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 Franco-Prussian 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. Many in the English-speaking world came to agree with the Germans that the Treaty of Versailles, and the reparations in particular, were unjust, and that Lloyd George had capitulated to the vengeful French. That sense of guilt played a role in the efforts by successive British governments to appease Hitler in the 1930s.
In this atmosphere, many if not most Germans came to believe that World War I was a sort of natural catastrophe, with no human authors. The arms race, nationalism, imperialism, fear, hatred: all were seen in retrospect as impersonal forces that had simply swept Europeans along in 1914. The German Foreign Ministry in the 1920s even had a propaganda unit that took every opportunity to encourage attacks on the treaty and, by selectively releasing documents, to suggest that Germany bore no more responsibility for the war than any other nation. All were guilty or none were.
Research since 1945, by German historians among others, has produced a more complicated picture, that of a reckless Austria-Hungary determined to crush Serbia and of Germany providing a blank check for its allies in Vienna. German military planners, if they did not welcome war, by 1914 were increasingly inclined to expect it. Their nightmare was a rapidly industrializing Russia. Rather like the Japanese in 1941 who decided to attack the United States, the Germans thought it would be better to have the inevitable conflict sooner rather than later, while they could still take the offensive.
In a remarkably short time after 1918, many Germans also came to think that they had not really lost the war. Its armies during the war had inflicted stunning defeats on Germany’s foes, especially in the east, and little of German soil had been occupied by Allied troops either during the war or in defeat. The military elite mounted a successful campaign in the 1920s to attribute the final German collapse to a “stab in the back” by enemies at home, particularly socialists, liberals and Jews.
This perception was absurd: Germany’s armies lost badly on the battlefields in the summer of 1918; its people were on the brink of starvation because of the British naval blockade; its Austrian, Turkish and Bulgarian allies had crumbled; and its military had begged the government to make peace before it was too late. The armistice signed on Nov. 11 was clearly a surrender; Germany gave up its Navy and its submarines and its heavy field equipment, from tanks to artillery. But as things went from bad to worse such facts were easily distorted or ignored, especially in the late 1920s as Weimar faltered and Hitler rose.
This is not to say that the reparations were a good idea. They were economically unsound and a political mistake with serious consequences. John Maynard Keynes, a member of the British delegation in Paris, rightly argued that the Allies should have forgotten about reparations altogether. (It would have helped if America had written off the war loans it had made to Britain and France, but it was not prepared to do that.)
Still, one has to consider the political atmosphere in 1919. No French or Belgian politician could have openly agreed with Keynes; and even if Lloyd George had wanted to, he had to placate the hard-line Tories in his coalition government. The north of France and virtually the whole of Belgium had been occupied for four years by German soldiers who had driven off livestock, plundered factories and mines, and taken citizens to Germany for forced labor. The areas along the front lines, on the French-Belgian border, were wastelands. And we now have compelling evidence that German forces deliberately carried out a scorched-earth policy; they flooded mines, blew up bridges and stripped bare factories as they retreated.
As one French newspaper asked in 1919, why should the French taxpayer pay to fix the damage the invaders had done? The French remembered too, if nobody else did, that it was the Germans who had declared war on France in 1914, not the other way round.
Ending wars is not easy, and before we condemn the whole idea of reparations as misguided and dangerous, we should think about more recent penalties for aggression. Iraq, for example, is still paying reparations to Kuwait for Saddam Hussein’s invasion of 1990.
More significantly, Germany was obliged to pay reparations after 1945, and in that case there was no negotiation at all: Germany was utterly defeated and the Allies simply helped themselves. The Soviet Union in particular extracted whatever it could and in the most brutal fashion. There was little outcry in Germany because of the total extent of the defeat and, equally important, it was impossible for Germans to argue that they were being unfairly blamed for the war.
It’s worth noting that less than a decade after the fall of the Nazis, the lingering legacy of the World War I reparations was settled quickly and with a minimum of fuss. A conference in London in 1953 produced the agreement whose terms were fulfilled in October. West Germany agreed to pay the interest on its interwar bonds and make compensation to claimants like those who were forced into labor — but only when it was reunited with East Germany. The agreement is often held up as a model to economically troubled countries for how to settle outstanding debts.
Perhaps Greece and Ireland and their debtors should be taking a look at it. And perhaps we should not be so quick to condemn the decisions of the past, but recognize that sometimes there are problems for which there are no easy solutions. In my view Germany could and should have made reparations for its aggression in World War I — but was the risk of renewed war worth forcing it to do so.
Margaret MacMillan, the warden of St. Antony’s College at Oxford and the author of Paris 1919 and Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History.