IN ANY DISCUSSION of World War II, the first question that arises is why the democracies of Europe did not stop Germany before it was too late. In a sense, this question is no more than the usual Monday-morning quarterbacking. One answer must obviously be that if the democracies knew what lay ahead, and if they knew that they could have stopped Hitler, then of course they would have done so. They knew neither of these things at the time, though perhaps they should have. Hitler had spelled out his program for all the world, provided anyone were sufficiently persevering to wade through Mein Kampf; but like most political testaments, it was not taken seriously until its author was in a position to carry it out. We now have sufficient evidence not only that Hitler could have been stopped, but also that the Western Powers knew he could have been stopped, had they had the will to do it when it could be done short of war. They remained, however, resolutely preoccupied with their own difficulties, of either a general or a specific nature.
In general terms, it is fair to say that the victors of World War I were as demoralized by their victory as the losers were by their defeats. They may even have been more demoralized—they, after all, had won; then they discovered how little their victory had brought them. The costs of winning were enormous, both in material terms and in manpower, and the truth was that relatively few of the great powers of 1914 were able to sustain them.
At the start of the Great War, the myth of the “Russian steamroller” was still alive and well. It was German fear of the increasing power of Russia that had been one of the factors in her decision for war in 1914. Yet by 1916, not only had the steamroller failed to materialize, but Russia was on the verge of collapse, a collapse that occurred dramatically but not surprisingly in 1917. Both Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire followed in 1918 at the end of the war. Though Italy was spared outright military defeat, her political institutions were so strained by war that they did not outlast the immediate aftermath of it. France had neared the edge of the precipice in 1917 when her army mutinied, and when the United States entered the war in the same year, Great Britain was six weeks away from starvation at the hands of the U-boats and even closer to financial bankruptcy. The fact that France and Britain did go on to win the war preserved their great-power status, but to a very considerable extent they were great powers by default, and their appearance of strength and solidity was no more than an illusion.
This was particularly true of France. In 1919, Russia was in revolution, Germany was in anarchy, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire had finally split up into its component parts. The British went back to insisting they were not a continental power. France therefore reclaimed the position she had held from 1648 to 1870, of being the pre-eminent power on the Continent, which had been challenged by the Germans after the unification of Germany and the Franco-Prussian War. It was a position that France was not really entitled to in a modern industrial world. France’s iron and steel production was below that of her neighbors, her coal output was lower, her financial base was less secure, and her birthrate was declining.
Aware though they might be of the grim outlook presented by these basic statistics, Frenchmen were reluctant to recognize the logical conclusion to be drawn from them: that France was well on the way to becoming a second-class power. The official view was that as long as Germany could be kept down, France would retain her primacy. The French therefore became the most obstinate supporters of the status quo as enacted at Versailles. It was they who supported Rhenish separatism, they who occupied the Ruhr Valley in 1923 when Germany fell behind in her war reparations. This backfired, as did most of the measures of the period. The French insisted on their reparations payments; the German government responded by printing paper, thereby paying off its bills in useless currency. The French nonetheless continued to insist on receiving their payments and it was they, even up to the mid-thirties, who were the most resolute against any revision of the Versailles treaty and any equality of status for Germany.
This was about the only item on which French governments were resolute. As a nation they were impoverished, enfeebled, and enervated by war. The stereotype personification of the Frenchman before the war was of a vigorous officer winning bits of empire for la civilisation française. After the war it was of an old man, slump-shouldered, bowed down by his cares and his past, making his annual pilgrimage along the voie sacrée to the Armistice Day ceremonies at Verdun. If little things give away a country’s sense of itself, it is significant that French subway cars still reserve rush-hour seats for “les grands mutilés de la guerre”—the multiple amputees of World War I.
Politically, the French argued their causes passionately and developed deep divisions between the right and the left. The divisions went so deep that the French Republic got lost somewhere in the middle.
Governments of the twenties and thirties rose and fell with alarming regularity. Even more alarming was the fact that they were the same old governments. Coalition after coalition of tired politicians played musical chairs and swapped ministries and made their back-room deals. The real problems of the republic—finance, industry, social reform, education—all were held in abeyance while the politicians talked. Words were the only surplus item in interwar France.
Of all the problems they failed to solve, the military one would become the most crucial, at least from the viewpoint of World War II. It was, indeed, a complex problem.
The first difficulty was the matter of manpower. The French had had military conscription, in one form or another, for some centuries. It had become regularized and modernized in the latter part of the nineteenth century, after the Franco-Prussian War had demonstrated, apparently conclusively, that a big short-service army was better than a small long-service one. This conclusion was probably wrong, but it was nevertheless the one all the experts drew from the war. France had rebuilt her army after 1871 with large numbers of conscripts on the German model. Her problem was that in the twentieth century she lacked the basic bodies to conscript. Before World War I her birthrate declined to the point where she had to keep her conscripts with the colors a year longer than the Germans did just to keep her numbers up. Every man-year in the army was an unproductive one from the point of view of the national economy, and equally from the point of view of marriage, parenthood, and the production of future potential conscripts. Add to this already existing difficulty the enormous wastage of World War I—1,654,000 deaths, most of them presumably of potential parents—and the demographic problems of filling up the ranks become readily apparent. During the thirties the French government would respond to its financial problems by reducing the length of military service, but that only further aggravated the difficulties of an army committed to large masses of citizen-soldiers.
For the army itself it was not just a problem of numbers, but of what to do with them. The whole question of the French interwar military doctrine is crucial to what happened in 1939 and 1940. Had they made different decisions, there might well have been no World War II.
The major question was, what sort of military posture should France adopt? The man most responsible for the answer was Henri Philippe Pétain, hero of Verdun, Marshal of France. He was to France in the period what Wellington had been to Britain after Waterloo, or what Eisenhower would be to the United States after World War II. He had saved Verdun, he had restored the French Army after the 1917 mutinies, he had won through to victory in 1918. His stock was immeasurably high; it had not always been so.
Pétain had been the maverick of the pre-World War I army. At that time the French had sought to overcome their material deficiencies by developing the idea that the defensive strategy employed in the Franco-Prussian War was unsuited to the French temperament. The French were used to attacking. Writers conjured up visions of the furia francese of the French invasions of Italy during the Renaissance, of the glorious attacks of Murat’s cavalry during the Napoleonic wars. French élan would carry all before it; their battle cry was Toujours l’audace!
The only thing wrong with this doctrine, which had a fatal attraction for a nation behind materially, was that it would not work. All the daring in the world produced only enormous casualty lists when tried against German machine guns. It was Pétain who realized this fatal flaw. A dour, phlegmatic man, cold and aloof, he produced his own response to the idea of the unlimited attack. He said simply, “Le feu tue.” “Fire kills.” It was a douche of cold water on the heads of the theorists. They responded by making him virtually an outcast in the army. He and his supporters found themselves at the bottom of the promotion lists. Always quoted of Pétain is the remark one of his early commanders made on his annual fitness report: “If this man rises above the rank of major, it will be a national disaster for France.”
But now World War I had come and gone, and fire had indeed killed; it had killed more than one and a half million Frenchmen, and the man who had said it would do so was the saviour of France. Where his opponents had said “attack” he had said “defend,” and he had been right. Now in his seventies—a Marshal of France did not retire—still vigorous, still commanding, he saw no reason to change his mind. He had been a heretic in 1910, but he had been right. He was the citadel of orthodoxy in 1925, and he was still right—or so he thought.
There were not too many people who argued with him, though there were some. Basically, the French Army commanders tied their thinking to the idea of the defensive. Key men in a nation that prided itself on its logic, they carried this idea to a logical conclusion. If hastily prepared field fortifications had been the war winner of 1914-18, how much stronger therefore would be fully prepared fortifications, dug in, cemented, casemated at leisure, with carefully tended fields of fire, amenities for the troops, modern communications and control systems. The French embarked on the building of a great belt of fortifications on the German frontier. They named it after their Minister of War, significantly a “grand mutilé” of the Great War, a man named André Maginot.
The Maginot Line was begun after Locarno, and it eventually grew to be a series of steel-and-concrete emplacements that ran from almost the Swiss border north along the west bank of the Rhine as far as Montmédy at the southeastern extremity of Belgium. It was billed as impenetrable, and it probably was.
The French have been accused of monumental national stupidity in that they built half a fortress and left the other half of their country completely vulnerable to an end-run around their fortified belt. In reality it was not that simple. First of all, the cost of the Maginot Line was enormous, and though the Franco-German border portion of it was pretty well finished by the early thirties, the Depression hit France before any more of it was done. More vital than money, however, was the problem of allies. In 1914, Belgium had been neutral, her status guaranteed by a treaty going back to the 1830’s—this was Kaiser Wilhelm’s “scrap of paper” over which Great Britain went to war. Throughout the war the Belgians had fought valiantly alongside the French and British; it had been their country that had been invaded by Germany in the famous Schlieffen Plan. After the war, Belgium had reasserted her neutrality and had not aligned herself with France.
Theoretically then, the French had no obligation to consider the Belgians in their defense planning. They could, had they chosen to do so, have continued the Maginot Line along the Belgian frontier to the sea. But for one thing they could not afford it; for another, it would mean abandoning a likely ally. It would also mean running the line through heavily built up and highly industrialized territory, and that was undesirable. Finally, it would mean, in the event of another German war and a replay of the Schlieffen Plan, letting the Germans come in through Belgium, and therefore fighting the war on French soil rather than on Belgian soil.
None of these was especially appealing, so the French decided on other alternatives. In the event of another war, they would leave Luxembourg and Belgium open and fight the war there. The Maginot Line was not seen anyway as an absolutely impervious barrier. It was instead a way of conserving troops; a relatively few men manning the fortifications would be able to withstand heavy numbers. This would leave the mobile masses of the French Army free to maneuver on the Belgian frontier. The Line would also have the effect of channeling a German attack into Belgium, where the French would be ready to meet them. The French therefore would not fortify the dense Ardennes region of southeastern Belgium, which they considered unsuitable country for mobile operations, and they would not fortify along the Belgian frontier. This was where they would fight their war.
There were two problems with this. One was that it required a certain degree of German agreement on how the war would be fought and where; the Germans would have to accept the French assessment of the Maginot Line and its role, and of the Ardennes and its impassability. They would have to agree to fight World War I over again. When the time came they nearly did.
The second problem was that, having built an immensely expensive fortification so that they could free a large part of their army for mobile operations, the French then lacked the money and the disposition to make the army mobile. Throughout the thirties, though they produced many fine weapons and armored vehicles in prototype, they seldom put them into production. Their military doctrine was not sufficiently well formed for them to proceed on the basis of it and produce the necessary weaponry. Basically dominated by the ideas of the defensive, paying only lip service to the idea of mobility, they were uncertain what to do about the technology that would restore mobility to war. In effect, their weapons technology was the victim of their flawed or inconsistent strategic and tactical doctrine.
The difficulty here was that 1914-18, which provided the mental set of the French high command in the years after the war, had been a predominantly defensive war. In fact, it had hardly been even that, and more than anything else it had been a siege on a gigantic scale, essentially a static war. Both sides had sought a way out of this impasse; neither had found it. Artillery, barbed wire, and the machine gun had combined to deny movement to the participants on the battlefield. This was true even in the vast stretches of the Eastern Front; it was particularly the case on the Western Front.
The weapons, or vehicles, that would restore mobility to warfare were of course used, but not in a visibly significant sense. The tank was introduced by the Allies; it was a simple concept: mount a weapon on a caterpillar tread and you can break through a defensive line. Military conservatism militates against the use of simple innovations, however, and it was not until 1918 that the tank was produced and used in numbers sufficient to demonstrate its potential as an infantry-support weapon. That it might become more than that was an idea left to a few visionaries. The Germans, thought to be the most innovative of military thinkers, virtually ignored the tank until the end of the war. Their first experience of it had shown that it was probably useless. After it appeared in numbers, they could not see how to counter it, so they tried to forget it. They also lost the war.
When the French considered the problem of the tank between the wars, they took an essentially conservative view of it. It would not be much more than it had been in 1918. This idea was challenged by a whole series of theoretical writers. In Britain, B. H. Liddell Hart and J. F. C. Fuller were developing the ideas that would make the linear trench systems of 1914-18 obsolete. Instead of distributing tanks to the infantry, they ought to be used en masse, as armored spearheads. Like the cavalry of old, they could break the enemy’s line and then go on the rampage in his rear areas, disrupting communications and the passage of reserves. This was Liddell Hart’s theory of “the expanding torrent.” The tank would become the dominant weapon, and the infantry would just move in and occupy ground after the tanks had taken it. These ideas were picked up by some German students, notably Guderian and Manstein, and they were also paralleled by those of French thinkers, especially General Estienne, the father of the French tank force. In the thirties, they were adopted by a Colonel Charles de Gaulle, who wrote a book called Vers l’armée du metier. The book had little influence and was largely a rehashing of Fuller and Liddell Hart. What de Gaulle advocated was a small, mobile, professional army. Ironically, he was asking for the kind of army that Versailles had forced on the Germans.
What the French high command wanted, and got, was the large, slow, mass army of World War I. With their fixation on linear defense-systems, they were not disposed to listen favorably to ideas of armored spearheads that could break lines. They stuck to tanks as an infantry-support weapon. This in turn led them to neglect speed, maneuverability, and especially tank-to-tank communication. Therefore, even when they did finally organize fully armored formations, their tanks, the best in the world for infantry cooperation, were deficient for armored combinations.
The worth of the airplane was recognized, but since both sides had it, it had achieved nothing decisive either. It was useful for artillery spotting and reconnaissance and for shooting down the other side’s artillery spotters and reconnaissance. A few people, British officers in the Royal Flying Corps, conceived the idea that airplanes could do more, that they might be capable of long-distance bombing and some strategic results. What little they accomplished was enough to convince the visionaries of the value of their vision; most observers remained skeptical.
Unfortunately, by the time either the tank or the airplane did anything of real note, the Germans were cracking anyway. Professional military minds were therefore able to reassure themselves that, while these new inventions might be valuable adjuncts to warfare, they were not and never would be anything more than that. Until 1939, an officer could still make his career in the horse cavalry. The French, having won the war by conventional methods, were not disposed to introduce unconventional ones.
What they did produce during the interwar years was a very respectable navy. It had new and modern units that were certainly able to dominate the Mediterranean in a potential conflict with the other Mediterranean power, Italy. The spirit and the equipment of the French navy in the thirties was probably higher than it had been since the days of Choiseul in the mid-eighteenth century. The navy had a notable place in the French imperial scheme of things. Unhappily, it would not be of much immediate value in another Franco-German war.
The upshot of the whole thing was that France, wracked by internal crisis and the strain of maintaining its image as a great power, staggered uncertainly into the decade of the Depression. Her military forces were basically strong, but the doctrines that infused them were inconsistent at best and faulty at worst. The weapons technology that flowed from those doctrines was partially flawed. By the time she needed it, her strength was already crippled by self-inflicted wounds.
Though they were reluctant to admit it, the French believed their security ultimately depended upon their relation with Great Britain. The British themselves were far less certain about this. British policy had traditionally been directed toward maintaining the balance of power on the Continent, and this had led her, from about 1689 on, into a series of anti-French coalitions. After 1870, it was no longer the French who threatened to achieve a hegemony over Europe, and therefore the British had gravitated, almost unknowingly, into the anti-German coalition that fought the First World War. Yet old ideas died hard. In terms of national stereotypes, even though the British and French fought World War I together, they did not really like each other. The alliance always had divergent ends, and ideas of means to achieve them; it was Marshal Foch in 1918 who remarked that after his experience with coalitions, he had less respect for Napoleon than he used to have.
The British had also resented the kind of war they had had to fight. Their policy was always to use their navy to great advantage, and to employ a small army, beefed up by subsidized allies whom they bought among the continental powers. In 1914, they found that that would no longer work; they had been forced to field a large army, and had watched for four years while it slowly sank into the Flanders mud. Several times at crisis points the Anglo-French alliance threatened to come apart at the seams.
At the end of the war the French and British views parted company. France wanted to ruin Germany permanently; Britain was not so sure. Germany was a threat, but she was also Britain’s largest prewar customer. The British backed off from any long-term commitment to France, glad of the excuse given them by the Americans, and they preferred to put their hopes on the League of Nations. Somewhat paradoxically, the British became the major backer of the League, a backing that was always ineffective because they were conscious of lacking the support of the United States.
In addition to casting a disapproving eye on French policies toward the Germans, the British had their own difficulties. The war had created enormous social dislocation; there was unemployment, unrest, and a wave of strikes through the twenties. New York had replaced London as the world’s financial capital. Though some historians say the war was good for Britain, as unleashing hitherto dormant or unproductive energies, most regard it as an unmitigated disaster. There were major problems with the empire as well: Ireland finally broke away, there were riots in South Africa, there was a massacre in India, Gandhi began his campaigns of nonviolent resistance, the white dominions loosened the ties of empire even further, to the point of invisibility. The new territories gained by Britain after the war, mandated to her by the League of Nations, proved to be no bargain. Her conflicting wartime deals with assorted factions in the Middle East came home to roost, and though stout-hearted colonels might take comfort from the large splotches of the map still colored British, the color was fading fast.
With the Channel between them and the Continent, and secure in the knowledge that the Royal Navy was still supreme, the British were able to take a more benevolent view of their late enemies than the French were. As the twenties rolled on, Britain came to the view that the Germans had indeed been harshly treated at Versailles. The punitive peace was predicated on conditions that did not develop, or turned out not to apply. Therefore, Britain became at least mildly revisionist in her views about Germany. Even before the term “appeasement” was coined, the British were conceding that Germany might be better treated than was the case. It was this view that led them, in 1935, into signing the Anglo-German Naval Agreement.
The agreement was a major setback for the Western Powers, though it did not look like it at the time. Britain agreed that Germany might build up her naval strength to a point where it was one third that of the Royal Navy. They further agreed to Anglo-German parity in submarine tonnage. That might seem incredible in view of what the British had gone through in 1914-18, but they had after all defeated the submarine in the end, so they were not disposed to take it as seriously in 1935 as they had been in 1915. In the larger sense, the agreement was a slap in the face to France, since it was undertaken unilaterally by Britain, without reference to France, who was also a signatory to the Versailles treaty which was now being thrown out the window. Hitler had already repudiated the disarmament clauses of Versailles, so the agreement had the further effect of retrospectively legitimizing Herr Hitler’s actions. The French were not pleased, and the British did not care.
In the mid-thirties, there was not a great deal the British could have done about Hitler, even had they chosen not to go along with him. As soon as the war ended they demobilized their large army and reverted to the traditional policy of dependence upon the navy. Even that lost ground, however. It was Britain’s financial situation that led her into considering the naval limitations of the Washington Conference and its successors. Her strength at sea was in many ways nearly as illusory as was France’s on land. The old Royal Navy of the days of sail had been capable of dominating the water of any area of the world for a time. Now British supremacy included a tacit recognition of the local command of the United States Navy over the western Atlantic and most of the Pacific, and the dominance of Japan over east Asian waters. France and Italy could challenge her hold on the Mediterranean, and the two of them combined could have held the Mediterranean against her. Relatively speaking, the British were weaker in the thirties than they had been before 1914. They resolved this problem by adopting the infamous “ten-year rule,” a government prediction that as there was no war on the horizon for ten years, weakness was permissible. They were still using the formula in 1935.
Britain was weaker in another way, too. In 1914, the Channel had been a barrier that was nearly impassable. Once during the Napoleonic Wars Earl St. Vincent as First Lord of the Admiralty was asked about the possibility of a French invasion; his reply was, “Gentlemen, I do not say that the enemy cannot come; I say only that they cannot come by sea.” That sublime confidence was still justified in 1914. But by 1935, it was possible that the enemy might come by air.
Before 1914, France had led the world in aircraft development, what there was of it. Britain and Germany had both equaled her as a result of the demands of the war. Both had gone even further in the direction of producing long-range heavy bombers and the British, alone of the great powers, had brought in an independent air force at the end of the war.
They had then succumbed to the visionaries. Through the twenties, a group of theorists, the most famous of whom was Giulio Douhet of Italy, had produced ideas that strategic bombers, in and of themselves, would determine the course of future wars. A country needed no more for its defense than a heavy-bomber force. If invaded, it would launch its bombers against the enemy at home, against his means of production and transport. Massive destruction would follow, the invading forces would either be withdrawn for home defense or would wither from lack of supplies. Civilian demands for protection would paralyze the enemy’s war effort. The best civil defense would be a bomber force that would carry the war to the enemy; there was no need for fighter protection, because “the bomber would always get through.” Strategic heavy bombers were the ultimate terror weapon of the twenties and thirties.
The British agreed with this, or at least the leading lights of the infant Royal Air Force did. Arthur Harris, who would lead R. A. F. Bomber Command in World War II, and was known to the public as “Bomber” Harris; Sir Hugh Trenchard, who commanded the R. A. F. in its early days, and others were men looking for a role for their service, and they found it in the ideas of Douhet. Air defense was subordinated to the idea of long-distance strategic bombing. Unfortunately, the aircraft technology of the time could not fulfill the promises of the theorists, and the primary effect of these ideas was to downgrade the British fighter force and defense forces. It was not until about 1937 that the British began to put more effort into fighter-aircraft production and development. They were just barely in time.
If Britain and France were weak during the interwar period, it was partly because of the effects of World War I, but only partly. They had, after all, come out of the war better than the Germans or the Russians. Their basic weakness stemmed not from the war, but from the attitudes of their governments, and even more fundamentally, of their citizens. People eventually get the government they want, and the French and British taxpayer chose to support governments whose policies led to military weakness rather than strength. Of course, it was not the fault of the civilian politicians if the money they did allocate to their military advisors and experts was misspent, as it generally was. But the populace of both countries, on the whole, was neither inclined to vote much money for military force, nor to examine too closely the question of what ought to be done with it. At bottom, their basic problem was a lack of national will.
Among the dictatorships, there was no such problem.