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The Twilight of French Eastern Alliances, 1926-1936: French-Czechoslovak-Polish Relations from Locarno to the Remilitarization of the Rhineland

The Twilight of French Eastern Alliances, 1926-1936: French-Czechoslovak-Polish Relations from Locarno to the Remilitarization of the Rhineland

by Piotr Stefan Wandycz

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Although France, Poland, and Czechoslovakia were in jeopardy from a recovery of German power after World War I and from a potential German hegemony in Europe, France failed in her efforts to maintain a system of alliances with her two imperiled neighbors. Focusing on the period from 1926 to 1936, Piotr Wandycz seeks to explain how and why these three nations, with


Although France, Poland, and Czechoslovakia were in jeopardy from a recovery of German power after World War I and from a potential German hegemony in Europe, France failed in her efforts to maintain a system of alliances with her two imperiled neighbors. Focusing on the period from 1926 to 1936, Piotr Wandycz seeks to explain how and why these three nations, with so much at risk, neglected to act in concert. Wandycz is the author of a well-known study on the series of alliances constructed by France, Poland, and Czechoslovakia in the years following the Treaty of Versailles. In this current volume he picks up the story after the Locarno Pact (1925) and follows the progressive disintegration of the alliance system until the time of Hitler's remilitarization of the Rhineland.

Through an examination of the political, military, and economic relations among France, Poland, and Czechoslovakia, the author provides valuable insights into an era that contained the seeds of the future war and the collapse of the historic European system. By relying on French, Polish, and more selectively Czechoslovak and Western archives, and thanks to his intimate knowledge of Central and East European published sources, he has filled a large gap in the history of prewar diplomacy. He shows how the divergent aims of Czechoslovakia and Poland combined with a decline of French willpower to prevent a real cohesion among the partners.

Originally published in 1988.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

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The Twilight of French Eastern Alliances, 1926â"1936

French-Czechoslovak-Polish Relations from Locarno to the Remilitarization of the Rhineland

By Piotr S. Wandycz


Copyright © 1988 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-05528-2


The Shadow of Locarno

The Powers

The Locarno pacts were signed formally in London on 1 December 1925. These agreements, together with the Dawes Plan and the advent of the Cartel des gauches, marked a transition from the postwar division into victors and vanquished to an institutionalized concert of great powers presided over by Briand, Stresemann, and Chamberlain.

The policy of each of the three "locarnites," to use Chamberlain's expression, was based, of course, on different premises and corresponded to different domestic situations. To the British, Locarno was designed to "patch up the European concert and to allow Britain to concentrate upon domestic and imperial issues." The Rhineland pact did not impose new obligations on London, which retained the right to decide what constituted a flagrant aggression in the west, or an unprovoked aggression in the east. The Foreign Office viewed the French eastern system as "an element not of security but of added apprehension and increased liability." Locarno, the British assumed, would enable France to limit its obligations in the east and eliminate some of the existing tensions. Another Foreign Office memorandum pointedly recalled, "as a matter of history," that "this country has never in the past taken up arms to resist the dismemberment of Poland." But, in an atmosphere of detente, "we hope to tempt both Germany and Poland to look to the West and resist whatever tempting offers Russia may make to break up the European family." If, the document concluded, "we can persuade France, Germany, Italy and Poland to continue to co-operate in giving effect to our Locarno policy, we shall have provided ourselves with the best and most effective protection against the common Russian danger."

London knew that this would be no easy task. On occasion Chamberlain would fulminate against the "abominable" German behavior, and the Foreign Office speak of a gulf "which no bridge can span — between Anglo-Saxon and French mentality." Nevertheless, the Locarno arrangements were seen as superior to the situation that had existed previously.

Seen from the perspective of Berlin, Locarno was the first step toward a recovery of freedom of action hampered by the occupation of the Rhineland (the "rope of the strangler," as Stresemann called it), disarmament, controls, and the French eastern alliances. By satisfying the French desire for security and economic cooperation, Berlin sought to create an atmosphere of conciliation that would be conducive to concessions in the fields of disarmament and revision. These concessions were not seen as a reward for "good behavior" but as a logical sequel to Locarno. While the Rhineland evacuation was the first item on Germany's agenda, territorial revisionism in the east represented, in Stresemann's words, "not only the most important task of our policy but perhaps the most important task of European politics generally." Poland, the principal target, was to be brought to its knees by relentless economic and political pressure, diplomatic isolation, and loss of credibility in Western eyes. Although the economic weapon was to prove ineffective after Poland's recovery in mid-1926, Germany fully exploited the national minority issue; the maintenance of a dissatisfied German minority in the contested areas became "a precondition for a satisfactory solution of the question of the Corridor and Upper Silesia." Neither the German government nor the army was interested in minor border revisions that could jeopardize the goal of the recovery of the 1914 borders, a strategic more than an ethnic imperative." As Staatssekretar Carl von Schubert put it, after being "reduced politically at Locarno," Poland ought to be "reduced militarily," for these were the two conditions for the final goal of territorial revisionism.

This policy required some degree of German-Soviet collaboration to keep the Poles off balance. Stresemann did not intend to abandon Rapallo, although reconciling it with the Rhineland pact was no easy matter. Stalin condemned Locarno and, despite his desires to maintain a good working relationship with Berlin, had no intention of giving up a policy of exploiting the contradictions between the capitalist states. Berlin's goals in Central Europe were less clearly defined than those vis-à-vis Poland. Stresemann considered it useful for the Germans to speak loudly about an Anschluss, but it is doubtful that he treated this issue as a concrete task of German diplomacy. The thought of revising Czechoslovak borders was not seriously entertained in Berlin, and the role of the so-called Sudeten Germans was to assist in bringing Czechoslovakia into the German orbit rather than to work for its destruction.

Stresemann's insistence on peaceful change stemmed from Germany's inability to use force, not from pacifist inclinations. In 1924 he said that "in the last resort ... great questions are always resolved by the sword." Nor did he exclude warlike measures altogether when speaking shortly after Locarno about the eastern territorial settlement. By being a "good European" he meant pursuing his objectives within the framework of European politics rather than through unilateral actions. His program for the next two years, as he told the French ambassador in late 1925, included gaining France's consent to the evacuation of the Rhineland, an agreement with Belgium to recover Eupen and Malmédy, and the return of some former colonies. The Polish "corridor," he hoped, would "in the long run be settled amicably without depriving Poland of access to the sea," perhaps by compensating the Poles with Memel (Klaipeda) for the loss of Danzig. He asked, however, that the French not repeat this plan to Skrzynski.

The Quai d'Orsay commented that Stresemann's program "revealed an audacity and a fertility of imagination that are well known and disquieting." He had already been warned that to raise such issues meant contradicting the terms of Locarno based on the respect of treaties." The French government was particularly worried of possible effects that such views might have on the public, which desperately wanted to be reassured. Indeed, the mood of France was one of disenchantment mixed with illusions. Paris was still the cultural and artistic capital of the world. At the time of the signing of Locarno, some sixteen million people had passed through the International Exposition des arts décoratifs. Yet, not all the lights were burning in the Ville Lumière. Some leading writers, such as Romain Rolland and Henri Barbusse, horrified by the consequences of the war, turned to pacifism. Others voiced fears of the threat posed to traditional European values by American mass civilization. A spokesman of the bourgeoisie, Lucien Romier, wrote about the end of liberalism, extolling the virtues of nationalism and national egoism. Others saw communism as the panacea. The writers of the Royalist right, Charles Maurras and Jacques Bainville, fulminating against the inflation that they associated with the cartel, spoke of "collective theft." A fascist dissident from L'Action Française, Georges Valois, called dramatically in his pamphlet: "Bolshevism? Frenchmen you must choose!"

France was strong because of its political prestige and the army, but these two power factors lasted only as along as they were truly maintained. The army, as the war minister admitted, was "in a state of malaise." Dominated by generals steeped in the 1914–18 tradition who were still too young to retire, the officers' corps suffered from a slowness of promotion, inadequate pay, and cavalier treatment from a parliament ever suspicious of the military. The army had to accept an eighteen-month military service in 192.3, and anticipate a further reduction to one year. Faced with cuts in personnel, the army demanded a new organization. The great issue was the adequate protection of borders, which had been ardently debated since 1920. At a special commission, transformed in December 1925 into a Commission de Défense des Frontières, Marshal Philippe Pétain and his collaborators emphasized security of French soil against an attack "brusquée," and advocated a continuous front strengthened by fortifications. Marshal Foch and General Marie-Eugène Debeney by contrast stressed the final objective — winning the war — rather than a strategy of repelling the enemy. A continuous line of fortified defenses seemed not only expensive but demoralizing for the troops.

Both sides were concerned with reducing casualties and concentrating the means of battle; they foresaw a war of movement intervening only during a second phase of operations. Whereas the mobilization plan A (January 1924 to June 1926) spoke of an "offensive solution," plan A-bis departed from the notion of concentration on the Rhine, and slowly abandoned the concept of a "firm and immediate" offensive. General Charles Nollet was conscious of a "public opinion current that is little favorable to the actual military system." Foch felt that it would be imprudent to speak of "mobilization" and "couverture" at a time when "pacifism was reigning." By talking too much about preparedness, one ran the risk of being regarded a militarist." Indeed, the mentality of the army chiefs closely resembled that of the French bourgeoisie.

Military and political problems were, of course, inextricably linked with the economic situation of the country. War and reconstruction, accompanied by the declining value of the franc, provided a stimulus to production. Inflation stimulated the home market, the rising prices encouraged spending, but the modernization of industries was uneven as was the general growth of the economy. The greatly increased output of metallurgical and engineering industries enriched the entrepreneurial class but revealed an acute problem of dependence on foreign raw materials and markets. The metallurgists badly needed cartel agreements with their main partners and competitors, the Germans. Small producers, farmers, artisans, shopkeepers, and dealers felt ever more insecure as the economy modernized unequally and further industrialization took place. Inherent contradictions within the French economy were reflected in the society as a whole. The middle class was more frightened by inflation, the fall of the franc, and budgetary chaos than it was encouraged by favorable indices of industrial revival.

Financial recovery was impeded by budgetary calculations that included the uncollected reparations and affected by expenses incurred during the Ruhr venture. In the absence of a tax increase, on which the parliament could not agree, the government relied on short-term bonds and a low level of currency in circulation. The year 1926 opened with a large budget deficit; advances from the Banque de France during the previous year had attained a dramatic figure of thirty-six milliards. As the franc continued to plummet — from 104 francs to a pound in December 1925 to 243 in July 1926 — it seemed that only a substantial loan could resolve the situation. But as real as the financial difficulties were, one must stress the "paralysis of will and decision which gripped the ruling class as a whole." The result was political instability. In November 1925, the socialists, unable to agree with the radicals on financial measures, left the government. A new cabinet of Briand fell in March 1926, and again in mid-June. Reconstituted as the Briand-Caillaux ministry — Joseph Caillaux was in charge of finances — it sought to solve the financial difficulties through foreign policy schemes.

Much of the Right — its preferences for alliances and skepticism about the League notwithstanding — favored a rapprochement with Germany for material reasons, and those persistently opposed to Germany, such as Louis Marin, found themselves in a minority. Heavy industry badly needed an "economic Locarno," and politicians with industrial connections, including André Fraçois-Poncet and Pierre-Etienne Flandin, favored closer ties with Berlin. To the French Right, peace and détente was not only attractive because war carried with it the danger of revolution, but also because it meant lower military expenditures. One could see a rupture developing between the satisfied bourgeoisie and the army "that continued to harbor [anti-German] rancors which the rest of the nation had abandoned."

The appeal of Locarno was strong for the peasant masses whose losses during the war had been disproportionately high, and to the socialist proletariat to whom international collaboration was a party creed. For workers in the metallurgical industries, expanded production removed the fear of unemployment. Good commercial relations with Germany, regularized by the 19 February 1926 treaty, were popular with the winegrowers of southern France, the backbone of the radical party, who successfully applied pressure to have their interests satisfied.

Briand had correctly gauged the mood of the country. Appealing with incomparable skill to different elements of the electorate, he succeeded in making his policy appear the best solution for France and Europe. He was the first to admit that the work accomplished at Locarno was, as all human efforts, imperfect, but as he developed his arguments, using occasional half-truths or logic twisted to suit his purpose, the effect was overwhelming. Briandism became an outlook, a mood, nay a Weltanschauung.

Briand himself was a pragmatist who had moved from the Left toward the Right, and then swerved again more to the Left. He relied heavily on his powers of persuasion, although he might have "overestimated the effects of his skill as a conciliator." His inner thoughts remain inaccessible, for he did not share them with others and left very little on paper; hence, there is room for controversy.

Briand believed that his country's weakness precluded a bold and risky policy. After a new war, he said, France would be a "poor and a disappearing nation." He saw no alternative to the Locarno policy, which had prevented the danger of a German-Soviet alignment, associated Britain in the defense of France ("the Rhine has become an international frontier"), encouraged German democracy, and nurtured the new spirit of international relations. Locarno was not the achievement of security, as the British viewed it, but the beginning of efforts to organize it. France could not be expected to bear all its costs: "One had not reached that degree of abnegation," Briand declared, "that means giving everything and receiving nothing." Ready to bargain, the French foreign minister believed that France could further its aims through a friendly dialogue that would dull and emasculate German revisionist ardor. Time seemed essential to create a peaceful atmosphere and to give France a chance to recover from its difficult economic situation.

The French government and public opinion regarded the eastern aspects of the Locarno agreement as an integral part of the whole edifice. But the nagging question whether Locarno increased or weakened the security of the smaller allies remained very much alive. Publicly, Briand insisted that Prague and Warsaw profited by gaining the arbitration agreements, and he implied that Germany had engaged itself "to respect all the frontiers and not to undertake any act of force." He insisted that everything at Locarno had been done "in perfect agreement on all the points" with the Poles and the Czechoslovaks. "We lost none of our friendships," he asserted, "on the contrary they are strengthened." Privately, Briand thought that the position of the two states was "the same after Locarno as before it;" neither better nor worse. Taking this line, the French ambassador in Warsaw tried to persuade the Poles that the imbalance between the western and eastern state of affairs was not the result of Locarno; its roots were in the postwar settlement. The asymmetry was, of course, not to be denied, and the Belgian foreign minister publicly said that one could not "close one's eyes on the difference which exists between the Rhine pact" and what the Poles called "a second-class guarantee." Georges Bonnet, at Quai d'Orsay in 1938–39, went further when he wrote retrospectively that Locarno assumed a revision of the eastern borders, and "necessary sacrifices by Poland and Czechoslovakia to facilitate Germany's return to the European community." Briand allegedly thought he could accomplish these goals through his adroitness, eloquence, and the prestige he enjoyed.

What exactly was the effect of the French guarantee treaties with Poland and Czechoslovakia, signed in Locarno, on the relationship between Paris and its two allies? Briand explained to the cabinet that the treaty with Poland imposed no new obligations. In fact, France was not obliged to extend aid except in case of a common action under the auspices of the League. "We will march only if everybody marches with us." According to the Quai d'Orsay, the aid to Poland depended on the decision of the Council, but it was less certain whether France had to await a recommendation (under article 16) before it could take any steps. If there was no unanimity (article 15, al.7) the French "reserved the right to act," although in practice "our attitude will be determined by consideration of immediate policy" and not the restraints (ligotage) of Locarno. The Quai d'Orsay warned, however, that "it would be dangerous if one allowed this idea [that Locarno could block any independent French action] to take root, and if the silence of the press favorable to the government permitted Prague and Warsaw to think that this thesis is admitted here without being contested."


Excerpted from The Twilight of French Eastern Alliances, 1926â"1936 by Piotr S. Wandycz. Copyright © 1988 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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