President Putin blames Britain and France for World War II
Writing about web page http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/62376
The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of August 1939 joined Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Germany in an alliance. It was not called an alliance, but for nearly two years the two countries coordinated their foreign policies and military operations. In the first phase, they joined together in aggression against Poland and the destruction of the Polish state.
Wars may have proximate causes and deep causes. Whatever the deep causes of World War II, it is clear from the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact that Stalin helped to bring the war about.
On 20 December, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin read a lecture on the origins of World War II. His audience was the heads of state of former Soviet republics that make up the Confederation of Independent States – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. His purpose was to defend the Soviet Union against the charge of having helped to cause World War II. Putin used the occasion to argue three things.
First, Putin argued that that the Soviet-German non-aggression pact was merely the last occasion – and the most desperate, and therefore the least blameworthy – on which the European powers would seek to put off or divert German aggression; the Soviet Union agreed to it “pnly after all other avenues had been exhausted and all proposals by the Soviet Union to create a unified security system, in fact, an anti-Nazi coalition in Europe were rejected.” To this extent, he suggested, there was nothing particularly abnormal or sinister about the Soviet-German non-aggression pact.
Second, he maintained, among the other proximate causes of the war were the bad judgement and bad faith of Britain, France, and their ally Poland.
Third, he suggested, the deep causes of the war lay in the peace settlement made after World War I, and especially in the Treaty of Versailles. The Western Allied powers made the treaty and imposed it on Germany. (Russia, an Allied power, was not involved at Versailles, having left the Allies in the lurch in 1917.) Putin blamed this settlement for two things. One was the creation of artificial states and unstable borders that were bound to lead to further conflict in Europe. The other was the imposition of humiliating and unbearable terms on Germany, also bound to lead to a further war. Britain and France were responsible for these things and therefore they were far more deeply implicated in the causes of World War II than Russia.
This was quite a lecture – focused, logical, full of historical detail and quotation. Perhaps English-speaking readers, who have become habituated to the tirades of President Trump and Prime Minister Johnson’s ramblings might feel envious: the Russians have such a scholar for their head of state! As I said, focused, logical, and full of detail.
One quality might be thought more important than detail or coherence: was Professor Putin’s lecture good scholarship? Was it true to the facts, and were the facts understood properly in their context? This is what I will briefly consider. I will comment only on the third and last of these issues, the significance of the Treaty of Versailles among the causes of World War II. Much more could be said about the first and second issues, but perhaps they can wait for another day. For now, you can think of the issues arising from the Versailles Treaty as my sampling of the quality of President Putin’s research.
For background, you can think of the Allies at Versailles pursuing three goals: to punish Germany by seizing territory and assets, to force Germany to compensate the Allies for war damages, and to constrain Germany's future behaviour by imposing limits on its armament. The problem was that on a reasonable interpretation the first and second of these goals undermined the third, by stimulating nationalist counteractions. Too much of the punishment and compensation would have fallen on the people, whereas the leaders went largely unpunished. Still, an important question arises: by how much, particularly the treaty is compared to other possible causes of the next war.
Here’s how Putin's argument begins.
Putin: In this connection [the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact], I am asking you to take a few minutes to return to the origins, to the very beginning, which I find very important. I suggest beginning, as they say, from ‘centre field’, as they say, I mean from the results from World War I, from the Versailles Peace conditions written in the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.
Me: Sounds interesting!
Putin: For Germany, the Treaty of Versailles became a symbol of blatant injustice and national humiliation.
Me: Provisionally, I’d shade this a little. For the German ultra-nationalists, and also for more moderate monarchists and conservatives, yes: the Treaty of Versailles symbolized injustice and humiliation. For others, who were generally in the majority, it’s not clear. More below.
Putin: In fact, it meant robbing Germany. I will give you some numbers, because they are very interesting. Germany had to pay the Triple Entente countries (Russia left the winners and did not sign the Treaty of Versailles) an astronomical sum of 269 billion golden marks, the equivalent of 100,000 tonnes of gold.
Me: No. German reparations were fixed in 1921 by a Reparations Commission set up under the treaty. The Commission fixed the final bill at 132 billion gold marks, of which 50 billion were to be collected in the first instance; the remaining 82 billion were judged beyond Germany’s means, and would be collected only if Germany’s capacity to pay proved greater than expected.
A puzzle: then how did President Putin’s researchers come up with the much higher figure of 269 billion gold marks? Possibly, from one of a number of internet sources that offer this figure, including the websites of the BBC, ABC, and National Geographic. The same figure of 269 billion, but in dollars at today’s prices, can also be found on History.com. But they are all wrong.
The ultimate origin of the figure is possibly an Allied claim of 269 billion gold marks, submitted to the reparations commission during 1920 as a first move for negotiation (Kent 1962: 178). It was not adopted, however.
As for Putin’s gold translation of the reparations total, this appears to be roughly correct; 269 billion gold marks would have been close to 100,000 tons of gold (more exactly 96,000 tons). Of course, the gold equivalent of the figure for reparations actually due, 50 billion marks, would have been much less, a little short of 18,000 tons.
Even a single ton of gold is hard to imagine. It invites the question: how much is a lot? Putin tries to answer this question by offering two alternative standards of comparison:
Putin: For comparison, I would say the gold reserves as of October 2019 are 8,130 tonnes in the US, 3,370 tonnes in Germany and 2,250 tonnes in Russia.
Me: Such comparisons are striking, but the figures seem to have been selected in order to mislead. Germany was expected to pay reparations not out of its gold reserves on hand at the end of the war, but out of its export earnings over many years. (Gold, incidentally, was and is not the only form in which foreign currency reserves are held. For Germany, which has one of the largest gold holdings in the world today, gold is around three quarters of its total of foreign reserves.)
Putin: And Germany had to pay 100,000 tonnes.
Me: No, just 18,000.
Putin: At the current price of gold of $1,464 for a troy ounce, the reparations would be worth about $4.7 trillion, while the German GDP in 2018 prices, if my data are correct, is only $4 trillion.
Me: At last, we have a calculation that would seem to underplay the weight of the reparations burden. Putin compares the gold value of reparations then to Germany’s GDP today, when both are measured at today’s prices. The undervaluation arises as follows: the dollar price of gold has increased by around 100 times, whereas Germany’s nominal GDP has increased by a factor of around 300. Of course, after a century of economic growth, the German economy of today would be much better placed to sustain the burden of the reparations bill fixed in 1921 – even if we overstate it by five times, as Putin’s researchers have done.
The fact is that Germany was expected to bear the burden of reparations at the gold price of the time based on the value of its national resources of the time. A more relevant comparison is then as follows.
What was the scale of Germanys’ indebtedness in 1921, including reparations, in comparison to the indebtedness of the victorious powers? The 50 billion gold marks of reparations, set in 1921, would have represented approximately 125 per cent of Germany’s GDP at the time. To this should be added Germany’s ordinary public debt of around 50 per cent of GDP. Germany’s overall debt burden, including reparations, was therefore 175 per cent of GDP. By modern standards this would be a heavy burden. But the British debt burden of 1921, mostly arising from the war, was around 160 per cent of GDP. At 250 per cent, the French burden was still higher. (For sources and further detail see Harrison 2016: 152.)
In short, the reparations commission did not ask defeated Germany to shoulder a burden of national debt heavier than that of the victorious powers. The complication -- a serious one -- was that the German governent owed this debt mostly to foreigners, whereas the British and French governments owed it mostly to their own citizens.
Claims of the burden of reparations on Germany in the 1920s should also take into account the treaty restrictions placed on German rearmament. To the extent that the restrictions were effective, they relieved Germany of the fiscal burden of maintaining and equipping planes, battleships, and tanks. The size of the relief was large, possibly of the same order as the reparations payments actually made (Hantke and Spoerer 2010). To the extent that the Versailles restrictions were ineffective, then it was Germany ‘s choice to spend money on secret rearmament that could otherwise have been used to compensate the victims of German aggression in the war.
Putin: Suffice it to say that the last payments of 70 million euros were made quite recently, on October 3, 2010. Germany was still paying for World War I on the 20th anniversary of the Federal Republic of Germany.
Me: This small fact is used to convey several misleading implications – that Germany was forced to pay for World War I over many decades, and that this is a measure of the undue weight of the burden. Neither implication is valid. Even before Hitler, Germany never paid more than a fraction of the reparations bill set in 1921 – perhaps 20 billion marks out of 50 (Marks 1978). The rest was never paid; the rather small payment that Germany made in 2010 was the final instalment not of reparations but of loans that Germany took out in the 1920s, mostly in the United States, to help smooth out the limited reparation payments being made at the time.
Putin: I believe, and many, including researchers, agree that the so-called spirit of Versailles created an environment for a radical and revanchist mood. The Nazis were actively exploiting Versailles in their propaganda promising to relieve Germany of this national shame, so the West gave the Nazis a free hand for revenge.
Me: This greatly overextends the truth. What is true is that “The Nazis were actively exploiting Versailles in their propaganda promising to relieve Germany of this national shame.” It was not only the Nazis that wanted to reverse the restrictions and obligations imposed on Germany at Versailles: the idea was shared by the remaining monarchists and many conservatives. But Versailles did not create this spirit: the spirit of revenge was created earlier, by the fact that Germany lost the war, was defeated and forced to surrender, and then lost its monarchy to a democratic revolution.
The reaction against the democratic revolution became an important expression of radical nationalism in Germany after the war. But the fact is that from 1920 onwards the weight of reactionary opinion opposed to the Versailles settlement declined steadily (as did support for revolutionary communism), if measured by votes cast in successive parliamentary elections from before the Versailles Treaty in 1919 through the publication of the reparations bill in 1921, the conflicts over repayments and the hyperinflation of 1923, through the subsequent stabilization to the Great Depression in 1929 (again, see Harrison 2016: 153). Until the Great Depression, in other words, most Germans just did not care enough about Versailles to vote for the parties agitating against it.
Germany’s radical right was a menace to public order through the 1920s, but not until the sudden wave of bankruptcies and the growth of mass unemployment in 1930 did it come to look like anything more than a temporary nuisance of fading relevance. It was the Great Depression, not the Versailles Treaty, that created Hitler’s opportunity to move from the fringe to the mainstream.
President Putin goes on to quote various authorities – Ferdinand Foch, Woodrow Wilson, and Winston Churchill – to the effect that the Versailles Treaty made poor sense as an exercise in peace-making. Here Putin has a point. The treaty prioritised collective punishment and reparations over justice for the leaders and reconciliation for the people. It was much more in line with the standards of peacemaking of the nineteenth century than of ours.
But did the Treaty of Versailles amount to a deep cause of World War II? No; the evidence for this is overstretched or misunderstood. Did the President consider the origins of the war in an objective, open-minded spirit? No; he argued the case for a predetermined thesis. How then was the evidence found? Most likely hs instructed his research assistants to trawl the internet for favourable evidence, passing over anything that was adverse, and so they selected the supporting views and facts, false as well as true, that they found there.
One last matter:
Putin: The Versailles world order gave rise to many conflicts and disagreements. They are based on the borders of new states arbitrarily drawn up in Europe by the winners of World War I. That is, the borders were reshaped. This created conditions for the so-called Sudeten crisis.
Me: What Putin has in mind here is the validation of frontiers that stranded an ethnically German minority within the interwar boundaries of Czechoslovakia. In 1938, Hitler claimed this territory from Czechoslovakia and the British and French agreed rather than go to war with Germany. In his lecture, Putin associates the ethnic heterogeneity of the countries formed at the end of World War I with the artificiality of their borders; he implies that the conflicts that followed were inevitable and foreseeable consequences, for which the “winners of World War I” (and, therefore, not Russia) may be blamed.
Putin’s negative verdict on Europe’s borders after Versailles is striking, and I cannot help being reminded of Molotov’s self-satisfaction in October 1939, when he reported to the Supreme Soviet on the successful conclusion of Soviet Army operations in Poland:
Molotov: A short blow by the German army, and subsequently by the Red Army, was enough for nothing to be left of this bastard of the Treaty of Versailles.
Me: It is fair to say that Putin is not Molotov. Putin does not actually say that Poland or any of the other independent countries formed in the aftermath of the war were “bastard” states, lacking in legitimacy or the right exist. But he does find their existence problematic, and for me this comes uncomfortably close.
Again, it is fair to say that Putin has a point – a rather obvious one. The land borders of every continental state have been shaped by wars, foreign and civil. Particularly in Eurasia, the territorial expanse of which is largely flat, nearly every land border has an artificial character. Russia’s borders are no exception; with the size and weight advantages of a great power, Russia has never been slow to force the adjustment of borders to its own advantage.
But faced with artificial borders, created not in time immemorial but in relatively recent times after much blood was spilled, what do you do? Do you set out to delegitimise the surrounding states that stand on them, in order to destroy the borders that exist and to create new ones more to your liking, or do you seek to soften the borders and make them more porous, opening them to trade and the peaceful movement of people?
The fact is that in 1939 Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union found common cause in destroying the borders created by the Versailles settlement. Stalin said as much a year later, when he told Stafford Cripps, the British ambassador, that he had come to see German and Soviet interests as fundamentally aligned (Weinberg 1994: 25):
Stalin: The USSR had wanted to change the old equilibrium . . . but that England and France had wanted to preserve it. Germany had also wanted to make a change in the equilibrium, and this common desire to get rid of the old equilibrium had created the basis for the rapprochement with Germany.
Me: It was not the existence of newly independent countries such as Poland or Czechoslovakia that led to war in 1939, but the fact that they neighboured much larger states that were bent on the revision of their borders and the destruction of their independence. These were the countries that brought about the war. Hitler pointed the gun; Stalin helped him pull the trigger.
So, President Putin’s lecture. Focused, logical, and full of detail? Yes. Good scholarship – at least, that part of it that addresses the Treaty of Versailles? No.
- Hantke, Max, and Mark Spoerer. 2010. The Imposed Gift of Versailles: The Fiscal Effects of Restricting the Size of Germany’s Armed Forces, 1924-9. Economic History Review 63/4, pp. 849-864.
- Harrison, Mark. 2016. Myths of the Great War. In Economic History of Warfare and State Formation, pp. 135-159. Edited by Jari Eloranta, Eric Golson, Andrei Markevich, and Nikolaus Wolf. Singapore: Springer, 2016.
- Kent, B. E. 1962. Reparation and the German financial system, 1919-1924. PhD dissertation. Australian National University, Canberra.
- Marks, Sally. 1978. The Myths of Reparations. Central European History 11/3, pp. 231-255.
- Weinberg, Gerhard L. 1994. A world at arms: a global history of World War II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.