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Europe In Retrospect

by Raymond F. Betts

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 change.

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 nations.

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 things.

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 "invincible."

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 Austrian govemment.

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
And that where'er he strives with the New Man
The Charlie still must be an Also Ran.
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.

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

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