I’ve referred previously to Brendan Simms’ History of Europe when trying to understand Brexit: the UK has always been on the edge of Europe and hasn’t been In or Out since sea travel enabled the creation of Empires from 1492 onwards. But our position isn’t the crux of his thesis, which looks at the evolution of Germany from a collection of states in the Holy Roman Empire to a unified force by 1871, and the reaction of other Powers to its coalescence. The clearest reaction was in the Treaty of Versailles, signed in 1919, which removed part of Germany’s productive capacity (the Saarland) while at the same time demanding it pay reparations for the cost of the war amounting to £284bn in to-day’s money.
The treaty started out with good intent, directed by Woodrow Wilson and informed by experts who aimed for free trade, national self-determination and a Parliament in the form of the League of Nations. But national self-interest altered it substantially, and chief among those was France. As John Maynard Keynes, in The Economic Consequences of the Peace put it:
“So far as possible, therefore, it was the policy of France to set the clock back and undo what, since 1870, the progress of Germany had accomplished. By loss of territory and other measures her population was to be curtailed; but chiefly the economic system, upon which she depended for her new strength, the vast fabric built upon iron, coal, and transport must be destroyed.”
We all know how the sense of injustice engendered by this agreement was used by Hitler, even after it had been suspended. I wonder if history is, at least in part, about to repeat itself?
We don’t know the details, nor have the principles been set out yet,of the amount that we will pay the EU when we leave. But what must be achieved is fairness. Or else we may be reading something like this (in “A History of the World Trade Wars?):
“So far as possible, therefore, it was the policy of France to set the clock back and undo what, since 1973, the progress of Britain had accomplished. By loss of membership and other measures her reputation as a global power was to be curtailed; but chiefly the economic system, upon which she depended for her renewed strength, the vast fabric built upon financial services, media, technology and innovation must be destroyed.”
Seems clear from Blighty, but the problem is that Georges Clemenceau lost power for failing to be strong enough in these negotiations. As we enter Advent I wonder if Germany, or a coalition of smaller powers, will follow the guiding light to the stable of fairness and witness the nativity of a hopeful new world order?