By Roger Kimball, Editor of The New Criterion
Review by Francis P. Sempa, Contributing Editor
Roger Kimball, the editor of The New Criterion, delivered the David Armstrong Memorial Lecture in Melbourne, Australia, in August. Kimball’s lecture mixed history with culture, and provocatively challenged conventional wisdom about the Great War and its consequences, both historical and cultural.
As Kimball notes, the events leading up to the First World War produced two general outlooks on the future: war was inevitable, or war was impossible. The reality, of course, was that war was neither inevitable nor impossible. Whether war broke out depended on the decisions and actions of statesmen, politicians, and generals.
The Great War, he states, was not a meaningless or unnecessary war. It was fought, as wars had been in the past, to decide the mastery of Europe and the international balance of power.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, cultural disillusion preceded the war; it was not a consequence of the war, though the war certainly intensified the disillusionment. How could it do otherwise given what Kimball accurately describes as “four years of that butchery by attrition that was trench warfare in the age of total war.”
Kimball notes that our view of the war and its consequences was shaped in part by John Maynard Keynes’ The Economic Consequences of the Peace that blamed the alleged harshness of the Treaty of Versailles for the rise of Hitler and the Second World War. Kimball calls Keynes’ book a “classic in the library of liberal handwringing.” The Treaty ending the Great War, Kimball claims, should have been harsher, dividing Germany in two (as happened after the Second World War), or returning Germany to the pre-Bismarckian loose federation of autonomous principalities.
Instead, Keynes and others, who Kimball states suffered from a “gigantic sentimentality about mankind” and a “faith in the goodness of man,” reversed the direction of guilt for the outbreak of the Great War from Germany to its victims. Kimball recommends that Etienne Mantoux’s The Carthaginian Peace (1941) provides a more accurate description of the shortcomings of the Treaty of Versailles’ than Keynes’ much acclaimed book.
Perhaps the most important and devastating cultural consequence of the Great War was Nazi “kitsch,” which involved, according to Kimball, the “wholesale embrace of empty abstractions.” It glorified Naziism as something great, noble and admirable in the face of genocide and military conquest. It helped Hitler and the Nazis retain the support of the German people even as the allied armies closed in on the shattered remains of the German Reich.