BOOK CLUB: History Matters

A richly varied and highly entertaining new collection of pieces by Bill Nasson showcases the breadth, consistency and versatility of one of our leading historians, writes ALEXANDER MATTHEWS.

History Matters

I must confess to approaching this review with more than a little trepidation. It’s not just that (for reasons that should soon become apparent) I think Bill Nasson is one of finest historians working in South Africa today. It’s also because writing about his writing is rather close to home. Literally. Nasson lives a few blocks away from my parents; in my teenage years I’d often see him pass by on his bike or walking his dogs.

More recently, he’s become a dear friend – and, ever since its founding, one of AERODROME’s staunchest supporters. Over the past four years it’s been a great pleasure to publish on this site a number of book reviews he’s written – several of which appear in History Matters, a wondrous compilation of his writings stretching back to 1970. In this tasty smorgasbord, we see the depth, length and breadth of his writing – and both his versatility and consistency. The book is helpfully grouped into different sections such as book reviews, social histories, and the world wars, which means you can snack on whatever takes your fancy, in whichever order you choose.

Nasson’s love of writing, of ideas, of stories shine through all of these pieces. In A Historical Education, the book’s first section, we get a sense of how this love might have been conceived – or at the very least nurtured. Here we encounter the “highly cultured” teachers of Livingstone High in Cape Town’s southern suburbs – most notably, the “super-legendary” deputy principal R.O. Dudley (to whom the book is dedicated). Dudley was an avowed and widely respected opponent of apartheid who was also “wholly contemptuous of any idea of ethnic identity and who never tired of being mockingly disdainful of political populism”. In his 2010 obit after the great man’s passing, Nasson recalls how his “pupils were taught to think critically and widely, and not to see learning as a matter of absorbing this or that school subject”. Dudley went way beyond his remit as a chemistry teacher. He would host secular assemblies as alternative to the school’s scripture-based ones – where students “could gather for Bertrand Russell rather St Paul”. And, in the classroom, Nasson writes that, “what he provided was a historical education that was at the same time an inculcation of political thinking” – always able “to ease the misery of being unable to fathom the periodic table of elements” by offering titbits of metaphysical English poetry or disquisitions on “the deformities of Stalinist Russia”.

At a time when the vital contributions of many non-ANC activists are being airbrushed out of history by the ruling party’s aggressive mythologising, these pages offer a trenchant reminder of the richly diverse and sometimes fiercely intellectual strains that formed part of the struggle against apartheid. The recollections also go a long way in describing the hothouse in which Nasson’s independent, critical thinking and wide-ranging curiosity began to blossom.

The golden thread weaving together all of History Matters’ pieces are Nasson’s beautiful writing, his eye for detail and for the absurd, and a wry, incisive humour – which is directed at himself as often as it is towards others. He shows a deep respect for his readers and for the subjects he tackles; he is witty without being blasé or flippant, critical without being needlessly cruel.

Whether discussing a Ford factory town deep in the jungle, or a history of mail or maps, his book reviews always manage to make the topics in question entertaining. Whether or not you ever end up reading the books he reviews, his pieces about them are still very much worth your time because of their flair, humour and deft engagement with the text he’s reviewing.

Nasson is no reductionist; he knows there are many shades between the starkness of black and white. He is capable of showing contempt for the “detestable” imperialist Rudyard Kipling – while being an Anglophile who grew up on English comics and studied at the universities of Hull, York and Cambridge. Time and time again you see his appreciation for nuance, complexity and paradox – a sensibility that in the age of “no-platforming” seems very much in short supply.

One such paradox we encounter is how an imperial Britain, which had yoked vast swathes of the world under the Union Jack, was, in the opening phase of the Second World War, almost singlehandedly fighting fascism and Nazism – and thereby alone in defending ideas such as equality before the law, parliamentary democracy and free speech. Even more of a paradox, perhaps, was the idea that an Afrikaans man – with the infamous surname of Malan no less – might be one of that country’s saviours. In Nasson’s utterly engrossing history of A.G. ‘Sailor’ Malan, we witness his dizzying trajectory as an accomplished fighter ace, one of ‘the few’ that fought in the skies over England in 1940. We see how this Afrikaner, upon return to South Africa after the war, would take up the fight for non-racialism in South Africa – a battle in which he was much less successful.

Although he’s spent his entire career in academia, Nasson is that rare thing: an academic who looks beyond theories to appreciate the humanity, the emotional and social core of history. His writing crackles with intelligence but never descends into the dry, jargon-laded prose so often associated with his peers – he’s never highfalutin, never speaking over his audience; he’s conversational, eloquently weaving anecdote and argument into a rich tapestry. With clarity and crispness both hallmarks of his own writing, it’s no wonder that he includes among his favourite quotes at the end of the book, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “What can be said at all, can be said clearly”. His lampooning of the epidemic of academic jargon in a satirical column, in the now-defunct Southern African Review of Books, is particularly delicious – and as relevant today as it was when it was first published in 1993. “Leading cultural spokespersons,” he wrote, “are to be applauded for keeping minds alive and fixed on ‘interstices’,‘textualities’, ‘signifiers’ and ‘mediations’ during a period when so many institutions are burdened by the practical challenges of development and change on the African continent.”

Nasson recognises that history is not merely about great men — the generals, the kings, the prime ministers — but about the ordinary folk enduring extraordinary times. As he takes us from District Six to the battlefields of the Boer War, it’s clear that he sees it his duty as an historian to shine a light on some of these. Among the most fascinating is his account of Abraham Esau – a Calvinia-based blacksmith. Like many other coloureds in the area, Esau was an English-speaking Anglican with “a passionate attachment to the lukewarm liberalism of the Cape Colony’s 1853 non-racial franchise”. During the Anglo Boer War at the turn of the Twentieth Century, he assembled “a motley band” to challenge incursions by Boer forces in Namaqualand, though his pleas to the local magistrate for arms was rejected (due to the belief that giving “guns to coloured civilians would lead to ‘mischief’”). After the Boers took control of the area, Esau was brutally interrogated and shot, becoming “a martyr of Cape liberal political culture” that would be remembered as a hero through the stories and folklore of local coloured communities for decades to come.

My absolute favourite piece is Nasson’s minutely and hilariously observed account of being a historical consultant for a movie, The Deal – when Hollywood came to “Cape Town, its beloved cheaper version of California, where the extras are not led astray by pesky unions or minimum wage rules”. It is these poor extras who get as much (in fact, probably more) page time as the movie’s stars, William H. Macy and Meg Ryan. Hired to appear in a Victorian-era House of Commons scene, “these shuffling MPs were shepherded about in bullying fashion by a young, abrasive crew member dubbed ‘Sony’ who took relish in informing anyone within earshot, ‘Fuck man, I’m so sweet’.”  In addition to being tasked with writing the script of this particular scene, Nasson is also roped in to star as a speaker of the house. Before the cameras start rolling, he advises on the removal of historically inaccurate items from the makeshift set, including ball point pens, digital watches and too-modern spectacles – so that “extras faced a fuzzy House of Commons”.

Given how difficult I find the craft of writing, I’ve always rather envied Nasson’s seemingly effortless style – he makes putting words on a page seem so easy and assured. But even he is, at times, at a loss for words. The book’s most poignant piece, After the book-burning, begins with a few paragraphs describing a call in December 2010 from his department head who told him that the history building at Stellenbosch University (where Nasson is a distinguished professor) was on fire.

These paragraphs form an essay Nasson has never completed. As much as he has wanted “to express the meaning of loss”, he has never been able to. If only it were possible to get sentences to run as freely as fire does,” he reflects in the explanatory text below. The blaze consumed 3000 of his books (including a Shelley biography he received in 1969 as an English school prize), films, journals, papers, research material and more – all which “remains unforgettable as much as irreplaceable”. On the facing page are two images showing “what happens to paper (and much else besides) when the temperature reaches Fahrenheit 451”. He leaves it at that, inviting us to draw our own, devastating conclusions.

In one piece, Nasson worries that “the country’s professional history writers have largely withdrawn from any common conversation with an everyday audience. In an exchange of numbingly dry products or fields, historians write for each other, no longer trading a literary craft or good writing.” For history books to regain relevance and readership amongst ordinary people, he argues that “historical scholarship needs to dip into the ancestral richness of literary narrative so that it, too, cultivates the classic idioms of human experience like irony, malice and calamity. South Africa’s divided past surely has more than its fair share of those. And, in illuminating its complexities, the power of history can challenge the more unreasoning forces which stalk the posturing present”.

And so, history, he compellingly argues, should be something that enthrals and entertains as much as it should inform.  Collectively these writings show why history really does matter and why it matters that it is written well. They remind us that there are many histories; not a single narrative – as Chimamanda Adichie has warned us in another context, we should be deeply distrustful of the single story. History Matters shows us that often the footnotes are just as fascinating and important as the biggest stories and characters of the age. It reminds us that the better we know our history, the better we know ourselves – and that a thorough understanding of our past gives us a solid foundation on which to build our future.

It’s no exaggeration to think of Nasson as a something of a George Orwell for our time and place: clear-sighted, iconoclastic (and occasionally caustic), not easily seduced by dogma; and both a lover and purveyor of good, clear and important writing that stays with you long after you’ve turned the final page. I’m not saying I’m not biased – but if you read History Matters I’m confident you’ll agree.

History Matters is published by Penguin.

BOOK CLUB: Emily Hobhouse

Professor Bill Nasson reviews two fine books on the Boer War campaigner Emily Hobhouse, The Compassionate Englishwoman: Emily Hobhouse in the Boer War by Robert Eales, and Emily Hobhouse: Beloved Traitor by Elsabé Brits.

In the early 1970s, the South African Navy acquired a new French submarine which it surprisingly named the SAS Emily Hobhouse. Then, with the coming of a New South Africa in 1994, it was plus la change for the bonsai fleet of Simon’s Town. Liberated from the mud of its symbolic European imperial past, the poor old Emily Hobhouse was renamed to see out the rest of its life as the SAS umKhonto, the Zulu word for assegaai or spear. That was also a little odd. After all, whatever his regal place in national history, it has never been that of Shaka of the Sea.

Emily Hobhouse’s position in South African political history is based largely on the honour and affection with which she has come to be regarded by this country’s Afrikaner people. Equally, the standing of umKhonto weSizwe or MK is based on the rosy view of its admirers of the heroic place which mainland guerrilla fighters occupied in the armoury of the anti-apartheid liberation struggle. While their symbolic association with the navy was bemusingly inappropriate in both instances, you might think no great surprise there, given South Africa’s champion political habit of getting such things wrong.

Trust one lot of its nationalist rulers to brand a warship after an English humanitarian liberal proto-feminist and pacifist. And for their post-apartheid successors to ditch the name of a female human rights campaigner in favour of something more martial-sounding – the thudding boots of goose-stepping irregular warriors. Thinking of the political anointing of Emily Hobhouse and of her subsequent political scuttling brings to mind the unforgettable words of the poet and satirist, Roy Campbell, who in 1928 declared, despairingly, ‘South Africa, renowned far and wide, for politics, and little else beside’. Were she to have lived on miraculously, one cannot but wonder what the remarkable Miss Hobhouse would have made of twentieth-century South Africa in its successive post-1910, post-1948, and post-1994 guises?

Although Emily Hobhouse tried to reform hard-drinking miners in the American west in the 1890s, and journeyed to Germany and Belgium on a peace mission in the thick of the First World War in June 1916, it was in South Africa that she made her name through her exposure of the horrendous conditions in the civilian concentration camps established by the British in their imperial war of 1899-1902 against the defiant republican Boers. It was this unpatriotic trouble-making that landed her in hot water, prompting Joseph Chamberlain, Britain’s Colonial Secretary, to regard her as a wholesale threat to the British Empire, and enraging the British Army’s commander-in-chief in South Africa, Field-Marshal Lord Kitchener. A famously confirmed bachelor, he rounded on Hobhouse repeatedly, ordering the deportation from South Africa of ‘that bloody woman’.

Concerned with bringing the courageous and tragic story of Emily Hobhouse back to shimmering life, these two attractive, well-written, and deeply sympathetic books illuminate her turbulent wartime years in South Africa, the country that, as Robert Eales puts it poignantly, ‘would never leave her’. Portraying Hobhouse the radical humanitarian as a blend of Joan of Arc and Florence Nightingale, The Compassionate Englishwoman and Emily Hobhouse are complementary as well as slightly contrasting biographies, as Elsabe Brits also tells the neglected story of her anti-war activities during 1914-18, a stand for which she was damned as treasonous by some British parliamentarians. Hers is the more expansive and rounded of these new volumes.

Robert Eales, a retired South African businessman living in Australia – and, in that sense, a classic ‘gentleman scholar’ – has written a moving account of an indefatigable figure who found herself on the wrong side of history, criss-crossing a war-torn country to investigate, to expose, and to try to alleviate the Boer concentration camp crisis. The author provides a scholarly, well-paced portrait of his heroine, who seethes and spits under the oppressive shadow of her country’s men of war, bearing witness unflinchingly as Britain’s reluctant conscience. His book abounds in its meticulous recording of episodes and thumb-nail sketches of a mixed gallery of characters, including not merely the usual suspects (Milner, Kruger, Roberts, Kitchener), but also Arthur Conan Doyle and Joshua Rowntree.

In telling a soaring story of pioneering feminism, obstinacy, and fearlessness, The Compassionate Englishwoman can also be a little frustrating at times as Dr. Eales is inclined to mull over what cannot actually be known. Thus, on the issue of Hobhouse’s overlooking of conditions in British concentration camps for black refugees, we are told that while we can ‘only speculate’, it may well have ‘troubled her’ on the grounds of what she perhaps ‘suspected’. Ever woken up at night wondering what class of ship cabin Hobhouse used in her travels between Britain and South Africa? No, me neither, but the author tells us anyway – a first-class berth which may possibly not have been her preferred choice.

Translated with flair from Afrikaans by Linde Dietrich, Emily Hobhouse: Beloved Traitor, by the scholarly journalist, Elsabe Brits, is a thickly-researched life story which seeks to weave together this ‘bloody’ woman’s public persona and her – often heartbreaking – personal life. While there is no shortage of sentimentality and a recounting of moral episodes in black-and white values, Emily Hobhouse reproduces much which is captivating, including rare sketches of its subject, photographs of her jewellery and clothing, and her affectionate water-colour paintings of ravaged farmhouses.

Ms Brits is also informative on the more private thoughts, feelings, and dilemmas of this highly-strung and mostly solitary figure, drawing on a rich patchwork of evidence to show that beneath the crust of her immersion ‘in the great issues of the time’, there lurked ‘a vulnerable Emily who yearned to be loved’. This author grasps, as do all good biographers, that snatches of commonplace detail and gentle insight can attract the reader far more than grand theories about constructing life history narratives.

Some readers may be less attracted by the peculiar volume layout and page design which the publisher has hit on for some unfathomable reason – to appeal to adults stuck in early adolescence, perhaps? Emily Hobhouse is a sprawling book, with something of the frantic feel of a school-level ‘show and tell’ compendium. Much of its fascinating and highly informative material is conveyed through boxes, inserts, snippets and high-lighted quotations, jostling amongst squares, circles and triangles coloured green, red, orange, and purple. In some places, the placing of grainy grey images or faded archival text against a dark background hue seems to require a magnifying glass or a flashlight – or even both. In this respect, the gaunt, bony, Victorian story of Emily Hobhouse has not been well-served by its Marvel Comics presentation. Still, who knows, if you like this sort of flash look in books, then this is the sort of look that you will like. But in any event, be sure not to be put off by it, for you would be missing a unique feminine – and feminist – story of resilient idealism and tough realism.

Both of these fine books have a slightly strained tendency to depict Emily Hobhouse as a historical figure ahead of her time, or distinctively modern in her passionate identity as a pacifist, feminist, and campaigner against oppression and injustice. Quite rightly, Emily Hobhouse depicts this with considerable verve and confidence, providing readers with an engrossing picture of a great transformational woman, tilting at the towering windmills of masculinity to the very end of her life. Elsabe Brits is particularly good on the exceptional talents, moral sensibilities and compassionate motivations of this daughter of a Cornish Anglican vicar, arguing for an appreciation of Hobhouse’s significance beyond that of her duties in 1901 for the Women and Children Distress Fund in bringing the scandal of the camps to the attention of the British public.

Highly literary, Emily Hobhouse certainly had a universal air about her, preoccupied as she was with the big ideas of humanity – the meaning of justice, the value of life, the universality of women’s rights, the common right to freedom, the ethical basis of civilisation, and so on. As a liberal humanist, she had a wide reach and her measure of what was right or wrong was largely universal – as Hobhouse asserted to the post-1902 Afrikaners with characteristic bluntness, ‘should not the justice and liberties you love so well, extend to all’ .

At the same time, due account still needs to be taken of the fact that Hobhouse was also a public woman of her historical time. Her strident advocacy of women’s rights and of equal citizenship for men and women reflected her support of the female suffrage movement in Edwardian Britain. Her starchy battles for temperance were rooted in the puritanical middle-class moralising of the Victorian age. Arguably most importantly, when it came to British imperialism, Hobhouse was always more a critic of empire than an anti-imperialist. Inescapably, a patrician woman of empire, despite her fervent sympathy with the suffering of the Boer people, she never disowned the empire that had caused it. For Hobhouse, Britain’s failure in the 1899-1902 war was that of having fallen short of its lofty ideals of civilisation, justice and humanity.

Indeed, her famous 1913 speech to an Afrikaner audience at the unveiling of the commemorative Women’s Monument in Bloemfontein was studded with references to the British and their high imperial mission, for all that it had gone astray in its recent shameful handling of affairs in South Africa. In her otherwise admirably acute and sensitive chapter on these proceedings, Elsabe Brits rather glosses over this theme in favour of underlining again Hobhouse’s cry of recognition of what Boer women had endured, as ‘they gave themselves, not borne on by the excitement and joy of active battle, as men do; but passively, with open eyes, in the long-drawn agony of painful months and days…the brave South African women… affirmed for all times and for all peoples the power of Woman to sacrifice life and more than life for the common weal’.

Nonetheless, Emily Hobhouse never loses sight of its subject’s radical liberalism, reminding us of her dawning disillusion with the nature of the Afrikaner political recovery which followed military defeat in 1902, and of her conclusion shortly before her death in 1926 that South Africa’s segregation was “the wrong policy and one which can only lead to discontent and ultimate disaster”. In Bloemfontein 13 years earlier, her speech had warned that rapacious capitalism and national pride was all too often accompanied by a deterioration of national character. How more prophetic could Emily Hobhouse possibly have been? The history of that French submarine is surely some proof. Winston Churchill once described South Africa as a land of lies. It is also, truly, a land of ironies. Remembering her in the name of a town in the Eastern Free State is one thing. Naming a Daphne class submarine after an unshakeable pacifist is quite another.

The Compassionate Englishwoman: Emily Hobhouse in the Boer War is published by UCT Press. Emily Hobhouse: Beloved Traitor is published by Tafelberg. Nasson is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Stellenbosch. His most recent book is History Matters: Selected Writings, 1970-2016, published in 2016 by Penguin.

All about the money


This is an enthralling history of the July 1944 Bretton Woods conference, designed to replace the tottering and toxic world monetary system after 1918 which had brought on the Great Depression and the ensuing catastrophe of the Second World War, with a new, stable and efficient international financial system to underpin the world economy and ensure that it would not again fall flat on its face. It is a riveting read from beginning to end, and not only for what might be expected of a fat (453 pages) piece of 20th Century economic history.

Where else would you be able to read of a team of American diplomatic negotiators playing volleyball against a team of Russian diplomatic negotiators on a New Hampshire hotel lawn after a fancy lunch ? Deliciously, the Soviets won.

In reading Ed Conway’s book, it was impossible not to be reminded of my time at the University of Cape Town in the 1980s (an era when a resting C.J. Rhodes still ruled the roost) when I taught a first-year course called The Making of the Modern World Economy in its former Department of Economic History, then a gymnasium of Marxist Enlightenment for the suburban middle classes. The course content included the subject of The Summit — the wartime gathering of leading economic policy-makers at Bretton Woods in the USA to construct a co-operative global framework to settle issues of money and capital through international consensus. Even though it was about spinning a safety net for the capitalist world economy, the Soviet Union was a significant party to it all, as this book is at pains to underline. Ensconced in the hastily-refurbished Mount Washington Hotel with numerous other government delegations from countries as diverse as Ethiopia and Colombia, Mikael Stepanov would have done his bit to drain the thousand cases of Coca-Cola shipped in by the American administration.

Mind you, with well over three thousand delegates and accompanying visitors at the conference, he might have had some competition. Apparently, the more raucous delegations were also fond of singing in the bar. How long would its whisky have lasted? Still, if there is a thought to be spared, it ought to go to the 15 panting local boy scouts recruited to run errands for the Bretton Woods throng. Were I to have had the rich pickings of Ed Conway’s book three decades ago, how much less dreary my lectures on ‘World War II and the reconstruction of the world capitalist order’ might have been.

If there is one intellectual figure who straddles these pages like a financial colossus, it is the massively influential British economist, John Maynard Keynes, unquestionably the principle architect of the whole post-World War Two economic order. A genius who predicted that the messy 1919 Treaty of Versailles would bring on another world war, who revolutionised capitalist economic thinking in the 1930s, and who led a global financial settlement to prevent mass depression and World War III, was also a staple of several of those First-Year lectures. Then, the more smarty-pants male undergraduates (from Economics or Commerce rather than Arts) would quibble in class over my pronunciation of the Bloomsbury wizard’s surname. Why was I calling him ‘Cains’ when all their lecturers referred to him as ‘Keens’?

The question was resolved best by turning to poetic rhyme. Or by turning to doggerel verse to instruct them in who was correct. So, I used to set them right by reciting a shrewd slice of British doggerel from the mid-1940s, about a supposed exchange between Britain’s crusty Ambassador to Washington, Lord Halifax, and the glitteringly clever Maynard Keynes. It ran, “One day in Washington, Lord Halifax whispered to Lord Keynes, ‘These Americans may have all the money, but it’s we who have all the brains.'”

That settled how to say the name of the man portrayed accurately by Ed Conway as “a genuine international celebrity, the only household name at Bretton Woods”. And it also illuminated a decisive moment in history as the end of the world war drew near.

For Lord Halifax’s whisper encapsulated perfectly the relationship between a bloated USA and a skinny Britain. To regain its own solvency, and for a devastated world to be re-floated on a raft of progressive new economic and social policies, the Americans would have to be taught by the mercurial Keynes what needed to be done for a future world of currency stability. In thrashing out the famous 1944 Bretton Woods accords, it involved British brains in persuading the Americans to dip into their bulging pockets and to back the US dollar as the new gold or the hub of the world monetary wheel. Keynes himself was acutely aware that that American assistance would come at a price, including that of seeing his country becoming relegated to “a satellite of the United States”. But he knew well that an economic deal would have to be done, whatever the cliff-hanging.

As its copious coverage of diplomatic brinkmanship suggests, The Summit can be enjoyed at more than one level. If you have no wish to pore over the intricate workings of the gold standard or fixed currency exchange rates, Conway’s story of economic diplomacy is an enthralling account of the high-octane dealings between the international delegates in their New England hotel. Once, the Mount Washington was the kind of hotel that would have refused admission to America’s two leading delegates, Harry Dexter White and Henry Morgenthau, because they were Jewish. Now, swallowing extra-hard, it was even hosting Sir Chintaman Desmukh and his Indian delegation. The high-minded and low-minded doings of the representatives of 28 countries who carried the Bretton Woods system into international law at the end of 1945 provide a fabulously entertaining drama of brinkmanship, chance, stubbornness, stupidity, and chessboard skills.

And it goes almost without saying that a book about Bretton Woods without John Maynard Keynes would be like a volume on Mozart which skips over the music. Of the many economically influential men depicted here, he emerges as far and away the most interesting and diverse. After all, who else had as many lives as he, sufficient to make a cat jealous – a Cambridge don, a civil servant, a market speculator, a shrewd businessman, a journalist, a writer, a farmer, a statesman, a theatre manager, an art dealer, a book collector and much more besides. Eton and Cambridge minted his voracious homosexuality. His later marriage to a Russian ballerina, Lydia Lopokova, partial to sunbathing in the nude, was passionately full-blooded. For all the salacious gossip which Keynes’s bohemian sex life attracted, there was, his most recent biographer argues, a serious element to it all. In his 2015 Universal Man: The Seven Lives of John Maynard Keynes, Richard Davenport-Hines suggests that his revolving-door sexuality was a key part of his largeness of mind and its liberalism, a view of the world anchored in tolerance, rationalism, and an optimistic belief in improvement and progress.

In that sense, there may have been a tantalising parallel between John Maynard Keynes’s bedroom liberalism and his impeccably open-handed public demeanour at the Bretton Woods negotiations. One of this book’s many telling vignettes is a photograph of a genial Keynes and an equally genial H.H. Kung, head of the Chinese delegation. “The pair,” Conway assures us, “got along famously”. It was probably no surprise. A descendant of Confucius, and then the wealthiest man in China, it was natural for Kung to sip tea with Keynes. Like the Briton he, too, knew the worth of money, and he, too, liked lavish parties.

Equally, at another level, if you wish to understand the enlightened capitalist economic thinking which led to Keynes becoming an “ism”, as in Keynesianism, The Summits marvellously-titled chapters (like “Bedlam” and “Starvation Corner”), provide a sound guide through the dense thickets of theory. In the seminal 1936 General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, inspired by the Great Depression, Keynes flew his manifesto. Summarised simply by the present author, “when all others in an economy were reluctant to spend”, it was the duty of the government to “step in” and spend, if need be by borrowing to do so. That would “multiply growth across the economy” which would maintain consumption and keep down unemployment.

As prescriptive medicine, that kind of economic management was in the air by the time of Bretton Woods and its belief in a consenting internationalism. It was this utopian moment which produced, shortly thereafter, those institutions meant to be the props of stability, prosperity and growth for the world of market capitalism, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. The world financial system’s increasing reliance on the dollar in the wake of Bretton Woods brought more than glory days. For the West, it ushered in glory years, even decades, of strong growth, low inflation, high employment, and negligible national debt. Of course, this financial bonanza depended on the USA sticking to good housekeeping and dipping into its pockets to ease the plight of economies which ran into trouble.

But, by the end of the 1960s, the cocks were crowing for Washington. For the burdensome costs of the Cold War and the Vietnam conflict were speeding up the end of universal market faith in “the US’s capacity to keep the value of the dollar”. With a fixed value dollar no longer trumps, the world built on Bretton Woods became a house of cards. Or, even more, it became a seething pit in which dog ate dog. In one of his book’s many pungent observations, Conway records that President Richard Nixon did not give a fig about the responsibilities of international economics. As he snapped to an adviser who tried to brief him on Italy’s currency woes: “I don’t give a shit about the lira.

What The Summit terms “the mangled state of the world’s monetary system” today is all a far cry from the world that Bretton Woods had managed to put together again after the crises of depression and war. Conway’s admirable book is a sort of praise-poem to a grand failure of the past century. As his readers are reminded, “in this messy world” what the Mount Washington hotel produced in 1944 was “something hopeful”. The vacuum left by the demise of Bretton Woods continues to gape. Now, as then, the author concludes, “the most important mission facing the world’s politicians and policymakers” is “to repair the world’s economic system and replace it with something better”. To which, surely the only possible response should be – “Amen.”

The Summit is published by Little, Brown.

Nasson is Professor of History at the University of Stellenbosch. His most recent book, World War One and the People of South Africa, was published by Tafelberg in 2014.

Lest we forget, or wonder why


Writing in The Guardian in January 2013, the eminent British journalist Simon Jenkins declared that he needed to “apologise to the Germans. They are about to suffer an avalanche of often sickening Great War memorabilia, often at their own expense”. Then, with the war’s centenary activities already swamping European – and especially British – television viewers and history bestseller readers, Jenkins was already fed up. Not only, he moaned, were there “war horses everywhere”, there were still “four years of it to come”. As he concluded, ‘the essence of the outbreak of the Great War is that it was a sabre-rattling face-off expected to last a month or two… to revel in these squalid miscalculations is gratuitous.”

Returning to this theme in an August 2014 issue of The Guardian, Jenkins again threw up his hands in despair at Britain’s commemoration of the First World War, a literary and visual festival which, in his view, had come to resemble “an indigestible cross between Downton Abbey and a horror movie”. He may well have a point, at least when it comes to endless, vicarious immersion in the gore and the grime of the nightmare world of the trenches.

Still, as even an irritated Jenkins has conceded, the centenary of the global catastrophe of 1914 — 1918 has been marked not only by questionable indulgence. On the upper slopes of a huge centennial literary mountain are new books which tackle what remains one of the war’s more enduring puzzles. They are mostly rather fat, like Margaret Macmillan’s The War That Ended Peace. At a whopping 699 pages, it certainly does go on a bit. And the concern of these volumes is not with the conduct and the experience of the war, nor with its consequences. Instead, what they pick away at is perhaps the most baffling question of all — the causes of that terrible conflagration. Why? Whose fault was it ? How was it that an increasingly educated, prosperous, and advanced Europe could unleash such an unimaginably destructive conflict ? It left millions dead, some of its grandest empires on their knees, countries bankrupted, and parts of the continent either ungovernable or scarcely worth the bother of governing.

Europe’s march towards a world war in 1914 is, of course, a well-ploughed field of historical questioning and debate. For, while there is broad agreement about the consequences of the conflict, its causes have always been a proverbial bone of contention. As we are reminded by Macmillan’s elegant and absorbing account, at the end of the hostilities the victorious Allied states put all the blame on Germany at Versailles. In more recent years, some scholars have blamed France and Britain for an encirclement or a squeezing of Germany. In central Europe a restless and dynamic German nation found itself hemmed in by European rivals who were blocking its ambitions for greater world power. By 1914, Berlin had had enough of being painted into a corner and tried to gain the upper hand, embarking on a war of conquest which aimed at surrounding Germany with Germany.

Today, the consensus over the causes of the war seems to be that there is no real consensus, aside from acceptance of one or other degree of particular German responsibility. Accordingly, even though The War That Ended Peace does not blame Germany alone for what happened, its author suggests that although the ridiculous Kaiser and his scheming generals clearly had more power than anyone else to have prevented disaster in July 1914, they chose to release the dogs of war. In leading us to an understanding of how that fateful choice was made, the twenty chapters of Macmillan’s hefty, sprawling book make up three big themes. Roughly the first third of this volume plots what its author calls “the great diplomatic realignment of Europe”, as the Entente Cordiale of Britain, France and Russia squared up against the Central Powers of Germany, Austria and a puny and unreliable Italy.

The second chunk explores an ambitiously wide political and social environment, one of rampant and increasingly poisonous nationalisms, blind patriotism, and popular beliefs in life as a lethally competitive jungle in which only the fittest would survive. One such belief was that war was not only inevitable but also necessary. For it would purify countries, arrest their slide into moral degeneration, and would renew their national virility. The final third of this gripping story charts the immediate pre-1914 crises of imperialist Europe, like the Franco-German tussle over Morocco and, above all, over the volatile and vicious circumstances of the Balkan countries.

At the heart of a scholarly book bulging with detail, and composed in a reflective and elegant style, are human weaknesses, stupidities, wilfulness and self-delusions. For Professor Macmillan, the signs of these were all around, and they matter greatly when it comes to pointing fingers at those who, despite always having a choice between peace and war, chose war without seeing what it could mean. Thus, Tsar Nicholas II was too weak-willed to stand up to Russia’s generals, who despised him and got their way regardless. The absurd Kaiser Wilhelm was an infantile and “puerile” figure, whose idea of a joke was to smack the bum of the king of Bulgaria in public or to pull the ears and pat the bald heads of other foreign statesmen. General Alfred von Schlieffen, architect of the famous clockwork Schlieffen Plan which was supposed to produce German victory in double-quick time, had both age and injury against him. Already 75 in the decade before the war, he was kicked by a friend’s horse and was laid up for months, dreaming of a retirement that was slow in coming. With men such as these lies a colossal failure of imagination, an inability to sense the disaster to which their actions were leading.

Richly detailed and insightful, The War That Ended Peace is history on an epic scale. Digesting it all may require the stamina for a lot of chewing. Arguably, too, anyone with an interest in the First World War may find themselves marching across some fairly familiar ground. That notwithstanding, the story of what led to this fundamental tragedy of the 20th century has perhaps never been told before in so sensible, so meticulous, and so enthralling a manner.

The War That Ended Peace is published by Profile Books and is available from