IT IS an almost universally accepted axiom that the relations of Germany and France are the corner-stone of European policy. The problems that unsettle these relations are vital today. Yet to understand them completely we must go far back into the past. Ever since the division of Charlemagne's huge empire, covering practically the whole of Central Europe, there has been an acute rivalry for the predominant position on the continent. France, under the leadership of able kings, achieved her unity early and retained it. In Germany, on the contrary, the central power of the Holy Roman Empire became gradually weaker and weaker, while the tendency toward consolidation of individual provinces and countries into separate units proceeded with steadily increasing vigor. This process continued until, after the Thirty Years' War and the religious split between Roman Catholics and Protestants, the influence of the German Emperor had become almost nominal.

The wars for supremacy in Europe waged between the House of Bourbon and the House of Hapsburg fill a long period. After the fall of the Bourbon dynasty, the men of the French Revolution and afterwards Napoleon continued the struggle on the French side. The battle of Trafalgar ended the fight by firmly establishing British sea supremacy for a whole century. The battle of Waterloo smashed Napoleon, and with him France. The Congress of Vienna proceeded to put its seal on a settlement which suppressed for a long time the French ambition for mastery. During the struggle against Napoleonic imperialism Germany fought under the dual leadership of Austria and Prussia. Since the days of the Great Elector, Prussia, by the genius of its rulers -- particularly Frederick the Second, called the Great -- had been carving out for herself a position in the German Reich which eventually led to a protracted struggle for predominance. That struggle was settled in a short war in 1866. Bismarck and Moltke's genius decided the predominance of Prussia, and thereafter the old rivalry between France and the Hapsburgs was replaced by a more acute struggle for supremacy between France and Germany under the Hohenzollerns.

Obviously, a consolidated German block, with its center in Berlin and strong positions on the Rhine, was infinitely more dangerous from a French point of view than had been the rather loosely-knit structure of Austria-Hungary, with its capital city of Vienna far off in the east, always more inclined to look toward Italy and the Balkans than toward the western front. Napoleon III, whose foreign policy has often been denounced as foolish and adventurous, did nothing but carry out the traditional policy of France when he brought about a decisive struggle with the allied German countries. Nobody responsible for French destinies, from the Cardinal Richelieu on, would have allowed the establishment of a strong united German power on the eastern border of France without making some attempt to squash it. Fate decided against Napoleon III; within four weeks from the beginning of the war, he, his marshals, and his army had to surrender at Sedan. What followed, the heroic resistance under Gambetta, was more a fight to defend the honor of the colors than a war with any prospect of victory. The whole French generation which entered into life about the time of the Treaty of Frankfurt had only one idea: revenge, to get back the two provinces of Alsace-Lorraine, to destroy Germany's power so completely that she could never again menace the holy soil of France. One of the most brilliant Frenchmen of that generation, Maréchal Lyautey, whose life André Maurois has written most attractively, told me himself that his education and natural tendencies would have made him a diplomat, but that after the defeat of 1871 he and several friends decided that the only possible career for a Frenchman was the army. They entered the ranks, to see all their desires fulfilled, Germany crushed, and then torn by revolution.

There will be few people today to dispute the fact that the Versailles Treaty, the work of a generation of old men whose only aim through a long life had been the idea of revenge, was not a wise instrument. Lloyd George saw it clearly, but could not stop the tide of events. He certainly was not without flashes of insight and foresight; but he was heavily handicapped by the violent oratory of which he had delivered himself under the spell of the moment and in sympathy with the mood of his audiences. American moderating influences could not prevail. So wise and experienced a statesman as Lord Carnock (Sir Arthur Nicolson) turned away in disgust from what he considered a foolish and unstable settlement of fundamental questions.

Curiously, the feeling in Germany against France was anything but bitter right through the war. Franco-German tension, though it had never ceased to exist since the signature of the Treaty of Frankfurt in 1871, had nevertheless lost a good deal of its bitterness in the forty-three years of peace. Amongst the younger Frenchmen I had some personal friends, and in pre-war days we often discussed the general situation. Their point of view was that if Alsace-Lorraine should find a satisfactory home in German surroundings, if appeals from that quarter no longer reached French ears, they and their generation would be prepared to abide by the decision of 1871. The Franco-German rivalry had been superseded to a certain extent by an Anglo-German rivalry, particularly in naval matters. But in the end it was neither the Anglo-German rivalry (which had been settled by a series of agreements) nor Franco-German antagonism which brought about the catastrophe, but the revival of old Balkan feuds between Tsardom and the crumbling monarchy of the Hapsburgs. It is only the Versailles Treaty and the subsequent great faults committed by France which have engendered the present acute feeling of resentment and hatred in Germany. Of all French mistakes, the most serious was the occupation of the Ruhr. It led to great bitterness and helped to bring about the complete collapse of the German monetary system. During the following years of occupation, the use of colored troops in the Rhenish provinces also did its part in arousing German public feeling.

It was obvious to any far-seeing statesman that Europe could not go on in such a state of acute tension, that both Germany and France must suffer terribly, and that probably the whole of Europe would go under if matters could not be improved. It is the undying merit of Aristide Briand to have been the first, when the war atmosphere in France began cooling down, to advocate openly a complete readjustment of Franco-German relations. He had the fortune to find in Gustav Stresemann, on the German side, a partner who shared the same opinion and who had the moral courage to face unpopularity at home in the attempt to bring about a lasting improvement in the relations of the two countries.[i] The great step forward which they arranged together was the evacuation of the occupied Rhenish provinces before the treaty date. To free national territories is the first and obvious duty after any great war. By calling back their garrisons before the time appointed by the treaty, the French wisely removed the first and foremost obstacle to a better understanding between their country and Germany.

The nineteenth century had been comparatively peaceful. There had been only one great and protracted war -- the American Civil War -- since the Congress of Vienna ended a period of a struggle which had lasted for generations. A result of this long era of peace had been that mankind had made rapid progress in the field of invention and in material well-being. The Great War, covering a wider arena than any previous war, and being of unprecedented destructiveness, owing to the world's increased industrial efficiency, was followed by a terrible depression. Germany, impoverished and exhausted by the strain of being the center of a vast coalition during a gigantic struggle and of having had to supply her weaker partners with food, clothing, armaments and gold, suffered from the depression much more acutely than did other states which were able to fall back for a time on accumulated reserves.

At this point the old conservative forces which had been crushed in Germany and which had almost disappeared from the public arena after the Revolution saw an opportunity to reconquer the position which they seemed to have lost forever. Their first move, a shrewd one, was to induce the popular Field Marshal, Paul von Hindenburg, to accept the presidency of the Republic. In a long campaign, ably conducted, they worked incessantly to stir up German public opinion. The humiliations imposed on Germany in the Versailles Treaty and the prevailing misery (which they ascribed exclusively to the payment of reparations) were the two main matters on which they harped. The astounding wave of nationalism which in the form of Hitlerism we see sweeping over Germany today is to no small extent the result of Hugenberg's long campaign to incite the nationalist spirit in Germany. The main claims of the nationalists, which even a man of the experience of Schacht, the former Reichsbank President, hotly advocated in public -- like abolition of reparation payments, abolition of Article 231 of the Versailles Treaty (which, according to the German view puts responsibility for the outbreak of the World War exclusively on German shoulders), equality in armaments -- these, their claims in connection with three most urgent questions, helped to rouse a reaction against the rule of democracy as represented by the Social Democrats and, to a certain extent, by the Center.

Along with the rise of the nationalistic tide in Germany, a very stiff and not always fortunate policy in France rapidly dispersed the reserves of sympathy which she had accumulated abroad, and produced in turn the specter of French isolation. France had exhausted English patience by being stiff and unbending in all current questions. She had been far from fortunate in her dealings with the United States. Her relations with Italy were frankly strained, and in his speeches Signor Mussolini was using the word "war" with alarming freedom.

French political opinion was not slow to see the danger of this writing on the wall. In the General Election held in the spring of 1932 the French people gave a clear and decisive expression of their will that all adventures must be avoided, that what they think their country needs above everything else is a steady and peaceful foreign policy which will allow them to till their fields without fear of foreign complications. So far the new Prime Minister, M. Herriot, has faithfully carried out the mandate given him by the clear vote of the French nation. The first result of the new majority in the Palais Bourbon was the Lausanne settlement. The policy of the clean slate advocated by many, particularly by England and Italy (but perhaps not strongly encouraged by the United States) could not be carried out completely. Still, the result was the abolition of reparation payments. The real meaning of Lausanne could not be summed up more to the point than was done by Sir Walter Layton in a recent speech at Oxford in which he said: "Never believe for a moment that the Lausanne agreement is a provisorium. Reparations have come to an end and nothing can revive them. We have conceded to Germany the payment of a final sum; nothing could alter these arrangements, except the question whether we should not attempt to reduce this amount."

The news of Lausanne arrived in Germany just when the fever heat of the most bitterly contested general election of recent times had reached its climax. As a result, the full significance of what had been done was seen by a few only. I am sorry to say that the press, strongly influenced by party combinations, has not done its part in explaining the importance of Lausanne to the German people. And a great difficulty in the way of a clear perception has been the condition attached to the Lausanne instrument to the effect that ratification is subject to the satisfactory arrangement of war debts with the United States. Further difficulties were added by the publication of special agreements, like the Gentlemen's Agreement and the Confidence Pact, and by the fact that the two political points which Germany raised in Lausanne at the same time -- abolition of Article 231 of the Versailles Treaty and a claim for equality in armaments -- could not be achieved.

Competent observers who saw the doings at Lausanne at close quarters assure me that had Germany confined her political desires to the abolition of Article 231 she would have had a very fair chance to carry her point. England in particular was quite willing to meet Germany's wishes. But the addition of a demand for equality in armaments, perhaps presented not too skilfully, proved the straw that broke the camel's back and thus destroyed Germany's chances for a full political success.

Article 231 of the Versailles Treaty was in the main designed to cover German reparation payments. With the abolition of these payments it no longer has any real meaning. History has disagreed with the charge that Germany is the only Power responsible for the outbreak of the war; the deeper we are able to dig into what really happened the more evident it becomes that when Lloyd George said that "Europe stumbled into the war," he came the nearest to giving a description of what actually took place. Even from the French point of view, it is not easy to see what use it would be to keep this paragraph alive when reparation payments have disappeared. The wording of Article 231 has given rise to a widespread conception that the whole of the Versailles Treaty rested on the theory of exclusive German war guilt. Now since historical opinion all over the world condemns this thesis, it seems to follow that to keep the article alive weakens the whole structure of the Versailles Treaty and does harm to French interests. Distinguished Frenchmen have gone to much trouble to show that Article 231 never meant to establish Germany's exclusive war guilt as a historical fact. They attempt to make out that the wording about Germany having caused the war refers only to the fact that her declarations of war against Russia and France constituted the decisive steps which opened the great drama. On the other hand, numerous and weighty, if not official, French voices have done their best to interpret the article in the sense of Germany being solely responsible for the war. All in all, one might imagine that France, after carefully examining all sides of the question, would see the advantage of taking the poison out of this much-discussed article by an official declaration that it never meant to imply Germany's exclusive war guilt. This would satisfy German opinion.

A certain feeling of disappointment abroad at seeing the important concession made to Germany at Lausanne seemingly coincide with an increase in the German nationalistic movement would be natural, although not quite fair. Rivers carry along their devastating floods for some time after the heavy rains in their upper reaches have ceased. So German nationalism, nurtured on mistakes made in the past by other states, particularly France, cannot disappear as if by magic in response to the wiser and more moderate policy which has recently been adopted. If, as certain symptoms point, France and Germany are able to come to a workable agreement in the armament question, a further great obstacle would be removed from the path of better understanding between the two nations.

A solution may be found in the direction of recognizing Germany's theoretical right to equality in armaments, along with a Gentlemen's Agreement that the actual evening-up of armed forces should be delayed. This evening-up could be achieved in two ways -- either by gradually increasing German armaments or by speeding up the decrease in the armaments of the other nations. Anyhow, recent pronouncements in the French press show that discussion of the armament question no longer produces the nervous tension which for a long time rendered such discussions unfruitful and sometimes even dangerous.

Bismarck's great wisdom and foresight opened up to France, after her defeat in Europe, the doors of a wide colonial expansion. By far the greater part of the French colonial empire was built up after 1870. Germany, along with Italy, being the last of the important European nations to achieve unity, found the distribution of oversea empires far advanced. Bismarck could secure only odds and ends, but these proved a useful training-school for German colonial activity. To deprive 65 million active and (in the younger generation) restless persons of any colonial outlet for their energies was one of the unwise measures of the Versailles Treaty. England had been much more farseeing before the war. Leading English statesmen had understood that to give Germany more room in the world meant to diminish considerably the pressure in the over-heated steam kettle. Only the outbreak of the World War prevented the ratification of the Anglo-German colonial agreement which would have given the Fatherland all that even a great colonial ambition could desire. Private conversations which took place in Paris while the Young Plan was under negotiation showed conclusively that responsible English statesmen were by no means hostile to Germany's rebuilding a reasonable part of her colonies, nor are signs lacking today that similar ideas are favorably considered in leading French Government circles. Few accusations have hurt German feelings more sorely than the one that they mismanaged their colonial empire. They believe this charge to be unfounded and unfair. In justification they point to the prolonged and energetic way in which, both in Cameroon and in East Africa, the native element, under German leadership, resisted forces infinitely superior in number and equipment. Had there been any truth in Allied accusations of cruelty and mismanagement the natives surely would not have supported their German officers in a hard and protracted struggle against overwhelming odds. This much is certain: once the war guilt and armament questions are out of the way, nothing could be more helpful in bettering feeling between Germany and France than a reasonable agreement about coöperation in the colonial field.

A further source of difficulty remains: the Eastern Question. Great mistakes were made when the frontiers of the new Polish state were drawn. The Corridor and glaring defects in the Silesian settlement are today points of serious friction. But for Germany and France this friction is indirect, concerning as it does the relations between Germany and Poland. I would rather not go deeper into this complicated matter. It will be readjusted some day when the world decides that it cannot be allowed to stand in the way of thorough settlement and pacification.

In the economic sphere the contact between industrialists and bankers on both sides of the frontier has been making steady progress. Understandings have been reached about potash, about electricity, about the whole series of questions connected with the chemical industry, about the exchange of coal and iron. As soon as Germans and Frenchmen meet on a business basis there always is good understanding, frequently with useful results.

In another field further far-reaching Franco-German agreements are likely in the future. France is a country rich in capital; she has, and produces through national savings, more capital than her domestic needs can absorb. So far, the French banking world seems inclined to continue its pre-war policy (though it produced unhappy results) of giving loans to smaller states, many of these loans being more in the nature of political subventions than of sound investments. Mistrust has so far prevented French capital from even studying the openings offered in Germany. But in the long run the French banking world cannot ignore the fact that since the Lausanne settlement German state finance is in a position to offer guarantees which can hardly be offered anywhere else. The time for this may still be distant; but one can state with confidence that it is bound to come.

In pre-war days the intellectual and artistic contact between Germany and France was in many ways more intimate than between any two other countries of Europe. German museums bought French pictures, German music was constantly conquering new fields in France, and of the pilgrims coming to Bayreuth the French made up a considerable part. The war, of course, stopped all this for the time being, though some great and independent spirits like Romain Rolland, even in times of the most bitter controversy, would never allow the great debt of gratitude owed by France to the German spirit to be belittled. Happily, in the field of intellect and culture the war spirit is now disappearing rapidly. German music finds an understanding and enthusiastic public in Paris, German opera has its place in the French repertories, and moving-picture films made in Germany meet with considerable success in French public opinion. German books, both scientific and fiction, are translated into French in great numbers.

To sum up, a careful analysis of Franco-German relations since 1918 shows that never in that period of time has France had a greater and more sincere desire for complete agreement with Germany than just now. If this feeling is patient and wise enough not to be chilled or discouraged by the wave of nationalism now evident on the other side of the Rhine -- the result of former faults -- it is fairly safe to predict that, given reasonably good luck and diplomatic skill, the future is by no means unfavorable. Along with a gradual rapprochement in industry, trade and finance might well go a progressive improvement also in the sentimental relations of the two peoples. A Franco-German détente would give fresh hope to all those who strive for peace and prosperity in Europe and, indeed, in the world.

[i] I should mention in this connection, too, the name of the British Ambassador in Berlin, Viscount D'Abernon, who played a helpful part in the efforts for the pacification of Europe.

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  • RICHARD VON KÜHLMANN, from 1908 to 1914 Counselor of the German Embassy in London; Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, August 1917 to July 1918, during which time he negotiated the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and the Peace of Bucharest
  • More By Richard von Kühlmann