Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The central meaning of this novel rests upon simple historical facts which the reader must bring to the novel: that the peace treaty imposed upon the German allies (the Treaty of Versailles in 1919) followed the basic outline established at the cease-fire conference at Compiegne, and that, in destroying the economic as well as the military strength of Germany, it unwittingly sowed the seeds for the rise of Fascism in Germany—for World War II.

Erzberger and his small group of beaten men are, if unable to tell the long future, prescient enough to know that what is demanded of them will do damage which they cannot entirely assess. The natural, righteous indignation of the Allies, intensified by the excesses of the military ego, leads to the imposition of penalties on the Germans which seem consistent with the necessity to make the Germans pay for the horror of a war that should not have happened and that turned out to be the greatest nightmare, at that time, in the history of warfare. The path to further destruction, a further generation down the line, is laid by men who, for one reason or another (sometimes because of a psychological quirk, professional prejudice, or xenophobic suspicion), are determined to take the proverbial pound of flesh.

The fact that Erzberger (ironically the one politician in the group), a decent man who earlier proved his credentials by attempting to get Germany out of the war, makes it clear that Germany cannot take...

(The entire section is 421 words.)