The year 2014 marks the centenary of the First World War, a complex and troublesome conflict that rightly demands renewed scholarly attention. As expected, there has recently been a flood of literature dealing not only with the origins and outbreak of this unprecedented period of international aggression but also its social and political consequences. It would play a role in the Russian Revolution in early 1917, which swept away Europe’s weakest regime, and, by late 1918, the revolutions that toppled the ruling houses in Germany and Austria-Hungary, although these nations opted for liberal democratic orders over communism. Its consequences were also felt, most obviously, in the relative economic decline of the UK and Europe, the rise of the US with its proselytising president Woodrow Wilson, and the challenges posed by the international revolutionary ambitions of Vladimir Lenin.
Adam Tooze, who previously taught at the University of Cambridge, is now professor of history at Yale University and heads its International Security Studies unit. In 2006 he authored a prizewinning account of the Nazi economy, The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy. Based firmly on archival research and an expertise in the technical side of economic history, it is now a standard work in the field. Inevitably, such a perspicacious study will have raised readers’ expectations for The Deluge, in which he moves outside his comfort zone and on to the thorny ground of international affairs. It is perfectly acceptable to attempt a synthesis based mostly on existing secondary literature, although here the resulting tome lacks clarity, is too long, and will be a slog for average readers and even for above-average ones.
To begin with, Tooze does not pose clear research questions as he did in his last book, nor does he help his cause with an opaque introduction, where he makes any number of arguable contentions. We learn that the primary aim of the book is “mapping the emergence of [the] new order of power” after the First World War, and that a major “preoccupation” is “tracing the ways in which the world came to terms with America’s new centrality, through the struggle to shape a new order”. Of course, one might object that the US, notwithstanding its growing economic might, was deeply isolationist. Congress rejected the Treaty of Versailles, refused to join the League of Nations and whittled down the size of the army, so that by 1933, General Douglas MacArthur would rank its active military strength at just 17th in the world.
For reasons that are not entirely convincing, The Deluge begins in 1916. It would have been useful to offer a brief overview of the terrain of the old order, created at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 by Austria, Britain and Russia in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars. That kind of discussion would have served to chart the factors that helped to prevent a European-wide war for nearly a century, and then to show why the system broke down in 1914. Another concern is that the book’s timeline skips about, making it difficult for readers to find their way through the thickets of leaders, many of them obscure, along with a plethora of countries, agencies, treaties and conflicts. In spite of the deluge of information surrounding certain issues, such as a key international agreement, Tooze often fails to get to the heart of the matter. For example, in regard to the Rapallo Treaty signed by Germany and Russia on 16 April 1922, we read that for France the treaty “was a terrifying prospect”, that David Lloyd George felt it “posed a terrible danger” to peace in Europe and that it was “shocking news” to a little-known US Congressional debt-funding commission. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in Turkey applauded it and there were wider ripples around the globe. However, the author never lays out precisely what Rapallo said or signalled.
As we know from other sources, the Rapallo Treaty cleared up lingering wartime issues between defeated Germany and pariah Russia, and opened diplomatic and economic relations, and soon the door to secret rearmament deals. These arrangements aided both sides in their covert militarisation efforts that continued right up to 1933, with ramifications thereafter. Failing to distil the essence of such happenings is one of the disappointing deficits in what is otherwise a frequently compelling work. Its flaws aside, The Deluge contains some surprising revelations and is bound to be of interest to specialists and non-specialists alike.
The Deluge: The Great War and the Remaking of Global Order
By Adam Tooze
Allen Lane, 672pp, £30.00 and £14.99
ISBN 9781846140341 and 9780241006115 (e-book)
Published 29 May 2014