The foreign policy of France between 1919 and 1939: the reasons for a descent into hell.
France, the first military power at the end of the First World War, was the first to be defeated in the Second. In this context, the French foreign policy, from 1919 to 1939, appears as a descent into the abyss. Probably because of its heroic resistance of 1940-1941, which was made possible by the obstacle of the Channel and by the courage of its people, the UK escapes this condemnation. Churchill makes us forget Chamberlain; the ’blood and tears’ announced by the former have taken precedence over the’ ’peace for a generation’ promised by the latter after Munich.
These judgments interpret history in the light of its outcome, the Hitlerian aggression, and consider that the actors had to foresee it and do everything to avoid it. Their failure would be sheer stupidity, cowardice or treason. But the men of 1919, 1933 or 1938 were neither traitors nor cowards nor fools, at least not more than those who preceded and followed them; they were men of their time.
This article will try to examine the foreign policy of France from 1919 to 1939, while forgetting June 1940. It will not dwell on the details of events but will look for the reasons of a tragedy that led on the Champs Elysées, from the Parade of victory, on July 14th 1919, to the arrival of the German troops, on the same avenue, on June 14th, 1940.
A/ A winner in fear of the hegemony of the loser.
As soon as November 1918, appears the contradiction that will dominate the diplomatic history of Europe during the twenty years that follow, a contradiction between, on the one hand, the appearance of a victory, and on the other, the reality of the power. The French armies had borne the brunt of the burden on the Western front where the war was won; a French Field Marshall was commanding in 1918, the Allied forces. Germany had asked for an armistice but what about the reality of power in Europe?
A France of 40 million of inhabitants, with a declining population and an economy already upgraded in 1914, exhausted (1.4 million deaths!) and heavily indebted; 40,000 km2 of its territory devastated; 700,000 veterans permanently crippled; swathes of its industry destroyed by the fighting and by the Germans when retreating.
A Germany of 65 million people, which has not known the invasion, is liberated from the local dynasties that weakened its unity and is strong of an industry whose production is double that of its enemy. At Versailles, Germany has lost some provinces but the French, Polish and Danish minorities were sources of conflict. Its actual loss is in the mineral resources of Lorraine and Silesia and in its overseas investments which were seized. As for its geopolitical environment, it has changed for the better: Poland has replaced the Russian Empire and to the south, Austria-Hungary, less docile than often asserted, has been replaced by fragile states as artificial as the old Empire. Mittel Europa is awaiting its master.
In other words, in 1918, everything figure predicts that the power which can exercise its hegemony in Europe is Germany, the country defeated on the battlefield! The French had understood it but the British and the Americans refused the solution they proposed, i.e the dismantling of Germany. Anyway, it is doubtful that such a goal was achievable.
From there stems the tragedy of the foreign policy of France from 1919 to 1939. Winner of the greatest war of all time, France is paradoxically led by fears because she is aware of her intrinsic weakness. This fear requires the full implementation of the Treaty of Versailles, the occupation of the Ruhr in 1923 and the refusal to disarm as was asked by the Americans and the British.
In this context, from Stresemann to Hitler, the goal of the foreign policy of Germany remains the same: to give to their country a role in Europe commensurate to its power. The means to achieve this goal are different between the two men and it is not a detail as the history will prove but the logic remains the same, to repair a ’injustice’ of history, to erase the defeat and thus the victory of France. Given the horror that will follow, it seems impossible to avoid moral judgment and yet, the logic that led the young democracy of Weimar to condone the violations of the Treaty of Versailles by the Reichswehr has its logic: international relations are based on the competition and the cooperation of states on the basis of their relative power; Germany wanted to occupy its rightful place in the international life.
France, during the negotiation of the peace treaty, attempted to obtain guarantees for her safety. Clemenceau gave up his claim to the annexation of the Rhineland, politically untenable, in exchange for an alliance with the United States and the United Kingdom but the refusal of the US Congress to ratify the treaty left France isolated, which will have no other choice that to cling to the full implementation of the treaty and to build alliances with the new states of Eastern Europe (Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Romania).
B/ The British refusal to see the European reality.
Unlike France, which has carried out the war with the conviction of defending its territory and its existence, the United Kingdom, after 1919, horrified by its human cost, nurtures doubts about its decision in August 1914. Some argue that it has been dragged into a war that was not necessary, as a result of a continental system of alliances in which it should not have been engaged. In this context, the ‘’wilsonism’’ with its good intentions and its Protestant ethic of transparency and sincerity, has a profound echo in the public opinion.
The British and the French are pacifists, after the carnage, but the first ones are so with more conviction because they feel no direct threat to their security and because they do not see what profit they got from the war. It was not before 1938-1939 that the British public will begin to wake up from this stubborn refusal to see the German danger.
Moreover, the British diplomatic tradition reasserts itself in 1919; it dictates that no continental power should exercise hegemony; a risk that only France represents with her victorious army occupying the left bank of the Rhine and her allies-satellites in Eastern and Central Europe, facing an unarmed and prostrate Germany and a Russia sent back to its steppes. For a large part of the British ruling class, France, either, does not deserve any attention since its ostensible power denies her concerns for her safety or even is a source of worries at the time of a revived colonial competition. In the Middle East, come to light the contradictions between the promises made by London during the war, to the Arabs, to the Jews and to the French. Furthermore, Paris does not follow Lloyd George in his crusade against the Kemalist Turkey where he leads Greece for its biggest misfortune. The tone turns sour between the two allies. The Secretary of Foreign Office, Curzon cannot stand Poincarré. In London, the philo-germanism of a part of the ruling class, relayed by the press, is coupled with an equally strong anti-French sentiment which will run until 1936 and beyond.
The fact is that, in 1920, the instinct of British diplomacy leads London to seek to limit the power of France. This reflex, which is the result of two centuries of history, is compounded by the mixed feelings awakened in the United Kingdom by the Treaty of Versailles which would be too tough for Germany and, anyway, doomed to be reviewed.
The success of Keynes’s book, ’The Economic Consequences of the Peace’ which announced the collapse of Germany because of the treaty of Versailles is an illustration of this analysis. No matter that it is easy to show, in retrospect, that it was not only biased and blind to the destruction suffered by France but factually wrong, as was proven by the rapid growth of the German economy after 1924, its influence was huge. From being the aggressor, Germany became a victim; from victim, France the executioner. What is at stake is less the blinding of Keynes but the speed with which the British elite, for regret or even remorse for having been drawn into the war, by fear of the possible victory of Bolshevism in Germany and by prejudice against France, was ready to believe that the Treaty of Versailles was unfair.
No one noticed in London that the UK had just got its bounty before signing the treaty, with the delivery of the German fleet and the takeover of the colonies of the enemy; that generosity was easy while the country remained safe from the immense devastation of the fighting and while the Channel ensured safety. It is therefore Paris which has the bad role, that of the beggar and of the bailiff. London and Washington may stand with the principles and contain the supposed intransigence of their ally.
Hard in the eyes of the British, the treaty is therefore reviewable. This is also a tradition of a country that does not believe in permanent solutions and sustainable architectures to solve the world’s problems. There are partial and temporary responses whose quality lies in their correspondence with the reality of the moment. Foreign policy is conceived as an endless task where pragmatism should dictate flexibility to serve the interests of the UK. In this context, the Foreign Office feels no recoil to the need to revise the Treaty of Versailles if experience teaches that it is unsatisfactory or does not found a stable order in Europe. Therefore, the British policy showed a great consistency from 1923 to the spring of 1939: its aim was to leave Germany peacefully regain its rightful place in the European society. Conversely, it sought to convince France to accept it by persuasion, by addressing her security concerns, by pressure and finally by a de facto trusteeship. In September 1938, after Munich, Britain could argue to have successfully managed the revision of the Treaty of Versailles, without a new war and without compromising the security of the French ally, sheltered behind the Maginot Line, strong of a powerful army and assured of the British guarantee. It is in this context that the ’peace for a generation’ promised by Chamberlain before an ecstatic people had its logic. The German demands were met; nothing precluded a new agreement between London and Berlin. On December 6th, 1938, France and Germany signed a joint statement affirming their intention to develop their relations ’in a peaceful way’, while considering the question of their borders finally settled their borders (that is to say that of Alsace-Lorraine). Germany was not anymore a dissatisfied state and could be integrated in a new European order that would see the Continental divided between the West under the British leadership and the East where sooner or later, Germany and the USSR should fight.
In 1923, during the Rhur crisis, the British foreign policy might have returned to its roots by opposing the supposed French hegemony on the continent. The collision with France would have been unavoidable; the rapprochement with Germany necessary. Disagreements were not wanting, quarrels and disappointments either till 1939 but they never went to a rupture. Indeed, the United Kingdom had noticed the speed of the German offensive of 1914 which reached the North Sea in a few days. It had concluded that its security should be ensured on the eastern border of France and of Belgium. If Clemenceau does not get that the Anglo-Saxon allies fulfill their promise to give their formal guarantee to France, London hiding behind the defection of Washington, the reality is that of a de facto British commitment to the French eastern border that took a multilateral form in 1925, with the agreement of Locarno and was reiterated in Berlin in 1936 and in 1938.
But this guarantee is not an alliance: Britain sees the France as a buffer state but not as an ally whose initiatives it supports. On the contrary, British diplomacy will do anything to avoid unwanted approaches of Paris, particularly in Eastern Europe, which may lead to a conflict in which the UK would itself be dragged. Alliances that France has tied with the eastern new states create in London distrust and concern: that unstable countries, weak and intransigent, benefit from a guarantee of France is not seen as a force of an ally but as a weight that can lead her not only to refuse any review of a bad treaty but to initiate hostilities to defend it. In the eyes of London, the policy of France should renounce any ambition beyond the Rhine; only, western Europe matters for British security; and if Germany moves eastward, it would be reassuring.
Finally, the British have to defend a vast empire whose existence is beginning to be challenged less by the claims of the peoples than by potentially threatening military powers. London knows it is unable to protect its extensive possessions against Japan or even Italy but it cannot abdicate its status as a world power. It must therefore arbitrate permanently between Europe and the overseas, the former being seen as an unpleasant duty and the latter as a vocation to preserve.
The reality was of a fundamental disagreement on the conduct of foreign policy in the post-war between the former allies, more or less acrimonious and more or less hidden. It faded only when France followed, after 1936, its neighbor to become its quasi-satellite after Munich.
C/ The 1919-1936 France leads an independent policy.
From 1919 to 1932, La France successively followed two seemingly antagonistic policies, the first one until 1924 based on the rigorous implementation of the treaties that led to the Franco-Belgian occupation of the Ruhr in January 1923, despite the opposition of London, and the other, illustrated by the face-to-face between Stresemann and Briand based on the reintegration of Germany into the European mainstream after the Locarno Agreement.
The former makes possible the latter: in fact, the crisis of 1923 showed in Berlin, that a frontal resistance to the Treaty of Versailles was costly and, in Paris, that the use of force was equally so. Galloping inflation on one side and the crisis of the franc, on the other, led the two adversaries to compromise in 1924, Britain and the US siding with Germany for settling the issue of the reparations. The economic prosperity between 1925 and 1929 reduced the political and social tensions in both countries.
Stresemann did not give up the goal of the revision of the Treaty of Versailles, but he chose a peaceful and progressive approach; with Briand, France did not disarm but understood that there would be no lasting peace without the return to normal international relations in Europe, that was to say with a German actor in its own right. Britain, for its part, had admitted it has to answer in one way or another to the security concerns of France if it wanted to avoid the recurrence of such a crisis. Finally, Belgium was moving away from France, after following her in the Ruhr and seeing its own currency dragged into the turmoil, and was getting closer to London.
The foundations were thus laid for a modus vivendi symbolized by the Locarno agreement (16 October 1925) in its strength and in its ambiguities. Indeed, if it first, recognizes the western borders of Germany and, secondly, adds a guarantee of them by the United Kingdom and Italy, it leaves aside the eastern borders of the Reich because of the German determination to refuse to give up getting their revision, revision which can only be achieved at the expense of allies of France. No surprise that this text has been considered as a success in London as it marked the renunciation by France to a policy of force and initiated her dissociation from her eastern allies. Then came the Briand/Stresemann years, years of European economic prosperity where the latter wanted to obtain the recognition of equality between European states, which started with the entry of Germany into the League of Nations, but might lead to the end of the limitations of armaments imposed by the Treaty of Versailles or, failing that, by the disarmament of France. The German chancellor knew that he was assured of the American and British support, to the outrage of Paris..
The crisis of 1929, which hit Germany first, was to sweep away this fragile upturn. After the death of Stresemann, the political success of the Nazis but also of the communists who both campaigned on the theme of rejection of the Treaty of Versailles signaled the end of this Franco-German rapprochement.
In France, 1930/31 appears in retrospect as the beautiful twilight of a great power. The gold reserves of the Bank of France had never reached such a high at the moment when the British Pound was devalued. The country could celebrate the greatness of the colonial empire during the triumphant exhibition of 1931. In this year, France was still able to block successfully a project of Austro-German customs union (September 3) supported by The US and the UK. In 1932, the French Prime Minister Tardieu resisted to an US-British pressure to disarm. But, 1932 is also the moment when the crisis starts to hit France.
This pas de deux vis-à-vis Germany where the British recommended conciliation and the French remained more or less suspicious, took a different look with the coming to power of Hitler. We see it today as a turning point but in a Europe where authoritarian regimes were common and seemed to many preferable to Bolshevism, the Austrian corporal, blessed by Hindenburg, could appear as a Germanic incarnation of this model. The conservative elites who govern the United Kingdom were, in this respect, particularly benevolent. In addition, the Führer knew how to accompany its threatening public speeches by reassuring private conversations. At first glance, Nazi Germany is a country which overcomes the chaos, revitalizes its economy and defeats communism. The anti-Semitism of the regime in a period when this prejudice is so widespread in Europe and in the US is hardly shocking, at least until the Kristallnacht (Nov 9th. 1938).
From 1919 to 1932, the Franco-British entente had gone through storms but has survived. Each side was convinced it needed the other to ensure its security and the stability of Europe. Far from changing this unstable state of affairs, the arrival to power of Hitler, at first, accentuated the contradictions between the two allies. Indeed, on the one hand, the British saw in it a new episode of a German revisionism that was not unjustified while on the other hand, the French concluded they were facing the eternal German militarism. The former reserved their judgment; the latter wanted to put together a European coalition able to oppose the resurgence of the danger.
Germany left the League of Nations (October 14th 1933), tried to destabilize Austria and made public its rearmament (March 16th 1935). Facing this challenge, Barthou, the forceful and active French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, not only refused any disarmament of his country but reaffirmed her alliances with the eastern European countries and initiated a rapprochement with Italy and the USSR. When Austrian Nazis murdered Chancellor Dollfuss (July 25th 1934), Mussolini mobilized on the Brenner and obliged Hitler to retreat. On April 14th, 1935, at Stresa, France, Italy and the United Kingdom could reiterate their determination to oppose ’any unilateral repudiation of treaties’ and on May 2nd, 1935, was signed the ‘’Franco-Soviet pact’’ in which each party agreed to assist the other in the event of unprovoked aggression. The USSR and Czechoslovakia did the same on May 16th.
As for the United Kingdom, it signed, on June 18th, 1935, the anniversary of Waterloo ... a bilateral naval agreement with Germany, contrary to the Treaty of Versailles, without consulting or even notifying France.
D/ The political collapse of France.
In the summer of 1935, the France seemed to have responded effectively to the Nazi threat despite the British reservations. In fact, this house of cards was to collapse within months.
Mussolini dreamed of building an ’Italian Empire’ the cornerstone of which being Ethiopia. He believed, or pretended to believe that France had given him carte blanche during the negotiation of the bilateral January 1935 agreement that had settled colonial disputes between the two countries. He noted that the United Kingdom had always remained evasive on this issue. So he attacked Ethiopia on October 2nd 1935. This aggression embarrassed London and Paris which had to face the wrath of their public opinion in front of such a blatant case of a brutal and unjustified assault against a member of the League of Nations. But, neither wanted to alienate a country that, for the British, could threaten their lines of communication with their Empire and, for French was seen as a potential ally against Germany. As it often happens in such situations, by trying to reconcile the irreconcilable, the two countries failed all along the line: they got the indignity of abandoning Ethiopia but still managed to pop the Stresa Front. In any case, this break appears in retrospect inevitable: after Ethiopia, came Spain (July 18th 1936). The two democracies, especially the French Popular front government, could have hardly remained close to a country which supported wholeheartedly Franco, side by side with Germany. In fact, the international relations in Europe, under the dual pressure from Germany and the USSR, with the twin shadows of fascism and communism, were becoming more and more ideological, with, as a consequence, an irresistible movement of Mussolini towards Hitler.
With regard to the relations with the USSR, the responsibility for the deadlock lies in France. The Laval government made the activation of the Franco-Soviet Pact subject to the agreement of the other guarantor powers of Locarno and, in July 1935, refused to respond to the Soviet proposal of conversations between the military Staffs. The pact had lost any political and military significance. Anti-communism had won in Paris. However, here again, the question remains of the potential relevance of this alliance, even in the absence of French obfuscation. Indeed, geography made difficult maybe impossible a military agreement, as was proven in the spring of 1939, when neither Poland nor Romania wanted to open their territory to the Soviet troops, which therefore, could not, in any event, defend Czechoslovakia.
Finally, hit late by the economic crisis, France is sinking, from February 1934, into a lasting political crisis. The Republic seemed unable to respond to the political and economic challenges of the times while Italy, Germany and the USSR seemed to offer new ways to make politics. The country is torn apart; scandals abound; Far Right and Far Left prosper; governments fall one after the other. It is in this context, when the French government has just resigned, that Germany announced the reoccupation of the Rhineland (March 7, 1936).
This event is a turning point. In London, it is seen as the end of the Versailles system, a system in which nobody believed any more. The Germans ’go home’; it is not a big deal. For France, it is a strategic disaster not so much as an advance of the German army towards its borders than because it closes off an advance of the French army towards the east. In other words, the reoccupation of the Rhineland means that the alliances with Poland and Czechoslovakia are now obsolete since France, stopped by the predictable enemy fortifications, cannot come to the aid of its allies. Still worse, Belgium denounces its military convention with France to declare its neutrality (14 October 1936). The French northern border is open.
In March 1936, the masks have fallen. France which, since 1919, had tried to reconcile the reality of a devastated country and her aspirations for security is powerless in front of the ascent of Germany. That day of March 1936, the France gives up her status as a great power. Indeed, distraught by the German rearmament, unable to find in herself the strength to react and weakened by her enduring political crisis, she abandons the responsibility of her foreign policy to the UK.
This is not to displease London. Now, French and British policies have the same goal, the defense of the Rhine. Conservative governments (Baldwin and Chamberlain) consider that their main adversary is the Soviet Union and, as such, are expecting (and hoping) a confrontation between the two totalitarian enemies. To guide the ambitions of Germany eastward could contribute to this outcome.
From 1936 to 1939, the foreign policy of France followed the British one. Whether it is the Spanish Civil War where a Popular Front government refuses to help a leftist government fighting a military insurrection supported by Germany and Italy, the Anschluss or the Sudetenland crisis, it is London which is in charge.
The ‘’appeasement’’ excites today but contempt. Munich has become the symbol of a failed policy. Nevertheless, the uncomfortable fact is that this policy has met the overwhelming support of the public opinion as was reflected, after Munich, in the triumph of Chamberlain, at the balcony of Buckingham Palace and, to a lesser extent, in the return to Paris of Daladier.
Furthermore, ‘’appeasement’’ had its logic. In Britain, apart from the fleet, the military had been neglected since 1919. A rearmament budget was voted only in 1936 and in 1937 and could not give significant results before 1939. In the spring of 1938, the UK warned France it could be able only to deploy two divisions on the continent in case of war. Actually, in May 1940, there were only 11 British divisions in France.
And, the fate of Nazism makes us forget that the notion of the Germans wanting to live in one state had some logic and could even invoke a certain justice. Today it seems incongruous to recognize a moral foundation to the German demands, but in 1936-39, it is a fact that Hitler called for the recognition in favor of the German people, in all its components, of a right to self-determination that many Britons were willing to accept in the name of justice. In this context, for a lot of British people, a war in November 1938 to defend Czechoslovakia, would have been fighting to prevent more than three million Germans to achieve their national aspirations to save a country with an unpronounceable name. No one could hope to mobilize the British people on this basis.
This deep conviction that the German claims were legitimate explains the backlash to the occupation of Bohemia, (March 15th, 1939). Nothing could justify it. It was an outright assault at the expense of a Slavic people. In a sense, the brutality of the British reaction tells the humiliation and the outrage of a people who had believed, in good faith, to have contributed in Munich to repair an injustice suffered by the Germans in 1919. Chamberlain, who had initially reacted weakly, had to take into account this popular indignation by giving the British guarantee unconditionally to Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland (23 March), Poland (31 March), the Greece and Romania (13 April). The country which had always steadfastly refused to engage itself in Eastern Europe when France did it, which has always denounced the unsustainable commitments, which has always stayed out of the quarrels of the continent that did not directly concern itself, gave up, all a sudden, these certainties. The UK did not fight for democracy in Czechoslovakia but was ready to do it for the Polish dictatorship. France followed as usual. How could Hitler believe the seriousness of such a turnabout which was so brutal and so unexpected and was confirmed by no military particular arrangement, a few months after Munich?
Moreover, in late August 1939, the UK will try one last mediation between Germany and Poland in order to satisfy the former. The intransigence of the two protagonists will condemn this last effort. On the September 3rd 1939, it was only after three days of hesitation, that France and the United Kingdom declared war on Germany.
E/ The reasons of the tragedy.
The time has come to gather the elements that a quick description of these momentous 20 years has emphasized:
In a democracy, a government does not wage war against the will of its people. On both sides of the Channel, the public opinion was deeply pacifist; it regarded with horror the prospect of the return of the unbearable sufferings it had experienced in the trenches. Daladier was a veteran of Verdun; he had not forgotten what he saw and experienced. The press was predicting massive aerial bombardment of cities, especially after the tragedy of Guernica. In addition, the public opinions were, especially in France, divided by deep political tensions, which relegated international issues or, worse, incorporated them into the internal debate. Far Right movements admired Mussolini, supported Franco and condoned Hitler; the Communist Party faithfully followed the instructions of Stalin even when they weakened the resistance to Nazism. The III Republic seemed exhausted. The fear of a German invasion was replaced by that of a civil war. The right-wingers formerly nationalists became pacifists by hatred and fear of communism; the left was anti-fascist but remained marked by the horrors of war.
In this context, asserting that it would have been easy militarily in March 1936, when was announced the reoccupation of the Rhineland, to push back the Germans and thus stimulate the fall of Hitler, is ignoring that France was isolated, that her public opinion was passionately anti-war and that her military leaders were alarmist. To expect a bold decision - the General Staff had asked for the general mobilization! - on the campaign trail, in a climate of near civil war, does not make sense.
A country cannot have a foreign policy that is not consistent with its military strategy. The construction of the Maginot Line is always criticized. It is forgetting that it resisted, in May-June, 1940 until the armistice, that it was completed on the north by a Belgian device, built on the same model that the French army was supposed to strengthen at the mobilization. Certainly, the gap remained of the Ardennes, supposedly impassable, but the Franco-Belgian scheme was consistent till it was undermined in 1936 by the unilateral declaration of neutrality in Brussels. The result in May 1940 was that our best forces came come to the aid of Belgium but it was too late since its army had been quickly overwhelmed by the invasion and had not been able to defend its own fortifications.
The War of 1914 to 1918 had taught the premium given to defenders. The Maginot Line responded to a military and political logic especially because that the arrival of the British forces could only be late (in May 1940, there were only eleven British divisions in France!). For a country of 40 million inhabitants, faced with an enemy 70 million, haunted by the memories of the killings of the WWI, a defensive posture made sense. The Belgian betrayal was unpredictable.
However, the alliances with the countries of the Little Entente were inconsistent with that strategy. An army that hides behind a Maginot Line has no intention and no way to rescue Poland, the Rhineland being militarized or not. France had neither the means nor the will to carry out the provisions of its treaty of alliance with the countries of Eastern Europe. Britain’s position in this regard, did not lack logic. Anyway, Poland was conducting its own policy that did not bother the French interests as evidenced by the German-Polish pact in January 1934 or the occupation of Teschen, at the expense of Czechoslovakia in October 1938. .
Eventually, the personality of Adolf Hitler was a decisive factor that no one could predict. At the end of 1938, he had realized the wildest dreams of the German nationalists. Inside he had revived the economy and crushed the democratic parties; outside, he had integrated in the Reich ten million Germans without firing a shot and had made his country the first European power whose hegemony could be exercised from Denmark to Romania. In London, some were thinking to give back the colonies seized in 1919. Hitler had given to his country a power that exceeded that of all his predecessors. He had the means to tame the Mittel Europa and force France to a secondary position of political neutrality and economic subordination. But he was not a proletarian reincarnation of Bismarck, or even of William II with bad manners; he dreamed of a war his people did not want; he occupied Bohemia which was already a de facto protectorate; he attacked Poland. No one could reasonably have foreseen that he would implement Mein Kampf. Chamberlain and Daladier, who had been bred at the end of the previous century in the shadow of Metternich and Bismarck could not imagine Auschwitz. As Napoleon said: ’If you want to predict what will a man do, look at the world as it was when he was twenty years old’’. Basically, the French and British leaders were only guilty of not having thought the unthinkable and their peoples to have shrunk in front of the unbearable. Chamberlain believed to have divided Europe with a disciple of Bismarck and not to face a new Genghis Khan.
Finally, the American isolationism weighed heavily at the expense of democracy. The United States withdrew hastily from the European theater without ratifying the Treaty of Versailles, signing the treaty of alliance with France and joining the League of Nations. The postwar period was punctuated by acrimonious quarrels with their former allies accused of not paying their war debts. American diplomacy was only active in Europe to contribute to the settlement of the issue of the reparations, (the Dawes Plan in 1924 and Young 1932), in a manner generally favorable to Germany. When the danger represented by Hitler became clear, the US Congress voted several neutrality laws to prohibit any direct or indirect aid to a belligerent, in other words to France and the United Kingdom. No surprise that Roosevelt did not respond to the desperate call for help the French Prime Minister Reynaud sent him in June 1940. It was only on December 12, 1941 that the United States entered into war with Germany, at the initiative of the latter...
F/ An inevitable tragedy?
It may seem paradoxical to conclude that the tragedy was probably inevitable. Britain and the US abandoned France to her fate and refused to understand her anxieties. Later on, they did not see the Hitlerian threat. In this context, alone in front of a danger she saw coming, France could not consider renewing the heroic efforts she had assured from 1914 to 1918. It was human that she aspired to peace behind the Maginot Line. We can imagine – and hope - a burst of energy of Prime Minister Sarraut in March 1936, we can protest against the abstention of Blum in the Spanish Civil War or require a stiffening of Daladier in September 1938, but it is more appropriate to say that if all these opportunities were missed by so different men it is because the will to fight did not depend on a man but simply exceeded what the France of the war memorials, of the black veiled war widows and of the disabled war veterans could accept. The French backbone had been broken between Verdun and Le Chemin des Dames.