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Don’t mention the reparations?

by Dave W

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Contributed by 
Dave W
Article ID: 
A4469402
Contributed on: 
16 July 2005

Don’t Mention The War (BBC Radio 4, Saturday 16th July 2005, 10.30-11.00 hrs) was a brave and intelligent attempt to examine British prejudice against the Germans, including that found in the BBC’s own output.

I would like to add a historical note: the prejudice did not begin in the Second World War; the roots of it actually lie in the First World War. After the terrible slaughter of that war, the British public naturally started to ask why it had happened. If the authorities had admitted the simple truth, that a large part of the adult males of Britain had been killed for no good reason, there would have been massive social unrest.

So to preserve social order, the myth of the totally wicked German, a myth created in wartime to ‘build morale’, was continued after the war had ended. This led to Germany being forced to pay reparations to the Allies in the 1920 and 30s, which completely wrecked the German economy, and did a lot of damage to our own.

It was after the Germans were left jobless and starving, and democratic German politicians seemed to have no answer to the country’s problems, that the Germans turned to Hitler. As my mother, who lived through the Second World War, often told me:
“If only we’d been nicer to the Germans after the First World War, we wouldn’t have had to fight the second one!”

Obviously, you cannot cover everything in 30 minutes. But I do hope that the BBC will discuss the decision of Britain and her Allies to make Germany pay those reparations in a future programme. I think that the reparations are well known in Germany, but no-one seems to have told younger generations of Britons about this important fact.

Of course, the Germans are partly responsible for the Second World War and the Holocaust, but we are partly responsible too. And we should not be left with the impression that the Germans turned to Hitler simply because ‘Germans are like that’.

Dave W

P.S. I would like to add more about my mother’s experience later on, if time permits. But at least I’ve passed on the most important message, as she would have liked me to do.

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Message 1 - Don’t mention the reparations?

Posted on: 16 July 2005 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Dear Dave

Your argument contains two ungrounded assertions stated as fact, that:
1. There was British prejudice against the Germans after WW1.
2. The British forces killed in WW1 had died "for no good reason".

Do you have any evidence of prejudice against the Germans in the 1920s and 1930s? I am aware of none. If, however, you really mean Anglo-German inter-state antagonism (i.e., relating to the foreign policy of both states) then this goes way back before 1914. The best work I know on the subject is "The Rise of the Anglo-German Antagonism 1860-1914", by Paul Kennedy (George Allen & Unwin, 1980).

As for WW1, Germany knew full well that by invading neutral Belgium, in implementing the Schlieffen Plan to attack France, that they would bring Britain into the war - Britain being the guarantor of Belgium's neutrality. They took the gamble because they believed that France would be swiftly defeated as France was in 1870. The Schlieffen Plan, however, failed at the Marne. There followed a world conflagration and four years of trench warfare, all fought on French soil.

The reparation under the Peace Treaty were for the devastation caused in Belgium and France with entire towns and villages wiped off the map. In November 1918, the German army marched back to an untouched Germany with bands playing, thus starting the myth of 'the stab in the back' of an undefeated army.

The following Treaty of Versailles was not a tenth as harsh as that which the Germans had imposed on the Russians by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1917. The conditions imposed on Russia by the Central Powers (Germany and Austria/Hungary) were breathtakingly Draconian: in territory alone Russia ceded to them the Baltic Provinces, Poland, White Russia (now known as Belrus), Finland, Bessarabia, the Ukraine, and the entire Caucasus. In total a third of Russia pre-war population and nine-tenths of her coalfields. In addition, all Russian naval bases on the Baltic, except Kronstadt. One can barely imagine what terms would have been imposed on France and Germany had militaristic Germany won. We do know that the entire seaboard stretching down to Calais would have been absorbed into Imperial Germany. Believe me, the many thousands of British and French soldiers who died in that great European tragedy did not die in vain.

As to reparation, Britain was faced with a staggering war-widows' pension bill and it was felt that this should be partly paid by Germany rather than totally by British tax payers. The cost of repairing the devastation in France ran into billions. Indeed, reparations helped to poison relations between Germany and the Allies (France and Britain) in the 1920s and partly in the 1930s, but the issue was clear cut in 1919. In the end they were really subsidised by the USA who gave massive loans at low interest rates to Germany to ensure reparations to France.

From Mid-1922 to November 1923 hyperinflation raged. The inflation was caused by the Reichsbank issuing a flood of new money, causing prices to rise. Then, as the inflation gained momentum, events seemed to demand the printing of larger and larger issues of currency. Finally, in 1923, through a mere effort of will, the government stepped in and stabilized the currency overnight.

From then, the German economy was in fair shape until the Wall Street crash of 1929 hit Europe hard, and particularly Germany, causing mass unemployment. It was this that primarily helped the Nazis gain power. But you cannot seriously argue that the rise of European fascism was due to 'British prejudice against Germans' and that if Britain had been kinder to the Germans after WW1 'we wouldn't have had to fight the Germans'. What had this got to do with Germany swallowing up Czechoslovakia in 1938, or the German invasion of Poland in 1939 - after years of appeasement by the British and French?

Democratic Germany is now our ally and staunch friend, but such was not the case between 1900 and 1945.

Regards,
Peter G.

 

Message 2 - Don’t mention the reparations?

Posted on: 16 July 2005 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Above I said "One can barely imagine what terms would have been imposed on France and Germany had militaristic Germany won".

This should read: "One can barely imagine what terms would have been imposed on the Allies had militaristic Germany won".

 

Message 3 - Don’t mention the reparations?

Posted on: 16 July 2005 by Frank Mee Researcher 241911

Hello Dave,
Can I add one or two more reasons to Peters why there would still have been a war even if we had given Germany a free ride on Reparations.
September 1935.
Germany passes laws allowing the persecution of Jews and making it legitimate.
March 1936.
Hitler re-ocupies the Rhineland in defiance of the treaty of Versailles.
April 1937.
German planes bomb the Basque City of Guernica, the loss of civilian life is horrifying.
March 1938.
Hitler Annexes Austria unoposed
September 1938.
Neville Chamberlain signs a pact with Hitler that allows him to annex German speaking areas of Czechoslavakia
October 1938.
German troops march on Czechoslovakia.
November 1938.
The Germans systimatically destroy Synagogues, Jewish businesses and kill many Jews in what we know as Kristallnacht.
January 1939.
The Spanish civil war ends in a win for Franco with the aid of the German army airforce and supplies.
March 1939.
Germany occupies the rest of Czechoslovakia
September 1939.
Germany invades Poland.

Now Dave as someone who lived through the war and whose parents discussed events with us their children, the concensus was from my Mother mainly that we had to stop those (asterisks)once and for all we should have done it after the first one by marching straight into Germany then.
As it got closer to the war starting her words were "we have to wipe the (more asterisks) off the face of the earth this time for the sake of world peace".
So we have two different mothers with two different opinions. My opinion as a young boy was "These people mean to dominate the world and nothing will stop them" I am firmly of the opinion that reperations had nothing to do with it apart from a good excuse to begin their Thousand Year Reich.
Regards Frank.

 

Message 4 - Don’t mention the reparations?

Posted on: 17 July 2005 by Dave W

The reason why Germany tried to attack France (through Belgium) was that the Russians were moving their troops towards the German border.

The Russians had a pact with France, so the Germans feared that they would soon be attacked from both sides at once, with their army split. And so the Germans tried to finish off the French threat quickly, before Russian troops arrived.

Because Russia was (and still is) a large country, and was reliant - in those days - on rail transport, there seemed to be a 'window of opportunity' for Germany to defend itself successfully.

Strictly speaking, of course, it was against the rules for Germany to attack Belgium, a country that had not attacked them. But Europe was a pretty vicious place in those days, where 'nice guys finish last'. I think the Germans were basically trying to protect themselves. They attacked France through Belgium, because Belgium covered the weakest spot in French defences.

Perhaps the Russians only intended to threaten Germany rather than attack her. But even so, moving troops towards the German border was a silly thing for them to do. And whatever the Russsians' *intentions* at that stage, the Germans knew that once the Russian troops actually arrived, then Germany would be at the mercy of France and Russia. That would be the actual position on the ground.

As to Peter's point:
"Britain was faced with a staggering war-widows' pension bill..."
I'm sure that this was true, but surely, the Germans must have faced a large war-widows' pension bill too. It would have been much wiser and kinder to let each country - Britain and Germany - pay its own bill.

In reply to Frank Mee's points:
"September 1935.
"Germany passes laws allowing the persecution of Jews and making it legitimate.
"March 1936.
"Hitler re-ocupies the Rhineland in defiance of the treaty of Versailles.
"April 1937.
"German planes bomb the Basque City of Guernica, the loss of civilian life is horrifying..."

These are all dates *after* Hitler came to power, which happened in 1933. And yes, after that date, the German Nazi Party under Hitler was a dangerous monster that needed to be destroyed - and British troops deserve full credit for their bravery in helping to destroy it.

*BUT* - and it's a very important 'but' - if only Britain had
"given Germany a free ride on reparations"
*before* 1933, then Hitler and his monstrous Nazi Party would probably never have got into power in the first place.

 

Message 5 - Don’t mention the reparations?

Posted on: 17 July 2005 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Dear Dave

You say that "The reason why Germany tried to attack France (through Belgium) was that the Russians were moving their troops towards the German border. ... Strictly speaking, of course, it was against the rules for Germany to attack Belgium, a country that had not attacked them. But Europe was a pretty vicious place in those days, where 'nice guys finish last'."

This is an astonishing assertion and one I have not met with before. But whether that was the case or not, it is not relevant to the point I was making, which was that the invasion of Belgium, (a declared and internationally recognised 'neutral' country, like Sweden and Switzerland) obliged Britain, under the Treaty of London, to declare war on Germany, much as Britain did in 1939 when Poland was invaded.

Belgium agreed to being neutral under the treaty with a minimal army and undefended borders. In return her safety was guaranteed; all the great powers had pledged themselves to this.
Germany wasn't 'defending' itself as you put it. As for the Schlieffen Plan, you are quite right in saying that it was to knock out France before dealing with Russia, what you omit to say is that it was devised by von Schlieffen in 1906 and was aggressive in nature. Neither France nor Imperial Russia had any plans for attacking Germany. In any event, Moltke (son of Moltke the younger) who implemented the plan in August 1914 (Schlieffen being long dead) failed to heed his repeated warning that if the Plan failed, which it did at the Marne, then Germany should at once seek a negotiated settlement. As Bernard Brodie has acutely observed "Unfortunately for Germany and for the world, this most basic of the Clausewitzian ideas was discarded by the successors of Schlieffen and of the younger Moltke.", he goes on, "The Schlieffen Plan, to be sure, had an enormous built-in defect of its own which was basically anti-Clausewitzian - that is, the requirement for the invasion of Belgium (originally also Holland), which was bound to bring Britain into the war".

To say that "Strictly speaking, of course, it was against the rules for Germany to attack Belgium, a country that had not attacked them", is quite an understatement. What rules? This wasn't a game. Germany knew full well that Belgium didn't have an army, except for internal control. Knowing Britain's obligation, an attack on Belgium amounted to an attack on Britain. Nor was it a simple transit, it was a four year occupation.

Nor was Europe a "pretty vicious place in those days". There had not been war between the great powers since 1870, forty-five years of peace. And Britain had avoided conflict with any European power since 1815. Europe was at complete peace at the beginning of 1914.

As for reparations, you say that "It would have been much wiser and kinder to let each country - Britain and Germany - pay its own bill", which seems to suggest, if I have understood you correctly, that both Germany and the Austrian-Hungarian Empire should have been left as they were. That Wilson's Fourteen Points and principle of self-determination should have been ignored. No creation of the Baltic States, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Hungary, and Alsace-Lorraine, taken from France in 1970, left to her. Were the Belgians and French to pay for their own reparations?

But all this, interesting though it may be to discuss, is completely irrelevant to your assertion that between the two wars there was animosity in Britain against the Germans and that somehow this led to WW2.

On the contrary, German enmity against Britain and France was kept fresh by the high number of nationalist groups from 1919 onward, well before the Nazis came to the fore. They constantly fanned the heat making the public believe that Germany would be crippled for a century or more by the huge and unjust reparation bill. As to this, let me quote the foremost authority on the Versailles Treaty, Margaret Macmillan: "Germany ignored the fact that fighting the Great War had been expensive, and that losing it had meant that they could not transfer the costs to anyone else. They also did not grasp, as most people have failed to do since, that reparations payments never amounted to anything like the huge amounts mentioned in public discussions.
The final figure was set in London in 1921 at 132 billion marks (£6.6 billion or about $33 billion). In reality, through an ingenious system of bonds and complex clauses, Germany was committed to pay less than half that amount. It would pay the remainder only when circumstances permitted, such as an improvement in Germany's export figures. Germany also got generous credit for payments it had already made, such as the replacing the books of the Louvain Library in Belgium which German troops had burnt at the beginning of the war [this had been deliberately done and was an outrage which shocked the world, comparable to burning down the British Library in London]. ... Even with payment schedules that were revised downwards several times, however, the Germans continued to argue that reparations were intolerable. ... Germany regularly defaulted on its payments, for the last time and for good in 1932. ... In the final reckoning Germany may have paid about 2.2 billion gold marks (£1.1 billion, $4.5 billion) in the whole period between 1918 and 1932. That is probably slightly less than what France, with a much smaller economy, paid Germany after the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1." source: "The Peacemakers - The Paris Conference of 1919 and Its Attempt to End War" by M. Macmillan (John Murray, 2001).

Regards
Peter

 

Message 6 - Don’t mention the reparations?

Posted on: 17 July 2005 by Frank Mee Researcher 241911

Hi Dave,
"Nice Guys finish last" so by your standards we should have dismantled Germany and made them pay every penny they owed instead of letting them get away with it.
1925 Mien Kampf by Adolph Hitler was published. If you take time to plough through it and believe me it is very hard work you will see the whole plan for Germany laid out and all of it is war and taking back.
The German Army and the Officer Class never considered themselves defeated. They blamed the Politicians for being weak. If you read the History of that period you will see they had the idea of putting Hitler in power as the means to an end. This time they would call the shots and Hitler could be replaced once they were back with a viable force. Like all well laid plans you always get the glitch and Hitler considered himself a better tactician than any of them, they had backed the wrong horse for their needs.
I would also ask you to read the Wilson Papers on the negotiations for reperations. He came to Europe with fixed ideas on how to curb the Europeans and retire back into Isolation which had been his policy before America finally entered the 1914-18 war.
The second world war was always going to happen. The militarism was to stop Germany going the same way as Russia and once you start down that road you are commited to war.
You cannot take one item out of context and say that started it all. Look at the whole picture, Communism Militerism, Starvation and Hindenburg with no control over anything far too old and weak so the "good guys finished last again and Europe headed for war.
As my old boxing coach used to say,"Hit them hard Hit them fast put them down and make them stay down" he should have negotiated the end of the 1914-18 war and then probably we would not have had to fight the second chapter.
Frank.

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