THE DIPLOMACY OF A FREE HAND. Part 1 (pre-Chamberlain)
Giving a free hand to Germany to expand in the direction of Eastern Europe is a theme that recurs, in many forms, in recorded opinions of British responsible leaders (Prime Ministers and Foreign Affairs Secretaries), British army leaders, eminent members of the British establishment, members of the House of Lords. This free hand would eventually be given to Hitler by Chamberlain. However, the theme was on the agenda well before that. It explains many events which, otherwise, would have been considered unforgivable ‘mistakes’.
For some of the British politicians, this theme seemed to have always been in the back of their mind. Only in the back, because it was often far from realisable, and life must go on even when a dream cannot be pursued.
When the free hand policy seemed impracticable, a multitude of factors competed for the determination of political issues. It is thus that, sometimes, decisions were made that seemed to contradict the free hand policy. Taken in isolation, these decisions could be considered as a proof that the free hand policy was never seriously followed. There is however a thread which associated many of such events with the general free hand policy even when they were compatible with obvious other interpretations.
There is no indication that the matter of a free hand to Germany had been openly discussed in a Cabinet meeting. On a number of occasions note had been taken of the opinions of military leaders that Germany was becoming dangerously strong, that she had set her mind on aggressive expansion and that the probable direction of her expansion would be the East, with a likelihood of war with the Soviet Union. On such occasions it was agreed that Britain should keep out of the way of Germany’s expansion in the East. The recognised danger was that of the French obligations in the East. Efforts were recommended to neutralise these obligations.
Such a policy was that of a free hand by default. No explicit free hand to Germany, no encouragement to Germany in her moves towards the East, just a decision to keep out of it, and to press on France to be reasonable. Such was the smallest common denominator in the Cabinet. Those in the Cabinet who were ready to go further ahead and make a free hand deal with Germany could not discuss the matter in Cabinet meetings.
In the absence of the Cabinet passing an explicit policy in favour of a free hand, measures facilitating the free hand had to be advocated on a different basis. To tolerate German rearmament, for instance, would be in line with a free hand policy; however it would be approved on the basis that the alternative would be to use force against Germany and that such a policy would had catastrophic consequences .
The road leading to the grant of a free hand to Germany was tortuous. It was not followed by all British officials and those who followed it did not do so in the same way. They were following the French saying faire feu de tout bois. This means, in short, to make good usage of every circumstance. Weakening the League is good for a free hand. It will therefore be done whenever the circumstances allow it. Weakening the French ties with the East is good for a free hand. It will therefore be pursued under whatever reasons. Preventing the weakening of Hitler’s position is good for a free hand policy. It will therefore continually be kept in mind. Cabinet members not privy to the free hand policy would contribute to it without being aware that they were doing just that.
And finally, when the stage will be reached for more explicit approaches to Germany, Chamberlain would pursue a personal policy, away from the Cabinet control and in consultation with a restricted number of confidants.
Politicians, often, do leave traces of their inner thoughts and motivations. They write letters and diaries, they confide to friends and, when they are Cabinet ministers, their words are recorded, though very scantily, in Cabinet minutes. Having regard to the general resulting picture, it becomes impossible to deny that the free hand that was given to Hitler at Munich was part of a long standing policy.
When it comes to Germany’s expansion Eastward, many varieties of free hand must be considered. And since a free hand to Germany does not make sense unless Germany is armed and powerful, the relation between permitting Germany to become again a military power and her having a free hand in the East, must also be studied.
We have already seen that the most anticommunist elements in Germany were also the most nationalistic and the most committed to a policy of expansion. Whatever support was given to these elements for their anticommunism was necessarily, even if indirectly, a support for their will to rearm. The West could not have the one without the other.
According to one’s political inclinations, the German rearmament could then be either a necessary evil or a blessing. It was evil for those politicians who suspected that Germany’s aggressive spirit would not spare the West. It was also evil for a minority of politicians who felt strongly for peace and were opposed to a German policy of aggression, even if it were to be restricted to the East. It was a blessing for the politicians who were hoping that Germany’s military power would bring about the destruction of the communist regime in Soviet Union.
What could be done with a Germany which, in order to be anticommunist was allowed to regain her military power? This was the ultimate question for which it was vital to find an adequate answer. It was clear that this kind of a dynamic country, headed by its kind of dynamic leaders, would not accept for long the status quo of the Versailles Peace Treaty. It was obvious to the West that such a Germany would seek some outlets for her energy, her patriotism and her will for expansion.
From time to time the hope was expressed that it would be possible, for some period, to ‘domesticate’ Germany by a ‘general settlement’ whereby she would receive some colonies, some economic help — in the form of economic zones of influence and access to raw material — and some revision of her Eastern frontiers, to be achieved by relatively peaceful ways. The term ‘general settlement’ was vague enough to suit the purposes of those British politicians who were willing to make very limited concessions to Germany, and the purposes of those who were prepared to give a free hand to Germany in Eastern Europe.
Predictably these attempts failed. Even as they were tried, the proponents of these policies knew that something more would have to be done. Now, since it was clear that the German leadership of the time would not accept that Germany be confined within her frontiers, the West had to chose one of the available alternatives.
Britain, in alliance with France, could decide to oppose a German policy of aggression in whatever direction. The disadvantage of such a policy was that, since Germany was allowed to rearm, it would imply a race in armaments. It would also necessitate the organisation of a system of collective security which, to have any chance of success, would have to include the Soviet Union. It would lead to a war which, if won, would do away with a nationalistic German leadership to be replaced by one unable to stem the expected social unrest.
Britain could restrict her commitments in Europe to the low countries and to France. Apparently such a policy would be that followed traditionally by all previous British governments. In fact it would be a totally new political policy under the disguise of a strategical policy belonging to the past.
It is true that Britain, traditionally, kept out of those European quarrels that did not directly affect her economic or strategic interests. However, Germany, as a great military and industrial power, was a relatively new phenomenon. She defeated the French army for the first time in 1870. Her industrial power and naval constructions worried Britain at the end of the century. At the time, it was believed that the aggregate military power of Britain, France and Russia, would be more than adequate to cope with the German military power.
This belief proved to be wrong and, by the end of World War I, the allies were terrified at the prospect of a German military revival. After World War I, the relative newness of the ‘German fact’ — the German potential to be stronger than any combination of continental military powers — did not fit into traditional strategies of relative insulation from European problems, except for the concern over the security of the French northern coasts and that of the low countries.
The traditional British policy remained constant while its strategical expression varied with circumstances. Thus France, a traditional enemy of England, became Britain’s ally in a traditional policy to keep the potentially most powerful European country, which was then Germany, away from the low countries. After World War I, the traditional British policy necessitated a non-traditional strategy consisting in making sure that Germany should remain militarily weak and be prevented from acquiring strength through territorial expansion in whatever direction. In this sense, a British disinterest in the East would constitute a clear departure from tradition .
Baldwin has been described as a man motivated by his horror of war. This was a natural and common feeling after World War I had demonstrated how destructive such a war could be and suggested that next one would be worse. Here was therefore what seemed a plausible explanation for his weak positions, and those of other politicians of his time, relative to the dictators.
There is little doubts that Baldwin was a man of peace and was afraid of war. However, his single instruction to Eden was to avoid embarking Britain in a war ‘on the same side with Russia’. Therefore his weakness for peace was not universal. On another occasion — that of the remilitarisation of the Rhineland — he would worry not so much about peace as about the danger of Communism in Germany if ever Hitler’s Germany was defeated by France.
The pacifist mood of the people has also been cited as the reason for which the British politicians could not follow a firmer policy towards the dictators. However plausible this argument appears to be at a first look, it is not supported by the evidence. At election time, the Conservatives pretended to be staunch supporters of the League, while secretly plotting compromises with Mussolini. They knew that otherwise they would lose the elections. The news of the compromises leaked to the newspapers and forced the resignation of Sir Samuel Hoare, the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Many aspects of British so-called ‘weak’ policies had to be hidden from the British people who would not go along with them. The continuous efforts at eroding the efficacy of the League of Nations were not made in response to the British public opinion. Likewise, a strict British attitude to enforce controls on German rearmament would have met public approval.
Besides, if ever public opinion lagged in the realisation of the Nazi danger and the need to stand firm against it, a leadership willing to stop the dictators would have launched an educational campaign to get the Public’s approval. And finally, too much of the real intentions of the British leaders are apparent from their policies, from the British documents, from German documents, and from diaries to allow any doubt as to the cardinal role played by the hate and fear of the Soviet Union in their policy of weakness with respect to the dictators. The hatred of war and the mood of the British people are nothing more than convenient justifications.
The Locarno Agreements
Germany was rearming secretly. This was well-known to the allies. A spirit of expansion reigned in the German establishment and in the governmental circles. Stressman himself, the German chancellor in the mid-twenties, was not a man who could be trusted to check the expansionist and aggressive tendencies of the German establishment .
Austen Chamberlain had said in 1919 (see chapter VIII) that:
Even the Old Germany would not, I think, rashly challenge a new war in the West, but the chaos on their Eastern Frontiers, and their hatred and contempt of the Poles, must be a dangerous temptation
It is clear that, according to Austen Chamberlain, Eastern Europe was more in need for protection than Western Europe. Nonetheless, Austen Chamberlain adopted the plan presented to him by Stressman and which provided for guarantees of the status quo concerning German’s boundaries in the West. According to this plan Italy, Germany France and Britain would pledge to come to the assistance of any of them against any invader.
Eastern Europe would not enjoy the same security, Germany was stating that she could not recognise the status quo on her Eastern boundaries. She would, nevertheless, pledge not to use force against her Eastern neighbours. No measures were provided to assist the countries of Eastern Europe against Germany, were her present government, or a future one, to break that pledge. Agreements were signed providing for arbitration between Germany and her Eastern Neighbours. But there were no guarantees that the procedure would be followed, or that, if it were to be followed, Germany would respect the arbitration award.
For the West, treaties with precise obligations were provided. For the East, nothing like that. Such were the Agreements of Locarno.
These agreements could prevent France from helping her Eastern allies were they to be attacked by Germany. If, in consequence of her treaties with Poland or Czechoslovakia, she were to enter in the Rhineland or other part of Germany, without being herself attacked by Germany, England and Italy were bound to assist Germany in repelling what would then be a French aggression. Though British politicians would deny that this was the case, Britain refused to give official and treaty-like guarantees in this respect.
British politicians had argued, at the time and later, that Britain did not have the needed power to extend her commitments in all parts of the world. In addition to her imperial responsibilities she could guarantee no more than the Western countries. This was surely not Austen Chamberlain’s way of thinking. At that same period, he said in the House of Commons on March 24, 1925 (the Year of Locarno) :
The British Empire, detached from Europe by its Dominions, linked to Europe by these islands, can do what no other nation on the face of the earth can do, and from east and west alike there comes to me the cry that, after all, it is in the hands of the British Empire and if they will that there shall be no war there will be no war.
Chamberlain’s perception of Britain’s power may have been incorrect, but it is the Chamberlain who believed in it who refused to extend Britain’s guarantee to Eastern Europe. Locarno’s agreements, originally suggested by Germany, were in reality a triumph of British diplomacy. Its accomplishments were many:
w France could no longer intervene in Germany in disregard of Britain’s opinion. The Locarno treaty could rightly be interpreted by Britain as obligating her in such a case to assist Germany against France..
w Without British consent, France could not assist her eastern allies, in case of a German aggression against them. Such an assistance could only be given by invading the demilitarised, and therefore indefensible, Rhineland. However, it was up to London to decide if the German aggression was cause enough to liberate Britain from her Locarno obligations to Germany against France.
w By the same token, Germany could hardly embark on an act of aggression in Eastern Europe while being so vulnerable in the demilitarised zone in the Rhineland, unless she was assured that Britain would neutralise France and threaten her with activating the Locarno agreements against her.
w Finally, the Locarno agreements constituted a wedge between Germany and the Soviet Union .
Chamberlain reported to the House of Common that Germany was reluctant to recognise the status quo in Eastern Europe because she hoped to have the eastern frontiers modified by peaceful agreement with her neighbours. Chamberlain expressed his trust in Germany’s sincerity. In reality he had no such trust. He envisaged the possibility of Germany’s using force for this modification of frontiers and wrote to Crowe on February 16, 1925 that Britain was not to be called upon to defend the Polish Corridor, ‘for which no British Government ever will and ever can risk the bones of a single grenadier’. How little did he know!
The Locarno agreements sealed the fate of Eastern Europe. Britain believed it was not reasonable to close all doors to Germany. If the Western direction was to be forbidden to Germany’s expansion, it would be wise to leave open the possibility of expansion to the East. At a time at which official and non-official politicians were unanimous in predicting a German expansion in the Eastern direction, a guaranty explicitly restricted to the West meant in reality that ‘Britain will not expose the life of a single grenadier’ in defence of the East. It therefore meant, as far as Britain was concerned, that the East was fair game to Germany, unless British public opinion would have a different stand. F.S. Northedge writes :
The Herriot Cabinet.. proceeded to recognize the Soviets on 28 October.. One of Chamberlain’s first foreign journeys on becoming Foreign Secretary in November therefore took him to Paris to see Herriot to try to agree on common Anglo-French policies towards Russia. By consenting not to carry their relations with Russia further for the moment the French Government seemed at these talks to pay the price for a British guarantee of their frontier with Germany at Locarno.
Austen Chamberlain not only refused to extend guarantees to the countries of Eastern Europe but wanted to make sure that France would not get involved in the security of the region (which was an important reason for French relations with the Soviet Union.
But that was not all. Northedege proceeds:
On 10 May 1925 there appeared in the New York World a copy of an alleged British Foreign Office paper purporting to represent official British views on European security. A summary of the document had appeared in the Chicago Tribune four days previously. The sentence in the paper which was singled out as typifying British attitudes towards Locarno stated that it was ‘in spite of Russia, perhaps even because of Russia, that a policy of security must be framed’. Chamberlain was questioned about the document in the House on 11 may and gave an answer which could hardly be interpreted as other than an admission that it was genuine
Let us list the elements of the puzzle revealed by the New York world:
w Germany, according to declarations of so many British leaders, is ‘looking’ to the East.
w A Locarno agreement has been signed with tight provisions for security of Germany’s Western boundaries and no comparable protection for the countries on her Eastern boundaries.
w It is revealed that it was ‘in spite of Russia, perhaps even because of Russia, that a policy of security must be framed’
Security against a Russian aggression is not provided by professing a disinterest towards the East. If Locarno were to provide protection against a Russian aggression, it was precisely the states of Eastern Europe that would have been the object of the tightest guarantees.
The absence of such guarantees, when it is recognised that Locarno was edged against Russia, is a clear indication that no Russian military aggression was expected.
Since Locarno, in as much as it is related with Russia, insisted on the absence of tight security in the East, and since it was recognised that Germany was ‘looking to the East’, we must conclude that this absence of Eastern security was thought to, somehow, work against Russia. It was not yet a free hand to Germany. It nevertheless opened possibilities to Germany which would have to negotiate with the West each case of expansion in the East.
The British leaders believed in the ineluctability of Germany attacking the Soviet Union. They had no doubt that Germany would come out victorious. Not all British leaders relished the prospect of a Germano-Soviet war. Most of them, however, would find it very ‘distasteful’ to risk war for the sake of preventing Germany from attacking the hated Soviet Union. For them a disinterest in the East might keep Britain out of an involvement in defence of the Soviet Union.
Germany had no boundary with the Soviet Union. An attack against the Soviet Union could occur either in alliance with one of the buffer states between the two countries, Poland being the most likely candidate, or after the conquest of one of those states. In this latter respect Britain had to face two problems.
If the conquest of a small state would result from a direct German military intervention, and if that intervention would take weeks of battling, the possibility existed that popular pressure on the British government might force it to assist the victim of aggression. The possibility also existed that the League would discuss the matter, and it could be difficult for Britain to remain among a minority refusing to take action.
Another difficulty would later result from France’s commitments in Central and Eastern Europe. It was one thing to let Germany have her way in Eastern Europe, and a totally different thing to let France, through her commitments, face alone Germany’s military power. Britain would not have liked to see France defeated by Germany.
Therefore, a policy of disinterest from Eastern and Central Europe would only be practical if three conditions were to be fulfilled. The first condition would be a weakening of the League, or still better, the complete discredit of the League. The second condition would be France’s disengagement from her commitments in Eastern and Central Europe. Britain would work continuously to realise both of these conditions. The third condition was that the form of Germany’s aggressive interventions in Europe should be such as not to create too much public pressure to assist the victim.
In as much as British disinterest in Eastern and Central Europe was officially stated in the House of Commons, in as much as it was made the object of public speeches by British Ministers, in as much as it was communicated to Germany on the occasion of visits by British officials — and by eminent members of the British establishment — it can be considered as allowing a free hand to Germany.
However, this free hand was not absolute. It was restricted to the use of methods that would not stir public opinion in Britain too much, or for too long. It left Britain the option of negotiating each case separately.
This, to the Germans was not satisfactory, though it was good news. Germany had little patience for the ‘civilised’ methods of conquest hinted at by Britain. It was good news because it indicated a likelihood that the British Government would not stir the British public opinion to demand assistance to the victims of aggression, and therefore would not be in a position to interfere seriously with Germany’s aggressive plans.
The British leaders could claim that, with respect to a German aggression against the Soviet Union, their role was totally passive. On occasion they would even express the hope that such aggression would not occur. Even when they were caught saying that one should not fear Germany’s military revival because it was directed against the East, and while they could obviously be reproached for having made a wrong forecast, they hoped they could not be accused of favouring a German aggression against Russia.
One could even go one step further. English leaders might have wished, just wished, the unleashing of a war between Germany and the Soviet Union, which would have resulted in the destruction of Communism, without being prepared to be on record as encouraging such a war in any way whatsoever.
But, in all those cases, the British politicians were treading too fine a line, and they crossed it more than once. As to the members of the British establishment, they were less restricted in their statements. Many of them, as we saw previously, crossed that thin line in bright light
The Allies had proven that they hated and feared the Soviet regime to the extent that they tried all that was in their power to destroy it. They ended their military intervention in Russia, only when it proved to be too costly and too dangerous, considering the public opposition. Public pressure, the need to trade, brought about the recognition of the regime and the establishment of diplomatic relations.
This did not mean that the allies came to term with the existence of the Soviet Union. She was being kept, as much as possible, at arms length from European affairs. However, with official recognition and established diplomatic relations, preparing or encouraging others to attack her had become politically ‘indecent’. Any such policy could only be pursued behind thick screens.
After The Advent Of Nazism In Germany
Hitler was a contender for power in Germany well before January 1933, at which time he became Chancellor of the Reich. His policies were well-known. Doubt concerning the harshness of the measures he would take, once in power, disappeared shortly after the start of his reign. By October 1933, no politician could claim ignorance of the savagery of Hitler’s methods, the extent of his ambitions and the propaganda aimed at preparing and exciting the German people for a war of expansion.
His rhetoric was directed mainly against Communism and the Soviet Union. He proved in practice to be a merciless enemy of the communists, socialists, trade-union militants and all labour organisations. No one could deny his anti-Semitism and the barbarity of the measures taken against the Jews.
It was also clear that Hitler’s Germany aimed at becoming the tremendous military power that her industrial and human potential allowed.
It was not necessary to be a prophet to foresee the danger that would face the world if Germany, specially under Hitler, was allowed to realise her dream of rearming. Nonetheless, at this time :
Lord Allen of Hurtwood, a Labour peer, told a group of friends in All Souls’ that he “would let Hitler have whatever he wants in Eastern Europe.” Lothian argued that “we should be under no pledge to go to war with Germany, if Germany attacked Russia or Czechoslovakia.”
William Manchester quotes from an article by Garvin, editor of The observer writing:
before a “constructive peace” could be established, “a large part of Eastern Europe’ proper should be reconstructed under German Leadership.”
Such a “constructive peace” would obviously not bring peace to that large part of Eastern Europe. No one could expect Eastern Europe to peacefully accept a “reconstruction” under German, that is to say Nazi, leadership. And where does exist that large part of Eastern Europe in need of reconstruction? It is difficult not to realise that Garvin meant mainly that vast part of Eastern Europe which belonged to the Soviet Union.
The Fortnightly Review advocated in 1934 to allow Germany to detach Ukraine from the Soviet Union. It assured the readers that Hitler ‘looks’ to the East only .
Such opinions were first expressed at the end of World War I at a time at which the allies were intervening militarily in the Soviet Union and supporting whatever group opposed the Communist regime. It was a time at which the destiny of Europe seemed to be in the hands of the allies. They felt responsible for defining the political future of its constitutive nations.
However, soon enough, recognised boundaries were somehow established. The idea of unleashing Germany on the Soviet Union appeared to be impractical in view of the social trouble Germany itself was going through, and the danger which existed that the country would become communist.
All this changed in 1933. The dreams could gain some substance. The communist danger had definitively disappeared from Germany thanks to the Nazis. The possibilities were now countless. Naturally such opinions could not be expressed publicly by, say, members of the British Cabinet. But what they, as responsible members of the government and subject to the microscope examination by the opposition, could not do, the establishment could, freely. The establishment was accountable to itself only. It was free to say openly what the governing circles could only say sotto voce.
Stressa And The Anglo-German Naval Treaty
France did sign the Locarno Agreements but remained concerned over the security of the eastern countries. This concern increased with the advent of Hitler to power and she suggested to complement these Agreements with an ‘Eastern Locarno’ which would group the interested countries and powers in a pact which would close the gaps left open in the East in the Locarno Agreements.
Publicly, Britain did not oppose the French efforts. She, however, refused to join an Eastern Locarno and did not press on Germany the necessity of joining it, were it ever to come to fruition. France’s efforts at making the East secure resulted in discussions with Russia and, eventually in the signing of a treaty of assistance.
Several members of the British Cabinet were displeased. Eden writes :
Barthou was pursuing the traditional policy of many French statesmen.. calling in the power of Russia to balance the growing threat of Germany. The fact that the Soviet military power was unproved and that he himself was a man of conservative opinions did not deter him. I think that his decision was justified.. but this policy was not popular with some of my colleagues, particularly the older ones.. It had the effect of increasing their reservations about France and deepening their desire to come to terms to Germany
’To come to terms with Germany’ was not a precise expression. It had a meaning only if the German terms were known and were accepted. It was well known that the German terms included a free hand to the East. That much had been explicitly said by Hitler to the British Ambassador Phipps. Eden was most aware of the fact and should have clarified the meaning of ‘coming to terms’.
This was precisely the time at which, as described in Chapter 7, Britain had to face the fact that her policy of ignoring Germany’s rearmament in contravention of treaties could not be maintained. German infractions had become too numerous and too notorious. Public opinion in Britain could not understand the lack of any British statement on this issue. The Government therefore made mild parliamentary statements which were considered by Germany as legalising her rearmament.
The British Cabinet again discussed the situation in the light of the desirability of the return of Germany to the League and the reaching of a disarmament agreement with her. Correlli Barnett writes :
A week later [early December 1934] the Cabinet finally came to their decision as to what course of action to pursue over German rearmament. The opportunity should be seized to promote Germany’s return to Geneva, together with her agreement to some limitation on her rearmament. The ‘strongest possible pressure’ was to be brought to bear on the French not to obstruct these purposes.
Thus it was that the British answer to the most crucial single question of foreign policy to arise since 1918, the British decision at this point of strategic no-return, was weakly to surrender to the insolence of a past and potential enemy, and toughly to bully a past and potential ally.
Correlli Barnett did not give an explanation. He accepted the stated motivations advanced by the British Cabinet. The fact is that the British Cabinet’s choice is incomprehensible to him; it is as if a person, sound of mind, had chosen dirt over gold. And indeed, unless it is known that a free hand to Germany was in the back of the minds of the most important members of the Cabinet, their decision does not make sense and, all that Barnett could say was that it was a perverse policy that went on unfolding.
How far would the British Cabinet go? It was clear that the day would soon come when Germany would try to remilitarise the Rhineland. At Locarno time, in order to satisfy France’s request for security and obtain her agreement at restricting the frontier guaranties to the West, it was agreed that any violation by Germany of the demilitarised status of the Rhineland would be considered an act of aggression as grave as the invasion of French territory.
The remilitarisation by Germany of the Rhineland would necessitate a neutralisation or a rejection of the Locarno Agreements. England chose the first, Germany chose the second. Correlli Barnett writes :
On 14 January 1935 the Cabinet returned to this awkward topic. Simon, the Foreign Secretary, foresaw a time when Germany would no longer be willing to put up with the existence of the demilitarized zone — another example of the inverted way the British looked at such questions. Simon therefore thought that there should be no statement to the French about our attitude to the zone. He pointed out however that the zone was part of the Locarno Treaty and that ‘in certain circumstances we might be compelled to fight for it..’ The view of the Cabinet however was that ‘the demilitarization of the Rhineland was not a vital British interest’. It was a view utterly contrary to the Chief-of-Staff’s opinion at the time when the Locarno Treaty was originally signed, a view reached now without freshly consulting the present Chiefs of Staff. It was also a view in flat contradiction to a speech by Baldwin in the House of Common on 30 July 1934.
A Cabinet view to the effect that ‘the demilitarisation of the Rhineland was not a vital British interest’ should not be mentioned casually. It is not enough to point to the fact that it was contrary to the opinion of the military authorities expressed ten years before, as if there was any need for authorities, military or not, to understand the enormous and fundamental importance of the demilitarised zone.
The demilitarisation of the Rhineland was Germany’s “Achilles’ heel”. It was universally recognised — and it is inconceivable that a single Cabinet minister was ignorant of the fact — that France would no longer be capable of assisting her Eastern allies against Germany, were the Rhineland to be remilitarised by Germany.
With the Rhineland demilitarised, any German expansion towards the East would have had to be negotiated with the West. With the Rhineland remilitarised Germany would become a free agent. She will later, and with impunity, annex Austria, dismember Czechoslovakia, while the West would argue that, with France reduced to a defensive military policy, there was no way to prevent Germany from imposing her will concerning Czechoslovakia. The arguments concerning French military impotency will be advanced by the very people who in January 1935 expressed the view that the state of demilitarisation of the Rhineland was of no vital interest to Britain.
From the military point of view, this evaluation was obviously wrong. However, to state that it was wrong misses the point. If it were a mistake, we should have to determine its cause. Was it due to ignorance? Of course not. The matter had been studied, discussed, exposed, argued countless times since the armistice in 1918. Was the remilitarisation unavoidable? This was not the point of contention. ‘Unavoidable’ and ‘not of vital interest to the British Empire’ are two different things.
There is no way to avoid the conclusion that the British Cabinet was aware of the full implications of the situation. Nevertheless, it expressed the view that the demilitarisation of the Rhinelland was not a British vital interest because it considered that, keeping Germany vulnerable to a France intervention, and thus preventing Germany from expanding to the East, was not a British vital interest.
’Britain may be compelled’ was a reminder of the fact that a remilitarisation of the Rhineland was considered by the Treaty of Locarno as being an act of aggression. Britain could then be asked by France to assist her in her self-defence by re-establishing by force the demilitarised status of the zone.
Were Germany to expand to the East without remilitarising the Rhineland, France could intervene at the theoretical risk of finding Britain, in accordance with the Locarno Agreement, siding with Germany in fighting France. Britain would have preferred that the German expansion proceeds without Rhineland’s remilitarisation. A German attack on an Eastern country would then leave Britain the sole arbitrator of the situation. In all likelihood Germany would have had to clear with England the implementation of an expansionist policy.
By starting with remilitarisiation of the Rhineland, Germany would get more freedom in her policy of expansion to the East. To accept that there was no vital interest for Britain in restricting that freedom was practically removing any obstacle to Germany’s expansion to the East.
There was another aspect of the question that was of vital importance. If Germany, instead of directing her ‘look’ to Eastern Europe, were to attack the West, would the demilitarisation of the Rhineland still be of no British vital interest? The answer is almost trivial. With a remilitarised Rhineland, fortifications would allow Germany to concentrate her efforts against France and England without having to secure the Rhineland with large troops. Germany would have much greater flexibility in her military plans.
A belief in the lack of vital interests in the demilitarised status of the Rhineland represented a large measure of trust by Britain that Hitler’s aggression plans were directed and restricted to the East.
We saw that the Cabinet decided they could no longer abstain from taking a public stand on the German rearmament. On March 4, 1935 a British white paper was issued on this matter. It drew attention to the fact that, if continued at the present rate, this rearmament would harm the sense of security of Germany’s neighbours and ‘may consequently produce a situation where peace will be in peril’. The paper also mentioned the spirit in which the youth and the population were being indoctrinated, adding to the feelings of insecurity generated by the rearmament.
In a letter to The Times, Lord Lothian criticised the White Paper for reflecting a view that Germany was the sole cause of European unrest. Eden commented that ‘His was unfortunately by no means an isolated opinion’. Lothian had never been an ‘isolated opinion’; he was a member of the establishment and one of its best representatives.
On March 9, 1935, Germany announced the existence of a military air force (prohibited by the Versailles Treaty). On March 16, it announced the introduction of conscription and the formation of an army of thirty-six divisions, measures violating the Peace Treaty of Versailles.
Britain lodged ‘a formal protest in stiff terms’ against these measures ‘but destroyed the effect of this by inquiring in its final paragraph whether the German Government still wished our visit to take place with the scope and purpose previously agreed ’
This visit had been decided upon before Germany took the blatant measures of rearmament. It had been decided in spite of France’s opposition and without prior consultation with France or Italy. During this visit which occurred on March 25 and 26 1935 Hitler revealed that the German Air force had already reached parity with Britain. He also announced that he would be prepared to sign a Naval treaty with England which would allow him to build a Navy up to 35% of the strength of the British Navy
Writing about the visit to Berlin, Eden wrote, casually :
That evening I summed up in my diary that the total results of the visit were very disappointing. In a comment on Hitler’s obsession with Russia, I wrote that I was strongly against letting Germany expand Eastward: ‘Apart from its dishonesty, it would be our turn next.’
This quote deserves some attention. Eden previously reported that Hitler stated he would never attack Russia. However, Hitler stressed the Russian military danger. There is no indication that, on the occasion of Simon’s and Eden’s visit, he asked for a free hand in Russia.
Eden wrote the above quotation in his diary on the very last night of his visit to Berlin. The events and discussions were then as fresh in his mind as they ever could be. He put himself on record as being against the dishonesty of ‘letting Germany expand Eastward’. In that quote he also made it clear that ‘to expand Eastward’ was related to an attack against Russia.
That ‘profession of faith’ concerning the dishonesty of allowing Germany to expand Eastward against Russia comes here out of the blue. Eden was no Don Quixote combating imaginary enemies. It is hard to believe he would have committed such an opinion to his dairy that very day, unless he felt that, to give a free hand to Germany in the East, was a policy considered by a number of Cabinet members and, in particular, was on Simon’s mind.
In April 11 to 14, 1935, a conference was held between Britain France and Italy to deal with Germany’s infringements of the Versailles Treaty concerning rearmament. Ramsay MacDonald, Flandin and Mussolini :
reaffirmed their support of Austria’s independence and agreed that they would “oppose by all appropriate means any unilateral repudiation of treaties which may endanger the peace of Europe.” A few days later, at Geneva, the Council of the League of Nations likewise condemned Germany’s violation of the Versailles arms limitations.
Two months later, on June 18, 1935, Britain concluded a naval accord with Germany. This was in flagrant violation of the Versailles arms limitations. Britain had pledged at Stressa to “oppose by all appropriate means” such unilateral repudiation. This accord allowed Germany to build her navy up to 35% of that of Britain. The accord was still more generous in terms of submarines (45% of British submarine force and, if needed, 100%).
It had been suggested, as a justification for the accord, that the British admiralty was much in favour of the accord . However, its signing was a political act and it is the British Government and not the admiralty which bears the responsibility for its conclusion. The significance of the pact does not need particular retrospective knowledge. It was grasped well by contemporary politicians. In a report which was transmitted by the British Ambassador in Berlin, Sir E. Phipps, Captain Muirhead-Gould wrote down his impressions from a visit to Latvia and Lithuania. He noted a feeling of uneasiness in Latvia concerning the Anglo-German naval accord. He then wrote
3. In Lithuania, however, the opposition to the agreement was uncompromising and universal. I was told ‘that England had broken the Treaty of Versailles every bit as much as Germany, and in thus permitting Germany (and even encouraging her) to become Mistress of the Baltic England had delivered the unfortunate Baltic States to the mercy of an implacable foe...
(d) It seemed to be the general opinion in the Baltic States that England had lost her Naval Superiority in the North Sea, and that a German fleet of 35% of the strength of the British fleet, would, in fact, be considerably superior to the British Fleet in home waters.
In a report dated June 28, 1935, William Bullitt, the U.S. Ambassador in Moscow, writes :
..Mr. Wheeler-Bennett, who for many years has been connected with the British Secret Service and has just visited several European capitals, said to me recently that he and all the British diplomats he has seen since the conclusion of the Anglo-German agreement, believe that henceforth Singapore will be totally useless.
In the same report Bullitt mentions Litvinov’s opinion:
The most serious concern of the Soviet Government, however, is with regard to the effect on Japan of the Anglo-German naval agreement. The Russians point out that the construction of the new German fleet will make it necessary for England to retain the greater part of her naval forces in the North Sea, that she will have to diminish her forces in the Mediterranean, and that it will be absolutely impossible for her to send a fleet to Singapore.
France and Italy were angry. The naval accord negotiated behind their back so soon after Stressa appeared to be an act of treachery. In two telegrams both dated June 19, 1935, Sir G. Clerk, British Ambassador in Paris, reports the following :
In their [French] eyes the situation is that one of parties to the Treaty of Versailles, by concluding a separate agreement with Germany on naval clauses, has placed the other parties in a position of having to adapt their building programme to an arrangement in the negotiations of which they had no voice.. M. Laval.. having only been brought round with some difficulty to collective policy of the Quai d’Orsay, is naturally prone to take exaggeratedly tragic view and he plainly feels he had been let down..
..[Press] Comment, whether from the Right or from the Left, is almost without exception hostile both to the principle and to the matter of the agreement..
..its conclusion.. amounts to an abrogation of the naval clauses of the Treaty of Versailles, has dealt a serious blow to the common front of Stressa, and is directly contrary to the undertakings entered into by the Franco-British declaration of February 3rd.
Considered as a limitation on naval armaments, the Accord had a doubtful value. Germany could now go ahead in a vast program of naval construction without being subject to any reproach. Many years would have to pass before she would reach the 35% limitation. There was no guarantee that she would then, in respect of the accord, stop her naval build-up.
However, even if the accord had advantages for the British Admiralty, there was no doubt that it affected two friendly countries, France and Italy, on two counts. It affected their naval strategies and their naval construction plans, and they were not consulted with regards to the political advisability of approving a blatant violation of the Versailles Treaty, still recognised as valid by Britain, France and Italy. That the accord was in direct contradiction with the results of the Stressa conference of April could only make the British conduct appear hypocritical.
For two reasons Britain did not consult France and Italy before the conclusion of the accord. The first, an obvious one, was that Britain knew that France or Italy would oppose the conclusion of such an accord. It was safer to present them with a ‘fait accompli’.
There was a second reason on which a report by O. Sargent throws some light.
A Minute By O. Sargent
We quoted in the first chapter a memo by O. Sargent dated February 7, 1935, arguing in thirteen points the necessity to give security to France, through a general settlement with Germany, to prevent her from concluding a treaty of mutual assistance with the Soviet Union. The crux of the argument was that the Soviet Union was likely to be attacked by Germany, Poland and Japan and that France may be involved in the defence of Russia through her projected treaty of mutual assistance. Sargent stated that France was the victim of a Russian bluff. Russia threatened to make an agreement with Germany if France would not make an agreement with Russia. Sargent argued that an agreement between Germany and Russia was an absolute impossibility as long as Hitler was alive. He advocated letting Russia become the prey of the three aforementioned countries and to avoid involvement through arrangements with Germany.
At the time Sargent’s minute was discussed, some differences of opinion appeared as to the possibility of a Russian-German agreement and whether a pact between Russia and France would constitute a danger for Britain. As a result, on February 21, Vansittart wrote a memo which was in line with Sargent’s, except that it stressed the need for Russia also to feel secure. A secure Russia would be less troublesome. He therefore advocated some kind of Eastern Locarno as a substitute to a Franco-Russian agreement. He nevertheless concluded that if the Eastern Locarno would prove to be unrealizable, then Britain must accept the prospect of a Franco-Russian mutual assistance treaty.
On April 1, 1935, Sargent wrote a minute developing ideas similar to those which appeared in his memo of February 7. This time his conclusions were supported by Vansittart and by Simon, then member of Cabinet as Secretary for Foreign Affairs. Here are some quotes from this document :
Events are shaping in such a way that it may well be that a Franco-Russian alliance directed against Germany may be inevitable. But there still are fortunately elements in France who are alive to its ulterior dangers and are therefore still opposed to it.
.. Even though legally it would be possible so to arrange matters that France’s commitments under a Franco-Russian alliance would not bring into operation our commitments under Locarno, nevertheless .. I venture to think that the existence of a Franco-Russian alliance will make the British public and British Parliament far more chary of implementing our Locarno obligations than they are at present..
.. Since it is generally recognised that Germany in present circumstances at any rate does not intend to expand in the west but does intend to expand in the east, it follows that it is France who undertakes the real risk of having to intervene to prevent this expansion in the east, whereas Russia undertakes in reality no risk at all of having to intervene to prevent Germany’s expansion in the west.
Up to that point there is nothing much new in this minute with respect to the February memo. In Sargent’s opinion Germany is bent on expanding in the East and, since Britain would not need Russia’s help to protect the unthreatened west, she should not involve herself in Russia’s defence.
Of course, hatred of the Soviet Union played a dominant role. If it was not for that, Sargent would be open to the possibility, however small, that Germany either would start with the West or would turn to the West after having finished with the East. It made sense to impose on Germany a struggle on two fronts instead of letting her attack each victim separately, one after the other.
There is more to it. Sargent goes on writing:
If by means of a Franco-Russian alliance we closed to Germany all means of expansion into the East, where she is less likely to come into conflict with British, or indeed any other, interests than elsewhere, we must be prepared for German pressure down the Danube to be increased proportionately.. Again, a German penetration down the Danube would be much more likely to be successful than a penetration into Russia and far more likely, if successful, to be damaging to vital British interests.
For the above reasons I hope that, for France’s sake as well as our own, we will at Stressa do all we can to prevent the conclusion of a direct Franco-Russian military alliance directed against Germany
These conclusions won universal support in the Foreign Office. They throw a light on the British role at Stressa. That conference was supposed to face the threat of German rearmament resulting from her official repudiation of the relevant clauses of the Treaty of Versailles. Britain’s worry seemed not so much to restrain Germany, to build a front that would force Germany to think twice before committing an act of aggression; Britain’s worry was more concentrated on preventing a Russo-French alliance. Gernmany’s expansion should be channelled to the East instead of being directed to the Danube basin.
With this avowed resentment against France’s policy towards the Soviet Union, Britain could not but be sensitive to hints repeatedly given by the Germans as to the advantages of negotiations restricted to their two countries. In a telegram to Simon dated February 25, 1935 Phipps reports
In private conversation with me last night the Chancellor’s private secretary remarked how easy it would be for Great Britain and Germany to come to an agreement on all subjects. He added regretfully, however, that it seemed to be the policy of his Majesty’s Government not to contemplate any separate arrangement. I replied that this was so for they felt peace and ‘apaisesement’ must be general.
It is quite possible that Chancellor, in the course of Berlin conversations, may approach you on these lines. There are of course many high placed persons in Nazi party, in the army and in official circles who strongly support the idea of an Anglo-German understanding.
On March 25, 1935 Simon and Eden visited Hitler. After the unilateral repudiation of the military clauses of the Versailles Treaty by Germany and after Britain’s stiff protest on that account, it would have been expected that, in private with Hitler, the British visitors would do their best to impress on him the seriousness of the protest and the dangerous consequences of Germany’s behaviour.
Moreover, it was publicly known that Britain, France and Italy would meet at Stressa to decide the measures they would take to face the new situation. This meeting could have had a restraining effect on Germany. Hitler did not yet know how strong the reaction would be at Stressa.
The least Simon could have done, would have been to leave Hitler in doubt. However, Simon did his best to leave Hitler in no doubt that Stressa would be a harmless conference. He told Hitler :
People in England had been very greatly disturbed by a series of acts on the part of Germany — he did not wish to discuss the question whether these acts were justified or not, but merely to report the fact
Simon added later:
There was only one point on which the Chancellor appeared to be under some misapprehension. He had spoken more than once as if the British people were unable to understand the motives which had led to the determined efforts on the part of Germany to rehabilitate herself in the moral spheres and in other spheres. He would say most definitely that if the Chancellor thought this, he was quite wrong. The British people understood quite well, and it was because they did understand, that they were anxious to see whether they could find some basis of co-operation with Germany on a footing of real equality.
The full meaning of this quotation can be realised when it is noted that Hitler, a few moments earlier had explained that Germany’s violations of the Versailles military clauses were the result of the need for moral rehabilitation. Simon’s statement constituted an approval of Germany’s violations, which he calls ‘determined efforts on the part of Germany to rehabilitate herself in the moral sphere..’. After that, Hitler knew that Stressa would be of no consequence.
Simon was very accommodating on other topics. About a French note to Germany advocating an Eastern Locarno, ‘Simon made it clear that he was not recommending any course of action about the French note, but merely asking for information’.
Simon did not challenge Hitler’s claim that Germany did not commit any offence against Austria. All he had to say of importance was that:
His Majesty’s Government would like to see such a policy pursued as would ensure the integrity and independence of Austria
His Majesty’s Government does not think it essential, absolutely necessary for peace etc... A pious wish ‘would like to see’, is all that came out. What reinforce the feeling of Britain’s weakness is that Simon, after this mild statement adds:
But his Majesty’s Government could not treat Austria in the same way as a country like Belgium which lay at their doors. His Majesty’s Government’s only desire was to see that part of Europe settle down
There is no clearer diplomatic way to inform Hitler that Britain would not make a hullabaloo if Germany were to annex Austria. Hitler will remember that at the proper time.
A naval accord was discussed at the Berlin meeting. Simon underlined three times the fact that ‘it would be understood, of course, that this proposal was made without prejudice to the validity of existing treaty provisions.’ And Simon was a lawyer!
On May 2, 1935, the pact of mutual assistance between France and the Soviet Union was signed. On May 16, 1935, a similar pact was signed between Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. England had failed in her efforts to keep the Soviet Union out of the European affairs. The British establishment was very angry.
Hitler made it still easier for Britain to sign the Naval accord. He made an important speech in May in which, while manifesting ardent desires for peace and friendly relations with the west, he violently attacked communism and the Soviet Union. For good measure he even delivered a passionate defence of private property. One cannot but agree with such a man, and the agreement was signed.
We saw that the agreement was the subject of a long discussion between Chamberlain and Hitler at the Berchtesgaden meeting. Both agreed that it implied a belief that war would never occur between the two countries. Hitler made a statement to Simon that had a similar implication:
Herr Hitler said that his claim to 35 per cent. of the British fleet implied unequivocal recognition of British naval superiority. He emphasized the fact that he did not make this claim for a limited period of 2, 5 or 6 years. Any assurance which he gave with regard to it would be for ever.
It was universally understood that by the Anglo-German Naval Accord, Germany would become the dominating naval power in the Baltic. Britain was quite aware of the fact, but did not mind. A week before the signing of the accord, the Foreign Office asked the Admiralty questions related to the matter. The accord was signed before the Foreign Office had received an answer. That answer was send to them July 12, 1935, it said
I have laid before my Lord Commissioners of the Admiralty your letter of the 11th June, asking for the views of the Admiralty on the question whether vital British interests would be affected by a disregard by Germany -
(1) Of Articles 195 and 196 of the Treaty of Versailles, forbidding the existence of fortifications on the Baltic coast and the refortification of the North Sea coasts and of East Prussia.. and
(2) Of Article 115 forbidding the re-establishment of fortifications.. on the Islands of Heligoland and Dune.
My Lords assume that the circumstances in which we might become involved in war with Germany are most probably those arising out of our commitments under the Locarno Treaty, and the Air Pact, if the latter is concluded. It is, and presumably will continue to be, no part of our policy to enter into commitments in respect of Eastern European affairs.
At Locarno time, Austen declared that though Britain is not prepared to make commitments with respect to Eastern Europe, this should not be taken as meaning that Britain would not be prepared to intervene in the case of an aggression affecting that region. The Admiralty, however, understood what the words meant and was making the non-involvement of Britain in Eastern Europe part of British Strategy. It is also clear that Britain, while preparing to violate, with Germany, the Versailles military clauses, had some second thoughts about the consequences of other violations. She is in a difficult position. Having become an accomplice of Germany’s treaty violations, Britain can hardly argue the sanctity of treaties to prevent other violations.
The Admiralty went on:
On this assumption, My Lords consider that the only British interest which will be directly affected in the event of war by the situation in the Baltic will be the security of our trade in that area. This trade is not vital.. In general, the additional security which would be afforded to German Naval Bases by the removal of the restrictions in Article 195 would increase the effectiveness of the German Naval forces and tend to limit our operations. Much the same considerations apply to Article 196, which forbids the increase of existing fortifications or the construction of new fortifications within 50 kilometres of the German coast or on German islands off the coast.
The increase in the effectiveness of the German Naval forces and the limitations on British operations did not prevent the Admiralty to reach the following conclusions:
a) The possibility of protecting our trade in the Baltic will not be determined by the existence or otherwise of gun defences in the area covered by the articles.
b) The possibility of our undertaking offensive operations in the Baltic would be circumscribed, since such operations could only be undertaken with an increased risk of loss that we might be unable to accept, or these operations would have to be limited in their scope.
c) The strategical situation would be altered to our disadvantage, but it cannot be said that any vital interest would be directly affected.
Indirectly, the Admiralty recognised that the refortifications discussed would be threatening to Eastern Europe. It went on saying:
If Germany were to take action in the direction of re-establishing or strengthening her fortifications, it could only be with the intention of closing the entrance to the Baltic or, at any rate, of controlling it.
The control of the entrance to the Baltic and its possible closure would be of importance to the riparian states Sweden, Poland, Lithuania, Esthonia Latvia, Finland and the Soviet Union. Apparently, the vital interests of these countries were no vital interest of Britain.
Lord Gladwyn (Jebb) of the Foreign Office, wrote in his memoirs :
..the sensible thing would be for the four great European Powers to get together and try to agree on a common world policy. However, if the Germans were impossible.. then the next best thing would be to split Italy off from Germany by offering her certain concessions that might be negotiable; recognizing.. that, short of war, or the threat of war, Germany was not going to be deterred from re-occupying the Rhineland, absorbing Austria, and establishing some economic superiority over Czechoslovakia and South-East Europe generally; but recognizing also that, if she really went about establishing her ‘Mitteleuropa outlet’ by force of arms she would be bound one day to seek further ‘outlets’ in the Ukraine, in other words that she would eventually come up against the Soviet Union, in which case the West would do what it seemed in its best interests to do, having by that time accumulated heavy armaments, more especially in the air. The short-hand for this policy was ‘the Stressa Front’. The policy may appear to be immoral to some.
I had more or less arrived at these conclusions before the re-occupation of the Rhineland in March 1936..
Lord Galdwyn was in tune with the thoughts prevailing in the Government circles. ‘The West would do what it seemed in its best interests to do’, wrote Galdwin without being more specific. He did not need to be. Britain was to keep quiet while Germany would absorb small nations and then attack the Soviet Union. In the meanwhile Britain would pursue a mainly defensive rearmament program (air force) to face the case of Germany, were she to ‘look’ Westward.
Galdwyn, well informed, and describing a policy he supported, summarised it by the designation ‘Stressa Front’. While countries were advertising this conference as designed to oppose Germany’s unrestricted rearmament, the British government were devising a totally different policy which was never avowed publicly.
The Remilitarisation Of The Rhineland
The Versailles Peace Treaty had imposed on Germany the demilitarisation of the Rhineland. Germany was forbidden to have military troops and to erect fortifications in that region. The Locarno Treaty freely negotiated with Germany, maintained the demilitarisation status of the Rhineland and stipulated that minor violations to that status should be reported to the League of Nations for appropriate action. However, a flagrant violation would be considered an act of aggression against which France would be entitled to take appropriate military measures without waiting for the case to be brought up to the League. Britain would then be obligated to assist France.
While criticising the Versailles Treaty imposed on a defeated Germany, Hitler publicly recognised that such was not the case with the Locarno accords. According to him, they had been freely negotiated with Germany. Hitler specifically pledged to respect the demilitarised status of the Rhineland.
The remilitarisation of the Rhineland, in March 1936, was a far-reaching event. The absence of a military response to force Germany to evacuate her troops from the Rhineland was an even greater event. The maintenance of the demilitarised Zone was for France a matter of life and death. The overpowering potential of the German military was not in question. Equally not in question was the fact that the demilitarised status of the Rhineland WAS THE ONLY REMAINING GUARANTEE TO FRANCE. It made it possible for her to intervene before Germany could rearm at will.
Not opposing the remilitarisation by force had an ominous meaning. If France did not intervene when the way to the heart of Germany was open, and she could do it with relative impunity, and when it was so vitally important to do it, then it was unlikely that she would intervene when the circumstances would be so much less favourable and when the independence of a small nation would be at stake.
Similarly, when Britain not only advertised her disinterest in Eastern Europe but exercised the utmost pressure to prevent a French military reaction to the remilitarisation of the Rhineland, then the small nations in Eastern Europe took notice that Britain had decided that Germany, and Germany alone, should be the power that counts in that region.
The remilitarisation of the Rhineland did not take France and Britain by surprise. They predicted that occurrence and discussed the measures to be taken to prevent it or to face it. There are too many relevant quotations demonstrating that, whether in the name of peace or in that of impotence, Britain pressed France into accepting the inevitable. Britain even suggested that the remilitarisation of the Rhineland be offered to Germany in return for a price. The price could be Germany’s return to the League and her acceptance to given limits on her rearmament.
The real worries of the British Cabinet were expressed by Baldwin in a Cabinet meeting. As quoted in chapter 5, it was to the effect that, while it was quite possible for France, with Russian help , to put an end to Germany’s remilitarisation of the Rhineland, there was the risk that such an action would result in the Bolshevisation of Germany.
The most telling fact is that, had the resolve of France and Britain to stop Germany from remilitarisation of the Rhineland been made absolutely clear, there can be no shadow of a doubt that Hitler would not have considered the operation at that time. Of course, had Britain and France taken earlier the appropriate measures to denounce Germany’s illegal rearmament as soon as it became evident, Germany would not have become such a military power.
What makes such remark relevant is the fact that the steps that allowed German to become a superior power, were predictable and were predicted by the British Cabinet. It stood aloof under the belief that the German military would be directed to the East. Larry Pratt quoting from Simon’s diary and from his notes from the 11th to the 17th of April 1935 writes: “Hitler would go on rearming but he had no designs in the West; ..no front could or should try to restrain him. If Germany had to act, ‘it is surely better that she act in the East. That will at worst occupy her energies for a long time’ ...”. Pratt goes on quoting Simon :
I greatly doubt whether the efficiency of the ‘united front’ is as great a controlling force on German policy as it might appear to be. Its value is not so much that it diverts and restricts Germany’s present action as that it is our only security if Germany turns nasty. But to use it in empty and futile protests (Geneva, Stressa) seems to me to weaken its utility.
These two quotes from the British Secretary of Foreign Affairs summarise the attitude and the motivations of the British Government. They deserve a close study. One striking feature is the incoherence: of the second quote:
w Nine months earlier, when the assassination of Dolfuss signalled that Germany was preparing a coup against Austria, Italy sent army divisions to the Brenner pass. She made it clear that she would intervene militarily in Austria against such an eventuality. Germany was impressed, and so was Neville Chamberlain who noted that such was the way to speak to Hitler.
w What Italy, alone, could do in July 1934, Simon implies that, nine months later, it cannot be done by Italy, France and Britain. He doubts the “efficiency of the ‘united front’ is as great a controlling force on Germany’s policy”.
w He admits that ‘the united front’ is ‘our only security if Germany turns out nasty’ sometimes in the future, that is to say when she will be much stronger then at the time.
Though the second quote from John [Simon?] seems incoherent, his policies make some sense in the light of the first quote. It is clear that Simon, while recognising the relative overwhelming military strength of ‘the united front’, had no interest ‘controlling’ Germany. He thought that if Germany ‘acted’ in the East it will ‘at worst’ occupy her for a long time. This means that Germany was expected to confront the Soviet Union; nothing else in the East could occupy Germany’s energies for a long time.
Simon kept in mind that Germany could turn out ‘nasty’. There was no nastiness in acting in the East and, in this case, no front should restrain Germany. However, half-heartedly, Simon was recording the possibility of Germany’s turning nasty. The front that would be useful in such a case was about to be destroyed two months later by Britain’s Naval Accord with Germany. The option for restraining Germany ‘if she turns out nasty’ was about to be turned into dust by the predicted and unopposed remilitarisation of the Rhineland .