World War I was no picnic for the Germans. About two million German soldiers were killed and countless others were crippled. The Austro-Hungarian Empire on the side of the Germans lost another million and a half.
The loss of life on the side of the Allies was similar, with about two million dead amongst France, UK, Italy and Romania, in that order. The American dead were a fraction of that, a little over 100,000.
The Allied country suffering the greatest number of dead was Russia, where life has always been cheap. Two million Russians were killed, matching the combined total of the other Allies. This proved a presage; the Russian dead in the next world war totaled over 20 million.
To the victorious Allies of WWI went the spoils. In the Treaty of Versailles, they confiscated about 10% of German territory and imposed punitive reparations of about $270 billion in today’s dollars. They prohibited the rebuilding of the German military (we know how well that worked over the next two decades) and stripped Germany of its overseas colonies.
Most humiliatingly, the Allies required Germany to acknowledge that the war had been all its fault. If WWI had been a football game, the Allies would have been flagged for end zone taunting.
The terms of the Treaty of Versailles were undoubtedly satisfying to the Allies, and perhaps gave them a measure of comfort that the Huns would not be at their doorstep again for a long, long time.
The monetary cost of the war, together with the harsh economic terms imposed by the Allies, crushed the German economy. Inflation escalated into hyperinflation as the price of bread went from one German mark to 100 billion marks over the course of four years. German currency was literally worth less than the paper it was printed on. The “Weimar Republic,” as the country was dubbed after the city where it was reconstituted after the war, is forever synonymous with runaway inflation.
Part of the hurt was emotional. Germany’s defeat in the war and the forced acknowledgement of blame stung German pride.
All those effects were as the Allies intended. But the result of those effects was exactly the opposite of what the Allies intended.
Out of the ashes of the Weimar Republic rose an evil but charismatic German leader capitalizing on the wounds of the war and the hardship and humiliation of his people. The rest is history.
To our credit, we learned from this. After we defeated the Germans the next time, we poured billions into rebuilding their country. That might not have been satisfying to us at the time, but it produced unprecedented wealth and freedom around the world for three generations – and a powerhouse alliance that helped us win the Cold War against a new breed of totalitarians.
Fast forward to the next century. As evildoers go, Vladimir Putin is somewhere between Lia Thomas and Adolf Hitler. He’s worse than a messed-up cross-dresser who gets his jollies by stealing women’s sports trophies and exposing himself in their locker room, all to the adoration of equally messed-up wokesters. But he’s not yet as bad as the tyrant who started, conducted and almost won the biggest war in history and in his spare time murdered half the population of European Jews and expelled the other half.
Not yet. Putin is not as bad as Hitler, yet. But he’s plenty bad and plenty dangerous. I’m all for punishing Putin, and I wouldn’t mind seeing him hanging from a Moscow lamppost or in the sights of a Ukrainian sniper.
But history – the real kind, not the 1619 propaganda kind – may have something to teach us again. We might learn from history that the resolution of WWII was far better for the world than the resolution of WWI.
Russia is a country of 144 million people, few of whom are to blame for Putin’s barbarous misadventure. The world’s outrage today is not focused like a rifle at Putin’s head but is like a cluster bomb loosely aimed in the direction of those 144 million people and their culture. We’re seizing the assets of Russians merely because they’re Russian. We’re cancelling Tchaikovsky concerts. We’re holding Putin’s daughters responsible for his criminality simply because he is their father.
This may be more than wrong; it may be wrong-headed. In our justifiable zeal to punish Putin, we risk reducing Russia to an economic basket case. Out of that basket could come a new, charismatic and evil leader of a proud and desperate people. It’s happened before.
On a moral level, let’s at least consider whether our imposition of punishment on Putin’s people for his transgressions is consistent with our righteous principles of justice and fairness that are violated by those transgressions. On a practical level, let’s consider whether this punishment of Putin’s people serves to advance peace and prosperity or instead sets the stage for someone even worse than he.
The west has a war to win. That’s the immediate goal. Putin must be defeated, Ukraine must be freed. But let’s also keep in mind the long term and the big picture – after we win the war we also need to win the peace.
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