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9-08-2015, 21:47

THE CRUMBLING PEACE, 1933–6

In chess what matters is the result, the endgame. The opening moves and the middle play are all directed to achieving such a superiority of position that the endgame is preordained, the annihilation of the opponent. The analogy holds for Hitler’s foreign policy. Much confusion of interpretation is avoided if one essential point is grasped: Hitler never lost sight of his goal – wars of conquest that would smash Soviet Russia, and subordinate France and the smaller states of the continent of Europe to the domination of a new Germany. This new order would be based on the concept of race. ‘Races’ such as the Jews were so poisonous that there was literally no place for them in this new Europe. Other inferior races would be handled ruthlessly: the Slavs unless they sided with Hitler would not be permitted any national existence and could only hope for a servile status under their Aryan masters. Logically, this biological foreign policy could not be confined to Europe alone. From the mastery of the European continent, the global conflict would ensue. Hitler was vague about details; this would be a task for his successors and future generations. But he took some interest in German relations with Japan in the 1930s because he recognised that Japan’s war in Asia and threat to British interests could be exploited. He preferred to concentrate on the ‘limited’ task of gaining mastery of the European continent. It is interesting to compare Hitler’s aims with those of his Weimar and Wilhelmine predecessors. The desire for predominance on the continent of Europe was shared by both Wilhelmine Germany in 1914 and Hitler’s Germany of the 1930s. The foreign policy of Weimar’s Germany, like Hitler’s included secret rearmament and the objective of restoring German military power by abolishing the restrictions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles. Furthermore, Weimar’s foreign policy was ultimately directed towards recovering the territories lost to Poland. Differences between Hitler’s policy and earlier policies are also very evident. Wilhelmine Germany was brought to the point of launching war only after years of trying to avoid such a war. An alternative to war was always considered both possible and desirable. War would become unnecessary if the alliance between France and Russia ‘encircling’ Germany could have been broken by the threat of force alone. Even when Wilhelmine Germany made peace plans in the autumn of 1914 in the flush of early victories, the German leaders did not contemplate the enslavement of peoples or mass murder. Wilhelmine Germany’s vision was a utopian one of a prosperous Europe led by a powerful Germany. Of course what appeared as utopia to the German leaders, a Pax Germanica, was intolerable to its neighbours. When we next contrast Hitler’s aims with those of Stresemann the differences are equally great. Weimar Germany was not bent on either racialist barbarism or continental domination. The reconciliation with France was genuine, as was Stresemann’s assumption that another European war with France and Britain would spell Germany’s ruin. A realistic objective, he believed, was for Germany to recover the position it had held as a great power before 1914. To strive for more was to make the mistake that had led other powers to combine against imperial Germany and so had brought about the catastrophic defeat of Germany and the harsh peace. The essence then of Stresemann’s diplomacy was to win as much for Germany as possible without provoking the slightest chance of war. It followed that this ‘weapon’ was to make repeated pleas for trust and reconciliation. He conducted Weimar’s diplomacy with skill and success, overcoming many difficulties. Tragically, it was Hitler who became the heir of Germany’s much improved international position; furthermore, he derided Weimar’s achievements as the work of the ‘November criminals’. It is commonplace since the publication of A. J. P. Taylor’s The Origins of the Second World War to discredit the findings of the Nürnberg War Crimes Tribunal that Hitler and his associates carefully and precisely planned their aggressions culminating in the attack on Poland in September 1939. It is true that Hitler was following no such precise and detailed plan of aggression. He clearly reacted to events and, as the documents show, was ready at times to be flexible when it came to timing and detail. After all he could not disregard contemporary circumstances or the policies of the other powers, nor could he foretell what opportunities would arise for Germany to exploit. But all this does not lead to the opposite conclusion that he had no plan. No one can read Mein Kampf, or his other writings and the existing documents expressing his views, without being struck by their general consistency. His actions, moreover, conformed to the broad plans he laid down. This was no mere coincidence. Unlike his predecessors, Hitler was working towards one clear goal: a war, or several wars, which would enable Germany to conquer the continent of Europe. Once a dictator has acquired sufficient power internally there is nothing difficult about launching a war. The difficulty lies in winning it, and in getting right the timing of aggression. The task of preserving peace, of solving conflicts, of deciding when war cannot be avoided because of the ambitions and aggressions of other nations – that requires skill and good judgement. Hitler was not prepared to compromise his ultimate goal. Only to a very limited degree, was he prepared to modify the steps by which he intended to attain this goal. Hitler showed a greater degree of skill as a propagandist by hiding his true objectives for a time when in power. His repeated assurances that he was making his ‘last territorial demands’ fooled some people abroad, as well as the majority of Germans, who certainly did not imagine they would be led again into another war against Britain, France, Russia and the US. Why were Hitler and resurgent Germany not stopped before German power had become so formidable that it was too late, except at the cost of a devastating war? There can be little doubt that British and French policy between the wars and, more especially, in the 1930s was disastrous. But the real interest of these years lies in the contrast between a single-minded Hitler bent on a war of conquest from the start and the reaction of his neighbours who were uncertain of his ultimate intentions, who had to grapple with the problem of how best to meet ill-defined dangers abroad, while facing economic and social difficulties at home. The leaders of the Western democracies, moreover, were incessantly concerned with the problems of domestic political rivalries and divisions within their own parties. In France political divisions had escalated into violence and greatly weakened the capacity of unstable governments to respond decisively to the German danger. In the circumstances it is perhaps all the more remarkable that a real attempt on the level of diplomacy was made by the French to check Hitler. In Britain, despite the overwhelming parliamentary strength won by the nationalist government in 1931, continuing widespread distress and unemployment gave the Conservatives much cause for concern from an electoral point of view. Foreign policy also played a considerable role in the November election of 1935. Baldwin reflected the public mood by simultaneously expressing Conservative support for the League of Nations while reassuring the electorate that there would be no extensive rearmament. After another electoral victory in 1935, almost as massive as the 1931 landslide, the Conservatives had most to fear from their own supporters, and from one in particular, Winston Churchill, who from the backbenches constantly attacked the government’s weak response to German rearmament. When, on coming to power, Hitler accelerated German rearmament in defiance of the Versailles Treaty, he was in fact taking no real risk. The lack of effective Allied reaction during the period from 1933 to 1935 was not due to the finesse of Hitler or of his diplomats, nor even to Hitler’s deceptive speeches proclaiming his peaceful intentions. The brutal nature of the Nazi regime in Germany revealed itself quite clearly to the world with the accounts of beatings and concentration camps, reinforced by the exodus of distinguished, mainly Jewish, refugees. Britain tolerated Hitler’s illegal actions just as rearmament in the Weimar years had been accepted. France, though more alarmed than Britain by the development of German military strength, would not take action without the certainty of British support in case such actions should lead to war with Germany. But until 1939 British governments refused to back France unless France herself were attacked by Germany. The French army would have been much stronger than Germany’s in 1933 and 1934 at the outset of any war, but France’s military and industrial potential for war was weaker. The weakness of the French response was not wholly due to the defensive military strategy symbolised by the great Maginot fortress line. The French had reached a conclusion diametrically opposite to the Germans. The French did not believe that a lightning strike by its own armies, before Germany had a chance to mobilise its greater manpower and industry for war, could bring rapid victory. In short, the French abandoned the notion of a limited punitive military action such as they had undertaken in the Ruhr ten years earlier. Any military response, so the French high command advised the governments of the day, could lead to general war; therefore, it could not be undertaken without prior mobilisation placing France on a war footing. This left the French governments with no alternative but diplomacy, aimed at aligning allies against Germany in order to exert pressure in time of peace. But no British government was prepared to face another war unless Britain’s own national interests were clearly imperilled. This nexus between the rejection of any limited military response and Britain’s and France’s perfectly understandable desire to avoid outright war unless there was an attack on their territories, or a clear threat of one, made possible Hitler’s rake’s progress of treaty violations and aggressions until the serious crisis over Czechoslovakia in September 1938. All Hitler required was the nerve to seize where there would be no resistance. He had only to push against open doors. A disarmament conference under the auspices of the League was proceeding in Geneva when Hitler came to power. It served as a useful smokescreen for the Nazis. The Germans argued a seemingly reasonable case. It was up to the other powers to disarm to Germany’s level, or Germany should be allowed to rearm to theirs. The French could never willingly give their blessing to this proposition, so they were placed in the position of appearing to be the unreasonable power, blocking the progress of negotiations which the British wished to succeed for they had no stomach for increasing armaments expenditure in the depth of the depression. The British argued that some agreement, allowing but limiting German rearmament, was better than none. The French, however, refused to consent to German rearmament. In fact, it made no difference whether the British or the French policy was pursued. In April 1933 the German delegate to the disarmament negotiations confidentially briefed German journalists, telling them that, while Germany hoped to secure the consent of the other powers to a standing army of 600,000, it was building the army up to this size anyway. Hitler was giving rearmament first priority, regardless of the attitude of other nations, though any cover which Anglo-French disagreements gave for his own treaty violations was naturally welcome to him. In June 1933 he happily signed a four-power treaty proposed by Mussolini which bound Britain, France, Germany and Italy, in no more than platitudes of goodwill, to consult with each other within the framework of the League. In Germany, meanwhile, a National Defence Council had been secretly set up in April 1933 to coordinate military planning. It would take time to build up the necessary infrastructure – to set up and equip factories to manufacture large quantities of tanks, planes and the weapons of mechanised warfare. The lack of swift early progress was an inherent problem of complex modern rearmament, as Britain was to discover to its cost later on. Financial responsibility for providing the regime with all the credit it needed belonged to Hjalmar Schacht, who was appointed head of the Reichsbank by Hitler when the incumbent showed reluctance to abandon orthodox financial practice. Hitler in February 1933 secretly explained to the army generals and to the Nazi elite that the solution to Germany’s problems could be found only in the conquest of territory in the east. It is clear that Hitler did not expect France simply to stand by and allow Germany to aggrandise its power in the east. ‘I will grind France to powder’, he told the visiting prime minister of Hungary in June 1933. But until a superior German military strength could be built up, Hitler explained to his henchmen, he would have to talk the language of peace. Deeds were more convincing than words. In October 1933, in a deliberately aimed blow at the League of Nations, Germany withdrew from the disarmament conference at Geneva and from the League of Nations as well. Hitler then sought approval by a plebiscite and claimed in November that 95 per cent of the German people had expressed their approval in the ballot box. While he exaggerated the manipulated vote, he did secure overwhelming approval, the people were elated by Hitler’s handling of this aspect of the Versailles Diktat – Germany would no longer be pushed around. What followed? An outburst of anger by the other powers? Talk of sanctions? The British government decided Germany should be conciliated and coaxed back to Geneva, and put pressure on the French to make concessions. Hitler’s priorities in 1933 and 1934 were clear: first rearmament and conscription, then a Nazi takeover in Austria and the return of the Saar, and at home the consolidation of power. Although Hitler’s next diplomatic move startled Europe it was obvious Realpolitik. He wished to weaken the two-front threat posed by the alliance between Poland and France. And so in January 1934 he concluded a non-aggression pact with Poland, thereby renouncing German claims to Danzig and to the Polish corridor, the strip of territory separating East Prussia from the rest of Germany. It was no more than a temporary expedient. It shows how little faith the Poles placed in the French alliance. In April 1934 the French broke off further disarmament discussions with Germany. French political weakness at home turned this apparently tough stand into an empty gesture. French ministers were under no illusions about Hitler’s intentions, but a preventive war was again rejected. All that was left was diplomacy; but the mood was profoundly pessimistic, and although France would seek closer ties with Britain, little headway was made until 1936. The foreign minister, Louis Barthou, made a determined effort for some months in 1934 to revive France’s Eastern and Danubian alliances and alignments of the 1920s and to couple this pressure on Germany with the offer to bind Germany to an ‘Eastern Locarno’, whereby the Soviet Union, Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, the Baltic states and Finland would all guarantee each others’ territories and promise to assist one another. This pact was to be linked to the League of Nations. No one can deny that Barthou was a man of real energy, but the idea of an ‘Eastern Locarno’ was pure moonshine. Hitler had rather cleverly pre-empted Poland’s possible involvement. Poland preferred to maintain its own nonaggression treaty with Russia and with Germany and to retain a free hand. Hitler would not agree either. Although he did not feel bound by treaties, he preferred, for the sake of public feeling at home and in order not to antagonise Germany’s neighbours prematurely, to sign no unnecessary treaties which he would have to break later on. More promising was France’s rapprochements in 1934 with Russia and with Italy, which were to bear fruit in 1935. Barthou also sought to draw closer to Yugoslavia. His diplomacy was tragically cut short in October 1934 when he met King Alexander in Marseilles. A Croat terrorist assassinated both Alexander and Barthou, an event dramatically captured by the newsreel cameras. His successor, Pierre Laval, who was to play an infamous role in the wartime Vichy government, in 1935 pursued Barthou’s policy skilfully. Barthou had wooed Mussolini for Italy’s friendship and even an alliance for France. In 1934 and 1935 this was a realistic aim – though Mussolini was notoriously fickle and impulsive – but, militarily speaking, the Italian alliance was of limited value. Although Mussolini had hoped that Germany would follow the fascist path of Italy, he was not so sure about Hitler personally. Hitler, for his part, admired the duce, who, so he thought was trying to make something of the Italian people. The duce was seen by Hitler as a ruthless man of action who, like himself, believed in superior force. His framed photograph stood on Hitler’s desk in Munich. Mussolini’s admiration for Hitler was not uncritical. He patronised him and sent him advice; there were times when Mussolini suspected Hitler might be mad. Many Italian fascists naturally resented Germany’s emphasis on Nordic racialism and the supposed superiority of lightskinned blonds over swarthy Latins. In Italy there was no tradition of anti-Semitism. Indeed, few Jews lived there and some were prominent fascists. In June 1934 Mussolini and Hitler met in Venice. Mussolini stage-managed the whole visit to impress Hitler with his superiority. Hitler looked decidedly drab in a raincoat: the junior partner. As they discussed the questions over which German–Italian conflict might arise, the agitation of the German-speaking inhabitants in the South Tyrol and the future of the Austrian Republic, Hitler said he was ready to abandon the Germans of the South Tyrol in the interests of Italian friendship, but Mussolini remained suspicious as the irredentist movement was encouraged by Nazi Party officials. More immediately serious was Hitler’s pressure on Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss to resign and allow an internal takeover by the Austrian Nazi movement. Dollfuss reacted robustly. The Austrian Nazis were now conspiring to seize power. Austria, with a population of 6.5 million, was one of Europe’s smallest nations. Some 3.5 million former German Austrians were now subjects of the Italians and the Czechs. Austria had not exactly been created by the Allies at Paris; it consisted of what was left of the Habsburg Empire after the territories of all the successor states had been shorn off. The Austrian state made very little economic sense with its large capital in Vienna and impoverished provinces incapable of feeding the whole population. Economically the Republic had been kept afloat only by loans arranged through the League of Nations, whose representatives supervised the government’s finances. The depression had hit Austria particularly hard and unemployment soared. Not surprisingly it was in Vienna in 1931 that the general European banking collapse began. This impoverished state was also deeply divided politically and socially. Austrian labour was united behind the Social Democratic Party, which supported the parliamentary constitution and rejected the solutions both of revolutionary communism and of fascism. On the right, supported by the Catholic Church, stood the Christian Social Party and groups of right-wing nationalist extremists. For a short while from 1918 to 1920 the Social Democrats had held power. After 1920, although the Social Democrats maintained their strength they no longer commanded an absolute majority. Except for a year from 1929 to 1930, the Bürgerblock, a coalition of Christian Socials and Nationalist and pan-German parties, was in power until the extinction of the multi-party system in 1934. The only issue that united this coalition was a common hatred of labour and socialism. So deep were the political and social divisions that the danger of civil war was always close. The (Catholic) Christian Socials favoured authoritarian solutions, and their fascist and Nazi allies set up paramilitary organisations such as the SA, the SS and the Heimwehr. The Social Democrats also sought to defend themselves by enrolling armed workers in a Republican Defence Corps. Meanwhile many Austrians regarded their state as a wholly artificial creation; loyalties were provincial rather than national. There were many Austrians who looked towards a union with Germany. 208 THE CONTINUING WORLD CRISIS, 1929–39 Austria’s internal problems were exacerbated by its more powerful neighbours. Germany posed a threat to its independence. But Mussolini would defend Austrian independence only if Austria modelled herself on the fascist state. He specifically insisted that the Social Democrats should be excluded from participation in politics. Dollfuss, who became chancellor in May 1932, leant increasingly on the duce’s support against the Nazis. In the spring and summer he banned the Communist Party, the Republican Defence Corps and the Nazis, and a few months later, early in 1934, banned the Social Democrat Party as well. The Social Democrats determined to oppose this attack on their existence. They offered armed resistance when their strongholds were attacked. They were then brutally beaten into submission during a brief civil war in February 1934. Democratic Europe was particularly shocked by the bombardment of the municipal blocks of flats of the workers in Vienna. In fact, Dollfuss had destroyed the one political force able to resist the Nazis. The Austrian Nazi conspiracy to take over power came to fruition in July 1934. The Nazis seized the government buildings in Vienna and forced their way into Dollfuss’s office and there murdered him. Although Dollfuss had lost much of the support of the ordinary people, few rallied to the Nazis. The coup failed. Kurt Schuschnigg was appointed chancellor and promised to continue the policies of Dollfuss. Whether Hitler had connived at this Nazi conspiracy and, if so, how far remains uncertain. But, coming as it did just a month after his visit to Venice, Mussolini was outraged and rushed troops to the Brenner frontier, warning Hitler not to interfere in Austria. For a few years longer Austria survived. In Britain, the growing turbulence in Europe and in Asia alarmed even a government as committed to pacific solutions as that led by Ramsay MacDonald. Even before Hitler had come to power, the famous ‘ten-year rule’ was scrapped. It had been adopted in 1919 to save on armaments expenditure and postulated that such expenditure should be based on the assumption that there would be no war for ten years. But there was no real move to rearm for several years after 1932. Throughout the 1920s and in the 1930s, too, every British government, Labour and Conservative, believed that to spend money on arms would worsen Britain’s economic plight, making it weaker and less able to resist aggression. It was a perverse and paradoxical conclusion. In February 1933, the Cabinet was informed of the gross military deficiency on land, sea and air caused by a decade of inadequate finance, but the chancellor of the exchequer and future prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, replied, ‘today financial and economic risks are far the most serious and urgent that the country has to face . . . other risks have to be run until the country has had time and opportunity to recuperate and our financial situation to improve’. The depression was Hitler’s best ally. When Churchill, in Parliament, attacked the government’s neglect of Britain’s security, especially in the air, Anthony Eden, under secretary of state at the Foreign Office, replied that the solution was to persuade the French to disarm so that Germany would limit its rearmament. Otherwise ‘they could not secure for Europe that period of appeasement which is needed’. And, speaking in Birmingham, Chamberlain added: it is our duty by every effort we can make, by every influence we can exert, to compose differences, and to act as mediators to try and devise methods by which other countries may be delivered from this great menace of war. These speeches from the government side in 1933 encapsulate the main tenets of British policy over the next few years. Too little was done for defence. The great fear was that the new form of aerial warfare would lead to devastation and huge civilian casualties. German superiority in the air could thus become a potent form of blackmail. Increased defence spending was accordingly concentrated on the air force. Curiously, though, it was spent not on defensive fighter planes but on bombers. The thinking behind this was that the ‘bombers would always get through’ anyway. The only credible form of defence was to build up a deterrent bomber force that could carry the war to the enemy. Deterrence was preferable to war. In the Far East, the construction of the Singapore naval base was resumed, even though neglect of the British fleet meant that there would be few warships to send east if trouble simultaneously occurred in Europe. Worst affected by the parsimony of defence expenditure was the British army. In the event of war, only a token force could be despatched to France. This limited military commitment to the defence of the European continent was adhered to by governments and critics until 1939. The main burden of containing Germany on land would rest on the French. British foreign policy followed its own logic. Both France and Germany needed to be restrained. Britain would mediate between them. Even though Hitler secretly and openly defied treaties, Britain would go far to conciliate Germany and assure it that ‘reasonable’ rearmament would be acceptable to the other powers. When Eden visited Berlin in February 1934 he attempted to persuade Hitler to return to the League, and thought him sincere in wishing to conclude a disarmament convention. Eden’s policy was to gain Hitler’s signature to a treaty which would permit German rearmament but also, by its very provisions, place a limit on it. When the British government in July 1934 announced rearmament in the air, the search for an Anglo-German agreement did not slacken. Hitler was outwardly cautious during the six months from the summer of 1934, which opened with the failure of the Nazis in Austria and ended in January 1935 with the holding of the plebiscite in the Saar which would decide that region’s future. The Saar was ‘brought home’ to the Reich by votes through the ballot box and not by force, under the supervision of the League of Nations. Dr Goebbels had, however, mounted a propaganda campaign and so helped to ensure a Nazi ‘yes’ vote of 90 per cent. Hitler’s prestige was further enhanced. In the spring of 1935 Hitler was simply waiting for a good opportunity to announce the reintroduction of conscription and Germany’s open repudiation of the military restrictions of the Versailles Treaty. Everyone, of course, already knew that they had been ‘secretly’ broken for years. Indeed, a British defence White Paper, published in March 1935, which justified modest British rearmament by referring to Germany’s ‘illegal’ rearmament, provided the kind of pretext Hitler sought. It was followed by the approval of the French Chamber on 15 March 1935 to extend military service from one to two years. On the very next day Hitler sprang a ‘Saturday surprise’, proclaimed conscription in Germany and ‘revealed’ the existence of the Luftwaffe. Britain’s reaction was characteristically weak. Sir John Simon, the foreign secretary, and Anthony Eden, minister for League affairs, hastened to Berlin to exchange views with Hitler. The Führer was now ready to receive them. With conscription in the bag, Hitler could afford to be affable. Britain’s conciliatory gesture vitiated the meeting of the Locarno powers at Stresa a short while later in April 1935. Hitler’s unilateral breach of Versailles and Locarno was condemned and the need to uphold treaties spelt out in the final communiqué. Significantly Mussolini had lined up with Britain and France and not with Germany. The League then joined in the condemnation. If Hitler was impressed by this united front – and there is no reason to believe he was much – any apprehensions he might have felt were soon dispelled by the British government. Without consulting its French ally, Britain signified that Germany could also breach the Versailles limitations on its naval development by concluding the Anglo-German Naval Agreement in June 1935. This now permitted Germany to develop its formidable ‘Pocket’ battleships and submarines; all Germany undertook was not to construct a fleet whose total tonnage would exceed 35 per cent of the combined fleets of the British Commonwealth. Even so this treaty also held out the eventual prospect of equality with Britain in submarines. Hitler did not have to push to open doors, they were flung open for him. Already Hitler was considering his next step, the remilitarisation of the Rhineland in violation of that part of the Versailles Treaty that France held dear as a guarantee of its own security. Had he moved in the summer of 1935 he would almost certainly have got away with that too – but the cautious streak in his make-up gained the upper hand. There would be a much better opportunity in 1936 when Mussolini was looking for German support instead of opposing it. The Stresa meeting in April 1935 was not only concerned with Germany. Mussolini was, himself, planning a breach of the League Covenant, at Abyssinia’s expense. The French were willing to connive at Mussolini’s aggression. They were searching for a diplomatic bargain to gain Mussolini’s support against Hitler. Foreign Minister Laval had paved the way when he visited Rome in January 1935. Mussolini and Laval then agreed that France and Italy would check Hitler’s militaristic ambitions. On the question of Abyssinia, Laval appears to have reassured the duce that France would not impede Italy. But at Stresa Mussolini was left in no doubt about the strength of British public feeling if Italy should attack Abyssinia. The final Stresa communiqué, which upheld the sanctity of treaties and condemned Germany’s breach of them, carefully avoided reference to any but European conflicts. What was left undone was more important. The powers realised that Hitler’s next step would be to remilitarise the Rhineland. But the three Stresa powers, Italy, Britain and France, took no decisions on how this threat might be met in time. The British government remained anxious to conciliate. In the autumn of 1935 Europe’s attention was fixed not on Hitler but on Mussolini’s war of aggression waged against Abyssinia, the practically defenceless kingdom of Emperor Haile Selassie. Mussolini felt he had adequately prepared the ground diplomatically with France and Britain and that in view of the German danger, which he exploited, the two democracies would acquiesce. The British government, he believed, would defy pro-League outbursts of public opinion. But Mussolini had miscalculated the British government’s resolve in an election year. Throughout 1935 he built up a huge army, eventually reaching 650,000 men, with modern weapons and poison gas, to overcome the Abyssinian tribesmen. On 3 October 1935 he launched his war on Abyssinia. The Italian army after some initial success became bogged down. The democratic world admired the plucky resistance of the underdog. At Geneva the League condemned Italy as an aggressor and voted for sanctions. But sanctions were not rigidly imposed nor did they include oil, necessary to fuel Italy’s war machine. In any case Italy had stockpiled oil in Africa in expectation of sanctions. Sanctions proved an irritant, the main result of which was to create a patriotic reaction in Italy itself. In Britain in June 1935, Ramsay MacDonald finally retired and Stanley Baldwin became prime minister. Sir Samuel Hoare, who replaced Sir John Simon at the Foreign Office, conferred with Laval in December 1935 on partition plans of Abyssinia which, it was hoped, would bring the war to an end through secret mediation between Mussolini and the Abyssinians. The so-called Hoare–Laval Pact was a ‘compromise’ plan which would have given Mussolini a large part of Abyssinia. He might well have accepted such a solution but when the French leaked the agreement, in Britain there was a great public protest that the League was being betrayed and the aggressor rewarded. The British Cabinet, finding itself in an embarrassing position after fighting an election on the issue of support for the League, placed the blame on Hoare and refused to endorse the proposals he and Laval had agreed upon. Hoare resigned on 19 December 1935. That is how Anthony Eden, who had himself favoured compromise, now inherited the Foreign Office. Mussolini resumed his military campaign, and his troops occupied Addis Ababa in May 1936. The war was being conducted in the most barbarous fashion. The Abyssinians had no means of defence against air attack or poison gas. The brutality of the Italian occupation and the suppression of tribesmen still resisting in 1937 was a precursor of Nazi terror in occupied Europe during the Second World War. Thousands of defenceless Abyssinians were massacred, while Haile Selassie made his dignified protests in Geneva. The war had brought Mussolini cheap glory, but it also isolated him and drove him to seek closer relations with Germany. The disunity of the ‘Stresa front’ made Hitler’s next move, the remilitarisation of the Rhineland, even less risky than it appeared to be. Hitler later was to call his boldness in March 1936 the turning point when he had ‘bluffed’ the French. It was not a real turning point, but just another step along the road he had already successfully followed. Hitler was looking for a new pretext. The Franco-Soviet pact, concluded in 1934, provided it. When the French Chamber ratified the treaty, Hitler on 7 March 1936 declared it to be contrary to the Locarno Treaties and ordered the Wehrmacht to move into the demilitarised zone of the Rhineland. In its final timing Hitler’s move came as a surprise, but the occupation of the Rhineland had been anticipated and discussed. French ministers were clear they could not react with anything but immediate protests and, later on, possible recourse to the machinery of League sanctions. The chief of the army general staff, General Maurice Gamelin, insisted that no military moves were possible without prior fullscale mobilisation, placing more than 1 million Frenchmen under arms. He pointed out to the French ministers that there was no immediate striking force available. The British, meanwhile, were not prepared to consider mere German troop movements into the Rhineland zone as sufficient reason for a military counterstroke. Thus France, rent by internal conflict, could not, and Britain would not, consider stopping Hitler. Hitler, for his part, was careful to enter the Rhineland with only a small force of lightly armed Wehrmacht troops. Rather like rearmament, the open remilitarisation of the Rhineland had been preceded by ‘secret’ remilitarisation as the so-called ‘police’ already stationed in the demilitarised zone were, in fact, trained infantry. The total force of ‘police’ and Wehrmacht amounted to less than 40,000 men and could not possibly threaten France. But Hitler was not bluffing. He had no intention of accepting defeat had the French marched. It is a myth that all that was required to humiliate Hitler in March 1936 was a French show of strength. In the hastily drawn-up final war plans, the German troops were to withdraw as far as the Ruhr and there to stay and fight. But in view of earlier French political and military decisions it was obvious that the only French countermoves would be diplomatic. These countermoves were handled with skill by the French foreign minister, Pierre Flandin. He proposed to the British that economic and military sanctions be applied to force Hitler to withdraw. But Eden was looking for mediation. The British Cabinet had ruled out force. Flandin’s sanction plan raised the spectre of war with Germany. Tortuous negotiations in London and Geneva did not this time end entirely without result. The expected League condemnation was the usual empty gesture. But Flandin extracted from the British government an avowal that Britain still stood by its Locarno commitment to France and Belgium. The British Cabinet had been pushed by the French further than it wished to go in the direction of a strictly defensive Anglo- French alliance backed up by staff talks in place of the more flexible Locarno agreements. There was now a much closer Anglo-French alignment and Britain began to rearm, though still at far too slow a pace. On the debit side, Belgium reverted to absolute neutrality. The year 1936 was to be the year of international goodwill. Berlin was host to the Olympic Games that year. Defiance of treaties and the Nürnberg Laws proved no obstacle to the holding of the games in Berlin. Hitler wanted the world to come to Berlin and admire the National Socialist state. No effort was spared to make the games a spectacular success. For the duration of the games anti-Jewish propaganda was toned down in Berlin. Hitler, moreover, assured the Olympic Committee that there would be no discrimination between ‘Aryans’ and ‘non-Aryans’, a promise he did not keep as far as German Jewish athletes were concerned. It was of course discomfiting that the outstanding athlete of the games was the African American Jesse Owens. Nazi commentators explained this success, embarrassing to racial doctrines of superiority, by stressing that black people were racially lower in the scale of development, closer to a state of nature, like animals and hence faster. For Hitler the holding of the games in Berlin served as an international recognition of his regime.

 

 

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