End­ing the war to end all wars

The Pak Banker - - Editorial - Mar­garet Macmil­lan

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Pakistan

© PressReader. All rights reserved.