History of France between the Wars!
France came out victorious in the World War I but she was exhausted. Both in the East and North-East France was devastated. Her casualties in the war were more than those of the other Allied nations. One-tenth of the country was in ruins.
Towns had been reduced to rubble. Factories and mines had been destroyed. Farms had been turned in the wilderness. All this demanded a determination on the part of the people of France to put their country on pre-war footing and the work was done with remarkable speed.
The expectation that a lot of money will come to France as reparations from Germany also encouraged them in their task.
Unfortunately, the people of France suffered throughout the period between the two wars from the defects in their political system. There were too many political parties or groups and the result was that their ministries were unstable. Intrigues were common. There was corruption all round. This state of affairs continued in France even after Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933 and began to arm his country. The leaders of the various political parties continued to fight and failed to prepare the country for a war against Germany.
Raymond Poincare was the President of the French Republic throughout the World War I and Clemenceau was Prime Minister. When the term of office of Poincare expired in 1920, Clemenceau offered himself as a candidate for the Presidency but he was not elected. In 1922, Poincare became Prime Minister. He stood for strong action against Germany and it was during his tenure of office that France occupied the Ruhr valley. Poincare fell in 1924.
In 1926, Poincare again became Prime Minister and held office until 1929. Formerly an opponent of Poincare, Briand became his Foreign Minister. His view was that any effort to keep Germany low was bound to fail and, therefore, it was in the interest of both the countries to come to an understanding. It was during his term of office that the Locarno Treaties were signed in 1925 and Germany became a member of the League of Nations in 1926. It was also during his time that the Kellogg-Briand Pact was signed and the Allied armies of occupation withdrew from Germany.
The French Governments were not able to balance their budgets and that led to a decline in the value of the France. The unstable ministries in France and not the courage and determination to balance the budget by imposing more taxes.
The Punch commented on the situation in France in these words:
We will not pay our foreign debt
But we will change our Cabinet.
When the World was faced with economic depression in 1929-32 President Hoover suggested a moratorium in the payment of reparations by Germany and all war debts by other countries but the suggestion was not welcome in France. It is true that the moratorium was for one year but the people of France feared that payments would never be resumed again and as a matter of fact they were discontinued completely in 1932.
France constructed a system of fortifications known as the Maginot line on the frontier between France and Germany. Experience showed that the same was useless. Germany had attacked France in 1914 through Belgium and she did the same in 1940 reducing the Maginot line useless. It appears that the military strategists of France had learnt nothing from history.
From 1932 to 1934, there was a succession of Ministries in France. Ultimately, Gaston Doumergue who had been President of France from 1924 to 1931 became Prime Minister in 1934. He tried to introduce certain constitutional changes but his proposals were rejected. He was succeeded in 1935 by Pierre Laval.
He had to resign on account of the premature disclosures of the Hoare-Laval negotiations. Laval was succeeded by Leon Blum, a Socialist and a Jew, as Prime Minister. Blum was Prime Minister for a year. He also resigned in 1937. Daladier was the Prime Minister of France at the time of the Munich Pact of September 1938.
In spite of their victory in the war, the main consideration before the French representatives at the Peace Conference was one of security for France. It is true that Germany was defeated but the French feared the potential danger from Germany in the future. The French knew that while there were only 42 million Frenchmen, there were 67 million Germans.
The disparity in numbers was increased by an even greater disparity between German and French industrial development. In machine power even more than in man-power, French inferiority was to great that they could not hope to get any victory in Germany. No wonder, the French were conscious of the problem of their security and put the same in the forefront.
From Clemenceau to Laval, French politicians put the greatest emphasis on the security of their country. In moments of crisis, even Harrot spoke the language of Tardieu. For all Frenchmen of the Left and of the Right, there was only one question and that was the security of France. There was only one enemy and that was Germany.
There was only one policy and that was security. The French policy can be understood only if we understand the psychology of the French. While in Germany it was the Treaty of Versailles which created a lot of resentment, in France it was the Treaty of Frankfurt of 1871 which had imposed a humiliating peace on that country which was remembered. By that Treaty Alsace and Lorraine had been snatched away from France and a huge war indemnity was exacted from her.
Even during the World War I, the German statesmen frequently and openly declared that in the event of their victory, they would annex the Briery district of France to Germany and also take away Belfort and Verdun. The French had also fresh in their memory their sufferings in 1870-71 and 1914. The result was that when victory was won in 1918, the thing that was foremost in the minds of the French was their security in the future. They did not want approximate, relative or reasonable security, but absolute security.
The French representatives at the Peace Conference demanded that the Rhineland be given to France so that they may be in a stronger position to defend herself against Germany. However, they were persuaded by President Wilson and Lloyd George to give up that demand on the condition that both the United States and Great Britain would guarantee France against any possible German attack Unfortunately, in spite of the best efforts of President Wilson, the Treaty of Versailles was rejected by the American Senate and consequently, the American guarantee became ineffective.
Great Britain also backed out from her pledge on the ground that in the absence of the United States, she was not bound to honour the pledge. In the word of President Poincare, “It was in this respect that we suffered our greatest disillusionment after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. President Wilson and Mr. Lloyd George before leaving Paris had signed guarantee pacts which promises France the aid of the United States and England in case of an attack by Germany. However, these pacts were never ratified. France remained alone in the presence of Germany.”
Left to themselves, the French started their search for security and the ways and means to achieve the same. The French Government entered into a large number of alliances with a view to strengthen her own hands against Germany. Belgium was as much exposed to Germany as France, and consequently, military conversation between the two countries resulted in the signing of a military convention on 7 September 1920.
The new state of Poland had been created at the expense of Germany, and consequently, she was afraid of her. The danger from a common source brought Poland and France together and on 19February 1921 was signed the Franco-Polish treaty of Alliance. Thus in the event of an attack from Germany, France could count upon help from Poland in the East and Belgium in the West In 1924 a Treaty of Alliance was made between France and Czechoslovakia. In 1926, a Treaty of Friendship was signed between France and Rumania, by which both countries promised to consult each other in all matters which might threaten their external security. A similar treaty was entered into between France and Yugoslavia in 1927.
In 1925 was signed the Locarno Pact by which Great Britain and Italy guaranteed the Western frontiers of Germany with Belgium and France. This pact started the so-called Truce of Locarno and there prevailed comparative peace in Europe for the next two years. Before the World War II, writers frequently referred to the Locarno era as the “years of hope”, but now there is a tendency to regard them as “years of illusion.”
Locamo never led to a permanent settlement of the Franco- German difficulties or established the basis of a lasting reconciliation. Locamo left many Germans and Frenchmen dissatisfied. Moreover, Locamo meant that France was to subordinate herself to Great Britain. By yielding to the British demand to evacuate the Ruhr Valley and by bringing in the Britishers as the guarantors of the Franco-German frontier, France completely gave up any hope of a policy independent of Great Britain. Immediately after Locamo, both the British and Americans began to put pressure on France to agree to disarmament conferences.
It was argued by the British Government that as the French had got the guarantee of security asked for they were in a position to start disarmament. It was contended that after the signing of Locamo Pact, the French lost a part of their nerve and felt themselves helpless to act alone without the British Government. They followed closely behind the British Lion whose roar was frequently not very loud. The foreign policy of France became a prisoner of British foreign policy. It was the first, but an important, step on the road to Munich.
There were differences of views between the French and the British Governments. Britain’s idea of French security stopped with the Rhine and she did not seem to be concerned with what happened in Central and Eastern Europe. However, France being a continental power was very much interested in the happenings in those parts of Europe. France very much relied upon the military alliances into which she had entered with the states of Central and Eastern Europe.
The French foreign policy throughout the 1920’s was caught on the horns of a dilemma for which there was no simple solution and for which most probably there was none at all. That dilemma was that while it was impossible for France to enlist Great Britain as an ally in the East, it was impossible for France to get along without her. To follow Britain implied that her ties with Central Europe were worthless and to rely on continental allies without Britain was to have no real strength at all.
Britain did not see eye to eye with France on the question of Germany. She wanted to treat the Germans leniently. She did not want France to insist on recovering from Germany all the war indemnity. She wanted France to revise the Treaty of Versailles in such a way as to strike off all its obnoxious clauses. However, France was not willing to follow such a course. She was terribly afraid of her security and she realised the consequences of leniency towards Germany.
It was contended by France that if Germany was allowed to rearm herself, she would one day be able to have union with Austria by force. After that Czechoslovakia would be helpless. She would be surrounded by German territory and the presence of a German minority would add to her troubles. After Czechoslovakia^ Germany would be able to bring Bucharest and Belgrade under her control. Poland would be deprived of the Polish Corridor. If once the principle of the revision of treaties were accepted, there would be no end to the same and the old tragedies of 1866 and 1870 would be repeated.
Nobody could doubt the logic of French foreign policy. At the same time, nobody could deny the defects inherent in that policy. It cannot be denied that the humiliating treatment meted out to Germany for 14 years from 1919 to 1933 was partly responsible for the rise of Hitler in Germany.
When that happened, the Englishmen pointed out to the failure of the foreign policy of France towards Germany. The French policy of repression ultimately failed to give France the security she was seeking so earnestly. When Hitler came to power in January 1933, the whole system of French security proved ineffective.
France found herself in a very weak position after 1933. In January 1934, Poland entered into a non-aggression pact with Germany and thereby weakened the position of France vis-a-vis Germany. In 1936, Belgium also terminated her military alliance with France. Germany was also able to win over Yugoslavia to her own side. Many other states were drawn into the German economic sphere. Germany introduced conscription in the country and began to rearm herself. In 1935, Germany entered into a naval agreement with Great Britain.
Barthou, Foreign Minister of France, went on a tour of many countries of Europe with a view to win over friends for France. Unfortunately, on 9 October 1934, both Barthou and King Alexander of Yugoslavia were assassinated at Marseilles by a terrorist. It not only made France weak, but also deprived her of a very able Foreign Minister.
In May 1935, France entered into a Treaty of Mutual Assistance with Soviet Russia. That Treaty provided that in the event of France or Soviet Russia being threatened with or in danger of aggression on the part of any European state, the Soviet Union and France would both proceed to immediate consultation in regard to the measures to be taken. In the event of France or the Soviet Union being subjected to unprovoked aggression on the part of any European State, both France and Soviet Union were immediately to come to each other’s aid and assistance.
In consideration of the fact that any member of the League and recourse to war, she was to be considered as having committed an act of war against all other members of the League. Both France and the Soviet Union agreed in the event of one of them being subjected to unprovoked aggression on the part of any European state to lend each other aid and assistance. Nothing in that treaty was to be interpreted as restricting the duty of the latter to take proper measures to safeguard peace in the world. The Treaty was to last for five years after its ratification.
While France entered into an alliance with Soviet Russia in 1935, she did nothing to implement the same and the treaty remained a dead letter from the very beginning. The various French Ministers who came to power did not show any interest in the matter. No wonder, the Soviet Union complained of the indifferent attitude of the French Government. Moreover, from the practical point of the view, this alliance was not of much help as the Polish Government was not prepared to allow the Russian troops to pass through her territory.
The year 1935 was a bad one for French diplomacy. In the words of a French Diplomat, “If France commits herself definitely to Russia, Germany will reply by occupying the left bank of the Rhine; if Italy emerges weakened from her current difficulties in Abyssinia, that means Anschluss; if there is war between Britain and Italy in the Mediterranean and we come in, Germany is prepared to move against us. Only the closest understanding between France and Britain can keep the peace from now on.”
Instead of meeting the foreign dangers as a united nation, France was involved in domestic troubles from May 1936 to April 1938. In its eagerness to achieve an ambitious programme of social reforms, the Popular Front did not bother about the development abroad although those were affecting the security of the country. At a time when Germany was feverishly turning out arms day and night, the industrial plant of France was thrown out of grear on account of labour disputes, strikes, the flight of capital, the decline of France and the general instability arising out of “reform politics.”
The new 40-hour week imposed on the employer did not allow the French to compete with Germany and Italy who were working their factories overtime. In the autumn of 1937, the series of outrages revealed the existence of a “Secret Committee of Revolutionary Action” who were getting arms and money from Germany and Italy to set up a Fascist Government in France. The exposure of the plot was hushed up as too many persons in the army and high finance were involved in it.
The French Government did not help the Republican Government of Spain against General Franco and his colleagues. In the name of peace and non-intervention, all arms shipments to Spam were forbidden. Prime Minister Blum appealed to the Powers to adopt common rules of non-intervention.
The farcical London Non-intervention Committee was set up. The followers of Blum protested and asked for the despatch of planes to Spain, but Blum was not moved at all. The decision was fatal. The victory of Franco drove more nails into the coffin of the Eastern alliances of France and left France discredited and weakened. It also strengthened the hands of pro-Fascist elements in France whose slogan was “Better Hitler than Blum.”
Daladier, became the Prime Minister of France in April 1938 and he continued to occupy that position up to March 1940. By that time, the people had come to realise the gravity of the situation and Daladier was given the right to rule by decrees so far as the finances of France were concerned. He managed to restore confidence in the national economic structure by settling the strikes, balancing the budget and removing unemployment. An atmosphere of confidence was restored.
On 29 April 1938 the Franco-British alliance was concluded. It was the most sweeping engagement of its kind since World War I. It provided not only for diplomatic cooperation but also for the establishment of an unitary command of the British and French Military, Naval and Air Force. The King and Queen of England visited Paris in the middle of July 1938. In the succeeding weeks, tension in Europe continued to increase.
The Germans worked day and night and completed the construction of the Siegfried Line, along their Western frontier. On 5 September 1938, Daladier cancelled all leave for the army and air force and ordered all the reservists to occupy the Maginot Line. On 10 September 1938, France had 12 lakhs of soldiers under mobilisation. The British Nay concentrated its principal contingents in the North Sea. In spite of these preparations, France made an abject surrender at Munich.
The views of Great Britain and France on the defence of Czechoslovakia differed. The Foreign Minister of France told the German ambassador in unequivocal terms that German aggression against Czechoslovakia would mean war with France. He also tried to win over the British Government to his point of view.
However, Lord Halifax, Foreign Minister of England, replied that the British would honour their commitments to France under Locarno but could not “see their way clear to adding to them ” While the French Government urged a firm stand against Germany, Lord Halifax counselled pressure on the Czechs. In the Anglo-French conversations at the end of April 1938, the French were not able to get a definite commitment from Great Britain for the defence of Czechoslovakia and consequently the French began the process of surrender to Britain by agreeing to put pressure on the Czechs to make the maximum concessions.
On 21 May 1938, Bonnet, Foreign Minister of France, re-affirmed in a Press Conference that France would stand by Czechoslovakia in case that country was invaded by Germany. Lord Halifax at once instructed in these words the British ambassador in Paris to dispel any illusions on the part of Bonnet. “If French Government were to assume that His Majesty’s Government would at once take joint military action with them to preserve Czechoslovakia against German aggression, it is only fair to warn them that our statements do not warrant any such assumptions.”
The view of Halifax was that the military situation was such that the conquest of Czechoslovakia could not be prevented “even with such assistance as might be expected from Russia. By the night of 22 May 1938 Bonnet was a chastened man and he told the British ambassador in Paris that “he would not dream of taking action….without ample consultation” with Great Britain. If the Government of Czechoslovakia was not reasonable in its attitude, France “might well declare herself released from her bond.” On the same evening, Daladier was seen weeping on the soldiers of the German ambassador begging the Reich not to compel him to come to war for an alliance which he “had not made and was certainly not happy about.”
During the months of August and September 1938, several plans were worked out by the Czech Government to solve the Sudeten problem. Many concessions were made by the Government, consistent with the preservation of the Czech nation. However, all those plans were rejected by the Sudeten Germans. In September 1938 Russia declared that if France gave military help to Czechoslovakia, she would also do the same. However, the French Foreign Minister was not enthusiastic about collaboration with the Soviet Union.
On 15 September 1938, Prime Minister Chamberlain went to Berchtesgaden to see Hitler. On 18 September 1938, there was a joint meeting of the British and French Ministers in London to discuss the demands of Hitler. On 19 September 1938, the Government of Czechoslovakia was informed of the joint decision of the British and French Governments that the Sudeten area should be surrendered to Germany.
The Government of Czechoslovakia tried to postpone the decision. On 21 September 1938, the French and British Ministers in Prague met Dr. Benes, President of Czechoslovakia, and told him that if the terms were not accepted unconditionally, Czechoslovakia would be held responsible for the war and would not receive any help either from Great Britain or from France. Under these circumstances, President Benes decided to accept the advice given by Great Britain and France.
On 22 September 1938, Chamberlain went to Germany to see Hitler and informed him personally that the German demands had been accepted by Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain was surprised to find that Hitler had increased his demands. On 29 and 30 September 1938, Hitler, Mussolini, Chamberlain and Daladier met at Munich where an agreement was arrived at regarding the area to be handed over by Czechoslovakia to Germany.
On his return from Munich, Daladier feared that the crowd at the Airport might denounce him for betraying France, but to his astonishment he found that the crowd had come to cheer him as “the saviour of peace.” He was joined by Bonnet and Gamelin, Chief of the General Staff of France.
They were all praised as heroes. Gamelin remained silent when a visitor remarked, “General, you have lost 35 divisions.” Daladier declared, “I accept my popularity with the modesty that is only one of the forms my duty takes.” Blum was also happy that “peace was saved.” However, it cannot be denied that the Munich Agreement was one of the greatest defeats of French diplomacy.
She had lost not only the defence advantage of 35 well-equipped divisions in Czechoslovakia, but also her alliance and prestige in Eastern Europe. Winston Churchill is said to have observed, “France and Great Britain had to choose between war and dishonour. They chose dishonour. They will have war.”
On 30 November 1938, the speech of Count Ciano, Foreign Minister of Italy, was greeted in the Italian Chamber with a demonstration of Deputies during which shouts of Tunis, Nice and Corsica were raised. On 6 September 1938, Bonnet signed with Ribbentrop a declaration of “pacific and good neighbourly relations.” In spite of this declaration of friendship between France and Germany, Italy notified to France on 22 December 1938 that she regarded the treaty of 7 January 1935 by which the conflicting colonial and naval claims between Italy and France had been settled as null and void.
Under these circumstances, Daladier went on a tour of inspection of the defence establishments in Corsica and the African colonies on 1 January 1939. On his return, Daladier declared on 26 January 1939, “Not an inch of territory would be ceded.” The budget of 1939 provided for an expenditure of 40 million francs on defence alone. That was the largest peace-time budget of its kind in French history.
The German seizure of the rest of Czechoslovakia and Memel, the final victory of Franco in Spain, the signing of a trade agreement between Germany and Rumania, the capture of Hsinan and Spratly Islands and the ever increasing demands of the Axis Powers for colonial concessions gave a severe blow to the security and prestige of France. However, this shock had a good effect also. The French were awakened to a sense of responsibility.
The result was that on 19 March 1939, sweeping powers were given to the Government to rule by decree wherever necessary to meet any emergency endangering the safety of France. There was also a psychological and material change in France. Munich was a shock, it was also an education. France in 1939 was united. Entrenched behind the Maginot Line, the people of France knew that they had the most powerful army in Europe.
If war could be postponed till the winter of 1940, the balance in air power would also shift in favour of the Democratic Front. It was under these circumstances that the World War II began. The opportunity of winning over Soviet Russia was lost as both Great Britain and France were not prepared to pay the price demanded by Stalin for an alliance against Germany.
Even after the beginning of the war between Germany and Poland, France made an attempt to arrange another Munich. On 1 and 2 September 1939, Bonnet accepted Italian proposals for peace through conference with German troops reminding where they were on the Polish soil. However, Lord Halifax insisted that there could be no conference without the cessation of hostilities and the evacuation of Poland and the French Government had to accept the British line. The reply of Count Ciano was that as Hitler was unwilling to accept the condition, no further action could be taken. At 5 P.M. on 3 September 1939, war began between Germany and France.
Daladier was able to put some enthusiasm among the people of France. On 26 September 1939 he ordered the dissolution of the Communist party. When war broke out between Soviet Russia and Finland Daladier Gamelin and Wevgaud prepared plans for a war not against Germany but against Soviet Russia. Daladier resigned in March 1940 as Prime Minister but came back as Defence Minister in the new Ministry of Reynaud.
During the Nazi conquest of the Netherlands and the Low Countries, Revnaud and Daladier quarreled violently. Gamelin had no plan for holding the Blitzkrieg. His only slogan was “Win or die.” All his calculations were based on the belief that the Maginot Line was impregnable On 19 May 1940; Reynaud dismissed Gamelin and appointed General Weygand as the Commander-in-Chief.
There were practically no prospects of defending France against Germany. The French Cabinet ran away from Paris, first to Tours and then to Bordeaux. Reynaud appealed for immediate American help but without success. Ultimately, he resigned and was succeeded by Marshal Petain who made peace with Germany.