The Deluge

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The Deluge: The Great War and the Remaking of the Global Order is an extraordinarily valuable book which traces the tumult that convulsed every part of the globe in the years following the end of the First World War, and the attempts by the victors of that war — the US, Britain, France and Italy — to create a system of global governance.

Adam Tooze delves into the web of interconnecting tensions and disagreements around armistice and the Treaty of Versailles, reparations, war debt, disarmament, and the establishment of the League of Nations, all carried out against a background of enormous political and economic crises. He analyses how these crises were fed by the deepening social tensions that affected all the warring countries towards the end of the war, and particularly those in Russia that exploded in the two revolutions of 1917.

The rapid collapse of three empires at the end of the war and the rampant inflation that threatened to engulf the global financial system added to the tumult, sparking workers’ uprisings from Britain to Japan, and attempts by socialists in Germany, Hungary and Italy to foment and lead revolutions.

Tooze is professor of history and director of Security Studies at Yale University. He shows how these enormous crises, plus a host of others — such as the anti-imperialist struggles in India and Ireland, the carve-up of the Middle East, political crisis in Japan, France’s occupation of the Ruhr, the defeat of UK strategy in Mesopotamia — affected talks and conferences between the leading politicians of the day. In particular, Tooze shows how, as a result of the enormous weight of US finance and the dependence that the other major world powers now had on it, successive US administrations were able to assume a position of “privileged detachment” while framing a “transformation in world affairs”.

In doing so, he provides fascinating detail about the series of conferences and treaties that punctuated the 1920s, and great quotes including, approvingly, ones from Trotsky and Lenin — although irritatingly, mention of Lenin is usually preceded or followed by the word “violent”. The book covers the years from 1915 to the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the even more catastrophic banking crisis of 1931 — an economic crisis that finally smashed apart the global order that the world powers had tried to put together ever since the final years of the war.

Given its breadth, there is much to mull over, and to disagree with; such as Tooze’s claims that the October 1917 Revolution was a Bolshevik coup, and that the Entente’s forces sent into Russia following the Brest Litovsk Treaty of 1918 were aimed at stopping an alliance of German and Russian forces rather than to crush the fledgling workers’ state. But for anyone wanting a readable overview of some of the events in the years following the end of the First World War, this is one for your bookshelf.