The Precarious Peace
It must be a peace without victory.
Only a peace between equals can last.
WOODROW WILSON, 1917
The domestic situation of confusion and despair that characterized
the two generations after the First World War had international parallels.
Even as the war ended, there were many observers-including the French
commander Marshall Foch-who looked ahead with a sense of foreboding.
They already feared a future war, generated by a newly risen Germany. And,
indeed, it could be and was argued that even in defeat Germany was
potentially stronger than France in victory. The continuing peace of Europe
therefore depended essentially on the reconciliation of differences between
these two major military powers and, moreover, on the establishment of a
spirit of cordiality and respect among their leaders and populations.
Viewed from the Western continental perspective, therefore, the inter-
war period was one in which a war-wearied France confronted a defeated and
chagrined Germany. The diplomatic problems that had plagued European
statesmen from the middle of the nineteenth century on were still present.
And, in truth, many statesmen well knew that the "German problem," like
the "French problem" of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Eras, was one
that only concerted effort could solve. The condition was that no single
nation bordering Germany was strong enough to keep it contained.
The starkness of this political reality was all the more evident with the
withdrawal of the two powers whose geographical situation in Western
Europe was, at best, peripheral. Neither the United States nor Russia
continued the "balancing" role each had performed in the world war.
After the peace negotiations, largely directed by the United States
delegation, the United States failed to ratify the treaty because of strong
senatorial opposition to the League of Nations. The interwar period was to be
characterized as the era of American isolation from European affairs.
"Isolationism" as a concept applied only to diplomatic activities, and not
always there. The United States increased its economic activity in Europe,
participated in a number of international organizations, and even co-
authored a famous peace resolution, the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928. But no
treaty obligations were incurred and, for the most part, the attitude of the
American government after the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, was that of
a studied noninvolvement in the international affairs of the European
The condition of the new Soviet Union was another matter. Fear of
international communism drove the Western European nations to construct
a cordon sanitaire, a sort of diplomatic wall of immunity against Russia. The
intention was to isolate the country. Where and when the Soviet Union did
participate in diplomatic activities, its motives were suspect. Only after 1934,
when the Soviet government entered the League of Nations and the threat of
Hitler intensified, did Soviet foreign policy move toward cooperation with
the Western democracies, and did they, in turn, look upon Russia with less
The consequent triangulation of European affairs, with Great Britain,
France, and Germany related as the major powers, seemed geometrically
satisfactory during the 1920s when an outward effort at reconciliation was
maintained by their governments. Many Europeans then thought that
President Wilson's "war to end all wars" had probably achieved its purpose.
However, with Hitler's rise to power in 1933, the precariousness of
European peace was once again sharply illuminated. Hitler assumed a
strident and demanding tone from the outset. His rhetoric was bombastically
militant in tone, his armies soon prominently displayed, and his diplomatic
actions suggestive of a man impatient to claim what he considered his
nation's right. Hitler's diplomatic stance was, therefore, at severe variance
with the general diplomatic attitude that had publicly characterized European
affairs before then.
The Spirit of International Conciliation
The most striking institutional change in European diplomatic
behavior of the 1920s was the extension of the liberal, parliamentary practice
to international relations. Liberalism had fostered the idea that political
compromise arrived at by open discussion was the best means to assure both political
stability and peaceful change. This notion of conciliation, or of
accommodation of different interests, was now structured in the League of
Nations and infused in the spirit of diplomatic cooperation that marked the
many international conferences of the 1920s.
The League of Nations does not appear in bright colors in most
historical analyses. Its seat, the city of Geneva, Switzerland, is often
considered the site of international failure, hence a city to be avoided in
present-day international negotiations. Yet, if the League was an overblown,
even naive scheme for settling international differences, and if its purposes
were interpreted differently by the statesmen of Europe, it was an idea that
had a certain nobility about it-and a certain chance of realization.
The rub in international affairs has been and remains the concept and
practice of national sovereignty, best summed up as the right of a nation to
conduct itself as it deems fit and necessary in international relations. This
pursuit of national self-interest was looked upon as a major cause of
international disorder and its severe outcome, war. If national self-interest
could be moderated by a countervailing spirit of international conciliation,
then perhaps the nation-state system, like the national political one, could
function peacefully. This was the hope and the idea in the minds of those
statesmen who thought the League of Nations would be useful.
Proposed in various forms by several statesmen and political writers in
the early twentieth century, the League was actually the brainchild of
Woodrow Wilson, and its form was evidence of its liberal heritage. A
bicameral legislative body, in which member states acted as political equals in
the lower house - the General Assembly - and in which the "Great Powers"
acted as an elite senate in the upper house - the Council - the League was
given the authority to consider and legislate on all international matters
submitted by its member states.
Without describing the various pieces of machinery by which the
entire system was to work, let it be said that two major questions existed from
the outset: (1) where were the fine-line distinctions between domestic and
international issues (was a colonial problem a domestic or an international
problem, for instance?); and (2), far more important, how was a League
decision to be imposed: where were the "teeth," to use a then contemporary
phrase. Throughout its brief history, the League contended with these
problems and found that its collective will could only be imposed easily
where small states were involved in the issue under consideration, or where
the national interests of large states were not seriously involved.
The most ingenious device by which a League decision could be
imposed was that of economic sanctions: a sort of internationally imposed
blockade against the offending nation, by which League members would
neither trade with nor supply the offender, hence economically paralyzing
the state in question. In principle commendable, in practice ineffective, the
economic sanction approach was tried against Mussolini's Italy when that state invaded Ethiopia in 1935. Mussolini's military effort suffered more from incompetency and
Ethiopian resistance than it did from economic sanctions.
The League was not a political success. And, in truth, it could not have
been, for its membership never included all the great powers of the world.
The United States, its sponsor in the form of Woodrow Wilson, did not join,
for the American Senate refused ratification of the treaty in which the League
idea was contained. Germany was refused entry into the League until 1926;
Russia did not join until 1934, by which time both Germany (1933) and Japan
(1931) had withdrawn. Only partially representative, the League was
essentially a European affair, and one in which the European states had
Yet the League is historically important, for it does represent an
unusual, if short-lived, mood of cooperation; this, in turn, generated by a
deeper fear of war. The French foreign minister Aristide Briand (1862-1932)
announced at this time, "Peace at any price." The phrase had a certain ring
about it, of course, the sound of despair. Briand spoke not for himself, but for
a particular generation of Europeans who had no desire to endure another
war. As foreign minister, Briand knew full well that France had been "bled
white," that his nation could never tolerate another war of such grotesque
This anti-war attitude was reflected in the popular press, in the theater,
and in the myriad of war novels, most of which spoke of the horrors of war
and to the need for peace. There was, therefore, a popular mood directed
toward peace. Diplomatically, a long series of disarmament conferences was
held in order to prevent the escalation of weapon production and to effect a
balanced limitation of numbers of weapons and size of armies so that
aggressive warfare would be nearly impossible. The most striking example of
this new attitude is that which is known in history as the "Locarno Spirit."
In the Italian lakeside resort city of Locarno in December of 1925, the
major powers of Western Europe reached an agreement that supposedly
assured the peaceful maintenance of the Franco-German borders and the
integration of Germany into the new European political order. With England
and Italy acting as guarantors of the maintenance of the border between these
two continental rivals, and with both Germany and France accepting the
principle that any future alterations would be achieved only by diplomatic
negotiations, there was widespread feeling throughout Europe that a major
cause - perhaps the major cause - of European war had been averted.
Germany and France had, in effect, agreed to settle any future major
grievances by negotiation.
Locarno is the pivotal point in interwar diplomacy, the moment when
the spirit of goodwill and international conciliation was at its highest, after
which negotiations declined to competitive confusion and impending
conflict in the 1930s. Historians, looking behind the scenes at Locarno, have
found insincerity on the part of one of the participants. The German foreign
minister, Gustave Stresemann (1878-1929), has been seen as entering into the
agreement out of convenience, not with conviction, while the German army
was already secretly planning for another war, about which the foreign
minister was aware.
Whatever the dismal results of later diplomacy, Locarno and the
League are expressive of the spirit of reconstruction that characterized so
much of the general activity of Europe in the 1920s. However, like the
reconstructed economies, the diplomacy of the period was not well founded.
If the Depression tragically demonstrated the weaknesses of the liberal,
capitalist economic system, the international activities of Adolf Hitler equally
tragically demonstrated the weakness of a European political order in which
the "German problem" was not effectively resolved.
NEXT: War, Peace, and Germany