Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

War gilt


It has often been remarked that, whereas the English word “debt” has a long history as primarily a financial term, with only optional moralistic overtones, in German “debt” and “guilt” and “sin” are represented by the single word “Schuld”, deriving from the Indo-European root skel, meaning “crime”. This surely reflects the exceptional German inclination — conspicuous in the current tussle over Greek loans — to view indebtedness as a moral failing, and moral failings need to be chastised, lest the sinner slide back into his old ways. At least, that’s the principle for other people’s indebtedness.

Their own debts are more nuanced. Particularly war debts, as this article from Spiegel makes clear. In 1942 Greece’s national bank cancelled Germany’s debt of 476 million Reichsmarks, out of pure gratitude for Germany’s contributions toward a unified Europe, into which Greece had just been integrated. In retrospect this deal — the debt would be worth something between 8 billion and 80 billion Euros today — seemed overly generous to some, given complaints about the quality of the services provided to the Greek public by the Wehrmacht. The 1953 London Agreement on German External Debt provided for the resolution of these customer-service complaints to be postponed until after a formal WWII peace treaty which, I was surprised to learn, has never been concluded.

But obviously the Germans don’t believe that a people should be forced to suffer economic devastation because of financial obligations undertaken by an irresponsible government that the people have since repudiated.

Comments on: "War gilt" (1)

  1. […] initiating WWII; the world then decided to cancel most of its debts after WWII — including debts to Greece — at the London conference of 1953. It would be hard to say that Germany in 1953 was […]

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