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After the Great War: Economic Warfare and the Promise of Peace in Paris 1919

Author(s):Dehne, Phillip A.
Reviewer(s):Ransom, Roger

Published by EH.Net (September 2019)

Phillip A. Dehne, After the Great War: Economic Warfare and the Promise of Peace in Paris 1919. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019. x + 297 pp. $114 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-350-08704-0.

Reviewed for EH Net by Roger Ransom, Departments of History and Economics, University of California. Riverside.

 
On June 28, 1919 representatives from Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles that ended the First World War. Much has been written about the shortcomings of the treaty and the failure of the Paris Peace Conference efforts to resolve the issues surrounding the end of hostilities and the establishment of a peaceful postwar world. Though time has softened the language he used, much of this research has agreed with John Maynard Keynes’s 1920 assertion that the failure of the Paris Peace conference stemmed from the inability of the four Allied leaders – Woodrow Wilson, David Lloyd George, Georges Clemenceau, and Vittorio Emanuele Orlando – to look beyond their own political agendas and address the needs of a shattered world order.[1]

In his book After the Great War: Economic Warfare and the Promise of Peace in Paris 1919, Phillip Dehne, a Professor of History at St. Joseph College, New York, argues “against judging the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 based on the failure of the Treaty of Versailles to create long-term peace in Europe” and stresses instead “the sense of possibility and hope felt by many in Paris 1919” (p. 11). Dehne wants to “expose the importance of less renowned individuals to the activities and results of the Conference” (p.10). He uses the diary of Sir Robert Cecil, who “was perceived by most within and beyond the British delegation to be among the five most powerful Britons there,” to take the reader on a detailed narrative behind the scenes — a journey that reveals the innumerable conflicts and complications that went into the negotiations among the four leaders (p. 11). Dehne uses Cecil’s role in the discussions of three crucial elements of the Peace Conference: (1) the decision to continue the “economic war” against Germany with the British naval blockade; (2) the debates to fashion a Covenant for a League of Nations; and (3) the task of determining the level of reparation payments to be levied against Germany for her role in starting the war.

Cecil had managed the naval blockade of Germany for Britain during the war and he strongly advocated keeping the blockade in place until the Germans signed a treaty ending the war. Dehne’s narrative examines the dilemma involved in a strategy of continuing a stringent blockade. On the one hand, denying the German population much-needed imports of food forced them to push for a speedy agreement to terms in the treaty as soon as possible. On the other hand, by mid 1919 the blockade was not only crippling the German economy but harming the rest of Europe as well. Finally, there were voices raising moral objections to use of this new form of “economic warfare” that fell largely on civilians not engaged in the fighting.

Dehne’s discussion on the effectiveness of the British naval blockade of Germany raises interesting implications about the use of economic warfare as a deterrent to maintain peace in the global economy today. “Those in Paris who focused on issues of economic warfare,” he claims, “anticipated that they had found a way to encourage and enforce peaceful international interactions. Rather than viewing the Peace Conference in premonition of the horrors that came just two decades later, this book stresses the sense of possibility and hope felt by many in Paris 1919” (p. 11).

Cecil was also involved with the committee which drew up a covenant that would frame the League of Nations. Most of the work on this committee was done a by Cecil and Woodrow Wilson. Here and elsewhere in his book, Dehne provides a fascinating picture of the difficulties of working with the American president. One of the more contentious elements of debate was the issue of whether or not the league should have a standing army to resolve issues between countries. Impressed with the use of economic warfare during the Great War, Cecil insisted that the league did not need a standing army to maintain the peace because the threat of economic warfare would suffice to deter open warfare between league members. This is a point of particular importance to the theme of Dehne’s work, which is that critics of the league after the war did not give enough credit to the possibility that economic warfare could have been an effective weapon in settling disputes.

The last challenge facing Cecil and his colleagues was the question of forcing Germany to pay reparations in recognition that they started the war. Dehne presents an interesting view of the partnership that emerged between Cecil and John Maynard Keynes. They developed an economic plan that was more moderate than the one being considered by the Council of Four, and when their proposal was turned down, Cecil urged Keynes to help him come up with a new version to present to the Council. Keynes would have none of that; he packed up and went home to write his critique of the Versailles Treaty. Much to Cecil’s dismay, the Council eventually elected to impose heavy reparations on the postwar German economy.

Dehne’s penchant for detail means that this book is not a quick read, and readers unfamiliar with the organization of the League of Nations and the multitude of committees set up by the Peace Conference may find it worthwhile to begin by consulting the conclusions found in chapter 8 to obtain a useful guide to where the story is ultimately heading. That said, Dehne’s detailed descriptions of the deliberations that went into the formation of the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations form an important reminder that the people who were given the responsibility to fashion an economic and political framework for the postwar world did not have any experience to guide their deliberations. They were, quite literally dealing with a “brave new world.”

This is an excellent book that is well worth the time it takes to read it.

Note:
1. John Maynard Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace (New York: Penguin Books, Chapter 6). For more recent — and more moderate — views of the Paris Peace Conference see Margaret MacMillan, Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World (New York: Random House, 2001) or the essays in Manfred Boemeke, Gerald Feldman, and Elisabeth Glaser, editors, The Treaty of Versailles: A Reassessment after 75 Years (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998). For a comprehensive summary of the events after 1919 see Patrick Cohrs, The Unfinished Peace after World War I: America, Britain, and the Stabilisation of Europe, 1919-1932 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

 

Roger Ransom is the author of Gambling on War: Confidence, Fear and the Tragedy of the First World War, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

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Subject(s):Military and War
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII