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Europe In Retrospect

by Raymond F. Betts

The Precarious Peace

It must be a peace without victory.
Only a peace between equals can last.


The domestic situation of confusion and despair that characterized the two generations after the First World War had international parallels. Even as the war ended, there were many observers-including the French commander Marshall Foch-who looked ahead with a sense of foreboding. They already feared a future war, generated by a newly risen Germany. And, indeed, it could be and was argued that even in defeat Germany was potentially stronger than France in victory. The continuing peace of Europe therefore depended essentially on the reconciliation of differences between these two major military powers and, moreover, on the establishment of a spirit of cordiality and respect among their leaders and populations. Viewed from the Western continental perspective, therefore, the inter- war period was one in which a war-wearied France confronted a defeated and chagrined Germany. The diplomatic problems that had plagued European statesmen from the middle of the nineteenth century on were still present. And, in truth, many statesmen well knew that the "German problem," like the "French problem" of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Eras, was one that only concerted effort could solve. The condition was that no single nation bordering Germany was strong enough to keep it contained.

The starkness of this political reality was all the more evident with the withdrawal of the two powers whose geographical situation in Western Europe was, at best, peripheral. Neither the United States nor Russia continued the "balancing" role each had performed in the world war.

After the peace negotiations, largely directed by the United States delegation, the United States failed to ratify the treaty because of strong senatorial opposition to the League of Nations. The interwar period was to be characterized as the era of American isolation from European affairs. "Isolationism" as a concept applied only to diplomatic activities, and not always there. The United States increased its economic activity in Europe, participated in a number of international organizations, and even co- authored a famous peace resolution, the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928. But no treaty obligations were incurred and, for the most part, the attitude of the American government after the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, was that of a studied noninvolvement in the international affairs of the European continent.

The condition of the new Soviet Union was another matter. Fear of international communism drove the Western European nations to construct a cordon sanitaire, a sort of diplomatic wall of immunity against Russia. The intention was to isolate the country. Where and when the Soviet Union did participate in diplomatic activities, its motives were suspect. Only after 1934, when the Soviet government entered the League of Nations and the threat of Hitler intensified, did Soviet foreign policy move toward cooperation with the Western democracies, and did they, in turn, look upon Russia with less concern.

The consequent triangulation of European affairs, with Great Britain, France, and Germany related as the major powers, seemed geometrically satisfactory during the 1920s when an outward effort at reconciliation was maintained by their governments. Many Europeans then thought that President Wilson's "war to end all wars" had probably achieved its purpose.

However, with Hitler's rise to power in 1933, the precariousness of European peace was once again sharply illuminated. Hitler assumed a strident and demanding tone from the outset. His rhetoric was bombastically militant in tone, his armies soon prominently displayed, and his diplomatic actions suggestive of a man impatient to claim what he considered his nation's right. Hitler's diplomatic stance was, therefore, at severe variance with the general diplomatic attitude that had publicly characterized European affairs before then.

The Spirit of International Conciliation
The most striking institutional change in European diplomatic behavior of the 1920s was the extension of the liberal, parliamentary practice to international relations. Liberalism had fostered the idea that political compromise arrived at by open discussion was the best means to assure both political stability and peaceful change. This notion of conciliation, or of accommodation of different interests, was now structured in the League of Nations and infused in the spirit of diplomatic cooperation that marked the many international conferences of the 1920s.

The League of Nations does not appear in bright colors in most historical analyses. Its seat, the city of Geneva, Switzerland, is often considered the site of international failure, hence a city to be avoided in present-day international negotiations. Yet, if the League was an overblown, even naive scheme for settling international differences, and if its purposes were interpreted differently by the statesmen of Europe, it was an idea that had a certain nobility about it-and a certain chance of realization.

The rub in international affairs has been and remains the concept and practice of national sovereignty, best summed up as the right of a nation to conduct itself as it deems fit and necessary in international relations. This pursuit of national self-interest was looked upon as a major cause of international disorder and its severe outcome, war. If national self-interest could be moderated by a countervailing spirit of international conciliation, then perhaps the nation-state system, like the national political one, could function peacefully. This was the hope and the idea in the minds of those statesmen who thought the League of Nations would be useful.

Proposed in various forms by several statesmen and political writers in the early twentieth century, the League was actually the brainchild of Woodrow Wilson, and its form was evidence of its liberal heritage. A bicameral legislative body, in which member states acted as political equals in the lower house - the General Assembly - and in which the "Great Powers" acted as an elite senate in the upper house - the Council - the League was given the authority to consider and legislate on all international matters submitted by its member states.

Without describing the various pieces of machinery by which the entire system was to work, let it be said that two major questions existed from the outset: (1) where were the fine-line distinctions between domestic and international issues (was a colonial problem a domestic or an international problem, for instance?); and (2), far more important, how was a League decision to be imposed: where were the "teeth," to use a then contemporary phrase. Throughout its brief history, the League contended with these problems and found that its collective will could only be imposed easily where small states were involved in the issue under consideration, or where the national interests of large states were not seriously involved.

The most ingenious device by which a League decision could be imposed was that of economic sanctions: a sort of internationally imposed blockade against the offending nation, by which League members would neither trade with nor supply the offender, hence economically paralyzing the state in question. In principle commendable, in practice ineffective, the economic sanction approach was tried against Mussolini's Italy when that state invaded Ethiopia in 1935. Mussolini's military effort suffered more from incompetency and Ethiopian resistance than it did from economic sanctions.

The League was not a political success. And, in truth, it could not have been, for its membership never included all the great powers of the world. The United States, its sponsor in the form of Woodrow Wilson, did not join, for the American Senate refused ratification of the treaty in which the League idea was contained. Germany was refused entry into the League until 1926; Russia did not join until 1934, by which time both Germany (1933) and Japan (1931) had withdrawn. Only partially representative, the League was essentially a European affair, and one in which the European states had declining enthusiasm.

Yet the League is historically important, for it does represent an unusual, if short-lived, mood of cooperation; this, in turn, generated by a deeper fear of war. The French foreign minister Aristide Briand (1862-1932) announced at this time, "Peace at any price." The phrase had a certain ring about it, of course, the sound of despair. Briand spoke not for himself, but for a particular generation of Europeans who had no desire to endure another war. As foreign minister, Briand knew full well that France had been "bled white," that his nation could never tolerate another war of such grotesque human proportions.

This anti-war attitude was reflected in the popular press, in the theater, and in the myriad of war novels, most of which spoke of the horrors of war and to the need for peace. There was, therefore, a popular mood directed toward peace. Diplomatically, a long series of disarmament conferences was held in order to prevent the escalation of weapon production and to effect a balanced limitation of numbers of weapons and size of armies so that aggressive warfare would be nearly impossible. The most striking example of this new attitude is that which is known in history as the "Locarno Spirit."

In the Italian lakeside resort city of Locarno in December of 1925, the major powers of Western Europe reached an agreement that supposedly assured the peaceful maintenance of the Franco-German borders and the integration of Germany into the new European political order. With England and Italy acting as guarantors of the maintenance of the border between these two continental rivals, and with both Germany and France accepting the principle that any future alterations would be achieved only by diplomatic negotiations, there was widespread feeling throughout Europe that a major cause - perhaps the major cause - of European war had been averted. Germany and France had, in effect, agreed to settle any future major grievances by negotiation.

Locarno is the pivotal point in interwar diplomacy, the moment when the spirit of goodwill and international conciliation was at its highest, after which negotiations declined to competitive confusion and impending conflict in the 1930s. Historians, looking behind the scenes at Locarno, have found insincerity on the part of one of the participants. The German foreign minister, Gustave Stresemann (1878-1929), has been seen as entering into the agreement out of convenience, not with conviction, while the German army was already secretly planning for another war, about which the foreign minister was aware.

Whatever the dismal results of later diplomacy, Locarno and the League are expressive of the spirit of reconstruction that characterized so much of the general activity of Europe in the 1920s. However, like the reconstructed economies, the diplomacy of the period was not well founded. If the Depression tragically demonstrated the weaknesses of the liberal, capitalist economic system, the international activities of Adolf Hitler equally tragically demonstrated the weakness of a European political order in which the "German problem" was not effectively resolved.

NEXT:  War, Peace, and Germany

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