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The Deluge: The Great War and the Remaking of the Global Order - Another Bold Geo-analysis of Adam Tooze

Updated on August 1, 2019

There has been debate about whether the First World War truly deserves its title of being the First World War - after all, prior to it there had been wars that had stretched over the extent of the entire world before, such as the War of Spanish Succession, the Napoleonic Wars, and the Seven Years' War. Yet as mighty as those conflicts had been; even they did not command the title of The Great War among their shocked contemporaries, or the War to End all Wars. The First World War was so terrible in its bloodletting and so tremendous in its cost that for a time it seemed that it would put paid to the prospect of all wars to come. What tragedy that these dreams of peace would be built on foundations of shifting sand, and that the The War to End all Wars would in the end become but an antecedent to an altogether more destructive and terrible conflict!

For the First World War, as Adam Tooze lays out in his book "The Deluge: the Great War and the Remaking of the Global Order" fundamentally transformed the global political arena and the structure of global power, in a way which it has never fully overcome and continues to be defined by to this very day - the economic might of the United States provincializing and transforming into satellites the once great European empires, This book is at its heart a story about the way in which the United States became the preeminent world power, one won by its economic and diplomatic involvement in the First World War.


The book is split up into multiple sections, starting with the introduction, laying out that WW1 sparked a profound crisis in world affairs, which would be grappled with by a host of different leaders ranging from Hitler to Churchill to Trotsky. In this order, there were have, and have-not nations, and the latter set themselves up as insurgents against an Anglo-Saxon dominated world order, explained alternatively by a "dark continent" belief of a reactionary old Europe, and by the failure of Wilsonian internationalism, but which really owe their origin to a radical new form of global political organization and competition according to Tooze.

The first section of the book, "The Eurasian Crisis", covers the First World War itself, with some of the vast military mobilization involved but above all else the political economy of war, and the attempts of US President Woodrow Wilson to make peace on American terms, met with a failure to reciprocate on the part of the Germans. The Russian Revolution led to the Russians' own efforts at peace, which also failed - dooming the tentative attempt at Russian democracy.

One can detect very well the agony at what might have been in regards to the desperate attempts of the Russian Revolutionaries to secure peace, foiled by the Germans, Entente, and Americans.
One can detect very well the agony at what might have been in regards to the desperate attempts of the Russian Revolutionaries to secure peace, foiled by the Germans, Entente, and Americans.

China too, tried its hand at democracy, but here the United States proved no more willing to support it, with a vast gap between US rhetoric and US physical support, while Japan attempted to cement its control over China. In the North, the treaty of Brest-Litovsk brought Russia out of the war in the follow-up from the October Revolution, but the political possibilities of this new form of neo-colonialism in the East and national sovereignty were put paid by German clumsiness and Central Powers weakness, condemning it to immediate discredit. This meant that in effect Lenin's Soviet regime in Russia was collaborating with the Germans, leading to the intervention of the Western Allies - not to crush communism, but rather to attempt to prevent Russia from falling under the German yoke. Lenin catastrophically misread this and drew yet closer to the Germans, but he was saved by the sudden collapse of Germany.

Armistice celebrations in 1918
Armistice celebrations in 1918

Winning a Democratic Victory

The politics of victory were even more complicated than those of war, as the intense commitments mobilized for the conflict had brought crisis to the British Empire and driven France to the breaking point - although also re energized France as part of a coalition of free republics against Germany, under the vigorous leadership of Clemenceau and for Britain firmly established its efforts to forge itself as a liberal empire. Entente victory had been bought by the economic mobilization of the United States, which had itself radically transformed the country. The United States' entrance into the war however, gave it a seat at the post-war table, and Germany threw itself on its mercies, enabling Wilson to define the atmosphere of the peace. This would be constrained however, by disunity in the post-war left, preventing them from being able to forge a progressive internal consensus that could repair the damage of war on their own terms: instead, if the United States did not support the battered Entente economies, Germany would have to pay for the war. And of course, the United States would not, and the post-war League of Nations immediately failed to solve the many pressing problems of reconstruction, armaments, and security, as the various sides involved were incapable of coming up with a satisfactory vision. The Versailles Treaty had to deal above all else with leaving Germany intact, a lodestone around the system that to some extent respected German sovereignty - in stark contrast to 1648, 1815, or 1945 - but which placed a time bomb at its heart. The post-war order in Europe would face tremendous pressures from Germany, Poland, Italy, and the Balkans, while intense controversy over Japan's claims to territory in China and its attempts to secure racial equality for itself put the post-war order off to a bad start in East Asia. In the United States itself, Wilson failed to pass the Versailles treaty, and internally the US faced immense division over the war and the economic crisis following from it, and the United States would increasingly withdraw from international affairs in a moment of profound global crisis.

The new borders of post-war Europe.
The new borders of post-war Europe.

The Search for a New Order

The 1920 depression and its aftermath ironically helped to stabilize the post-war situation in some ways, neutering the left across the industrialized world Deflation and fiscal austerity, as well as reconstruction, meant that the French and British needed to get reparations from Germany, desperately needed too in order to pay American war loans. Britain too, faced an imperial crisis, with global colonial resistance from Ireland, to India, to the Middle East (where it faced the prospect of open war with Turkey), undermining the vision of a liberal empire that it had promoted.It was in this context that the need for retrenchment made itself clear, helping to lead to a major naval armaments conference in Washington, which also marked a moment of attention paid to China, intent on restoring its sovereignty and place in the world in a moment of Western weakness. Another nation which was taking advantage of the post-war situation was Russia under its new socialist government, which attempted its vast leap to the West in a conquest of Poland and linking up with German revolutionaries - which failed, and which was accompanied with splits in the international socialist movement and the turn towards a Russo-centric international communist movement that would lead to socialism in one country. Failure of the Revolution in Europe would also lead to interest in fomenting it in China, a substantial step down from the dreams of world revolution. It was accompanied too by a drift towards a capitalist New Economic Policy, and accommodation with the West, showing the tremendous weakness of the new Soviet state. The British attempted to take advantage of this with a program to reintegrate the USSR into a vast program of international reconstruction based on German investment that would solve the German economic crisis, enable payment of reparations to France and Britain, and hence the repayment of war debts in the US, but this failed - instead, the USSR turned independently towards Germany. another great blow to the post-war peace settlement. The UK's post-war initiative and leading position in Europe would be lost. France tried to restate the stalling reparations from Germany through occupation of the Ruhr, and while this succeeded in gaining reparations profits, it came at tremendous political cost and the French were unwilling to break fully with the British and Americans. Subsequently, the American-proposed Dawes plan was implemented to attempt to stabilize the European situation with American loans to Germany that enabled the Germans to pay reparations to France and Britain who paid their war debts to America - Subsequent economic battles would attempt to stabilize the British and French economies, succeeding to a greater or lesser extent, This was accompanied by an attempt to provide for European security with the Locarno pact, and to limit arms with a new naval treaty - but the problems of the Soviet Union and China were never to be solved, as revolutionary agitation mounted in China and led to the victory of the KMT, the Chinese Nationalists. This system had however survived, with blows, for some 10 years since Versailles - it all crumbled when the great depression struck the US, and the economic house of cards came tumbling down and the world was plunged into chaos. Last-minute, frantic efforts to solve issues of reparations and war debts came to naught, and the bloody decade of the 1930 came into being in the collapsing wreckage of the post-war order.

The conclusion notes that WW1 and its aftermath was a radical new era in history, the first global alliance of liberal powers to manage the peace, and their failure would mean incalculable damage and loss in the conflicts stemming from this. Their failure can be in much part blamed on the United States, which failed to take up the mantle of the centerpiece of the new post-war order. It would only be decades later that the vast might of the United States would assume its stabilizing position at the heart of a world order - the one which we continue to live in to this day.

A Compelling and Sweeping Work

Adam Tooze is best known for his excellent work on the Nazi German economy, in his influential and widely cited Wages of Destruction. This book is oft-cited and utilized on forums devoted to the Second World War, a role which it rightfully deserves in light of its capability to provide both a great amount of information about the German war economy, and yet to also provide a readable and compelling format into which the story is woven.Certainly not to be underestimated is the emphasis on the "making" part of examining the Nazi war economy: it presents a convincing argument about the environment which formed the Nazis, in the context of the have and have-not nations of the world, where for the Germans to be able to form an economy capable of competing with the vast size of the United States and British Empires, they had to secure their own economy of vast spaces in expansion. Tooze feels home above all else in being able to look at and show vast plans like this, to truly understand and grasp a political economy, and this shows itself very well in The Deluge.

Too many vast global histories either become boring and dry, or by contrast popular history books which do little to give real depth and analysis to the events that they throw at the reader as smoke and mirrors, dazzling his eyes to distract from their lack of real essence. The Deluge certainly does not lack for size, but it does a much better job of looking at the details of the conflict, with huge reams of fact and detailed information, particularly about Tooze's favorite subject of finance and economy, but also plentiful more about politics and diplomatic maneuvering. This is a book which tells a tale of tremendous global political change, as different nations struggled to form new policies to deal with dramatic changes, to either resist or come to terms with the new giant of the age in the United States, and the United States sought to shape the terms of its engagement with the world and the great accomplishment of the book is driving this home and showing the way in which it both succeeded and failed in creating a new world order.

The sheer size and scale of Tooze's volume and the familiarity with which he treats its huge scope of subjects is astonishing. Dealing with America, Europe, the heart of Eurasia in the vast territories of Russia, the Far East, and a host of colonized territories stretching from the Middle East to India is a monumental task. It is one which I think Tooze copes well with, seeing it in the light of the new international politics of self-determination, the logic of the Great War, following the United States as the new central protagonist in this affair, albeit one which grants important agency to other nations. Much of the work is based on the narrative of the entrance of the United States into the war, and the complex diplomatic dance as Wilson tried to secure American interests and dominance in a world, based on his ideal of peace without victory. This serves to unite together this vast sketch, but it is the ability to write this as a dramatic event, to give color to it with portrayals of the huge amounts of force and the vast movements of power, finance, people, which drives it.

For the book is much concerned and is driven by the strategies and goals of a key cast of figures - Lloyd George, Clemenceau, Lenin, and above all else Woodrow Wilson stand out from the fray, although there are many others along the way. Wilson is in particular the star of the story, and here Tooze's fiercely contrarian look at Wilson, viewing him not as a starry-eyed idealist and universalist but rather as devoted to a policy which would leave the United States as the undisputed world leader and to a rather limited, gradualist view of democracy which stood in stark contrast to any global and rapid pretensions - not for Wilson any idea of suddenly transplanting democracy to nations, but instead a firm commitment to gradual change. This forms the context for a narrative of missed opportunities and grappling for position between the Entente (divided into the Russians and the French and British), the Americans, and the Germans, as they all tried to pursue competing strategies, and missed out on diplomatic offers left by the others sides. The logic of war which led to

Insurgents against the Global Order?

But Tooze's style and material falls down in its own way, for his clear and deliberate opening stresses something above all else - that the chaos of the First World War's ending and the stark new realities of global power produced politicians who acted, and saw themselves as, insurgents against the global order, with small resources compared to the vast Anglo-Saxon empires and fighting to ensure that the "proletarian nations" of the Earth - themselves - could have a fair share of the spoils of resources and power. And yet there is little in this book which delves into this development, and it is really only in the other renowned book of Tooze, The Wages of Destruction, that this comes into account. This dangling beginning may pique interest, but it lets the reader down. Indeed, the entire "revisionist" nature of the book can seem a bit hollow sometimes - it opposes both Wilsonian and "Dark Europe" history supposedly, yet calls for American intervention to a greater extent (although critiquing Wilson on some grounds, if not always enough on others such as internal policies where he gets off lightly for certain ones), and fascist European (and Japanese) leaders were animated by the need to rebuild their position to deal with the rise of a powerful new nation espousing different ideals - hardly that different from what the "Dark Europe" school would have premised, even if with different objectives and trimmings.

Too Broadly Spread?

I suspect that this may be due to Tooze's writing style, which while I like it, does jump around a great deal and hence run the risk of not providing a consistent narrative. It has been noted elsewhere that there are a fair number of errors and poor editing in the book, which doubtless further amplified this.

A further omission is that the book notes that the impact of the 1920 depression has been very much understated. However, it never goes into explaining why exactly the 1920 depression merits such attention, and this affair seems to garner little interest on the part of Tooze. Indeed, this is a jarring and discomforting part of the book: after the intent and lengthy detail devoted to the Great War, and the problems of global reconstruction in its aftermath, it suddenly rushes through the entire decade of the 1920s, only occasionally alighting upon occasional crises and events that peak up through the clouds of disinterest. Certainly, the post-war era could hardly be covered or need the same amount of detail as the war itself, but the sudden and stark transition leads to a neglect of the transformations wrought by the war in these years, preferring to wait for the easier pickings of the Great Depression when the world economy itself collapsed and the wheel of history once again began its dolorous spin. Having completed his work on the First World War, Tooze is eager to guide the reader quickly forwards to the subject of his other study, the Second World War and Nazi Germany, and little interested in pausing along the way.

Furthermore it must be remembered that Tooze's book is inherently one of grand strategy and politics: the look at the lives and lot of common people is all but nill. Instead, its focus is on the top policy leaders, what their strategies were, and what their historical - from Wilson's Southern upbringing with its firm conviction of the danger of war stemming from the end of the US Civil War, to Clemenceau's republicanism and trip to the United States as a young man and his firm belief in human universality.

The number of books written about the Great War are seemingly nigh-infinite, their serried legions appearing to reach the number of bayonets pointed skywards in their serried ranks from the troops sent off to fight and die in its dreadful trenches and battlefields across the world. No single book can convincingly, I am sure, hope to cover all of it. However, The Deluge: The Great War and the Remaking of the Global Order is one which does more than its fair share of providing a look into the developments of the political economy of the war, overturning stale and reused myths about the political struggle for the future of the international system that infused it, and grasping the momentous economic apparatus that kept it fueled and going. The magisterial width and depth of Tooze's work delights once again, and this is a book which anybody interested in the strategy and grand scope of the Great War would do well to read, and anybody who wishes to look at the pivotal moment in the shaping of the modern world system and the rise of American dominance in it, to well understand.

4 stars for The Great War and the Remaking of the World Order

© 2019 Ryan C Thomas


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