WWI: Adam Tooze Reviews “The Deluge”

Photo Tooze 4

Adam Tooze’s new history of World War One, The Deluge, makes a crackling, cautionary tale of the zig-zag course of the young economic giant in America, drawn toward the center of a new global order between 1914 and 1918. In 1916, two years into the war, Americans reelected the president who’d kept us out of the battle. But by the summer of 1917, the same Woodrow Wilson had committed the US to fighting alongside Britain and France against Germany.

For me the hair-raising fascination in our conversation here, on the eve of publication, is in the foreshadowings – of a century of horrific hot and cold sequels of the Great War, but also of the very-2014 tensions between democracy and capitalism, and of course the rise of a new giant in China.

Adam Tooze is an English-trained historian now teaching at Yale. Over a phone line to Paris, on the eve of American publication of The Deluge, Tooze is recounting the “truly extraordinary” role of Wall Street’s J. P. Morgan, serving as banker to Britain, France, Russia and then Italy, “effectively the financial agent for far-and-away the largest coalition of military powers the world had ever seen.” Morgan made a colossal bet on a war that Americans voted not to enter. Paris and London panicked at the election returns and the popular indecision about the war into 1917. What turned President Wilson, Tooze argues, was not J. P. Morgan but the Germans’ cynical (maybe mad) decision to pursue unrestricted submarine warfare (like the torpedo attack on Cunard’s Lusitania which had killed a thousand Americans and shocked the country in 1915). Among the endless counter-factual questions: what if the Kaiser had held back his U-boats and Wilson had held back the American fighting forces, as he wanted to? The Germans might well have won the European war, but we might never have known Fascism, state Communism, World War Two, the Holocaust, the Cold War or nuclear weapons.

Americans seem still to be ambivalent about Wilson’s ambivalence – between the “muscular Wilsonism” (that led us into World War One and the botched peace of Versailles) and Wilson’s dream of “peace without victory” and an American “liberal internationalism” that policed the empires without becoming one.

And then there are the China questions that Adam Tooze says he felt “hanging over me” as he wrote his centennial history of World War One. So many analogies between the US then and China today: rising industrial and financial powers, yet to be partnered into managing the world system. China is vastly older and bigger than the US ever was – a sixth of the world’s population and “an ancient empire coming back into itself,” as Tooze put it. This is the great drama taking place before our eyes, “an epic shift in world affairs we’re living through.” The trick, the historian says, is to realize that there is no succession of empires, no simple repetition in history. Stay tuned!

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  • Potter

    I meant to add that I appreciated also that Adam Tooze stressed that it is the ideas or the ideology that have to be defeated. This is a non-violent task, but quite a difficult one.

    (update) I was again with my 100 year old ( and 6 months!) mother today and she (again) brought up the hanging of the Kaiser in the streets. She is saying it was the 4th of July of that year that she was just 4 years old. The dummy was dressed in the uniform. She presumes this was happening all over the country, not just on her street.

  • Potter

    Kipling learned this, if the Kiplingites still haven’t. Niall Ferguson ends his recent neo-imperialist polemic “Colossus” with a mention of Kipling on the White Man’s Burden (which he rejects), and then a quote from Kipling on the fragility of empire (which he admires), but he leaves uncited the best poem Kipling ever wrote about war and its consequences, the simple couplet produced after his son was killed:

    If any question why we died
    Tell them, because our fathers lied.

    No one has ever thought that the First World War didn’t have meaning, in the sense of an effect on things that came after, and purpose, in the sense that it happened because people believed it to be necessary. The questions persist. Were this purpose and this meaning worth the expense of life, the deaths of all those nineteen-year-old boys? Was what had been achieved in Europe by 1919 worth knowing that your son gasped out his last breath in the mud, as Kipling and eight million other fathers did? Was the credibility of liberal civilization worth the suicide of liberal civilization? One of the things that twentieth-century philosophy learned, in the wake of the war, is that big words are empty uniforms without men to live out their meanings, and that high moral purposes have no value outside a context of consequences. As the new century begins, the First World War seems as present, and just as great a pity, as it ever did. ♦

    This is from Adam Gopnik’s “The Big One” an excellent article/book review of 2 new histories out in 2004, the 90th memorial of WW1. I don’t know if you can link to here without a subscription.


    • “…because people believed it to be necessary…”

      At that time, WWI was a carry-over of fin de siècle’s experience for the sake of experience.
      Meaning is found in the interpretation of the order of things as a totality.
      WWI formed the totality of the 20th century.

  • Cambridge Forecast

    Economics in Germany’s Decision for War in 1914: A Tooze-type Gauging

    Professor Tooze says some fascinating things about the importance of Morgan financing as well as its misunderstanding by Germany who mistakenly saw it as determining policy as opposed to seeing it more correctly a co-factor or lubricant, with Wilson and Wilsonism as primary “motors” of decision-making.

    In his classic work “Germany and the Two World Wars,” Professor Andreas Hillgruber gives us an analogous corrective for the German decision for war, only not in terms of finance but in terms of economics:
    He writes:
    “In fact, the (German) decision for war cannot be understood in economic terms. Even if one exaggerates the peacetime feasibility of Rathenau’s alternative of a relatively closed German-led “Middle European” economic area, the fact remains that from a realistic economic viewpoint the expected gains in Europe would be no match for unavoidable losses throughout the world. This would be certainly true in the British Empire, which was the largest market for German exports, and very likely in South America and East Asia
    as well. One can only comprehend the resolve for war in terms of Wilhelmine Germany’s understanding of what it means to be a great power. Military and strategic considerations were singularly important, while other factors, including the economic, were denied equal weight in the leadership’s analysis of Germany’s situation.”
    (Hillgruber book, page 38, Harvard University Press paperback, 1981)

    Two footnotes:
    1. In the movie based on Albert Speer’s memoirs, “Inside the Third Reich,” Ralph Richardson plays Speer’s father, an archconservative who’s in favor of Friedrich Naumann’s “Mitteleuropa” which was a 1915 and thereafter scheme for a German-dominated central European commonwealth a la the Rathenau vision mentioned above. (Walter Rathenau was a German-Jewish politican, economics expert in WWI and after, assassinated by the proto-Nazis of 1922)

    It was a kind of German manifest destiny and autarky quest but non-Nazi.

    2. “My Four Years in Germany” by U.S. Ambassador James Gerard, 1917. gives economic as well as financial insights on the German war effort in WWI.
    Chapter 13 in the book is called “Mainly Commercial” and will give you
    many details.

    Richard Melson

  • Cambridge Forecast


    In Warren Beatty’s near-masterpiece from 1981, “Reds,” Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton character) wangles an interview with John Reed (Warren Beatty character) after hearing him explain WWI as a struggler over profits. The two go to her office-apartment and she starts the interview-cum-romance by agreeing that the war is about profits in the world-economy, as he explained when she first heard him theorize about WWI at the Liberal Club in Portland, Oregon,
    a short time before.

    John Reed grows impatient with her tangled commentary and blurts out his own overview
    from a far Left perspective:
    John Reed:
    “All right, Miss Bryant, do you want an interview? Write this down. Are you naïve enough to think containing German militarism has anything to do with this war? Don’t you understand that England and France own the world economy and Germany just wants a piece of it? Keep writing, Miss Bryant. Miss Bryant, can’t you grasp that J. P. Morgan has loaned England and France a billion dollars? And if Germany wins, he won’t get it back! More coffee?
    America’d be entering the war to protect J. P.Morgan’s money. If he loses, we’ll have a depression. So the real question is, why do we have an economy where the poor have to pay so the rich won’t lose money?”

    John Reed doesn’t see that finance was a sinew of WWI power politics and the “struggle
    for mastery” in Europe and globally.

    Power struggles at the national level were not vulgar or deterministic footnotes to
    finance, as Prof.Tooze shows.

    There is the constant confusion between money and power, financial versus geopolitics, on the Reed-Bryant side of the analysis, as dangerously clever and nifty as it is.

    Richard Melson