The Precarious Peace
War, Peace, and Germany
The causes of the Second World War are to be found in the peace terms
of the First World War, it has been frequently stated. One point is certain: the
peace was not, as Woodrow Wilson advertised it should be in 1917, a peace
without victors and without recriminations. On the contrary, the main
feature of the peace treaties insofar as they concerned European affairs was
their attempt to assure the submission of Germany.
By Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles Germany was declared
responsible for aggression. This clause has been termed the "war guilt" clause,
and was the one the Germans tried to avoid and were soon to denounce
bitterly. The peacemakers of 1919, like the historians who have since
followed them, were determined to establish a causal pattern that would
explain why the war had occurred. Germany's defeat was the immediate
reason why that nation was selected as the guilty party, but the ideological
nature of the war had already conditioned the populations of France,
England, and the United States to acceptance of the idea. Moreover,
subsequent historical investigation has yielded considerable proof that the
Germans acted both recklessly and aggressively. Yet the issue, quite simply, is
still not resolved. Article 231 satisfied the victors, however, and on the basis
of it they fixed the requirement of reparations to be financially assumed by
Germany. This new diplomatic term - "reparations" - replaced the older
concept of "indemnities," or war spoils. The reparations scheme was designed
to pay for damages caused by German aggression to Allied civilian property,
but also ingeniously covered the expense of veterans pensions.
Germany was not only thus financially burdened; it was also politically
constrained. The treaty makers, assuming Germany's war guilt, were
determined to deprive that nation of the means of making war again. The
German army was, therefore, restricted to a professional force of one hundred
thousand; the navy was severely reduced in size and scope (the battleship was
denied to the Germans, for instance); and the newer weapons in the arsenal
of war - tanks and aircraft - were also forbidden.
One traditional condition of defeat was also introduced to hold
Germany in place: territorial reapportionment. Germany's colonies were
taken away and placed under the control of the victors and under the
supervision of the League of Nations; some of the national territory was
dismantled, given to Poland, Czechoslovakia, and France (notably the return
of Alsace-Lorraine). Most unusual of all these territorial arrangements was
the creation of a "demilitarized zone" along the west bank of the Rhine
River, in some points of which Allied forces were temporarily stationed, but
in all of which German troops could not be placed. The intention of this
territorial adjustment was to assure France of what was considered to be a
very necessary buffer against possible future German attack.
As this brief review of the peace terms should suggest, Germany was
purposely disadvantaged, primarily because of French insistence, but with the
concurrence of the other victorious states. What was widely feared was
German industrial and military potential. If not contained or boxed in, ran
the argument, Germany would rise and expand aggressively again. The
German population perceived the peace to be a Diktat, an unjust, dictated
peace, forced on the entire nation. And, in truth, this was the case: the
German delegation had not been invited to participate in the discussions.
And it had been peremptorily required to sign the concluded treaties, and this
in the presence of the haughtily silent Allied representatives who gathered in
the Hall of Mirrors at the palace of Versailles.
The new German Republic began its political career already weighted
down by the heavy burden of Versailles. The Nazis and others opposed to the
republic would call its leadership the "November Traitors," those who had
signed the armistice and endured the peace terms. Seldom before in history
had a new government been so diplomatically isolated (the Soviet Union
was, however, another contemporary example); never before had a sense of
national chagrin and anger been so susceptible to political use by those who
opposed the new regime.
No single political issue worked more advantageously to the Nazi
cause than did the Versailles settlement. Hitler promised the German people
that he would regain and embellish the national honor so badly sullied by the
conditions of peace. And once in power, Hitler used the repressive features of
the Treaty of Versailles as the basis for a series of demands for diplomatic
The peace treaties, then, can be considered self-contradictory:
establishing international conciliation in the form of the League of Nations,
and severely repressing Germany, making it a pariah, or an outcast among
Peace and Appeasement
After the "spirit of Locarno" in 1925, the prospects for peaceful
resolution of European political problems were never again so bright. In that
year, the combination of economic recovery and political cooperation -
clearly manifested in the personal goodwill among the English, French, and
German foreign ministers - suggested a Europe on the way to recovery in
several domains. But the soon-following economic depression and its related
political feature, the rise of the Nazis to power, altered the general European
situation. One of the major reasons for German economic recovery was
rearmament: the marketplace became the parade field.
Hitler's political triumph and the inauguration of an era of diplomatic
tension came in 1933. Nazi Germany lost no time in denouncing the Diktat
and in demanding change in the European order of things. But Hitler did not
always bother to wait for conferences around the traditionally green-covered
rectangular table. He daringly took matters in his own hands, beginning what
was to be a series of "Saturday surprises," so-called because they occurred on
Saturdays when foreign offices were not regularly staffed. In 1933, he walked
out of the League of Nations; in 1935, he announced that Germany was
rearming in defiance of the peace treaty stipulations. In 1936, he marched his
troops into the demilitarized Rhineland. Along with these dramatic and
successful acts went a seemingly ever-revised list of territorial changes and
adjustments that he wished.
The audacity with which Hitler waged his paper war on several fronts
cannot be denied. Yet what stands out as more striking was the passiveness
the lack of resistance displayed by England and France to these expansionist
activities. Hitler's diplomatic activities were certainly against their interests, it
would seem. Why, therefore, was he allowed to proceed as he did?
The answer to this historical question is found in the concept of
"appeasement." Today the term is used as synonymous with defeatism, or
"selling out." In the 1930s those politicians who fostered the policy did not see
it as such; indeed, they thought it was the means, perhaps the only means, to
continued peace. To effect compromise with Hitler, to come to an
accommodation with him, to appease him would prevent him from
reverting to war. Such was the thinking behind the policy; it was consistent
with a widespread mood of the time.
The desire for peace was very strong within the Western democracies.
One world war had been enough to convince many that another would mean
the destruction of European civilization. The "peace at any price" principle of
Aristide Briand was thus a very persuasive one. Indeed, a "peace ballot"
floated in England in 1934 and 1935 was signed by over eleven and one-half
million Englishmen, all of whom stated that they endorsed the League and
the quest for peace. In the same year, the French government was building
its famous Maginot Line, an intricate system of permanent defenses, made of
reinforced concrete pillboxes and deeply buried subterranean garrisons,
behind which the French nation hoped to defend itself economically - in
terms of manpower - against any possible German attack. As was obvious,
once the line appeared, this armed wall of concrete announced France's
intentions to fight a defensive war, one that automatically provided the
Germans with the initiative.
Standing as a complement to this anti-war spirit was the revisionist
thought of some statesmen of the middle 1930s that Germany had been badly
treated at the peace table and should now be accorded political readjustment.
As later critics have stated, what should have been given the Weimar
Republic was finally given Hitler. Yet even if this argument touched their
own thinking, statesmen of the time assumed that Hitler's demands could be
met. What they found outrageous were not the changes desired, but the voice
in which they were uttered. Even then, many assumed Hitler's public stance
was struck to win the support of the German people, not to threaten the
integrity of European peace.
Appeasement was, in simple terms, predicated upon the need for peace
and upon the possibility of politically satisfying Hitler. As a policy,
appeasement was first practiced by the new English prime minister, Neville
Chamberlain (1869-1940), who came to office in 1937. Son of the famous
manufacturer and politician Joseph Chamberlain, Neville Chamberlain
approached foreign affairs with something of a businessman's attitude: the
belief that differences could be negotiated or settled, much as a ledger could be
balanced. Chamberlain was a sincere man, and one deeply dedicated to peace;
he genuinely strove to preserve "peace in our time," and he did, until quite
late in his negotiations, assume that Hitler was a reasonable man whose
political demands were limited.
Chamberlain's policy was not uniquely English, however. The French
followed in his wake. Indeed, one of the striking diplomatic developments of
the 1930s was the French abdication of leadership in foreign affairs. That
nation followed English policy more than it initiated its own - another
indication of the profound sense of fatigue that lay heavily over all French
affairs. Thus, both England and France responded to the diplomatic initiatives
and the unilateral political actions taken by Hitler with the assumption that
the New Germany might be fit into the traditional European scheme of
The diplomatic history of the 1930s may be summarized as Anglo-
French adjustment to the aggressive acts of the continental dictatorships, but
chiefly to the policies and practices noisily imposed by Hitler's Germany. The
language of peace that the democratic leaders spoke was met by the sound of
the machinery of war. Both Mussolini and Hitler beat the drum and forced
their peoples to march 4/4 time. German rearmament was particularly
blatantly displayed. As the new air force, the Luftwaffe, provided an
impressive fly-over for a visiting Charles Lindbergh in 1939, Lindbergh referred to it as
Major Acts of Aggression in the 1930's
October 3, 1935
Mussolini began his war of colonial conquest against Ethiopia, an east African
country long coveted by the Italians. After strong Ethiopian resistance was
checked, primarily by aerial strafing, the capital fell on May 5, 1936, and
Ethiopia was made part of Mussolini's new "Roman Empire."
July 18, 1936
Civil war broke out in Spain with the Loyalists (supporters of the established
Spanish Republican government) engaged in a struggle against the Insurgents
(supporters of Francisco Franco, a conservative, authoritarian military figure.)
The war took on an international character as the Soviets offered aid to the
Loyalists, while Germany and Italy provided massive support for Franco. The
war ended in victory for the Insurgents on March 28, 1939, after which Franco
and his Falange party ruled dictatorially.
March 12, 1938
The German army marched into Austria and thereby an Anschluss (political
union) was forcefully effected between Germany and Austria. Although there
had been popular Austrian sentiment in the 1920s for such a union, it was
now achieved through threats by the Nazis and fearful capitulation of the
The low point in European diplomacy of the time was the high point
of success in Hitler's foreign policy: Munich, September 1938. The issue being
diplomatically discussed was the fate of Czechoslovakia; the provocation was
Hitler's demand that the heavily German-populated Sudetenland of that
country be made part of his Greater Germany. Initial resistance by England
and France to the dismemberment of this little nation, wedged between
Germany and Russia, and representing the outstanding example of
Wilsonian liberal democracy, was greeted by Hitler's dramatic fulminations.
Put starkly, he would have it his own way, or he would give the order to
unleash his military forces. To prevent war, therefore, the despairing prime
ministers of England and France allowed Hitler to slice away what he wanted
politically. In all of this, neither the interests of Czechoslovakia were
considered nor were its leaders consulted. The Munich decision was greeted
with joy in London and Paris, but this sentiment was short-lived as people
realized that Munich was the tragic end of appeasement.
Hitler did not stop with a piece of Czechoslovakia. In early 1939 he
proceeded to dismember further and to control totally the remainder of Czechoslovakia.
Chamberlain felt that he had been deceived, and the French leadership felt a
numbness of despair from which it did not recover.
Now, in one final diplomatic coup, Hitler managed to sign a "Non-
Aggression Pact" with the Soviet Union in August 1939. This was done out of
necessity, not out of a change of heart upon the part of the violently anti-
Communist Nazis. Hitler wanted his eastern front secure, as he prepared to
invade Poland; Russia, therefore, had to be considered. Once a satisfactory
division of future spoils had been worked out between these two
dictatorships, the Nazis turned against Poland. However, the English and
French boldly announced their intention to defend that state, and, indeed, the
English had already signed a pact of mutual assistance with the Polish
government, to be operative should the Nazis strike. When Hitler's war
machine, the Wehrmacht, invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, both
England and France responded; they declared war on September 3.
In diplomacy, as in domestic politics and economics, the interwar
period was one of failure. The old "balances" that had seemed self-regulatory
in the nineteenth century were impossibly out of alignment after 1918. The
market system collapsed quickly and dramatically in 1929; the democratic
system of government wobbled in England and France, and was viciously
destroyed in Germany and Italy. In the phrase of Anne Morrow Lindbergh,
authoress wife of the aviator, the dictatorships seemed to be the "wave of the
future." She did not, however, anticipate the fullness of her metaphor. Like a
wave, they did indeed surge upward, crash on the beach, but only to wash
quickly away, leaving behind flotsam and debris, the wreckage of Europe.
The hopes for international conciliation were dashed in the 1930s by
the mighty wave of Nazi Germany. Nothing seemed to prevail against it,
until the two major European democracies declared war with a sense of fatal
resignation. Winston Churchill remarked in the introduction to his war
memoirs that it was his purpose to "show how easily the tragedy of the
Second World War could have been prevented."
Easily, yes, but only if there had been a strong will to treat Germany
without recrimination in 1918 and an equally strong will to resist that state
twenty years later when Hitler was making unwarranted demands. If the
modern historian wrote Greek tragedy, he might state that the drama of inter-
war Europe was found in the loss of "moral fiber," of those ideological
convictions that steady courage. The liberal ideal-the notion of progress
based on rational assessments made by the autonomous individual-had
faltered. Quite simply, people had lost faith.
The powerlessness of the individual and the omnipotence of the forces
of the modern industrial state characterized the condition of the interwar era,
as many people then and since have pointed out.
The Fascist-ringing lines of the South African poet Roy Campbell,
published in 1939 in a work omniously entitled "The Flowering Rifle,"
suggest much, by announcing:
The tidings that Democracy is dead
The New Man marched ramrod erect in the parades staged by the dictators,
while Charlie Chaplin, as Everyman, only shuffled along, each foot inclined
in a different direction. The power and order of dictatorships, and of Nazi
Germany in particular, extended to diplomatic thought as well. In face of their
strength and determination, appeasement seemed a proper course to many
people in the democracies.
And that where'er he strives with the New Man
The Charlie still must be an Also Ran.
But this was all ended on September 3, 1939. Once again, as before in
1914, the Parisian railroad stations were filled with soldiers preparing to go to
the western front. However, those that were there put on no display of
colorful heroics. The mood was somber, as it was elsewhere in Europe. The
English were dutifully digging bomb shelters and distributing gas masks to
schoolchildren. The German commanding general of infantry in Poland
telegraphed Hitler that the morale of his troops was much lower than that
evident in 1914.
People feared this war, as no war had been feared before. Yet they had
no intimation of the range and degree of destruction it would finally attain.
NEXT: Chapter Twelve: Another World War