By Sarah Zama
Sarah Zama, @jazzfeathers on twitter and a writer of historical fantasy stories set in the 1920s, did 26 blog posts in 2018 as an A-Z challenge on the cultural and political aspects of inter war Germany over on her blog The Old Shelter. We're reposting these here as they talk about an area of History ripe for AH. Today we have the entries for G, H and I.
It is normally quite easy to understand why war breaks out and who is pitted against who. Not so for the Great War. And this is true to the point that it has been defined as one of the most enigmatic events in contemporary history.
It’s hard to understand the Great War without understanding the ‘Long Century’, the idea that the 19th century really started in 1815 when the Napoleonic Wars ended and lasted until the break out of WWI. This 99 year long 'peace' was largely the making of the Congress of Vienna, which created the ‘Concert of Europe’ that harmonised the diplomacy of the European nations so to avoid war. Because the Napoleonic Wars had involved almost the entire continent when they were over, there was a sense that European nations felt that they belonged to the same White Christian civilisation, especially in contrast with the world ‘outside’ which they would spend much of the next hundred years warring against and must work together to see off possible threats to that order, such as a popular revolution. The Concert of Europe succeeded in creating a balance that rested on the idea of a common civilisation based on not only race and religion but also Enlightenment philosophy and industrial and scientific advancement – in brief, what we could define as ‘Victorian’ values. Although disturbed by many smaller conflicts (like the Crimean War or the Franco-Prussian War) throughout the century, that balance was never tipped to the point that a war on the scale of the Napoleonic Wars broke out.
This could never last forever, because the industrial revolution was an unbalancing factor. Nations evolved at different speeds, and a few that used to be pre-eminent started to lose ground to younger powers. This created imbalances such as the rise of Germany and Italy, which was nonetheless kept under control by merely having those countries join the ‘Concert of Europe’, something Bismarck was a fan of.
Still, many societies slowly became aware of that imbalance. Catastrophic theories based on the wild increase of the world population, the intensive use of resources, the mixing of the races, the lost of contact with tradition and the effects of urbanisation and industrialisation became very commonplace. It’s quite interesting to note how these theories rarely however foresaw the destructive impact of a total war, as instead literature did a few times.
In fact, in some circles, a war was seen favourably, as the event that could readjust the European balance to what reality had evolved into over one century. The killing of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo was only the trigger of what all nations were expecting to happen sooner or later. They all accepted it as the way to reorganise a balance that had become vastly artificial. Young people, tired of an old way of life and eager to change a world that was not their own anymore, enthusiastically joined the war effort. Besides, all nations thought this was going to be just one more ‘small conflict’ as the ones they had known throughout the ‘Long Century’. A lot of people thought it was going to be over in a few months.
Very few expected what actually happened.
The industrial revolution and science and mechanic advancement had afforded all nations with weapons no one really knew the potentiality of. They were far more effective and far more destructive than any of the veteran generals who lead the respective armies ever imagined. They started a war as they had always done, but the new weapons turned it into something new and horrible that nobody expected or knew how to handle.
Surprised by the effectiveness of the new total war, unprepared to judge what was going on, but able to keep going, all armies kept their ground. Consequently, the war went on and on. Not only on the frontline. For the first time, war invaded every layer of society. Everyone was called to help in the war effort. The war infiltrated in all aspect of life, whether it was on the frontline or not.
This was a new kind of war. This was a total war that had the potentiality to destroy everything.
At the end of the war, the destruction, not just of goods, but especially in terms of loss of lives, was devastating. Of the 60 million European soldiers mobilised in the period 1914-1918, 8 million had died by the end of the war, 7 million were permanently disabled, 15 million were seriously injured. An estimated 5 million civilians had died for causes connected to the war.
It was a horrible, mindless carnage that changed the souls of all European nations forever, a breaking point as dramatic as any in the history of the world and certainly of the continent. Although the old Victorian ideas and social mores still persisted, they were utterly ineffective in guiding this new world. It was hard to maintain a social class system when upper and lower class alike had fought in the same trenches.
Europe, as it emerged from the Great War, was a new place that few Europeans knew how to navigate and so new ideologies began to emerge. Germany would be one of the many countries where those ideologies would clash.
When we hear about the Weimar Republic, most of us think of wheelbarrows of banknotes used to buy one loaf of bread or stakes of notes used to fuel stoves. In short, we think to the hyperinflation of the middle 1920s. We might think hyperinflation was a specific German situation since we seldom hear of any other such. It wasn’t. In fact, most countries after and during WWI also went through a period of hyperinflation, an occurrence that had never been uncommon after a war, it was one of the causes of the Russian Revolution. But the German case was peculiar and has been researched and dissected in detail ever since. This is partly because a lot of data was available in a time when detailed analysis was becoming more common but partly because Germany was, from the beginning, a slightly different case from all the others.
It isn’t easy to explain the hyperinflation, which took into account many different causes, both economic, political and social. What is certain is that it had devastating consequences on the population. Money lost value by the minute. Tales like the one of the man who ordered two coffees at the bar and paid two different prices because between the first order and the second the price had risen might be more legend than reality, but it was close enough. In 1918 one loaf of bread cost a quarter of a Reichsmark. In October 1923, at the height of the hyperinflation, it cost 80 billion Reichsmark. The largest banknote at that time had a face value of 100,000,000,000,000 (100 trillion) Reichsmark. The official change was 4,2 million Reichsmark against 1 dollar.
Inflation actually started in Germany before the war. Germany abandoned the gold standard and resorted to borrowing rather than taxation (at no point during World War I did the Germans raise taxes) to sustain the increasing war costs. Everyone expected it to be a short term cost. Germany thought they would be able to repay all debts with loot from the defeated countries and anyway, in a short quick victory, debts were not going to rise too high. But the war lasted for years, and in the end, Germany lost it.
Instead of loot from France paying for the German War Effort, the result was loot from Germany paying for the French one. Germans met with horror the financial punishment of Versailles and while they paid some money to the Allies, the first payment was made in June 1921, there was no political will to provide the Allies with hundreds of billions of marks when that money could be spent within Germany or clearing the German debt instead. The Weimar government made it clear that they felt meeting the demands was impossible and in 1922 defaulted on promised deliveries of coal and timber. But this was only four years after the war, when the French and Belgians very much remembered the destruction German armies had caused on their soil, and the attitude was still very harsh on Germany, who the Allies felt was trying to pretend that she hadn't lost the war. Her requests for a more lenient reparation plan fell into the void.
In that same year, the German government ordered an increase in the printing of banknotes in the hope to stimulate the economy and to allow them to buy foreign currency in larger quantities and thus pay back their reparations quicker. Industrial barons greeted this plan favourably since this made the mark cheaper, which meant easier exportations. It also meant they had lower costs for their workers. It was risky, German economists understood that, but they thought this was going to be a short-term rise in inflation, just intended to help the economy rise at which point things would return to normal.
But soon the Mark was devalued to the point that buying foreign currencies was difficult and that meant less money for the reparations. The Allies didn’t take that particularly well. Many of them thought that Germany was intentionally ruining her economy so that they could have an excuse to not meet the reparation costs. In early 1923 France and Belgium – ignoring the League of Nations – invaded the Ruhr, the main German industrial district, hoping to get reparations paid with goods.
The German government invited the Ruhr population to a ‘passive resistance’, which essentially meant a general strike. Every activity ceased in the Ruhr, the chief producer of wealth in Germany. Which meant France and Belgium didn’t get their money, but nor did Germany.
Even if workers were not producing anything, they still had to be paid, since their strike was supported by the government. The only way to pay such a number of people was to print more money.
That’s when things got out of control. That’s when the banknote-burning stoves happened.
In September 1923 Germany had a new chancellor, Gustav Stresemann, who had different ideas about how to cope with the reparation costs. Rather than playing the ‘impossibility’ card, he thought a parlay with the Allies was the best bet. He immediately started meetings and talks, and in November a plan was in place, the Dawes Plan, devised by an American banker. The US accepted to back a new German currency with gold, the Rentenmark and set lower targets for German reparation instalments. When the Rentenmark replaced the Reichsmark, and twelve zeroes were cut from the prices, prices in the new currency became stable and the inflation normalised.
The worst of the hyperinflation had passed, but not its consequences. It is widely believed that the hyperinflation contributed to the rise of the Nazis. It certainly increased doubts about how competent a liberal institution could be in weathering an economic crisis. Germany was going to test this again when the 1929 crash came.
In the first half of the20th century, two world wars ravaged Europe. The fact that two horrible conflicts on a world scale were crammed into such a short time has always blown my mind. One would think that humans should be smarter than that. I mean, didn’t anyone learn anything from WWI? Why did WWII break out so shortly after that? Well, what if the interwar years were not a time of peace between two wars at all, but were themselves a time of war?
The concept of the European Civil War isn’t new, and it isn’t universally accepted, but it’s one that, in my opinion, explains many things. I’ve read historians who sustain this thesis and historians who reject it. I’d say that both positions are acceptable, both are logical and historically based, and, in the end, it really just depends on how you feel about it, if you consider the interwar years a time of peace or war.
Personally, because of the short time between the two world wars, I’m inclined to consider the first half of the 20th century as one single Thirty-years War, much like happened in the early 17th century.
The concept of the European Civil War rests on the idea that the twenty years of the interwar period were not really a time of peace, but they were a continuation of the world conflict in a different fashion.
Europe wasn’t accustomed to war in their own villages anymore. War was something that happened in the colonies. The long 19th century had brought about some sort of peace on the continent, advancement in all fields of life, from science to industry, to medicine, and also an evolution in social attitude and expectation. Victorian people had a strong feeling that theirs was the best possible world and that the future was going to be even better, created by their enlightened society.
But inside this world, anxiety was mounting. The industrial revolution, in particular, was changing society in dramatic ways, as people moved from rural to urban life. Everything was evolving, and the balance created at the beginning of the century was slowly but surely becoming artificial. This is why WWI was often saluted with such enthusiasm, especially by young people: they believed a short war would readjust the inner imbalance.
Nobody ever imagined that the evolution had been so profound. WWI – at least in the beginning – was a new kind of war fought with obsolete rules. It was a massacre. It was the destruction of everything which existed before, not just life as they knew it, but also the minds of people were changed.
Here’s where the two lines of historical interpretation diverge.
What’s the European Civil War?
The concept is that 1914-1945 was one period of war and unrest which saw the old European system replaced by a new Concert of Europe, one where Europe was divided into a Communist East and a Capitalist West as it had been divided into two camps of opposing Monarchies in 1914. The two World Wars are a part of the switch from one Concert to the other but so are the Russian Civil War, the Irish and Finnish Revolutions, the Spanish Civil War, the wars in Eastern Europe and the political violence in Germany between 1918 and 1939.
Historians who support the idea of a European Civil War stress the concept of imbalance. Everything moved and evolved at an unthinkable speed. Monarchy – and the society based on it – was dying out all over Europe, replaced by democratic regimes. But these regimes – as Weimar in particular teaches us – were far from being stable. Democracy was too new, without the support of the institutions needed to maintain it, and the idea that a strong figure should lead a nation as the old monarchies had done was held by enough people to make authoritarian regimes acceptable, or even preferable.
Many segments of the population – women, ethnic minorities – were gaining space in society and politics and nobody knew how to deal with this. The instability of the economy was expected after such a long war, the Great Depression that spread from the US to Europe eventually made it direr.
This was common all over Europe and made the time after WWI not a time of settlement, but a time of further, shocking changes that never settled.
The situation of the Weimar Republic was peculiar even in these circumstances. War had never ended in the minds of Germans. The apparent unfairness of the Treaty of Versailles kept alive the idea that enemies still surrounded Germany and many Germans thought they deserved to be ravaged from that unfairness. The myth of the ‘stab in the back’, the perception that the democratic government had betrayed the nation, the same idea that a Führer would come to settle all this, never allowed German society to settle into a new reality. Instead, they moved to a new imbalance, one that would bring them into a new conflict which was a direct consequence and a continuation of the first.
Why not an European Civil War?
Historians who reject the idea of the European Civil War argue that the 'balanced societies' of pre 1914 and post 1945 Europe, with relatively static continental politics, are the rarities. Most times of peace are still times of political turmoil and change and that doesn't mean the war is still going. They also stress the differences between the two World Wars to argue they can't be viewed as one single conflict.
While WWI was definitely a Eurocentric event, in spite of the intervention of the US, WWII was a conflict that really spread all over the world, with fronts in Asia and in the Pacific. The two wars were also very different in nature. While WWI could be said in some respects to be a civil war, since the nations sometimes involved viewed themselves as part of a common European civilization which they were fighting for control over, there was very much nationalistic motives, the French were fighting for France, the Germans for Germany. WWII was far more a conflict of ideals rather than nations, since the reasons behind the war were strongly rooted in opposing ideologies, the fight was for fascism or communism or liberal democracy.
And finally, WWII was a total war in a far more complete way than WWI. It involved in the conflict and in the battles civilians in their cities to an even greater extent than the first world war because the military advances travelled further distances.