I always found the story of Germany's Wirtschaftswunder very inspiring: a nation in complete rubble becomes a global economic powerhouse in just a few years thanks to the industriousness of its population, the free market policies of Economics Minister Ludwig Erhard, and the US Marshall Plan. But is this really what happened in the decade following the end of World War II?
Journalist Christopher Weber examines the facts in this brief (45 mins) documentary that was shown the other night on the public televsion network ARD. It is still available on the Mediathek of Das Erste - hopefully someone will figure out how to upload it to YouTube.
Weber examines the myths of the Wirtschaftswunder one by one:
Myth #1: Germany was a nation in ruins in 1945.
Fact: Yes, the inner cities were completely bombed out, but the industrial infrastructure - usually located on the periphery - were largely intact.
Myth #2: The German citizenry was more industrious (fleißig) than the workers in other countries.
Fact: German workers show high productivity in the postwar era, but so did their counterparts in Italy, Spain, Austria, etc. It was a period of extraordinary productivity gains across the European continent.
Myth #3: Ludwig Erhard was the architect of Germany's currency reform, and therefore the genius behind the rapidly-growing prosperity.
Fact: The American occupation forces dictated the terms of the reform with zero involvement of Erhard. The Deutsche Mark notes were printed in the US and off-loaded in containers at the port of Hamburg. Erhard lost the respect of the Americans when he tried to block the transfer of German businesses that had been Aryanized by the Nazis back to their original Jewish owners (the porcelain manufacturer Rosenthal is examined here as a case study).
Myth #4: The US Marshall Plan was the driving force behind Germany's postwar reconstruction.
Fact: No doubt the Americans wanted to make Germany a showcase for free-market capitalism at the height of the Cold War, but Germany - and Europe as a whole - was an attractive market for American exports- especially agricultural products. Also, West Germany benefited enormously by the flight of engineers and entrepreneurs from the Soviet Zone.
Myth #5: Germany became an export powerhouse thanks to the quality of its products.
Fact: Germany became a major exporter of armaments and military equipment in the early 1950s thanks to the outbreak of the Korean War.
Christoph Weber explodes other myths as well, But ironically one of the major factors plays into the current Eurozone crisis. In 1953 the US "convinced" the other European nations to cut Germany's postwar debt level by one half (see Das Londoner Schuldenabkommen). This lesson appears to have been forgotten in the austerity policies that have prolonged and deepened the Great Recession which began in 2008.