After attending the Paris Peace Conference in the aftermath of World War I in 1919, British economist John Maynard Keynes published The Economic Consequences of the Peace which criticized the terms of the Treaty of Versailles under which the victorious allies imposed unfair territorial adjustments on Germany and forced that defeated nation to pay punishing reparations.
The book influenced public and elite opinion on both sides of the Atlantic, where the perception that Germany was treated unfairly was seen by many thinkers and policymakers as the cause for what happened later: The economic breakdown of the German economy; the German people’s loss of faith in democracy; the rise of Nazism and Adolf Hitler; and eventually the collapse of peace in Europe and World War II.
While some historians have since challenged Keynes’ arguments about the harshness of the treatment of Germany by the allies, most agree that the Western powers had failed to establish a stable political and economic order in Europe after WWI and to integrate Germany into it, and in the process sowed the seeds of the next war.
But then Keynes didn’t respond to the rise of Nazism and the emergence of Germany as the leader of an international coalition setting to replace the order maintained by Britain and France in Europe, by providing excuses for Hitler’s aggression.
In fact, during the 1930s Keynes was an early advocate of British rearmament to help deter the revisionist powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan. And after Germany invaded Poland in 1939, he made no attempt to criticize Britain and France for failing to follow his advice and for negotiating the Versailles Treaty. Nor did he argue that if only the Western powers had treated Germany differently in 1919 Hitler wouldn’t have attacked Poland now.
Instead, Keynes spent World War II advising the allies how to defeat the Germans and win the war, and by sketching the shape of the postwar international order and the institutions that would maintain it, into which Germany would be integrated, and which would be based on the principles of just peace as opposed to the post-WWI Carthaginian peace.
Compare the way Keynes avoided falling into the trap of moral equivalency to the way many left-leaning public figures and pundits have responded to the Hamas brutal attack on Israel and the ensuing war in Gaza, by promoting the argument for moral equivalence between Israel and Hamas.
Hence former president Barack Obama in an interview on the “Pod Save America” podcast did just that by calling for an admission of the “complexity” involved in the war in Gaza.
Yes, Obama admitted, what Hamas did on October 7th was “horrific” and should be condemned. But then we have also to recognize that the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands – forget for a second that the Gaza Strip wasn’t actually occupied by Israel on October 6th – was “unbearable” for the Palestinians and that “nobody’s hands are clean.”
That was actually the view of the late Vivian Silver, a long-time Israeli-Canadian peace activist and a critic of the right-wing Israeli Likud government. An advocate of the two-state solution she demonstrated against Israeli treatment of the Palestinians in Gaza and organized assistance to the residents there. No West Bank settler, and a staunch leftie, the 74-year-old Silver was member of the Be’eri kibbutz that was attacked on October 7th. She was murdered by Hamas terrorists on that day.
Too bad that Obama doesn’t see what is not so complex here: that you could have been a critic of the Israeli right-wing government and support the establishment of an independent Palestinian state living side-by-side with Israel, but then also believe that Israel has had the right to retaliate against Hamas by invading Gaza and destroying that terrorist organization – morally equivalent to Nazi Germany – and ensure that it would not attack Israel again. Duh!
Yes, the Palestinians have a long list of charges against Israeli conduct in the occupied territories, but to “compare those disputed claims with the rapes, beheadings, burnings, kidnappings, it’s just obscene,” is that was professor Alan Dershowitz responded to Obama’s assertions.
“And what it does is it lends support to those students basically who are saying, ‘Well, what Hamas really did was not so bad…it was a response to the occupation,” stressed Dershowitz. “Although [Obama] said that the attacks by Hamas are not justifiable because if life really is unbearable, as it’s not, then you can do anything you want.”
In retrospect, very few historians would deny that humiliating Germany post-World War I and imposing punishing economic sanctions on it was were two of many reasons that explain that political radicalization of the German people and to the rise of Hitler.
But would anyone be standing at the gates of liberated Auschwitz in 1945 and proclaiming that the Jews did suffer but, hey, we should recognize the “complexity” here, that the Western treatment of the Germans was “unbearable” that “nobody’s hands are clean.”
That certainly wasn’t the way that the leaders of Britain and the US had ordered the bombing of Hamburg and Dresden, where not unlike the Hamas terrorists in Gaza, the Nazi leaders and officered were embedded with the civilian population. In fact, they didn’t even allow for a “humanitarian pause” between the bombings.