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Myth: the punishment that Germany received after WW I, inevitably led to WW II

Myth: the punishment that Germany received after WW I, inevitably led to WW II

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts/ Simone Golob

Myth busters

History is full of myths, says Georgi Verbeeck, assistant professor of Modern History and Political Culture in Maastricht and professor of German History in Leuven. “One of the most persistent and popular ones is that history repeats itself. You often hear it in debates and discussions - we are supposedly back in the nineteen-thirties, Trump’s victory reminds people of Hitler’s victory back in 1933, et cetera – but history never repeats itself, the world is always different. Anyone who believes in this myth, thinks that a certain era can be reproduced.”

In addition to these tenacious myths, there are also funny, minor ones that do well when you have a drink with people, Verbeeck grins. “How do you imagine Napoleon? Short? Wrong, he was not short. He was approximately 1 metre 70, which was quite an average length at the time. The story about his lack of length arose through a mistake – the English and French use different units of measurement – and this was consciously used during the war propaganda.” Another one: “Who was Wilhelm Tell? Yes, the man who shot the apple from his son’s head with a single shot from a crossbow. He was supposedly the founding father of Switzerland. Nonsense. He most likely never even existed.” Or: “Who said: Let them eat cake? They say that it was Marie Antoinette, the last queen of France when she heard that the people had no more bread to eat. This story was fabricated by the French revolutionists, simply to show how far removed the French monarch was from the people.”

Then you have “the dangerous myths that were the cause of much bloodshed.” Verbeeck mentions one: “In the first half of the twentieth century, people in Europe were convinced that there was a Jewish conspiracy which was at such a point that they were about to take power over the world. We all know what that nonsense led to.”

And then the myth that he wishes to expose in this series: the punishment that Germany received after the end of the First World War, was so extensive that it inevitably led to the Second World War. “The argumentation is: the Germans who started the war, were dealt with so harshly by the allies after their defeat – after all they had to make heavy reparations, colonies were taken from them and the country’s borders were pushed back – that the economy crashed, there was dissatisfaction, and Adolf Hitler found himself in a perfect position. But it is all so much more complicated. The allies didn’t say that Germany was the only guilty party in the outbreak of WW1. German confederates were also dealt with. Reparation costs were indeed high, which is logical, because the Germans had caused a lot of damage and had made a lot of victims. But the amount was negotiated time and again and continually reduced. In 1932, so before Hitler came into power, the debt was no longer an issue. At that time, the Germans had the opportunity to choose democracy but they chose a dictator instead. Something that is true, however, is that Hitler used and abused the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. He presented it as a humiliation for the Germans and he wanted to put that right.”

That such harsh punishment need not inevitably lead to the election of a fascist leader, Germany shows after the Second World War, says Verbeeck. “Punishment of the Germans in 1945 was much more drastic and tougher. The country was occupied by allied forces and split up. It lost its sovereignty temporarily. Eventually the country chose democracy, something that could also have happened in 1932. Many people are inclined to see history as a kind of automatism: what happens beforehand is also the cause of what follows. But that is not true, it is about opportunities, it can go many ways. If you do that, then you blame Hitler and not Germany, and forget that it was the Germans who chose Hitler.”

A series in which academics shoot down popular myths on complex topics

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