Seeds of War

A while back, our colleague, Chris Mayer, employed a wonderful analogy to illustrate the passage of time from the roaring twenties through to the dustbowl thirties. The former decade, Chris explained, was captured in essence by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. It was a period ripe with wild speculation, fueled by an explosion in EZ money, and of reckless excesses in general. (If any of this sounds familiar, you can probably already guess the point at which Chris was driving.)

Then, almost as quickly as it had begun, the party ended. Black Tuesday, October 1929, was somewhat akin to calling “closing time” at the Gatsby mansion cocktail party. Markets crashed, the public panicked and central planners did everything in their power to exacerbate the situation they themselves had caused in the first place.

The decade that ensued was perhaps best captured, observed Chris, in John Steinbeck’s memorable Grapes of Wrath. The parched plains…“Oakie” drifters…the all-too common hardships of the farm folk… We all remember the scenes as if we had lived through those heartbreaking years ourselves. A bit of a Steinbeck enthusiast himself, your editor has spent a good while mulling over Chris’ astute comparison. The imagery contained in those two momentous works, both Steinbeck’s and Fitzgerald’s, are so vivid that the reader almost feels he can touch the characters, taste the champagne and, eventually, feel the anguish and despair of the stricken Joads.

If you didn’t guess it earlier, the point Chris was making was simply that history tends to repeat itself. The Gatsby years, for instance, might not have been so different from those of the late 1990s – early ’00s; a period of excesses, frivolity and of “irrational exuberance” as Greenspan, the man largely responsible for causing it, noted (though he did so before it had actually materialized, in a typically ill-timed speech delivered back in 1996…before the market more than doubled over the ensuing four years. Oy…). And now, with our own depression unfolding, central governments around the world move to centralize power, to clamp down on free economies and to limit the corrective forces of the marketplace…thereby virtually assuring we will enter another Steinbeck-esque stage, if we haven’t already done so.

As we look around the world today, we wonder if we can’t draw a few more parallels between the early to mid-20th century and the time in which we now find ourselves. And, perhaps hidden within these folds of time, we might discover some clues as to where we are headed in the not-so-distant future. If we’re moving towards a Grapes of Wrath-like scenario, in other words, what comes afterwards?

While Gatsby’s crowd was swinging to the smooth sounds of the roaring twenties in the USA, another man was wallowing away in a dank cell on the other side of the world. Having failed in his attempted November revolution in Munich (1923), the “political prisoner” (as he called himself), set to work dictating his life’s philosophy. The Weimer Republic, still recovering from the nation’s disastrous expeditions abroad during the previous decade, had just suffered through one of the most infamous hyperinflationary spirals in history. It wasn’t until then foreign minister, Gustav Stresemann, issued a new currency, the Rentenmark, that his republic began what is now referred to as the “Golden Era” (1923 and 1929). But even during this period, unemployment grew in step with the republic’s mounting foreign debts and discontent among the working class brewed. If ever a megalomaniacal dictator was to sway the masses, now was the time to make his stand.

Although it was published in two parts during the twenties, the prisoner’s work didn’t garner any real, widespread attention until its author ascended to power in 1933. That man, of course, was Adolf Hitler. His book: Mein Kampf. During the Führer’s reign of terror, his book came to be available in three common editions. First, there was the Volksausgabe or “People’s Edition.” This was the most commonly circulated. Then came the Hochzeitsausgabe, or “Wedding Edition” which was given free to marrying couples. And finally, in 1940, the Tornister-Ausgabe was released; a compact, though unabridged edition which was available at post offices, where it could be sent to Nazi family members fighting on the front lines. Tragically for many a sorry soul, the 1940s were to be defined by the work of one of the century’s most infamous authors, Adolf Hitler.

That decade, as everyone knows, was more or less an unmitigated disaster for most of the world. From the islands of Japan to the bloodied desert sands of Northern Africa…the streets of Paris to the burning gates of Stalingrad, the devastation seemed unrelenting. Track marks from Russian T-34s, German Panzers and American M4 Sherman tanks crisscrossed Europe from end to sodden end. And, in the midst of it all, a brave little girl, hidden away in a secret annex with her family in The Netherlands, sat down to pen her own prisoner’s memoir.

Fast-forward to today and we find ourselves in a situation eerily similar to that of the early ’30s. Tensions in Europe are once again heating up over the possible collapse of its relatively nascent monetary union experiment. Nations there have, as they are wont to do, overspent their kitty. This time it is Greece, Italy, Ireland, Portugal and Spain, whose balance sheets are coming apart at the seams, that threaten to drag the financial credibility of the whole continent asunder. Workers in Greece are on strike over austerity measures their government has undertaken to try to manage its budget. Disgruntled protestors numbering in the tens of thousands marched through the streets of Athens this week.

Elsewhere on the continent, air traffic controllers in France are off the job…as are thousands of British Airways workers over in the United Kingdom. Another 70,000 discontents thronged the squares of Madrid…and 50,000 in Barcelona. Workers in Ireland and Portugal are itching to join the queue. And that’s just the kerfuffle in Europe!


Joel Bowman
for The Daily Reckoning