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On Post-War Settlements

[ 12 ] October 9, 2010 |

Quiggin on the end of the Great War:

Despite the emergence of the ever-present nuclear menace, 1945 marked the low point of the 20th century in many ways. At least on the Western side, the peace settlement was far less draconian, and far more successful, than that of 1919. And, for several decades after the end of war, there was fairly steady progress towards a version (scaled-down in important respects, but more ambitious in some others) of those pre-1914 aspirations.

Really? Aren’t several of these propositions at least debatable? First, can we meaningfully use a term such as “on the Western side” when talking about the 1945 settlement? The division of Germany into two political units, and the distribution of significant portions of Germany to Poland and other Eastern European countries is the key element of the 1945 settlement. I don’t see how we can profitably make an analytical division between a “Western” and an “Eastern” response; the relatively light-handed approach of the occupying powers in the West was entirely dependent on the character of Soviet policy in the East.

More importantly, it seems to me that the real lesson that the Allied powers learned from 1919 was that the treatment of Germany was not nearly draconian enough. In 1945, in contrast to 1919, Germany was occupied by four armies, and its political institutions were formally restructured by the occupying powers. It was informally, then formally, divided into two parts. It lost more territory in 1945 than it had lost in 1919. While the German military was severely restricted post-Versailles, after 1945 Germany entirely lost its right to maintain military organizations, and would only partially regain that right in 1955. German political and military officials were put on trial, politically neutralized, and in many cases imprisoned or executed by the occupying powers. The military occupation of Germany by foreign powers continued until, well, now. Moreover, the actual process of winning the war wreaked far more draconian consequences on Germany than the process of Allied victory in World War I, with most German cities, industry, and infrastructure subjected to destructive air and land attack.

In short, I’d reiterate that Allied policy in 1945 was draconian, if appropriately so. I’m also not sure that the postwar settlement should be described as “successful”; while it certainly prevented the emergence of another German effort at European hegemony, this came at the cost of a Europe bitterly divided along military and social lines, an American and British military presence in many Western European states, and Russian political domination of the entirety of Eastern Europe. We can say, at best, that things sort of worked out in the end, but the peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union wasn’t the predictable outcome of a set of policies enacted by responsible leaders in 1945.

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Comments (12)

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  1. Oscar Leroy says:

    I think “things worked out in the end” is a pretty darn good outcome. I would take that in a heartbeat as far as any of the catastrophes we are facing now. And I also think bringing about the collapse of an empire without nuclear or conventional war is quite a success.

  2. wengler says:

    I don’t think ‘draconian’ is the right word. Germany was defeated and occupied in WW2 in a way they weren’t in WW1 it is true. But the US reconstructing West Germany instead of strangling the country economically was the major difference.

  3. “I don’t see how we can profitably make an analytical division between a “Western” and an “Eastern” response; the relatively light-handed approach of the occupying powers in the West was entirely dependent on the character of Soviet policy in the East.”

    Not sure exactly how this works. If the idea is that Marshall Plan payments were a ‘response’ to Soviet hegemony then OK, I can respect the argument even if its not one I’d make. But its worth noting that Stalin’s decision to really tigthen the screws in Eastern Europe was largely a response to the Soviet perception was that the Western Allies were being entirely too nice to Germany, and were in effect fattening up the rottweiller before letting it loose again.

    Moreover if we’re talking about the considerably democratic and consensus based nature of NATO vs. the Warsaw Pact, well the Spartans could have told you that’s just effective alliance management.

  4. teraz kurwa my says:

    The turning of the screw against non-communists started pretty much immediately everywhere in the East Bloc following the end of the war. More independent minded communists began to get pushed back starting in 1947. The West German economy didn’t begin to rise from the ashes until 1950.

    So to get back to the OP, yes, the combined effect of the war and postwar settlement was far more draconian on the German population than in WWI. In addition to the greater economic collapse and the larger extent of the territorial losses, the territories in question were overwhelmingly German populated, unlike the majority non-German ones lost in 1918-1919. And the ethnic German population was not allowed to stay, but rather subject to an ethnic cleansing which was quite brutal, albeit not anywhere near as lethal as the expellee lobby likes to claim.

  5. Charrua says:

    And yet, despite the “draconian” treatment, a few decades after the agreement, Germany was unquestionably the wealthiest, most powerful country in Europe, setting de facto monetary policy for the whole Continent. In fact, Germany essentially achieved all its pre WW I and II goals; they basically rule Europe, and Great Britain is a “has been” that licks the boots of the USA as a way to maintain relevance. Now, this is an exaggeration and maybe a little harsh, but I think that a big part of the reason that the post WWII agreement worked was that the fundamental tension of accomodating the new power of Germany was resolved…in their favor. They control the ECB, for chrissakes!!

    • ajay says:

      Germany essentially achieved all its pre WW I and II goals; they basically rule Europe, and Great Britain is a “has been” that licks the boots of the USA as a way to maintain relevance. Now, this is an exaggeration

      I think you’ve misspelt “lunatic hallucination” there.

  6. [...] going to side with Robert Farley against John Quiggin on the nature of the settlement of the Second World War. There’s [...]

  7. Anderson says:

    Some of the comments seem to me to miss the point.

    The German postwar resurgence wasn’t *despite* the radical terms imposed by the Allies; it was *because* of it.

    The Nuremberg trials, the occupation, the dissolution of the German armed forces, the imposition of a new form of government — all that is stuff that the Germans were unlikely to do for themselves, and which had to be imposed by the victors. And which made the “German miracle” possible.

    … I do think “draconian” is a poor choice of words, since it implies cruelty. “Radical,” in the root sense (ha) at least, is a better way to put it. The Allies had a “we are absolutely NOT doing this shit again in 20 years” attitude that made the results very different.

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