Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The lessons of Versailles

In the context of the relationship between foreign policy and terrorism, Norm refers to an article that used the historical example of the Treaty of Versailles to show that linking the two does not amount to an apology for fascism. This Norm accepts but goes on to highlight some of the problems with David Clark's reasoning in relation to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

As well as largely agreeing with what Norm says here, I have a couple of narrower problems with the way the history of Versailles is used in this type of argument. For instance, while it is certainly true that a connection with the Treaty and the rise of fascism is made in schools, even at this relatively simplistic level the understanding that students are at least supposed to be able to attain is rather more subtle than that possessed by the average Comment is Free contributor.

For instance, while it is indeed common-place to follow JM Keynes' view that the Treaty was imprudently punitive and essentially unjust, it is also common-place to invite students to draw rather different conclusions about what should have been done vis-a-vis the Nazi regime than that people like David Clark do in relation to Iraq and the Middle East in general.

Because they tend to suffer from what could be termed the 'rewinding of history fallacy' - which essentially argues that the solution to the problem of fascism is to return to the historical 'root cause' injustice and rectify this. My concern here is with the narrow question of whether Versailles can be used to illustrate this argument or not - and will leave readers to decide for themselves what if any comparisons can be made with the present situation.

I personally don't think it can be used in this way. Even though school-children understand that while Versailles may have been unjust in various ways, they tend not to conclude that addressing the Nazi's grievances was the solution here. There are a number of good reason for this:

1) The history of Appeasement contradicts this. Germans may well have had good reason to object to the injustice - and the hypocrisy - of the terms of the peace. But one of the most common historical conclusions drawn is that the course of history from 1933 would have been rather different, and better, if the Treaty had been enforced nevertheless. Or in other words, few people today would doubt it was rather a mistake to wait until the invasion of Poland before anything was done to stop Hitler.

2) Because understanding that the Treaty was unjust did not lead the British government to formulate a more appropriate foreign policy. Quite the opposite. I think probably most historians would argue that the attempt to avoid a confrontation with Germany by allowing for Hitler's unilateral 'rectifications' of the Versailles settlement was a mistake rooted in a basic misunderstanding of the Nazis - this mistake being the simple one that they were not the least interested in living at peace with their neighbours or indeed the rest of humanity.

3) When making a connection between Versailles and fascism, school-children are taught that this forms part of a wider set of circumstances that created the conditions for Nazism and gave it it's character. Amongst the many others was the long history of Christian anti-Semitism in Europe and in Germany there's the specific contribution that Martin Luther gave to this most ancient of prejudices. It would be refreshing if some of our journalistic amateur historians would draw a few more historical comparisons from this than they do at present - to say no more than that.

4) The point that understanding the past does not provide a simple guide on how to act in the present has already been made. But even within the narrow terms of the Versailles as the root cause of Nazism discourse some students of history, including myself, wonder whether rather too much is made of it anyway. While unjust and punitive, my own view is that rather too much of the German nationalist right's victim-based argument is accepted into the historical narrative. For instance, students should be reminded that some of the lost German lands included those taken from France and Denmark in the 1860s. They should also be aware that in attributing weight to the punitive nature of the peace on the character of the Nazi regime, one has the relevant example of Brest-Litovsk to consider. And students should also be reminded that it was not just the Jews who were falsely-blamed for the hyper-inflation of the 1920s. While the reparations imposed on Germany were both politically unjust and economically imprudent, I don't think economic history vindicates the view that these were responsible for the destruction of the German currency.

This last example is a way of making the wider historical point. Understanding that the Treaty of Versailles made a contribution to the rise of National Socialism in the 1930s does not only not serve as an apologia for fascism - it should not allow us to conclude that Germany was in some way incapable of incubating its own problems without outside interferrence. As if an entire nation is but material that responds mechanically to a certain set of international circumstances.

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