Few people in Germany noted the country's final $94 million WWI
reparations payment on Sunday. Some historians say that's for the
To some historians, World War I ended Sunday.
Amid the news headlines marking the 20th anniversary of German
reunification, the country quietly finished paying the last of its
debt stemming from reparations imposed by the Versailles Peace
Treaty more than 92 years ago.
"It's a symbol. It marks the end of World War I," says Ursula
Rombeck-Jaschinski, a professor of modern history at Heinrich-Heine
University in Dusseldorf. "It shows that Germany is prepared to pay
back its debts after 92 years. More importantly, it also shows that
Germany today is a totally different Germany than it was in the
1920s and 1930s."
Today Germany has a robust economy and is a model of financial
stability, far from the heavily indebted nation that once ran up
inflation and shrugged off creditors. While the last payment
connected with the reparations passed virtually unnoticed here
Sunday, for some Germans and many historians it marked the symbolic
closing of a highly controversial treaty that ended one war and laid
the foundation of another.
Seeds of Hitler's rise
The so-called "guilt clause" of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles
placed full blame for the war on Germany and ordered reparations of
132 billion German marks (roughly $400 billion in today's dollars).
The debt fed a cycle of hyperinflation that pushed Germany to the
brink of financial collapse.
By 1931, the international community had canceled Germany's
debts. By then the country had already paid 23 billion gold marks,
or 17 percent of the Versailles demands, and still had to reimburse
the foreign bonds it had issued in the 1920s to raise the reparation
cash. The debt continued to fuel deep feelings of resentment, which
Adolph Hitler exploited to catapult himself to power in 1934.
"Nothing played a greater role in Nazi propaganda than the
refusal of Versailles and the promise to go back on the treaty,"
says Gerd Krumeich of the University of Dusseldorf, a World War I
historian. "It gave rise to a campaign of propaganda and hatred."
"Without the Treaty of Versailles, the course of German history
would have been quite different," agrees Carl-Ludwig Holtfrerich of
Berlin's Free University. "That was a lesson the Americans drew
after World War II. They pleaded for a new world order where
reparation was out of the question. …