Let’s remember the peace like we remember the war

COMMENT: Five years ago, I had a genial debate with my classmates. We were history students and it was 2013, and governments across the world were releasing plans of how they would commemorate the First World War.

Some of my fellow students believed it was wrong to launch into four long years of war commemorations, which would only drum up militaristic and nationalist sentiment behind a thin veneer of solemn remembrance. 

I disagreed: the world had moved on, I said. There was a mood for pacifism and globalism; Obama was President and international engagement was the mood of the day.

I was wrong — quite wrong it turns out. 

Going into 2019, it's obvious most governments have decided not to commemorate the peace of 1919 at the same volume that we commemorated the conflict which preceded it. This is a pity, for while our leaders have spent the last four years collectively shaking their heads and murmuring never again, too few of them have bothered to ask how to avoid another global conflict.

This week, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists set its symbolic Doomsday Clock at two minutes to midnight — their way of saying the world is just moments away from apocalyptic catastrophe. If ever there was a time to think about how to keep the peace, it is now.

But in the spirit of staying positive, I propose to kick off 2019 by celebrating the 100th anniversary of John Maynard Keynes’ The Economic Consequences of the Peace, a book which is sadly underappreciated in our time. 

Keynes was perhaps the most influential economists of the 20th century, and one of the chief architects of the economic order that existed after the war. A conscientious objector, Keynes spent most of the war working for the British Treasury, where he was involved in financing Britain’s war effort. A possibly apocryphal quote records Bertrand Russell as saying Keynes’ work "consisted of finding ways of killing the maximum number of Germans at the minimum expense”.

At the close of the war, Keynes was sent as Treasury’s representative to Versailles, where the eponymous peace treaty was being negotiated. The negotiations were not to his liking. The allies wanted to enforce what Keynes called “Carthaginian Peace” on Germany — named after the North African city of Carthage, which was flattened by the Romans who later sowed its fields with salt so nothing would ever grow there again.

Keynes was no fan. His health swiftly deteriorated and instead of seeing out the negotiations he left Versailles for Cambridge where he swiftly completed his book.

The book itself is not unlike political memoirs published today. In premise it recalls Hillary Clinton’s What Happened — it’s quite simply an account of what went wrong at Versailles and why his readers should be concerned. 

Keynes’ main criticism of the treaty was of the onerous war reparations forced upon Germany, which he believed were so harsh the country could not ever hope to repay them. But to say the book is about debt forgiveness is overly simplistic. 

Keynes believed in limiting Germany’s war debt, and keeping its reparations at a sustainable level, but he also understood the needs of the Allies to service their own war debts. German debt repayments were needed for the Allies to service their own war debts and kickstart their moribund economies. 

He proposed America and other solvent powers lend to moribund Europe “to revive her hopes, to renew her economic organisation, and to enable her great intrinsic wealth to function for the benefit of her workers”. 

Keynes realised his proposition was unlikely to pass muster with the Americans, but his book recognised that without significant economic restructuring, Europe was bound to continue down the path of rampant nationalism that had helped fuel the war in the first place.

The book is a welcome reminder in our austerity-obsessed times of the dangers of crippling insolvent countries with yet more debt. In 2019, the European Union must reckon with a decade that has seen not just lost growth, but the likely loss of one of its key member states. 

As we enter another year of global uncertainty, it might pay to look not just at the voices of pessimism from the past, as we journalists are wont to do, but some of the optimists as well. For all of the horror that followed 1919, Keynes’ book should be read optimistically as a vision for a future that only materialised after the author’s worst fears were confirmed in the Second World War. 

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