‘Weimar America’? The Trump Show Is No Cabaret

 Detractors have been equating the U.S. with 1920s Germany for 85 years, and they are still wrong.

“Life is a cabaret, old chum,” sang Sally Bowles in the musical based on Christopher Isherwood’s “Berlin Stories.” I suspect the movie version of “Cabaret,” which won Liza Minnelli the Oscar for best actress, is the nearest older Americans ever got to the Weimar Republic.

Still, it’s not a bad place to start, if you want to talk Weimar and its relevance to Donald Trump’s America.

From the camp decadence of the Kit Kat Klub to the chilling rendition of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” by the blond Hitler Youth in the beer garden, “Cabaret” provides the essentials: a diseased democracy, swept away by the irresistible temptations of ethnic nationalism, political violence and demagogy.

America’s founding fathers knew their ancient and modern history. They understood very well the tendency for republics to slide into tyranny — hence Benjamin Franklin’s supposed reply to the anxious lady who asked him which form of government the Constitutional Convention of 1787 had decided on: “A republic, if you can keep it.”

Yet no example known to Franklin’s generation could match the Weimar Republic as a warning from history. That is why, within a few years of its collapse in 1933, Americans had adopted Weimar as their very own nightmare scenario.

Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel and play “It Can’t Happen Here” launched the genre we might call “Weimerica.” Inspired by his wife Dorothy Thompson’s experiences as a foreign correspondent in Germany, and her observation of the ambitious and charismatic Louisiana Senator Huey Long, Lewis imagined the sudden collapse of the New Deal and the advent, under the dictatorial leadership of the bombastic Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, of an American Third Reich. 

Windrip’s ideology, devised with the assistance of his Goebbels-like press secretary, Lee Sarason, is “The Fifteen Points of Victory for the Forgotten Men.” They form “a nationwide league of Windrip marching-clubs, to be called the Minute Men,” with a uniform suggesting “the pioneer America of Cold Harbor and of the Indian fighters under Miles and Custer,” and a five-pointed star as their swastika. The Constitution is swept aside, the free market replaced by a corrupt corporatism, the free press stifled. Darkness descends.

Weimerica has recurred in dystopian fiction: in Stephen King’s “The Running Man” (1982), Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” (1985), Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America” (2004) and Suzanne Collins’s “The Hunger Games” (2008). In each case, although the focus is on life in a fascist America, there is a version of the Weimar back story, for without the degeneration of the republic, the rise of the dictatorship is inexplicable. (For some reason, the Weimar syndrome rarely claims dear old Canada, which provides a bolt-hole for the U.S. resistance.)

So when my old friend Andrew Sullivan urged us last month “to be frank” about recent developments in American politics and admit that it is all “very Weimar,” he was adding to an 85-year-old tradition.

“The center has collapsed,” Sullivan wrote. “Armed street gangs of far right and far left are at war on the streets. Tribalism is intensifying in every nook and cranny of the culture. The establishment right and mainstream left tolerate their respective extremes because they hate each other so much.”

It's not the first time Sullivan has made the Weimerica argument. Six months before the 2016 election, he warned that “our paralyzed, emotional hyperdemocracy” was leading “the stumbling, frustrated, angry voter toward the chimerical panacea of Trump” — and from there to tyranny.

The problem with Weimerica is that we’ve imagined it too many times. Roger Cohen beat Sullivan to the punch with a New York Times column in December 2015. “Welcome to Weimar America,” wrote Cohen. “Welcome to an angry nation stung by two lost wars, its politics veering to the extremes, its mood vengeful, beset by decades of stagnant real wages for most people, tempted by a strongman who would keep all Muslims out and vows to restore American greatness.”

In March 2016, the historian Eric Weitz argued that the real lesson of Weimar was the danger that arises “when traditional or moderate conservatives throw in their lot with … anti-democratic, radical conservatives,” rendering them respectable — or, as the Germans would say, salonfaehig.

Note, however, that Weimerica is not an especially left-wing idea. Shortly after Trump’s election, Rod Dreher made the argument in the American Conservative that the pathologies the U.S. shares with Weimar were as much cultural as economic. It is more as a Catholic conservative than as a former Obama fanboy that Sullivan abhors Trump.

Nor is Weimerica an idea confined to American commentary. British and Russian scholars have drawn similar analogies. And it would not be difficult to find multiple examples of the same analogy in the journalism of the 1970s.

Yet no amount of repetition will erase the enormous differences between the U.S. today and Germany 90 years ago. Not many people are left who remember the original Weimar Republic, born in 1919 after the revolutionary ouster of Kaiser Wilhelm II and condemned to death 14 years later with Hitler’s appointment as chancellor. Last week, I asked one eminent American who was born in Germany in 1923 what he thought. It was a parallel that had crossed Henry Kissinger’s mind more than once in the turbulent times of the late 1960s and early 1970s. His view today: Americans are “nowhere near as alienated from their democratic system” as Germans in the 1920s.

As a certified Weimar scholar (it was the subject of my Ph.D. dissertation) I can think of at least seven reasons why that is right.

Let’s start with political violence. Yes, we have seen too much of that in the U.S. this year, most recently in Portland, Oregon, and Kenosha, Wisconsin. And yet there is a huge difference between the chaotic scenes we have witnessed in those and other locations and the German street battles of the early 1930s.

As a high proportion of adult German men had served in World War I, the paramilitary forces such as the Nazi Sturmabteilung and the Communist Rotfrontkampferbund were not only uniformed and (up to a point) disciplined, they were also competent at violence in a way that today’s Antifa and Proud Boy types manifestly are not. In the early years of the Weimar Republic, so-called Freikorps of demobilized but not disarmed soldiers essentially carried on the war on the Eastern Front. The Organization Consul, a right-wing paramilitary, was responsible for more than 350 assassinations of democratic politicians, including Finance Minister Matthias Erzberger and Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau.

Second, historians of the left have tended to argue that Hitler did not seize power but was handed it by Germany’s fundamentally conservative elites, who never accepted the revolutionary transition to democracy that had happened in 1918–1919. It is certainly true that by the early 1930s, there was substantial support for the Nazis in the military, the senior civil service and the universities.

Today’s American elites are quite different. You will look in vain for strong pro-Trump sentiment in the American officer corps and indeed in the military more generally. To an extent that is baffling, Trump has repeatedly expressed his contempt for martial values in general and distinguished American veterans in particular. We knew this already from his sneering at John McCain in 2015, but the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg vividly reminded us of it last week.

In the annals of all history, never mind German history, it is hard to think of a would-be tyrant intent on overthrowing a republican constitution who referred to the fallen in past conflicts as “losers” and “suckers,” and reportedly asked a war hero’s father, a member of his own cabinet: “What was in it for them?”

But then, as Matt Taibbi pointed out last week, Trump isn’t a would-be tyrant. He’s a renegade snake-oil salesman who discovered that the shameless self-marketing techniques he’d developed in real estate and reality television could be deployed to devastating effect in politics.

And if you think the generals hate Trump, they’ve got nothing on professional civil servants, who in turn have got nothing on university professors. Fact: Hillary Clinton got 91% of the votes in the District of Columbia in 2016. The numbers of Harvard, Princeton and Yale faculty members who voted for Trump must have been in the single digits, which perhaps explains why the Princeton Election Consortium thought Clinton had a 93% chance of victory on the eve of the election. It really, really wasn’t like this in Germany in 1932.

Here’s a third reason. Yes, the U.S. economy has suffered three recessions in the past 20 years, with unemployment exceeding 10% in two of them. But inflation has been so low that the Federal Reserve can’t hit a 2% inflation target.

Compare and contrast: The Weimar Republic suffered one of the worst hyperinflation episodes in all of financial history in 1922–1923. It then suffered one of the worst deflation episodes between 1929 and 1933. Unemployment rose to 24% in early 1932 and remained above 20% into 1933. Having destroyed the currency with rampant deficit finance and money printing in the early 1920s, policymakers felt unable to offset the external shock of the Great Depression in the ways that U.S. governments have been able to mitigate the effects of the financial crisis after 2008 and the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.

Reason four why I don’t believe we’re Weimerica: Unlike almost every other democracy in the world, the U.S. retains the two-party system that it imported from Britain. The history of party politics in the Weimar Republic was just the opposite. Thanks to a system of proportional representation, there were multiple parties from the outset, and their number only increased in the wake of the hyperinflation. A total of 41 parties contested the May 1928 federal election.

This fragmentation in the mid-1920s was then followed by a terrifying consolidation of support for explicitly antidemocratic parties: the Nazis and the Communists. In July 1932, the two together won more than half the popular vote. One key to the Nazis’ success was that they mopped up support from most of the splinter parties of 1928.

Fifth: The Weimar constitution was very novel. It had been drafted in the revolutionary confusion of 1919 and had a number of serious structural weaknesses, notably Article 48, which allowed the directly elected president of the republic to rule by decree in an emergency, bypassing the parliament, or Reichstag. Say what you like about American politics, the Constitution of 1787 has stood the test of time and its defining feature remains the limits it places on the executive branch.

The sixth and perhaps most important difference between Weimar and the U.S. today lies in the international circumstances. The Weimar Republic came into existence because Germany lost World War I and the victorious Allies refused to negotiate with representatives of the old imperial regime, intent as they were on blaming the war on the kaiser and his ministers. That notion of “war guilt” was the basis of the vast reparations debt envisaged in the Treaty of Versailles and determined in the London Ultimatum of 1921. The legitimacy of all three elements of the new order — defeat, republic and reparations — was simply never accepted by a significant proportion of the German population.

By comparison, the U.S. today faces nothing more than the normal headaches of being the world’s biggest economy and dominant geopolitical power. As in the 1930s, many Americans dislike having to contend with problems in faraway places of which they know little. In their different ways, both Trump and his predecessor, Barack Obama, offered a retreat from the quasi-imperial ambitions of the neoconservatives in the administration of President George W. Bush. But the rise of China has made a retreat into isolationism less and less likely, even if that is Trump’s basic instinct.

Which brings us back, last but not least, to Trump, whose worldview and political style are so much closer to vintage American nativism and populism that I have the utmost difficulty understanding why any educated person would liken him to Hitler. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: You don’t need the Weimar Republic to explain the appeal to many American voters of immigration restriction, tariffs and a culture war directed against a “globalist” elite — not to mention the loosest monetary policy in American history. That recipe is the essence of American populism. It has almost nothing in common with interwar German fascism, which was about racial persecution and ultimately annihilation, economic autarky and actual war (hence all the uniforms and jackboots).

That is not to say that we have nothing at all to learn from the Germany of a century ago. Among the authors of the Weimar constitution was Max Weber, the great sociologist. (He was one of those who favored a powerful presidency, perhaps imperfectly understanding the American system.) I have been thinking a lot this year about Weber’s vision of modernity — of a world “demystified” by the advance of science, of an economy liberated from the “cage” of the Protestant ethic, of business and government run on the “rational-legal” basis of bureaucracy, of academic life as a “vocation” that should be divorced from politics. The constitution Weber helped draft did not last long. His vision of modernity, by contrast, was largely fulfilled in much of the world in the course of the 20th century.

Increasingly, I think, we are leaving that Weberian modernity behind. In the new post-Weber world, magical thinking is eroding the supremacy of science, a version of the Protestant ethic of work and thrift has been reincarnated in East Asia, corporate and bureaucratic governance is yielding to charismatic leadership (think Elon Musk as much as Donald Trump), and academia is being politicized to death. But these are global trends. They have little, if anything, to do with Weimar.

Godwin’s Law (formulated by Mike Godwin in 1990) states that “as an online discussion continues, the probability of a reference or comparison to Hitler or Nazis approaches 1.” In one of our vitriolic debates during the financial crisis — it was in Seoul in 2010 — Paul Krugman proposed “a macroeconomic version of Godwin’s Law: the first person to bring up the Weimar hyperinflation is considered to have lost the debate.” This did not prevent him, five years later, from bringing up the Weimar deflation of 1930-1932 to trample on arguments for austerity in Greece. 

Krugman should have stuck to his own rule. Just as the eurozone crisis did not drive Greek democracy over the brink — on the contrary, Greece now has one of the best center-right governments in Europe — so, too, America seems likely to survive its latest brush with the Weimar analogy. Life, it turns out, isn’t always “Cabaret.” Whether the world as a whole can survive this new, post-Weberian era is another question.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

The first coronavirus error was keeping calm

 Early complacency exacerbated the crisis, but it’s not the only mistake

In the panic of the pandemic, we are making a lot of category errors. A category error, or mistake, is a term coined by the Oxford philosopher Gilbert Ryle. In The Concept of Mind (1949), he gives a very English example. “A foreigner watching his first game of cricket learns what are the functions of the bowlers, the batsmen, the fielders, the umpires and the scorers. He then says, ‘But there is no one left on the field to contribute the famous element of team-spirit.’ ” Ryle went on to make his most famous point, that René Descartes was wrong to represent the human mind as a “ghost in the machine” — something distinct from the body. We no more have separate minds than a cricket team has a 12th player with the job of boosting the others’ morale.

Still, if the ghost of Ryle will forgive me, our minds today seem to be in a state of great confusion about what may befall our bodies. We are suddenly fearful of the invisible yet seemingly ubiquitous coronavirus. Yet we struggle to think clearly and to act consistently.

When I first warned readers of this column in January to “brace yourself for a coronavirus pandemic”, I was widely seen as an eccentric. Now, according to a CNN poll published last week, a “majority of Americans (55%) say it is at least somewhat likely that someone in their local community will be infected with novel coronavirus in the next few weeks”.

On January 29, I warned the clients of my advisory firm, Greenmantle, that “financial markets have not priced in the extent of the Chinese economic slowdown that the coronavirus — and Beijing’s belatedly aggressive response to it — imply”. Only a minority of them paid heed; as recently as 12 days ago, one was still mocking me as “a Debbie Downer, Fergie Frowner”. I’m still frowning. Despite Friday afternoon’s whistling past the graveyard, US stocks are down 20% from their peak.

The first category error I observe today is that many investors, seeing the extraordinary market volatility of the past week — which rivals the financial spasms of 1987, 2001 and 2008 — conclude that they are in a financial crisis. They therefore expect central bankers and finance ministers to deal with it, as they dealt with the last one.

But this is not a true financial crisis; it is a public health emergency with financial symptoms. Monetary and fiscal stimulus is no more likely to halt the pandemic than a quarantine of Wall Street would have halted the great banking panic of September 2008. No amount of quantitative easing and deficit spending can avert a recession in America if Covid-19 is spreading through the population at an exponential rate and if the combination of prudent cancellations and consumer panic will bring much economic activity to a halt.

An earlier category error was to confuse demagogy with leadership. I was not one of those who defiantly persisted with “never Trump” after the current occupant of the White House won the Republican nomination in 2016. I was more of a “seldom Trumper” — someone who, with all due reservations about Donald Trump’s character and temperament, was prepared to acknowledge the ways this president, in his feral, instinctive way, had improved on the foreign and economic policies of his predecessor.

But there was always going to come a crisis that would expose this president’s flaws — and it has come in the year he seeks re-election. Two weeks ago I argued that Covid-19 posed a mortal threat to his presidency. Last Thursday the prediction markets came around to my view, with Joe Biden edging ahead as the favourite to win on November 3.

Nevertheless, I feel as if I have read Peter Wehner’s latest piece in The Atlantic — “The Trump presidency is over” — a few times before. Oh yes, that was Steve Bannon’s line in August 2017, and numerous less interesting figures have used it in between.

This brings me to the third potential category error. Is California — or New York state — Italy? If so, then I agree that Trump is done. But are we sure? Will the impact of the coronavirus really be as devastating to one or more US states as it has been to Italy?

It is now quite widely assumed that it will be. That is why there has been panic-buying of hand-sanitising liquid and toilet paper in many of our local supermarkets. That is why a significant number of my friends are leaving California and New York for states they think will be hit less hard by the pandemic. John F Kennedy airport was thronged yesterday with people doing what, since time immemorial, they have done in times of plague: fleeing the big city (and spreading the virus).

If the whole of America goes the way of Italy then, adjusting for population, within two weeks there will 95,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases and nearly 7,000 dead. The war zone scenes in some Italian hospitals will be replayed in San Francisco or New York — and they may even be worse, as America has slightly fewer hospital beds per capita than Italy.

The puzzle is why this is not already happening. Between December 1 and February 5, roughly the same number of direct flights went from Wuhan to Rome (28) and Paris (23) as went to San Francisco and New York (23 each). Indeed, according to research by network scientists at Northeastern University in Massachusetts, America was the fifth most likely country to import Covid-19 from China, after Thailand, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. The risk for Italy was substantially less. Moreover, according to a new paper from the same team, America should have begun to see local generation of more than 50 infections per day sooner than Italy.

Yet, although the curve of confirmed US cases looks about as steep as the curve for Italy, there appears to be a lag. Some have hypothesised that America is about 11 days behind Italy, so San Francisco will be where Milan is today by March 26. But why is it behind? The obvious explanation is the disastrous slowness with which America has been able to make functioning Covid-19 tests available. Even without testing, however, we would expect to see many more people already falling ill and dying in American hospitals. It is not as if older Americans are on average healthier than their Italian contemporaries — rather the opposite, I should think.

A better explanation, which I owe to two German economists, is that Italy’s social network may differ from America’s in terms of general gregariousness and physical proximity, and, more importantly, in terms of interactions between the older and younger generations.

A fourth and final category error is to confuse a real pandemic with science fiction. Just as it was underreaction to dismiss Covid-19 as “just the flu”, it is overreaction to think we are now in the film Contagion or the novel Station Eleven. We are entering the panic phase of the pandemic. Paradoxically, that is a good thing — because just a couple more weeks of complacency really would have been an error.

Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford

‘Network Effects’ Multiply a Viral Threat

 This isn’t merely a bad flu season. Covid-19 is spreading far faster than most Americans realize.

‘The coronavirus panic is dumb.” I hesitate to disagree with Elon Musk, but here goes.

The wrong way to think about the rapid spread around the world of the novel coronavirus, 2019-nCoV, and the disease it causes, Covid-19, is to say—as another smart and wealthy man put it to me last Monday—“Remember the H1N1-A virus of 2009? Neither do I. It infected a significant chunk of the globe, killed 20,000 U.S. citizens and we got over it pretty quickly.” He might have added that 20,000 is less than half the number of Americans who died of influenza and pneumonia in 2017.

H1N1, also known as swine flu, was a form of influenza. The reproductive number—the number of people a carrier typically infected, R0 for short—was 1.75. In the U.S., the CDC estimates that H1N1 infected 60.8 million people and killed 12,469, for a mortality rate of 0.02%

This new coronavirus—which is not influenza—appears to have a higher R0 and a much higher mortality rate. That rate is almost certainly lower than the World Health Organization suggested last week (3.4%), but it is still much higher than for H1N1. South Korea, which probably has the most accurate data given its aggressive testing regime, reports 50 deaths from 7,313 infections, a mortality rate of 0.68%. If as many Americans catch Covid-19 as caught swine flu, the death toll could exceed 440,000.

In short, Covid-19 has the potential to make 2020 much more than a bad flu season. To understand why, we need to apply more sophisticated frameworks than are being employed by most lay commentators, billionaires included.

“In Wuhan there also seems to be a new outbreak of pneumonia that’s bad.” That was the first mention in my email of the coming pandemic, on Jan. 4. Just over two weeks later, I noted that the new virus had “already caused three deaths in the city of Wuhan” but warned that it could spread rapidly, like SARS in 2003, as the outbreak coincided with the Chinese New Year celebrations. Ten days after that, on Jan. 30, the number of confirmed cases world-wide was 9,776 and the total deaths 213. As of March 8, there are more than 107,000 confirmed cases and close to 3,700 deaths.

At first, the number of cases outside China did not grow exponentially. But that changed in February. Three weeks ago, the number was doubling every eight days. Now it is doubling every five days.

Standard epidemiological models tend to understate the threat posed by a virus such as 2019-nCoV, because they don’t take account of the topology of the social networks that transmit it. Thanks to the work of network scientists such as Romualdo Pastor-Satorras and Alessandro Vespignani, we now understand the extraordinary power of modern transportation networks combined with the social-network hubs known as “superspreaders.”

To quote László Barabási, Mr. Vespignani’s colleague at Northeastern University, “When it comes to the spreading of a pathogen, the epidemic parameters are of secondary importance. The most important factor is the structure of the mobility network. . . . An influenza virus moves through a continent with the speed of a sports car or of a smaller airplane.”

That means travel restrictions tend to be imposed too late to stop the spread of a contagious virus along the routes between the world’s 3,000 busiest airports. What matters is not geographic distance but “effective distance” in journey time.

Then there are all the local networks on the ground, where airports, shopping malls, supermarkets and schools act as hubs connected to countless homes and offices.

Finally, and crucially, there are social networks, which have the same “scale-free” character as the transportation networks: A relatively small number of nodes have an amazingly high number of edges. In good times, these are the frequent flyers, the gregarious networkers, the sexual Lotharios. In times of contagion, they are the superspreaders, like Gaëtan Dugas, the Canadian flight attendant who claimed to have had 2,500 sexual partners and came to be known as “patient zero” in the early histories of AIDS, or Liu Jianlun, the physician from Guangdong Province who brought SARS to Hong Kong when he checked into the Metropole Hotel on Feb. 21, 2003.

Nicholas Christakis has shown that there was a similar pattern at Harvard when H1N1 came to campus. “The speed with which people acquired the flu during the epidemic, depended on various aspects of their social network position,” writes Mr. Christakis, who is now at Yale. “Those with more friends, those who were more central in the network, and those whose friends did not know each other got it sooner.”

Similar processes have caused Covid-19 to spread with startling speed around the world, then outward from transport and social hubs. A British businessman who went from a conference in Singapore to a ski trip in the French Alps was one of the first superspreaders to be identified in this epidemic. The virus reached Switzerland via a group of tourists returning from Italy.

For all these reasons, the number of known cases in the U.S. (436) must be off by at least one order of magnitude and more likely two, simply because of the disastrous shortage of test kits. According to Messrs. Pastor-Satorras and Vespignani’s Global Epidemic and Mobility model, the United States is the fifth-likeliest country to import Covid-19 from abroad—after Thailand, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. If the U.S. turns out to have proportionately as many cases as South Korea, it will soon have some 46,000 cases and more than 300 deaths—or 1,200 deaths if the U.S. mortality rate is as high as Italy’s.

Network effects are the reason it is anything but dumb to worry about the novel coronavirus. Not only is it spreading much faster than most Americans realize; it is also disrupting global manufacturing supply chains as well as all the economic activities that depend on travel and proximity. It could set off a cascade of defaults in the corporate bond market, disrupting the global financial network.

Finally, cable news and online social networks can be relied upon to disseminate alarmist and downright fake stories about the pandemic—like the widely circulated map of global air routes that, according to one Australian website, depicted the “flight data of an estimated five million Wuhan residents who fled during the critical two weeks before the outbreak city was placed under lockdown.”

That aspect of the panic is indeed dumb. But that doesn’t make it smart to underestimate the scale of the Covid-19 pandemic—a perfect illustration of the vulnerability and fragility of our networked world.

Mr. Ferguson is writer and host of “Niall Ferguson’s Networld,” based on his 2018 book, “The Square and the Tower,” which will air March 17 on PBS.


Lest we forget, history has lessons to teach

 Scraps of paper matter, from red poppies to international treaties

This is the time of year when I get the paper-flower question. Living in California, but born in Britain, I am one of a tiny number of people here who wear a poppy in the week before Remembrance Day. Hence the question: “Hey, Niall, what’s with the red paper flower?” I don’t mind explaining. I wear it in memory of my grandfathers, John Ferguson and Tom Hamilton.

The former fought the Germans on the western front for most of the First World War. The latter fought the Japanese in Burma during the Second World War. Both survived — otherwise, there would be no me — but each had his life shortened by the damage war did to his lungs. And I wear the poppy to commemorate the tens of millions of people — not only the British servicemen — whose lives were cut much shorter.

Sometimes I also point out that this is not some British eccentricity. It was an American woman, Moina Michael — a professor at Georgia University — who originally suggested wearing a poppy as a symbol of remembrance. She in turn was inspired by a Canadian, John McCrae, whose 1915 poem In Flanders Fields still resonates. Beginning in 1919, a Frenchwoman, Anna Guérin, sold artificial poppies in America to raise money for orphans in the war-torn regions of France. The tradition may have died out in America, but it is alive and well in Australia and New Zealand too.

If my interlocutor has not fled by now, I add that I would not have become a historian without such symbols of the past. For poppies, like the stone war memorials that were so numerous in the Scotland of my youth, prompted the earliest historical question in my mind: why did that happen? Why did my grandfathers, when they were still such young men — a mere teenager, in the case of John Ferguson — end up in mortal peril so far from home? It’s a version of Tolstoy’s more profound question at the end of War and Peace: “What is the power that moves nations?” It is the question I have spent my adult life trying to answer.

Remembrance, in short, has never been enough for me. We also need to learn from history. Here is one of the lessons that is too seldom learnt. Scraps of paper matter, and I don’t mean paper flowers.

What became the Great War — only later renamed the First World War after the Second had begun — might simply have been the Second Franco-German War if Britain and its empire had not joined it on August 4, 1914. Why did that happen?

Formally, Britain went to war because the German attack on Belgium violated the 1839 Treaty of London, which — under article VII of the annexe to the treaty — bound all five of the great powers of Europe to uphold Belgian neutrality. There were other reasons for intervening, naturally: the geopolitical calculation that a German victory over France, unlike in 1871, would pose a strategic threat to Britain, and the domestic political calculation that if the Liberals did not go to war, their government would fall and the Conservatives would go to war anyway. But Belgium mattered.

On August 6, the prime minister, Herbert Asquith, explained to the House of Commons “what we are fighting for”. His speech focused on Britain’s “solemn international obligation” to uphold Belgian neutrality in the name of both law and honour, and “to vindicate the principle that small nationalities are not to be crushed”. The evidence suggests that this casus belli did indeed resonate with the British public.

The German chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, lamented that “England should fall upon them for the sake of the neutrality of Belgium” — for “un chiffon de papier”. But scraps of paper count, even if the 1839 treaty was only (as one cabinet minister observed) a convenient “plea . . . for intervention on behalf of France”.

How many Britons in 1914 knew the terms of that treaty? Not 16-year-old John Ferguson, I’ll be bound. And yet the commitment to Belgium, along with a sustained emphasis on German atrocities towards Belgian civilians, became central to British war propaganda.

Are there any similar commitments today, forgotten by the general public and yet capable of plunging the world into war? I can think of two. In each case, they exist on paper. In each case, they have lost or are losing credibility, so that potential foes might be forgiven for dismissing them as mere scraps of paper.

The first is article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty of April 4, 1949, which binds each signatory to consider “an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America . . . an attack against them all”, and, in that case, to take “such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area”.

The second is the Taiwan Relations Act of April 10, 1979, which states that America will “consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States” and that America “will make available to Taiwan such defence articles and defence services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defence capabilities”.

With respect to Nato, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, last week gave a damning interview. “To my mind,” he told The Economist, “what we are currently experiencing is the brain death of Nato.”

The Economist: Do you now believe that article 5 doesn’t work either; is that what you suspect?

Macron: “I don’t know, but what will article 5 mean tomorrow? Will [Donald Trump] be prepared to activate solidarity? If something happens at our borders?”

With respect to Taiwan, a similar question could easily be asked. Would Donald Trump feel bound by the 1979 act if China sought to end Taiwan’s autonomy and force it to submit to rule from Beijing? That is no remote scenario. Last Wednesday, Taiwan’s foreign minister, Joseph Wu, warned that China might resort to military aggression towards Taiwan as a means of deflecting internal political pressure as the mainland economy slows down.

So, go ahead, ask me why I am wearing a poppy. Commemoration is about more than showing respect to past generations. It is also about being alert to future dangers: red flags, as well as red flowers.

Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford

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