The Overstretched Superpower
Does America Have More Rivals Than It Can Handle?
AFTER nine years, Munich is still much debated in France. The intense emotions aroused at the time have not yet been calmed, as the number of French apologias and criticisms now being published indicates. With the documents which have recently been made available elsewhere, in particular the intensely interesting German documents, they enable us to form a more precise idea of the motives of those who called the fateful conference in September 1938.
Georges Bonnet, Minister of Foreign Affairs from April 1936 to October 1939, has published his testimony in Switzerland.[i] Living in retirement in that country, he appeals to history to alter the judgment of so many of his contemporaries about his diplomacy. Léon Noël, former Minister at Prague and Ambassador at Warsaw from 1935 to 1939, in a well-documented study,[ii] characterizes Bonnet's policy as "the uncertain policy of a timid man." General Gamelin, himself greatly criticized, goes much further in his memoirs [iii] and denounces Bonnet's "ill-omened action." He writes: "M. Georges Bonnet saw in everything only his personal interest of the moment. . . . One could never have confidence in his words." Although Bonnet did not actually accompany his chief, Premier Daladier, to Munich, he appears in France as the incarnation of the Munich policy. His book, though it claims complete objectivity, is in fact clever special pleading. The author excels in talking beside the point, and his selection of documents is very careful.
A number of Bonnet's colleagues in the government have also provided evidence about Munich. Edouard Daladier himself, in a speech before the Constituent Assembly on July 18, 1946, replied to some of those who had vehemently accused him. Another impassioned Munich apologist, Anatole de Monzie, former Minister of Public Works, who died at the beginning of 1947, made the mistake, during the German occupation, of publishing a kind of journal of the prewar period.[iv] For a long time de Monzie had seemed called to a great political destiny. A man of fascinating intelligence, he was likened by Poincaré to Talleyrand, "with the same limp and the same genius for accomplishment." But he died under sharp fire. Among the diplomats directly involved in the Munich affair, François-Poncet, Ambassador at Berlin from 1931 to 1938, has provided some brilliant souvenirs of Hitlerian Germany.[v] Paul Reynaud, an ardent opponent of the Munich policy, has announced that he is going to publish his memoirs.
Just after Munich particular attention was paid to the various volte-face that were supposed to have occurred, and to discovering where and why the chief actors had changed their positions and aims. Perhaps the course of events was less complicated than many political reporters imagined.
Since the recent publication in England of Keith Feiling's biography of Neville Chamberlain, containing excerpts from his diary and letters, we know exactly what circumstances and reasoning led the British Prime Minister successively to Berchtesgaden, to Godesberg and to Munich. There is no doubt that it was he who took the principal initiative. To this extent it must be recognized that Georges Bonnet and François-Poncet are perfectly justified in asserting that France only followed England.
Analyzing the conference that brought the French and British Ministers together in London on April 28 and 29, 1938, Bonnet states: "The British Government asserted its solidarity with us solely to the degree to which Franco-British joint action would permit of reaching an amicable arrangement, and of averting war. It rejected any new engagement with Czechoslovakia; it offered only its good offices, its mediation, its arbitration!" And he adds that this English position was to "remain the same up to Munich, and would be recalled to us repeatedly through diplomatic channels."
At the end of 1938 and in 1939 it was usually believed (and, indeed, a French historian, J. Tchernoff,[vi] holds the position still) that "Chamberlain thought he saw war coming in the threats that were exploding, whereas it was only a bluff." Learned works in 1939 asserted that "the German army was incapable of maintaining a European war," and thoughtful people wrote that the military power of Germany was not a substantial fact. In the light of present knowledge it seems impossible to believe any longer that Hitler at Munich was only cashing in on an immense bluff.
In September 1938 the situation was no longer what it had been in March 1936 at the time of the German military reoccupation of the Rhineland. One could not now, as then, hope reasonably that Germany would back down. It was only a question of deciding whether the western Powers would have more or less to lose in postponing the date of the conflict.
The fact that Hitler's military chiefs were for the most part hostile to the undertaking does not in the least permit the belief that he himself was not ready, as he proved he was in 1939, to throw himself into war against anybody and everybody. Certainly the German military leaders did not conceal their fears from the Führer. General Beck, Chief of Staff at the time, told him that a policy of force would result in the formation of a coalition capable of conquering Germany for a second time. From that moment Beck began considering the organization of a conspiracy; he wanted to proceed with the arrest of Hitler, accusing him before the German people of provoking a disastrous war. This was the conspiracy that eventually failed in July 1944, and for which Beck, Field Marshal von Witzleben and many others paid with their lives. To the extent that a conspiracy might have succeeded in 1938, the voyage of Chamberlain may be said to have saved the Führer. Schacht likewise has claimed that as early as 1938 he began helping to organize the plot against Hitler, and that he had gained the participation of Generals von Brauchitsch and Halder (something Beck was never able to secure). To the extent that this may be true, Schacht's plans, too, were upset by the Munich agreement. Social Democrats like Hilferding and Breitscheid have also maintained that Munich assured the consolidation of Hitlerism. According to their statements, made in exile, the remnants of their party were then in touch with the German military, who were hostile on professional grounds to what they knew was an infinitely bold adventure.
Without casting doubt upon the sincerity of Beck or of these Socialists, nor even perhaps on that of Schacht, one may wonder if a conspiracy which waited until July 1944 to break out, and then failed, could have succeeded in 1938 or could even have been put seriously in train, Munich or no Munich. Hitler's tyranny already knew and brooked no counterweight in Germany; no will counted against his.
Besides, in contrast with the prudence of the German military, there was no lack of frenzied agitators in Germany to whom Munich seemed a wasted opportunity to annihilate Czechoslovakia totally. Ciano shows Himmler "in despair because an agreement had been concluded and the war seemed to have been averted." Noël, in January 1939, notes that the German leaders "regretted not having attacked and destroyed Czechoslovakia." The Führer himself had desired "the march on Prague" to "settle the Czechoslovak question." That question he was determined to settle, with or without a European war. He coolly accepted the risk of it. Afterwards he bitterly regretted having "compromised" to the extent of accepting "the partial solution" which Chamberlain had presented to him. At the beginning of October, the Munich agreement scarcely signed, he asked Keitel what military force would be needed to "be able to crush the rest of Czechoslovakia instantly." The ideal solution, of course, would be to "break" the Czechoslovak state by a localized war. But he was prepared for anything.
How did the military situation stand in 1938 in the event of a European war?
Georges Bonnet has no doubt that Czechoslovakia would have been conquered immediately. The events of the spring of 1940 would simply have occurred at a still more terrifying rhythm. France would have been "defeated and occupied;" Great Britain would then perhaps have succumbed. Here is perhaps the strongest argument put forward by the partisans of Munich. They point out that England in 1938 was nearly totally devoid of aviation, but that thanks to the delay afforded by Munich she was able to develop at least enough protection to avert invasion in the summer of 1940. Likewise, by 1940 she had been able to complete the construction of certain large warships.
On the other hand, it is not established, as Bonnet insists, that Germany's military superiority in 1938 would have been any more crushing than it proved to be in 1940. Germany turned the year of respite to at least as much advantage as did her adversaries; Hitler's preparation for total war was total. Unfortunately, the same was not true of France.
Bonnet stresses the lamentable state of French military forces in 1938. The German artillery was greatly superior, notably in antiaircraft defense and in speed of planes. The British, alarmed at the weakness of the French air force, often reverted to this subject in their talks with French ministers. The British themselves had an army of only 230,000 men, including reserves and rear services. In September 1938 they could have sent only 30,000 men and 120 planes to the aid of France. General Gamelin does not doubt that if the French had accepted battle England would have been led in self-defense to help them. But he writes: "She could have brought us only insignificant assistance on land at first. In the air, she was then only at the beginning of her effort."
Nevertheless, experts claim that in 1938 the German troops would have been unable to strike as violent a blow as the one that annihilated the French armies in the spring of 1940. By then Germany's equipment of motorized and armored divisions, as well as her manufacture of airplanes, had far surpassed her 1938 levels. Furthermore, in 1938 she had the resources and army of Czechoslovakia against her; in 1939 those resources were at her disposal.
Bonnet holds that it would have been necessary to wait until 1941-1942 in order for the Allies to realize their armaments programs. In spite of this apparent wisdom, the opinion may be held that in August 1939 Mussolini was, as he thought, "right" as "always," in wishing to delay the conflict for three years. He set forth various reasons: the German fleet would be stronger; Spain, once she had recovered from the exhaustion of the civil war, could actively support the Axis; Roosevelt would no longer be President of the United States (in peacetime, a second reëlection seemed impossible) and matador of the democracies in the political arena. Indeed, there seems little reason to believe that the military superiority of Germany over her adversaries would have diminished. But, as François-Poncet writes, one cannot reconstruct history after the event, "for there is no sure way of knowing what would have happened if that which happened had not happened."
Poland played an important rôle throughout the Munich crisis. At Warsaw, even the most francophile elements deplored Czech obstinacy in the matter of Teschen and blamed Beneš; while the Czech Ambassador at Paris, M. Osusky, professed to be favorable to an arrangement. The fact is that Poland was, as stated by Gamelin, "on the side of our enemies."
The men of Munich stress the resistance which the Polish army would have opposed to any Soviet military move. The critics of Munich assert either that Poland would have been unable to hold her own against the Red Armies or that a military alliance with Germany would have been too unpopular to become a reality, and that the patriotism of the Polish nation would have forced the Government to place itself at the side of France.
In a recent work, Adam Rosé, Polish Minister for Commerce in several Beck ministries, notes the existence of certain documents indicating that his government would have been ready to "march against Germany, if the western democracies had decided to defend Czechoslovakia, arms in hand." [vii] Daladier did not ignore this hope. Gamelin, it is true, raises the question: "Once committed, how would Poland be able to turn about?" And he points out that "if she attacked Czechoslovakia . . . she would be our enemy, and we would only need to let Russia take action against her."
When Gamelin saw the Russian Military Attaché on September 28, several hours before the decision for Munich was reached, he gave him a communication for Marshal Voroshilov. This stated the hope that, since France was acting to keep Poland on her side, "the Soviet armies will not take the offensive against Poland without previous notification to us." The wish, formulated with such supreme discretion by the French generalissimo, shows to what a pass French relations with Colonel Beck had come. In fact, Beck was then suggesting in Berlin that there should be joint German, Polish and Hungarian economic pressure against Prague, and that a study should be made for a simultaneous advance of the troops of those nations into Czechoslovakia.
Russia was ready to carry out her obligations toward Czechoslovakia. She thought that in the case of German aggression France would mobilize and that England would follow. The Germans, not only those in command at Berlin but also the diplomats at Moscow, had no doubt that Russia wished for war; and they greatly rejoiced at the disappointment which Munich provoked in the Kremlin. Czech opinion was that Russia alone had acted as a faithful ally; but one section of the Agrarian Party, according to a remark which remained famous at Prague, "preferred to be invaded by Hitler than defended by Voroshilov." An eminent historian, Camille Bloch, studying the rôle played by Soviet Russia, reaches the conclusion that in the Czechoslovak crisis she was in spite of herself reduced to impotence.[viii]
General Gamelin is of the opinion that in September 1938 "from the military point of view everything depended upon Russia." He writes: "If Russia were ready to commit herself fully, as the Russian military attaché told me . . . the situation would be saved. So much the worse for Poland! . . . The air force alone of the U.S.S.R. could compensate for our weakness in that respect." In his opinion, Soviet support would have been effective.
If the attitude of the Soviet Union in 1938 was irreproachable, there is no lack of skeptics to observe that geography deprived it of great importance. For Russian troops could not cross Poland or Rumania, and Moscow had to turn to the French to try to obtain that right. Poland gave a frankly hostile reply. The Rumanian response, although likewise negative, was at least friendly. From it one might deduce that Rumania would close her eyes, at any rate to the violation of her skies even if not of her territory. At the time of Munich, more than 200 Soviet airplanes actually landed in Czechoslovakia, having flown over Rumania. King Carol had given Gamelin and Paul-Boncour to understand that Russian troops could pass also. However, the Rumanian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Commène, pointed out that no direct railroad communication existed between Russia and Czechoslovakia across Rumanian territory; while the roads were few and bad and in wet weather unusable.
The moral as well as the military aspect of Munich must be considered. Here it must be admitted that in delivering up a small country to a powerful neighbor the western Powers played a far from noble rôle.
Bonnet provokes a smile when he evokes "the inflexible will" of the British Prime Minister which "nothing could divert from the purpose to which it had been set." If the will of Chamberlain was "inflexible," how describe that of Hitler? The people towards whom Chamberlain was "inflexible" indeed were the Czechoslovaks, in the certainty, as he wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury, that one day they "will see that what we did was to save them for a happier future."
Following Chamberlain's example, Bonnet was, according to Noël, "firmly determined not to have recourse to war . . . and gave the impression to the German leaders that their country . . . would henceforth have, in fact, a free hand in the east."
One instance will summarize the moral aspect of the conduct of the western Powers. In London the policy of appeasement followed by Chamberlain and his personal collaborator, Sir Horace Wilson, encountered the opposition of the Foreign Office and, above all, Sir Robert Vansittart. Following Camille Bloch's statements, mentioned above, Pierre Comert, who was Director of the Press Service at the Quai d'Orsay in 1938, has brought forward some information of real interest in this connection. On the afternoon of September 26 a communiqué of the British Foreign Office announced that "if in spite of all efforts of the British Prime Minister, a German attack is made in Czechoslovakia, the immediate result must be that France will be bound to come to her assistance and Great Britain and Russia will stand by France." This communiqué, which was obviously of exceptional importance, probably originated with Vansittart, who desired to give effective encouragement to French opinion in a decisive moment. It had the approval of Lord Halifax, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs.
To thwart this action, which de Monzie rashly described as a coup de Jarnac (a stab in the back), the associates of the French Minister for Foreign Affairs persistently spread the rumor that the communiqué was not genuine. Warned of this by Comert, the French Ambassador in London hastened to send a telegram to Paris underscoring the importance and authenticity of the communiqué. When Bonnet received this message, he forbade its distribution to the department sections in the Foreign Ministry. Simultaneously, Comert had begged his colleague in the British Foreign Office to confirm the communiqué to the representative of the Havas Agency at London. This was done; but Bonnet directed Havas to ignore the telegram and forbade its issuance to the press. Thus French opinion either remained in ignorance of the British communiqué or supposed that it was not genuine.
In his book Bonnet gives a résumé of the communiqué which is both brief and inexact. He adds that according to the British Ambassador in Paris, Sir Eric Phipps, the declaration did not emanate from the Secretary of State and "did not modify in any way the fundamental position of the British Government. . . . The French Government was not expected to see in it more than a final attempt to impress Hitler and to force him to settle the Sudeten question in a peaceful manner." Bonnet adds, with more justification: "'The authorized declaration' had scarcely been given to the press when Mr. Neville Chamberlain addressed a new appeal for conciliation over the radio." And the next day the British Government issued a note asserting that "nothing can save Czechoslovakia."
Tchernoff's summing up of Munich is severe: "fundamentally an act of cowardice."
[i] Georges Bonnet, "Défense de la paix. De Washington au Quai d'Orsay." Geneva: Editions du Cheval ailé, 1946, 390 p.
[ii] Léon Noël, "L'agression allemande contre la Pologne." Paris: Flammarion, 1946, 510 p.
[iii] General Gamelin, "Servir. I -- Les armées françaises de 1940. II -- Le prologue du drame, (1930-août 1939)." Paris: Plon, 1946, 380 p. and 480 p.
[iv] Anatole de Monzie, "Ci-devant." Paris: Flammarion, 1941, 292 p.
[v] André François-Poncet, "Souvenirs d'une ambassade à Berlin." Paris: Flammarion, 1946 510 p.
[vi] J. Tchernoff, "Les démagogies contre les démocraties. Préliminaires et causes de la deuxième grande guerre." Paris: Pichon et Durand-Auzias, 1947, 440 p.
[vii] Adam Rosé, "La politique polonaise entre les deux guerres." Neuchâtel: la Baconnière, 1945, 202 p.
[viii] Bulletin de la Société française d'histoire moderne, Communication de mars 1947.