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Coping with Crises

Jared Diamond’s UPHEAVAL

Under Konrad Adenauer and Ludwig Erhard Germany regained her soul, lost in 1866. Photo: CDU, kasf0089

We can all learn from the way in which other countries cope with crisis and change, as Jared Diamond argues...

How do nations cope with crisis and change? In his recent book Upheaval, the American geographer and popular science writer Jared Diamond tries to provide an answer. He discusses some countries which I know reasonably well, Finland, Chile, and Germany. Here I confine my comments to those three countries whereas I shall in another article discuss how my own country Iceland would fit into Diamond’s scheme.

Finland: Coping with the Russian Threat

In the case of Finland, Diamond correctly stresses the strong feeling of national identity  and the threat from a powerful and aggressive neighbour. I agree with Diamond that what was sometimes derogatively called ‘Finlandisation’ was the only feasible policy for the Finns to pursue after their heroic, but ultimately unsuccessful stance against the Soviet Union in two wars, the Winter War of 1939–1940 and the Continuation War of 1941–1944. They found out that they could only rely on themselves and not on any help from outside. Their political leaders, Presidents Juho Paasakivi and Urho Kekkonen, therefore tried hard to convince the Soviet rulers that they could trust their small, Nordic neighbour. They succeeded. During the Cold War, Finland remained largely a free country despite her two defeats in war. The reason was that the Finns had demonstrated how costly it would be for the Soviet Union to conquer their country while they had also made it unnecessary. There was some truth in the ironic remark by Finnish novelist Väinö Linna on the Continuation War: ‘The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics won, but racing to the line for a strong second place came feisty little Finland.’ Diamond is also right about the superb qualities of Finland’s military leader, Field Marshal Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, who really made a difference.

My criticisms of Diamond’s analysis of Finland would be two relatively minor ones. He does not adequately explain the quick reconciliation after the brief Civil War in 1918 between the ‘Whites’ (under Mannerheim) and the ‘Reds’. I would suggest that one reason was that the Finnish Left, apart from a few communists, soon realised that it had made a ghastly mistake by trying to seize power violently. The second criticism is that Finland’s prosperity is based not so much on her system of education as Diamond suggests (although it certainly helps) as it is on three main factors, also found in the other Nordic countries: a strong tradition of the rule of law; firm support for free trade; and extensive social cohesion. The Nordic nations are successful despite, and not because of, social democracy.

Chile: Coping with Internal Conflict

In the chapter on Chile, Diamond’s sympathy clearly lies with Salvador Allende, the Marxist President who was ousted in the 1973 military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet. Allende was a good man pursuing bad economic policies, whereas Pinochet was a bad man pursuing good economic policies, Diamond alleges. The matter was more complicated, I think. Despite his mild demeanour, Allende belonged to the hard left. He had received a plurality, not a majority, of the votes in the 1970 presidential elections, 36.6 per cent against 35.2 per cent for a conservative candidate. With this very limited mandate he tried to turn Chile into a totalitarian country, very much like the communists did in Czechoslovakia in February 1948, but over a longer period of time and without the Soviet Red Army hovering in the background. At the same time as Allende’s government expropriated many companies directly, mostly without compensation, radical workers occupied factories and farms illegally and drove out their owners. The government seized control of most media, by a combination of force and threats, two of the four television channels, 68 radio stations, 10 important newspapers and 27 magazines. In the economy, after a while stagnation set in, investment fell, the budget deficit increased, and inflation soared, peaking at a rate of almost 1,000 per cent. Price controls were imposed, producing shortages and a black market. Special commissions were created to distribute food and other basic consumer goods. In late 1972, the government controlled 85 per cent of banks, 60 per cent of large-scale trade, 52 per cent of manufacturing and 75 per cent of agricultural land.

Allende’s attempt to impose totalitarian socialism on his country with only one third of the population behind him predictably ended in political turmoil. In August 1973, the Chilean Chamber of Deputies called on the Armed Forces and the Police to participate in the government ‘in order to reestablish the rule of constitution and law’. On 11 September 1973 the commanders of the Army, Navy and Air Force as well as the Chief of Police jointly asked Allende to resign. He was promised safe passage, should he choose exile over confrontation. He refused and went on radio, urging his followers to resist the armed forces, upon which he committed suicide. The incoming junta initially was supported by the right and by parts of the centre. A prominent Christian Democrat, Patricio Aylwin, said in a television interview that ‘the organized militias of Unidad Popular, a parallel army that was heavily armed, had also planned a coup to get total power. We believe that the armed forces simply anticipated that risk, saving the country from falling into a civil war or a communist tyranny.’

The incoming junta certainly behaved as if it was fighting a civil war. It  arrested thousands of people, some without formal charges, exiled thousands, restricted freedom of speech and prohibited political parties and trade unions. It is estimated, like Diamond says, that 3,000 opponents of the new regime lost their lives in and after the coup. Of course this was 3,000 people too many, but to gain some perspective, it should be pointed out that 30,000 people probably lost their lives in Cuba after the communist takeover in 1959 and that 10 per cent of the population fled from the island. Two other important differences between Chile and Cuba are that Pinochet left office peacefully, even if reluctantly, after he had in 1988 lost a plebiscite on his continuing presidency and that his economic policies were quite successful, as Diamond concedes. Castro on the other hand clung to power with the help of his henchmen and turned Cuba into one of the poorest countries in the Caribbean. It is a remarkable fact that it was Aylwin who in 1989 replaced Pinochet as Chile’s President, the successful candidate of a centre-left coalition. Diamond is right to applaud the relative moderation in Chilean politics since then, although recently there have been worrying signs of renewed left-wing radicalisation.

Germany: Coping with Defeat

In the chapter on Germany, Diamond rightly marvels at her rapid recovery after Second World War and the ability to absorb more than ten million German-speaking people expelled from Czechoslovakia, Poland and other countries in Central and Eastern Europe, the largest single forced deportation of civilians in history. But in his discussion of national socialism Diamond betrays his scant understanding of its nature. He would have been well served by reading a perceptive study of national socialism by German economist Wilhelm Röpke, The German Question, where the author argued that the German nation should not be blamed alone for the atrocious crimes of the Nazis. The main culprit, Röpke maintained, was totalitarianism. National socialism was the German form of an international tendency; it was the mark of a period, not of a nation. ‘Whether in Bolshevism, Fascism, or Nazism, we meet continually with the forcible and ruthless usurpation of the power of the State by a minority drawn from the masses, resting on their support, flattering them and threatening them at the same time,’ Röpke wrote. Nazi atrocities should be blamed primarily on the Nazis themselves, on the ideas guiding them and the possibilities offered to them, not on the German nation.

This does not mean, Röpke hastened to add, that the German nation was blameless. ‘The guilt of the Germans is different to that of the National Socialists; it is the guilt of the seduced, not of the seducers, the degradation of the violated, not the infamy of the violators.’ Röpke recalled nonetheless that in the last real parliamentary elections in Germany in March 1933, the Nazis, by then in government and widely using intimidation and violence, received no more than 44 per cent of the votes. Faced with a clear choice, a majority of Germans rejected national socialism.

In his short account of German history, Diamond to some extent recognises the great contribution the two conservative liberals Konrad Adenauer and Ludwig Erhard made to Germany’s impressive recovery after the War with their constitutional and economic reforms. But he misses their real significance. It is that they greatly strengthened the old traditions which had been weakened when Bismarck’s army defeated Austria in 1866, transforming Germany in effect into Greater Prussia. Adenauer as President of the German Constituent Assembly in 1948–1949 oversaw the writing of a new constitution which changed Germany from a Reich into a Bund, into a decentralised federal state, based on free trade, private property, and limited government. Subsequently, Adenauer became the first Chancellor of the new Federal Republic, with Erhard at his side, liberalising the economy and unleashing the enormous potential of the German nation. It was by no means a foregone conclusion that this would happen.

The strength and resilience of the German economy was put to a test in 1990 when the Federal Republic admitted as members the much poorer Länder of East Germany, the Soviet puppet state which had collapsed: But West Germany rose to the challenge, not least because of the subsequent, swift and efficient privatisation of the means of production in East Germany. It is clear, I think, from Diamond’s chapter on Germany that he overestimates Willy Brandt, an amiable blunderer of little consequence, while he makes too little of the forceful, sensible and shrewd Helmuth Kohl who led the reunification of Germany. Fortunately, Kohl was no Bismarck. His country was quite unlike the Greater Prussia formed in 1866. As Röpke explained, the German Problem was centralisation, making totalitarianism possible, whereas the German Solution was decentralisation, liberty under the law. It facilitated a friendly relationship with her neighbour Poland that reunified Germany recognised the Eastern border at Oder and Neisse which had been unilaterally set by the victors at the end of the Second World War. Germany had cast off the spell of Prussia. She had regained her soul, lost in 1866.