Wednesday, September 29, 2010

German reparations and the end of the Great War

Yes, believe it or not, World War I is finally about to come to an end -- even though there's already been a II and neocons are angling for a III. From Britain's Telegraph:

The First World War will officially end on Sunday, 92 years after the guns fell silent, when Germany pays off the last chunk of reparations imposed on it by the Allies.

The final payment of £59.5 million, writes off the crippling debt that was the price for one world war and laid the foundations for another.

Germany was forced to pay the reparations at the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 as compensation to the war-ravaged nations of Belgium and France and to pay the Allies some of the costs of waging what was then the bloodiest conflict in history, leaving nearly ten million soldiers dead. 

The initial sum agreed upon for war damages in 1919 was 226 billion Reichsmarks, a sum later reduced to 132 billion, £22 billion at the time.

The bill would have been settled much earlier had Adolf Hitler not reneged on reparations during his reign.

Hatred of the settlement agreed at Versailles, which crippled Germany as it tried to shape itself into a democracy following armistice, was of significant importance in propelling the Nazis to power.

"On Sunday the last bill is due and the First World War finally, financially at least, terminates for Germany," said Bild, the country's biggest selling newspaper.

Most of the money goes to private individuals, pension funds and corporations holding debenture bonds as agreed under the Treaty of Versailles, where Germany was made to sign the 'war guilt' clause, accepting blame for the war.

Of course, the enormity of the reparations amount (269 billion gold marks, or about £23.6 -- or almost $400 U.S. in current terms) wasn't fair, and Keynes, a key British official at the Paris Peace Conference, was right to criticize it, correctly predicting that Germany's economy would collapse and that Europe would suffer the serious consequences. He resigned his post as chief representative of the British Treasury, writing to Prime Minister David Lloyd George that the reparations agreement would lead to the "devastation of Europe."

It was unfair not just because it was such an enormous amount but because Germany hardly deserved to take the blame for the war. While the causes of the war were varied and complex -- and too much to get into here -- the other Great Powers certainly deserved their fair shares of the blame, too. This is not to suggest that the blame ought to have been shared equally or that Germany shouldn't have been made to pay reparations, but, clearly, Germany shouldn't have been made to pay that much.

Anyway, it's over. Finally.


Allow me to take this opportunity to post a few poems by one of the greatest of the Great War poets, the Englishman Siegfried Sassoon:


When I was young my heart and head were light,
And I was gay and feckless as a colt
Out in the fields, with morning in the may,
Wind on the grass, wings in the orchard bloom.
O thrilling sweet, my joy, when life was free
And all the paths led on from hawthorn-time
Across the carolling meadows into June.

But now my heart is heavy-laden. I sit
Burning my dreams away beside the fire:
For death has made me wise and bitter and strong;
And I am rich in all that I have lost.
O starshine on the fields of long-ago,
Bring me the darkness and the nightingale;
Dim wealds of vanished summer, peace of home,
And silence; and the faces of my friends.

Suicide in the Trenches

I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.

In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you'll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.


When you are standing at your hero’s grave,
Or near some homeless village where he died,
Remember, through your heart’s rekindling pride,
The German soldiers who were loyal and brave.

Men fought like brutes; and hideous things were done;
And you have nourished hatred, harsh and blind.
But in that Golgotha perhaps you’ll find
The mothers of the men who killed your son.

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