliness and assaults on the human form. We haven’t recovered yet. Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto, with its gleeful “smear of madness” and its giddy “war-is-beautiful” apotheosis of speed, technology, and violence, appeared in 1909. “We want no part of it, the past,” he shouted, giving voice to an entire movement that was sick and tired of bourgeois stability. Stravinsky’s primitivist extravaganza, Le Sacre du Printemps—he had thought of calling it “The Victim”—was first performed in Paris to Diaghilev’s carefully staged pseudo-riots in 1913.

There was a fair amount of posturing involved all around. Recalling Roger Fry’s exhibition of some post-Impressionist paintings at the Grosvenor Gallery, Virginia Woolf famously said that “On or about December 1910, human character changed.” That made the punters sit up and take notice. Was it true? It would be impolite to ask.

If there was a shift in artistic sensibility because of the war, I suspect that it had more to do with mood, with the quantum of braggadocio involved, than any formal innovation. Picasso, Marinetti, and early Stravinsky were brash gatecrashers. After the war the brashness evaporated, the energy turned rancid. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” T. S. Eliot wrote at the end of The Waste Land, a poem whose title and suspended splinters of a shattered civilization seemed to epitomize the somber flirtation with nihilism, impotence, and polysyllabic despair that the Great War left in its wake.

Such signposts, I think, are pretty familiar. The sniggering, anti-art hijinks of Dada, the progenitor of so many bad things, belong here, as do the strenuous reactions and attempted recuperations of high modernism. What I’d like to do is step back and place the cultural consequences of the war in a broader context. This is where the promised theme of misplaced guilt, highlighted in my title, comes in.

One of the most famous books to emerge in the immediate aftermath of the war was John Maynard Keynes’s Economic Consequences of the Peace. It was an instant bestseller. By 1924, it had been translated into 11 languages. (It is somehow appropriate that the other great bestseller that year was Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians: the spirit of Bloomsbury was riding high that year.) Keynes, the brilliant Bloomsbury economist whom the commentator David Frum percipiently called “the Nietzsche of economics,” had been at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 as a representative of the British Treasury. He quit in disgust because he thought the terms of the proposed peace treaty were too harsh. General Jan Christiaan Smuts, the South African delegate to the conference, convinced him to write up his objections. The Economic Consequences of the Peace,which might just as well have been called “Don’t Let’s Be Beastly to the Germans,”was the result. The book is not a novel. But it occupies a place in the hinterland between fact and fiction—of moralistic melodrama, say, what the public relations people might call a “docudrama”: not true, exactly, but close enough to be described as “based on a true story.”

This is not, I know, the usual opinion about this book. On the contrary, The Economic Consequences of the Peace, along with its 1922 sequel A Revision of the Treaty, is widely regarded as a prophetic work of genius. Keynes’s searing moral indictment of greed and cruelty among the Allies, even more than his gloomy economic and political prognostications, sounded a gratifying note of moral superiority that was eagerly embraced by simpatico elites. They thrilled to the book’s knowingness, its sarcasm, its literary polish no less than to its message. Indeed, The Economic Consequences of the Peace is a classic in the library of liberal hand-wringing. As such, its contentions are proposed not as arguments, but as taken-for-granted, inarguable truths about the world, in this case the historical realities of the post-war settlement and the succeeding political and economic situation.

Think about it. The one thing that everyone knows about the Treaty of Versailles is that, because of the overly harsh terms the Allies imposed upon Germany, it led directly to Hitler and World War II. An article in The Economist in 1999 epitomized this bit of folklore: The “final crime” of the Great War, the article proclaimed, was the Treaty of Versailles, which “would ensure a second world war.”

As usual, Mark Twain came closer to the truth. It’s not so much the things you don’t know that get you into trouble, Twain wrote, as the things you do know that ain’t so.

In fact, as the historian Andrew Roberts argues in his History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900, there are good reasons for believing that the Treaty of Versailles ought to have been a good deal harsher than it was. Had it divided Germany into two parts, as happened after World War II, or perhaps returned it to its 1870 status of several independent principalities, or even had the Allies merely enforced its original terms, the world would probably have been spared Hitler and the horror of Nazism. There might well have been “no via dolorosa of Rhineland-Anschluss-Sudetenland-Danzig for Europe to walk between 1936 and 1939.”

Roberts cites for support a neglected masterpiece in the history of polemic, Étienne Mantoux’s book The Carthaginian Peace, or the Economic Consequences of Mr. Keynes.

Let me introduce you to Monsieur Mantoux. Born in 1913, he was a brilliant French economist. His experience with England started early. His father was a diplomat, and young Mantoux crossed the Channel six times with his family before war broke out in 1914. As a young man, he studied at the London School of Economics as well as in Paris. He joined the French Air Force in 1939 after Hitler invaded Poland. After the fall of France in 1940, Mantoux was unable to make his way to England and so went to Lyon to finish his dissertation. In 1941, he managed to travel on a Rockefeller Fellowship to Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, where he wrote, in lapidary English, The Carthaginian Peace. In 1943, he returned to France, rejected the offer of an administrative post, and took up a position flying under General Leclerc. In April 1945, a scant week before Germany’s surrender, he was killed in action outside a Bavarian village. He was 32.

The “Carthaginian Peace” of Mantoux’s title—what was that? Keynes several times charges that the Allies, and especially the French prime minister Georges Clemenceau, wanted to impose a “Carthaginian Peace” upon the defeated powers, in particular upon Germany. What did Keynes mean? History provides two possibilities. There was the final Carthaginian peace at the end of the Third Punic War in 146 B.C. This was the fruit of Cato the Elder’s repeated injunction “Carthago delenda est,” “Carthage must be destroyed.” The Romans burned the rival city to the ground, killed or sold into slavery the entire population, and, legend has it, salted the fields. Only one bona fide Carthaginian monument from the once glittering city has come down to us, and that, appropriately enough, is a tomb.

That doesn’t sound like the Treaty of Versailles, does it? Perhaps Keynes remembered the other “Carthaginian Peace,” the peace treaty that followed the battle of Zama in 202 B.C. in which Scipio defeated Hannibal. The Romans appropriated most of Carthage’s vessels of war, her overseas possessions, and exacted an indemnity of 4,000 talents.

Maybe that is the sort of thing that Keynes had in mind. As far as I know, he never said. But he did charge that the Treaty of Versailles sought “to weaken and destroy Germany in every possible way” and that it was “one of the most outrageous acts of a cruel victor in civilized history.” Those who sign it, he said, “will sign the death sentence of many millions of German men, women, and children.” The Germans, he claimed, would never be able to afford the reparations exacted by the treaty. And as for all the provisions about the Rhineland and other territories, Keynes sniffed that the “perils of the future” lay not in “frontiers or sovereignties” but in “food, coal, and transport.” As an aside, I might mention that Adolf Hitler, for one, would have been surprised to hear that.

Let’s linger over that word “reparations.” Can anyone hear the word straight any longer? Keynes’s book took the word out of normal circulation and invested it with an aura of malignancy and unreality that persists to this day. But Germany started the war, which was fought almost entirely on foreign soil, and, along with the other Central Powers, it inflicted horrendous property damage and killed millions. As the historian Sally Marks points out, “France’s ten richest industrial departments were only horrific ruins, over 1,000 square miles now a desert.” German industry was intact. Why shouldn’t Germany pay? Keynes claimed that the Allies sought to revenge themselves upon the Germans. But restitution is not revenge (even if it happens to be mistaken policy). It is merely justice.

Keynes predicted that if the treaty were put into effect, Europe would be threatened with “a long, silent process of semi-starvation, and of a gradual, steady lowering of the standard of living.” It is true that certain aspects of the treaty—regarding reparations, for example—were only haphazardly imposed. (Germany began reneging on its reparation payments within a year or two and stopped paying altogether in 1932.) But it was the territorial settlement of the Treaty, in which Germany lost more than 13 percent of its territory, that Keynes said would sharply “diminish the production of useful commodities” and lead to the starvation of those “millions of German men, women, and children.” In fact, ten years later, Europe’s production and standard of living were well above the pre-war level. Keynes predicted that the iron and steel output of Germany would diminish, but by 1927 it was producing nearly 30 percent more iron and 38 percent more steel than the record year of 1913. It was the same story with other commodities. Keynes initially warned that Germany could not afford to spend more than 20 billion gold marks in reparations per year (in 1913, $1 equaled about 4.1 gold marks). Hitler, by his own reckoning, spent seven times that much every year from 1933 to 1939 in rearming Germany.

And by the way, if you want to see what a genuinely harsh peace treaty looks like, you need only contemplate how Germany planned to treat the Allies if it had won—Britain, for example, was to be “squeezed to the uttermost farthing”—or turn to the Treaty of Brest–Litovsk that Germany imposed upon the Bolsheviks in 1918. Russia agreed to default on its financial commitments to the Allies. It ceded the Baltic States to Germany, other territory to the Ottoman Empire, and recognized the independence of Ukraine. Russia also agreed to pay 6 billion German gold marks in reparations. Hostilities did end, but on terms that one might almost describe as Carthaginian.

Throughout The Economic Consequences of the Peace, Keynes was careful to don his economist’s hat to supplement the moralist’s mantle. Dilating on the wickedness of reparations, for example, he embroiders his discussion with various technicalities about the difficulties of transnational currency flows. But after 1939, the Germans found that wholesale expropriation, enslavement, and extermination more than overcame these little difficulties in extracting wealth from conquered peoples. The idea that France had anything to fear from Germany in the future, Keynes said in A Revision of the Treaty, was “a delusion.” It would, he explained, be “many years” before Germany once again cast her eyes Westward. Germany’s future “lies in the East.” Any fears, he wrote in Economic Consequences, of “a new Napoleonic domination, rising...from the ashes of cosmopolitan militarism” were but “the anticipations of the timid.” Whew! Everyone can relax. It was almost as reassuring as the Kellogg–Briand Pact of 1928, that “General Treaty for the Renunciation of War as an Instrument of National Policy,” which was signed by 50 countries, including Germany, Italy, and Japan. It was a monument to idealism, perhaps, but lacked the homely wisdom of Catherine the Great’s observation that human skin is more ticklish than paper.

In another work, Keynes famously wrote that “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” Pondering what he wrote about the Treaty of Versailles, I believe I begin to understand what Baron Keynes meant. Perhaps this is the place to note how close Keynes was to the German parties of the treaty. As Niall Ferguson points out in The Pity of War, Keynes was deeply attached to Carl Melchior, Max Warburg’s righthand man at the Hamburg Bank of M. M. Warburg & Co. He read parts of a draft of Economic Consequences to Melchior and Warburg, and apparently profited from their response. “Thanks to Dr. Melchior’s clear explanation,” the German Foreign Office official Kurt von Lersner recalled, “Herr trying to find common ground with us.” How nice. Posterity has not, Ferguson notes, appreciated “the extent to which Keynes was manipulated by his German friends” or “the extent to which he erred in his analysis of the consequences of the peace.”

Continue reading the complete article in  the September 2014 New Criterion, here:


  1. Fascinating stuff. He sort of lost me with some of the ending kitsch discussion, but overall that was great.

  2. Fascinating analysis of the failure of the peace... so sad... I always look at "the Angelus" as the moment before the Great War, when the peasants and small towns of Europe were posed on the edge of losing everything.