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A Short History of the World
> 67. The Political and Social Reconstruction of the World
A Short History of the World.
The Political and Social Reconstruction of the World
and scale upon which this History is planned do not permit us to enter into the complicated and acrimonious disputes that centre about the treaties, and particularly of the treaty of Versailles, which concluded the Great War. We are beginning to realize that that conflict, terrible and enormous as it was, ended nothing, began nothing and settled nothing. It killed millions of people; it wasted and impoverished the world. It smashed Russia altogether. It was at best an acute and frightful reminder that we were living foolishly and confusedly without much plan or foresight in a dangerous and unsympathetic universe. The crudely organized egotisms and passions of national and imperial greed that carried mankind into that tragedy, emerged from it sufficiently unimpaired to make some other similar disaster highly probable so soon as the world has a little recovered from its war exhaustion and fatigue. Wars and revolutions make nothing; their utmost service to mankind is that, in a very rough and painful way, they destroy superannuated and obstructive things. The great war lifted the threat of German imperialism from Europe, and shattered the imperialism of Russia. It cleared away a number of monarchies. But a multitude of flags still waves in Europe, the frontiers still exasperate, great armies accumulate fresh stores of equipment.
The Peace Conference at Versailles was a gathering very ill adapted to do more than carry out the conflicts and defeats of the war to their logical conclusions. The Germans, Austrians, Turks and Bulgarians were permitted no share in its deliberations; they were only to accept the decisions it dictated to them. From the point of view of human welfare the choice of the place of meeting was particularly unfortunate. It was at Versailles in 1871 that, with every circumstance of triumphant vulgarity, the new German Empire had been proclaimed. The suggestion of a melodramatic reversal of that scene, in the same Hall of Mirrors, was overpowering.
Whatever generosities had appeared in the opening phases of the Great War had long been exhausted. The populations of the victorious countries were acutely aware of their own losses and sufferings, and entirely regardless of the fact that the defeated had paid in the like manner. The war had arisen as a natural and inevitable consequence of the competitive nationalisms of Europe and the absence of any Federal adjustment of these competitive forces; war is the necessary logical consummation of independent sovereign nationalities living in too small an area with too powerful an armament; and if the great war had not come in the form it did it would have come in some similar formjust as it will certainly return upon a still more disastrous scale in twenty or thirty years time if no political unification anticipates and prevents it. States organized for war will make wars as surely as hens will lay eggs, but the feeling of these distressed and war-worn countries disregarded this fact, and the whole of the defeated peoples were treated as morally and materially responsible for all the damage, as they would no doubt have treated the victor peoples had the issue of war been different. The French and English thought the Germans were to blame, the Germans thought the Russians, French and English were to blame, and only an intelligent minority thought that there was anything to blame in the fragmentary political constitution of Europe. The treaty of Versailles was intended to be exemplary and vindictive; it provided tremendous penalties for the vanquished; it sought to provide compensations for the wounded and suffering victors by imposing enormous debts upon nations already bankrupt, and its attempts to reconstitute international relations by the establishment of a League of Nations against war were manifestly insincere and inadequate.
So far as Europe was concerned it is doubtful if there would have been any attempt whatever to organize international relations for a permanent peace. The proposal of the League of Nations was brought into practical politics by the President of the United States of America, President Wilson. Its chief support was in America. So far the United States, this new modern state, had developed no distinctive ideas of international relationship beyond the Monroe Doctrine, which protected the new world from European interference. Now suddenly it was called upon for its mental contribution to the vast problem of the time. It had none. The natural disposition of the American people was towards a permanent world peace. With this however was linked a strong traditional distrust of old-world politics and a habit of isolation from old-world entanglements. The Americans had hardly begun to think out an American solution of world problems when the submarine campaign of the Germans dragged them into the war on the side of the anti-German allies. President Wilsons scheme of a League of Nations was an attempt at short notice to create a distinctively American world project. It was a sketchy, inadequate and dangerous scheme. In Europe however it was taken as a matured American point of view. The generality of mankind in 191819 was intensely weary of war and anxious at almost any sacrifice to erect barriers against its recurrence, but there was not a single government in the old world willing to waive one iota of its sovereign independence to attain any such end. The public utterances of President Wilson leading up to the project of a World League of Nations seemed for a time to appeal right over the heads of the governments to the peoples of the world; they were taken as expressing the ripe intentions of America, and the response was enormous. Unhappily President Wilson had to deal with governments and not with peoples; he was a man capable of tremendous flashes of vision and yet when put to the test egotistical and limited, and the great wave of enthusiasm he evoked passed and was wasted.
Says Dr. Dillon in his book,
The Peace Conference:
Europe, when the President touched its shores, was as clay ready for the creative potter. Never before were the nations so eager to follow a Moses who would take them to the long-promised land where wars are prohibited and blockades unknown. And to their thinking he was just that great leader. In France men bowed down before him with awe and affection. Labour leaders in Paris told me that they shed tears of joy in his presence, and that their comrades would go through fire and water to help him to realize his noble schemes. To the working classes in Italy his name was a heavenly clarion at the sound of which the earth would be renewed. The Germans regarded him and his doctrine as their sheet-anchor of safety. The fearless Herr Muehlon said: If President Wilson were to address the Germans, and pronounce a severe sentence upon them, they would accept it with resignation and without a murmur and set to work at once. In German-Austria his fame was that of a saviour, and the mere mention of his name brought balm to the suffering and surcease of sorrow to the afflicted.
Such were the overpowering expectations that President Wilson raised. How completely he disappointed them and how weak and futile was the League of Nations he made is too long and too distressful a story to tell here. He exaggerated in his person our common human tragedy, he was so very great in his dreams and so incapable in his performance. America dissented from the acts of its President and would not join the League Europe accepted from him. There was a slow realization on the part of the American people that it had been rushed into something for which it was totally unprepared. There was a corresponding realization on the part of Europe that America had nothing ready to give to the old world in its extremity. Born prematurely and crippled at its birth, that League has become indeed, with its elaborate and unpractical constitution and its manifest limitations of power, a serious obstacle in the way of any effective reorganization of international relationships. The problem would be a clearer one if the League did not yet exist. Yet that world-wide blaze of enthusiasm that first welcomed the project, that readiness of men everywhere round and about the earth, of men, that is, as distinguished from governments, for a world control of war, is a thing to be recorded with emphasis in any history. Behind the short-sighted governments that divide and mismanage human affairs, a real force for world unity and world order exists and grows.
From 1918 onward the world entered upon an age of conferences. Of these the Conference at Washington called by President Harding (1921) has been the most successful and suggestive. Notable, too, is the Genoa Conference (1922) for the appearance of German and Russian delegates at its deliberations. We will not discuss this long procession of conferences and tentatives in any detail. It becomes more and more clearly manifest that a huge work of reconstruction has to be done by mankind if a crescendo of such convulsions and world massacres as that of the great war is to be averted. No such hasty improvisation as the League of Nations, no patched-up system of Conferences between this group of states and that, which change nothing with an air of settling everything, will meet the complex political needs of the new age that lies before us. A systematic development and a systematic application of the sciences of human relationship, of personal and group psychology, of financial and economic science and of education, sciences still only in their infancy, is required. Narrow and obsolete, dead and dying moral and political ideas have to be replaced by a clearer and a simpler conception of the common origins and destinies of our kind.
But if the dangers, confusions and disasters that crowd upon man in these days are enormous beyond any experience of the past, it is because science has brought him such powers as he never had before. And the scientific method of fearless thought, exhaustively lucid statement, and exhaustively criticized planning, which has given him these as yet uncontrollable powers, gives him also the hope of controlling these powers. Man is still only adolescent. His troubles are not the troubles of senility and exhaustion but of increasing and still undisciplined strength. When we look at all history as one process, as we have been doing in this book, when we see the steadfast upward struggle of life towards vision and control, then we see in their true proportions the hopes and dangers of the present time. As yet we are hardly in the earliest dawn of human greatness. But in the beauty of flower and sunset, in the happy and perfect movement of young animals and in the delight of ten thousand various landscapes, we have some intimations of what life can do for us, and in some few works of plastic and pictorial art, in some great music, in a few noble buildings and happy gardens, we have an intimation of what the human will can do with material possibilities. We have dreams; we have at present undisciplined but ever increasing power. Can we doubt that presently our race will more than realize our boldest imaginations, that it will achieve unity and peace, that it will live, the children of our blood and lives will live, in a world made more splendid and lovely than any palace or garden that we know, going on from strength to strength in an ever widening circle of adventure and achievement? What man has done, the little triumphs of his present state, and all this history we have told, form but the prelude to the things that man has got to do.