On April 30, May 1, and May 2, 2014, Adam Tooze, Barton M. Briggs Professor of History at Yale University, delivered in three parts "The Europe Center Lectureship on Europe and the World", the first of an annual series.
With the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War as his backdrop, Tooze spoke about the history of the transformation of the global power structure that followed from Germany’s decision to provoke America’s declaration of war in 1917. He advanced a powerful explanation for why the First World War rearranged political and economic structures across Eurasia and the British Empire, sowed the seeds of revolution in Russia and China, and laid the foundations of a new global order that began to revolve around the United States.
The three lectures focused successively on diplomatic, economic, and social aspects of the troubled interwar history of Europe and its relationship with the wider world. Over the course of the lectures, he presented an argument for why the fate of effectively the whole of civilization changed in 1917, and why the First World War’s legacy continues to shape our world even today.
Tooze also participated in a lunchtime question-and-answer roundtable with graduate students from the History department.
The First Lecture
Tooze motivated his first lecture, entitled, “Making Peace in Europe 1917-1919: Brest-Litovsk and Versailles,” by the recent political developments in Ukraine, Crimea, and in Eastern Europe. In light of these political frictions, Tooze posed the question: Is a comprehensive peace for Europe, both East and West, possible? To properly answer this question, Tooze argued that we must look back to the first moment in which that question was posed, during and after World War I.
He focused on the influence of Russian power and powerlessness in shaping both the abortive effort to make peace in the East between Imperial Germany and Soviet Russia at Brest Litovsk—the first treaty to recognize the existence of an independent Ukraine—and the efforts to make peace in the West at Versailles and after.
In the Brest treaty, Russia lost territories inhabited by 55 million people, one third of its agricultural land, more than half of its industrial undertakings, and 90 percent of its coal mines. Whereas conventional narratives view these developments either as an expression of German ultra imperialism or as the ultimate demonstration of Lenin’s revolutionary realism, Tooze drew attention to Brest as the first international venue to recognize the independence of Ukraine in the modern era.
“The map that was created at Brest, the existence side by side within separate dispensations of a fragile and independent Ukraine alongside a battered, reduced and resentful Russia, is strikingly reminiscent of that which we have taken for granted since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.”
Tooze argued that Brest is the only historical precedent for the structure that the international community is seeking to defend today in Ukraine. In turn, “the first good peace gone bad was not Versailles, but Brest. Furthermore, it is not just that Versailles echoes Brest, but Brest actually directly conditioned the more familiar story of Versailles. And after acts one and two, after Brest and Versailles, there was a third act in which between 1919 and 1923 the search for a truly comprehensive peace in Europe, a peace that would embrace eastern as well as western Europe, unleashed a violent see-sawing movement that did not finally come to rest until Europe relapsed into exhausted division in 1924.”
Tooze drew insights from the period between 1917 and 1923 to draw conclusions about the stability of the world order that has largely been taken for granted since 1991.
“What the current crisis makes clear is that if we want to disarm Russian nationalism, we need to find some way of addressing the trauma of 1991, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dismembering of its component parts. If we do not want to entrench a new cold war, we need to make a serious effort to reconcile Moscow to the new order that must otherwise seem like a Brest Litovsk set in stone.”
The Second Lecture
In his second lecture, “Hegemony: Europe, America and the problem of financial reconstruction 1916-1933,” Tooze reflected on the rearrangements in the transatlantic power structure in the aftermath of World War I. Having established itself in the 19th century as the financial center of the world, Europe’s sudden impoverishment by World War I came as a dramatic shock. The ensuing transatlantic crises of the 1920s and early 1930s were not only the most severe, but also the most consequential in the history of Europe and the wider world.
Tooze began by discussing the vast efforts that were made to restore European economies to prewar normality—and in particular, to restore gold and gold-backed currency as the basis of the international financial system—in the immediate aftermath of 1919.
Yet, these efforts culminated not in prosperity but in unprecedented deflation, unemployment and trading disruptions: “The result, by 1933 was a truly catastrophic disintegration, which marks a caesura in the history of capitalism and in world politics. The demons of imperialism, racism and nationalism were unleashed.”
To this day, Tooze pointed out, there is substantial disagreement amongst both social scientists and historians as to the causes of these economic developments. Conventional interpretations view the interwar period either as an era of trans-historic hegemonic succession or as time when global economic cooperation disintegrated, yet Tooze argued that neither account gives adequate importance to the actual impact of World War I. According to Tooze, the war abruptly changed the nature of the international cooperation by laying the foundations of a new world system that centered on the public debt of the major entente allies: Britain, France, Russia, and the United States.
“Within that new system, from 1918 a new game of politicized global finance was played out, a power game in which the United States emerged from November 1916 as the central actor…Once we acknowledge this shift in the functioning of the international financial system, then the politics of that crucial moment in 1931 appear rather different.”
Tooze argued that the political issue of the settlement of war debts played a central role in shaping the groundwork for each nation’s return to the gold standard between 1924 and 1930. Two complementary power plays emerged and began to define what became a “self-equilibrating” system: the strategy of persistent surplus and the strategy of persistent deficit.
According to Tooze, the absence of American influence was crucial in determining Europe’s economic fate during this period. “What was catastrophic was America’s failure to commit to any of its former partners in the war, in leading a joint effort to create a new order.”
These developments hold major lessons for our understanding of world politics today, because many of the current imbalances in the global economy stem from national strategies that resonate strongly with the politics of the interwar era.
The Third Lecture
In his third and final lecture, “Unsettled lands: the interwar crisis of agrarian Europe,” Tooze laid out an ambitious agenda for a new agrarian history of the interwar crisis by drawing on “the strange entangled” micro history of an agrarian cooperative in Wuerttemberg.
Lost in scholars’ preoccupation with the study of the industrial revolution, Tooze reminded us, is the stark fact that until the middle of the twentieth century Europe, like the rest of the world, was majority agrarian. Europe’s agrarian population peaked as late as in the 1930s at roughly 250 million people. Roughly 110 million lived in the Soviet Union while the remainder inhabited the rest of Europe, pursuing occupations as rural laborers, sharecroppers, long-term tenants and peasant proprietors.
The interwar era heralded major shifts and dislocations in the organization of agrarian life in Europe. During this period, “more than in any other sector millions of small scale producers were caught up in the turmoil of early globalization.” Opportunities for migration and movement to industrial work were limited during the interwar period, producing overcrowding and severe distress. Additionally, rural struggles over the distribution of land—in Russia, Italy, Spain, and much of Central and Eastern Europe in the immediate aftermath of World War I—routinely spilled over into violent confrontation.
And yet, Tooze observed, the most influential accounts of the interwar crisis, framed by the industrial and urban world of the later twentieth-century Europe, have tended to ignore these agrarian developments, focusing instead on workers, businessmen, politicians and soldiers.
An alternate approach that studies the ebbs and flows of agrarian life in Europe during the interwar period promises to shed new light on the historical political economy of the period. Tooze’s proposal was to eschew considerations of the “macrostructures of modern history” but to instead delve into a micro history of “the more intimate networks through which the interwar crisis was understood and lived.” His goal was “to reconstruct the experience of structural change, to reconstruct how Europeans came to terms with this trajectory, how they sought to resist, to deflect to shape or to accommodate themselves to it.”
Tooze’s micro history pertained to Haeusern, a tiny Wuerttemberg hamlet containing nine homesteads that was situated 2 kilometers away from the village of Ummendorf, on the rail-line connecting the medieval market town of Biberach to Stuttgart.
“There were thousands of cooperatives across Europe, for all sorts of things, but amongst specialists this unlikely place came to stand in agronomical debates at the mid-century for a special kind of agrarian modernity…It was in fact to become an improbable model for global development policy.”
By delving into the micro history of Haeusern—which is to become the foundation for his latest research agenda— Tooze attempted to illustrate how brining the peasantry “back in” has the potential not only to throw new light on Europe's great epoch of crisis, but to open that history, beyond the “Bloodlands” to the wider world.
Video recordings of these lectures can be found on The Europe Center Lectureship on Europe and the World webpage.
Tooze is the author of The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy (2006) and Statistics and the German State 1900-1945: The Making of Modern Economic Knowledge (2001), among numerous other scholarly articles on modern European history. Tooze’s latest book, The Deluge: The Great War and the Remaking of Global Order 1916-1931, will be released in Summer 2014 in the United Kingdom and in Fall 2014 in the United States.