Books / Digital Text

War and the Economy

4. The Economy's War Costs and the Inflation

The losses that the national economy suffers from war, apart from the disadvantages that exclusion from world trade entails, consist of the destruction of goods by military actions, of the consumption of war material of all kinds, and of the loss of productive labor that the persons drawn into military service would have rendered in their civilian activities. Further losses from loss of labor occur insofar as the number of workers is lastingly reduced by the number of the fallen and as the survivors become less fit in consequence of injuries suffered, hardships undergone, illnesses suffered, and worsened nutrition. These losses are only to the slightest degree offset by the fact that the war works as a dynamic factor and spurs the population to improve the technique of production. Even the increase in the number of workers that has taken place in the war by drawing on the otherwise unused labor of women and children and by extension of hours of work, as well as the saving achieved by limitation of consumption, still does not counterbalance them, so that the economy finally comes out of the war with a considerable loss of wealth. Economically considered, war and revolution are always bad business, unless such an improvement of the production process of the national economy results from them that the additional amount of goods produced after the war can compensate for the losses of the war. The socialist who is convinced that the socialist order of society will multiply the productivity of the economy may think little of the sacrifices that the social revolution will cost.

But even a war that is disadvantageous for the world economy can enrich individual nations or states. If the victorious state is able to lay such burdens on the vanquished that not only all of its war costs are thereby covered but a surplus is acquired also, then the war has been advantageous for it. The militaristic idea rests on the belief that such war gains are possible and can be lastingly held. A people that believes that it can gain its bread more easily by waging war than by work can hardly be convinced that it is more pleasing to God to suffer injustice than to commit injustice. The theory of militarism can be refuted; if, however, one cannot refute it, one cannot, by appeal to ethical factors, persuade the stronger party to forgo the use of its power.

The pacifistic line of argument goes too far if it simply denies that a people can gain by war. Criticism of militarism must begin by raising the question whether the victor can then definitely count on always remaining the stronger or whether he must not fear being displaced by still stronger parties. The militaristic argumentation can defend itself from objections raised against it from this point of view only if it starts with the assumption of unchangeable race characters. The members of the higher race, who behave according to pacifistic principles among themselves, hold firmly together against the lower races that they are striving to subjugate and thus assure themselves eternal predominance. But the possibility that differences will arise among the members of the higher races, leading part of their members to join with the lower races in battle against the remaining members of the higher ones, itself shows the danger of the militaristic state of affairs for all parties. If one entirely drops the assumption of the constancy of race characters and considers it conceivable that the race that had been stronger before will be surpassed by one that had been weaker, then it is evident that each party must consider that it could be faced with new battles in which it too could be defeated. Under these assumptions, the militaristic theory cannot be maintained. There no longer is any sure war gain, and the militaristic state of affairs appears as a situation of constant battles, at least, which shatter welfare so badly that finally even the victor obtains less than he would have harvested in the pacifistic situation.

In any case, not too much economic insight is needed to recognize that a war means at least direct destruction of goods, and misery. It was dear to everyone that the very outbreak of the war had to bring harmful interruptions in business life on the whole, and in Germany and Austria at the beginning of August 1914 people faced the future with fear. Astonishingly, however, things seemed to work otherwise. Instead of the expected crisis came a period of good business; instead of decline, boom. People found that war was prosperity; businessmen who, before the war, were thoroughly peace-minded and were always reproached by the friends of war for the anxiety that they were always showing at every flare-up of war rumors now began to reconcile themselves to the war. All at once there were no longer any unsalable products, enterprises that for years had run only at a loss yielded rich profits. Unemployment, which had assumed a menacing extent in the first days and weeks of the war, disappeared completely, and wages rose. The entire economy presented the picture of a gratifying boom. Soon writers appeared who sought to explain the causes of this boom.10

Every unprejudiced person can naturally have no doubt that war can really cause no economic boom, at least not directly, since an increase in wealth never does result from destruction of goods. It would scarcely have been too difficult to understand that war does bring good sales opportunities for all producers of weapons, munitions, and army equipment of every kind but that what these sellers gain is offset on the other hand by losses of other branches of production and that the real war losses of the economy are not affected thereby. War prosperity is like the prosperity that an earthquake or a plague brings. The earthquake means good business for construction workers, and cholera improves the business of physicians, pharmacists, and undertakers; but no one has for that reason yet sought to celebrate earthquakes and cholera as stimulators of the productive forces in the general interest.

Starting with the observation that war furthers the business of the armament industry, many writers have sought to trace war to the machinations of those interested in war industry. This view appears to find superficial support in the behavior of the armament industry and of heavy industry in general. The most energetic advocates of the imperialistic policy were admittedly found in Germany not in the circles of industry but in those of the intellectual occupations, above all of officials and teachers. The financial means for war propaganda were provided before and during the war, however, by the armament industry. The armament industry created militarism and imperialism, however, just as little as, say, the distilleries created alcoholism or publishing houses trashy literature. The supply of weapons did not call forth the demand, but rather the other way around. The leaders of the armament industry are not themselves bloodthirsty; they would just as gladly earn money by producing other commodities. They produce cannons and guns because demand for them exists; they would just as gladly produce peacetime articles if they could do a better business with them.11

Recognition of this connection of things would have been bound to become widespread soon, and people would have quickly recognized that the war boom was to the advantage of only a small part of the population but that the economy as a whole was becoming poorer day by day, if inflation had not drawn a veil around all these facts, a veil impenetrable to a way of thinking that statism had made unaccustomed to every economic consideration.

To grasp the significance of inflation, it helps to imagine it and all of its consequences taken out of the picture of the war economy. Let us imagine that the state had forsworn that aid for its finances that it resorted to by issuing paper money of every kind. It is clear that the issue of notes—if we disregard the relatively insignificant quantities of goods obtained from neutral foreign countries as a counterpart of gold withdrawn from circulation and exported—in no way increased the material and human means of waging war. By the issue of paper money not one cannon, not one grenade more was produced than could have been produced even without putting the printing press into operation. After all, war is waged not with "money" but with the goods that are acquired for money. For the production of war goods, it was a matter of indifference whether the quantity of money with which they were bought was greater or smaller.

The war considerably increased the demand for money. Many economic units were impelled to enlarge their cash balances, since the greater use, of cash payments in place of the granting of long-term credit, which had been usual earlier, the worsening of trading arrangements, and growing insecurity had changed the entire structure of the payments system. The many military offices that were newly established during the war or whose range of activity was broadened, together with the extension of the monetary circulation of the Central Powers into the occupied territories, contributed to enlarging of the economy's demand for money. This rise in the demand for money created a tendency toward a rise in its value, that is to say, toward an increase in the purchasing power of the money unit, which worked against the opposite tendency unleashed by the increased issue of banknotes.

If the volume of note issue had not gone beyond what business could have absorbed in view of the war-induced increase in the demand for money, merely checking any increase in the value of money, then not many words would have to be spent on it. In fact, though, the banknote expansion was far greater. The longer war continued, the more actively was the printing press put into the service of the financial administration. The consequences occurred that the quantity theory describes. The prices of all goods and services, and with them the prices of foreign bills of exchange, went up.

The sinking of the value of money favored all debtors and harmed all creditors. That, however, does not exhaust the social symptoms of change in the value of money. The price rise caused by an increase in the quantity of money does not appear at one stroke in the entire economy and for all goods, for the additional quantity of money distributes itself only gradually. At first it flows to particular establishments and particular branches of production and therefore first increases only the demands for particular goods, not for all; only later do other goods also rise in price. "During the issue of notes," say Auspitz and Lieben, "the additional means of circulation will be concentrated in the hands of a small fraction of the population, e.g., of the suppliers and producers of war materials. Consequently, these persons' demands for various articles will increase; and thus the prices and also the sales of the latter will rise, notably, however, also those of luxury articles. The situation of the producers of all these articles thereby improves; their demands for other goods will also increase; the rise of prices and sales will therefore progress even further and spread to an ever larger number of articles, and finally to all."12

If the decline in the value of money were to pervade the entire economy at one stroke and be registered against all goods to the same extent, then it would cause no redistribution of income and wealth. For in this respect there can only be a question of redistribution. The national economy as such gains nothing from it, and what the individual gains others must lose. Those who bring to market the goods and services whose prices are caught up first in the upward price movement are in the favorable position of already being able to sell at higher prices while still able to buy the goods and services that they want to acquire at the older, lower prices. On the other hand, again, those who sell goods and services that rise in price only later must already buy at higher prices while they themselves, in selling, are able to obtain only the older, lower prices. As long as the process of change in the value of money is still under way, such gains of some and losses of others will keep occurring. When the process has finally come to an end, then these gains and losses do also cease, but the gains and losses of the interim are not made up for again. The war suppliers in the broadest sense of the word (also including workers in war industries and military personnel who received increased war incomes) have therefore gained not only from enjoying good business in the ordinary sense of the word but also from the fact that the additional quantity of money flowed first to them. The price rise of the goods and services that they brought to market was a double one: it was caused first by the increased demand for their labor, but then too by the increased supply of money.

That is the essence of so-called war prosperity; it enriches some by what it takes from others. It is not rising wealth but a shifting of wealth and income.13

The wealth of Germany and of German-Austria was above all an abundance of capital. One may estimate the riches of the soil and the natural resources of our country ever so high; yet one must still admit that there are other countries that are more richly endowed by nature, whose soil is more fruitful, whose mines are more productive, whose water power is stronger, and whose territories are more easily accessible because of location relative to the sea, mountain ranges, and river courses. The advantages of the German national economy rest not on the natural factor but on the human factor of production and on a historically given head start. These advantages showed themselves in the relatively great accumulation of capital, mainly in the improvement of lands used for agriculture and forestry and in the abundant stock of produced means of production of all kinds, of streets, railroads, and other means of transportation, of buildings and their equipment, of machines and tools, and, finally, of already produced raw materials and semifinished goods. This capital had been accumulated by the German people through long work; it was the tool that German industrial workers used for their work and from whose application they lived. From year to year this stock was increased by thrift.

The natural forces dormant in the soil are not destroyed by appropriate use in the process of production; in this sense they form an eternal factor of production. The amounts of raw materials amassed in the ground represent only a limited stock that man consumes bit by bit without being able to replace it in any way. Capital goods also have no eternal existence; as produced means of production, as semifinished goods, which they represent in a broader sense of the term, they are transformed little by little in the production process into consumption goods. With some, with so-called circulating capital, this takes place more quickly; with others, with so-called fixed capital, more slowly. But the latter also is consumed in production. Machines and tools also have no eternal existence; sooner or later they become worn out and unusable. Not only the increase but even the mere maintenance of the capital stock therefore presupposes a continual renewal of capital goods. Raw materials and semifinished goods which, changed into goods ready for use, are conveyed to consumption must be replaced by others; and machines and tools of all kinds worn out in the production process must be replaced by others to the extent that they wear out. Performing this task presupposes making a clear assessment of the extent of the wearing out and using up of productive goods. With means of production that always are to be replaced only with others of the same kind, this is not difficult. The road system of a country can be maintained by trying to hold the condition of the individual sections technically the same by ceaseless maintenance work, and it can be extended by repeatedly adding new roads or enlarging the existing ones. In a static society in which no changes in the economy take place, this method would be applicable to all means of production. In an economy subject to change, this simple method does not suffice for most means of production, for the used-up and worn-out means of production are replaced not by ones of the same kind but by others. Worn-out tools are replaced not by ones of the same kind but by better ones, if indeed the whole orientation of production is not changed and the replacement of capital goods consumed in a shrinking branch of production does not take place by installation of new capital goods in other branches of production that are being expanded or newly established. Calculation in physical units, which suffices for the primitive conditions of a stationary economy, must therefore be replaced by calculation of value in money.

Individual capital goods disappear in the production process. Capital as such, however, is maintained and expanded. That is not a natural necessity independent of the will of economizing persons, however, but rather the result of deliberate activity that arranges production and consumption so as at least to maintain the sum of value of capital and that allots to consumption only surpluses earned in addition. The precondition for that is the calculation of value, whose auxiliary means is accounting. The economic task of accounting is to test the success of production. It has to determine whether capital was increased, maintained, or diminished. The economic plan and the distribution of goods between production and consumption is then based on the results that it achieves.

Accounting is not perfect. The exactness of its numbers, which strongly impresses the uninitiated, is only apparent. The evaluation of goods and claims that it must work with is always based on estimates resting on the interpretation of more or less uncertain elements. Insofar as this uncertainty stems from the side of goods, commercial practice, approved by the norms of commercial legislation, tries to avoid it by proceeding as cautiously as possible; that is, it requires a low evaluation of assets and a high evaluation of liabilities. But the deficiencies of accounting also stem from the fact that evaluations are uncertain from the side of money, since the value of money is also subject to change. So far as commodity money, so-called full-value metallic money, is concerned, real life pays no regard to these deficiencies. Commercial practice, as well as the law, has fully adopted the naive business view that money is stable in value, that is, that the existing exchange relation between money and goods is subject to no change from the side of money.14 Accounting assumes money to be stable in value. Only the fluctuations of credit and token-money currencies, so-called paper currencies, against commodity money were taken account of by commercial practice by setting up corresponding reserves and by write-offs. Unfortunately, German statist economics has paved the way for a change of perception on this point also. In nominalistic money theory, by extending the idea of the stability of value of metal money to all money as such, it created the preconditions for the calamitous effects of decline in the value of money that we now have to describe.

Entrepreneurs did not pay attention to the fact that the decline in the value of money now made all items in balance sheets become inaccurate. In drawing up balance sheets, they neglected to take account of the change in the value of money that had occurred since the last balance sheet. Thus it could happen that they regularly added a part of the original capital to the net revenue of the year, regarded it as profit, paid it out, and consumed it. The error which (in the balance sheet of a corporation) was made by not taking account of the depreciation of money on the liability side was only partly made up for by the fact that on the asset side also the components of wealth were not reported at a higher value. For this disregard of the rise in nominal value did not apply to circulating capital also, since for inventories that were sold, the higher valuation did appear; it was precisely this that constituted the inflationary extra profit of enterprises. The disregard of the depredation of money on the asset side remained limited to fixed investment capital and had as a consequence that in calculating depreciation, people used the smaller original amounts that corresponded to the old value of money. That enterprises often set up special reserves to prepare for reconversion to the peacetime economy could not, as a rule, make up for this.

The German economy entered the war with an abundant stock of raw materials and semifinished goods of all kinds. In peacetime, whatever of these stocks was devoted to use or consumption was regularly replaced. During the war the stocks were consumed without being able to be replaced. They disappeared out of the economy; the national wealth was reduced by their value. This could be obscured by the fact that in the wealth of the trader or producer, money claims appeared in their place—as a rule, war-loan claims. The businessman thought that he was as rich as before; generally he had sold the goods at better prices than he had hoped for in peacetime and now believed that he had become richer. At first he did not notice that his claims were being ever more devalued through the sinking of the value of money. The foreign securities that he possessed rose in price as expressed in marks or crowns. This too he counted as a gain.15 If he wholly or partially consumed these apparent profits, then he diminished his capital without noticing it.16

The inflation thus drew a veil over capital consumption. The individual believed that he had become richer or had at least not lost, while in truth his wealth was dwindling. The state taxed these losses of individual economic units as "war profits" and spent the amounts collected for unproductive purposes. The public did not become tired, however, of concerning itself about the large war profits, which, in good part, were no profits at all.

All fell into ecstasy. Whoever took in more money than earlier—and that was true of most entrepreneurs and wage earners and, finally, with the further progress of the depreciation of money, of all persons except capitalists receiving fixed incomes—was happy about his apparent profits. While the entire economy was consuming its capital and while even stocks of goods ready for consumption held in individual households were dwindling, all were happy about prosperity. And to cap it all, economists began to undertake profound investigations into its causes.

Rational economy first became possible when mankind became accustomed to the use of money, for economic calculation cannot dispense with reducing all values to one common denominator. In all great wars monetary calculation was disrupted by inflation. Earlier it was the debasement of coin; today it is paper-money inflation. The economic behavior of the belligerents was thereby led astray; the true consequences of the war were removed from their view. One can say without exaggeration that inflation is an indispensable intellectual means of militarism. Without it, the repercussions of war on welfare would become obvious much more quickly and penetratingly; war-weariness would set in much earlier.

Today is too soon to survey the entire extent of the material damage that the war has brought to the German people. Such an attempt is bound in advance to start from the conditions of the economy before the war. Even for that reason alone it must remain incomplete. For the dynamic effects of the World War on the economic life of the world cannot thus be considered at all, since we lack all possibility of surveying the entire magnitude of the loss that the disorganization of the liberal economic order, the so-called capitalistic system of national economy, entails. Nowhere do opinions diverge so much as on this point. While some express the view that the destruction of the capitalistic apparatus of production opens the way for an undreamed-of development of civilization, others fear from it a relapse into barbarism.

But even if we disregard all that, we should, in judging the economic consequences of the World War for the German people, in no way limit ourselves to taking account only of war damages and war losses that have already actually appeared. These losses of wealth, which in and for themselves are immense, are outweighed by disadvantages of a dynamic nature. The German people will remain economically confined to their inadequate territory of settlement in Europe. Millions of Germans who previously earned their bread abroad are being compulsorily repatriated. Moreover, the German people have lost their considerable capital investment abroad. Beyond that, the basis of the German economy, the processing of foreign raw materials for foreign consumption, has been shattered. The German people are thereby being made into a poor people for a long time.

The position of the German-Austrians is turning out still more unfavorable in general than the position of the German people. The war costs of the Habsburg Empire have been borne almost completely by the German-Austrians. The Austrian half of the Empire has contributed in a far greater degree than the Hungarian half of the Empire to the outlays of the Monarchy. The contributions that were incumbent on the Austrian half of the Empire were made, furthermore, almost exclusively by the Germans. The Austrian tax system laid the direct taxes almost exclusively on the industrial and commercial entrepreneurs and left agriculture almost free. This mode of taxation in reality meant nothing other than the overburdening of the Germans with taxes and the exemption of the non-Germans. Still more to be considered is that the war loans were subscribed to almost entirely by the German population of Austria and that now, after the dissolution of the state, the non-Germans are refusing any contribution toward interest payments and amortization of the war loans. Moreover, the large German holding of money claims on the non-Germans has been greatly reduced by the depreciation of money. The very considerable ownership by German-Austrians of industrial and trade enterprises and also of agricultural properties in non-German territories, however, is being expropriated partly by nationalization and socialization measures, partly by the provisions of the peace treaty.


  • 10. The majority of authors, in conformity with the intellectual tendency of statism, did not occupy themselves with the explanation of the causes of the good course of business but rather discussed the question whether the war "should be allowed to bring prosperity." Among those who sought to give an explanation of the economic boom in war should be mentioned above all Neurath ("Die Kriegswirtschaft," reprint from the Jahresberischt der Neuen Wiener Handelsakademie, V [16], 1910, pp. 10 ff.), since he—following in the steps of Carey, List and Henry George—had already before the war, in this as in other questions of "war economy," adopted the standpoint that gained broad diffusion in Germany during the war. The most naive representative of this view that war creates wealth is Steinmann-Bucher, Deutschlands Volksvermögen im Krieg, second edition (Stuttgart: 1916), pp. 40, 85 ff.
  • 11. It is a mania of the statists to suspect the machinations of "special interests" in all that does not please them. Thus, Italy's entry into the war was traced to the work of propaganda paid for by England and France. Annunzio is said to have been bribed, and so on. Will one perhaps assert that Leopardi and Giusti, Silvio Pellico and Garibaldi, Mazzini and Cavour had also sold themselves? Yet their spirit influenced the position of Italy in this war more than the activity of any contemporary. The failures of German foreign policy are in large part to be traced to this way of thinking, which makes it impossible to grasp the realities of the world.
  • 12. Cf. Auspitz and Lieben, Untersuchungen über die Theorie des Preises (Leipzig: 1889), pp. 64 f.
  • 13. Cf. Mises, Theorie des Geldes und der Umlaufsmittel (Munich: 1912), pp. 222 ff.; second edition translated by H. E. Batson as The Theory of Money and Credit (Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1981), pp. 251 ff. A dear description of conditions in Austria during the Napoleonic Wars is found in Grünberg, Studien zur österreichischen Agrargeschichte (Leipzig: 1901), pp. 121 ff. also Broda, "Zur Frage der Konjunktur im und nach dem Kriege," Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft, vol. 45, pp. 40 ff.; also Rosenberg, Valutafragen (Vienna: 1917), pp. 14 ff.
  • 14. On this, cf. Mises, Theorie des Geldes und der Umlaufsmittel, pp. 237 ff. (English translation, pp. 268 ff.).
  • 15. The nominalists and chartalists among monetary theorists naturally agreed with this layman's view: that upon the sale of foreign securities, the increased nominal value received because of the decline of the currency represented a profit; cf. Bendixen, Währungspolitik und Geldtheorie im Lichte des Weltkrieges (Munich: 1916), p. 37. That is probably the lowest level to which monetary theory could sink.
  • 16. It naturally would not have been possible to take account of these changes in accounting serving official purposes; this accounting had to be carried out in the legal currency. It would indeed have been possible, though, to base economic calculation on the recalculation of balance sheets and of profit-and-loss calculation in gold money.