Name and Place for Tuesday, December 23 (’14)
A new book by Adam Tooze, The Deluge: the Great War, America, and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931, should be at the top of your 2015 reading list. It’s hefty at 518 pages (plus the endnotes), but his style of writing verges on poetic at times. How rare it is to combine skillful writing and nuanced-history!
In Tooze’s own words, he seeks a synthesis between prevailing explanations of the years between the World Wars, that it was not quite a failure of Wilsonian Liberalism (or any other stripe) nor the darkened nature of Europe post-WW1 that lead to the conflagration of WW2. Instead, Tooze, argues, both models “tend to obscure the radical novelty of the situation confronting world leaders in the early 20th century,” the…
…unprecedented pace, scope and violence of change actually experienced in world affairs from the late nineteenth century onwards. As contemporaries quickly realized, the intense ‘world political’ competition into which the great powers entered in the late 19th century was not a stable system with an ancient lineage. It was legitimated neither by dynastic tradition nor by its inherent ‘natural’ stability. It was explosive, dangerous, all-consuming, irrational, and in 1914 no more than a few decades old. Far from belonging in the lexicon of a venerable but corrupt ‘ancien régime’, the term ‘imperialism’ was a neologism that entered widespread use only around 1900. It encapsulated a novel perspective on a novel phenomenon—the remaking of the political structure of the entire globe under conditions of uninhibited military, economic, political, and cultural competition. Both the Dark Continent and the hegemonic failure (i.e., failure of Liberalism) models are therefore based on a faulty premise. Modern global imperialism was a radical and novel force, not an old-world hangover” (20).
That’s part of his argument and thesis, the second half of which is that America’s economic power, too, was novel and, when combined with increased economic dependence on America by the European powers and the US’s potential to build and act militarily (even if the US didn’t have the actual military presence it later would after WW2), lead to America’s decisive, nation-making abilities into the 20th century. Whether you agree with it or not, it’s an intriguing hypothesis.
Later on, he gives a forceful, emotional account (from the German side!) on what happened on the Eastern Front when little Romania almost seized world history in her hands:
On 27 August (1916) Romania finally abandoned its neutrality and declared war on the side of the Entente. Instead of the wagons of Romanian oil and grain, on which the Central Powers (Germany, Austro-Hungary, Ottoman Empire) had come heavily to depend, a fresh enemy army of 800,000 drove westwards into Transylvania. Improbable though it may seem, in August 1916 it was not President Wilson but Prime Minister Bratianu in Bucharest who appeared to hold the fate of the world in his hands. As Field Marshal Hindenburg commented in retrospect: ‘truly, never before was a state as small as Rumania, handed such a role of such world historic significance at such an opportune moment. Never before have potent great powers like Germany and Austria been exposed in such a way to a state which had perhaps only 1/20th of their population.’
At the Kaiser’s HQ, the news of Romania’s entry into the war ‘fell like a bomb. William II completely lost his head, pronounced the war finally lost and believed we must now ask for peace.’ The Habsburg ambassador in Bucharest, Count Ottokar Czernin, predicted ‘with mathematical certainty the complete defeat of the Central Powers and their allies if the war were continued any longer’ (47).
A good book review of Deluge from the New York Times can be read here, and is recent (November 2014).
If you’re inclined to the Wall Street Journal, they have a review here.
Tooze’s bio may be read here.