The Phobia Against Inflation And The Wrong Lessons Of The Weimar Republic
January 14, 2015
by Martin Odoni
One of the things about Godwin’s Law is that it is only supposed to apply to discussions that take place over the Internet. It asserts that the longer a discussion lasts, the higher the chances of someone mentioning Nazi Germany, usually as an insulting comparison to a debating opponent. (In truth, this is something of a redundant point when looked at broadly. Think about it – the longer a discussion lasts, the higher the chances are of anything being mentioned.)
But invocation of the Nazis does very much happen in spoken-word discussions too, and not always as an insult. Sometimes it happens as a result of history-paranoia. This can be seen particularly among the lunatic fringe of the Far Right in the USA; the likes of Glenn Beck and Louie Gohmert play the ‘Nazi card’ almost as a matter of reflex. If you are in the mood for a good laugh, by the way, see what Lewis Black made of Beck five years ago.
Trying to compare the behaviour of modern people to the behaviour of the Nazis is therefore something of a lazy hot-button. But the phenomenon sometimes takes a subtler, but no less insidious, appearance. It is the ‘warning from history’, not about behaving like the Nazis, but about behaving in a way that opens the door to the Nazis. One of the most frequent forms this takes is the ‘Beware-The-Mistakes-Of-The-1920’s’ argument.
This refers to the aftermath of World War I, in which the German Empire was given exclusive blame for the War starting*, and the brief history of the Weimar Republic that followed. The warning focuses on how the phenomenon of ‘Hyperinflation’ supposedly killed it off. (This common understanding of it was given voice in the revived TV series Yes, Prime Minister two years ago, when Jim Hacker declared that the Germans are “terrified of runaway inflation because that’s what destroyed the Weimar Republic and brought them Hitler”.)
This is a commonly-held view, and is often held up as one of the great lessons of the early Twentieth Century – that ‘Hyperinflation’, as it is sometimes called, must be avoided, even at the expense of all other aims.
It is not entirely without foundation. There was indeed a bewildering period of out-of-control inflation in the Weimar Republic in the early-1920’s, and it led to terrible hardship for its people. The notorious ‘Reparations’ that the British and French Governments had imposed on Germany in the Treaty Of Versailles required regular payments of vast quantities of money and raw materials, more than the fledgling Republic, itself still struggling to recover from the War, could afford.
When Germany fell behind in its payments in 1923, French and Belgian forces invaded and occupied the region of the Ruhr, Germany’s industrial heartland. With the Germans unable to muster remotely enough troops to defend their borders, they were swiftly strong-armed into resuming payments, even though the Weimar Government did not have enough capital in its reserves to do so. It therefore resorted to the only option it had available; it simply printed vast quantities of new Deutschmarks and shipped them straight to the French and British Governments. The Ruhr’s industries were largely idle due to the ongoing occupation – the Government had even ordered the workers in the region to go on a general strike in protest against the invasion – and were thus not producing many saleable goods. Therefore, the range and the amount of goods that could be purchased with the German currency were both getting very small, making it a less useful form of money, and thus less valuable. And with so many extra marks now in free circulation, having been freshly printed by the Government, the ease with which they could be obtained encouraged markets to put prices up, knowing that at least some potential customers would have enough marks to meet the cost. Prices going up, by definition, meant that the value of the money was going down even further, as purchasing the same item one day required more money than it had the previous day.
The value of the German currency was receding so rapidly in fact that people soon found that prices were climbing many times per day. This caused public panic, and motivated tides of ‘rush-buying’; many Germans were desperate to buy as many goods as they could as quickly as possible, fearing that if they waited more than a couple of hours, the prices would go up again and the money they had in their pockets would no longer be enough.
But of course, when everybody is buying goods in a panic, that means general demand is going up. At a time when the country’s manufacturing industry was limping, there was no chance that supply could ever meet such a surge in demand. Goods on German markets rapidly became scarcer and scarcer, which in turn made them more valuable, and this again caused prices that could be charged for them to go up even faster. Soon, no purchase was possible for any goods worth less than thousands of marks. So in response – if nothing else it might have reduced the amount of paper being used – the German Government issued fresh notes with extra zeroes added to the ends of the sums e.g. a 100 mark note could be replaced with a 100,000 mark note. But this just made it easier for people to possess and carry tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of marks in their pockets, and to spend them quickly, and therefore made it likely that prices would go up still faster.
The international outlook for the mark was no better. Foreign goods cost more and more to import, as there were so few German goods even being manufactured, let alone being made available for export, that foreign traders saw very little use in possessing marks in any quantity – thus an importer had to offer gigantic sums just to bring in a few basic items.
The Hyperinflation was a dizzying, disastrous cycle that rendered the Deutschmark worthless in less than two years. To illustrate; for most of 1922, an ordinary loaf of bread would have cost about 160 marks. By September the following year, it cost 1,500,000 marks. And just two months after that, it cost an unimaginable two hundred billion marks.
Most of the stories you have probably heard about the Weimar Hyperinflation are true. Widescale starvation, people unable to afford fuel or clothing, money often being carted around in wheelbarrows just to buy small quantities of food, paper actually becoming far, far less valuable when turned into banknotes than it had been when it was blank, basketsful of money being left in the street and only the baskets being stolen by passers-by, the money just being tipped all over the pavement.
In this light, it becomes understandable that people in Germany ended up rejecting democracy and adopted authoritarianism in the years ahead. The Republic had, after all, been the country’s first real experience of liberal democracy, and after just five years Germany was in the grip of destitution, starvation, poverty – a total catastrophe. Thus an uprising of extremism is entirely predictable, yes?
There is just one problem with this interpretation of the time. It is completely untrue.
It involves directly and immediately linking two events that in reality were over half-a-decade apart, and ignoring everything that happened in between times. And a lot of very significant events did happen in between times. There was no inevitability whatever during Hyperinflation that an extremist right-wing Government would take over, and for some years after 1923, the possibility became very much more, not less, remote.
Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist German Workers’ (‘Nazi’) Party did attempt an uprising in Bavaria late in 1923, but the so-called ‘Beer-Hall Putsch’ was an abject failure, not least because it had very little support. Hitler spent nine months in prison for it, and the odds at that stage were that that would be the last history would know of him.
In September, Gustav Streseman became the new Chancellor of the Republic, and he introduced a new raft of policies that pulled the country out of its rut with impressive speed. He ended the strike and ordered a fullscale return to work in the Ruhr. He also formally abandoned the old mark as a currency, and introduced a brand new version called the Rentenmark, which was immediately given a very high, stable starting value through the backing of US gold. This quickly brought the Hyperinflation screeching to a halt. But at least as important, the following year, employing fine political skills Streseman managed to negotiate a new, more realistic arrangement with Britain, France and the USA for the payment of Reparations. Taking proposals from the American diplomat Charles Dawes, a framework was drawn up that reduced the total that had to be paid from the wildly-punitive two billion pounds demanded at Versailles to a much more reasonable fifty million pounds. Streseman also managed to secure a loan of two hundred million dollars from the USA, to inject into the ailing German industries.
(This had the bizarre upshot that the USA was sending money to Germany, so that Germany could produce enough industry to make payments to Britain and France, so that Britain and France could pay back war-loans owed to… the USA. Yes, I know, I think it sounds as potty as you doubtless think too. But it did work for a while.)
With German manufacturing back on its feet, the loans from the USA providing much-needed support, and a strong, restored national currency, the Weimar Republic in fact spent most of the rest of the 1920’s doing very nicely indeed. New factories were built rapidly, high employment rates were re-established, and a cultural revival, especially in Berlin, made Germany seem one of the most elegant and refined nations in Europe once more.
So you see, the years 1924-1929, far from being a period of ‘Nazification’, were a period of real prosperity in Germany. The period was even referred to as the ‘Golden Age Of Weimar’. If you had told a German trader in, say, 1928, that the now-flourishing Republic would cease to exist within five years and be replaced by a military dictatorship, he would probably have given you a sad look and told you how much he pitied you your pessimistic outlook. The very notion of Hitler and his extreme ideas being the way forward would have seemed absurd, and he and his Nazi followers were viewed as rather silly and embarrassing cranks. (In fact, the Nazi Party had very nearly gone bankrupt that very year.)
What could possibly go so wrong from this position as to bring Hitler to power?
Well, there was one drawback to the Dawes Plan; the fate of the big economies of Western/Central Europe were now heavily-locked into the fate of the US economy, because Britain, France and Germany all owed large amounts of money to the US banks. While the American economy remained in the rudest of health, this would not be a problem, as it meant the banks could be as patient about receiving the repayments from Europe as conditions required.
The problem was that, of course, the US economy was not to remain in the rudest of health. Instead, in 1929, it was to enter the most unhealthy condition in its history. When the London Stock Exchange crashed in September, in response to the notorious Clarence Hatry scandal – a fraud involving millions of pounds-worth of fake share certificates – the news filtered through to Wall Street, causing panic, especially among bankers who were still owed money by the British Government. Related holdings suddenly looked very unpromising, and stocks started being sold off at ‘cut-the-losses’ prices. All foreign investments now looking distinctly unsafe, and average stock-prices started to go down.
After weeks of nervous instability, it was at the end of October that the US economy finally choked in a crazed spree of panicked any-cost selling. On 29th October 1929, over sixteen million shares were sold off at rock-bottom prices in a desperate bid by investors to separate themselves from what they now believed were worthless stocks, and just to get anything they could in exchange for them.
The Wall Street Crash had shifted the very geography of world economics. All of a sudden, the stockmarket was flooded with goods that were of no apparent value. Banks that had lent to the investors who had purchased the stocks now found that repayments halted. Many investors who had taken advantage of easy credit that had previously been made available now could not pay it back. Other people who held shares that were now worthless could no longer afford to buy general, even day-to-day goods, and so all across the US economy, business spiralled downwards. Goods could not even be sold at the price of manufacture, and many retailers either folded, or turned to banks in a desperate bid for emergency loans. The banks did not have enough capital available to support the number of loans being requested. All they could do, therefore, was to call in debts already owed to them. Including foreign debts.
Britain, already reeling from the smaller crash on the London Stock Exchange, now found the creditors who had sent loans during the War were demanding their money back. France faced similar demands, and so both countries, in need of money quickly, now decided to call a halt to the Dawes Plan and to make a demand of their own – that Germany resume paying full Reparations.
The German position was not helped by the fact that Streseman had died shortly before the Wall Street Crash. He had warned not long before of the danger to the German economy if the American loans were recalled: “If the short-term credits are called in, a large section of our economy could collapse.” Now, just as they had lost his leadership, the German Government received a demand for renewed Reparation payments, and a ninety-day notice for the first repayment of the 1924 loan from the USA.
Crippling taxes now had to be raised to start the repayments, at a time when frightened American investors were withdrawing their capital from the country. Many German businesses folded under the strain of consequent lost revenues and an increased tax burden, and with that, unemployment began to rise. With every worker who lost his job, money was lost to those businesses he had previously purchased goods from, and so those businesses faced the strain of paying increased amounts while selling fewer and fewer goods. The only solution for many of them was to lay off staff to reduce the wage-bill, repeating the cycle.
A new economic downward spiral had set in, and by September 1930, unemployment had leapt from about one-point-two million a year earlier to over three million. Over the next couple of years, the jobless total would race past six million. With huge numbers of increasingly-desperate people out-of-work, and resentful of what they saw as foreigners taking their misfortune out on Germany once again, extremism was on the up – the Nazis took over one hundred-and-forty seats in the 1930 Reichstag Election – and the rise of Adolf Hitler and The Third Reich was finally under way.
The interesting aspect of this part of the story though is that there was no particular Hyperinflation of the rentenmark. Inevitably, with the value of US gold declining, there had been significant inflation of the mark, but nothing remotely resembling what was seen in 1923. Now it is probably fair to suggest that the terrifying memory of Hyperinflation might have played a psychological role in the growing radicalisation of the German working class in the early-1930’s, but that was about as much a part as the phenomenon had to play in Hitler’s accession. In reality, the Hyperinflation problem had been solved by 1925, and since then the country had gone through a boom period. What really caused the collapse of the Weimar Republic was a financial over-dependence on one country that was suddenly having trouble just supporting itself. The ‘trigger’ was not Hyperinflation at all, but the Wall Street Crash. (And the Crash was, in a manner of speaking, the reverse phenomenon; a collapse in stockmarket prices is a form of rapid deflation, as the same amount of money is able to buy more goods as time passes – if only anybody had wanted them.)
The worry of the “Hyperinflation-gave-the-world-Hitler!!!!” scare-story is that it still plays a substantial role in economic thought even today. Now, I am certainly not trying to make light of Hyperinflation as a phenomenon, it is horrendously damaging when it happens and causes unthinkable misery and hardship. But that is a problem in itself. There should be no need to add a horn-headed demon at the foot of the path, with warnings of “Hyperinflation will lead to Nazism” or some other such Godwin’s Law mimickry. It quite emphatically did not lead to any such thing in Germany – the Beer Hall Putsch failed completely. But the myth causes many a mind at the Exchequer to think that any amount of inflation is undesirable, and to imagine that it is the one danger, above all others, that must be guarded against at any cost. Hence George Osborne’s smug pride in recent very low inflation figures, even though inflation this low is, as Alex Little has recently explained, no less a problem than high inflation. And let us keep in mind that the Wall Street Crash had a deflation element to it.
In the interest of preventing inflation, lock-stock-and-barrel, neoliberal ideology argues that there should always be a substantial standing army of the unemployed, as the more that the working classes are competing with each other, the less able they will be to band together to bargain for better wages (the questionable assumption being that improved wages are what causes inflation). This school-of-thought fails to consider that it was in fact precisely when unemployment – not inflation – was spiralling out-of-control in the Weimar Republic that large numbers of dispossessed workers started turning to extremist political parties and rejecting classic liberal democracy. Surely therefore, neoliberalism has learned exactly the wrong lesson from history, and encourages the very folly that fuelled the extremism it supposedly wants to avoid i.e. over-dependence of the British economy on the USA, and high unemployment?
Surely if we wish to take the real lessons from inter-war-period Germany, we have to accept that large-scale unemployment (and probably starvation-wage employment as well) is the true danger that we need to avoid at all costs. With the Government’s constant figure-fiddling to get around that issue, they could well be sleepwalking into precisely the terrible danger that the Friedmanite handbook tells them it will prevent.
Indeed, that may well be a key factor in the rise of Far Right groups in Britain such as the UK Independence Party. Far be it from me to trigger Godwin’s Law, but by consciously telling ourselves not to, we are in fact behaving in the way that once opened the door to the Nazis.
* I am of the view that, while it is grossly wrong and unfair that Germany took all of the blame for the First World War, the reckless policies adopted by Kaiser Wilhelm II probably were the chief, most immediate cause of the conflict. Written evidence shows that the Habsburg Emperor of Austria-Hungary, Francis-Joseph I, did not move to avenge the assassination of the Arch-Duke Franz Ferdinand until the Kaiser’s Government pushed him into declaring war on Serbia. Furthermore, when Germany and Austria were faced with a consequent invasion by the Russian Empire, Wilhelm ordered a pre-emptive invasion of France, who, in spite of their alliances, still might have stayed out of the War if left alone. The Kaiser also endorsed the scheme to make the invasion via Belgium, which was a clear violation of a Belgian neutrality agreement that the German provinces had signed up to in the previous century, and which made British intervention pretty much unavoidable. At every trigger-point of conflict, the German Empire was one of the key players driving events, and in ways that violated treaties and International Law.