Keynes on German reparations and Germany’s capacity to pay (1919)

In 1919, John Maynard Keynes wrote an analysis of the Treaty of Versailles from an economics standpoint. Here he discusses German reparations and Germany’s capacity to meet them:

“A capacity of £38,000 million or even of £35,000 million is not within the limits of reasonable possibility. It is for those who believe that Germany can make an annual payment amounting to hundreds of millions sterling to say in what specific commodities they intend this payment to be made, and in what markets the goods are to be sold. Until they proceed to some degree of detail, and are able to produce some tangible argument in favour of their conclusions, they do not deserve to be believed.

I make three provisos [if Germany is to be able to meet her obligations]:

First: if the Allies were to ‘nurse’ the trade and industry of Germany for a period of five or ten years, supplying her with large loans, and with ample shipping, food, and raw materials during that period, building up markets for her, and deliberately applying all their resources and goodwill to making her the greatest industrial nation in Europe, if not in the world, a substantially larger sum could probably be extracted thereafter; for Germany is capable of very great productivity.

Second, : I assume that there will be no revolutionary change in the purchasing power of our unit of value. If the value of gold were to sink to a half or a tenth of its present value, the real burden of a payment fixed in terms of gold would be reduced proportionately. If a gold sovereign comes to be worth what a shilling is worth now, then, of course, Germany can pay a larger sum than I have named, measured in gold sovereigns.

Third, I assume that there will be revolutionary change in the yield of nature and material to man’s labour. It is not impossible that the progress of science should bring within our reach methods and devices by which the whole standard of life would be raised immeasurably, and a given volume of products would represent but a portion of the human effort which it represents now. In this case all standards of ‘capacity’ would be changed everywhere…

In 1870 no man could have predicted Germany’s capacity in 1910. We cannot expect to legislate for a generation or more. The secular changes in man’s economic condition and the liability of human forecast to error are as likely to lead to mistake in one direction as in another. We cannot as reasonable men do better than base our policy on the evidence we have and adapt it to the five or ten years over which we may suppose ourselves to have some measure of prevision…

The fact that we have no adequate knowledge of Germany’s capacity to pay over a long period of years is no justification (as I have heard some people claim that it is) for the statement that she can pay ten thousand million pounds…

The vast expenditures of the war, the inflation of prices, and the depreciation of currency, leading up to a complete instability of the unit of value, have made us lose all sense of number and magnitude in matters of finance. What we believed to be the limits of possibility have been so enormously exceeded, and those who founded their expectations on the past have been so often wrong, that the man in the street is now prepared to believe anything which is told him with some show of authority, and the larger the figure the more readily he swallows it.”