J. M. Keynes and the Visible Hands

This is the first installment of a six-part series on how the 1919 Treaty of Versailles shaped our present age. Read series editor Joanne Randa Nucho’s introduction here.
In 1919, those crafting the fate of postwar Europe wanted their designs to be hidden from view. Fortunately, Keynes had other plans.

“I’ve never been so miserable as for the last two or three weeks,” wrote John Maynard Keynes to his mother in 1919. “The Peace is outrageous and impossible and can bring nothing but misfortune behind it. … Well, I suppose I’ve been an accomplice in all this wickedness and folly, but the end is now at hand.”1 When Keynes returned sick and tired from Paris, where he had represented the British Treasury at the Versailles Peace Conference, he was looking for a way to register his deep mortification with the treaty and the events that had led to it. Sharing some of his reservations, Undersecretary of State for Foreign Affairs Lord Robert Cecil encouraged him to write something up: “If you had the time to write a brilliant article exposing from a strictly economic point of view the dangers of the Treaty, it might do a great deal of good.”2 Doing a great deal more than that, Keynes sat down and wrote The Economic Consequences of the Peace.

Published in December 1919, Keynes’s book was a sensation. Running quickly into several editions in Britain and America, the book caught fire not only as a wickedly smart condensation of the political and economic doubts that had been forming on both sides of the Atlantic but also—maybe even more so—for its ruthlessly personal depictions of Lloyd George, Georges Clemenceau, and Woodrow Wilson. After all, where else could one read about the thickness of Clemenceau’s boots or the shape of Wilson’s hands (figure 1)?

Figure 1: Woodrow Wilson’s hands

Even more than its acerbic caricatures, Keynes’s harrowing characterization of Versailles as a “Carthaginian peace” meant to destroy Germany’s economic future struck a deep chord in Europe and America. Indeed, his idea became a kind of received wisdom about what went wrong in 1919. Even critics of the book’s tone or its politics had to more or less accept its economic argument: “Very few,” wrote Étienne Mantoux in the immediate wake of the Second World War, “attempted to criticize in any detail Mr. Keynes’s findings on the economic side of the Peace Treaty.”3 After all, how could they criticize those findings when it was Keynes—the brilliant, urgent, stylish, polymathic Keynes—who had found them?

Although Keynes’s idea of a Carthaginian peace has held on to its status as a powerfully persuasive kind of common sense, some critics—beginning with Mantoux in 1946—have pointed out that, in the long run, Keynes actually got a lot wrong. The most obvious example: Keynes dangerously underestimated Germany’s economic capacity to bear the cost of war reparations; as a result, those predicting again and again Germany’s economic collapse were caught off guard when the country proved able not only to withstand the terms of the treaty but also to thrive during a decade of military and industrial development. As A. J. P. Taylor puts it in The Origins of the Second World War, “Setting one thing against another, the only economic effect of reparations was to give employment to a large number of bookkeepers.”4

The limits of Keynes’s predictions become all the more striking when we see how elements of his analysis were later put to blunt use as military propaganda. Leaning on a crude version of the story that Keynes had told, Hitler vilified the “ridiculous, monstrous, infamous, indefensible” terms of the treaty, and used that language as an excuse to rile his base and to move his new army into Poland, Czechoslovakia, France, and beyond.5

If Keynes’s specific economic predictions couldn’t anticipate what in fact happened between the wars, then what’s left of The Economic Consequences of the Peace? Of course, the book was never only or even primarily an economic argument.

First, the book was a political argument. Although Keynes was indeed worried about economic consequences, much of his account focused instead on the political motivations and political styles of the treaty’s signatories. He worked to reveal Clemenceau’s power politics and his desire “to crush the economic life of his enemy”; Lloyd George’s low expediency and his desire “to do a deal and bring home something which would pass muster for a week”; and, most unnervingly for the cultivated Keynes, Wilson’s “theological or Presbyterian temperament.”6

Second, the book was also a historical argument. Along with his attention to the economic consequences and the political causes of the treaty, Keynes presented its flaws in contrast to a long-held view of Europe (a view that has more than a little in common with the work of disenchanted contemporaries of Keynes’s, like Max Weber and Georg Lukács). Where the premodern “Old World” managed to sustain a real (one might even say an epic) equilibrium, the complexity, connectivity, apparent plenty, and real economic inequality of the “New World” led to and relied upon a treacherous “double bluff or deception.”7 Unlike that Old World, the modernity of the New World “depended on unstable psychological conditions, which it may be impossible to re-create”; as a result, that new and disenchanted world—extended, modern, and disillusioned—was ideologically precarious and ready for a crash.8

Third—and, perhaps, most importantly—the book was also a literary argument or, rather, a literary performance. Although both the immediate and long-term consequences of Keynes’s argument were sharply political, what made The Economic Consequences of the Peace an instant sensation was its biting, brilliant, and insouciant style. And this style was not only literary in and of itself, but also one that understood the characters and events in Paris as somehow literary avant la lettre.

The literary force of his argument comes out most strikingly in Keynes’s detailed and sometimes caustic descriptions of Wilson, Clemenceau, and Lloyd George, whom he cast allegorically as “the President, the Tiger, and the Welsh witch.”9 For instance, Clemenceau, the political realist, is presented as an almost Balzacian figure of peasant cunning: “He wore a square-tailed coat of very good, thick black broadcloth, and on his hands, which were never uncovered, grey suede gloves; his boots were of thick black leather, very good, but of a country style, and sometimes fastened in front, curiously, by a buckle instead of laces.”10 In a passage that Margot Asquith successfully encouraged Keynes to cut, Lloyd George seems something practically Paterian; he is “rooted in nothing; he is void and without content; he lives and feeds on his immediate surroundings; he is an instrument and a player at the same time which plays on the company and is played on by them too; he is a prism, as I have heard him described, which collects light and distorts it and is most brilliant if the light comes from many quarters at once; a vampire and a medium in one.”11

Of course, Keynes saves his most detailed, extended, and yet most peculiar and cutting attention for Woodrow Wilson, the “blind and deaf Don Quixote” of Versailles.12 Although he looked a hero at a distance, physiognomic observation at close quarters tended to undo that illusion: “His head and features were finely cut and exactly like his photographs, and the muscles of his neck and the carriage of his head were distinguished. But, like Odysseus, the President looked wiser when he was seated; and his hands, though capable and fairly strong, were wanting in sensitiveness and finesse.”13

For Keynes, hands are not only something to see or to look at. Hands are also something for which the seeing is, in and of itself, significant.

Why write about the treaty and these men in this way, particularly in a work of ostensibly economic analysis? Was such literary writing and thinking merely a stylistic flourish, even an afterthought? Or, perhaps, it was the whole point?

On the one hand, while leaving Paris and the Treasury, Keynes—another Odysseus—was also coming home to his friends and neighbors in the intellectual world of Bloomsbury. Consequently, he seems to have consciously taken a stylistic page from his friend and former lover Lytton Strachey’s irreverent Eminent Victorians, published in 1918. As Strachey himself understood, however, Keynes was working on the present and thus playing with a different kind of fire. Writing to Keynes in late 1919, he asks about Wilson, “Is it possible that it should gradually have been borne in upon him what an appalling failure he was, and that when at last he fully realized it his mind collapsed? Very dramatic, if so. But won’t it make some of your remarks almost too cruel?—Especially if he should go and die. Awkward! I pray for his recovery.”14

On the other hand, the literary details in Keynes do have something significant to say, particularly his writerly attention to hands. Where the wily Clemenceau kept his prudently hidden beneath gray suede, Wilson’s hands, “wanting in sensitiveness and finesse,” are advance proof of what Keynes takes as the pious sluggishness of the man’s thought: “The President was far too slow-minded and bewildered.”15 And, as if to own the peculiar intensity of his attention to Wilson’s hands, Keynes casts the truth of the president’s condition in terms of “a Freudian complex,” a connection that recalls the symptomatic notice that Freud himself paid five years before to the fingers of Michelangelo’s Moses (figure 2).16

Figure 2: The hands of the Moses of Michelangelo

Keynes’s attention to Wilson’s hands—whatever their status as index, symptom, or clue—is striking. For Mantoux in 1946, it was proof of a deeper problem with the method: “In his prophetic vision of the destinies of Europe, Mr. Keynes seemed to set great store by these features; to what a different future might not humanity have looked forward if only the President’s finger-tips had been sharper, or if his lower limbs had been longer!”17

What’s more, this was neither the first nor the last time that Keynes had invested in the deep meaning of hands. When he first met FDR, in 1934, he wrote that “naturally my concentrated attention was on his hands. Firm and fairly strong, but not clever or with finesse, shortish round nails like those at the end of a business man’s fingers.”18 Indeed, his own hands and the hands of his friends were objects of considerable significance for Keynes:

Keynes liked to sit like an English variant of a Chinese mandarin, with his hands tucked out of sight in the opposing sleeves of his coat. It was a gesture of concealment made all the more curious because of his inordinate interest in other people’s hands and his pride in his own. Indeed, he even went to the extent of having casts made of his and his wife’s hands and talked of making a collection of casts of his friends’; and when he met a man the first thing he noticed was the character of his palms and fingers and nails.19

Hands, in that case, are not only signs, symbols, or symptoms for Keynes. They also play a role in a complex game of hide-and-seek, of visibility and invisibility. They are, for Clemenceau, FDR, Wilson, and Keynes himself, something to reveal and to conceal.

For Keynes, hands are not only something to see or to look at. Hands are also something for which the seeing is, in and of itself, significant.

Although Keynes was still years away from the strong form of his heterodox economic claim—that the economy would not tend automatically toward equilibrium and thus stood in need of regular or occasional government intervention—the outline of that argument was beginning to come into view in The Economic Consequences of the Peace. What made a Carthaginian peace so damaging, he argued, wasn’t really or at least wasn’t only the devastating toll it would take on the culture, society, and ordinary people of a hobbled Germany.

The real problem, Keynes argued, was that a broken Germany threatened the new, complex, and fragile equilibrium of Europe, an entity he frankly admitted not to have really noticed before coming to Paris: “At any rate an Englishman who took part in the Conference of Paris and was during those months a member of the Supreme Economic Council of the Allied Powers, was bound to become, for him a new experience, a European in his cares and outlook.”20 What was significantly economic about The Economic Consequences of the Peace was not, after all, its specific predictions about what would happen next in Germany, but, rather, Keynes’s as yet inchoate theory of Europe as a new and complex kind of economic totality.

To become a European meant a few things for Keynes. First, it meant freeing oneself from Little Britain, from the grubby and shortsighted provincialism that, in Keynes’s view, prevented Lloyd George from seeing what was really at stake at Versailles.

Second, it meant looking past the nation and the “national, racial, or political” hatreds that irrationally fanned the flames of war. And, thus, it meant looking toward the promise of Europe as a whole: “We must pray [that] the souls of European peoples [will] turn away this winter from the false idols which have survived the war that created them, and substitute in their hearts for the hatred and the nationalism, which now possess them, thoughts and hopes of the happiness and solidarity of the European family.”21


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Third, it meant really seeing and really understanding that Europe was a “delicate, complicated organisation,” a fragile and aspirational play of complexity and coherence. Such a Europe—not for nothing—resembles I. A. Richards’s contemporary hopes for the order and equipoise that poetry might bring to the complexity and conflict of life after wartime.22

However, the economic and aesthetic equilibrium necessary to achieve widespread prosperity and to avoid another war had to confront a seemingly diabolical level of complication. If that were the case, Keynes believed, then any system that could support such an equilibrium would have to rely not on the invisible hand of the market, but, rather, on the visible and deliberate hand of rational, directed, and humane intervention.

Neither invisible nor gloved nor “wanting in sensitiveness and finesse,” the hands that would save Europe as they made Europe into something intentional and whole would need to be seen. And, if they were seen, I imagine they would look something like the hands of John Maynard Keynes (figure 3).

Figure 3: Keynes’s hands


This article was commissioned by Joanne Randa Nucho. icon

  1. Quoted in Zachary D. Carter, The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes (Random House, 2020), p. 86. Thanks to Dan Blanton, Eric Bulson, Joanne Nucho, Garreth O’Brien, Ben Platt, and Kara Wittman.
  2. Ibid., p. 93.
  3. Étienne Mantoux, The Carthaginian Peace; or, The Economic Consequences of Mr. Keynes (Oxford University Press, 1946), p. 23.
  4. A. J. P. Taylor, The Origins of the Second World War (Simon & Schuster, 2005), p. 44. It is, of course, important to recognize that Mantoux and Taylor represent especially strident if compelling voices in this debate. A full and fair reckoning with Keynes’s economic predictions would need to consider the complexities of the world market between the wars, the immediate impact of Hitler’s refusal to continue reparation payments, and the economic effects of the fascist nationalization of the German economy. Without the space to enter into all that, I focus here on the significant difference between Keynes’s book as a necessarily limited work of prediction and as a powerful work of persuasion.
  5. Mantoux, Carthaginian Peace, p. 26.
  6. John Maynard Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace (Macmillan, 1919), pp. 211, 46.
  7. Ibid., p. 17.
  8. Ibid., p. 19.
  9. John Maynard Keynes, Essays in Biography (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), p. 22.
  10. Keynes, Economic Consequences, p. 26.
  11. The Essential Keynes, edited by Robert Skidelsky (Penguin, 2015), p. 525.
  12. Keynes, Economic Consequences, p. 38.
  13. Ibid., p. 37.
  14. Quoted in Carter, Price of Peace, p. 103.
  15. Keynes, Economic Consequences, pp. 37, 41.
  16. Ibid., p. 50. It would be interesting to read these passages from Keynes in the context of Carlo Ginzburg’s classic essay “Clues: Roots of an Evidential Paradigm,” which would encourage us to think of Keynes not only in relation to Freud but also in relation to the Italian anatomist and art historian Giovanni Morelli, who had influenced Freud and had come to Bloomsbury through the work of Roger Fry. And, if it makes sense that the Bloomsbury Freudian ambience centered around James and Alix Strachey would have seeped into Keynes’s analysis of Wilson, it’s worth remembering, too, that Bloomsbury seeped back when Freud and his coauthor, William Bullitt, read The Economic Consequences of the Peace while preparing their infamous case study of the 28th president, Woodrow Wilson: A Psychological Study.
  17. Mantoux, Carthaginian Peace, p. 45.
  18. Quoted in Robert L. Heilbroner, The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times, and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers (Simon & Schuster, 1999), p. 261.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Keynes, Economic Consequences, p. 3.
  21. Ibid., p. 267.
  22. Richards in Science and Poetry (1926): “Our impulses must have some order, some organization, or we do not live ten minutes without disaster. In the past, Tradition, a kind of Treaty of Versailles assigning frontiers and spheres of influence to the different interests, and based chiefly upon conquest, ordered our lives in a moderately satisfactory manner. But Tradition is weakening. Moral authorities are not as well backed by beliefs as they were: their sanctions are declining in force. We are in need of something to take the place of the old order. Not in need of a new balance of power, a new arrangement of conquests, but of a League of Nations for the moral ordering of impulses: a new order based on conciliation, not on attempted suppression.” I. A. Richards, Poetries and Sciences (Norton, 1972), p. 40.
Featured image: Members of the Commission of the League of Nations created by the Plenary Session of the Preliminary Peace Conference, Paris, France, 1919. Wikimedia Commons