Chapter Two

A Thirty Years War? The Disintegration of Europe

In 1939 and the following years there was a powerful and general sense that people were engaged, not in a second war, but rather in the second phase of a Thirty Years War, another round in a struggle against the German domination of Europe. Since 1919 Europe had moved so rapidly through an attempt at reconstruction and stabilisation into a time of renewed tension and conflict that it was hard to recognise anything which could properly be called peace. The mood was caught, lightly but exactly, by Nancy Mitford in her novel The Pursuit of Love, when she made her heroine Linda remark: ‘It's rather sad to belong, as we do, to a lost generation. I'msure in history the two wars will count as one war and that we shall be squashed out of it altogether, and people will forget that we ever existed.’1 The somewhat featherbrained Linda was in some very weighty company. The formidable Marshal Foch, generalissimo of the Allied armies in France in 1918, had said of the Treaty of Versailles, ‘This is not peace. It is an armistice for twenty years.’ Churchill, in the preface to the first volume of his memoirs of the Second World War, wrote: ‘I must regard these volumes as a continuation of the story of the First World War which I set out in The World Crisis…. Together … they will cover an account of another Thirty Years War.'2 General de Gaulle, Eduard Beneš, and other notables could be added to the list. In a more straightforward way, any Belgian over the age of twenty-six in 1940, seeing the German Army marching past his doorstep for the second time in his life, could have had little doubt that a nightmarish film had got stuck, and the same events were coming round once more.

In retrospect, such views have continued to carry a good deal of conviction.3 Europe was indeed wrecked by the First World War. The peace settlement which followed it had grave defects. Germany did try twice in thirty years for the domination of Europe. Taking all this into account, a school of thought has developed which regards the Second World War as the culmination of a disintegration of the European order, begun by the First World War and continued by the abortive peace, which left the Continent in a state of chronic instability. The main lines of this interpretation will be set out in this chapter, before a rival explanation is examined.

The effects of the First World War: psychological, material and political

The basic premiss of the ‘Thirty Years War’ thesis lies in the disruptive impact of the First World War, which shook the political, economic, and social systems of Europe to their foundations. The political and psychological damage was probably greater than the physical. It is true that casualties were very heavy: 8.5 million dead among the armed services is a generally accepted estimate, without trying to count the civilian casualties, direct and indirect. Yet, except in France, where the war losses struck a population which was already barely reproducing itself, the blow in purely demographic terms was absorbed and recovered from with less difficulty than was expected. The more lasting damage was to the mind and spirit. Many old certainties, traditional beliefs, and habits fell casualties in 1914–18. It was well said of the Kitchener armies raised in Britain that it took generations of stability and certainty to produce such a body of men; and their like would not be seen again. By 1918, there was a profound weariness and disillusionment pervading the armies of Europe which was a far cry from the fire and enthusiasm of 1914. The question repeatedly asked in German units by August 1918 was ‘Wozu?’ — ‘What's it all for?’ — and this found its echo everywhere.4

The economic disruption caused by the war was also severe. There was material devastation in the areas of heavy fighting, especially in the battle zones of north-east France and Belgium. All over Europe there was unusual wear and tear, arising from the working of industry, agriculture, and transport under heavy pressure and without adequate maintenance. The men and women who did the work, often for long hours and with insufficient food, were also worn out — the European influenza epidemic of 1919 told its tale of exhaustion and lowered resistance. The end of the war saw the breakdown of transport over much of central and eastern Europe, and shortages of both coal and food, caused partly by falling production and partly by problems of distribution. Financial and monetary problems were less immediately obvious than the material destruction, but were more lasting and insidious in their effects. Britain and France were forced to sell substantial quantities of their foreign investments to pay for the war; and other investments (notably French) were lost in the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. The Germans had their investments in enemy countries confiscated, and lost the rest of their foreign holdings at the peace. Britain borrowed heavily from the USA, and France and Italy from the USA and Britain; all ended the war with a new and heavy burden of foreign debt. There was also a great increase in internal government debts, because most war expenditure was met by loans rather than taxation. In many ways the most profound economic problem was that of inflation, the dramatic rise in prices and fall in the value of money which took place all over Europe during the war years. (In Britain, retail prices rather more than doubled between 1914 and 1918; and the position in some other countries was worse.) The confusion caused by this was the more marked after a period of generally stable prices before 1914; and the social effects spread out in all directions, to the benefit of those who could keep pace with or profit from inflation, and to the severe detriment of those who had to live on fixed incomes. In all this, it was the material damage that proved easiest to repair. Even the great scar across France and Flanders, where the battle-line had run for four years, was patched over by 1925–26 with towns and villages rebuilt and land brought back into cultivation. It was the removal of the landmark of a stable currency which had the most lasting effects, psychological as much as material.

The political effects of the war were similarly far-reaching; and again were the more shocking because they came after a long period of comparative stability. In the whole of central and eastern Europe at the end of 1918, no government remained as it had been in 1914; and over large areas there was no effective government at all. The dynasties and empires of the Habsburgs in Austria-Hungary, the Hohenzollerns in Germany, and the Romanovs in Russia had all fallen; and the regimes and states which sought to replace them were struggling to come into being amid sporadic fighting and a fog of uncertainty. Three great autocratic empires had collapsed, and the parliamentary democracies of western Europe, along with the greatest of democratic powers, the USA, were intact and victorious. But if in this sense the democracies had won, the liberalism and individualism of the nineteenth century had clearly lost during the war years. The whole nature of the war meant that state control, state initiative, and state interests had all had a field day. The individual had been subordinated to the state — in Britain, the greatest symbol of this was the introduction of conscription for the armed forces, for the first time in British history. Paradoxically, this process was accompanied by a revulsion felt by many against their own state, caused often by disillusionment, in some cases with the war and its pretences, in others with defeat or the inadequate rewards of victory. In either event, people turned away from their own state or form of government and looked elsewhere — often to communism on the one hand or fascism on the other.

By the end of the war, Europe seemed on the verge not only of political chaos but of revolution. In Russia in 1917 there were two revolutions, with the Bolsheviks precariously established in power by the end of the year. There was a revolution of sorts in Germany at the end of 1918. The hope of revolution for some, the fear of it for others, were widespread in Europe, with Bolshevik Russia as a beacon light or a menacing glare according to one's viewpoint. In the event, both hopes and fears proved much exaggerated. The new German republic turned out to be a mild form of social democracy, with large chunks of the old regime firmly embedded within it. Elections in Britain in 1918 and France in 1919 produced substantial right-wing majorities. Yet the revolutionary atmosphere had been real enough; it was not forgotten; and it had its effects later.

The Treaty of Versailles and its consequences

On this view, the war shook the foundations of Europe to an extent that was virtually irreparable. When the peacemakers gathered in Paris in 1919, they faced an impossible task; and in the event, it is widely argued, they proceeded to make the situation worse rather than better. The 1919 settlement, and particularly its centre-piece, the Treaty of Versailles with Germany, was criticised at the time and for the next twenty years for its harshness, its economic errors, and its inherent instability.

The accusations of harshness referred both to the terms imposed upon Germany and to the manner of their imposition. Germany lost territory. In the west Alsace and Lorraine were annexed by France (or, as the French said, were restored after wrongful seizure in 1871) and the districts of Eupen and Malmédy went to Belgium. In the east, Germany lost Posnania and parts of East Prussia to Poland; and the port of Danzig became a free city under League of Nations administration, with special rights for Poland. Plebiscites were to be held in various other areas to determine whether or not they should remain part of Germany. These resulted in part of Schleswig going to Denmark; two districts of West and East Prussia (Marienwerder and Allenstein) voting overwhelmingly to stay in Germany, which they were allowed to do; and an inconclusive vote in Upper Silesia which ended in the Council of the League of Nations allotting to Poland rather more than the plebiscite would have allowed, and certainly more than the Germans thought due. The port of Memel was ceded by Germany for transfer to Lithuania. In all, Germany lost about 65,000 square kilometres of territory and nearly 7 million inhabitants. She also lost all her colonies, which were handed over to various of the victorious powers under the cover of League of Nations mandates. All this was not unexpected after a country had lost a long and bitter war; and it compared quite favourably with the treatment meted out by Germany to defeated Russia in March 1918. But the Germans found it harsh. They resented handing over any territory to the Poles; and they claimed that plebiscites were used arbitrarily, and usually when there was a chance of them going against Germany; they were not used at all in Alsace-Lorraine or in most of the territory lost to Poland. Moreover, when in Austria a series of unofficial plebiscites showed overwhelming majorities in favour of union with Germany, the treaty laid it down firmly that such a union was forbidden. The victorious Allies had claimed loudly that they were fighting for democracy and self-determination, but they applied these great principles selectively, or even cynically. The Germans could thus claim unfair treatment; and after a time their claims found an attentive audience in western Europe.

The harshness was also claimed to lie in the severity of the disarmament provisions imposed upon Germany. The army was limited to 100,000 men, with no tanks or heavy artillery; the navy was to have no warships of over 10,000 tonnes, and no submarines; there was to be no military or naval aviation. Not least, the German General Staff, the brain and nerve centre of the army, and for long a separate centre of power within the state, was to be dissolved. These were unusual provisions in a peace treaty, specifically designed to paralyse German strength and to break the customs and attitudes that the victors called ‘Prussian militarism’. The ostensible purpose of the disarmament clauses was ‘to render possible the initiation of a general limitation of the armaments of all nations’; and when no such limitation followed, the Germans could again claim to have been unfairly treated.

The same was true of two other aspects of the treaty whose impact was more psychological than practical. The first was the clause (Article 231) put at the head of the reparations section of the treaty, by which Germany was compelled to accept ‘the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies’.5 This was almost universally referred to as the ‘war guilt’ clause of the treaty; though it does not use the word guilt. Such niceties were of no importance. The clause aroused deep resentment in Germany, where it was thought that equal (or greater) responsibility for the outbreak of war could be found in the actions of other countries. German historians worked hard to undermine the validity of this clause, and their claims found a ready acceptance among ‘revisionist’ writers in France, Britain, and the USA. Germany's case against the ‘war guilt’ thesis grew steadily stronger. The other aspect was the section of the treaty which provided for the trial of the former Kaiser, Wilhelm II, for ‘a supreme offence against international morality and the sanctity of treaties’, and unnamed persons for ‘acts of violation of the laws and customs of war’.6 Little followed from this. The Kaiser was safe in the Netherlands, whose government would not extradite him; and only a dozen of the lower ranks of alleged war criminals were brought to trial before a German court, which convicted six of them. But again, most Germans did not believe that their own leaders had behaved worse than those of other countries; they were merely being subjected to the spite of the victors.

To all this was added the claim that the Versailles Treaty was a ‘dictated peace’. In one sense, this merely stated the obvious. The whole object of winning the war was to impose upon Germany terms which she would never accept voluntarily. Again, the claim referred more to the methods adopted than to the substance of what happened. At the Paris Peace Conference, the German delegation was simply presented with the Allied terms on a basis of take them or leave them; there was not even a show of negotiation, still less any real chance for Germany to influence the contents of the treaty while it was being prepared. The German complaints about this procedure reached a wide audience and it soon came to be thought (especially in Britain) that terms imposed in this fashion were not morally binding.

The significance of these claims about the harshness of the treaty did not lie in objective standards of fairness — there is indeed a strong case that the Treaty of Versailles was by no means crushing or vindictive7 — but in the widespread and lasting impression that was created. It was natural enough that Germans should resent the fact of defeat, especially when for so much of the war they were sure that they were winning; and it was natural too for this resentment to attach to the peace settlement which registered their defeat. What was less to be expected was the extent to which the same view took hold among the victors. This was especially true of Britain, where it spread rapidly across the whole political spectrum. In France its hold was strongest on the Left — as late as August 1939 some socialist speakers still began their remarks on foreign affairs with a ritual condemnation of the Treaty of Versailles. The stability of the settlement thus came to be undermined by both vanquished and victors alike.

The accusation of harshness was particularly levelled at the reparations section of the treaty; and this may be best considered along with general assertions about the economic errors of the peace settlement. It was not unusual for cash payments, or indemnities, to be imposed upon the losing side in war; and a substantial indemnity was imposed on France as the defeated power at the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871. At the end of the First World War the victors renounced the idea of an indemnity, but claimed the right to exact ‘compensation for all damage done to the civilian population of the Allied and Associated Powers and to their property’.8 The treaty itself set no figure for these ‘reparations’; but it did establish the headings under which claims could be made, including not only material destruction (under which both France and Belgium had important claims), but also payment of war pensions, an almost unlimited demand which was inserted at the request of Great Britain. The task of producing a figure for reparations, and of deciding how they were to be paid, was delegated to the Reparations Commission, a body established by the victorious allies. In May 1921 this Commission arrived at a figure of 132,000 million gold marks; though at the same time the debt was divided into three sections, represented by A, B, and C class bonds, and the C class bonds were to be held by the Commission until Germany's capacity to pay had been established — which amounted to indefinite postponement of about 80,000 millions, or rather under two-thirds of the total.

In 1919 the young John Maynard Keynes, then at the outset of his career as the outstanding economic theorist of the twentieth century, resigned from the British delegation at the peace conference and wrote at high speed a brilliant book, The Economic Consequences of the Peace. With a clarity, vigour, and skill which commanded attention and induced assent, Keynes attacked the principles on which reparations were being imposed. He argued that the figures put forward by the victorious powers were too high in relation to the actual damage they had suffered; that Germany would not have the capacity to pay the amounts envisaged, especially when she was losing territory, resources, and population under other sections of the treaty; and that the problems of transfer (the actual means of payment, whether in kind, in gold, in German securities held abroad, or in foreign exchange earned by Germany) would prove to be insuperable. Keynes maintained that reparations, on anything like the scale being considered, could not work. They would place an impossible strain on the German economy; and involve Germany in permanent balance of payments difficulties, because she would be furnishing exports for which she was not paid, or earning foreign exchange which was not for her own use but for the purpose of making reparations payments.

In such circumstances, Keynes argued, the reconstruction of the European economy and financial system, which before 1914 had functioned as a smoothly working unit, would be impossible. The system could not be restored if one of its vital parts (and Germany remained the foremost industrial power in Europe) was permanently dislocated. This situation was made worse by the entanglement of the reparations question with the problem of war debts. During the war, the European belligerents borrowed very large sums to sustain their war efforts. Russia borrowed from France and Britain; all the European belligerents borrowed from Britain; and everyone borrowed from the USA, which in the course of the war had been transformed from a debtor to a creditor country. The position at the end of the war may be represented in a diagram.9

In a strict sense, these debts had nothing to do with the peace settlement or with reparations. But not unnaturally the victorious west European powers (Britain, France, Italy, and Belgium) wished to link their debts to the USA with their reparation payments from Germany: as Germany paid reparations, so they would pay their war debts; and since the debts had been incurred in the struggle against Germany, this seemed not only convenient but just. But the USA would not agree. Having declined to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, the Americans were not receiving any reparations from Germany; and on straightforward commercial grounds they expected to be repaid their loans by the various Allied states — in the famous phrase of Calvin Coolidge, ‘They hired the money, didn’t they?’ Eventually, the British government, which was owed sums almost as large as those owed to the USA, announced (in the Balfour Note of 1 August 1922) that since the USA insisted on the repayment of war debts, Britain must do the same, but would only insist on payment up to the level of British debts to the USA. (This would mean Britain renouncing over half her debts.) The Americans for their part set about negotiating separately with each of their debtor governments, offering flexible terms which took into account ability to pay.

War debts were also linked with reparations because they involved a transfer problem — the means by which they were to be paid. They made another distorting element in the structure of trade and payments and added to the balance of payments problems of the debtor states. They also added to the anxiety of those who were owed reparations to ensure that they were paid.

Quite apart from its general distorting and complicating effects, the reparations question also brought about a very sharp international crisis, with far-reaching consequences. In 1923 France and Belgium seized upon a German failure to make deliveries of reparations in kind to occupy the industrial area of the Ruhr, with the object (certainly as far as the French were concerned) either of making the Germans pay, or of inflicting serious damage on the German economy — contradictory aims, doubtless, but either of them satisfactory from a French point of view. The occupation of the Ruhr involved the use of force (invasion, the Germans claimed; police action according to the French) and helped to precipitate the catastrophic German hyperinflation of 1923. This inflation had little direct connection with reparations payments themselves, but a great deal to do with the way the German government chose to subsidise industry and to pay the costs of the passive resistance to the occupation by extravagant use of the printing press. Inflation was already very high in 1922 — in June 1923 the exchange rate of the mark to the dollar reached 109,966, and it then rose to the astronomical figure of 4,620,455 marks to the dollar in August.10 A pay-packet was worthless before a worker got home; and anyone with assets tied to the mark (which meant anyone with savings, insurance policies, or a fixed income) saw their value vanish absolutely. The effects of this in terms of individual lives and collective confidence were far-reaching; and they later contributed to the appeal of Nazism. The Ruhr occupation and the German hyperinflation were not inevitable consequences of the reparation clauses of Versailles; but as events turned out, they were among the actual results.

Going deeper than claims about the harshness of the peace settlement or its economic errors is the judgement that it was inherently and disastrously unstable. This instability was apparent in a number of ways. The war destroyed the pre-1914 European balance, and the peace could put nothing adequate in its place. A profound shift in the pattern of power occurred while the war was in progress. French losses and weariness were such that France became dependent, even by 1916, on the help of the British Empire; and by 1918 both were dependent on the USA, which alone could provide the economic resources and the fresh troops to defeat Germany. It was the steady flow of American doughboys, raw but enthusiastic, and with limitless reserves, that brought home to the Germans with mathematical certainty that they must lose. Before this, Germany had fought four major European enemies to a standstill, and totally defeated one of them, Russia. The lesson was that Germany was so strong in terms of population, industrial resources, organisation, and not least will-power, that four other European great powers had barely the capacity to hold her at bay; and an entirely new force from outside Europe was necessary to tip the balance.

This bleak outlook stood revealed by the facts of war. What could the aspirations of peace do to soften its outlines? It was plain by as early as 1920 that the answer was, very little. The USA, having done so much to win the war and shape the peace treaties that followed it, withdrew her strength and activity back across the Atlantic — not into ‘isolation’, which is altogether too absolute a term, but into an indifference towards the European balance of power which came only too naturally to a people who found the phrase itself distasteful. The British, surveying with a grievous sense of loss the cost in lives of commitment to a Continental war, thought it best to turn back to empire and the more hopeful patterns of former centuries, or to turn away from all power politics into some form of pacifism. Russia stood transformed by revolution, weak in armed or industrial strength, but powerful in menace to ordered bourgeois society.

No country felt this change more than France. In 1914 her position against Germany rested on her long-standing alliance with Russia and her entente with Britain. In the crisis of a German invasion, both came to her help, and in 1914 the Russian attack on East Prussia helped to check the German offensive in France. By 1919–20, Russia was gone, powerless and in any case unreliable, and Britain was anxious to diminish her European commitments. It was possible that the newly created League of Nations might be turned into an organisation capable of restraining German power; but this was by no means certain. The situation of France in 1919, and the severity of French attitudes towards Germany, can only be properly comprehended by grasping the facts of French weakness in comparison with 1914.

There was no European balance in 1919–20. Indeed, the precarious nature of the new creation was immediately apparent. General Smuts, a member of the South African delegation at the Paris Peace Conference, wrote to Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister, in March 1919 that the peace treaty then being prepared would be utterly unstable. Notably, he held that Poland and Czechoslovakia, new states coming into existence in eastern Europe, would not be viable without German goodwill — and he was right. In the coming storms, he predicted, they would be the first to go under — and (except for Austria) they were. Germany remained in the centre of Europe, with (even after her losses of territory) a population and industrial resources which were bound, if allowed free play, to give her a predominant position on the Continent. The peace settlement had been harsh enough to infuriate the Germans, but not so crushing as to render them powerless. Machiavelli once advised: ‘If you see your enemy in the water up to his neck, you will do well to push him under; but if he is only in it up to his knees, you will do well to help him to the shore.’ The peace treaty did neither.11

Eastern Europe: national minorities and disputed boundaries

All this has concentrated on France and Germany. But there was another area of instability in Europe: the whole of the eastern half of the Continent was in confusion in 1919, with consequences which persisted for the next twenty years or more. From a British point of view, eastern Europe is a long way off and hard to comprehend. Austen Chamberlain, when Foreign Secretary in 1925, remarked that the Polish Corridor was not worth the bones of a British grenadier; and his half-brother Neville, in a famous broadcast on 27 September 1938, described the crisis in Czechoslovakia as ‘a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing’.12 Yet that quarrel brought Europe to the brink of conflict; and in 1939 British grenadiers (and many others) marched off to a war which arose, at least immediately, from the Polish Corridor. It was an area which had a way of forcing itself upon the attention even of the distant and uncomprehending British.

In 1919, the contrast between western and eastern Europe was striking. In the west, there were some minor territorial changes, but the map remained basically as it had been in 1914. In the east all was transformed. North of the Danube, the whole territory had previously been shared between the three empires of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia. Now in their place there appeared no fewer than eight new or revived states: Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Austria. To the south, in the Balkans, there was only one new state (Yugoslavia); but most of the others were markedly different in shape, whether larger (Rumania, Greece) or smaller (Bulgaria).

It is certain that the problems created in this wholesale transformation were numerous and profound. It is arguable that they were insoluble, and that they led Europe inexorably towards war. In part, these problems were territorial, in the simple sense that there was scarcely a line on the new map that was not disputed to some degree. But in nearly every case territory was primarily important because it had become a national symbol, or because it involved conflicts of nationality. Nations are troublesome creatures. No one can define them with precision or in such a way as to command general consent; yet if a group of people feel themselves to be a nation there tends to be no limit to what some of them will do to assert their nationality. In eastern Europe, the First World War and the settlement which followed it marked the high-water mark of nationalism and separatism. Nationalist movements flourished both spontaneously and with the encouragement of belligerent states seeking to damage their opponents — Germany, for example, encouraged Polish and Ukrainian nationalism against Russia, and Britain and France supported Czech nationalism against Austria-Hungary. But while nationalist aspirations were aroused, they could not all be satisfied: they conflicted with one another, with the interests of existing states, and with the facts of history, geography, and economics, which made it impossible to draw clear and satisfactory dividing lines between the territory of one nationality and that of another.

The consequence was that eastern Europe produced a welter of conflicting aspirations and claims. Sometimes a nation was left without a state of its own, and so with a restless urge to create one. The Ukrainians were in this position (though a nominally independent Ukraine existed for a brief period in 1918–19); and their position was the more complicated because Ukrainians (or Ruthenians, as their western groupings were usually called) were divided between three separate states — Russia, Poland, and Czechoslovakia. Ukrainian nationalism was a threat to all three, and could be used as a weapon by any of their enemies, among whom Germany was the most prominent; and Ukrainian militants often found a sympathetic home in Berlin. The Croats found themselves absorbed into the new state of Yugoslavia, which was in many ways the old Serbia writ large. There was a strong Croat separatist movement, seeking an independent Croat state and finding support from Italy, an enemy of Yugoslavia, where exiled separatists were allowed to set up camps and prepare assassinations. Half-submerged were the Slovaks, theoretically partners in the new state of Czechoslovakia, but finding that in practice the Czechs came out on top; there was again some impulse towards separatism, or at least towards autonomy within a reorganised Czechoslovak state.

In other cases, the problem was different. A nation-state was created, but many people of its particular nationality were separated from it, as was inevitable in the historical scattering of peoples across the map. The numbers involved were large, and the complaints were bitter. In all, it has been estimated that the 1919 settlement left nearly 19 million people as national minorities in nine nation-states, out of a total population of about 98 million. The position of Poland and Czechoslovakia was particularly difficult, with one person in three belonging to a minority nationality – and that counted the Slovaks as being among the majority in Czechoslovakia: the Czechs themselves did not amount to half the total population. The situation as a whole is illustrated by Table 2.1.13

All the new states claimed to be nation-states, with nationality as their only principle of legitimacy. The principle of their governments, at any rate at the start, was democratic. In these circumstances, national minorities were bound to remain minorities. If they were oppressed (and most thought they were) their only hope of release lay in the intervention of a ‘big brother’ (their own nation-state) over the border; or perhaps in rebellion or war. (It is true that the Covenant of the League of Nations included provisions for the protection of minorities, but these usually remained a dead letter.)

TABLE 2.1 Minorities in the new nation-states


Population (in millions)

Principal minorities


14.7 (including 6.5 Czechs and 3.0 Slovaks)

































Ukrainian and Byelorussian

















14.0 (including 5.5



Serbs 4.5 Croats



1.0 Slovenes)







Source: Elizabeth Wiskemann, Europe of the Dictators (London 1966), pp. 267–8. Fontana.

The result was a set of territorial disputes, rooted in questions of nationality, which festered for some twenty years after the settlement of 1919–20, and gave much force to the thesis of a Thirty Years War. One after another they broke out afresh in 1938, 1939, and 1940, precipitating repeated crises and providing at least the circumstances, and arguably the causes, of European war.

The most obvious of these involved the boundary between Germany and Poland, where resentment was particularly concentrated on the issues of Danzig and the Polish Corridor. Danzig was a city and port which had been German (or Prussian) since 1793; it was overwhelmingly German in population; and yet in 1919 it was proclaimed a ‘Free City’ in order to give Poland access to the sea through a port which was not in German territory. The Polish Corridor, territory formerly German but now providing Poland's access to the Baltic, and cutting East Prussia off from the rest of Germany, contained a German population amounting to 10 per cent, according to the Polish census of 1931. The Poles, on the other hand, were disappointed that their own claims to annex Danzig and almost the whole of Upper Silesia, which had at first been accepted by the Peace Conference's Commission on Polish Affairs, had not finally been upheld. More important, they were convinced that their commerce, security, and independence were all bound up with Danzig and the Corridor.

Poland was also involved in two other major frontier disputes, one with Lithuania over Vilna, the other with Czechoslovakia over Teschen. The city of Vilna had been in the Middle Ages the capital of Lithuania; but it was also the seat of a Polish university, and was considered by the Poles to be a strategic centre vital to their security. The population of the city and its surrounding district was predominantly Polish and Jewish; the surrounding district was of mixed Polish, Lithuanian and Byelorussian population. A Lithuanian state had come into being, under German influence, in 1918, and was established as an independent republic by the end of the year, just as Poland was achieving its own resurrection as a state. In 1919–20 Vilna was the object of sporadic fighting between the two countries; and in October 1920 an armistice left it in Lithuanian occupation. It was then occupied by a local force under a Polish general; led a nominally separate life for a time; and was finally incorporated into Poland in 1922. The League of Nations took up the case, but failed to persuade Poland to give up the territory. In 1923 France and Britain recognised Vilna as part of Poland. Lithuania did not. Until 1927 the Lithuanian government maintained that a state of war with Poland still continued; and even after that no diplomatic relations between the two states existed until 1938.

Before 1918 the district of Teschen (in Polish Zaolzie) was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. On the collapse of Habsburg authority, the district, which had a mixed population (according to the last Austrian census, 55 per cent Polish, 27 per cent Czech, and 18 per cent German), was disputed between the two new states of Poland and Czechoslovakia. An eventual award by the Allied powers at the conference of Spa (1920) was favourable to Czechoslovakia, leaving Poland with the actual town of Teschen, but allotting the important suburb of Freistadt, along with the whole of the Karvin coalfield, to the Czechs. Both sides felt aggrieved; and the Teschen dispute was one of the issues which divided Poland and Czechoslovakia in the inter-war period, resurfacing during the Munich crisis of 1938.

On the Baltic Sea lay the port of Memel, which was German in population, and up to 1918 had formed the easternmost part of East Prussia. However, it was also the only available port for the newly emerged state of Lithuania; and its position was thus closely akin to that of Danzig in relation to Poland. Under Article 99 of the Treaty of Versailles, Germany ceded Memel and its hinterland to the Allies, and agreed to accept the provisions they made for it; the understanding being that the city would be transferred to Lithuania under some special arrangement. By the beginning of 1923, the Allies had still not determined the status of Memel. Losing patience, the Lithuanians seized the port and its hinterland on 10 January 1923; and in 1924 the Allies accepted the fait accompli of Lithuanian control, though the city was administered as an autonomous district, with its own assembly. As with Vilna, action on the spot, not deliberation in Paris or Geneva, settled the matter; and as with all the other disputes, the issue continued to fester, this time in Germany and among the German population of the city.

Far to the south, on the edge of the Balkans, the region of Transylvania was a long-standing bone of contention between Magyars and Rumanians. The territory had been part of the Kingdom of Hungary within the Habsburg Empire; and had been promised to Rumania by the Allies as the price of intervention on their side during the First World War. This promise was fulfilled in the Treaty of Trianon in 1920, and Transylvania, with about 1.5 million Magyars, passed to Rumania. Previous roles were reversed: the Magyars, who had been politically and socially predominant, now found themselves the underdogs. The problem was particularly intractable because a large part of the Magyar population lived together in south-east Transylvania, far removed from Hungary; and elsewhere a number of towns were mainly Magyar, forming islands in a Rumanian-populated countryside. No redrawing of boundary lines, therefore, could settle the issue to anything like the satisfaction of both sides. Relations between Hungary and Rumania were poisoned for the next twenty years, until Hitler produced a new territorial award in 1940, more favourable to Hungary, but still basically unsatisfactory to both sides.

These were the principal specific disputes. But the fact was that almost every frontier drawn in eastern Europe between 1919 and 1921 was unsatisfactory to one state or another, and sometimes to more than one at once. Poland was in particularly difficult straits. Not just Danzig and the Corridor, but the whole of the German-Polish boundary was unacceptable to Germany; while in the east the frontier with Russia laid down by the Treaty of Riga in 1921 was thought in Moscow to be far too favourable to the Poles. It was drawn at the end of a long and swaying struggle, in which Russia finally accepted defeat, and Poland secured territories which contained large numbers of Ukrainians and Byelorussians.14

Even those states which did well out of the settlement in eastern Europe were not united in defending it. In this lay the importance of the disputes between Poland and Lithuania, and even more between Poland and Czechoslovakia. By any rational calculation, these states should have made common cause to protect their gains against their enemies in Germany and Russia; but they did not. Instead, relations between them were so bad that they were willing to make common cause with their greater enemies against one another. Relations between Poland and Czechoslovakia were particularly embittered and irritable. The Teschen dispute was only part of the story. The two countries differed sharply in their views of the Soviet Union: the Poles were deeply hostile, on both historical and ideological grounds; while the Czechs were anxious for Soviet friendship, out of historic sympathy, and because they sought support against Germany. Many Poles took the view that the whole state of Czechoslovakia was an artificial creation, doomed to collapse at some stage.

To all except those involved, the Polish-Czech feud was obviously suicidal. The whole of the east European settlement only came about because, in freakish circumstances, Russia and Germany had both been defeated within a year, one after the other. These two great powers had long dominated eastern Europe; indeed, they had ruled most of it. As the giants regained their strength, which was as certain as anything can be in human affairs, their dominance would be restored. If this process was to be resisted, its potential victims would have to stand together; which they were in no mind to do. Even if they had, success would not have been assured; and it is here that there lay the final and most important element of instability in the east European settlement. It was founded upon the sand; and as the tides of German and Soviet power rose from the low ebb of 1918–19, the sand would be washed away.

The case for a Thirty Years War

It is clear enough that the European order as it stood before 1914 had disintegrated, and that its replacement rested on unstable foundations. From this premiss, it is easy, and to some degree convincing, to argue that the whole rickety edifice was likely to collapse in ruin at any time. It held out the prospect of war in a number of different guises: a war launched by Germany to re-establish her dominance in Europe (eastern or western, or both); a preventive war by France or Poland to forestall such action; or war in eastern Europe over one or more of the many points of conflict in that calamitous region. Why look further for the origins of another war in Europe?

The case appears all the stronger if, as many people believed, there was a fundamental continuity in German policy over the whole period between 1914 and 1941. Many Frenchmen never thought otherwise: if the Germans got another chance, they would try again; the only safe course was to sap their economy, keep them disarmed, and surround them with France's allies. Churchill obviously thought the same when he telegraphed to President Roosevelt during the night of 4/5 August 1941: ‘It is twenty-seven years ago today that the Huns began the last war. We must make a good job of it this time. Twice ought to be enough.’15 More strikingly, in the 1960s a similar view began to gain ground in Germany itself, when the writings of Fritz Fischer emphasised the elements of continuity between the war aims of Germany in the First and Second World Wars.16 This raises the whole question of whether, or how far, German policy in fact embodied such continuity; or whether the advent of Hitler marked a break with the past and the start of a new era, even if it borrowed something from the old. If the continuity of German policy from one war to the next is accepted, this seems to slot the final piece into place in the thesis of a Thirty Years War. The stable, orderly Europe of 1914, with its roughly equal balance of strength between opposing alliances, had not prevented the dynamism and the expansionism of Germany from breaking loose. It took four years of war, and the powerful advent of the USA, to defeat Germany. If Germany still had the same dynamism, the same will to expand, and was set on the same course, but was faced with a Europe in decay, with no balance of strength, and no Americans to restore the balance – if this was so, surely the die was cast, and another European war was a certainty. Only the details of time and occasion remained to be decided.

It is a powerful thesis, resting on much solid evidence and strong internal logic. Yet, in the debate on the origins of the Second World War in Europe, it is confronted by another thesis, of apparently equal cogency and consistency.


1. Nancy Mitford, The Pursuit of Love (London: Penguin 1980), p. 206. The book was first published in 1945.

2. W. S. Churchill, The Second World War, vol. I (London 1948), p. vii.

3. See the discussion in Michael Howard, ‘A Thirty Years' War? The two World Wars in historical perspective.’ Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th series, vol. III (1993), pp. 171–184.

4. Gordon Brook-Shepherd, November 1918: the last act of the Great War (London 1981), pp. 67–69.

5. H. W. V. Temperley (ed.), A History of the Peace Conference of Paris, vol. III, pp. 187, 214. The text of the treaty is printed in this volume, pp. 105–336.

6. Ibid., pp. 212–213.

7. See Margaret Macmillan, The Peacemakers: The Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and its attempt to end war (London 2001), pp. 492–493.

8. Temperley, History of the Peace Conference, p. 214.

9. Reproduced from A. Sauvy, Histoire économique de la France, 1919–1939, vol. I (Paris 1965), p. 169. The figure by each arrow shows the approximate war debt owed by one state (or group of states) to another, in millions of dollars.

10. Table in Zara Steiner, The Lights that Failed: European International History, 1919–1933 (Oxford 2005), p. 191.

11. Quoted in W. K. Hancock, Smuts: the sanguine years, 1870–1919 (Cambridge 1962), p. 533; cf. pp. 510–511, 524.

12. C. Petrie, Life and Letters of Sir Austen Chamberlain, vol. II (London 1940), pp. 258–259; Keith Feiling, Neville Chamberlain (London 1946), p. 372.

13. Table from Elizabeth Wiskemann, Europe of the Dictators (London 1966), pp. 267–268. Figures for Jews have been omitted, because they were not among those minorities with a nation-state elsewhere; but there were approximately 3 million Jews in Poland and 700,000 in Rumania. The figures are mostly taken from census returns of about 1930.

14. There is a careful and detailed account of the Polish position in Anna M. Cienciala, From Versailles to Locarno. Keys to Polish Foreign Policy 1919–1925 (Lawrence, Kansas 1984).

15. Churchill, Second World War, vol. III (London 1950), p. 381.

16. Fritz Fischer, Griff nach der Weltmacht (Düsseldorf 1961); English trans., Germany's Aims in the First World War (London 1967).

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