At the end of World War I, the strategic views of the allies were confused. Germany had been beaten by a concurrence of favourable factors which, as Churchill said, were unlikely to occur again within the next thousand years. With respect to Germany, the Allies could have chosen one of the three following strategies:
w solve definitively the political problems between Germany on the one hand, and Britain, France, Italy and Russia on the other hand, in a way satisfactory to all parties,
w maintain Germany in a state of military impotency,
w allow for a rearmed powerful Germany whose energies would be safely funnelled to the East.
Obviously, the first solution would have been the best. Was it, however realistic? Quite apart from the difficulty of accommodating very divergent interests, there were particular problems stemming from the Bolshevik revolution.
In Germany, some sectors of the population were interested in military revenge, dreaming of re-establishing Germany’s military power and resuming a policy of aggressive expansion. Other sectors were interested in peace, in preventing the occurrence of another World War.
The problem was that the aggressive nationalistic sectors were precisely those interested in resisting ‘Bolshevism’, while the pacifist sectors were precisely those most likely to be influenced by the spreading communist ideas. To strike at the power of the Prussian gentry, at the German class of industrialists and bankers and at the military cast, in other words at the establishment, would be the surest way to destroy the nationalist tendencies and transform Germany into a country eager for peace and reconciliation. It would also have been the surest way to destroy the main German forces interested in resisting communism . Vansittart writes :
The.. Germans ..reemployed the servants of the old regime for lack of better.. The extreme left could only be put down by troops, which meant the Right.. Ebert had a Majority Socialist’s horror of communism.. and order could only be maintained by an army hard to live with or without. A bargain was struck with gifted and crafted men like Groner and then Von Seeckt, Generals who cared nothing for the republic but much for the Reich, temporarily the same thing. So Socialism bought the support of militarism by conniving at rearmament and restoring on the sly the privileged position of the officer caste..
As much from their natural inclinations as from the will to resist revolutionary waves, the Allies deemed it essential to preserve the German social structures . A real reconciliation between Germany and the Western powers became impossible. In his memoirs, D’Abernon, the British ambassador to Germany in the twenties, demonstrates his awareness of the revenge spirit dominating the higher strata of German society. He nevertheless thought the reconciliation possible on two accounts: on the one hand there should be no room for suspecting Germany of rearming clandestinely: the pacifist workers would not allow it, and would unmask it if it would occur . This was an exercise in self-delusion :
From 1923 to 1925 D’Abernon continued to assure himself and others that Germany had ceased to be a military danger. Yet such belief in Germany’s faithful compliance with the disarmament provisions of the Versailles Treaty, a belief upon which successive British Governments rested their European policy, was the result not of mere ignorance, but a positive effort of will. For the members of the Inter-allied Commission of Control in Germany sent back to their governments constant reports of German evasions and of Germany’s concealed military strength; reports quietly muffled because of their untimely and untactful nature.
On the other hand, according to D’Abernon, the need to unify Germany and the west in the struggle against communism was so great that it should overshadow all differences such as those traditionally existing between Germany and France. In his book, the ambassador makes a passionate plea to the West to trust Germany and to concentrate on the fight against communism.
Having made a choice which, indirectly, implied a Germany bent on revenge and aggression, the allies had to face the consequences. Germany would, probably, be saved from communism, — even that remained in question for some time —, but, she remained strongly nationalist. Something therefore had to be done to prevent her from becoming, again, a threat to the security of the West. The Versailles Treaty took care of that.
D’Abernon’s dream, a Europe united in her fight against communism, remained that of the British establishment. It had first to wait for the disappearance of the communist threat in Germany itself. Hitler took care of that.
In order to materialise the dream of unity against communism, an ‘understanding’ had to be reached with Germany. This understanding, never spelled out publicly in detail, was considered by the British Establishment as a realistic objective. It would have to disregard the safety measures decided upon in the Treaty of Versailles. However, there was so much at stake, and such strong common interests between Germany and the West, that a solution must have been possible. Neville Chamberlain took care of that (see chapter 1).
Of course, Germany should have to be ‘appeased’. It was hoped that Germany would play ball. What was asked from her was merely to facilitate the execution of the British policy by not resorting to open aggressions. With patience, and help from the West, she would get what would be her share in the ‘understanding’.
This is not just one of the possible scenarios compatible with the known facts. It is what really occurred. It was clearly expressed by the British establishment. More revealing than anything else are the military considerations, as discussed in the British Cabinet. The military decisions taken in the complete knowledge of the German potential threat, and the systematic efforts made by the British Cabinet to prevent any measures that would result in checking the German increase in military power, prove, beyond a shadow of doubt, that such was the reality.
British Disinterest From The East
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the rivalries between the major European powers were such that a military conflagration could be predicted. Each of these countries became involved in intense diplomatic preparations to ensure that, when necessary, it would have valuable allies.
The disparity in population between Germany and France made it clear that, without the assistance of Russia, France would be overwhelmed by a German attack. The East of Europe was, in that sense, of vital interest to France and, in consequence, to Britain too. The British policy of reaching an understanding with Russia lead to their 1907 Treaty , and was in line with the strategic necessities of the time.
With the defeat of Germany, the importance for Britain of Eastern Europe did not recede. The war had demonstrated how difficult it was to be won and how militarily insecure would remain the allied position if Germany were to rearm again.
The German potential threat, and the importance of Eastern Europe, were, however, perceived differently before and after the Bolshevik revolution. On March 26, 1917, Balfour, British Foreign Secretary, reported to the Imperial War Cabinet :
Personally, from a selfish western point of view, I would rather that Poland was autonomous under the Russians, because if you made an absolutely independent Poland lying between Russia and the Central states, you cut off Russia altogether from the West. Russia ceases to be a factor in western policies, or almost ceases. She will be divided from Germany by the new Polish state and she will not be coterminous with any of the belligerent. And if Germany has designs on the future of France or the west, I think she will be protected by this new state from any action on the part of Russia and I am not at all sure that this is to the interest of Western civilization.
At the time of Tsarism no ally would have suggested the formation of a Poland totally independent from Russia. Now, after the fall of Tsarism, as a result of what the allies considered to be a democratic revolution, such an independent Poland became a possibility. Was it in the strategic interest of the allies? Balfour did not think so. He was not alone. Four days earlier Lord Hugh Cecil said in the Commons :
I do not suppose that the question before the Peace Conference will be any question of Home Rule for Poland — I do not suppose that this country will dictate to Russia what form of Home Rule is to be given to Poland and I am quite sure that Russia will not dictate to us what form of Home Rule should be given to Ireland.
The strategic realities were well understood. They required that Russia be able to help the West against a German policy of European domination. An independent Poland would be an obstacle. No considerations of self-determination would change that fact and would, at that date, get any attention.
Things changed after the Bolshevik revolution. The principle of self-determination became suddenly sacred. Strategic considerations, freely understood in the absence of ideological blinders, lost their importance. An independent Poland was now needed as a bulwark against communism.
It cannot be denied that an unfriendly Bolshevik Russia was a new factor which had to have its impact on western strategy. In 1917 the outlook for a, hopefully, defeated Germany was that of a militarily weakened country while the Communist threat loomed close, not through Russian military power, but as a result of the spread of Bolshevik ideas.
Strategies, however, need long range planning. A feeling for the long range German threat can be grasped from an imaginary speech which Churchill wished that Clemenceau would have made :
Clemenceau said (to himself): ‘I have got to think of the long safety of France. Not by our own exertions alone but by miracles we have been preserved. The greatest nations in the world have come to our aid and we are delivered out of the deadly peril. Never again can we hope for such aid. A thousand years will not see such fortunate conjunctures for France..’
Such strategic considerations led Britain to concur in the decision to forbid the union between Austria and Germany as recorded in the Treaty of Versailles. The precise drawing of the boundaries of the new Czechoslovak state was done with full regard to strategic considerations and with the full agreement of the British delegation. The treaties between France and the countries of central and eastern Europe were strategically motivated. In all these respects, good strategy meant improving the military position of the front of countries opposed to aggression, and the aggressor was expected to be Germany.
Since the Soviet Union, at least for the time being, was out of the Eastern equation, there was that much more reason to replace this essential factor of restraint on Germany by a combination of Eastern States. This would have been in line with Balfour’s and Lord Hugh’s understanding in the pre-bolshevik era.
When in 1933 the advent of Hitler to power signalled the predominance in Germany of the most nationalistic tendencies, France, more than ever, had to look in the direction of Eastern Europe for a restraining second front to be imposed on Germany, in the eventuality of war with her. In this endeavour she, unexpectedly , felt at odds with Great Britain.
Instead of encouraging France in thus increasing her security, Britain let it know that France’s increased ties with the East were anathema. They were considered a liability. The British stand did not make sense unless taken in conjunction with a firm belief that Germany was to move Eastward exclusively. This view is explicitly spelled out in the previously quoted memo by O. Sargent in February 1935. It is also the view expounded in the report of the Committee of Imperial Defence approved in 1937 by the British Cabinet
During the thirties, Britain, more than once, let it be known publicly that she had no vital interests in eastern and central Europe. Whatever merits of such a stand, it clearly contradicted a reasonable strategic principle: the vital strategic interests of a vital British ally should be vital to Britain’s strategy. On this account at least, central and eastern Europe should have been considered vital to Britain because they were strategically vital to France.
While the security of France was vital to Britain, the two countries differed as to the ways of ensuring it. In France’s opinion her security depended on preventing the rearmament of Germany and forcing on Germany a war on two fronts in case she tries to move, whether to the West or to the East. It was understood in France that a Germany victorious in the East would soon attack the West. The liability implicit in the assistance to be given to Eastern and Central Europe, were Germany to move in that direction, was an acceptable price to be paid for the assistance from the East, were Germany to move to the West.
In Britain, the position was that the French security should be achieved through an ‘understanding’ with Germany. It was known and acknowledged that such an understanding would not be possible without granting Germany a free hand in the East. This, in the eyes of the British leaders was no objection.
A lack of interest in the East and centre of Europe must therefore be regarded as a major strategic stand which, together with all other military matters involved in relation to Germany, reflected definite political options. From an interest in the East, to the extent of opposing Poland’s independence, Britain moved to disinterest reflected in statements to the effect that the East was of no vital importance to Britain. This corresponded to a readiness to tolerate a German expansion, if it were directed to the East, and against the Soviet Union in particular. As early as 1918, Lord Milner, British Secretary of War, was considering a negotiated peace with Germany in which “the gains of Germany on Russian soil” would compensate her for “colonial and other losses”. On the eve of the armistice Lord Milner was prepared “to object to Germany’s demobilisation on the grounds that Germany might have to serve as bulwark against Bolshevism.”
Awareness Of The Meaning Of A Strong German Army
A strong army has two obvious possible functions: to defend the country against an aggressive enemy, or to attack other countries, in the pursuit of a policy of expansion. The fulfilment of treaty obligations comes under either of these two functions.
At the end of World War I, Germany had no need for a strong defence army. She had lost the war and reluctantly accepted the conditions imposed by the victors. No future additional victory over a peaceful and disarmed Germany could give the Western countries what they could not have obtained at the end of the War. Germany, therefore, was safe from aggression from the West.
It is true that Germany was subjected to military pressure to force on her the payment of reparations. This, however, resulted in friction between Britain and France, friction which made the use of such pressure less and less possible. Moreover, without having yet built an efficient defensive army, she obtained through the pact of Locarno a guarantee of her Western frontiers by France Italy and Britain. In the eventuality of an attack by France, for instance, Britain and Italy would be bound to give Germany military assistance.
Had she so chosen, she could have obtained similar guarantees for her Eastern Frontiers. True, Britain was against granting Germany a guarantee of her Eastern frontiers. This position was not motivated by Britain’s indifference to an attack against Germany coming from the East. No such attack was contemplated. It was however expected that Germany would use a reconstituted army to obtain the revision of her Eastern frontiers, and to realise her ambitions for further expansion. Nevertheless, an ‘Eastern Locarno’, not including Britain, was attempted, and rejected by Germany.
A Germany having come to terms with her frontiers had no need for a strong army. This was universally understood. Rearmament, secret or open, proved to be a heavy load on the German economy. It could only be justified by a will to aggressively use this army at the service of a policy of expansion.
This is common sense, and no political leader was ignorant of the fact that Germany’s rearmament meant that she would have the means of implementing her policies by the force of arms. Cordell Hull, the United States Secretary of State, wrote in his memoirs :
On March 16, 1935, Hitler announced the reinstitution of military conscription. Germany thereby tossed overboard the military clauses of the Treaty of Versailles. She announced that her army would embrace thirty-six divisions, or more than half a million men. She was clearly preparing for conquest
Cordell Hull saw no other use for Germany’s rearmament then to prepare for conquest. This conclusion was necessarily that of all political leaders. While Cordell Hull expressed his conclusion on the sole basis of Germany’s rearmament, the fact is that he reached it much earlier on the basis of information from U.S. representatives in Germany. That information was available to all the western leaders through similar sources. Cordell Hull wrote :
All the reports from Germany that flowed to my desk pointed to the dangerous change that had taken place with the advent of Hitler. There could be no shadow of doubt that Germany was rearming, with all that such rearming meant in the way of political disturbance and, eventually, war.
In October 1933 the British Chiefs Of Staff wrote in their annual review :
..we should like to put on record our opinion that Germany is not only starting to rearm, but that she will continue this process until within a few years hence she will again have to be reckoned as a formidable military power.
This quotation bears an air of solemnity. To ask to be put on record is an indication of the gravity of the situation. It indicates that dire consequences could result from the neglect of this information, consequences for which the Chiefs of Staff, having put their opinion on record, could not later be held responsible .
Britain was not taken by surprise. Years prior to Germany, again, becoming the formidable military power she had been in 1914, the English leaders were warned by their highest military authorities. As we already saw, it was universally understood that, with the United states and the Soviet Union out of contemplated possible coalitions, it would be impossible to stand against such a Germany . The situation justified the most extreme measures to prevent that eventuality.
Was it not for the Bolshevik revolution, the prospect of Germany’s return to the status of a ‘formidable military power’ could have been dealt with unambiguously. However, with a Bolshevik regime reigning over Russia, the question interesting the West was: in what direction would Germany’s aggressive policies be implemented? Germany could plan to move to the East. She could intend to move to the West. She could move in each of the two directions, one at a time.
Trusting Pre-Hitler Germany To Move Eastward Exclusively
We already saw that the British establishment — Keynes for instance — trusted that the Weimar Germany would exclusively ‘look’ to the East. Balfour considered the matter through the angle — in what direction? – and reached the conclusion that Germany would move Eastward :
The case which the French present to us with regard to the Left Bank of the Rhine is very forcible, but very one-sided. They draw a lurid picture of future Franco-German relations. They assume that the German population will always far outnumber the French; that as soon as the first shock of defeat had passed away, Germany will organize herself for revenge; that all our attempts to limit armaments will be unsuccessful; that the League of Nations will be impotent; and, consequently, that the invasion of France, which was fully accomplished in 1870, and partially accomplished in the recent War, will be renewed with every prospect of success.
I do not wish to deny the importance of these prophesyings; but I desire to point out that, in the first place, if there is a renewal of German world politics, it is towards the East rather than towards the West that her ambitions will probably be directed.. On the other hand, the collapse of Russia, and the substitution for it of a number of small and jealous States, will increase the opportunities for German diplomatic intrigues, and diminish the resisting power of the anti-German forces in the East.
This document is remarkable. Written by the British Foreign Secretary, it reflects the official position of the government. In particular, it expresses the British expectation of the collapse of Russia and its division into many smaller states.
All the arguments intending to prove that France was one-sided in her desire to keep the Rhineland, have been proved to be wrong. It was not difficult, even at the time at which Balfour wrote his report, to see the weakness of Balfour arguments. He challenged France’s contention that:
w “the German population will always far outnumber the French”. This French contention could not be challenged. There was no reason to believe that the population of Germany would start decreasing, relative to that of France. Even if it were, the process would take too long a time to affect the strategic factor constituted by the population advantage.
w “As soon as the first shock of defeat had passed away, Germany will organise herself for revenge.” Balfour was in a position to know that such was already the case. A few years later, the British Government would ‘muffle’ official reports proving that Germany was engaged in widespread violations of the armaments clauses of the Versailles Treaty.
w “That all our attempts to limit armaments will be unsuccessful” So it was, and Britain bears a large responsibility for that.
w “That the League of Nations will be impotent”. And so it was to be, thanks, in no small part, to Britain.
It is fascinating to notice that many of the points on which Balfour hoped that France would be wrong, turned out to be right as the result of Britain’s active efforts.
France’s reasons for fearing a German military revival were realistic. Even Britain’s certitude, and expectation, that Germany’s determination would be to move Eastward and not Westwards, turned out wrong .
Concerning the German danger, Balfour, in the remainder of the document, argues that, if ever Germany decides to dominate the world “it will no doubt tax all the statesmanship of the rest of the world to prevent a repetition of the calamities from which we have been suffering”. In such a case, argues Balfour, any French precautions such as the occupation of the Rhineland would be of no use. Implicit in Balfour’s report is that such precautions are the less necessary if Germany, instead of seeking world domination, would just move to the East. France should therefore renounce her insistence on the Rhineland as a guarantee against the German threat: the only guarantee is Germany’s move to the East. Associating Germany’s will to world domination with her move westwards, while dissociating such a will in conjunction with an eastward move will become a familiar theme with Neville Chamberlain.
Churchill himself trusted in 1925 that Germany’s ambition in the future would be towards the East “which apparently seemed to him quite acceptable.”
D’Abernon who, on occasion, would vouch for Germany’s peaceful policies and intentions, was keen in reporting opinions in the German establishment advising a crusade against the Soviet Union. These opinions were expressed personally to him by such guests as General Hoffman and Dr. Simons , the German Minister for Foreign Affairs in 1920. D’Abernon never reported having opposed or rebuked them. For Germany, to go East was considered respectable, tolerable, and even proper.
The strategic significance of a German move towards the West could not be obscured. It would have been impossible for any British Cabinet to declare itself indifferent to the fate of Belgium, France,. etc. Any German aggression that, for instance, would bring the German air forces closer to the shores of England would be totally unacceptable to the British general public and, possibly, to most of the British establishment.
In one important respect, the situation was different concerning the strategic importance of a German move to the East. While its true significance was obvious to the military leaders and experts, there were some room for denying its vital strategic relevance to Britain without a loss of credibility in the eyes of a public kept uninformed and misinformed.
Were Britain to suspect a German intention to move to the West, she would have prevented the German rearmament by all means available. Hitler was aware of the impossibility of rearming Germany without convincing the West that she intended to expand in the Eastern direction. Ludecke recalls that Hitler told him :
The economic power of the Versailles States is so enormous that I can’t risk antagonizing them at the very outset. If I begin my regime with socialism, Paris, London, and New York will be alarmed, the capitalists will take fright and combine, and I’ll be whipped before I know it. A preventive war would ruin everything. No, I’ve got to play ball with capitalism and keep the Versailles Powers in line by holding aloft the bogey of Bolshevism — make them believe that a nazi Germany is the last bulwark against the Red flood. That’s the only way to come through the danger period, to get rid of Versailles and rearm. I can talk peace, but mean war.. And it will be easier to overthrow Moscow and take the Ukraine if the capitalists are on my side. If the capitalists are forced to choose, believe me, they will prefer a greater Germany, even if it means the end of Moscow, to an alliance of the two against themselves — for that would spell the finish of capitalism the world over. Never fear — faced by such an alternative, capitalism would rather have me than Stalin, and will accept my terms.
Hitler knew that unless he could convince the West that he intended to use Germany’s army against Bolshevism there would be no possibility for a German rearmament. Consequently, he did his best to convince the West that, when it comes to fight communism, he could be relied upon. He destroyed the labour movement in Germany, put all socialist and communist activists in concentration camps, murdered a number of them, and did not miss an opportunity for publicly attacking communism and the Soviet Union. The West was the intended audience when, in a speech on September 3, 1933, he said :
If a single people in Western Europe or Central Europe were to succumb to Bolshevism, this poison would spread farther and would destroy that which is today the oldest and fairest cultural treasure in the world. By taking upon herself this struggle against Bolshevism Germany is but fulfilling, as so often before in her history, a European mission.
Two days latter he repeated in a speech :
In so far then as we devote ourselves to the care of our own blood.. we are at the same time doing our best to help to safeguard other peoples from diseases which spring from race to race, from people to people. If in West or Central Europe but one single people were to fall a victim of Bolshevism, this poison would continue its ravages, it would devastate the oldest, the fairest civilization which can to-day be found upon earth.
Germany by taking upon itself this conflict does but fulfil, as so often before in her history, a truly European mission.
It seems that Hitler was the first to expound the theory of ‘the domino effect’. Germany having taken upon her shoulders the task of preventing further expansion of communism, it was natural for the British establishment to conclude that she could not perform her ‘European’ task without a modicum of rearmament. Furthermore, not only did Hitler specify in his book ‘Mein Kampf’ that Germany’s expansion would be directed to the East, but after rising to power, he clearly hinted that such was Germany’s necessity. In a speech on September 12, 1936, he said :
If we had at our disposal the incalculable wealth and stores of raw material of the Ural mountains and the unending fertile plains of the Ukraine to be exploited under National Socialist leadership, then we would produce and our German people swim in plenty
’If we had’ sounded speculative. It could be said that the implication was not necessarily an intended German occupation of the Ukraine. However, it so much reflected Hitler’s ambitions to expand in the East, as detailed in ‘Mein Kampf’, that it was taken as a positive indication of Germany’s intentions. Moreover, Hitler did not always speak in the conditional tense. In a long speech on September 14, 1937, much of it devoted against Bolshevism, Hitler, speaking of Communism, said :
..there must be an immunization of the peoples against this poison while the international carrier of the bacillus must itself be fought.
In other words, besides the internal struggle against communism — what Hitler calls ‘immunization of the people’ — it is necessary to fight the Soviet Union itself. No wonder that a large portion of the western press was asserting that Germany was sure to attack Soviet Union with a view of acquiring the Ukraine. The speculation was not on the belief but on the date at which Hitler would make the move.
If the prevention of the Bolshevik expansion to a single European country justified some rearmament, fighting the ‘international carrier’ could explain the need for a much larger measure of military preparedness. In most of his conversations with British leaders and members of the establishment, Hitler was stressing Germany’s military needs as being justified for the defence against the Soviet Union .
As a result, Western leaders became divided into those who trusted Hitler, and those who did not trust him. Here it is necessary to redefine the meaning of ‘trusting’. Trusting Hitler does not mean at all believing that Hitler does not lie, or that his intentions are peaceful. It does not even mean believing that he is incapable of the most treacherous deceit. It just means that Hitler is trusted to be irredeemable in his opposition to communism and the Soviet Union, that he can be relied upon to expand to the East, that he can be relied upon not to attack the Western countries, at least not before having ‘finished’ with the Soviet Union. It was believed that Hitler was cunning and deceitful in every other respect. It was known that he would not recoil from any trick or device however dishonourable. He was only trusted to be sincerely extreme in his opposition to communism and the Soviet Union.
In the first chapter, we quoted a document written by Sargent in which he expressed his belief in the absolute impossibility for Hitler to ever come to terms with Russia. That gives a measure of trust in Hitler’s extreme anticommunism. Only in this sense was Hitler ever trusted by the West. Otherwise, Germany could be trusted to be, as Cordell Hull said, ‘clearly preparing for conquest’. As we have seen before, Chamberlain’s trust in Hitler was not different.
To trust Hitler in this sense, did not relieve the Western leaders from the need to be militarily prepared to face an aggressive Germany after, as was expected, her successful campaign against the Soviet Union. However, it was hoped that such a campaign would exhaust Germany’s military strength and would keep her busy in the ‘reorganisation’ of the Soviet Union, for long years to come. For the West, military preparations were a necessity. The scope of these preparations, however, were decided on the basis of trusting Hitler’s natural tendency to the East.
Eden wrote :
By November 1933 we knew that Hitler was starting to build military aircraft in quantity and that paramilitary organisations were being equipped and trained. In a few years Nazi Germany would be an armed menace
’We’, here, is the British government. As early as November 1933, they knew the extent of German efforts at rearmament and the menace it would constitute. Eden went on :
The annual report of the Chiefs of Staff, presented that autumn, suggested that the object of Germany’s rearmament was to make it possible for her to secure a revision of frontiers in the East, a political assessment not necessarily endorsed by the Foreign Office and currently not shared by me. It was never my belief that Nazi ambitions were only Eastern.
The British Chiefs of Staff ‘trusted’ Hitler. They trusted that Hitler’s expansion aims were directed to the East. Eden added on the same page:
The Chiefs of Staff had no doubt that German rearmament would continue whether a disarmament convention were signed or not, and that Great Britain might very easily be called upon to implement her Locarno obligations within the next few years. Therefore, a steady increase in the defence estimates would be necessary.
The mention of the Locarno Treaty particularly refers to its stipulation that an attempt by Germany to remilitarise the Rhineland could be considered as a flagrant act of aggression committed against the other signatories and requiring their assistance to France if the latter intervened militarily to prevent such a remilitarisation. The Chiefs of Staff predicted that, within the next few years, such an attempt would be made. The call for an increase in defence estimates was not a serious one. It was not followed by appropriate action and, when the time came, Britain tried, and practically succeeded, to disengage herself from the Locarno obligations.
Eden added :
On October 24, Hitler openly told Sir Eric Phipps that he sought ‘a certain expansion in Eastern Europe’, a threat which was also calculated to reassure those who believed, wrongly in my opinion, that Hitler’s ambitions could be tolerated if diverted that way. He asked for some submarines and demanded that the victors should not increase their armaments during the period of the proposed agreement.
This was alarming and menacing. ..The Americans and the Italians had been told much the same, yet the rather surprising consensus of opinion among the Ambassadors was that Hitler intended these mounting demands as the opening of serious negotiations.. His Majesty’s Government, though they did not like these moves, were sluggish in their reactions. I was disturbed by the slow motion in stating our position in Berlin. ..Six weeks had passed since Hitler’s interview with Phipps and there had been no definite reply from us
Hitler was heading a racial and military oriented regime. He openly spoke to the Ambassadors of England, France, Italy and the United Stated of Germany’s intentions to expand in the Eastern direction. He was not, here and then, put on notice that the civilised world would not stand for that. Some members of the British Government believed, wrongly says Eden, that such ambitions could be tolerated. The expression of such ambitions is intended to be ‘reassuring’.
To express dismay at Hitler’s flagitious utterances does not need a delay of six weeks. To accept those utterances would be embarrassing. When Phipps met Hitler again on December 8, he did not raise the matter of Germany’s expressed intentions to expand in the Eastern direction. It can therefore, at least, be stated that Hitler was met with no discouragement to his talk of expansion towards the East.
Silences play an important role in diplomatic relations and deserve the following short diversion. Some ‘silence’ cases have been dealt with at length by historians. One such case is that of the British silence at Stressa (April 11,1935) when Mussolini, whose aggressive intentions towards Ethiopia were notorious, qualified the word peace, by adding ‘in Europe’. At the time, Ramsay MacDonald, the British Prime Minister MacDonald and Simon, the British Foreign Secretary, remained silent. This silence was justifiably considered by Mussolini as an approval of his known expansionist policies in Africa.
Another case was that of an agreement between Germany and France in December 1938. In this agreement Germany, apparently was making all the concessions, renouncing her claims on the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. Germany justifiably expected to receive a quid pro quo for her renunciations. She even claimed that the quid pro quo had been spelled out orally between Bonnet and Ribbentrop and consisted in the French disinterest from Eastern Europe. The agreement itself, coming just after the dismembering of Czhechoslovakia at Munich, was silent on that. The silence was indeed full of meaning . Bonnet is disingenuous in trying to refute Ribbentrob’s assertion that a free hand in the East had orally been given to Germany by this agreement.
In the case we quoted from Eden, the silence of the West was as full of meaning. Hitler was even more justified than Mussolini later felt to be, to consider having received, if not a free hand, at least some understanding, some promise of tolerance for his ambitions. With Mussolini, the silence had concerned an indirect hint made by Mussolini to his known aggressive intentions against Ethiopia. With Hitler, however, it was not a matter of hinting, but of his explicit statement concerning expansion to the East.
The rebuilding of Germany’s military power started immediately after the end of World War I. The British Cabinet was more worried of its effect on the public opinion then of its strategic consequences. Years later British Conservative leaders would complain that the public was not prepared to support a policy of opposing Germany’s remilitarisation. The fact is that those same British leaders tried their utmost to prevent the public from becoming aware of the fact of Germany’s remilitarisation as well as of the extent and nature of the threat it constituted. Vansittart wrote :
I grew uneasy too with his D’Abernon. The Disarmament Commission, by now brazenly flouted, was not allowed to say so. Its reports remained unpublished. Germany had no more intention of abandoning war than of paying debts.. The militarists used the Republic for extortion under threat of collapse, and diddled the British Cabinet into sparing armaments factories in the hope that they would contribute to reparations. War-material was left wittingly undestroyed, and the British People dozed unaware that Articles 168 and 169 of the Treaty were dormant too. D’Abernon, the pioneer of appeasement.. proclaimed German honesty.. The French were less gullible when ‘almost every document put up by the Reichswehrministerium was found, after we had checked its statements by “control” inspections, to be false’. Peace was the last thing to be promoted by the German army.
The British People dozed because vital information was withheld from them. Vansittart adds :
Stresemann asked for evacuation of the Cologne sector and early withdrawal of the Control Commission. It reported that the Germans had never meant to disarm. The Allies suppressed the reports.
The Weimar republic had ambitions of expansion for Germany. It actively pursued a policy of avoiding, as much as possible, Germany’s military disarmament as obligated to under the Versailles Treaty. Instead of denouncing such a policy, the allies were suppressing the evidence and spreading the word that Germany had become a peaceful democracy.
This attitude could no longer be maintained after Hitler’s accession to power in January, 1933. No one could describe Hitler’s Germany as being democratic. For a time, however, important member of the British establishment tried to spread the word that Hitler’s intentions were peaceful. The British public soon learned enough about Hitler’s handling of the opposition, about his racist theories and practice. It also learned about the way Hitler suppressed the popular organisations. In consequence, British public opinion was not prepared to believe that Hitler was a man of peace . As late as 1935 “The proposals for publicity of violations also met with British opposition ”
The military situation and the options available to face it, were already clear in Britain in 1933. On May 10, 1933, Brigadier A.C. Temperley, an English delegate at the Disarmament Conference, described them in a report which Cadogan, in a letter to Leper, considered ‘of the utmost importance and interest’. Temperley started by underlining the extent and the gravity of Germany’s violations of the treaty clauses restricting her rearmament. He then drew attention to the ‘delirium of reawakened nationalism and of the most blatant and dangerous militarism’. He then wrote :
What then is to be our attitude? Can we too go forward as if nothing has happened? Can we afford to ignore what is going on behind the scenes in Germany? ..there is little use in a Convention limiting effectives and material, if the preparations above indicated are to proceed unchecked, while the war-like spirit is being openly roused to a fever heat against the Poles as the first objective, with France as the ultimate enemy.
Temperley was confirming the reports received from all reliable sources as to the danger constituted by Germany’s remilitarisation coupled with her aggressive spirit. In a different form, Temperley repeated his question as to ‘our attitude’: If it is dangerous to go forward with disarmament, what then is to be done? Temperley had an answer. He went on:
There appears to be one bold solution. France, the United States and ourselves should address a stern warning to Germany that there can be no disarmament, no equality of status and no relaxation of the Treaty of Versailles unless a complete reversion of present military preparations and tendencies takes place in Germany.
Temperley examined the possible consequences of such a line of action:
Admittedly this will provoke a crisis and the danger of war will be brought appreciably nearer. We should have to say that we shall insist upon the enforcement of the Treaty of Versailles, and in this insistence, with its hint of force in the background, presumably the United States would not join. But Germany knows she cannot fight at present and we must call her bluff. She is powerless, before the French army and our fleet. Hitler, for all his bombast, must give way.
Temperley went on to describe the expected consequences of not stopping Germany in time:
If such a step seems too forceful, the only alternative is to carry out some minimum measures of disarmament and to allow things to drift for another five years, by which time, unless there is a change of heart in Germany, war seems inevitable. German rearmament will by then be an accomplished fact and the material of the ex-Allies, which would take years and scores of millions of pounds to replace, may have been destroyed.
Temperley prediction of a war in five years time was close to the truth. The choice faced by Britain, according to Temperley, was not between war now and war later, but between the certainty of war in five years in adverse conditions, and the unlikely possibility of immediate war in conditions very unfavourable to Germany. Temperley explained:
Strong concerted action, however, as suggested above, should prove decisive, even though the threat of military pressure might have to be maintained for years, calling for fresh monetary sacrifices, until Germany is brought to her senses. But even this heavy responsibility should be accepted rather than that we should allow all the sacrifices of the last war to be in vain and the world to go down in economic ruin. There is a mad dog abroad once more and we must resolutely combine either to ensure its destruction or at least its confinement until the disease has run its course
It is sometimes claimed that we should not judge the action of the ‘appeasement’ leaders on the light of the knowledge provided to us by hindsight. The above quotations prove that the knowledge we now have about Germany’s rearmament and aggressive plans was not lacking at the time. However, though Temperley’s memorandum was circulated to the Cabinet, it was circulated in the Cabinet, says Eden, “to no effect” .
The sky that day may have been blue or cloudy. The weather may have been cold or warm. Those are facts that can be verified in some records. Some historian may casually mention these facts. However, that such ominous message as that of Temperley’s should be read “to no effect” is a fact which should not be mentioned casually. “There is a mad dog abroad once more” is a precise warning full of a threatening meaning. It meant indeed that Germany, once more, is on her way to become a tremendous expansionist military power. Only fifteen years after a war that cost millions in lives, the contemplation of a repeat, with no assured victory, was expected to have a chilling effect and to provoke the strongest possible reaction. It was exceedingly important to ascertain: was it true that Germany was rapidly rearming? Was it true that once rearmed she could not be stopped in the absence of the favourable constellation of factors, which existed in 1914-1918? Is it true that Germany was animated by a martial spirit aimed at expansion?
Those questions were not asked because there was no doubt as to the correct answer. The one question that interested the Cabinet was: In what direction would Hitler move with his terrific military potential? As we saw, it was common in some circles to ‘trust’ Hitler to move to the East. It was impossible for a British Cabinet to read or listen to Timperley’s warning ‘to no effect’ unless the Cabinet also belonged to those circles ‘trusting’ Hitler.
In the Foreign Office, Allen Leper thought it important to expose Germany’s clandestine rearmament. He wrote a memorandum on May 29, 1933, in which he started by expressing regret at the mood of the House of Commons which excluded the hope for a British positive role concerning France’s security. All that was needed was British reaffirmation, in view of some encouraging signs from the United States, of Article 16 of the Covenant in its most precise interpretation. Leper concluded that disarmament by all other powers (other than Germany), as proposed by Britain, was now ruled out. The British claim for excepting bombers from disarmament — actually for increasing its bombers force — ‘for police purposes in outlying districts’ was not helpful. In view of these considerations Leper wrote :
My suggestion is that we should at once take the French Government fully into our confidence in this matter.. If we have certain secret information that the Germans are rearming, it is a safe guess that the French have a great deal more.. What more proper occasion could be chosen than that at the Disarmament Conference, after Herr Nardolny has made one of his speeches in the best Hitlerian manner expounding Germany’s peaceful intentions, the British and French representatives should stand up one after another and declare that, much as they appreciate the sentiments which have been expressed, it is impossible for disarmament discussions to proceed when to their knowledge Germany is actually rearming.
The British ambassador to Germany, Rumbold, was sending alarming reports on the kind of leadership ruling Nazi Germany, on the clandestine rearmament and on the expansionist tendencies of the German Government. In fact, such was the nature of most of the reports the British Government was receiving from Germany from all possible sources.
We have already noticed that Eden was informing the Cabinet that there could be no doubts as to Germany’s intensive clandestine rearmament. If so, then, why not follow Leper’s advise and denounce it? There is no way to escape the conclusion that the Cabinet agreed with the Chiefs of Staff’s annual report in 1933 which, while putting on record that Germany’s military strength would soon again become formidable, opined that it would be used in the East direction.
It was evident that revisions of Germany’s Eastern boundaries in her favour, would result in the strengthening of the German strategic position and would render her still more formidable. There was nothing attractive for Britain in this prospect. The only ‘redeeming’ feature of this development would be its leading, eventually, to a conflict with Soviet Union. It was considered that the Soviet regime would not survive such a conflict. It was hoped that Germany either would be exhausted by that conflict or, at least, would find herself quite busy exploiting her victory over the Soviet Union and reorganising that country to her advantage. Such opinions could not be expressed freely by the British leaders. However, as we have seen previously, they had common currency in the establishment and were reflected in Cabinet military policies.
There exist a number of declarations by British Cabinet members, belonging to the appeasing wing, made officially or recorded in their private letters to friends and relatives, to the effect that they were aware of the German military threat and intended to meet it by proper rearmament. While these declarations are sometimes taken as proof that those Cabinet members were not favouring a German expansion in the East, it must be admitted that facts tell more than declarations.
In the first chapter we already quoted Chamberlain saying in September 1934, that Britain’s safety, and that of her empire, must be ‘the paramount consideration.. to which everything else, home politics, economy, or desire for disarmament must be subjected..’ He then added though, at the moment, there was no immediate threat to that safety, ‘there is a universal feeling’ that within 2,3, 5 or 10 years ‘such a threat may materialise and that the quarter from which it will come is Germany.
Chamberlain was expressing his fears of a future German threat in the context of his justification for the need to appease Japan. In the same spirit he earlier wrote on July 1, 1934 :
’we shall be more likely to deter Germany from mad-dogging if we have an air force which, in case of need could bomb the Rhur from Belgium’
However, in late 1936, he wrote
if we were to follow Winston’s advice and sacrifice our commerce to the manufacture of arms, we should inflict a certain injury on our trade from which it would take generations to recover, we should destroy the confidence which now happily exists, and we should cripple the revenue..
Safety, which is a ‘paramount consideration’ and to which everything else should be subjected (’home politics, economy, or desire for disarmament’) seems now to take a second place behind the ‘trade’ necessities. It is hard to believe that the quotes of 1934, in the context of a policy towards Japan, and those of 1936 in conjunction with the importance of trade, originated from the same man.
Two years separated the statements. During this time the following had occurred:
w Italy’s conquest of Abyssinia in defiance of the League of Nations
w Germany’s reintroduction of compulsory military service, and announcement that she had reached parity with England in the air.
w Germany’s remilitarisation of the Rhineland
w The civil war in Spain, heavily supported by Italy and Germany.
w An accelerated rate of increase in Germany’s military strength, particularly in the air.
If there were any essential changes in the political situation, they were evidently to the worse and necessitated in 1936 still more drastic measures of military preparedness... unless the belief in an eastern outlook from the part of Germany was also an essential element of the British strategy.
The matter becomes quite clear if we consider a declaration made on March 6, 1934 by the Premier of Belgium to the Belgium Senate:
It is certain that at least two of the Great Powers which have a permanent seat on the Council, Britain and Italy, will refuse to order an investigation. Under these conditions, Germany will refuse to permit it.. There remains the second means: a preventive war.. To prevent the rearmament of Germany there is no other means than immediate war. For myself, I refuse to throw my country into such an adventure
The investigations in question concerned Germany’s violations of the clauses in the Versailles Treaty which imposed limitations on her armaments. The British opposition to investigating Germany’s violations is not a matter of rumour reported by an obscure journalist. It is publicly announced as a certainty by the Belgium Prime Minister, a man directly involved in behind doors negotiations concerning the Allies’ attitude on that question.
The British leaders knew that Germany was well on her way to becoming a ‘formidable military power’. This knowledge had, however, not yet been made public by the British Cabinet. At a later date, the Cabinet would decide that it could not any longer abstain from a public statement on this subject. But, in 1934, it wished to be free from the pressure of public opinion. This would not have been possible if an official investigation was allowed to reveal the extent of the German rearmament.
It should be noted that, this time, the future of British trade was not at stake. In fact, with the good will of Belgium, France and Poland (reliable at the time), it would not have been hard to impose such an investigation as was then considered. It is reasonable to suspect that the British Cabinet felt the safety of the country was not threatened by Germany’s rearmament. They thought, in agreement with the Chiefs of Staff, it would all be directed against the East.
Still, the matter was of great concern to two friendly countries, France and Belgium. Moreover, the consent to an investigation of German infractions, known to have occurred indeed, could not have jeopardised any British national interest. It did not make sense to still hope for a disarmament agreement while German rearmament was proceeding speedily, in contravention to treaties empowering the allies to prevent that precise occurrence. It was also understood that if Germany was not restrained in her rearmament, Britain would have to increase her own rearmament at costs that, as Chamberlain was saying, could hurt the economy of the country. Nonetheless, Britain was acting as if Germany’s rearmament not only did not threaten her safety but was a positive development which should not be resisted.
In March 1934 the German military budget was published showing an increase from 78 millions marks to 210 for the air forces and from 344.9 to 574.5 for the land forces. On May 12, 1934, Chamberlain writes to his sister saying that he had practically taken charge of the defence requirements of the country.
These numbers are alarming, and France was alarmed. Not Britain. At the Commons Simon declared :
I do not believe that we ought at this stage to go to Geneva and start a new initiative.
The same day , at Geneva, Barthou and Litvinov agreed that the Disarmament Conference should now deal with measures to strengthen collective security. Simon did not concur:
A conference called for the purpose of disarmament could not be transformed into a conference for devising plans of security on the basis that no disarmament at all was possible.
Germany was becoming a formidable military power. She had just published a disquieting military budget. The disarmament conference had reached a dead end. Nonetheless, Simon was not interested in collective security. His only objection was of a formal nature. He gave more weight to a rule he had just pulled out of his hat than to the gravity of the situation. His attitude is negative. He does not, for instance, suggest to convoke a different conference for the sake of establishing collective security.
In 1934 Germany, if faced with the determined and organised will of some European countries bent on preventing her rearming, would have had to submit. Her rapidly increasing military power was still so weak that Italy, in July, would dare to send her army to the Brenner pass, as a warning to Germany. Germany was impressed and her coup against Austria was aborted.
No Real Opposition To Germany’s Rearmament
The British leaders and establishment must have been pleased with the anticommunist, anti-socialist and anti trade-unionist measures taken by Hitler since the early days of his advent to power. However, the brutality of his methods left many, conservatives among them, uneasy. The thought that such a gang could control a formidable military power was not reassuring and the British leaders had, at first, ambiguous feelings. Hitler would eventually gain their ‘trust’. The ‘conversion’ would take some time and the time would vary for every ‘convert’.
In February 1934, the Defence Requirements Sub-Committee (DRC) of the Committee of Imperial Defence (CID) noted that Japan was, at the moment, the most immediate threat. Germany, yet not fully armed, was less of an immediate threat: “In her case we have time, though not much time, to make defensive preparations.” The report added: ‘..we take Germany as the ultimate potential enemy against whom our “long range” policy must be directed’.
A change must have occurred later in 1934 in British policies. On January 29, 1934, Britain suggested permanent and automatic supervision of disarmament. Correlli Barnnett mentions that on March 19, 1934, at a Cabinet meeting :
..both Macdonald, the Prime Minister, and Chamberlain, the Chancellor of Exchequer, were, the minutes record, inclined to look for some alternative to take Germany as a firm enemy and arming against her. The Cabinet finally concluded that if the Disarmament Conference did fail.. Germany would soon be a potential danger. In such circumstances the Cabinet must ‘without delay’ consider whether ‘to join in arranging to provide further security against a breach of peace or face very heavy further expenditure on rearmament.
The only alternatives, which were laid down very clearly, and from which the choice was to be made without delay, were either collective security, or ‘very heavy further expenditure on armaments’. They were predicated by the assumption that Germany was to be considered as the firm enemy. Eventually, the British government managed to avoid both alternatives. It opposed collective security, and very heavy expenditure on rearmament.
It is worthwhile noting that, in the opinion of the Cabinet, and even with Germany to be considered the enemy, very heavy spending was not the single solution. Collective security was considered adequate means to face the situation of a rearmed Germany. It was therefore considered possible to face the German threat without jeopardising the future of British trade. However, ‘trusting’ Hitler seemed a better alternative altogether.
Thus, by February 1935, Britain not only opposed an American plan for investigation of the violations of disarmament but she even disagreed with a proposal for publicity of the violations . The public was not supposed to know who the violators were and what was the gravity of the violations.
Britain was acting as if she was opposed to any measures that would impair Germany’s rearmament. This policy was not explicit but in line with the opinions expressed by the British establishment. In the previous chapter, Lothian, Amery and Lloyd George were quoted defending Germany’s policy of rearmament. The British Government could not express itself as freely. Their actions, however, spoke as loudly.
On July 30, 1934 Baldwin, speaking of Germany, declares in the House of Commons :
But we have little doubt that it is her intention — and we have always recognized that — that the moment she feels free to rearm, the air will be one of her principal considerations. Indeed it stands to reason that if Germany has that right, and seizes that right, to rearm , she has every argument in her favour, from her defenceless position in the air, to try to make herself secure.
The Prime Minister of Britain was justifying in advance the German measures for rearmament that he expect her to take. In the name of reason, right, and the need for security, Nazi Germany was thereby informed that England would not oppose her rearmament. Moreover, Germany was given a hint that rights are to be ‘seized’. All the arguments advanced by Baldwin concerning the air forces apply also to the land forces. Indeed, with the Rhineland demilitarised, and without a strong army, Germany was as ‘defenceless’ as without an air force.
On September 22, 1933, Lloyd George declared :
If the powers succeed in overthrowing Nazism in Germany, what would follow? Not a Conservative, Socialist or Liberal regime, but extreme Communism. Surely that could not be their objective. A Communist Germany would be infinitely more formidable than a Communist Russia. The German would know how to run their Communism effectively
A year later, on November 28, 1934, at the House of Commons, Lloyd George made a similar statement . The circumstances were different. Britain could no longer hide from public opinion the fact of Germany’s speedy rearmament in violation of her treaty obligations. The Government was unwilling to condemn Germany publicly. LLoyd George asked the Commons not to condemn Germany. He said that the English Conservatives in England would be looking to Germany as the bulwark against Communism. He predicted that England would be welcoming Germany as her friend. It was clear that in Lloyd George’s opinion, German rearmament was not a bad thing.
The British public, aware of the horrors committed under Hitler’s regime was not prepared to support such views. The Government did not express itself in such terms. Earlier we brought the exact quote of Lloyd George’s intervention as an example of the Establishment’s opinion. However, in this particular case, we can ascertain that the British government agreed totally with Lloyd George. In a note circulated to the Cabinet Committee on German rearmament, Simon, the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs advocates the legalisation of the German rearmament. He says
We ought, I think, to make much of the growth of British opinion in favour of this course. From this point of view, Mr. Lloyd George’s speech the other night seemed to me extremely useful.
At that point, a note in the document explains that the speech in question is that made on November 28 at the House of Commons in which Lloyd George stressed the importance of Germany’s future role as a bulwark against communism. Simon found it ‘extremely useful’ that what he could not say by himself in the Commons had been said by Lloyd George .
With such an outlook with respect to Nazi Germany, it is no wonder that the British policy with regard to Germany’s rearmament was ambiguous. On the one hand, Britain could not but be very worried at the rapid growth of the German air force. On the other hand, a strong Germany was needed as a bulwark against Communism. The solution would be not to neglect Britain’s own air force program, while being very accommodating with Germany’s rearmament.
Britain, being an island well protected by her strong navy against land forces, had to worry more about German air rearmament than about her land rearmament. If Britain could agree to, and justify Germany’s air rearmament, she would have less reason to oppose her land rearmament. In fact, less than a year after Baldwin’s declaration, Germany announced that she no longer was recognising any limitations imposed on her rearmament by the Versailles Treaty. It is doubtful that Germany would have dared to take such a step had it not been made clear to her, in more ways than one, that England would oppose any sanctions France and Belgium would otherwise have imposed on Germany.
At a Cabinet meeting on November 21, 1934, it was considered :
...whether we ought to abandon our policy of ignoring Germany’s action in regarding to rearmament. Our information was to the effect that the German authorities were afraid that the Versailles powers would jointly accuse Germany of violating the Treaty. If such action were taken now, Hitler’s prestige might be affected; but with every month that passed, Germany was becoming stronger and therefore better able to disregard such complaints.
It is here on record that it was Britain’s policy to disregard Germany’s actions — infractions — regarding rearmament. It is also on record that the Cabinet knew Germany feared a joint accusation by the allies. The Cabinet also knew that then was the time to affect Hitler’s prestige; later might be too late.
As Correlli Barnett describes it in some detail :
It was agreed to appoint a Cabinet Committee to consider a report on the evidence of German rearmament and recommend appropriate action — should we agree to legalize it, or if not, what?
The lucubrations of this committee turned entirely on the importance of securing agreement with Germany while she was still weak, rather than on taking advantage of this convenient condition by bold and assertive diplomacy.. there was constant anxiety as to what Germany might do or think in response to various courses of action that were mooted. The thought that the French might formally denounce Germany under the Treaty of Versailles filled Simon with horror. He said that they must impress on the French the point that ‘the choice really lay between uncontrolled and controlled re-armament of Germany’, a point which did little credit to his sense of realities. He also said that there could be no question of any concession to Germany over the demilitarized zone of the Rhineland.. ‘If the French Government should raise the point that Germany has, in fact, succeeded by a policy of blackmail, we should not perhaps dissent, but should ask France what are the alternatives..’ (CAB 23/86, CAB 27/52)
One obvious alternative was to join France in formally denouncing the violations to the Treaty of Versailles, threaten Germany with sanctions and, if necessary, force Germany to be more respectful of the treaties. A similar course would be opposed by Baldwin, less than two years later, on account that a weakening of the Nazi regime would result in the victory of communism in Germany. This is the real fearful alternative which is not mentioned by Simon. The only other option is to ‘appease’ Germany, and hope for the best.
On March 16, 1935, Germany re-established compulsory military service and on May 26, Neville Chamberlain wrote :
..you ask what I thought of Hitler’s speech. Well, frankly, I was intensely relieved. It has made my position much easier, for while I recognized, and indeed insisted on the necessity for such a recasting of our air programme as would show its truly formidable character.. I have been greatly alarmed at some of the proposals, which appeared to me panicky and wasteful.. It is clear that Hitler laid himself out to catch British public opinion and, if possible, to drive a wedge between us and France..All the same, the general effect is pacific, and to that extent good.
Chamberlain had already made up his mind not to accept ‘panicky and wasteful’ proposal for rearmament. All speeches Hitler made up to this time contained passionate professions of peace. Chamberlain was not taken in by them. We already saw that he expressed in 1934 his belief that Germany represented the main threat to peace, notwithstanding Hitler’s peace speeches. Now however, Chamberlain speaks differently. He believes that Hitler’s speech, on March 21, 1935, would help him because ‘the general effect is pacific’. There was nothing more pacific in this speech than in previous ones. The speech contained long passages against bolshevism and in defence of private property :
Germany to-day is a National Socialist State. The ideas by which we are governed are diametrically opposed to those of Soviet Russia.. National Socialism is a doctrine which applies exclusively to the German people. Bolshevism lay emphasis on its international mission.
Having clarified the meaning of ‘National’ in ‘National-Socialism’, Hitler, in the same speech, went on to clarify that of ‘Socialism’:
We National Socialists see in private property a higher grade of human economic development which regulates the administration of rewards in proportion to the difference in achievement.. Bolshevism destroys not only private property but also private initiative..
This, and preceding speeches of Hitler, do not indicate antagonism to the West or a will to move West. ‘To this extent’ it confirms the ‘peaceful’ character of Hitler’s Germany. ‘To this extent’ it helps Chamberlain in his endeavour at moderating the British rearmament efforts.
Simon considered it out of the question to make any concession to Germany over the demilitarised zone of the Rhineland. He seemed thus to indicate the limit of what may be acceptable to Britain in her efforts to appease Germany. Legal rearmament.. yes. Remilitarisation of Rhineland.. out of the question.
However when it became known that Germany was about to remilitarise the Rhineland, the British Cabinet faced the question once asked by Sir John Simon: what are the alternatives to accepting Germany’s intended gross violation of the Treaty of Versailles and of the Locarno Pact? Once more no other acceptable alternative was found. And when Germany did remilitarise the Rhineland, Britain had recourse to strong pressure over France to prevent her from taking military measures against it.
The strategic importance of a demilitarised Rhineland was obvious to all European leaders. Simon himself implicitly expressed its importance. By stating that it was out of the question to make concessions to Germany on this matter, he was recognising that the West could not have a proper assertive strategy, once Germany would have reoccupied the Rhineland. Since he was, at the time, urging the legalisation of Germany’s rearmament, it meant that, in his opinion, the reoccupation of the Rhineland was a graver threat to the security of the West than that constituted by Germany’s rearmament.
There is an apparent contradiction in Simon’s stand. If the remilitarisation of the Rhineland would have been for Germany a matter of national honour only, then Simon would have no justification for stating that concessions in that matter were out of the question. The demilitarised status of the Rhineland meant:
w that Germany’s efforts at rearming could be stopped at any time by a French intervention. Germany therefore, before becoming militarily much stronger, could not be secure in her efforts at rearmament. If the German rearmament is of no threat, than the remilitarisation of the Rhineland is of no concern either. On the other hand, if the maintenance of the demilitarised zone is important then it means that it is important to keep a way of preventing Germany from rearming unduly. The usefulness of the demilitarised zone would disappear, once Germany has remilitarised to the point of not having to fear a French intervention. The future of Germany’s rearmament and that of the demilitarised zone are tightly related. Simon seemed to ignore it.
w Obviously, Germany would not dare attack the West unless she felt sufficiently strong. In such a case, the demilitarisation of the Rhineland would be of little help to France. However, since France is no match to a rearmed Germany, France can only hope to prevent a German attack, or to resist it, if she has powerful allies in the East. Alliances, however, are reciprocal in nature. France cannot rely on powerful allies in the East if the countries in the East cannot reciprocally rely on France’s assistance in case of need. In this sense, the demilitarisation of the Rhineland is vital to the French strategy. Once the Rhineland is remilitarised, Germany becomes relatively free to attack the East without fearing an attack from the West.
w Were Germany to abstain from remilitarising the Rhineland, her moves to the East would have had to be negotiated with the West. This is a situation that would suit the views of Simon and would explain his statement that concessions in this respect were out of the question.
A remilitarisation of the Rhineland which would remain unopposed by France, would signal to the countries in Central and Eastern Europe that France had abdicated her role. Protecting those countries was essential for France if she wanted to prevent the eventuality of a Germany, victorious in the East, turning against her. It was essential for France to prevent the remilitarisation of the Rhineland, she knew the consequences of any dereliction in this respect, she had the power to turn this remilitarisation into a humiliating defeat for Hitler, but she lacked the will.. and Britain was there to pressure her into considering the other alternative to bending to Germany: delivering that country to communism. On March 11, 1936, four days after the remilitarisation of the Rhineland:
The Prime Minister thought at some time it would be necessary to point out to the French that the action they propose would not result only in letting loose another great war in Europe. They might succeed in crushing Germany with the aid of Russia, but it would probably result in Germany going Bolshevik. The Lord Privy seal said their reply would be that if they did not take action now there would only be a war under much adverse conditions in three years time. The French and Belgians sincerely believed that the Germans would not fight if they took action.. The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs pointed out that at bottom the French were very pacifist. What they really apprehend is the outbreak of a serious war in three years time when Germany was rearmed. He shared their conviction as to the danger.. The Secretary of State for war pointed out that in three years time though we should have reconditioned at any rate to some extent our small force, yet by that time Germany would have hundred divisions and a powerful fleet. We should not relatively, therefore, be in a better position
Chamberlain notes in his diary on March 12 1936 :
..talked to Flandin, emphasising that public opinion here would not support us in sanctions of any kind. His view is that, if a firm front is maintained by France and England, Germany will yield without war. We cannot accept this as a reliable estimate of a mad dictator’s reactions.
From the two last quotation, it is clear that the British leaders had an accurate understanding of the strategic situation. The estimate of three years time for Hitler to be ready to launch a war turned out to be accurate. The expert advise was that Germany would then be in a much stronger relative position. Here was the time and place to put a stop for good to the military threat from Nazi Germany. It was not taken for fear that Germany would then go communist.
Chamberlain’s argument is particularly weak and is easy to be turned around in favour of an immediate intervention for stopping Hitler. If, as Chamberlain stated, Hitler is indeed a mad dictator, the need is that much greater to stop him when he is still very vulnerable.
French Military Strategy
France was naturally more sensitive to the potential threat constituted by German’s rearmament. The political leaders were more reluctant to reach an ‘understanding’ with Germany which would recognise Germany’s right to rearm. However, as was the case in England, the higher strata of the Establishment ‘trusted’ Hitler in the sense already described.
Genevieve Tabouis reports similar tendencies in the French military circles :
General] Weygand... was not that much unhappy at this event [the Reichstag fire]. His reasoning was as follows: “The Maginot Line.. will be completed at the end of 1934. It raises between us and Germany a barrier which cannot be crossed. Consequently the French position is good, except concerning the internal situation, always threatened by the socialist and communist forces.” He was trusting the Fuhrer to combat communism. It would be an advantage because the threatening communism in Germany would allow the progress of communism in other parts of Europe, France among them.. [our translation]
In Weygand’s opinion, Germany still was the only military threat. France, however was protected from Germany by the Maginot Line. This was a very definite departure from the traditional French strategy. Weygand is no longer interested in securing an Eastern Front in the case of a German aggression against France. In his strategic game, Hitler is an ally, to be kept somewhat at a distance. As to Central and Eastern Europe they are no concern for the French strategic plans.
This departure from traditional strategy is explicitly stated to be due to internal considerations viz, the strengthening of the socialists and the communists. Those considerations, and not the national interest of the country, dictated Weygand’s military thinking. This remained true even in 1940 when, after replacing General Gamelin as the head of the French Army, he urged for an armistice with Germany, to prevent the communists from becoming the masters of Paris. It is also noticeable that, as so many conservatives of his time, he ‘trusted’ Hitler, in the precise meaning of the term we defined earlier.
The Weygand strategy corresponded to a willingness to give Germany a free hand in her dealings with Eastern Europe. Such was not the political stand of many of the French Governments which followed, rather quickly, one after the other. Many political leaders in France, such as Herriot, Barthou, Paul-Boncour, worked for the establishment of a solid political front associating Eastern and Central Europe with France. Many treaties were signed for this purpose. However, the French military cast was not affected by changes in governments and policies. No strategic plans were drawn to permit France to be true to her treaties. Hiding beyond the Maginot Line was no way to forbid Germany a move in the Eastern direction.
France lost her security guarantees, one after the other. She was not allowed to retain the west bank of the Rhine on the basis that a US-British guarantee would suffice. That guarantee did not materialise. Germany started rearming, secretly first and then openly. France could not obtain the enforcing of the Versailles Treaty concerning Germany’s violations. And, finally, when the Locarno Treaty was signed, without any guarantees to the countries along Eastern Germany’s borders, France could console herself that she was given the right to intervene militarily in Germany, were the latter to remilitarise the Rhineland.
France could therefore march into the Rhineland and easily reach the heart of Germany in the case of an attack on her allies in the East, or, more simply, were Germany ‘flagrantly’ starting to remilitarise the Rhineland. There was some ambiguity as to the restraint put on France by the Locarno pact in her dealings with Germany in case of the latter’s expansion to the East. There was, however no ambiguity as to France’s rights of intervention in the second case, that of a flagrant remilitarisation of the Rhineland.
This right to intervene in Germany through the Rhineland, was considered the ‘centrepiece’ of France’s military strategy. However, at no moment, even when the remilitarisation of the Rhineland became known to be imminent, did the French military staff prepare any plans for the implementation of an intervention through the Rhineland. It seems unbelievable that the French military neglected that unique opportunity, that one guarantee, legally given to France at Locarno. On March 1936, the military informed the government of the time that, without a general mobilisation of the army, they could not intervene to prevent the remilitarisation of the Rhineland because no plans had been prepared for such an eventuality. This is unbelievable, unless we recognise that the Weygand mentality was widespread in the military circles and that, independently of the government in power, the military was betting on a free hand to Hitler in the East.