Letters to the Editor - February 2012
A selection of readers' correspondence with the editor, Paul Lay.
Share your thoughts with the readers of History Today.
Email firstname.lastname@example.org, or post to
25 Bedford Avenue
The Limits of Versailles
Versailles can only have ‘sowed the seeds of further conflict’ if it could have done otherwise. In Germany: a New Carthage (January 2012) Antony Lentin says nothing to challenge Margaret MacMillan’s judgement that ‘when war came in 1939, it was a result of 20 years of decisions taken or not taken, not of arrangements made in 1919’. So what else could have been done with Germany? Nothing Keynes wanted. Lentin pins on him ‘the psychological consequences of the peace’. But surely these can be summarised in two words, Hitler myth, about the plucky chappy who redeemed Germany’s lost power and gave two fingers to those who had stitched up the Reich.
Lentin accepts that Germany’s power was not lost. Even though its warmongering government had gone, the Versailles parties knew it wasn’t. The key figure who said Germany would be back was Field Marshal Foch. But when the Allied talks slipped into breakdown and the main parties were forced to think again about the positions they had taken up, Foch, the soldier, had to be shut up by the civilian power of France. At the end the Allies found the perfect role for him. When Germany wouldn’t sign, they sent him off to restart the war. In Berlin a new government appeared overnight, the Reichstag voted to accept and Foch was called home.
German compliance far exceeded the power of the Allies to exact it. By what criteria of success was it a failure to have kept a later war machine away from the Saar and its coal until 1935? That the tide had been held back is proved by its population’s nine to one vote, in the treaty-enshrined plebiscite, to rejoin Germany.
No power could have preserved France’s long-term security 15 years before. Nobody doubted how dearly Allied troops had paid for the Armistice. That Keynes’ fellow back-seat driver, General Smuts, called for appeasement from strength did not make it any more so than it later became. In 1919 it would have made sense only if the military destruction of Germany on its own soil had been a possibility. By the time the little corporal had had his turn, it was. The unavoidable military overwhelming of Germany in 1944-45 had seeds in the outcome of the First World War, but not the cobbled together calculations of Versailles.
On the contrary, the treaty was a step on the way to the civilising of great military power, so recklessly set back by America and Britain at the turn of this century. It was taken under the leadership of four difficult, fallible, elected, civilian leaders in order to cement a political victory against a regime so violent and anti-democratic that, had it won the war, Hitler’s aims would have been fulfilled without the need of his services.
East Dulwich, London
More to Malcolm
I am so glad that I am not one of the students whom Peter Ling is misinforming about Malcolm X (Media Made Malcolm, January 2012). Of course Malcolm changed – from a parentless petty street criminal in a United States suffused with racial discrimination, to a speaker at an Oxford Union debate. Not many of us can make such a transition, which demonstrates not only his intellect but his psychological strength. He was not made by the media any more than other political figures are. Malcolm died not as a civil rights leader but as someone struggling for human rights. He accused America of ‘dollarism’ during his extensive travels in Africa. There he met presidents and prime ministers, most of whom were at that time calling themselves socialists. He was going in a new direction, he stated, but it was not yet quite clear to him. No wonder he had to be killed. Perhaps Ling should read my Malcolm X: Visits Abroad April 1964 – February 1965 (UK: Savannah Press 2010; USA: Tsehai Publishers, 2011).
Institute of Commonwealth Studies
University of London
The fact that Joan of Arc was burned alive by the English (Months Past, January 2012) certainly colours a factual review of her life and death but it does raise the question of why such a revolting act was meted out to a captured military leader bearing in mind the medieval practices of ransom and occasional chivalry. Was Joan being a woman sufficient reason?
Not being a professional historian with a specialised knowledge of early 15th-century war in France I had hesitated to comment but if the article on Germany after the First World War can turn the Versailles treaty on its head then surely the manner of Joan’s death requires revision. It is true that Richard Cavendish refers to Joan being condemned by an ecclesiastical court and tried for heresy, but by the English? My recollection of recent French historical comment is that French priests and the Sorbonne were heavily involved in her prosecution, including the intimate examination to prove that she was a woman. Certainly the burning has more religious overtones than military.
Now that the world spends over a trillion and a half US dollars a year on its military, the terms of Nobel’s Peace Prize will are, pace Martin Jenkins, (Letters, January 2012) as relevant as ever. They are brief and clear enough:
One part to the person who shall have done the most or best work for brotherhood between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.
Martin Jenkins suggests that brother-hood between nations can only be interpreted as meaning brotherhood between individual sovereign states. Why? Nobel’s main interest was the elimination of all war. There are and always have been more nations than sovereign states. Executors have to interpret wills according to the intentions of the testator as evident at the time when the will was made.
What about the other two neglected clauses in the will: peace congresses and armies? Why no prize for the organisers of the series of European Nuclear Disarmament conferences in the 1980s? Or the Hague Centenary conference in 1999? Or the annual international peace gatherings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Nobel had the organisers of events like these in mind. The Nobel Committee has ignored them.
Standing armies? There are today nearly 20 countries without them, Costa Rica being the best known. Were the promoters of such not worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize?
Some recipients of the prize have undoubtedly been people who have done good things for humanity. The promotion of human rights and the protection of the environment are worthy causes though not the ones Nobel had in mind.
Some recipients have been awarded the Peace Prize for clear political reasons, including President Obama. A few prizes, but not many, have been given to people who do fit the actual terms of the will
Fredrik Heffermehl is right. Those responsible, as the executors of Nobel’s will, have not done their duty to respect his wishes. It is time they did.
Movement for the Abolition of War