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10-08-2015, 16:37

An Uncertain Peace: The Search for Security

The peace settlement at the end of World War I had tried to fulfill the nineteenth-century dream of nationalism by creating new boundaries and new states. From the outset, however, the settlement had left nations unhappy. Conflicts over disputed border regions between Germany and Poland, Poland and Lithuania, Poland and Czechoslovakia, Austria and Hungary, and Italy and Yugoslavia poisoned mutual relations in eastern Europe for years. Many Germans viewed the peace of Versailles as a dictated peace and vowed to seek its revision. To its supporters, the League of Nations was the place to resolve such problems. The League, however, proved ineffectual in maintaining the peace. The failure of the United States to join the League (partially a consequence of public disillusionment with disputes at the Versailles conference) undermined the effectiveness of the League right from the start. Moreover, the League could use only economic sanctions to halt aggression. The French attempt to strengthen the League’s effectiveness as an instrument of collective security by creating a peacekeeping force was rejected by nations that feared giving up any of their sovereignty to a larger international body. The weakness of the League of Nations and the failure of both the United States and Great Britain to honor their defensive military alliances with France led the latter to insist on a strict enforcement of the Treaty of Versailles. This tough policy toward Germany began with the issue of reparations—the payments that the Germans were supposed to make to compensate for the “damage done to the civilian population of the Allied and Associated Powers and to their property,” as the treaty asserted. In April 1921, the Allied Reparations Commission settled on a sum of 132 billion marks ($33 billion) for German reparations, payable in annual installments of 2.5 billion (gold) marks. Allied threats to occupy the Ruhr valley, Germany’s chief industrial and mining center, induced the new German republic to accept the reparations settlement and to make its first payment in 1921. By the following year, however, facing rising inflation, domestic turmoil, and lack of revenues because of low tax rates, the German government announced that it was unable to pay more. Outraged by what they considered to be Germany’s violation of one aspect of the peace settlement, the French government sent troops to occupy the Ruhr valley. If the Germans would not pay reparations, the French would collect reparations in kind by operating and using the Ruhr mines and factories. French occupation of the Ruhr seriously undermined the fragile German economy. The German government adopted a policy of passive resistance to French occupation that was largely financed by printing more paper money, thus intensifying the inflationary pressures that had already begun at the end of the war. The German mark became worthless. Economic disaster fueled political upheavals as Communists staged uprisings in October and Adolf Hitler’s band of Nazis attempted to seize power in Munich in 1923. The following year, a new conference of experts was convened to reassess the reparations problem. The formation of liberal-socialist governments in both Great Britain and France opened the door to conciliatory approaches to Germany and the reparations problem. At the same time, a new German government led by Gustav Stresemann (1878–1929) ended the policy of passive resistance and committed Germany to carry out the provisions of the Versailles Treaty while seeking a new settlement of the reparations question. In August 1924, an international commission produced a new plan for reparations. Named the Dawes Plan after the American banker who chaired the commission, it reduced reparations and stabilized Germany’s payments on the basis of its ability to pay. The Dawes Plan also granted an initial $200 million loan for German recovery, which opened the door to heavy American investments in Europe that helped create a new era of European prosperity between 1924 and 1929. A new approach to European diplomacy accompanied the new economic stability. A spirit of international cooperation was fostered by the foreign ministers of Germany and France, Gustav Stresemann and Aristide Briand (1862–1932), who concluded the Treaty of Locarno in 1925. This treaty guaranteed Germany’s new western borders with France and Belgium. Although Germany’s new eastern borders with Poland were conspicuously absent from the agreement, the Locarno pact was viewed by many as the beginning of a new era of European peace. On the day after the pact was concluded, the headline in the New York Times read “France and Germany Ban War Forever,” and the London Times declared “Peace at Last.” 3 Germany’s entry into the League of Nations in March 1926 soon reinforced the spirit of conciliation engendered at Locarno. Two years later, similar optimistic attitudes prevailed in the Kellogg-Briand Pact, drafted by U.S. Secretary of State Frank B. Kellogg and French Foreign Minister Briand. Sixty-three nations signed this accord, in which they pledged “to renounce war as an instrument of national policy.” Nothing was said, however, about what would be done if anyone violated the treaty. The spirit of Locarno was based on little real substance. Germany lacked the military power to alter its western borders even if it wanted to. Pious promises to renounce war without mechanisms to enforce them were virtually worthless. And the issue of disarmament soon proved that even the spirit of Locarno could not bring nations to cut back on their weapons. The League of Nations Covenant had recommended the “reduction of national armaments to the lowest point consistent with national safety.” Numerous disarmament conferences, however, failed to achieve anything substantial as states proved unwilling to trust their security to anyone but their own military forces. By the time the World Disarmament Conference finally met in Geneva in 1932, the issue was already dead.