Wednesday, July 1, 2009

1919: Events with Unintended Consequences

Could 1919 have been the worst year in history? Many people were thinking, "Peace at last!" no doubt. The Great War was over. But with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles events were set in motion that would give Adolph Hitler a receptive hearing and the fuel that propelled his mad, devastating career.

Certainly John Maynard Keynes foresaw this. In his Economic Consequences of the Peace Keynes severely criticized the Versailles Treaty for its vindictiveness, especially as relates to the impossibly high reparations levied against the Germans among other things. Keynes anticipated the ruin of Europe that would devolve from the economic hardships that were being set in motion.

The war reduced the German economy to shambles and a British enforced blockade made it impossible for Germany to feed its own people. With imports squelched, tens of thousands of Germans were starving, with more every year. When Berlin appealed for 2.5 million tons of food to feed her people, they were denied and the death tolls continued to rise straight through into the post-war peace. The cruelty of this hardship alone was such that British soldiers in Germany after the war pleaded for assistance from Britain. Even when the U.S. Congress approved 100 million dollars in food aid in 1919, it never reached the hungry and starving.

The great flu pandemic of 1918-19 undoubtedly distracted Americans from being overly concerned about Germany's woes. The global communications infrastructure was not in place as it is today. There were no network news broadcasts, though I am sure some of this reached the paper. No Yahoo Buzz or Twitter to follow trending topics such as Germany starvation or Armenian genocide.

Wait, it would appear I have my dates wrong. The Armenian genocide which resulted in 1.5 million deaths at the hands of Ottoman Turks took place from 1915-1918. (Slaughter of Armenians did continue into the 1920's.) The rest of the world had been distracted at this time by its own Great War. Could this slaughter have occurred had it been during another period of time? Or were the Ottoman's just being opportunists?

On the home front, in 1919 Prohibition kicked in with the 18th Amendment, thus giving birth to the gangsterism of Al Capone and all the rest. More unintended consequences.

Even Einstein's proof of the Theory of Relativity had unintended consequences as the notion of relativity was eventually mis-applied, with corrosive effect, into the realm of morals and ethics.

Maybe it wasn't the worst year in history, but it has a lot of reason to get nominated to this ignominious honor.

What year would you call history's worst? And, of course, why?

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