Today Germany made its last reparation payment for the First World War – the hit-you-in-the-pocket punishment for the destruction caused across France and Belgium by the armies of Von Falkenhayn, von Moltke and all the others from August 1914 until the armistice four and a half years later.
It’s taken a while. The guns fell silent on a cold November morning 92 years ago – the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918. Hostilities, officially, finished seven months later when Germany signed the peace treaty in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.
Here's the picture I took standing outside the Hall of Mirrors (and along a bit).
I would post a photo of that hall, but when I was there they were ripping up the parquet flooring. Essential maintenance under the feet of 3 million visitors a year.
All of which lends intensity to the point – well known by historians but, alas, usually squashed out of most people at school – that history is alive. It’s exciting. And it tells us, usually, why the world is the way it is today. As a writer, I find that fascinating.
That last payment also seems somehow out of its time. Despite the idiot performances of various neo-Nazis, there can be no question that in general Germany has thoroughly expiated for the crimes of its administration in 1914-18, certainly in 1933-45. The Germans alive today – certainly the ones I’ve met – are decent people who have had nothing to do with any of it, certainly no link in terms of ideology or politics. Quite the reverse, in fact.
Yet we cannot deny the effects that German leaders had on the western world during the last years of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth. I’ve argued in several books that the First World War shaped that century – certainly for New Zealand, undoubtedly for the rest of the world.
My photo of soldiers' graves at Tyne Cot, 2004.
It threw nascent social change into fast-forward and catalysed long-standing trends, a pivot between the ‘old order’ of the nineteenth century and the democracies of the twentieth, though it took several generations for the point to shake down.
The reparations helped focus Germany’s sense of injustice in the 1920s, given spice by rampant hyper-inflation and economy collapse. The problem was that their army had not been thoroughly defeated in the field – and most veterans felt put-upon, including a particularly angry ideological zealot from Braunau.
And so the world had to go through the horrors of the Second World War, the Holocaust, and all the other crimes against humanity – the ‘dark lights of perverted science’ - that Hitler orchestrated, initiated and otherwise brought about. His particular talent was his ability to bring out the dark side of human nature – the ‘banality of evil’ that allows normally ordinary and decent folks to unleash their inner monsters.
But did the final collapse of Nazi Germany – and with it, the end of Bismarckian ideals of Reich - end the First World War-generated cycle of change? Of course not. After that the twentieth century was dominated by the Cold War – an opposition that also came out of the First World War with its creation of the world’s first major communist state.
As Eric Hobsbawm tells us, all these things were integral with that great cycle of change that began with that conflict of 1914-18, making the twentieth century a ‘short century’ – 1914-1992 – from the viewpoint of historical theme and trend.
History-as-theme, of course, does not conform to convenient dates - witness the nineteenth century which, as a political-economic trend, Hobsbawm considers began dramatically in 1789 and ended with equal drama in 1914.
Which is reasonable, though we might also argue that the true end of the twentieth century happens today, with Germany’s final reparations payment.
Of course the true cost of any war is human. And the First World War, more than any other to that date, brought that lesson home. You have but to stand in one of the war cemeteries of Flanders or Picardy – quiet, solemn, tended – to understand. Here lie the men ‘known unto God’ who vanished before the awful power of the world’s first large-scale industrialised war.
They did so fighting for their countries, fighting for what they believed – and fighting for their lives. I’ve written more about it in Shattered Glory among other places.
Check it out.