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Aug 2010 Journal

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Untimely demises

The resignation of David Laws, the Liberal Democrat who served briefly as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, had the potential seriously to destabilise David Cameron’s coalition government. Laws, with his experience of the financial world and evident willingness to take the hard decisions necessary to bring down the British government’s budget deficit, had seemed to be an almost ideal candidate for the post until a scandal arising from his private life brought him low.

An instructive lesson from the past can be drawn from the experience of Edward Heath’s government, which came to power in June 1970 and almost immediately lost its key figure, Chancellor of the Exchequer Iain Macleod, who died of a heart attack the following month. Macleod was a man of exceptional intellectual gifts whose advocacy of progressive causes like the abolition of the death penalty earned him the hostility of the Tory right. The Marquess of Salisbury memorably dismissed him as ‘too clever by half’ – as if it were better for the country to be governed by intellectual mediocrities from the ‘right’ social background.

Whether Macleod could have averted the disasters that befell the Heath government will never be known. But his successor at the Treasury, Anthony Barber, lacked the understanding of economic and financial matters necessary to overcome the deep-seated problems that had faced every British government since the war and had by 1970 assumed critical proportions, in the form of a spectacularly inflationary wage-price spiral and a tidal wave of industrial unrest. The situation called for a Treasury heavyweight, as Dennis Healey would turn out to be (after the crisis of 1976 that saw Britain go cap-in-hand to the IMF), or as Kenneth Clarke proved to be after the debacle of Norman Lamont’s ‘Black Wednesday’ in 1992.

The sudden death of Hugh Gaitskell in January 1963 at the age of 56 removed a leader of the Labour Party who had the proven determination to address the key question of Britain’s economic competitiveness. Had he lived, Gaitskell would have become prime minister with the Labour victory at the election of October 1964. Instead, the reins of government fell into the hands of Harold Wilson, a masterly political operator but one who lacked any strategic vision for the British economy. When in 1969 his Secretary of State for Employment, Barbara Castle, presented her White Paper ‘In Place of Strife’, designed to refashion Britain’s system of industrial relations and reduce its ruinous level of industrial disputes, Wilson ducked the issue and failed to back Castle. Whether Gaitskell would have acted differently remains an open question.

The deaths of Macleod and Gaitskell did not have the same consequences beyond their own domestic sphere as the untimely departures of two major German figures. In both those cases, their deaths removed men whose hold on power, had it been prolonged, might have changed the course of European history. Gustav Stresemann, who died on 3 October 1929 aged only 51, was the man who had, more than anyone else, held the democratic parties of the centre together in their stand against the right- and left-wing enemies of the Weimar Republic. His death, in the same month as the Wall Street Crash, whose aftershocks were to devastate the German economy, removed what was probably the most effective political obstacle to Hitler’s rise to power.

Stresemann was well placed to act as the lynchpin of a pro-republican coalition, precisely because he carried credibility with the more moderate elements of the anti-republican right. He had taken a stridently right-wing stance during the First World War and, after the collapse of the monarchy in 1918, had succeeded in thwarting the merger of his German People’s Party (DVP), the party of the right-wing liberals, with the left-liberal Democratic Party (DDP). But the clear-sighted Stresemann gradually came to see that Germany’s interests were best served by shoring up the young republic, ensuring stability at home and peace in Europe and avoiding the dangerous adventurism espoused by right- and left-wing extremists. He was the classic Vernunftrepublikaner, the politician who supported the Republic with his head, if not with his heart.

Stresemann’s party joined the governing coalition in November 1922, just before the crisis year of 1923, which began with the French occupation of the Ruhr in January. The German government, militarily powerless, responded with the policy of ‘passive resistance’, which led to the collapse of the German currency and unleashed the notorious hyper-inflation that rendered the Mark virtually worthless. Faced with these catastrophes and the dangerous erosion of government authority, Stresemann assumed the offices of chancellor and foreign minister on 13 August 1923, at the head of a coalition that included all the republican parties from the DVP on the right to the Social Democrats on the left.

Remarkably, Stresemann’s government succeeded in overcoming the daunting challenges confronting it. The policy of passive resistance was dropped, opening the way to a settlement with the French. The economy was stabilised by the ending of inflation, through the introduction of a new currency. Finally, the Communist attempt to mount an armed coup in Saxony and Thuringia was defeated, as was the more dangerous threat from right-wing forces in Bavaria, which dissolved with the abject failure of Hitler’s beer-hall putsch in Munich in November 1923.

Though Stresemann resigned as chancellor in November 1923, he remained foreign minister until his death, under no less than eight governments. Under his guidance, Germany was readmitted to the European family of nations, signing the Treaty of Locarno with the powers of Western Europe in 1925 and taking its place in the League of Nations in 1926. Even the thorny problem of German reparations was resolved in 1924 by the Dawes Plan, which regulated Germany’s payments. The general elections of May 1928 brought a clear victory for the pro-republican parties, opening the way for a Grand Coalition under the Social Democrat Hermann Müller to take power. But by September 1930, Stresemann was dead, the coalition government had fallen apart, and the Nazis had achieved their political breakthrough, winning 107 seats in the elections of that month, the platform that would lift Hitler to power.

It is equally intriguing to recreate the historical scenario that might have developed had the German Emperor, Friedrich III, not died in 1888 at the age of 56, a mere 99 days after ascending to the throne. For Friedrich was a liberal by conviction and had during his long years as crown prince made no secret of his disapproval of the semi-autocratic system devised by Otto von Bismarck, the first chancellor of a united Germany, and of his desire to reform that system so as to bring it closer to the British model of parliamentary government. Friedrich was married to Victoria (‘Vicky’), the eldest daughter of Queen Victoria.

Bismarck was Friedrich’s sworn enemy and succeeded in having him excluded from the process of political decision-making. In this he was able to count on the support of Friedrich’s father, Emperor Wilhelm I, formerly King of Prussia, a conservative of the old school with the narrow political outlook of the Prussian military nobility. He was a man of modest intellectual gifts who mostly followed his chancellor’s line, though sometimes after a struggle. Wilhelm I lived to the age of 90, dying on 9 March 1888, 17 years after he had been crowned emperor at the already advanced age of 71. By then Friedrich was already terminally ill with cancer of the larynx; he died on 15 June 1888. He was succeeded by his son, the 29-year-old Emperor Wilhelm II, unstable, unpredictable and hostile to his father’s Anglophile projects, who was to preside over the period of rising international tension and the escalating arms race that culminated in the First World War.

Whether Friedrich would have succeeded in changing the course of German policy at home and abroad has been a matter of dispute among historians ever since. Some have maintained that he lacked the strength and independence of mind to effect the major reforms that would have transformed the intractably illiberal German empire into a genuine parliamentary democracy. It is also doubtful whether anyone could have diverted Imperial Germany from the expansionist course that ultimately drove it into war against a coalition of great powers - Britain, France and Russia (joined in 1917 by the USA).

But the kind of Anglophile policy that Friedrich would have favoured might well have removed the two principal causes of tension with Britain: the German acquisition of an overseas colonial empire and, above all, the development of a powerful German navy. There were no other major issues of conflict between Germany and Britain; and, given the meagre benefits that Germany obtained from both its colonies and its navy, it is at the least arguable that a more sensible emperor than Wilhelm II might have reined back Germany’s march into confrontation with Britain. Had that been the case, there would have been no First World War, and very likely no Hitler and no Second World War either.
 

Anthony Grenville

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