The Fatuousness of Guilt as an Instrument of Policy

In Europe’s Last Summer, his brilliant book about the origins of World War I, the historian David Fromkin dilates on the seductive beauties of the summer of 1914. It was, he notes, the most gorgeous in living memory. That serene balminess seemed an objective correlative of the rock-solid political and social stability that Europe had enjoyed for decades. Percipient observers might have discerned troubling clouds on the horizon. But there were plenty of soothing voices to point out that the world’s increasing economic interdependence rendered any serious conflict impossible. There had been no war among the Great Powers for nearly half a century, ergo the status quo would persist for decades, maybe forever. There would always be honey then for tea. 

When war did finally break out, it was greeted in many quarters as a lark, a holiday, a deliverance from the tedious routines of everyday life. Yes, there were some cautionary voices. In August 1914, for example, Sir Edward Grey, the British foreign secretary, mournfully predicted, “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our time.” But at that moment, Grey’s was a minority perspective. “We’ll just pop over to France next week and be home by Christmas.” That was the popular refrain. 

In Germany, the mood was triumphalist. Thomas Mann, for example, cheered “the collapse of the hated world of peace, stinking of the corruption of bourgeois-mercantile ‘Civilization’ with its enmity to heroism and genius.” 

Then in September came the first battle of the Marne. Its unprecedented slaughter exacted half a million casualties in a week. It is accounted a great victory for the Allies. But although it halted the German advance, it also paved the way for four years of that butchery by attrition that is trench warfare in the age of total war. 

Cultural Consequences?

The Great War had enormous economic and political consequences, of course. It also had enormous consequences in the realm of cultural endeavor, in the visual arts and literature. It is often said that the primary existential or spiritual effect of the war was disillusionment. Barbara Tuchman, for example, notes in one of her classic studies of the Great War that the war had many results but that the dominant one was “disillusion.” She quotes D. H. Lawrence, who observed, “All the great words were cancelled out for that generation.” Honor, nobility, valor, patriotism, sacrifice, beauty: who could still take such abstractions seriously after the wholesale slaughter of the war?  

But it’s worth interjecting two points. First, it is sometimes said that the Great War, because of its body count, the tactics of its generals, the as-it-turned-out false promise that it was “a war to end all wars,” was therefore meaningless. On the contrary, it was filled with significance. As Fromkin put it at the end of his book, “it was fought to decide the essential questions in international politics: who would achieve mastery in Europe, and therefore in the world, and under the banners of what faith.”

Second, on the matter of culture, it is worth noting that most of the primary innovations in form and sensibility that we associate with that spirit of disillusionment actually predated the war. Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907, ushering in decades of ugliness and assaults on the human form. We haven’t recovered yet. Marinetti’s Manifesto of Futurism, with its gleeful “smear of madness” and apotheosis of speed, technology, war, and violence appeared in 1909. “We want no part of it, the past,” he shouted, giving voice to an entire movement that was sick and tired of bourgeois stability. Stravinsky’s primitivist extravaganza, Le Sacre du printemps—he had thought of calling it “The Victim”—was first performed in Paris to Diaghilev’s carefully staged pseudo-riots in 1913. 

There was a fair amount of posturing involved all around. Recalling Roger Fry’s exhibition of some post-Impressionist painting at the Grosvenor Gallery, Virginia Woolf famously said that “On or about December 1910, human character changed.” That made the punters sit up and take notice. Was it true? It would be impolite to ask.  

If there was a shift in artistic sensibility because of the war, I suspect it had more to do with mood, with the quantum of braggadocio involved, than any formal innovation. Picasso, Marinetti, and early Stravinsky were brash gate crashers. After the war, the brashness evaporated, the energy turned sour. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” T. S. Eliot wrote at the end of The Waste Land, a poem, first published in 1922, whose title and suspended splinters of a shattered civilization seemed to epitomize the somber flirtation with nihilism, impotence, and polysyllabic despair that the Great War left in its wake. 

Such signposts, I think, are pretty familiar. The malicious, anti-art hijinks of Dada, the progenitor of so many bad things, belongs here, as do the strenuous reactions and attempted recuperations of high modernism. What I’d like to do is step back and place the cultural consequences of the war in a broader context. This is where the promised themes of fatuousness and guilt, billboarded in my title, come in. 

Tim Gidal/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A Keynesian Peace

One of the most famous books to emerge in the immediate aftermath of the war was John Maynard Keynes’ Economic Consequences of the Peace. Keynes, the brilliant Bloomsbury economist whom one wit percipiently called “the Nietzsche of Economics,” had been at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 as a representative of the British Treasury. He quit in disgust because he thought the terms of the proposed peace treaty were too harsh. General Christian Smuts, the South African delegate to the Conference, convinced him to write up his objections. The Economic Consequences of the Peace, which might just as well have been called “Let’s Not Be Beastly to the Germans,” was the result. The book is not a novel. But it occupies a place in the hinterland between fact and fiction—of moralistic melodrama, say, what the PR people might call a “docudrama” whose story is sold to us as being “based on a true story.” 

This is not, I know, the usual opinion about this book. On the contrary, The Economic Consequences of the Peace is widely regarded as a prophetic work of genius. Its searing moral indictment of Greed among the Allies and what Keynes described as their cruel and politically foolhardy passion for revenge sing in a chorus to which all the best people belong.  

All of which is to say that The Economic Consequences of the Peace is a classic in the library of liberal handwringing. As such, its contentions are proposed not as arguments but taken-for-granted, inarguable truths about the world, in this case, the historical realities of the post-war settlement and the succeeding political and economic situation.

Think about it. The one thing that everyone knows about the Treaty of Versailles is that, because of the overly harsh terms the Allies imposed upon Germany, it led directly to Hitler and World War II. The Economist in 1999 epitomized this bit of folklore: the “final crime” of the Great War, the unsigned article proclaimed, was the Treaty of Versailles, which “would ensure a second world war.”

As usual, Mark Twain came closer to the truth. It’s not so much the things you don’t know that get you into trouble, Twain may have said, as the things you do know that ain’t so.  

In fact, as the historian Andrew Roberts argues, there are good reasons for believing that the Treaty ought to have been a good deal harsher. Had it divided Germany into two parts, as happened after World War II, or perhaps returned it to its 1870 status of several independent principalities, the world might well have been spared Hitler and the horror of Nazism. There might well have been “no via dolorosa of Rhineland-Anschluss-Sudentenland-Danzig for Europe to walk between 1936 and 1939.”

Roberts cites for support a neglected masterpiece in the history of polemic, Étienne Mantoux’s book The Carthaginian Peace, or The Economic Consequences of Mr. Keynes

Let me introduce you to Monsieur Mantoux. Born in 1913, he was a brilliant French economist. His experience with England started early. He crossed the Channel six times with his family before war broke out in 1914. As a young man, he studied at the London School of Economics as well as in Paris. He joined the French Air Force in 1939 when World War II began. After the fall of France in 1940, he was unable to return to England and so went to Lyons to finish his dissertation. In 1941, he managed to travel on a Rockefeller fellowship to Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, where he wrote, in lapidary English, The Carthaginian Peace. In 1943, he returned to France, rejected the offer of an administrative post, and took up a position flying under General Leclerc. In April 1945, a scant week before Germany’s surrender, he was killed in action outside a Bavarian village. He was 32. 

The “Carthaginian Peace” of Mantoux’s title—what was that? Keynes several times charges that the Allies, and especially the French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, wanted to impose a “Carthaginian Peace” upon the defeated powers, in particular upon Germany. What did he mean? History provides two possibilities. There was the final Carthaginian peace at the end of the Third Punic War. This was the fruit of Cato the Elder’s repeated injunction, Carthago delenda est—“Carthage must be destroyed.” The Romans burned the rival city to the ground, killed or sold into slavery the entire population and, legend has it, salted the fields. Only one bona fide Carthaginian monument from the once-glittering city has come down to us, and that, appropriately enough, is a tomb.

That doesn’t sound like the Treaty of Versailles, does it?  Keynes must have had in mind the other “Carthaginian Peace,” the peace treaty that followed the battle of Zama in 202 B.C. in which Scipio defeated Hannibal. The Romans appropriated most of Carthage’s vessels of war, her overseas possessions, and exacted an indemnity of 4,000 talents. 

Perhaps that is the sort of thing that Keynes had in mind. As far as I know, he never said. But he did charge that the Treaty of Versailles sought “to weaken and destroy Germany in every possible way” and that it was “one of the most outrageous acts of a cruel victor in civilized history.” Those who sign it, he said, “will sign the death sentence of millions of German men, women, and children.” The Germans, he claimed, would never be able to afford the reparations exacted by the Treaty. And as for all the provisions about the Rhineland and other territories, Keynes sniffed that the “perils of the future” lay not in “frontiers or sovereignties” but in “food, coal, and transport.” As an aside, I might mention that Adolf Hitler, for one, would have been surprised to hear that. And the world at large was soon to learn that “frontiers and sovereignties” were very much on the agenda of  “the perils of the future.”

Underwood Archives/Getty Images

Let’s linger over that word “reparations.” Can anyone hear the word straight any longer? Keynes’s book took the word out of normal circulation and invested it with an aura of malignancy and unreality that persists to this day. But Germany started the war, which was fought almost entirely on foreign soil, and, along with the other Central Powers, it inflicted horrendous property damage and killed millions. Why shouldn’t Germany pay? I merely ask. 

Keynes predicted that if the treaty were put into effect, Europe would be threatened with “a long, silent process of semi-starvation, and of a gradual, steady lowering of the standard of living.” But 10 years later, Europe’s production and standard of living were well above the pre-war level. He predicted that the iron and steel output of Germany would diminish, but by 1927 it was producing nearly 30 percent more iron and 38 percent more steel than the record year of 1913. It was the same story with other commodities. Keynes warned that Germany could not afford to spend more than 2 million marks in reparations per year. Hitler, by his own reckoning, spent seven times that much every year from 1933-1939 in rearming Germany. 

And by the way, if you want to see what a genuinely harsh peace treaty looks like, you need only turn to the Brest-Litovsk Treaty that Germany imposed upon the Bolsheviks in 1918. Russia agreed to default on its financial commitments to the Allies. It ceded the Baltic States to Germany, other territory to the Ottoman Empire, and recognized the independence of the Ukraine. Russia also agreed to pay six billion German gold marks in reparations. Hostilities did end, but on terms that one might almost describe as Carthaginian. 

Throughout The Economic Consequences of the Peace, Keynes was careful to don his economist’s hat to supplement the moralist’s mantle. Dilating on the wickedness of reparations, for example, he embroiders his discussion with various technicalities about the difficulties of transnational currency flows. But after 1939, the Germans found that wholesale expropriation, enslavement, and extermination more than overcame these little difficulties in extracting wealth from conquered peoples. 

The idea that France had anything to fear from Germany in the future Keynes described as “a delusion.” It would, he explained, be “many years” before Germany once again cast her eyes Westward. Germany’s future, he said, “lies in the East.” Whew! Everyone can relax. It was almost as reassuring as the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, that “General Treaty for the Renunciation of War as an Instrument of National Policy,” which was signed by 50 countries, including Germany, Italy, and Japan. It was a monument to idealism, no doubt, but lacked the homely wisdom of Catherine the Great’s observation that human skin is more ticklish than paper.

In another work, Keynes famously wrote that “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” Pondering what he wrote about the Treaty of Versailles, I believe I begin to understand what Lord Keynes meant.  

Mea Culpism and Kitsch

In 1929, at the end of the third and final volume of his series on the Great War, Winston Churchill noted that by 1940 there would be twice as many men of military age in Germany as in France. That was the sort of nubbly fact that prompted Clemenceau to observe, “We do not have to beg pardon for our victory.” But that is precisely what Keynes wanted the Allies to do. One of the most notorious passages of the Treaty of Versailles was clause 231, the so-called “War Guilt” clause, which required Germany and her allies to accept responsibility for all the damage and loss of life the war caused. Keynes in effect reversed the direction of the guilt and, in an access of sentimentality that will be familiar to contemporary students of political correctness, made the perpetrators appear to be the victims and vice versa.  

Mantoux aptly calls this transvaluation of values “mea culpism.” It’s an apt phrase. “Long before Hitler had made his appearance on the European scene,” he notes sardonically, “mea culpists were agitating for revision of the Treaty.” He continued:

When concession after concession on the part of the Allies had finally been rewarded, most properly, by the National-Socialist Revolution, they never tired of complaining that Hitler was the consequence of Versailles and of the outrageous treatment meted out to the German Republic. But from that time onwards, they became more reluctant to see their Governments acceding to Germany’s new moves. If only it had not been Hitler! How distressing to have to grant the demands of that bad man, when there were so many others to whom they could have conceded without the slightest inconvenience! But still . . . it had to be done. Versailles, you see. And if anyone was likely to forget it, Hitler would soon remind him. Abuse of the “Diktat” was a favourite gag in his grandiose nerve-war. But now his invective sounded in many ears like some ghastly echo from The Economic Consequences of the Peace. 

Munich, as Mantoux points out, represented the apex of mea culpism. But there were many smaller peaks. The fate of Czechoslovakia, for example. Hitler gobbled up the richest bit of it in 1938. Whitehall was distressed, Paris worried. Apologies abounded. But they counted for very little in the scale overbalanced by paralyzing mea culpism. Besides, what happened in Czechoslovakia was only a matter of frontiers and sovereignties. And had not the great Keynes taught us that the real perils of the future lay not in frontiers or sovereignties, but in food, coal, and transport? 

“Mankind,” Mantoux, observed, “is not a philanthropic institution.” But the mea culpism of Keynes and other well-meaning liberal sages seems compelling only on the basis of a gigantic sentimentality about mankind, a faith in the goodness of man that would be touching were its results not so predictably malignant. 

PHAS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

In a remarkable book called Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age, the historian Modris Eksteins anatomizes the metabolism of the sentimentality that underwrites Keynes’ embrace of guilt as an instrument of policy. Eksteins shows how sentimentality and a species of extravagant mythmaking mark points of contact between avant-garde culture and burgeoning totalitarianism. 

The key lies in the aestheticization of life: treating life, that is to say, as if it were a work of art devoid of human reality. As the historian Carl Schorske put it in his classic study of fin-de siècle Vienna, “the usual moralistic culture of the European bourgeoisie was . . . both overlaid and undermined by an amoral [Gefühlskultur] sentimental culture.” This revolution in sensibility amounted to a crisis of morality—what the novelist Hermann Broch called a “value vacuum”—that quickly precipitated a crisis in liberal cultural and political life. “Narcissism and a hypertrophy of the life of feeling were the consequence,” Schorske wrote. “The threat of the political mass movements lent new intensity to this already present trend by weakening the traditional liberal confidence in its own legacy of rationality, moral law, and progress. Art became transformed from an ornament to an essence, from an expression of value to a source of value.”

It is in this sense, as Eksteins notes, that the Weimar period, from 1918 to 1933, and the Third Reich, from 1933 to 1945, are “stages in a process” that began with the cultural underpinnings of the Great War. “Nazi kitsch,” he notes, “may bear a blood relationship to the highbrow religion of art proclaimed by many moderns.” It is here, I believe, that we touch upon some of the most telling consequences of the Great War in terms of culture.  

Let’s pause to consider the word “kitsch.” The word itself is mysterious. It seems to have its origins in the Munich art world of the late 19th century. But its etymology is controverted. One suggestion is that it is a German corruption of the English word “sketch.” Visiting tourists would ask for a quick drawing to take home as a souvenir. The result was called “kitsch.” 

But what is kitsch? A species of bad, overly sentimental art—art that is bad precisely because it is sentimental. That is a first answer. But what does it mean to be “sentimental” in this sense? We may tend to think of sentimentality as extravagantly intense or overpowering emotion. Really, though, it is a kind of false or manufactured feeling. Its intensity is a sign of its spuriousness. “Sentimentality,” the poet Wallace Stevens observed, “is a failure of feeling.” 

The sentimentality of kitsch is a sign of its falseness. But it is also a sign of its extravagance. Kitsch is a response to a failure or distintegration of cultural values. When the world no longer speaks meaningfully to us, we shout into the void and pretend the echoes come from on high.  

The grandiosity of kitsch is in proportion to the existential poverty out of which it arose. Whole books have been devoted to the subject of Nazi kitsch. But the phenomenon is not confined to preposterous images of Hitler in gleaming armor astride a white steed and the like. It went much deeper. It was the aestheticizing, not just of politics, but of existence as a whole. “The German everyday shall be beautiful,” insisted one Nazi motto. 

The Moral Failure of Kitsch

Which brings us to the curiously amphibious nature of kitsch. Kitsch lives with one foot in the realm of aesthetics and another foot in the realm of ethics. Which is why to say that something is kitsch is to utter a judgment that is moral as well as aesthetic. The failure of kitsch is not just an artistic failing. There is an ethical dimension as well. Hermann Broch identifies kitsch as “the element of evil in the value system of art” and notes that “kitsch” describes not only certain works of art but also a certain attitude towards life. “He who produces kitsch,” Broch writes, “is not someone who produces art of meagre value. He is not someone of little or no talent. He is definitely not to be judged according to the standard of aesthetics but is ethically depraved; he is a criminal who wills radical evil.”

That may seem hyperbolic. But Broch understands that the project of kitsch rests on the effort to counterfeit life, to replace reality with a species of narcissistic fantasy. Modris Eksteins does not mention Broch in Rites of Spring. But his understanding of the link between kitsch and evil is similar to Broch’s analysis. Kitsch is a malignant sentimentalization of reality in response to massive cultural failure, in response, that is to say, to a fundamental disintegration of values. 

Universal Images Group via Getty Images

I noted earlier the contention that one dominant response to the Great War was “disillusion” and a repudiation of principles named by such lofty abstractions as honor, patriotism, virtue, and beauty. It is easy to find examples of that solvent at work. But in another sense, the response to the war, especially on the continent, and most particularly in Germany, was just the opposite: it was what we might call the reenchantment of the world by means of a wholesale embrace of empty abstractions. The reenchantment was malign, to be sure, but it was also thoroughgoing. Nazism was one such effort. It was, as Eksteins puts it, “an attempt to lie beautifully to the German nation and to the world.” 

This is where kitsch comes in. “The beautiful lie,” Eksteins writes, is

the essence of kitsch. Kitsch is a form of make-believe, a form of deception. It is an alternative to a daily reality that would otherwise be spiritual vacuum. . . . Kitsch replaces ethics with aesthetics. . . . Nazism was the ultimate expression of kitsch, of its mind-numbing, death-dealing portent. Nazism, like kitsch, masqueraded as life; the reality of both was death. The Third Reich was the creation of “kitsch men,” people who confused the relationship between life and art, reality and myth, and who regarded the goal of existence as mere affirmation, devoid of criticism, difficulty, insight.

It is important to note that the kitsch of Nazism was not only for committed Nazis. As Mantoux observes, “the German people, as a whole, . . .  has been a willing, active, and satisfied partner—so long as things went well.” Before Hitler’s podium at those early rallies, the historian Joachim Fest observed, “the masses actually celebrated themselves.” This, I think, is what Eksteins meant when he said that Hitler, the avid painter and devotee of Wagner, was a “creature of the German imagination rather than . . .  of social and economic forces. . . He was a mental construct in the midst of defeat and failure. The ultimate kitsch artist, he filled the abyss with symbols of beauty.”

Eksteins concludes his book with a harrowing example of this malevolent deployment of kitsch. In the final days of the war, when the Russians were closing in on Berlin, most of the Nazi high command retreated to Hitler’s underground bunker. On May 1, Josef Goebbels had his six children injected with morphine. When they were unconscious, his wife Magda and Hitler’s personal doctor crushed ampules of cyanide in their mouths.  

A few days earlier, Magda wrote a farewell letter to Harald Quandt, a son by a previous marriage. “Our splendid concept,” she wrote, 

is perishing and with it goes everything beautiful, admirable, noble and good that I have known in my life. The world which will succeed the Führer and National Socialism is not worth living in and for this reason I have brought the children here too. They are too good for the life that will come after us . . . Harald, my dear—I give you the best that life has taught me: be true—true to yourself, true to mankind, true to your country—in every respect whatsoever.

What can one say in response to this nauseating performance? The kitsch, as Eksteins observed, “continued to the very end.”

Near the end of The Carthaginian Peace, Étienne Mantoux recalls the remark of a New York taxi driver who said that the war would last longer than the duration. No one would have believed it in August 1914. But, as is so often the case, the paradoxical turned out to be true. 


Get the news corporate media won't tell you.

Get caught up on today's must read stores!

By submitting your information, you agree to receive exclusive AG+ content, including special promotions, and agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms. By providing your phone number and checking the box to opt in, you are consenting to receive recurring SMS/MMS messages, including automated texts, to that number from my short code. Msg & data rates may apply. Reply HELP for help, STOP to end. SMS opt-in will not be sold, rented, or shared.