November 03, 2018

What the lessons of 1918 can teach today’s world leaders

‘No other ideology has the emotive power of nationalism. But using it in moderation is tricky’


  Simon Kuper NOVEMBER 1, 2018 185

The train carriage is straight from the golden age of rail travel. Commissioned in 1913, wagon 2419D of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits had a dining car with mahogany walls. By November 11 1918, it was the French marshal Ferdinand Foch’s mobile office, parked in the forests outside Compiègne, in northern France. Eight French, German and British men spent that night in strange intimacy around its small wooden table, smoking and studying France’s punitive peace terms. Foch had refused to negotiate: the Germans could sign the proposed Armistice or leave. At 5.12am the German Catholic politician Matthias Erzberger signed, then said, “A nation of 70 million suffers but does not die.” Foch still wouldn’t shake hands. France repeated its humiliation of Germany in the peace talks at Versailles in 1919. After that, Foch remarked (at least according to Winston Churchill), “This isn’t a peace. It is an armistice for 20 years.” So it proved. In 1940, Hitler made France surrender in the same wagon (with the French now sitting in the Erzberger delegation’s seats), then had Compiègne’s monuments dynamited. Only Foch’s statue was left standing to oversee the wasteland. The Armistice of 1918 is a model for how not to treat other countries. The historian Margaret MacMillan points out that Germany’s humiliation didn’t mechanically cause the second world war: there were 20 years in-between. Still, visiting Compiègne, you inevitably think of contemporary parallels. Here are some lessons for world leaders gathering in Paris next week to commemorate 1918: • In international relations, treat even your opponents like long-term business partners. You will meet again, and if you hurt them for short-term gain, they won’t forget. Donald Trump should take note, but it’s also something that worries European leaders about Brexit: they are wary of imposing a “Versailles humiliation” on Britain. • Nationalist passions are easy to excite and hard to put back in the bottle. One reason Foch punished Germany — initially demanding that it hand over more weapons than it actually possessed — was that French voters wanted some recompense for four years of death. No other ideology has the emotive power of nationalism. (Few people will give their lives for liberalism, say.) Any politician will therefore be tempted to tap this power. But using it in moderation is tricky. • A humiliated country will look for scapegoats — and some people will jump from angry words to violence. Erzberger had no choice but to sign the Armistice. His country was in turmoil: after the Kaiser’s abdication on November 9, a communist revolution looked feasible. Germany’s new civilian leaders and General Paul von Hindenburg all sent telegraphs urging him to sign. But the moment he signed, he became the designated scapegoat. A year later, Hindenburg lamented, “As an English general has very truly said, the German Army was ‘stabbed in the back’.” A legend was born: Germany would have won the war if the “November criminals” hadn’t betrayed it. Now the back-stabbers had to be punished. Erzberger “may be as round as a bullet, but he is not bullet-proof”, wrote the Tägliche Rundschau newspaper. In 1921 he was murdered by far-right terrorists at a spa resort. The historian Paul Fussell, summing up Thomas Keneally’s novel about the Armistice, Gossip From The Forest, wrote: “The twentieth century will not tolerate Matthias Erzbergers. They are civilised, and they are sane.” • Prosperity is fragile. Hitler had that splendid wagon 2419D carted back to Berlin, where it was exhibited at the Lustgarten. It probably burned down accidentally near Gotha in April 1945. Only the wagon’s metal chassis survived. Postwar East Germany didn’t make much stuff to the standards of 1913, so for 30 years the chassis was used to move goods at Gotha station, before it finally broke. The wagon on display in Compiègne today is another from the same prewar series. • Wars beget wars. Foch helped beget Hitler; the Middle Eastern borders drawn at Versailles helped beget today’s conflicts in the region; the Korean war isn’t dead yet either, and the American civil war lives on as a north-south culture clash. Yet walking around Compiègne’s 1914–18 museum, with its signs in French, German and English, the Franco-German conflicts feel as remote as the Punic wars. Today, these may be the two neighbouring countries on earth least likely to fight each other. That’s largely the achievement of postwar European co-operation. Still, peace in the region cannot remain the EU’s selling point. Precisely because Europeans have come to take peace for granted, they now (rightly) ask: “What have you done for me lately?” • Absence of war is always a political achievement. For the sake of neatness, the Armistice took force on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. In the five-plus hours between signing and ceasefire, an estimated 2,738 men died. The last, the American Henry Gunther, fell at 10.59am while spontaneously charging German lines. I imagined the dead joining us on our wander around Compiègne. They would have marvelled at how fat we have become, and how long and well we live. But we take all that for granted now.

Simon Kuper will be speaking at Kilkenomics Festival on November 9 and 10 about Brexit, the politics of sport and also the return of strong man economics If you are a subscriber and would like to receive alerts when Simon’s articles are published, just click the button

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