James Farmer

Legal Commentary

Armistice Day and Its Sequel

Wednesday, November 14, 2018
The centenary ceremony for Armistice Day, 11 November 1918, at Auckland Domain, set amidst over 18,000 white crosses representing every New Zealand service man or woman who was killed in World War I, was predictably moving.  There is a view that World War I represents the birth of the nation of New Zealand.  Probably an exaggeration but I have always thought that the two World Wars are hugely significant in New Zealand’s history and in shaping who we are.   My father drove tanks and slept in trenches in North Africa, Crete and Italy in World War II and my boyhood was shaped by his stories and photographs from “the War”.   

Not surprisingly, therefore, I was critical in the first piece that I wrote for this blog over 7 years ago (8 August 2011) of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Morse case in which that Court overturned a conviction for offensive behaviour under the Summary Offences Act, a conviction that had been upheld by the High Court and the Court of Appeal.  In protesting against New Zealand military participation in Afghanistan, Morse had burned the New Zealand flag in an Anzac Day Dawn Parade in Wellington which had been attended by 5000 people.  Subsequently, in a chapter that I wrote in The Supreme Court of New Zealand 2004-2013 (ed. Russell and Barber, 2015, Thomson Reuters, p.88), I said:

"To those who grew up in the aftermath of the Second World War and conscious of the sacrifices made by New Zealanders in both the First and Second World Wars, Anzac Day is part of the fabric of this Nation.   That is true even of those who are the descendants of that generation, as witnessed by the increasing attendances at Anzac Day parades.  Given that expression of public sentiment, which it is submitted is an obvious one, the Supreme Court’s judgments in Morse must raise real questions of the ability of appellate judges who are far removed from the day-to-day world of ordinary New Zealanders to interpret and apply statutes that are said to embody New Zealand values.”

Some 4 years later (5 August 2015), I referred in another piece to a book that I had bought in a second hand book shop while on holiday in the United States written by the great English economist John Maynard Keynes called The Economic Consequences of the Peace (first published by Macmillan, London, 1920; republished Dover, 2004).  At the time that I was on holiday, led by Germany, a hard line was being taken in the European Community against Greece for its inability to repay debt.   Ironically, it was the hard line that the Allied Powers had taken to German reparation after Armistice Day that resulted in the Treaty of Versailles which imposed such an economic burden on Germany that (it is accepted) led ultimately to World War II.

Keynes was a senior Treasury official with the British delegation at the Versailles Peace Conference in Paris.  His was a dissenting voice against the revengeful tide that sought economic reparation from Germany that Keynes correctly saw it had no means of fulfilling.   He in fact left the Conference in protest at the excessive demands that the participating countries, including Britain, the United States and France were making and wrote his famous work which was published in December 2019.

The prose of Keynes’ work is powerful.  Consider:

"There are few episodes in history which posterity will have less reason to condone, - a war ostensibly waged in defence of the sanctity of international engagements ending in a definite breach of one of the most sacred possible of such engagements on the part of the victorious champions of these ideals….

"I believe that the campaign for securing out of Germany the general costs of the war was one of the most serious acts of political unwisdom for which our statesmen have been responsible.  To what a different future Europe might have looked forward if either Mr Lloyd George or Mr [Woodrow] Wilson had apprehended that the most serious of the problems which claimed their attention were not political or territorial but financial and economic, and that the perils of the future lay not in frontiers or sovereignties but in food, coal, and transport.  Neither of them paid adequate attention to these problems at any stage of the Conference.” (p.134)

"There can have been few negotiations in history so contorted, so miserable, so utterly unsatisfactory to all parties.  I doubt if any one who took much part in that debate can look back on it without shame.” (p.139)

The lessons of Versailles and its disastrous economic consequences that paved the way to the populism of the Nazi Party were, fortunately, heeded at the end of World War II when, under Keynes’ influence before he died in 1946 the United States and Britain undertook an ambitious rebuilding programme (the Economic Recovery Plan, commonly known as the Marshall Plan) that led to solid democratic government in Germany, Italy and Japan.

Wind forward to today.  Germany has set an example to the World by accepting massive numbers of refugees  – 1.1 million in 2015 (with 890,000 being granted political asylum) and large (though smaller) numbers in later years but now faces significant economic and social consequences of that humanitarian decision which may yet threaten its commitment to democracy if that decision provokes the rise again of populism.  

The refugee problem is mostly the result of continuing states of warfare – internal as well as external.   One may wonder therefore what the “ultimate sacrifice” that New Zealand soldiers paid achieved if it wasn’t the end of war?   An idealistic – but valid – response would be that the sacrifice was to maintain our belief in democratic values, which the authoritarian and despotic States of Germany (and in World War II Japan) and its allies threatened.   As Keynes foresaw, however, the Treaty of Versailles made a mockery of the efforts of the Allied Forces in World War I.   As noted, however, finally wiser counsel prevailed after World War II.

For anyone who believes that democratic principles are the best hope for World peace, Condoleeza Rice’s recent book, Democracy – Stories from the Long Road to Freedom (2017) – is essential reading.  Whether one likes it or not (and taking due cognisance of the Vietnam War and other American military interventions), US foreign policy and its willingness to engage in global democracy promotion programmes, is a key part to achieving that hope.  It was Rice, as Secretary of State to President George W Bush, who endeavoured to shift the direction of the cause of democracy more towards diplomacy and aid, a movement which the Obama Administration continued.  In praising Rice’s new book and calling her “the keeper of the flame”, Professor Walter Mead, in his New York Times review, questions however whether the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States on an “America First” ticket “makes democracy promotion perhaps the most endangered element of the ‘new world order’ agenda”.   

Thus do we see the links between Armistice Day, John Maynard Keynes, the Treaty of Versailles, Adolf Hitler, the Marshall Plan, the refugee crisis, US foreign policy and Donald Trump.  The “ultimate sacrifice” still leaves open the question: for what?

14 November 2018

Jim Farmer

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