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Parshat Vaetchanan — Butterfly wings

To what extent did Woodrow Wilson's bad case of the flu bring Hitler to power? (Vaetchanan)
"The Big Four" at the Paris Peace Conference (l-r, David Lloyd George of Britain, Vittorio Emanuele Orlando of Italy, Georges Clemenceau of France, and Woodrow Wilson of the United States). (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)
"The Big Four" at the Paris Peace Conference (l-r, David Lloyd George of Britain, Vittorio Emanuele Orlando of Italy, Georges Clemenceau of France, and Woodrow Wilson of the United States). (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

In 1918, only one thing mattered to US President Woodrow Wilson – ending the war and creating a lasting peace. The US only entered the war in 1917, but Wilson wanted to ensure that the world would never have to endure such carnage again. In total, the Great war would cost the lives of over 10 million soldiers, including 117,000 Americans.

He was so focused on the war, that he never once said anything about the so-called Spanish Flu that by 1918 was spreading rapidly across the nation and the world, and would be even more devastating in 1919.

It was called the Spanish Flu because Spain was the only country without strong military censorship. All the other countries virtually banned coverage of the epidemic, lest it embolden the enemy. In fact, the first recorded case of the influenza was in a US Army camp in Kansas in March 1918. Most likely, the flu mutated from some virus infecting a farm animal in the Midwest. Perhaps it reached the farm from a population of wild sheep, moose, bison or elk. But at the time virtually nobody knew about it.

The reason that most people did not hear of the flu or realize its severity was that the government did not want wartime morale to slump. Soon after the first case was recorded, on May 16, 1918, Congress passed the Sedition Act, making it illegal for anyone to spread information that could be considered detrimental to the war effort.

Soldiers from Fort Riley, Kansas, ill with Spanish flu at a hospital ward at Camp Funston. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

While some newspapers included coverage of the flu on the front page, many others around the country buried the latest influenza death numbers on inside pages. They didn’t want people to panic, and they didn’t want to harm the war effort. But this lack of coverage and lack of awareness was perhaps partially responsible for the shockingly high number of 600,000 flu deaths in the USA.

But Wilson had more important things on his mind than influenza.

In a speech he gave on January 8, 1918, Wilson outlined his Fourteen Points, which outlined the principles he thought should form the basis of any peace treaty between Germany and the Allies. The most notable thing about his Points is that it tries to be fair and not demand overly harsh reparations from Germany. The document was based on his view that an unfair peace treaty would only lead to future wars.

Wilson envisaged a peace treaty where Germany would return all the lands it conquered, but after that would be considered a peaceful ally. He wanted, “The removal, so far as possible, of all economic barriers and the establishment of an equality of trade conditions among all the nations consenting to the peace and associating themselves for its maintenance.” He also wanted an international reduction of arms. And most importantly, he envisaged the League of Nations which would be formed, “Under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.”

On October 5, 1918 Germany sent a message to Wilson saying the country was ready to surrender on the basis of these Points. However, by the time the armistice went into effect in November of that year, the other Allied nations had a change of heart.

In fact, they had thought that these Fourteen Points were just part of an American propaganda ploy to lure Germany to its defeat. They didn’t want these wishy-washy vague principles. Instead they demanded that Germany had to suffer for its actions during the war and would never be an equal member among the other countries of Europe.

Ferdinand Czernin explained this in his book, “Versailles, 1919”:

The Allied statesmen were faced with a problem: so far they had considered the “fourteen commandments” as a piece of clever and effective American propaganda, designed primarily to undermine the fighting spirit of the Central Powers, and to bolster the morale of the lesser Allies. Now, suddenly, the whole peace structure was supposed to be built up on that set of “vague principles”, most of which seemed to them thoroughly unrealistic, and some of which, if they were to be seriously applied, were simply unacceptable.

The Paris Peace Conference, to discuss the final terms of the end of the War, began on January 18, 1919. In addition to Wilson, who had come over to France, the three main leaders around the negotiating table were British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Vittorio Emanuele Orlando of Italy and French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau. Interestingly but unsurprisingly, Germany and the other defeated nations were not invited.

As much as Wilson wanted a fair deal for Germany that would allow the country to continue as a proud nation, Clemenceau was adamant that the enemy must be brought to its knees. The French prime minister demanded that Germany pay enormous reparations to the allied nations to make up for the damage caused. He wanted Germany to remain demilitarized to ensure France would never be threatened by its neighbor again and wanted to limit its economic recovery. This was exactly the opposite of the Points laid out by Wilson and was a non-starter as far as the American President was concerned.

The “Big Four” of the Versailles Peace Conference. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Day after day Clemenceau and Wilson argued back and forth, but neither man would budge. Several times Wilson threatened to pack his bags and return home, ending the discussions. But he never carried through on his threat.

Then, on the evening of April 3, 1919, Wilson developed a cough. He took to his bed soon afterward. Although it is impossible to definitely diagnose him so many decades afterwards, it is likely that he had caught influenza. The same influenza that he had been so careful not to mention in any of his speeches.

Clemenceau recognized the opportunity. He even went so far as to ask the British prime minister, “Do you know his doctor? Couldn’t you get round him and bribe him?”

In the event, no bribery was necessary. During his recovery from his illness, Wilson became paranoid. He became obsessed with the furniture and was convinced he was surrounded by French spies. “We could but surmise that something queer was happening in his mind,” Irwin Hoover, the President’s chief usher, said. “One thing is certain: he was never the same after this little spell of sickness.”

Such confusion can be a symptom of a severe case of influenza.

And after that, Wilson basically conceded to all of Clemenceau’s demands. The only one of his Fourteen Points that remained in the final deal was the League of Nations – but a league that Germany was not permitted to join. The deal was ratified in Versailles on June 28, 1919, five years to the day after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

Wilson returning from the Versailles Peace Conference, 1919. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Germany was forced to hold war crimes trials for Kaiser Wilhelm and other leaders. And Article 231 of the treaty, better known as the “war guilt clause,” forced Germany to accept full responsibility for starting World War I and pay enormous reparations for Allied war losses.

Wilson sailed back home and remained in office for another two years. He died on February 3, 1924, aged 67.

As we know, the punishing conditions of the Treaty of Versaille were partially what led to Adolph Hitler’s rise to power. The country was expected to pay back billions of dollars to the Allies. John Maynard Keynes predicted that such vast sums would be impossible to pay, and the entire European economy would collapse if Germany did pay them.

The Weimar Republic, created in the wake of the Treaty of Versailles, was very unpopular. Many Germans felt they had been betrayed by the “November Criminals” – the politicians who had surrendered and agreed to such punishing conditions. During the 1920s, there were many attempted coups against the government – especially during the rampant hyperinflation caused by the reparation repayments.

On January 30, 1933, Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor of Germany, effectively ending the Weimar Republic, and setting Germany on a course that would lead to World War II and the Holocaust.

Who knows, perhaps all of that could have been averted had Wilson not caught the flu and caved to Clemenceau’s demands.

And that is really my point. We can never know. Sometimes tiny events can have huge future implications. Or perhaps that future is waiting to happen regardless of the technical details that led up to it.

In the opening of this week’s Torah reading, Vaetchanan, Moses describes how he pleaded with God to be allowed to go into the Land of Israel. He had brought the people so far, transformed them from suffering slaves into a proud nation, and wanted nothing more than to enjoy the fruits of his efforts by retiring gracefully somewhere in Israel.

He knew that Joshua would be the leader, but that did not bother him – he had no desire to remain in charge. He just wanted to see the fulfillment of the blessings he had promised the nation in God’s name, and to be able to carry out the commandments that apply specifically in the Holy Land.

But God rejected his pleas, going so far as to tell him to stop praying and chastising him with the very same words Moses had used to chastise Korach (Deuteronomy 3:26).

It is enough for you, do not continue to speak with Me about this matter again.

Many of the commentaries (e.g. Ohr Hachayim, Shem Mishmuel, Rav Eliyahu Dessler) explain that had Moses entered the land, the Temple built would have been indestructible. And if the Temple could not be destroyed, then when the nation sinned it would have had to have been the people who were wiped out. God’s kindness to the nation was that he allowed bricks and mortar to be obliterated, but the Jewish people was not.

According to this kabbalistic interpretation, if Moses had entered Israel, it would have forced God’s hand (so to speak) and ultimately led to the destruction of the entire people. Moses was unable to see God’s refusal as kindness, but from our historical perspective we can see that it ultimately was.

Of course, just as with Wilson’s flu, we can never know if this pivotal moment in Jewish history when Moses was refused entry into the Holy Land, would have ultimately led to the destruction of the Jewish people. God has the power to change history regardless of our actions.

But with hindsight, we can see God’s kindness in his apparent cruelty to Moses. And similarly, having just climbed up off the floor after fasting on Tisha B’Av, we can also see God’s mercy in the destruction of the Temple.

Like the proverbial butterfly wings, small events can have huge consequences. We can never know the ultimate outcome of our actions. Similarly, what at first appears to be something positive, like the Treaty of Versailles, may end up being the cause of untold destruction and devastation.

We must be happy when it is time to celebrate and sad when it is time to mourn. And weigh each of our actions as if it has the potential to be consequential. Yet at the same time we know that we are limited, temporary beings. And we can never know which decisions or actions will ultimately lead to making a better world and which will not.

With thanks to RadioLab for telling me about the Paris Conference and Wilson’s ‘flu.

I’ve started sharing more of my Torah thoughts on Facebook. Follow my page, Rabbi Sedley. You can also listen to some live or recorded Torah classes at WebYeshiva.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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