In case you haven’t noticed, this year marks the 100-year anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. Visit a bookstore, and you’re likely to be greeted at the entrance by scores of books devoted to explaining how the assassination of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand sparked a European conflagration. Search beyond the piles at the front of the store, and, if you’re lucky, you may even find books that explore the war outside of its European context.
But in a year full of books devoted to the centenary of the war, few works have been so eagerly anticipated as that of historian Adam Tooze, whose The Deluge: The Great War, America, and the Remaking of the Global Order 1916-1931 has recently appeared on bookshelves on both sides of the Atlantic. Tooze has long been well-known to specialists on European economic and intellectual history since his earlier work on statistics and state-making in Germany. To more general readers, however, he may be better known for his 2008 The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy, which secured his reputation as one of the leading historians of German and European history writing today.
Economic history may have a reputation as dusty, dry, and, well, boring in some quarters today. But in Wages, Tooze showed how an economic history perspective was crucial to understanding Nazi grand strategy and even the origins of the Holocaust itself. More than that, Wages relocated the pivotal place of the United States in the worldview of Adolf Hitler and other leading Nazi figures. As the United States emerged as a qualitatively new force in global affairs, anyone seeking to shape the global order had to draw lessons from the new colossus. Figures like Hitler recognized that “American economic might would be the decisive factor in the shaping of the world order.” More than that, the American challenge was a new political and economic formation on a new scale, “a consolidated federal republic of continental scale, a super-sized nation state” that, thanks to its might and geography, “had a unique claim and capacity to exert global influence.”
The American entrance into European and global affairs really took on full shape concomitant to the First World War–an insight that drives much of The Deluge, and which explains its temporal framing. 1916 was the year when American economic output exceeded that of the British Empire, 1931 the year of Herbert Hoover’s moratorium on war debts. As commentators today question whether we might be entering a “post-American century,” understanding how the American giant burst onto the global scene in the first place is all the more urgent. The Toynbee Prize Foundation had the opportunity to sit down with Tooze recently to discuss his path to history, the book, and his future projects for this installment of Global History Forum.