WW2 Relevance

|   13 November 2011

Remembering the right history

Today, on Remembrance Sunday, two days after Remembrance Day, it’s important to remember the right thing – which is, of course, the bravery and sacrifice of our warriors. But let’s also remember the right way of looking at the history that is the reason we have Remembrance Day at 11 o’clock on the 11th day of the 11th month.

I guess most people realize we commemorate the war dead on 11 November because 11 November 1918 was the day that the First World War ended. And many people will also know that many Germans – especially the Nazis – came to call the politicians who had agreed to end the war on this day ‘November criminals’. The fantasy that the German army could have carried on the fight but was ‘stabbed in the back’ by revolutionaries (and Jews) behind the lines back in Germany became an iconic belief of the Nazis.

The alleged ‘harshness’ of theĀ  various settlements in the wake of the November armistice – most notoriously the Versailles treaty – has also been blamed for permitting the rise of the Nazis and, indeed, causing the Second World War. My point is that we should be very careful about this analysis. Yes, Versailles was hated by most Germans, but by 1928 – ten years after the end of WW1 – the Nazis were supported by less than 3% of the German population. It was the economic depression after the Wall Street Crash in 1929 that was central to the Nazis’ rise to power. And, yes, the Germans were hit hard by this in part because of the reparations of Versailles, but the Americans suffered a massive economic decline as well, and they, of course, won the war.

What is often forgotten is that after the end of WW2 the Germans suffered much more at the hands of the victorious Allies than they did at the end of WW1. Under Versailles, Germany lost 13.5% of her territory. After WW2 it lost more than 20%. Moreover, in the years after WW2 Germany itself was split apart into East Germany under Soviet domination and West Germany under British, French and American occupation. In addition, whilst under Versailles, the German Army was limited to 100,000 soldiers, in August 1946 the Allied Control Council abolished the German Wehrmacht altogether.

The difference was that America realized the damage that restrictive policies were doing to West Germany after WW2 earlier than the Allies realized the problems that reparations were causing to the long term future of Germany after WW1. It was the economic aid of the Marshall plan in 1947 that turned the fortunes of West Germany around. As for East Germany, it languished until 1989, enduring a degree of suffering much worse than anything the Allies ever caused in Germany after WW1.

(A talented young history student called Eira Brewer helped me with this piece)

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