The Rise of the Nazis
At the end of World War I, the Allies designed their treaty with Germany to end the war during four months of meetings in Paris (January-April, 1919). They signed it in the famous Palace of Versailles in June. The terms were the result of the interplay among the three Allied heads of state: David Lloyd George, Georges Clemenceau, and Woodrow Wilson. These men all brought strong feelings to the process.
John Maynard Keynes called the treaty “The Carthaginian Peace”, because it was so harsh towards Germany. Keynes left the Paris Conference in dark despair at its outcome, and went home to write a book that came out the following December. He called it The Economic Consequences of the Peace, and it was a bestseller in Europe and America. In the book he predicted that the treaty would give rise to the darkest demagoguery in Germany:
Economic privation proceeds by easy stages, and so long as men suffer it patiently the outside world cares little. Physical efficiency and resistance to disease slowly diminish, but life proceeds somehow, until the limit of human endurance is reached at last and counsels of despair and madness stir the sufferers from the lethargy which precedes the crisis. Then man shakes himself and the bonds of custom are loosed. The power of ideas is sovereign, and he listens to whatever instruction of hope, illusion, or revenge is carried to him on the air. 37
History seems to say that he was wrong on the exact mechanism of disaster, but correct about the final outcome. Economic privation alone did not do the damage, but economics plus the political intentions: revenge, the imputation of guilt, the public blame and shame. German financiers evaded most reparations payments, but German consciousness did not evade the psychic consequences.
The violent polarity coming out of World War I set up the emotional framework for World War II and the Holocaust. (And just as an aside, Versailles was not the work of godless communism, but of God-fearing Christianity.)
Some people learned from it. The political leaders who ended World War II — people like Eisenhower, Marshall, Dulles, Harriman — had been present in Paris in 1919. In 1945 they resolved the German hostility. But the polarized structure of experience shifted to a new global field.
When the fighting ended in 1918, Britain was in bad shape.
The country was indeed at this time swept by a sudden, vehement cry for revenge. … The war had brought suffering of a scale and intensity which the harshest pessimist could not have prophesied, and for which Britain, after a century of peace and progress, was, psychologically speaking, peculiarly unprepared. The interminable casualty lists, the row upon row of beardless faces in the “Roll of Honour”, the rattle through a thousand letter-boxes of the same War Office telegram — all this produced a stunned sense of disbelief at the annihilation of so much youth and promise. When, with the peace, people began to come to terms with what had happened, it was not to be expected that they would rise overnight to the serenity of saints or sages. Even if they wished to forget, the press would not let them. As a Cambridge newspaper put it, “Somebody has got to be hanged.”38
The Armistice of Nov. 11, 1918 ended actual fighting. None of it had taken place on German soil, and the country was never occupied. Lloyd George was the most skilful maneuverer of the three leaders who met in Paris, and he brought the feelings of his country with him.
Historian Lentin observes:
It was borne in upon me that the essence of what happened at Paris …… was — despite the by-play of time and chance — “acts or omissions thoroughly expressive of the doer” in the words of A.C. Bradley (Shakespearean Tragedy, 1904), “characteristic deeds”; and that “the centre of the tragedy, therefore, may be said with equal truth to lie in action issuing from character, or in character issuing from action.” 39
The negotiations were labyrinthine exchanges of layers and layers of feeling, conducted under severe pressures of time. Only six months transpired between the armistice and the treaty’s signing. Here is the scenario:
January, 1918: Woodrow Wilson proclaims before the U.S. Congress the morally high-sounding “14 Points” as the basis for the coming peace.
October, 1918: The German government sues unilaterally to Wilson (by-passing the British and the French) for an armistice.
November 4, 1918: British, French and U.S. representatives sign a pre-Armistice agreement with the Germans. Drafted by U.S. Secretary of State Lansing, it is referred to as “the Lansing note”. On monetary reparations, it stipulates that “compensation will be paid by Germany for all damage done to the civilian population of the Allies by land, by sea and from the air.”
November 11, 1918: The Armistice is signed.
November 12, 1918: Lloyd George addresses a pre-election gathering in London, where he says: “There will be vigorous attempts to hector and bully and stimulate, to induce and cajole the Government to here and there depart from the strict principles of right, in order to satisfy some base and some sordid, and if I may say squalid, principles of either revenge or avarice. We must [he concluded to loud applause] relentlessly set our faces against that; and if we go to the country, it will be the business of every candidate to have regard to that.”
November 13, 1918: Prime Minister William Hughes of Australia and press baron Lord Northcliffe of London start to raise a hue and cry about getting large war indemnities from Germany.
November 26, 1918: Lloyd George forms the Indemnity Committee as a special sub-committee of the British cabinet to recommend a policy on the matter. He makes Hughes its Chairman, includes two notoriously narrow-minded bankers (Herbert Gibbs and Lord Cunliffe), and leaves off the British treasury’s chief economist, John Maynard Keynes.
November 28, 1918: After a few hours of its very first meeting the Indemnity Committee produces the sum of 24 billion pounds as the amount to be sought from Germany, a figure 12 times higher than the estimate by the British treasury. Gibbs’ and Cunfliffe’s reason for the sum is on record: British trade would be “completely ruined by American competition” unless the burden is shifted onto the Germans. As Cunliffe put it, “It is rather a choice of who is to be ruined, we or they. On the whole, I think we had better ruin them.” No economic analysis is offered. Hughes says, “Everything is practicable to the man who has the strength to enforce his views, and we have that strength.”
December 11, 1918: Lloyd George goes along with the 24 billion figure. In his re-election campaign he starts to sound the theme, “We have a right to demand the whole cost of the war from Germany.”
January, 1919: In Paris, Wilson and the American delegation flatly oppose the war indemnity as illegal breaching of the Lansing note.
January-March 1919: The British, French and American leaders and delegations argue, bicker and intrigue back and forth over the various terms of the Armistice. Woodrow Wilson gets worn down.
March 30: Lloyd George gets Jan Christian Smuts, the highly respected leader of South Africa, to write a legal brief interpreting the Lansing note to George’s liking. Smuts turns Wilson around.
April 3: Woodrow Wilson becomes bedridden with physical and emotional exhaustion.
April 5: The “war-guilt clause” is added to the treaty draft. George Clemenceau erases Wilson’s opposition to it by offering French support for the League of Nations, an institution Clemenceau despises and that Wilson ardently believes in.
May 7: The draft is submitted to the Germans.
May 7-June 16, 1919: Back in England, faced with the actual language of the draft, public opinion and Lloyd George shift away from support for the treaty’s harshness. But Clemenceau is unyielding, and Wilson, having compromised himself, now digs in also.
June 16: Faced with the German answer to the draft, all the Allies self-justify.
June 28: The Treaty of Versailles is signed, with the war-guilt clause and an extremely large indemnity provision whose exact sum is to be established by an ongoing commission.
December, 1919: John Maynard Keynes publishes The Economic Consequences of the Peace. The book is an immediate and immense publishing success in England and the U.S.A. and on the continent. It eloquently vilifies the Treaty of Versailles, becomes a factor in the election of 1920, and crystallizes the guilt-feelings of the British for many years to come.
1936: The British give away the Sudetenland to Hitler at Munich, perceived by historians as the final attempt at expiation of guilt by the British for their part in the treaty of Versailles. Historian Lentin chooses “character” as the key element. But there is also Zeitgeist. Politicians can channel the feelings of the people. They cannot create them. There is always a “spirit of the times”. This is some tide of emotion that politicians do not control.
In 1919, England had experienced a lot of death. France had had three generations of war with Germany, and the desire to possess the industrial resources on the Franco-German border. Germany felt a sense of conspiracy between France and England over colonial expansion.
There was also widespread ignorance of anything resembling modern economics. Keynes did not publish The General Theory until 1932, and even top bankers had primitive ideas about the world economy. Their business sense bordered on the mentality of street gangs. When it came time to actually pay reparations, Germany rather easily evaded them with inflated currency, bonds, debentures and other modern fiscal instruments that completely thwarted a process which had been absurd in its conception from the start. All that was left of it by 1932 was the original high insult.
Then there were the perennial populist stirrings: “… that native, xenophobic and thoroughly honest toryism” whose “ideas of reparation were crude to the point of fantasy” and who simply “felt in common justice that Germany should pay for her misdeeds and be rendered harmless to repeat them.” But after Zeitgeist has its say, then the character of politicians does enter in.
Woodrow Wilson is regarded as the “tragic hero” of the piece. But, following the structure of Greek tragedy, he contributed his fatal flaw. His high-sounding principles of the 14 Points were in no way connected to the practical realities of power politics. He did not in fact know how to use his power. He had the only sure supply of food for Europe, its largest intact standing army, and a treasury with money in the bank. He opposed England’s desire for indemnity, but never thought to issue better terms for the 4 billion she owed to U.S. banks. When his idealistic wishes were confronted by the realities of his and Europe’s real political passions, his “principles” collapsed into a wisp of smoke, leaving a disillusioned professor to sail home to political eclipse.
George Clemenceau was the nineteenth century soldier. His world was in fact a jungle. Might makes right and winner takes all. The purpose of war is to destroy the enemy.
David Lloyd George was the Gamesman. Lentin says of him that it was not so much that the end justified the means but that the means justified the means. He loved the play, and he loved to get his way. When he sensed the swell of popular passions, he thought not for a moment to oppose them, to moderate them, to bend them in some nobler direction. He just rode them as far as they would go, and then forgot. In a war he was an energetic and ingenious commander. But in decisions of history where ethics really mattered, he was entirely out of his depth.
As for the diplomats, they almost universally left the Paris of 1919 chastened and discouraged. John Maynard Keynes wrote his famous book. John Foster Dulles, who headed Wilson’s staff (his uncle was Secretary Lansing), went on to other things. But their inputs as economists, as lawyers, as historians, as technicians of all sorts, were never really used at Paris, except to rationalize the illogic and absurdity of the feelings of the politicians.
Some participants knew this. “We are going into these negotiations with our mouths full of fine phrases and our brains seething with dark thoughts.” (Edwin Montagu to Balfour, 20 Dec 1918.) But they were powerless to stop the marriage of Zeitgeist and the personalities of politicians. It would have taken “the serenity of saints or sages” to untrack the dark, unconscious forces that move people and politicians in a time of crisis, and such was not available in 1919.
In 1947, the Allies were back in Paris faced with a very different Europe. Fifty million people had died in the previous ten years. The economy of Europe was in total ruin. Old European hostilities still persisted, and so monetary reparations were claimed. But the devastation was so complete, and ideas of economics had so far advanced, that getting the defeated countries to pay the victors never emerged as a serious proposition. Germany was completely occupied. Its war-time political leaders were either dead or in prison. America was not in any mood to let Europeans call the shots. While conscious of the need to let their allies preserve their dignity, American leaders were quite willing to in fact impose a re-structuring of Europe on them.
Another difference between 1947 and 1919 is that while the diplomats were mere underlings the first time, the second time around they were practically the whole show. The Second World War had been so impressively deadly that politicians recognized that recovery demanded intensely practical inputs. Truman knew this. The men who had run the war were given the job of administering the peace. Douglas MacArthur took Japan. Lucius Clay was in charge in Germany. The American Secretary of State was Gen. George C. Marshall. Marshall had been an aide-de-campe to Gen. John J. Pershing in Paris in 1919. In the State Department under Marshall, technicians the likes of their forebears Keynes and Dulles played a crucial part. Names that were then or later famous had important roles: George Marshall, Dean Acheson, Averill Harriman, James Forrestal, Clark Clifford, W. W. Rostow. The essence of the process in 1947, as distinct from the essence at Versailles, was in the teams of technicians who staffed the State Department.
One of these was a particularly interesting figure.
In the winter of 1946, the Treasury Department sent a cable to the American embassy in Moscow asking whether they could explain why the Russians were refusing to join the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The boss was away that day, and responsibility for answering the cable fell to an obscure junior staffer, 41-year-old George Frost Kennan. He had been thinking about this matter for about twenty years, so he was ready. He had grown up in Wisconsin, but had gone to college at Princeton. In 1946 he was already a veteran of twenty years in Eastern Europe. He knew and loved the Russian language, and had a mature and subtle view of Russian policy. One historian says of him:
The only difficulty with Kennan’s view was that it lacked a certain excitement. Calm, reasoned, evenhanded, expressed in superbly balanced, exquisitely honed, pellucid prose, his view was destined to ensure its author’s continued obscurity as a valued junior Foreign Service officer who would never be invited into the innermost councils of state. His advice might be good, but it was not useful. It did not provide the rationale for dynamic political expansion; it did not offer a framework and rationalization for terrific economic expansion; it did not place America at the head of a great moral crusade. It was an admirable view, but it did not have any zip.40
But in his memoirs Kennan recalls that he knew that this was `it.’ “They had asked for it.” he wrote; “Now, by God, they would have it: the whole truth.” He sat down and penned an 8,000-word reply: “The political personality of Soviet power as we know it today is the product of ideology and circumstances. . .” It is now a document known in the history of diplomacy as simply The Moscow Cable.
The original inquiry was from Treasury, but Kennan gave a copy to the Naval Attach in Moscow, who sent it to Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, who in turn ran off several hundred copies and made it required reading in his department. Within two months Kennan was at work for Forrestal, and shortly after that, for George C. Marshall at State. When Marshall returned from his meeting with Stalin in Moscow, he put Kennan in charge of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff. He told him to develop a Russian strategy with the terse advice, “Avoid trivia.” Kennan did so, and the wheels went into motion. The rest, as they say, is history.
George Kennan’s view of Soviet Communism was somber, but it was not simplistic. It was rooted in a deep appreciation of the causes of Russian insecurity. He viewed the Russian leadership, not as potential objects of a holy war, but as explainable if dangerous human beings. He saw them as men whose history and culture gave them a traditional and “instinctive” sense of insecurity and self-doubt. He saw their dogmatic Marxism as a device whose lofty altruism supported their fear of the rest of the world, enabled them to justify a dictatorship “without which they did not know how to rule”, and the cruelties and sacrifices they felt were needed to make progress. He noted their belief that no permanent modus vivendi was possible with America or capitalism, and that they would use systematic tactics of social subversion to oppose that form of political economy. And Kennan also knew that the Russian leadership had something in common with the West: a belief that the world is governed by the will to power. Clemenceau would have understood.
At the end of the Moscow cable, Kennan says:
The issue of Soviet-American relations is in essence a test of the over-all worth of the United States as a nation among nations. To avoid destruction it need only measure up to its own best traditions and prove itself worthy of preservation as a great nation. Surely, there was never a fairer test of national quality than this. … the thoughtful observer will find no cause for complaint in the Kremlin’s challenge to American society.
The cable was extended and refined by the State Department in 1947. Its orientation became national policy. A central feature of the position was that the restoration of economic vigor, an end to national enmities in Europe, and the recovery of Germany were all integral and essential requirements to contain the spread of Communism. Kennan understood that capitalism and communism were not just military systems, but comprehensive social philosophies. If capitalism was to win, it would do so by giving people what they wanted: prosperity, opportunity, peace, freedom.
Politically, Truman and Marshall and Acheson recognized that the fiscal conservatism and isolationism of Congress, the mid-west press, and the American people would be a problem. In 1947, the politicians sided with their diplomats to bend the tide of popular sentiment into channels the technicians wanted. The Zeitgeist was different than before. The suffering of World War Two so far outstripped the pain of World War One that the main stream of popular passion was channeled into deep sobriety. There was no vehement outcry for revenge. There was just the comprehensive, cold, and clear demand to set things right again, with justice and with vision.
Immediately after the war, things did not go well in Europe. Communist insurgents were strong in places such as Greece and Turkey. The British did not have the resources to continue their traditional support there. American money was needed. Truman and Acheson took in hand the problem, and succeeded in selling “the Truman doctrine”: Truman to Congress in an address to a Joint Session on March 12, 1947, Acheson to the press. The preliminary price tag was a mere 400 million dollars.
The price tag was peanuts. What was all the fuss? The fuss was that “the Truman Doctrine” was the first coupling of America’s “national security” with the threat of Communism. It was the first public announcement of the division of the world into two opposing camps. Although the outlines of the situation were clear to the politicians, there was much uncertainty as to the details, and the details were everything. George Kennan was able to supply those details.
In May of 1947, Truman had Dean Acheson intone the outlines of the Marshall Plan in a speech in Cleveland, Mississippi. It was America in contest with the Russians for the future of the world. This would cost money, but it was worth it. The speech was hardly noticed in the Press. Then, with special briefings to foreign diplomats and key journalists, Marshall unveiled the new American policy for Europe in full solemnity at the Harvard Commencement, June 5, 1947. The U.S. would put up the money, and her Allies would formulate the plan to use it.
In July the representatives of sixteen Allied countries met in Paris. For two months they negotiated. Some progress was made, but old hostilities still persisted. Late in August Kennan went to Paris. In September, behind the scenes, Marshall played hardball and laid down the law on priorities and cooperation. The Allies fell into line.
Late in September, the Russians assembled the European Communist parties at a country estate in Poland. There was to be no compromise with capitalism. Czechoslovakia tried to sit on the fence. They asked for grain from America. But it would not be given to socialists. The Czech government collapsed in the spring of 1948 and the country’s Communist Party took over. Jan Masaryk committed suicide, or was murdered. The division of Europe was complete.
When the Truman administration tried to sell the Marshall Plan to Congress with its 5 billion dollar annual cost, they found that “European cooperation” was awfully abstract, and boring, on the Hill. Building an integrated European market for American goods also lacked fire. The words that were really electrifying were “Communist threat”. It would appear that Russian politicians were not the only ones easily moved by fear.
There seems to have been a difference between the people and the politicians. Historian Mee reports that in a 1948 public opinion survey, 56 percent of Americans thought that the Marshall Plan was best considered an act of charity, and only 8 percent thought it would “curb communism”. “… Americans were by and large still an astonishingly generous people: they were, in fact, prepared to support the Marshall Plan, and to support it for largely humanitarian reasons.”41
But politicians and the press were not content with this. They thought that the Zeitgeist was naïve. They wanted tougher realism. Fear and patriotism were the ticket. So publicity campaigns around the themes of patriotism and anti-communism were mounted.
Kennan’s complex and subtle understanding of Russian insecurity was simplified into its crassest behavioral implications. The word “containment” came to stand for all of it in popular political debate, and the reason for the Marshall Plan boiled down to the threat of Communism. At this time too, the House Unamerican Activities Committee was holding its hearings. The fall of the Czech government in the spring of 1948 coincided with Congressional deliberations on the Marshall Plan appropriations. When Kennan responded to the anger and surprise over the Czech debacle by observing that it was only the logical outcome of Russia’s consolidation of its sphere of influence, his voice was removed again from the center of power. Once more he had no zip. He returned to the status of outsider. His day in the limelight had been short, but it had had an indelible effect on history.
The Cold War continued for forty years, and finally in 1986 Kennan’s design won out. But that is another chapter in the story of reason at work.
As for this chapter — the one that goes from 1919 to 1947 — the moral of the story is that this is what reason has to deal with in the spiritual growth of the human race. The task of history and the task of personal spiritual growth are one and the same: engagement with the human unconscious.