It has become nearly impossible to view anything about Germany between the two world wars without taking into account WW II.
An example are the war reparations required by the Treaty of Versailles. These are widely seen as contributors to the dire economic situation of the Weimar Republic, which in turn is seen as a major influence on the rise of National Socialism. But economic historians, among them Niall Ferguson in The Pity of War, have demonstrated that the Germans paid very little of their required reparations, amounting to perhaps two to three percent of the country’s national income.
So in fact it wasn’t the reparations themselves that torpedoed Germany, but their use as a rallying cry by National Socialists in the face of an economy badly mismanaged by the interwar German government.
Another example: that Versailles was punitive and humiliating. Indeed, German nationalists started with the “Jewish stab in the back” before the ink was even dry on the treaty. However, the idea that a uniquely punitive treaty bore National Socialism may have been inflated (this cause-and-effect trajectory of Versailles to Nazism was promulgated most famously by AJP Taylor in The Origins of the Second World War).
As I just read in Max Egremont’s Forgotten Land, the 1917 Treaty of Brest Litovsk, imposed by Germany on the nascent Soviet Union, was severely punitive, yet the brutality of Lenin and the Bolsheviks is not ascribed to the unfavorable treaty. So why are the Germans given this “out?”
Sometimes I wonder if what the Germans perpetrated in WW II was so utterly evil that humanity was left shell-shocked trying desperately to come up with some kind of explanation — when, ultimately, inherent evil is the only one.
Shana Goldberg may be reached at email@example.com
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