Magazine article The Spectator

The Treaty Keynes Killed

Magazine article The Spectator

The Treaty Keynes Killed

Article excerpt

The 1919 Treaty of Versailles is still generally regarded as a disaster and a crime, though in academic circles revisionism has been gaining ground for at least 30 years. Why have the academics so far failed to change ordinary opinion? The main reason is that they have lacked the literary and polemical power of the man who gave the Treaty a bad name within months of its signature. That man was, of course, John Maynard Keynes.

Keynes's anti-Treaty tract, The Economic Consequences of the Peace, published at the end of 1919, has rightly been described by his biographer, Robert Skidelsky, as `one of the most influential books of the 20th century'. Unfortunately its influence persists, though any informed and fair-minded person should recognise that the book is deeply flawed, and that its only unqualified merit is its prose style.

The most pernicious aspect of it is Keynes's charge that the Western Allies imposed a `Carthaginian peace' on Germany. The classical allusion might be regarded as ambiguous, since the first Carthaginian, or Punic, war ended indecisively. But there could never be any doubt that Keynes was referring to Rome's utter destruction of Carthage after the second Punic war. In that sense there was a wouldbe Carthaginian peace in 1918 - that imposed by the Germans on the Russians at Brest-Litovsk, which might well have been followed by a similar peace in the West, had they won the war. To suggest that the Treaty of Versailles was Carthaginian in the same sense, or was ever meant to be, is a monstrous travesty.

In fact, the Versailles settlement turned out to be Carthaginian in the sense that Keynes did not use the term, and in no small degree his book contributed to its impermanence by poisoning the public mind against it, and by helping to under mine the confidence and unity of those who should have stood together to enforce it (Skidelsky would have us believe that Versailles collapsed without any assistance from Keynes, but in that case why claim that his book was so influential?) Now, to mark the 80th anniversary of the Treaty, we have a volume published jointly by the German Historical Institute in Washington DC and Cambridge University Press, which gives us a summation of international scholarship on the subject. Though the 'reassessment' that the book offers is not homogeneous - there are some differences of substance, and many of nuance, between the various distinguished historians represented in it - nevertheless the total impression produced by the book is a far cry from Keynes.

In their introduction the three editors (two German, one American) have this to say about the Treaty's two most controversial features, reparations and the clause assigning war guilt to Germany:

The documentary record confirms that Germany bore the main responsibility for starting the conflict. The Reich's civil and military leaders, fully aware of the potential risks, supported an offensive strategy in August 1914 that made a limited war impossible. The German empire's prosecution of total war in violation of 19th-century norms of conduct its uniquely ambitious war aims, and the startling realisation of those aims in the

Brest-Litovsk peace treaty, suggested that Germany, by any reasonable measure, bore a substantial responsibility for war damages. …

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