Ending the war to end all wars
NOT many people noticed at the time, but World War I ended this year. Well, in a sense it did: on Oct. 3, Germany finally paid off the interest on bonds that had been taken out by the shaky Weimar government in an effort to pay the war reparations imposed by the Treaty of Versailles.
While the amount, less than $ 100 million, was trivial by today's standards, the payment brought to a close one of the most poisonous chapters of the 20th century. It also, unfortunately, brought back to life an insidious historical myth: that the reparations and other treaty measures were so odious that they made Adolf Hitler's rise and World War II inevitable.
In truth, the reparations, as the name suggests, were not intended as a punishment. They were meant to repair the damage done, mainly to Belgium and France, by the German invasion and subsequent four years of fighting. They would also help the Allies pay off huge loans they had taken to finance the war, mainly from the United States. At the Paris peace talks of 1919, President Woodrow Wilson was very clear that there should be no punitive fines on the losers, only legitimate costs. The other major statesmen in Paris, Prime Ministers David Lloyd George of Britain and Georges Clemenceau of France, reluctantly agreed, and Germany equally reluctantly signed the treaty.
In Weimar Germany, a society deeply divided by class and politics, hatred of the "dictated peace" was widespread, and there was no shame in trying to escape its provisions. The final sum for reparations was not mentioned in the treaty - itself a humiliation in German eyes - but was eventually set in 1921 at 132 billion gold marks (about $442 billion in today's terms). The fact is that Germany could have managed to pay, but for political reasons chose not to.
The German government repeatedly challenged the amount, asked for moratoriums or simply stated that it could not pay. In 1924 and again in 1929, the total sum owed was negotiated down. In 1933, when the Nazis took power, Hitler simply canceled reparations unilaterally. In the end, it has been calculated, Germany paid less in real terms than France did after the FrancoPrussian war of 1870 to '71 (and France paid off those obligations in just a few years).
Yet this mattered little to the Germans, for whom it was all too easy to attribute every problem to reparations, and by extension to the Weimar government. Hitler did not attain power because of reparations - the Great Depression and the folly of the German ruling classes did that - but their existence gave him a political cudgel against Weimar. The wrangling over reparations also helped turn the German people against co-operation with the international system.
Equally important, the issue helped drive a wedge between France and Britain at a time when the liberal democracies needed to stand together.