Today in German History, March 29th

Henry Morgenthau, Jr.1947.jpg
Henry Morgenthau, Jr, proposed the plan for the de-industrialization of Germany. Image credit: Wikipedia.

While the Treaty of Versailles was certainly not merciful to Germany, the retribution exacted by the Allied Powers after the Second World War was far harsher. The allied powers took a third of Germany’s pre-war territory, most notably the region of East Prussia. In doing so they destroyed Prussia as a subnational entity. The Germans who lived in those territories were pushed out of them by the advancing Soviet forces during the final year of the war, and so the territories were populated mostly by Poles. Germany was, of course, split up into four occupation zones, which quickly consolidated into two. These zones became West and East Germany, or the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic, respectively. What is less known is that the Allies attempted to, and to some extent succeeded to, implement the de-industrializing of Germany so as to prevent it from becoming the dominant power in Europe again. On March 29th of 1946, the Allies implemented the first of their plans for German industry. It attempted to implement the Morgenthau Plan, which called for a destruction of German heavy industry and much of its supporting civilian industry. Under it, German heavy industry would be lowered by 50% of its 1938 levels, its steel production to 25% of its prewar levels, its car production to 10% of its prewar levels. The aim was to reduce Germany to a standard of living equivalent to that which it had in 1932 and make Germany a light industrial and agricultural economy which could not pose a threat to European peace. The plans, however, were quickly made more lenient as the Western Allies turned their attention towards the Soviets. If Germany were de-industrialized then it could not serve as a bulwark against Communist aggression. In the end, German industry was reduced but not by as much as the original plans had called for. Only 706 manufacturing plants in West German were destroyed by the completion of the last plan in 1950, instead of the 1500 called for by the 1946 plan. Even these plants were quickly replaced in the economic expansion that occurred in the 1950s and 1960s.

I find the implications of the Allied postwar plans intimidating. We often view history as a series of continuous, almost inevitable, trends like democratization and economic growth. The Allied plans represented an attempt to reverse this course of history by undoing industrialization and turning the clock back. The very idea that an industrial nation can return to an agricultural economy is frightening. That something so mundane as politics can motivate the destruction of an economy that was the product of centuries of development suggests that any historical trend, from development to liberalization, can be halted and reversed by short-term geopolitical factors.

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