Sunday, December 26, 2010

Ending the War to End All Wars

An essay from Margaret MacMillan, at New York Times:
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.
Some might recall that I wrote about this at the time: "Germany Pays Off Reparations Imposed at Versailles — 92 Years Later!"