The Consequences of Mr Keynes: At the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, Was One Brilliant, Self-Assured British Economist Right and All the Assembled Statesmen Wrong?

By MacMillan, Margaret | New Statesman (1996), November 2, 2018 | Go to article overview

The Consequences of Mr Keynes: At the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, Was One Brilliant, Self-Assured British Economist Right and All the Assembled Statesmen Wrong?


MacMillan, Margaret, New Statesman (1996)


A century after it was signed, the accepted view of the Treaty of Versailles remains that it was a gigantic mistake, so savage and vindictive that it drove the rise of Hitler and led directly to the Second World War. Germany, so it is argued, was deliberately and cruelly humiliated. The victors--France, Great Britain, and the United States --seized its colonies and parts of its territory in Europe, imposed disarmament, and, above all, sought to keep it economically enfeebled through reparations--exorbitant payments ostensibly extracted to pay for the damage caused by war. All this was justified because Germany and its allies were held solely to blame for the conflict's outbreak in 1914. This, as many in the English-speaking world and Germany came to believe, and still do, was grossly unfair because Germany had actually not started the war; rather Europe as a whole--nationalistic, imperialistic, militaristic--had, in David Lloyd George's words, "slithered" over the edge, heedless of the catastrophe to come.

The French, not surprisingly, have never fully accepted this version. France, as people sometimes forget, had not declared war on Germany; rather Germany had invaded it as part of war plans to defeat Russia and its ally in the West. In the four years of war France suffered huge human and material loss; the highest proportion of men of military age killed of any country except Serbia and the devastation of the northern departments that had contained much of French industry and its coal mines.

In recent decades historians have increasingly challenged or at least modified the accepted versions of German innocence in 1914 and the injustice of its peace treaty. In Germany in the 1960s Fritz Fischer set off a series of controversies when he argued, drawing heavily on surviving German archives, that the German military and key parts of the government had wanted war as a means of ensuring dominance of Europe's heartland. The spate of books around 2014 on the outbreak of the war did not reach any consensus on how it started, but most point to human decisions and human failings, including German ones, rather than the impersonal hand of fate.

The Treaty of Versailles has also been scrutinised by historians (I am among them) who suggest that it was not as harsh as it is usually portrayed and that, more importantly, the road to the rise of Hitler and the outbreak of the Second World War was not predetermined in 1919. Specific charges made then and since against the treaty--that it stripped Germany of 13 per cent of its territory and 10 per cent of its population for example--have been challenged. Last year in A Perfidious Distortion of History, the German historian Jurgen Tampke argued, persuasively, that the figures are inflated, that much of the lost territory had itself been seized from France (in the case of Alsace and Lorraine) or from Poland at the end of the 18th century and that many of its inhabitants were not ethnic Germans. We historians have made little progress in shifting popular opinion, partly because we are up against one of the most successful polemics of the 20th century.

In 1919 the brilliant and very self-assured young economist John Maynard Keynes left the Paris Peace Conference, where he had been an adviser to the British Treasury, in disgust at what he saw as its failure to grapple with the real problems facing Europe. (An American expert unkindly said that it was more because his views were being ignored.) The leading statesmen were worrying about borders or about punishing and constraining Germany when they should have been concentrating on getting the economic engines going again.

He dashed off a little book with a very dry title which was an instant best-seller and has been in print ever since. Keynes himself later retracted some of it and apologised to David Lloyd George, British prime minister at the time, but the damage was done. The Economic Consequences of the Peace is a devastating attack on the key figures in Paris: Georges Clemenceau of France is portrayed as a vindictive ape focused solely on destroying Germany; Lloyd George is the amoral Welsh wizard who simply wants to get a temporary deal; and Woodrow Wilson is the booby, the American president outwitted by the wily Europeans. …

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