From the Munich conference until the Second World War

29 septembre 1938. Signature des accords de Munich - Neville Chamberlain, Premier ministre de Grande-Bretagne; Edouard Daladier, président du Conseil français, le chancelier Adolf Hitler Benito Mussolini et le comte Ciano, ministre des affaires étrangères
Corps 1

From the Munich conference until the Second World War

Corps 2

(September 1938 - September 1939) In the face of Hitler's expansionist intentions, the French and British would first of all choose to negotiate with him in an attempt to limit his demands and avoid war. Paris and London still shared many delusions following the Munich agreements of September 1938. When the Germans had invaded Czechoslovakia in the middle of March 1939, France and Great Britain had tried to establish a defence to discourage the Reich, entering into negotiations with Stalin in order to guarantee his alliance or at least his benevolent neutrality in the event of a conflict. But the signing of the Germano-Soviet pact on the 23rd August 1939 was the death knell for the last hopes for peace. On the 1st September, Hitler attacked Poland.

Up until 1936, Hitler had settled for destroying those clauses of the Versailles treaty limiting Germany's military power and freedom of action. In 1937 he began the second phase of his programme, which would allow him to acquire, starting with Eastern Europe and ending in the Ukraine and Russia, the ”vital area” at the heart of his ideology and geopolitical agenda, an agenda that would provide Germany with the means for domination of Europe and which was to be the principal cause of the Second World War.

From the 4th November 1937, he outlined his plans to his main advisors: the Reich would annexe Austria, followed by Czechoslovakia, with France and England not daring to interfere. Then the vital area would be established in the East.

From then onwards, there was a succession of events: in March 1938 came the Anschluss; in September 1938, as a result of the Sudeten crisis (the German speaking population of Czechoslovakia, of whom Hitler demanded allegiance to the Reich) and the Munich conference, it was the division of Czechoslovakia, completed in March 1939 when Hitler occupied Prague. The next step would obviously be Poland.

In the face of Hitlerian dynamism, with its geo-strategic logic, effective politico-psychological practises and propaganda, the French and British would first of all try to maintain their ”collective sense of security” and the ”European entente” as they had been implemented since the 1925 Locarno agreements. In other words, they would negotiate with Hitler, in order to try to manage his demands and limit their concessions, without breaking their talks and to avoid war.

At the end of September 1938, the Munich conference was clearly in tune with the Franco-British in the context of joint security. This conference was of course a mockery, a warping of the European entente, but back then in the mindset of the time it seemed to prolong the collective sense of security. There was, however, one difference between London and Paris: London thought that the Hitlerian policy of revision would remain limited and acceptable; Paris had a better understanding of Berlin's expansionist objectives, grasping if not Hitler's extremely dynamic methods of political war, then at least his desire for total control of central and eastern Europe and the danger that would result from this for the rest of Europe. But Paris did not grasp all the consequences because of the myth of collective security, strengthened by the horrified memory of the massacre of 1914-1918. The delusion of a restored European entente Paris and London still shared many delusions after Munich.

On the 1st October, before leaving Germany, Chamberlain signed a declaration with Hitler, according to which the two countries would plan for the future. ”Peace in our time!” the British Prime Minister was to declare.

The French signed an identical declaration on the 6th December during a visit by Ribbentrop, the German minister for Foreign Affairs. Both countries swore their respect for their common border and promised to consult each other in the event of any crisis. The Germans later claimed, wrongly it appeared, that the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Georges Bonnet, had on this occasion given the Reich ”free reign” in the east. The fact remained that this declaration gave a very bad impression, so soon after the ”Night of broken glass”, the anti-Jewish pogrom in Germany on the 8th November. And it was indisputable that in Paris, as in London, a majority of policy makers still believed it was possible to negotiate with Berlin, in an extension of the Munich conference, the arrangements regarding the unresolved questions regularly raised by Germany: her reinstatement in international trade, the problem of the former German colonies lost as a result of the treaty of Versailles and even the question of Dantzig and the Polish Corridor, clearly raised by Berlin at the end of October 1938. We always acted in the spirit of the policy that had been instigated against Hitler since 1933: to get the Reich out of its unpredictable isolation so it could join the ”European entente”, as Georges Bonnet wrote in his memoirs (1).

However, French policy makers were more divided than the British about the possibility of actually restoring European entente with Hitler. Whilst ready to follow the policy of Munich, the president of the Council, Edouard Daladier, was more aware than Bonnet of the failure that this conference represented for France.

In November 1938 his government decided upon a programme to boost the economy and increase the production of armaments; it met with some success (in 1939 the percentage of GNP dedicated to military spending was greater in France than in Germany) but came too late. Nevertheless the government and other political parties remained divided; everyone was aware of the danger of Hitlerism, but there were three different lines of thought on how to stand up to it. The first was that the situation was serious, but that Hitler was bluffing and that he could be deterred using a network of alliances and firm talks, without risking a war for which France was not ready. The second line of thought believed the contrary, that Hitler was not bluffing, that France, now isolated (remember there was no formal alliance with Great Britain!) and poorly armed, had to avoid war by granting concessions to the Reich, limiting them as much as possible. The third line was more complex: it was the belief that dissuasion and also possibly some concessions were necessary, but that war was probably inevitable and it was therefore necessary to prepare for it in the event that all else failed. At times, this was the position of Daladier, and especially that of the military leaders.

Moreover, more and more people were pleading for a different, strong strategy known as the ”imperial withdrawal”. In fact, in order to fully understand the atmosphere that had developed in France since Munich, and which in some ways heralded Vichy, we must bear in mind the growing importance of the idea of a French Empire. From 1933 onwards, the imperial concept was introduced in the context of security against the Reich: the Empire constituted a block of 100 million inhabitants who would ensure the security and political independence of the country (2). After Munich, the Empire became an essential asset. But an ambiguous asset: was it a question of establishing an imperial bastion to strengthen France's power against Germany, or of preparing for an ”imperial withdrawal” so as not to confront the Reich, by surrendering central and eastern Europe? This ambiguity was to become more clearly apparent in the month following Munich: Paul Baudouin, an influential banker in the political field who would later become the secretary for foreign affairs in Vichy, published an article applauding the idea of an imperial withdrawal, under the terms of which France should break free from her alliances in the East and refocus on her Empire, whilst at the same time seeking a compromise with Germany in Europe .(3)

This idea was further strengthened with the deterioration of Franco-Italian relations from the end of 1938: there were many who felt that Rome was a direct threat on vital French assets and interests in the Mediterranean and Africa, and had therefore now become the main enemy; it was not Germany, to whom it was just a question of granting free reign in the East. And in fact an entire governmental debate was held to establish whether it was worth maintaining the alliance with Poland.

However, the invasion of Czechoslovakia in mid March 1939 caused a clearly tougher Franco-British stance, although Chamberlain would have opted first and foremost for dissuasion, as he still hoped to bring Hitler to the negotiation table, whilst the French, though also hoping to salvage peace, incorporated a military vision that was clearly more operational. Both countries pledged support for Greece and Romania and London for Poland. But the essential factor in the dissuasive policy that they were trying to establish was of course the USSR. Under pressure from Paris, which had greater conviction and urgency than London, political negotiations began with the Russians in April 1939 with the aim of a tripartite pact and from the 12th August 1939 military negotiations were added to these talks in order to reach a military agreement.

These negotiations would nevertheless come up against a series of problems: the Soviets demanded a guarantee of free passage across Poland and Romania, to which Warsaw was not inclined to agree under any circumstances. Moreover, they were expecting, under the pretence of complex legal clauses, that they would be given free reign in the Baltic countries. Because of the urgency, Paris wanted to give in to them and the French even ended up upsetting the Polish, but London proved to be very negative. It was clear that Stalin, put off by the experiences of the Munich conference from which he had been excluded, could not be anything other than unpleasantly disturbed by the Franco-British procrastinations. For the French themselves, it was not planned that they should actually fight the war alongside the USSR: the latter was not considered to be in a fit state to lend any serious military aid, at most she could possibly provide Poland with supplies. In fact, negotiations were held with Stalin in order to ensure his benevolent neutrality in the event of a conflict or that, at the very least, he would not get any closer to Hitler.

But Moscow complicated the problems, as since the end of July they had also been negotiating with Hitler, who promised the USSR control of a whole section of eastern Europe without any war, whilst the Franco-British were in fact suggesting that Russia run the risk of quickly becoming involved in the war without any advantages in terms of territory and areas of influence, advantages that they would not and could not promise at the expense of Poland and Romania. Indeed, we still wonder today about Stalin's ulterior motives, as since the 10th March he had publicly led us to believe that Moscow would only decide on the basis of acting in her own interests; would he have been ready to sign an agreement with the western powers, if they had been more decided? He was, in fact, aware of the Hitlerian danger for the USSR. Was he afraid that the Western powers would give Hitler free reign in the East? Did he simply see a good opportunity to recover the areas that had belonged to the Russian Empire? Did he think he could benefit later from a long unresolved war in Europe? Despite the efforts of French diplomacy throughout to remove the Polish obstacle, it was with Hitler that Stalin signed the German-Soviet pact of non-aggression on the 23rd August, whose secret clauses in fact shared Eastern Europe between the two countries.

For the British and the French it was a resounding failure. And so Stalin opened the way for the Second World War: unrestrained by Russia, Hitler attacked Poland on the 1st September. Involvement in the war and its ambiguities. Following tentative ultimatums from Mussolini and Bonnet to find a negotiated settlement, Great Britain and France declared war on the Reich on the 3rd. British public opinion and parliament called for Chamberlain to be firm. French public opinion was sought: in July 1939, 76% of those taking part in a poll believed it was necessary to stand up to Berlin for Dantzig (57% had approved of Munich in September 1938). On the 23rd August, the government had decided that, regardless of the Germano-Soviet pact, they would support Poland. Nevertheless, few could have imagined how the war would turn out. The worst case scenario was that the strategy of waiting and the embargo on the Reich would result in a victory in around 1942 or 1943 that would be less costly than that of 1918.

At best, the economic problems of the Reich and the (supposed) weakness of its regime would result in a much quicker favourable outcome. There was only a vague perception of the war's ideological stakes (Nazi totalitarianism) and there were only very rare glimpses of its human stakes - in particular the racial reconstitution of Europe planned by Hitler, including the expulsion and massacre of the Jews. In the end, very few people understood that Europe was going to lose its worldwide leadership as a result of the war.

Notes (1) Georges Bonnet, Fin d'une Europe. De Munich à la War, Genève, Le Cheval ailé, 1948, p. 44. (2) Charles-Robert Ageron, France coloniale ou Parti colonial? Paris, PUF, 1978. (3) Anthony Adamthwaite, France and the Coming of the Second World War, p. 117.

Brief Bibliography [list]Donald Cameron Watt, How War Came. The Immediate Origins of the Second World War, New York, 1989. [list]Yves Durand, Les causes de la Seconde Guerre mondiale, Cursus. [list]R. A. C. Parker, Chamberlain and Appeasement: British Policy and the Coming of the Second World War, Londres, Macmillan, 1993. [list]Gerhard L. Weinberg, Germany, Hitler and World War II, Cambridge UP, 1995. [list]J.-B. Duroselle, La Décadence 1932-1939, Le Seuil. [list]Hugh Ragsdale, The Soviets, the Munich Crisis and the Coming of World Wwar II, Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 2004. [list]Elisabeth du Réau, Daladier, Paris, Fayard, 1993.