A Crisis Historian Has Some Bad News for Us

Adam Tooze, a historian of economic disaster, sees a combination of worrisome signs.

close up of Adam Tooze's face in color
Brian Finke

This article was featured in One Story to Read Today, a newsletter in which our editors recommend a single must-read from The Atlantic, Monday through Friday. Sign up for it here.    

America and the world are living through what Adam Tooze, the internet’s foremost historian of money and disaster, describes as a “polycrisis.” As he sips a beer at a bar near Columbia University, where he is the director of the European Institute, Tooze talks through a long list of challenges: War, raising the specter of nuclear conflict. Climate change, threatening famine, flood, and fire. Inflation, forcing central banks to crush consumer demand. The pandemic, closing factories and overloading hospitals. Each crisis is hard enough to parse by itself; the interconnected mess of them is infinitely more so. And he feels “the whole is even more dangerous than the sum of the parts.”

Not too long ago, Tooze was an obscure academic. Now he’s among the world’s most influential financial commentators, with loyal readerships in Washington, London, Paris, and Brussels, as well as on Wall Street. Tooze’s readers turn to him for his uncanny ability to know which numbers on a spreadsheet matter, or when a trend has hit the point at which it has started to shape history. He looks at trade, currency, equities, wage, employment, debt, and commodities data and somehow makes sense of it—not just in the moment but in the sweep of time. “Economic events have had such a huge influence on politics this century,” Robert Skidelsky, the John Maynard Keynes biographer, told me. Tooze “illustrates the interpenetration of economic policy and political events. It’s as simple as that.”

He does so in books, opinion pieces, and a podcast. But his greatest reach might come through his Substack newsletter, Chartbook, which comes across as a bloggy, ivory-tower version of the research notes that investment-bank analysts send to clients. Tooze describes it as his “incomplete and somewhat raw” thoughts, a “mélange of different styles and materials.” Recent dispatches have analyzed the Allies’ resources at the Battle of Normandy, the financing of the War on Terror, contemporary siege warfare in Mariupol, and West Virginia as a roadblock to climate policy.

His kind of analysis—nerdy and highbrow and often a little inscrutable—is not for everyone. He writes for people who like reading material that “hits a bit heavier”: more technical than what you might read in the Financial Times, more intellectual than reports put out by Goldman Sachs. But it’s revelatory for many, including young lefties (described memorably in New York magazine as “Tooze Boys”), denizens of #econtwitter, history buffs, and money managers, many of whom trade on the data he digs up.

At least some signs look encouraging: The coronavirus pandemic appears to be abating, and inflationary pressures are easing. Yet the revelation that Tooze is now putting forth is that we might not be emerging from crisis. Indeed, we might be in a worsening one, in which much of the world faces a series of self-reinforcing financial and geopolitical pressures, building, perhaps, to some ominous end. Given that possibility, our most distinguished crisis historian finds himself very busy.

Wherever our current catastrophe is headed, it has been good to Tooze, he tells me with some bewilderment. The combination of COVID-19, buckling supply chains, and central banks’ scramble to respond constituted “the first crisis where I found my professional existence, my personal existence, and my understanding of my relationship to history were all just completely seamless, continuous,” he says. He found his niche—and thousands of new readers.

Tooze, 54, rose to academic prominence as a historian of the Third Reich. His careful archival work revolutionized our understanding of Germany’s finances and how they shaped the Nazi war strategy. He first connected with many nonacademic readers with the 2018 publication of Crashed, in my view the best book on the global financial crisis—an analysis of the enormous slosh of money that caused the Great Recession (mortgages originated in the suburbs of Las Vegas, packaged into securities in New York, and sold around the world), the enormous slosh of money that ended it (the world’s monetary authorities pumping dollars and euros and yen into the markets), and the political fallout that ensued.

In the mid-2010s, he began writing short posts on Facebook and Twitter. “I started doing social media absurdly late,” he tells me. “I’m a middle-aged man.” But, he says, he loved it—the immediacy, the intimacy, and the ability to think out loud. In 2020, he launched Chartbook. He included graphs. He included links, poems, snippets of books, meditations on market anxiety. And he included essays, using financial data to clarify what had caused cataclysms of the past and what might be causing them now.

Russia’s foreign-exchange reserves, for instance. One Tooze post examined how accumulating those reserves helped Vladimir Putin turn the country into a “strategic petrostate” bold enough to invade Ukraine and capable of countering Western powers. About 150,000 people, including some in the German chancellor’s office, read the essay. “I thought, Wow, this is worthwhile,” Tooze told me. “For somebody who comes out of an academic publishing background, where you’re lucky if 1,000 people read what you write, the numbers tick up so fast.” On Substack, his output also proved financially rewarding: “For anyone on a regular, white-collar, academic-type salary, it’s transformative.”

Despite the seriousness of his subject matter and the esoteric quality of his references, Tooze’s writing has a kind of magpie joy. In person, he comes off as intellectual, sure, but also self-deprecating, voluble, funny. While we chat polycrisis, he riffs on his love of cities (“You cannot feel depressed!”); his sense of alienation, being so few degrees from so many important people (“a weird club”); and his experience in therapy (“Being present is the hardest thing on Earth”).

He also riffs on his newsletter as an intellectual project. As he tells it, he’s not just circulating data or building arguments; he’s also bathing in an anarchic, unstoppable flow of information. “What does it mean to be in the present, in this constant experience of obsolescence, this constant experience of having your ideas and preconceptions consumed by the flow toward the future, which, at any given moment, is fundamentally unpredictable and then once you have consumed it, becomes obsolete?” he says effusively. “That’s my now—this literal floating on the surface tension of the current moment.”

The son of a prominent molecular biologist, Tooze spent his childhood in West Germany, heading to Cold Spring Harbor, New York, for the summers so his father could collaborate with James Watson. He studied economics at Cambridge before decamping to Berlin’s Free University in 1989 to figure out if he wanted to be an academic. He “wanted to find some space for himself,” he tells me, and was not quite tuned into the history happening around him. “There were these huge street demonstrations that helped bring the regime down, the most dramatic demonstrations of nationalism or patriotism I've ever witnessed.” The night the Berlin Wall came down, “It had been a very long, very cold day. I was in the bath, listening to the radio, trying to warm up,” he says. “The radio said that something weird was going on. And I turned it off.”

He did decide to become an academic—an economic historian to be specific, studying at the London School of Economics and then returning to teach at Cambridge. He became known in part for his knowledge of military history and in part for his facility with numbers, and especially for being able to tie financial minutiae to world-historical trends. Hitler was compelled not just by murderous anti-Semitism but by shortages of land, steel, and fuel, Tooze argued in 2006’s Wages of Destruction, for instance. “We always wonder what drives this propulsive quality of the Nazi state, why it is so intent on blitzkrieg and fast conquest,” says Susan Pedersen, a renowned historian of Europe. “Adam lays out how they are operating in a world of economic constraint: For them, victory is possible, if it happens fast.”

Much of his academic output at Cambridge and later Yale focused on the first half of the 20th century—World War I, the League of Nations, the economy of Weimar Germany. But his study of the philosophy of history—a heady branch of inquiry into how historic actors understand their influence on the course of events—thrust him “into this dynamic relationship between the past and the present.” He turned to writing about the near-past; Crashed examined the financial crisis that had started just 10 years earlier. At Columbia, he became a historian of the present, publishing Shutdown on the COVID crisis and working on an account of climate change.

He is no longer in the bathtub with the radio off. Instead, he is deeply engaged in today’s intellectual politics. He talks to government officials. He writes his newsletter. He advises hedge funds. And he teaches. I sat in on the final class he taught this spring, with a group of students discussing the work of the environmental historian Elizabeth Chatterjee in a damp, halogen-lit basement, synthesizing Marxist theory and parsing energy data.

Sometimes parsing such data leads to disconcerting places: As Tooze sees it, the forces of central-bank tightening, war, inflation, and climate change are reinforcing one another. He is offering no reassurance about where that might head—only the hope that perhaps this polycrisis might be knowable to us.