France and Britain were not the standard-bearers of an ideology in the same way as Italy and Germany. They were pluralist states, and within their frontiers could be found parties representing all points on the political spectrum, from extreme Left to extreme Right, as well as groups representing all kinds of special interests. Yet all this diversity was founded, if not on an ideology, then on a theory and system of political life: parliamentary democracy, along with the liberties associated with it - freedom of speech, of the press, and of association. The system worked differently in the two countries. France under the Third Republic practised a form of parliamentary government, in which the National Assembly, and especially the Chamber of Deputies, was more powerful than the Cabinet. There were many political parties represented in the Chamber; governments rested on unstable combinations between them; and during the 1930s the average life of a ministry was about six months. The British system was Cabinet government, in which in normal circumstances the Cabinet controlled the House of Commons through a disciplined and stable party majority. In the 1930s there were only two major parties, Conservative and Labour, though Liberals of various kinds retained a foothold. From 1931 to 1940 Britain was ruled by a coalition, the National Government, made up of Conservatives, National Labour, and National Liberals. It was a very stable government (though there were changes of Prime Minister on two occasions); and it was dominated by the Conservatives, who provided the vast majority of its parliamentary support.
Despite these differences, the two countries had much in common, which they felt increasingly as parliamentary democracies became a scarce, and apparently endangered, species. They shared many attitudes and assumptions; and it is necessary to ask how far these contributed to a situation in which European war was likely or even probable. The prevalent attitude on foreign policy in both countries was a combination of a widespread revulsion against war, attachment to the League of Nations, and support for disarmament. This outlook made war almost unthinkable; and it did much to explain why France and Britain acquiesced for so long in the advance of German power, to the point where it probably could not be checked without war. So, by an unhappy paradox, devotion to peace and international conciliation helped to create the conditions for war. Later, at a point which cannot be precisely dated because the change came at different times for different individuals and groups, these attitudes were reversed. Other assumptions about the values of parliamentary democracy, or socialism, or political morality, began to prevail, and provided what can properly be called an ideological element in the decision to resist the advance of Nazism and fascism - even though that advance had previously been accepted and even assisted.
These developments can be seen in both France and Britain, though in different ways and with varying degrees of intensity.
‘Morts pour la France': the slaughter of the First World War
A profound longing for peace, sometimes emerging as pacifism in the strict sense of the total rejection of war or any use of force, exercised a pervasive influence in France during the 1920s and 1930s. It drew its strength from a range of sources, of which the most important was also the simplest: the experience of the First World War. The total of killed for metropolitan France (excluding overseas territories) amounted to approximately 1.3 million, which constituted 10.5 per cent of the active male population when war began: the figure for Britain was 5.1 per cent.1 The names of those killed were inscribed on war memorials all over France — no village was without its sombre reminder: ‘Morts pour la France’. (The socialist administration of Lille, in a symbolic shift from patriotism to the abstractions of pacifist thought, changed the wording, so that the great memorial in the centre of the city read ‘Morts pour la Paix’ — died for peace.) The impact was greater in France than elsewhere (particularly in Germany) because the casualties struck a population which was already static and ageing. The effect was heightened by the dramatic fall in the number of births during the war, producing a deficit against ‘normal’ totals of perhaps 1.4 million births. The years 1915-18 were those with the fewest births, and their consequences moved inexorably through French life: small classes in schools, a drop in those entering employment, and a fall in the numbers available for conscription when this generation reached military age.
The figures and the war memorials spoke for themselves. France could not afford another conflict like that of 1914–18. Less obvious but just as profound were the psychological effects. These were felt particularly deeply in the countryside, where the rural population reacted against war in a way unknown before 1914. They resented both the government which had sent their fellow-peasants to the slaughter, and the industrial workers who had escaped too easily from the trenches to the factories. When Daniel Halévy visited central France in 1920, he reported bitterness at the inequality with which the tax on French lives had been imposed: everyone had had a chance of avoiding it, except the peasant. By 1934 he found that these feelings had sharpened:
The war assuredly counts for much in this sombre mood which has gripped the peasants. They speak little of its tortures but they forget nothing, and there lies at the bottom of their embittered hearts a desire for vengeance. This is one of the schools of hatred in which the young have been taught. ‘They will lead you to the slaughter’ the father tells his son. ‘I let myself be led, I've been through it. Don't you go.’2
Revulsion against war was strong among the peasants who had formed the backbone of the sorely tried French infantry; but it was not confined to them. Before 1914 there was already a significant degree of anti-militarism in the French socialist and syndicalist movements, which affected industrial workers. This continued in the 1920s and 1930s, and also took deep root in other organisations, especially those representing primary school teachers — a respected and influential profession. The effects were cumulative and pervasive. French reservists obeyed the mobilisation order in 1938 (at the time of the Munich crisis), as they did again in 1939; but it was in a spirit of grim resignation. They would go through with it; but twice in twenty-five years was too much.
This widespread, instinctive reaction against war, born of personal or family experience, was reinforced by an intellectual and literary current. The decade 1919-29 saw a stream of novels and plays which were in effect overwhelmingly anti-war. They followed the success of what remains the most famous of such books, Henri Barbusse's Le Feu (translated into English as Under Fire). First serialised in weekly parts in a left-wing journal, then published as a book in 1916 and awarded the Prix Goncourt, Le Feu sold 230,000 copies by February 1919. Many such books followed — over 150 war novels in the 1920s.3 They were well received, in terms of both reviews and sales; and as early as the winter season of 1919–20 anti-militarist plays drew great applause in Paris theatres. In the late 1920s the number of books fell away, to revive again in the 1930s under the looming shadow of another war, with an emphasis on the theme of desertion or refusal of service, and on the horrific, catastrophic nature of the next war — air bombardment, chemical warfare, the collapse of civilisation. There appeared also, in André Malraux's L'Espoir (1937), a novel about the Spanish Civil War, a revival of the theme of heroism, a call to arms in a just cause; but that was about another country, and a different kind of war, and it was against the stream.
The main political home of French pacifism was in the Socialist Party. During the First World War the party had been divided between supporters of the war and advocates of a compromise peace, with a further small group which proclaimed ‘revolutionary defeatism’, the acceptance of defeat in war to provoke revolution at home. During the 1920s, these past differences of view were submerged beneath a general programme of disarmament and reduction of military service, which sufficed while there was no serious danger of war. During the 1930s traditional pacifism, represented and led by Paul Faure, revived in strength. Humanitarian and optimistic in nature, its supporters believed that peace could be achieved through disarmament, and by negotiation with Hitler. They argued that it depended on France whether German expansion (inevitable in itself) was peaceful or warlike, because if all his claims were rejected, Hitler would have to use the only method left to him, which was war. A more extreme form of pacifism found expression in the writings of Félicien Challaye, a socialist philosopher. One of his books, published in 1933, summed up his position in its title: Pour la paix désarmée, même en face d'Hitler — For disarmed peace, even in face of Hitler. He argued that foreign occupation was preferable to war; and that the price of war was always greater than that of remaining at peace. These views were adopted by the so-called ‘integral pacifist’ wing of the Socialist Party, led by Jacques Pivert; they did not form a majority even among socialist militants, but they were active and influential.
Another important influence working in the same direction was the Syndicat National des Instituteurs (National Union of Primary Teachers), which in 1937 had about 100,000 members out of the 130,000 primary teachers in France. These teachers played an important role not only in the schools, but as secretaries in town halls throughout France, and above all as respected representatives of socially acceptable attitudes. In the 1880s and 1890s the primary teachers had been deeply patriotic; before 1914 there was some move towards anti-militarism; and after the war the majority moved towards pacifism, for which the union's weekly journal was increasingly used as a vehicle. In August 1936 the union's annual congress approved a resolution demanding the immediate annulment of the war guilt clause of the Treaty of Versailles; unilateral disarmament, including reduction of military service from two years to twelve months or six; and arrangements with other unions for a general strike as soon as mobilisation was proclaimed, for whatever reason. On 26 September 1938, at the height of the Czechoslovakian crisis, the secretary-general of the union, along with a representative of the postal workers, drew up an appeal to the country — ‘We do not want war’, which received 150,000 signatures in three days, and was specifically noted by the Premier, Daladier, before he went to Munich.
It is impossible to assess the precise weight of these different elements in the revulsion against war; but their combined significance was profound, and coloured all French thought and action in the 1930s. Towards the end of the decade, in 1938 and 1939, there came signs of a change: but until then the momentum of the pacifist movement was unchecked.
The League of Nations and disarmament
This movement was linked, though to a markedly lesser degree in France than in Britain, with the appeal of the League of Nations and disarmament as means for the promotion of peace. The League of Nations was the central feature of Briand's long years as Foreign Minister from 1926 to January 1932. He was a regular attender at Geneva, and a fervent believer in the promotion of peace through League oratory. The speech in which he welcomed the admission of Germany to the League of Nations became famous. ‘Away with rifles, machine-guns, and artillery. Make way for conciliation, arbitration, and peace.’4 It was Briand who took the initiative for the Kellogg-Briand Pact (signed by the USA and France, February 1928) renouncing war as an instrument of national policy; a pact to which practically every country in the world adhered, and which may stand as a symbol of the attempt to attain peace by wishing for it. The Socialist Party also became a firm supporter of the League, after a period of hesitation and division as to how far the League was merely a cover for the great powers and for bourgeois capitalism. As early as 1921 the socialist leader Léon Blum described the League as the embodiment of the civilised world; and his colleague Marcel Sembat called it the only effective means of preventing war.
One of the main objects of the League of Nations was to promote disarmament. The cause of disarmament lay at the heart of French socialist thought and sentiment on international affairs, especially between 1930 and 1934, a period dominated by the Geneva Disarmament Conference. In the four months from November 1930 to February 1931, Blum published thirty-six articles in the socialist daily Le Populaire, which he edited, on the subject of disarmament; and he reprinted them, with only minor changes, in a book, Les Problèmes de la paix (1931).5 For Blum, all the problems of the day would be solved by disarmament — security; the revision of the Versailles settlement; and not least economic problems, for disarmament would create confidence, diminish attempts at self-sufficiency, open the way to freer trade, and liberate for constructive purposes funds which were tied up in military budgets. It was the philosopher's stone which would turn base metal into gold. At that stage, Blum was in opposition, and did not have to cope with translating such aspirations into practice. But those who held office also pursued the theme of disarmament, and hoped that it would contribute to the security of France. Edouard Herriot and Joseph Paul-Boncour (at the time Premier and Foreign Minister respectively) prepared in October 1932 a French plan to put to the Disarmament Conference. Presenting this plan to the Haut Comité Militaire, a joint body of politicians and generals, Herriot argued that the defence of a country did not reside solely in soldiers and guns, but in the strength of its position in law. General Weygand, the head of the French Army, replied that it was his duty to defend the frontiers by force, not with words; on which Paul-Boncour commented afterwards — ‘Lack of imagination’.6 Was it lack of imagination on the part of the soldier, or perhaps too much imagination on the part of the politician? Either way, the comment illuminates the strength of the idea of disarmament among French politicians.
This discussion has so far dealt mainly with parties and organisations of the Left; but the revulsion against war was not a left-wing monopoly. In the mid-1930s, rejection of war came also to be the stock-in-trade of much of the French Right. When the German Army moved into the demilitarised zone of the Rhineland on 7 March 1936, the French press and organised opinion, from Left to Right, was unanimous: there must be no war. The communists accused the Right of wanting war; the socialists accused the government of provocation by manning the Maginot Line; but at the same time the Right proclaimed that peace must prevail and denounced the Left for wanting war. Right-wing newspapers claimed that France was being drawn by its pact with the USSR (signed in 1935) into a German—Soviet quarrel. Charles Maurras, leader of the Action Française and formerly the embodiment of right-wing patriotism and anti-German sentiment, wrote: ‘And above all, no war. We do not want war.’7 Similarly, during the Czechoslovakian crisis of 1938, opposition to war was found as much on the Right as on the Left. By that time, there was more division of opinion, but it was not along party lines, or along the old Left—Right divide: there were pacifists and advocates of resistance on both Right and Left. In part, this new pacifism of the Right arose from hatred of the Soviet Union and communism, and fear of being drawn into war on the side of the Soviets; which leads to another aspect of French attitudes towards foreign policy: the complications and confusions introduced by ideology.
The impact of foreign ideologies: fascism, Nazism, communism
The central threat to France was recognised to be Germany, the old enemy, from 1933 under new and dangerous management. One simple reflex action to meet such a threat was to build up French armaments and to seek powerful allies. But a policy of armaments was hard to pursue in a country devoted to peace; and the search for allies was hampered at almost every turn by the ideological sympathies and antipathies of the French. Hardly ever could French politicians (even if they wanted) devise and carry through policies based solely on grounds of power politics and French interests.
France was divided. This was scarcely new: France had been divided since 1789, between the party of movement and the party of order, the Red and the Black, Left and Right. But each generation lived out the conflict in a new form, and that of the 1930s was particularly virulent. This was partly because political tensions were heightened by economic distress; partly because of the presence of outside powers (fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, communist Soviet Union) with which the extremist parties were identified; and partly because of a natural tendency to make political judgements largely in terms of one's enemies — those who saw the main enemy as fascism were drawn towards the communists, while those who were most fiercely anti-communist were drawn to fascism. There was a strong tendency to simplify the issues, and lump all one's enemies together under one label. To the Left, everyone on the Right was a fascist — even if, like Maurras, he remained a reactionary monarchist, though an admirer of Mussolini. To the Right, everyone on the Left was a Bolshevik, even if, like Blum, he had broken with the communists in 1920 and was completely devoted to the parliamentary system.
The extremists on the Right went out of their way to court publicity and demonstrate their strength. The small fascist groups of the mid-1930s were conspicuous and noisy — the Francistes wore blue uniforms and went in for ritual and display, and the Solidarité Française had bands of street fighters modelled on Nazi storm-troopers and fascist squadristi. Jacques Doriot's Parti Populaire Français (PPF) was much stronger than either: it had a big working-class following in Paris, which Doriot brought with him from his years as communist mayor of St Denis, and could claim its own intellectual and writer in Drieu la Rochelle. Colonel de la Rocque's Croix de Feu, strong in numbers and with a basis as an ex-servicemen's organisation, was not strictly fascist, but certainly on the Right, and conspicuous through its great gatherings and torch-light parades. The strength and potential danger of the Right were dramatically demonstrated in the great riots of 6 February 1934, one of the traumatic ‘days’ of French history, when the Croix de Feu, Action Française, and fascist leagues came near to storming the Chamber of Deputies.
These groups on the far Right of French politics, whether in any strict sense fascist or not, were easily and often correctly identified as sympathetic to foreign powers. Their admiration for Mussolini was unstinted and unalloyed. He showed the power of leadership (so lacking in the shifting combinations of French politics); he imposed order; he crushed the Left. Sometimes, as in the case of the Francistes, this approbation was reinforced by the receipt of funds from Italy, but was none the less real for that. The case of Hitler and the Nazis was less clear-cut, because the Right was torn between traditional opposition to Germany and admiration for a vigorous, authoritarian, and anti-Bolshevik regime. The Action Française newspaper was at first dismayed by Hitler's hostility towards France in his writings, and published some of the more belligerent passages from Mein Kampf as a warning to its readers. On the other hand, Gustave Hervé greeted Hitler's rise to the Chancellorship with acclamation, as saving Germany from the Red tide. In 1937 Alphonse de Chateaubriant visited Hitler and returned full of praise for the Führer's vibrant personality and high ideals, which he proceeded to pour out for the benefit of his readers for some years to come. Favourable French reactions to the Nazi regime were cultivated by Ribbentrop's private office and by other German organisations, working through the Comité France-Allemagne and a number of ex-servicemen's organisations and pacifist groups. Here, the appeal was not to ideological sympathies, but simply to the memory of war and the need for reconciliation; but the result was still to promote sympathy with Nazi Germany. The German government also took the straightforward course of paying a few French journalists to slant their articles in a pro-German direction.8
On the extreme Left, the most formidable group was the Communist Party. The communists (unlike the right-wing groups) contested elections, so their support in the country could be measured. They did badly in the election of 1932, with only ten deputies elected on some 700,000 votes (in the second round). In 1936, on the wave of support generated by the Popular Front and their conversion to a patriotic stance, the communists polled 1.5 million votes and won seventy-two seats. At the same time there was a massive increase in membership of the Party, from about 28,000 in 1932 to about 330,000 at the end of 1936.9 The party appeared the most anti-fascist in the Popular Front; the most committed to the republican cause in Spain; and the most zealous in attacking capitalism. It also had the support of intellectuals (André Gide, André Malraux, Romain Rolland, and others), which was important among some sections of French society.
The communists were therefore prominent. They were also, despite their new-found patriotism, obviously Soviet-controlled and Stalinist. The Popular Front policy itself (the union of all left-wing parties against fascism) had to wait officially for the word from Moscow, and Doriot, who broke away from the party to form the PPF, was denounced for advocating a Popular Front only two months before it was formally adopted. The adulation of Stalin began in 1934, with a resolution at the Party Congress praising the genial artisan of success, the watchful pilot, the steely Bolshevik, and the world leader of the revolutionary struggle. Thereafter, such an address became obligatory at each Congress. By a process of assimilation the same treatment was given to Maurice Thorez, who took the title of Secretary-General of the Party (Stalin's position in the USSR). He had a ghosted autobiography published (1937), with all errors and deviations from the party line written out; and was made the object of a similar cult to that of Stalin — though of course the pedestal was lower. At the very time when the Communist Party opened itself to contacts with socialists and radicals in the Popular Front, it congealed completely in its internal structure and discipline. It was not surprising that its opponents described it as a foreign army encamped on French soil, aiming to make France into Stalin's soldier in western Europe; or that this accusation came with particular force from the PPF, led by Doriot, who had been a leader of the Communist Party and knew how it worked.
The extreme parties of Right and Left were bitterly opposed to one another and to the political system which functioned in the no man's land between them. They were also aligned closely with foreign powers, whether Italy, Germany, or the USSR. The effects of these divisions on French foreign policy were extensive and damaging. In May 1935 the French government, represented by the Foreign Minister of the day, Pierre Laval, signed in Moscow a treaty of alliance with the Soviet Union, negotiations for which had been pursued on and off since 1933. Such an alliance was perfectly designed to bring out the complicated divisions of French opinion. The communists supported it, even though at one time they had claimed to oppose the whole idea of alliances and national security. Equally, a group on the Right, represented in the Chamber by Louis Marin and André Tardieu, and in the press by Le Matin, Le Journal des Débats, and other papers, opposed it, both on foreign policy grounds (it would push the states of eastern Europe, especially Poland, into Germany's orbit), and on grounds of domestic politics, because it would strengthen the communists in France. Others on the Right, the Action Française and the fascist journal Je suis partout also opposed the alliance. But this did not mean that there was a simple split between Left and Right. The ‘realist’ Right, represented among the press by Le Figaro and L'Echo de Paris, and a majority of right-wing deputies, supported the alliance, on straightforward anti-German grounds and in the belief that it would have little effect on the communists in France. The socialists were divided. Some supported the pact on grounds of French security or of the defence of the Revolution; others opposed it on grounds of revolutionary defeatism and total pacifism. The socialist leader, Léon Blum, hesitated for some time. In 1934 he was still primarily an advocate of the League of Nations, and opposed to any alliance policy; at the end of that year he said in the Chamber that French security could not be assured by pacts or increased military strength. But in April 1935 (after German rearmament was openly proclaimed in March) he declared that the guarantee of peace lay in unity of action between the Western democracies and the USSR, and came down in favour of the pact — with the rather curious rider that it was an ‘open’ pact, which the Germans could always join if they wished.
These contorted divisions did not prevent one Foreign Minister, Barthou, carrying on negotiations with the USSR in secret, nor another, Laval, from signing the treaty. But they did mean that the alliance received varying degrees of support from different ministries; that it had an uncertain welcome from the Chamber and Senate, where eventually it would have to be ratified; and that its fulfilment was likely to be half-hearted.
The same was true, for different reasons, of an agreement with Italy, which was another possible anti-German move. Paul-Boncour took up the idea of a rapprochement with Italy in January 1933, but encountered difficulties. He was the author of the contemptuous phrase, ‘César de Carnaval’, to describe Mussolini, which made a bad start. In the Chamber the socialists were almost unanimously opposed to Mussolini. (Blum had a particular aversion for him, and as late as 1933 regarded him as a greater danger to peace than Hitler.) When Italy was mentioned, some socialist usually raised the name of Matteotti, the Italian socialist murdered in 1924. The communists too were consistently hostile to fascist Italy. The Right and Centre favoured an agreement; so that on this issue, unlike that of a Soviet alliance, the division was on straightforward lines. But the moral issues were not simple, as was seen in the reactions to the Franco-Italian agreement of January 1935 by Blum in Le Populaire and Georges Bidault in the Catholic L'Aube. Blum approved the settlement of disputes, but cried shame to see a French minister as the guest of the murderer of Matteotti. Bidault saw no shame in an agreement with a dictator when peace was at stake; and observed that France had negotiated with Stalin despite the repression in the Soviet Union. The Italian attack on Ethiopia later in 1935, in defiance of the League of Nations, compounded the difficulties by forcing a split in the Right when France was forced to choose between Italy and Britain. The victory of the Popular Front in the French elections of April–May 1936 confirmed the break with Italy; the socialists and communists were consistently hostile to Mussolini, and he to them. Agreements across such an ideological divide were not impossible, as the Nazi—Soviet Pact was to show; but they needed both a very powerful impulse from circumstances, and more freedom to practise realpolitik than was available in the French political system.
Repeatedly French governments found that the requirements of power politics, which pointed towards alliances with the USSR or Italy (or both), were impeded by ideological conflicts which crossed the dividing line between foreign and domestic policy. This would have been less important if France had been ruled by strong, stable governments capable of absorbing or overriding ideological conflicts; but this was not the case. Governments were short-lived; the Chamber of Deputies had to be won over to any policy which was to issue in a treaty; and it was only too easy for foreign policy to be paralysed.
Resolving on war; the role of Léon Blum
Revulsion against war and the results of ideological divisions weakened the French reaction to the growth of German power in the 1930s, and thus helped to promote the conditions in which war might come. But in themselves they would not produce war — indeed they made it unlikely that a French government could commit the country to another great conflict. For that to happen, at least something in these attitudes had to change: revulsion against war had to be in some measure overcome, and internal disunity patched up to a sufficient extent to allow a declaration of war. To see how this came about, it is useful to trace the evolution of French socialist opinion, and particularly the opinion of Léon Blum. Blum was a figure with an appeal and a significance wider than that of the party he led. In 1936 he described himself to a German visitor as a Frenchman, a socialist, and a Jew; and he always regarded himself as the heir to Jaurès, the great French socialist assassinated in 1914, who had himself combined socialist beliefs with deep love of his country. Blum's evolution towards a reluctant acceptance of the necessity of war had an importance greater than the simply personal.
At the end of the 1920s Blum, along with most French socialists, was committed to the League of Nations, disarmament, revision of the unjust parts of the Versailles settlement, and opposition to all alliances. He did not absolutely reject the use of force in self-defence, but he was profoundly opposed to war in almost any circumstances. In 1930–31 he argued in favour of unilateral disarmament by France (differing from the majority in his own party, which preferred simultaneous disarmament). The rise of Hitler did not immediately disturb him, because he regarded Nazism as merely a more virulent form of nationalism, and thought it less dangerous than Italian fascism. He remained a passionate advocate of disarmament, believing that if other powers did not build up their armaments, Germany would not increase hers.
When the Geneva Disarmament Conference of 1932–34 finally broke down, the French Socialist Party split into different tendencies. One supported a policy of resisting the fascist and Nazi states by means of alliances. Another held to the older policies of avoiding alliances and seeking peace by means of concessions. A third clung to absolute pacifism, arguing that even foreign occupation was preferable to war. Blum came gradually to adopt the first of these positions. In 1935 he supported the Franco-Soviet Pact (though he had long opposed all alliances); and he advocated sanctions against Italy over Ethiopia. Up to 1934 he refused to vote for military credits, and in 1935 he voted against the extension of conscription from one year to two. But thereafter he began to support the military credits, and as Premier in 1936–37 he doubled the sums devoted to rearmament.
Léon Blum: Idealist in politics. Frenchman, socialist and Jew — under threat in all three identities.
The Czechoslovakian crisis of 1938 evoked some final hesitations. Most of the time, Blum opposed sacrificing Czechoslovakia to Germany; but at the end of September he wavered, and advocated a compromise solution in order to avoid war. After Munich, he shared the general sense of relief, writing: ‘We can go back to work and sleep soundly again. We can enjoy the beauty of the autumn sun.’10 On 4 October he and his party voted for the Munich agreement. After that he reverted to a policy of firmness, from which he did not again depart. He advocated armaments and alliances against Hitler. At the Socialist Congress at Montrouge in December he carried a resolution supporting the defence of France against ‘any attack which threatened its integrity, sovereignty and independence’.11 In 1939 he supported French commitments to Poland and military conversations with the Soviet Union. On 2 September 1939 Blum and the Socialist Party voted for war credits. It was a far cry from his earlier position.
Frenchman, socialist, and Jew: all three identities for which Blum stood were threatened by the rise of Nazi Germany. The triple threat brought the full horror of the twentieth century home to a man who was deeply imbued with the optimism of the nineteenth. Not all Frenchmen, or socialists, or perhaps even Jews, followed the same agonised pilgrimage as Blum; but many did, in their own individual ways. In 1938–39 there was a steady hardening of French resolution, and a firm though reluctant determination to face war if need be. Jean-Louis Crémieux-Brilhac has traced this painful evolution, and demonstrated the striking firmness of French opinion as a whole in August and September 1939.12 Naturally, divisions remained, and even this new determination was tinged with a deep pessimism. But without this profound shift of opinion, articulate on the part of Léon Blum, wordless and instinctive in others, there would not have been the resolution to go to war at all.
For most of the period between the wars, Britain was of smaller importance in European affairs than France. In political, strategic, and above all psychological terms, Britain was not a Continental power. In the mind's eye, the narrow waters of the Straits of Dover became a great divide; isolationism was strong; and there was a widespread feeling that never again should Britain send a great army to fight in Europe. Britain had suffered much less than France in the First World War — about 750,000 dead (about 950,000 when Dominion and Empire casualties were added); but the impact on a profoundly unmilitary country was still formidable, and there was a strong disinclination to repeat the experience. If that was the price of a Continental commitment, the British would prefer not to pay it.
Despite all this, Britain could not contract out of Europe. She was one of the victors of 1918; one of the makers of the 1919 settlement; a guarantor of the Locarno agreement; and an important element in the European economy. Moreover, several European states, and especially France, regarded British policy in Europe as of crucial importance. For these reasons, British attitudes and sentiments remained important in European affairs; and for a short time in 1939–40 they were decisive.
As with France, we may begin with general attitudes towards international relations, and the atmosphere of the inter-war period. The picture was broadly similar to that in France, but the shades of emphasis were different. Support for the League of Nations came first, followed by pacifism (absolute for a few, and a general revulsion against war for many). The two combined to feed a widespread belief in disarmament as a means of securing peace. All these sentiments crossed party boundaries. They were more firmly established in the Labour and Liberal Parties than among the Conservatives, but even so, few Conservatives cared to damn the League of Nations out of hand, or openly advocate heavy armaments.
The League of Nations, pacifism and disarmament
Belief in the League of Nations was the nearest thing to an ideology in Britain between the wars. The League of Nations Union, which existed to promote the League's cause in the country, was under royal patronage, which was the sign of being wholly respectable and above party; its committee was drawn from all three parties; and it had just over 400,000 subscribers in 1931.13 It was allowed, and indeed encouraged, to propagate its views in schools. On one occasion, in the so-called ‘Peace Ballot’, it organised a widespread canvass of public opinion in which the immense number of 11.5 million people expressed their support for the League. They voted almost unanimously for continued British membership of the League and for general disarmament; nearly as heavily for the abolition of military aircraft and prohibiting the private manufacture of armaments; and for economic sanctions against a country which insisted on attacking another. Military sanctions (the current euphemism for war) were less readily approved of; but 8 millions were still in favour of them, at least in principle.
In terms of party politics, Labour was by the end of the 1920s the most ardent supporter of the League, after (as in France) a period of hesitation as to whether it was not merely a League of victors and of capitalist states, and therefore to be shunned. The League came to be regarded as an important step towards internationalism, and as a safeguard against any return to the alliance system which (it was believed) had led to war in 1914. As late as June 1936, when the Minister for War, Duff Cooper, made a speech in Paris about Franco-British friendship, the leader of the Labour Party, Clement Attlee, complained that the speech made no reference to the Covenant of the League of Nations — Labour was not prepared to accept, in any form, a military alliance with France. The League was also a natural focus for the remnants of the Liberals, embodying as it did, in new guise, the old Gladstonian ideals of mediation, arbitration, and the Concert of Europe.
What of the supposedly hard-headed realists of the Conservative Party? Whole-hearted League enthusiasts were doubtless few in its ranks. Lord Robert Cecil, a highly individual Tory, did as much as any single man to found the League, and he remained devoted to it; but he was not characteristic of his party. Austen Chamberlain, the sober and respected Foreign Secretary of 1924–29, made a point of going to Geneva, but at least in part this was to keep an eye on Cecil. However, Stanley Baldwin, who had a shrewd eye for popularity, thought it best in 1935 to establish a Minister for League of Nations affairs; and Anthony Eden, who took this post, the brightest rising star in the Conservative Party, saw in the League a passport to public favour as well as sound international thinking. The League made much sense in terms of foreign policy, as a place where influence could be exercised and negotiations pursued; it was also reckoned to be an electoral asset which should on no account be thrown away. A Conservative Party official wrote to Baldwin on 1 August 1935 that they might lose the next election if the bulk of the Liberal vote went to Labour; and no political issue was more likely to influence the Liberal vote than ‘the question of peace and war and the future of the League of Nations’.14 Besides which, there was always the possibility that the vision of collective security might actually materialise. In 1935, at the time of the Ethiopian crisis, Neville Chamberlain, who was far from being a Leagueomaniac, agreed that sanctions against Italy should be tried, in the hope that the League might yet be vindicated; and he believed that Britain should give a lead, and not let the issue go by default.
Here lay an important strand of thought — or rather of belief — which was shared across all parties. Between the wars it was an article of faith in Britain that the country had a special moral role as a leader in world affairs; and that other countries would naturally follow whatever direction the British chose. It was a remnant of the complete self-confidence of the Victorian era; and it remains mildly astonishing that in the Ethiopian crisis the fifty members of the League of Nations did indeed consent to be led by Britain — until, alas, they all fell into the ditch. The British retained as their heritage from the nineteenth century a rather specialised form of moral conscience and a remarkable faith in their own power of leadership. The two together gave a particular quality and tenacity to faith in the League of Nations. As late as April 1938 the deputy editor of The Times could write with confidence that ‘the British people is more League-minded than any in the world’; and he was probably right.15
In strict logic, support for the League was incompatible with absolute pacifism, because the Covenant of the League included the use of military sanctions against an aggressor. Naturally enough, strict logic was often defied, and pacifists usually supported the League, as offering the best chance of general peace. Pacifists in the absolute sense were in any case a small, though active, minority. The largest pacifist group of the 1930s, Canon Dick Sheppard's Peace Pledge Union, began with 50,000 postcards accepting the uncompromising statement: ‘We renounce war and never again, directly or indirectly, will we support or sanction another.’ The maximum membership of the Union was reached after war had begun — 136,000 in April 1940.16 These were impressive figures; and presumably the activist core was surrounded by a larger number of sympathisers. In a much more general sense, almost the whole population was united in the desire to promote peace and avoid any repetition of the events of 1914–18 and the as yet unfathomable dangers of aerial bombardment. Revulsion against war was as widespread and profound in Britain as in France, and it was nourished by a stream of war (or anti-war) literature by Sassoon, Graves, Blunden, and others.
Disarmament was the link that bound the League and revulsion against war together. ‘I give you my word there will be no great armaments’, Baldwin told the British electorate in 1935, even when appealing for a mandate for limited rearmament.17 Disarmament was one of the major principles of Labour foreign policy; and Arthur Henderson ended his political life as Chairman of the Geneva Disarmament Conference of 1932–34. The National government too, despite many accusations to the contrary, pursued the aim of a disarmament agreement throughout the conference, trying repeatedly to reconcile the positions of France and Germany — which in effect meant allowing German armaments to increase while seeking to diminish those of France. When this failed, the government went ahead with a separate Anglo-German Naval Agreement in 1935, and sought persistently for an agreement to restrict air bombardment. Governments, of course, pursued disarmament for a variety of reasons, many of them to do with financial economy and political self-interest; but the degree of commitment to disarmament as a means of securing peace should not be underestimated, nor should the force of public opinion that was concentrated on this issue.
Crises in ideology and foreign policy
The element of confusion imparted by ideology to the conduct of foreign policy was much less in Britain than in France. There were several political conflicts in Britain, and a good deal of bitterness over questions of unemployment and the means test. There was some overheated language. Even Attlee, who is not usually associated with extremism, wrote in 1937 that ‘MacDonaldism is … in its philosophy essentially Fascist. MacDonald himself uses the same phrases that may be found in the mouths of Hitler and Mussolini.’18 But even so Britain was much less seriously divided than was France. All the major parties, and almost every member of the House of Commons, continued to accept the rules of the political game. There were, it is true, groups in the country which wanted some completely different political system. There were the communists, supported by numerous and influential fellow-travellers. There was Sir Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists; and a strange assortment of enthusiasts, eccentrics, and extremists who have been neatly summed up as ‘fellow-travellers of the Right’.19 But in 1935 the British electorate was invited to vote for parties led by Mr Baldwin and Mr Attlee — safe, unexciting, middle-of-the-road men; and they did so in their millions. The votes given to the extreme parties were derisory in number. The British reaction to years of economic depression, high unemployment, and a European crisis which produced one authoritarian regime after another, was to return Stanley Baldwin with a comfortable majority. It was not a step along the road to revolution.
During the 1930s British governments had substantial (indeed up to 1935 overwhelming) majorities in the House of Commons, and firm backing in the country. If they knew their course in foreign policy, and cared to press on with it, then short of a political earthquake they could do so. The kind of paralysis induced in French foreign policy by ideological divisions would not occur at Westminster. Yet the political assumptions which underlay British policy, whether we dignify them with the name of ideology or not, still created problems, which were strikingly revealed during the Ethiopian crisis of 1935–36.
When in October 1935 Italy attacked Ethiopia, a fellow-member of the League of Nations, a number of possible courses were open to the British government. The French, with Laval as Prime Minister, wanted to retain Italy as an ally against Germany, and were willing to pay for this alliance by handing over large areas of Ethiopian territory to Mussolini; and the British went some way down this path in preparing the Hoare—Laval agreement of December 1935. If they had been willing to pursue this course with sufficient determination and ruthlessness, it might have produced results. On the other hand, if they wished to oppose Italy, then bold action — to close the Suez Canal, and risk a battle with the Italian fleet and air force — might well have done the trick. The government went part-way down this path by reinforcing the Mediterranean fleet. But both these courses were essentially nineteenth-century in character — the cynical diplomacy of imperialism, or the threat of sea power and the mailed fist. Neither fitted with the attitudes of the League, collective security, and the new morality. Moreover, the crisis occurred just after the declaration of the results of the ‘Peace Ballot’, and just before a general election. Not surprisingly, neither course was followed to its conclusion. The British government went instead for half-hearted League action — economic sanctions against Italy, but excluding oil; with the result that Italy was infuriated but not stopped, and Ethiopia was encouraged but not saved. It was a clear case of British policy being caught between the old attitudes and the new, and falling with a bump between two stools. If the Ethiopian crisis marked a step towards European war (which it surely did), then British attitudes contributed much to its development.
Less dramatically, and indeed much less decisively, political attitudes did something to obscure, or to blunt the edge of, British reactions to Nazi Germany. There was first the question of whether there should be any reaction on ideological grounds at all. Geoffrey Dawson, the editor of The Times, wrote in a leading article in August 1937:
The notion that there can be no dealing with National Socialism (or for that matter with Bolshevism) has found no countenance in these columns. … The distinction which it has always drawn is between the internal affairs of Germany (which are her own concern) and those national activities — due to some extent to the character of her rulers — which may threaten the peace and security of other countries or strike at the world-wide freedom of religious belief.20
This was the traditional attitude of British governments and the Foreign Office — that the internal affairs of other states were their own concern. It appeared the only safe rule: after all, no one wanted German intervention in, say, the affairs of Northern Ireland. The consequence of these lines of argument was that the coming to power of the Nazis should not fundamentally affect British policy towards Germany. But there were those who thought otherwise. Attlee said in the Commons on 13 April 1933 that Britain should not countenance ‘the yielding to Hitler and force what was denied to Stresemann and reason’.21 In February 1938 Ernest Bevin, the trade union leader, put the matter bluntly (as was his wont):
I have never believed from the first day when Hitler came to office but that he intended at the right moment and when he was strong enough, to wage war in the world. Neither do I believe, with that kind of philosophy, that there is any possibility to arrive at agreements with Hitler or Mussolini.22
On the whole, the government held to the first view, which appeared to be practical as well as traditional — after all, there were so many dictatorships in Europe that one could scarcely take issue with them all. But as early as July 1934 Neville Chamberlain wrote of the murder of Dollfuss, the Austrian Chancellor: ‘That those beasts should have got him at last… makes me hate Nazi-ism, and all its works, with a greater loathing than ever.’23 Eventually, such feelings were to gain the upper hand, and contributed to a change in policy.
At the time of the German take-over of Austria in March 1938, the reaction of the Labour and Liberal press was muted because Schuschnigg's regime was regarded as fascist, the heir to the one that had crushed the Austrian socialists in 1934. Again, according to one's prejudices, Czechoslovakia was either a model democracy or a random collection of nationalities under Czech domination — ‘a medley ruled by a minority’.24 Poland presented more severe problems from an ideological point of view. In 1939 when the British guarantee was given, Poland was a military dictatorship, frequently anti-Semitic, and oppressive in its treatment of national minorities. As the editor of the Manchester Guardian had remarked earlier, ‘I don't see why, if we trounce the Germans for their abominable behaviour, the Poles should be allowed to get away with it.’25
The Soviet problem
The most serious ideological problems of all arose in connection with the Soviet Union. Conservative opinion was universally hostile to communism, which was the declared enemy of ‘bourgeois democracy’ and capitalism. Neville Chamberlain's correspondence was sprinkled with phrases which showed the depth of his distaste for the Soviet regime. The Labour Party included many admirers of the Soviet Union, though the leadership would never countenance communist affiliation to the party. Of course it was possible to argue for a Soviet alliance on grounds that had nothing to do with ideology. Labour and Liberal leaders did so in 1939; so did Churchill, with his long record of anti-Bolshevism; so, in the Cabinet, did Samuel Hoare and others. But the problem was not easy, as a summing up by a very shrewd journalist demonstrates:
We ought, I think, to be critical about Russia. We need her and it isn't the time for polemics against her. But we must not, in my opinion, refer to her as a democracy — she is more tyrannically governed than even Germany is. The number of people done to death in Germany runs into thousands — in Russia into tens of thousands. Altogether, the terror in Russia is such that persons living even under the Nazi terror could hardly conceive of such a thing. But we cannot afford to be particular about our allies, though we must, I think, always remain particular about our friends.26
As in the case of France, the simple calculations of power politics, which pointed towards a Soviet alliance, were obscured by problems arising from ideology and morality. A somewhat abstract discussion on ideology within the Foreign Office in 1938 was brought to a close by Cadogan, the Permanent Under-Secretary, with the comment that discussing whether fascism or communism was more dangerous to Britain was like determining the relative disagreeableness of mumps and measles; but at that moment fascism was more dangerous, ‘because it is the more efficient, and makes more and better guns and aeroplanes’.27 The point was well made; but not everyone took such a brisk, no-nonsense approach to the problem. It was more common for those of conservative views to take the view that if Nazis and fascists were opposed to communism, then there was something to be said for them. Hitler's Germany, until it became an obvious danger to British security, possessed the considerable attraction of being a powerful enemy of Bolshevik Russia.
The effect of these ideological issues on the course of British policy was limited. In the general matter of relations with Germany, the policy which became known as ‘appeasement’ arose from hard considerations of strategic and economic interests, as well as from the soothing climate of opinion represented by the League, pacifism, and disarmament, or from anti-Bolshevik zeal. Among specific questions, Ethiopia and the problem of a Soviet alliance were those which suffered the most from ideological complications; policy towards Austria and Poland was not seriously affected by the character of their governments. However, the effect should not be discounted. Ideological considerations played some part in Britain's acceptance of the growth of German (and to a lesser degree Italian) power which was so marked a characteristic of the 1930s, and which itself paved the way for the coming of war.
The acceptance of war: reluctant but resolute
Ideology also played some part in the reversal of British policy, and in the decision that the growth of German power must be resisted. A significant part of this development may be traced through changes in the Labour Party's attitude to war. In the 1920s and early 1930s, Labour was profoundly anti-militarist and in the broad sense pacifist. Attlee, who had volunteered for the army in 1914 and had an outstanding war record, said in the House of Commons in 1923, ‘Personally, I think the time has come when we ought to do away with all armies and all wars.’28 In 1926 the Party Conference accepted without demur a resolution in favour of opposition to war ‘including the refusal to bear arms, to produce armaments, or to render any material assistance’.29 From 1931 to 1935 the party was led by George Lansbury, an absolute pacifist. A change began in 1935, when the Party Conference agreed to support war if necessary in support of League sanctions against Italy. This marked the end of any commitment to complete pacifism, and Lansbury ceased to lead the party. But for some time this change of view did not emerge as support for British rearmament. Distrust of the government, arising from the Hoare-Laval Pact and its pusillanimity over the Spanish Civil War, was too strong for that. Up to 1936 Labour continued to vote against the Service estimates in Parliament; and in 1937 they shifted only as far as abstaining. Labour opposed the Munich agreement, but did nothing to provide the military means to resist Germany. It was only at the eleventh hour that Labour awoke fully to the realisation that the greatest danger lay not in armaments but in Britain's lack of them.
By September 1939, however, the conversion was complete. When Germany attacked Poland, Attlee was convalescing after illness. Arthur Greenwood, acting as leader in his absence, telephoned him. ‘Put all pressure you can on the P.M.’, said Attlee. ‘We've got to fight.’ On 2 September that was what Greenwood did. He asked in the Commons how long the government was going to hesitate about going to war; and then went to see Chamberlain in his room to tell him that unless war was decided on by the next day it would be impossible to hold the House in check.30 In fact, the government was waiting for the French, not hesitating or hankering after appeasement as Greenwood thought; but that does not matter. The point was that the Labour Party, with hardly a dissentient voice, saw its duty as being to force a reluctant government into war. This remarkable development was in large part due to the conviction that Nazi Germany threatened not only British material interests and the balance of power, but the whole way of life in which Labour believed. Instinctive patriotism, which was still powerful in the Labour Party, combined with ideological conviction to make Labour a force for war.
The same was true for the Conservative Party, and across the country as a whole. At bottom, most Conservatives had never abandoned their traditional concern with the balance of power and British security. ‘Appeasement’ never meant peace at any price. When it was ended, and the decision was taken to resist the further growth of German power, it was not only on traditional grounds, but also on grounds of ideology — indeed of conscience. It was notable that The Times, which for so long extended the benefit of every doubt to Germany, proclaimed in its leader columns after the German occupation of Prague in March 1939 that Germany no longer sought the protection of a moral case; the expansion of national socialism meant the expansion of ‘political tyranny, cruel police methods, and a new kind of paganism’.31 Chamberlain too saw the issue in moral as well as power-political terms. He was a loyal and upright man, and in March 1939 he felt that he had been double-crossed. Even more, the growth of Nazi power now palpably threatened the whole system in which he had spent his life and to which he was devoted — Parliament, the rule of law, the workings of business, the rules of decent behaviour. For many others, who might not see their lives or values in such terms, it was still true that Hitler was going too far, and would have to be stopped.
Britain entered the war in September 1939 reluctantly, but with a degree of unanimity that would have been inconceivable even a year earlier. Indeed, at the start of the 1930s it must have seemed doubtful whether the British people would go to war at all, unless directly attacked. Such near-unanimity could never have been achieved on the old grounds of power politics and the control of Europe. It was the product of the fusion of these long-standing traditions with a newer but powerful reaction against the excesses of Nazi ideology. It mattered little that what was considered evil in 1939 paled into insignificance in comparison with later monstrosities, and that the British people had scarcely begun to understand their adversary. The important point was that they had begun.
What part did the ideological attitudes and divisions in the parliamentary democracies of France and Britain play in the movement towards war? They contributed to this movement in two very different ways. First, for several years the concern of the French and British peoples (and their political leaders) with peace and disarmament left an easy path for the advance of Germany and Italy, beyond any point where it might have been resisted without large-scale war. Ideological divisions, especially in France, and a deep-seated hostility to Bolshevism which encouraged some sympathy for Nazism and fascism in both countries, helped in the same direction. The democracies thus gave an opportunity to their enemies, which was fully and ruthlessly exploited in ways which led in the long run towards war.
Second, as the two democracies slowly came to grips with the new situation created by the advance of hostile powers, an element of genuine ideological conflict between democracy and Nazism/fascism emerged. We have already noted, at the end of the previous chapter, that the methods of Nazi Germany produced a revulsion among the adherents of an older morality. In both France and Britain, opposition to Germany arose out of ideological revulsion as well as from motives of patriotism and calculations about power. In the circumstances of the 1930s, this combination eventually produced a firmer determination to go to war than could have been secured on any narrower ground of national self-interest. France and Britain were eventually impelled into war for reasons which combined power politics with ideology: German expansion and Nazi domination both had to be resisted.
1. Philippe Bernard, La fin d'un monde, 1914–1929 (Paris 1975), pp. 108–109.
2. L. Mysyrowicz, Autopsie d'une défaite (Lausanne 1973), p. 332.
3. Mysyrowicz, Autopsie, p. 288.
4. Georges Suarez, Briand, vol. VI (Paris 1952), p. 197.
5. R. Gombin, Les socialistes et la guerre (The Hague 1970), pp. 142–143.
6. Jean-Baptiste Duroselle, La Décadence, 1932–1939 (Paris 1979), p. 41.
7. Ibid., p. 171.
8. Ernest R. May, Strange Victory: Germany's Conquest of France (New York 2000), pp. 136, 157. Those concerned included a new director with Le Temps and a senior editor with Le Figaro.
9. Henri Dubief, Le déclin de la Troisième République (Paris 1976), pp. 173–175, 195.
10. Le Populaire, 1 October 1938, quoted in Gombin, Les socialistes, pp. 234–235.
11. There were 4,322 votes for Blum's resolution: 2,837 for a resolution restating traditional policy; 60 for a total pacifist motion; and 1,014 abstentions (Gombin, Les socialistes, p. 253).
12. J. L. Crémieux-Brilhac, Les Français de l'an 40, vol. I (Paris 1990), pp. 55–134.
13. Martin Ceadel, Pacifism in Britain, 1914–1945 (Oxford 1980), p. 317.
14. Quoted in Maurice Cowling, The Impact of Hitler (Cambridge 1975), p. 93.
15. Donald McLachlan, In the Chair: Barrington-Ward of ‘The Times’ (London 1971), p. 106.
16. Ceadel, Pacifism in Britain, pp. 177, 318.
17. Quoted in G. M. Young, Stanley Baldwin (London 1952), p. 215 (speech to the Peace Society, 31 October 1935).
18. Quoted in John F. Naylor, Labour's International Policy: The Labour Party in the 1930s (London 1969), p. 21.
19. Richard Griffiths, Fellow Travellers of the Right: British enthusiasts for Nazi Germany, 1933–9 (Oxford 1983). The left-wing equivalents are examined in David Caute, The Fellow Travellers (London 1973).
20. Quoted in McLachlan, In the Chair, p. 110.
21. House of Commons Debates, 5th series, vol. 276, col. 2742. Austen Chamberlain, with the authority of an elder statesman and former Foreign Secretary, took the same view — see D. J. Dutton, ‘Sir Austen Chamberlain and British Foreign Policy, 1931–37,’ Diplomacy and Statecraft, vol. 16, 2005, pp. 281–295.
22. Quoted in Alan Bullock, Ernest Bevin, vol. I (London 1960), p. 624.
23. Quoted in Keith Feiling, Neville Chamberlain (London 1946), p. 253.
24. J. L. Garvin in Observer, 6 March 1938, quoted in F. R. Gannon, The British Press and Germany, 1936–1939 (Oxford 1971), p. 18.
25. Crozier to Voigt, 16 February 1936, quoted in Gannon, The British Press, p. 20.
26. F. A. Voigt to Crozier, 21 March 1939, quoted in Gannon, The British Press, p. 24. Voigt was a foreign correspondent for the Manchester Guardian. His figure of tens of thousands done to death in the Soviet Union was itself a substantial understatement.
27. David Dilks (ed.), The Diaries of Sir Alexander Cadogan, 1938–1945 (London 1971), p. 132; cf. Donald Lammers, ‘Fascism, communism and the Foreign Office, 1937–39’, Journal of Contemporary History, 6 (3) (1971).
28. Quoted in Kenneth Harris, Attlee (London 1982), p. 64.
29. Naylor, Labour's International Policy, p. 9.
30. Harris, Attlee, p. 166; T. D. Burridge, British Labour and Hitler's War (London 1976), p. 20.
31. Quoted in Gannon, The British Press, p. 238.