How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
FOR centuries French militarism was the nightmare of Germans, and following 1870 the spectre of German aggression robbed Frenchmen of their sleep. Whichever pugilist triumphed in the latest struggle, both were aware that another round in the perpetual contest was not far away. When Père la Victoire left the arena, his policy of keeping the defeated foe down was continued by Poincaré, who invaded the Ruhr to enforce payment of reparations. Never was there a graver political, economic or psychological miscalculation, never a more complete fiasco. The Entente Cordiale was strained almost to the breaking-point, and the German mark, already on its last legs, received the coup de grâce; the German people, irrespective of party, became not merely less inclined but even less able to pay. Thus the soil was prepared for a new harvest of fevered nationalism bent on tearing up the Treaty of Versailles; and Hitler staged his putsch in Munich. Lloyd George argued in his impressive volumes on the Versailles Treaty that it was the best which the passions and pressures of the hour allowed. Farsighted observers, however, among them some of the signatories, had instinctively realized that the towering edifice was built on shifting sand. With wiser statesmanship we might never have heard of Hitler and there might have been no Second World War.
Prospects of something more than an uneasy truce dawned when "the sunshine of Locarno" lit up the horizon and warmed the hearts of Stresemann, Briand and Austen Chamberlain, who had grown to trust each other. They must all learn to speak European, declared the most eloquent and imaginative of French statesmen, who assured his countrymen, "Tant que je serais ici il n'y aura pas de guerre." For the next few years more friendly breezes floated across the Rhine. Germany was welcomed into the League of Nations; signatories of the Kellogg Pact, including France and Germany, renounced war as an instrument of policy; and the occupation of the Rhineland zones ended five years before the treaty limit was reached. I shared the prevailing belief that the volcano was unlikely to erupt afresh for a considerable period, if at all.
We were soon undeceived. While the twenties closed on a hopeful note, the thirties opened with dark clouds in the sky. Soon after Sir Arthur Salter published his heartening survey "Recovery," the American blizzard swept across the Atlantic and sent the figures of unemployment in Germany rocketing to seven million. The Weimar statesmen had done what they could with a crushing heritage of defeat and humiliation, but democracy had no roots in what Herder had acidly described as the land of obedience. In the elections of September 1930, the Nazi deputies jumped from 12 to 107. Hitler was now halfway up the ladder.
When I read on the London placards on January 30, 1932, the announcement "Hitler Chancellor," I felt that the truce of exhaustion was over and that a new era had begun. Shortly afterwards an American journalist published a little book, "Nazi Germany Means War," but he found few statesmen in Western capitals to heed his warning. Since the Grand Alliance had disintegrated, Hitler found the road wide open when he sent troops into the demilitarized zone and proceeded to gobble up Austria and Czechoslovakia without opposition. Once again he had proved that it is as impossible to hold down large and virile nations as it is to maintain alliances when their vital purpose has been achieved. In the apologia compiled in his cell while awaiting execution, Laval argued that the Second World War was not solely due to the ambitions of a megalomaniac but also to the errors of French politicians, such as driving Mussolini into the German camp. The indictment has been renewed from a different angle with equal severity in the memoirs of Paul Reynaud and General de Gaulle, who lament that the appeal of the latter for a mechanized army to cope with the next German onslaught fell on deaf ears. It was no foe or foreigner who described France in the thirties as the sick man of Europe but one of the cleverest of her politicians, Paul Reynaud himself. And so it proved in 1940. The title he chose for his voluminous apologia, "La France a sauvé l'Europe," strikes even a Francophile as turning the picture upside down. The weakness of France can no longer be concealed from the world or from herself. The failure of the Treaty of Versailles to lead stricken Europe back to the paths of peace is a solemn warning to statesmen of today on both sides of the Atlantic confronted with a similar situation of military triumph. Victories exploited up to or beyond the limit of human endurance are liable to prove boomerangs.
The principal lesson of this brief retrospect is that the making of a lasting peace by the victors is only less difficult than the winning of the struggle, and that psychological myopia is capable of producing earth-shaking consequences. Germany had recovered her breath after the knockout blow in 1918 as quickly as France under Thiers and Gambetta after the Treaty of Frankfurt. Moderation in victory--even a touch of magnanimity--is also worldly wisdom. While little states can be extinguished as easily as the flame of a candle, great states are as resilient as a rubber ball.
The First World War has been described as the War of the Dissolution of the Austrian Empire, and its successor may be termed the War of the Collapse of the Bismarckian Edifice. No one before Alamein and Stalingrad would have dared to predict that the strongest military power in the world would cease to exist as a political entity and that the word Prussia would disappear from the map. The substitution of a democratic republic for an authoritarian empire in 1918 was a trifle compared to the radical amputation of 1945. The loss of extensive territories in the east followed the usual pattern of victories where the loser pays. What was wholly unpredictable was the division of the rump into two spheres, not as a temporary military or administrative convenience, but as a quasi-permanent severance with utterly different institutions and ideologies. The barrier of suspicion between the Teuton and the Slav is an old story, but never has the instinctive antagonism hardened into such rigid forms. The gulf between Communist states and the self-governing communities of the West is even deeper than the destruction of ecclesiastical unity at the Reformation and may prove not less enduring, since the Communist and the free worlds have less in common than had the rival churches. Such a formidable challenge to Christian civilization has been unknown since the Turkish irruption in the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and each side is too strong to be coerced by the other.
After the eviction of Charles X in 1830, Metternich grumbled that when France had a cold all Europe began to sneeze. When sneezing is heard today the virus is much more likely to have escaped from Moscow or Budapest. Burke passionately denounced Jacobinism as an armed doctrine, and the label is equally applicable to the formidable oligarchy in the Kremlin which not only proclaims its intention but boasts of its capacity to enthrone Communism throughout the world. What that system means to men and women born into a Rechtsstaat is demonstrated by the hordes of refugees now pouring in an unceasing flow into the Federal Republic from behind the Iron Curtain. Man does not live by bread alone; the mind and soul also require sustenance. In one of his challenging aphorisms Lord Acton declared the emancipation of conscience from authority to be the main content of modern history. In Communist states the flowering of the individual is frustrated and the claims of conscience contemptuously ignored.
The more threatening the political and spiritual peril to our Western way of life built up through the centuries, the more urgent is the duty and the more obvious the interest of France and Germany to create a climate of opinion in which the dark heritage of suspicion may gradually disappear for lack of sustenance. A similar unpredictable transformation occurred when Great Britain and France buried the rusty hatchet forever in 1904; and my vivid memories reach back to the eighties and nineties of the last century when one Anglo-French crisis followed another and the Fashoda dispute brought the old rivals to the brink of war. To Rosebery and to Salisbury it was an axiom that France was and would remain the enemy and that all Britain could do was to keep her powder dry. That these two countries would shortly become trustful friends and comrades on the battlefield never crossed their minds. Two years after Salisbury's death the old antagonists beat their swords into ploughshares. What had proved beyond the wit of diplomats was automatically achieved by the emergence of a decisive new factor, Germany's Flottenpolitik.
Three years later Britain achieved a similar rapprochement with Russia, since the allies of France could not forever remain enemies. Scowling faces had melted into smiles, and war with France became as unthinkable as with the United States. The precedent of this rapid and fundamental shift in the European situation should encourage us to believe that something equally significant and no less welcome may prove practicable today, with the Communist spectre playing the part of a deus ex machina previously taken by the German High Sea Fleet. Sentiment is not involved in dramatic moves on the European chessboard; nations can hate but cannot love each other. New perils necessitate revision of policies. It will be one of the beneficent paradoxes of history if the secular Franco-German contest is terminated, not by the latest victory of either but by their simultaneous recognition that nothing less than the survival of their political independence and their cherished way of life are at stake.
With our chastening memories of the false dawn which gilded the sky at Locarno we dare not pitch our hopes too high, but there are some solid grounds for cautious optimism. "We have enough," declared Bismarck after his three wars, and his policy during the following 20 years proved that he meant it. Today France can truthfully make a similar declaration. If she mourns for lost territories they are no longer at her door but overseas. Though the Federal Republic surpasses her in population, industry and commerce and may soon equal her armed strength, its citizens appear to be reconciled to the loss of "the challenge cup of Europe." This tacit renunciation of Alsace and Lorraine has been facilitated by the Coal and Steel Community, and by the growing recognition of the tangible advantages of economic partnership. If most Germans have reconciled themselves to the spectacle of the Rhine provinces as an integral portion of France, Frenchmen are content to see the Saar with its mineral treasures in German hands. While the sentiments of the population of Alsace and Lorraine were too little known to allow either France or Germany to risk a free vote, there has been no doubt about the feelings of the Saarlanders since the plebiscite of 1935. No one today would argue as did Foch that if France lacked the left bank of the Rhine and the bridgeheads over the Rhine she possessed nothing, for discontented subjects are more of a liability than an asset, above all when they are not guaranteed by overwhelming military strength.
In addition to the Rhine provinces and the Saar a third bone of contention has disappeared. In what Friedjung in his last work designated the Age of Imperialism, all the Great Powers except the Hapsburg Empire regarded the possession of colonies as essential to their prestige, their military strength and their economic viability, and they proceeded to help themselves at the expense of Asian and African peoples. Today the wheel has come full circle. We no longer obey Kipling's injunction: "Take up the white man's burden." Willingly or unwillingly we are laying it down. No longer are Matthew Arnold's verses applicable:
The East bowed low before the blast,
In patient, deep disdain.
She let the legions thunder past,
And plunged in thought again.
The picture of a dreamy, traditionalist, nerveless Asia faded with the Japanese victory over Russia and the rise of the Congress Party in India. And now Africa is opening her eyes and clamoring for a place in the sun. With the tide of nationalism running like a mountain torrent the elemental urge of colored peoples to cast off a foreign yoke, with "colonialism" an expression of reproach, and with millions ready to die for their newborn faith, the acquisition and retention of colonies is infinitely less tempting than at the turn of the century. In view of recent events in Indochina, Indonesia and North Africa, the Federal Republic can congratulate itself that it is not burdened with the military and financial incubus of a colonial empire. Bismarck--neither a Pan-German nor an Imperialist--never wanted colonies, and yielded to the popular demand and the pressure of a group of industrialists only when he cut several slices off the African joint. These trophies disappeared as the result of the First World War, and Hitler bade his countrymen turn their gaze from distant lands to a far richer prize in the plains of South Russia "where the German peasant could rear a family." Hans Grimm's best-seller, "Volk ohne Raum," published in 1932, finds few readers today. Qui trop embrasse mal étreint.
What, then, is there left to fight or quarrel about? Germany is now chiefly interested in working her way into foreign markets, and France hopes to find partial consolation for the loss of her territories in the Far East and North Africa through the exploitation of the fabulous mineral resources of the Sahara. Here is another new factor making for peaceful coexistence, since political stability is unattainable without a minimum standard of well-being for the common man. Frenchmen turn their eyes from the sorry plight of the French Treasury to the glittering prospects of land once flippantly described by Salisbury as very light soil. France needs all her capital and her best brains to seize the opportunity of economic expansion so unexpectedly offered to her, and she cannot afford to be continually looking over her shoulder to her eastern frontier. History--and not least very recent history --is a story of spectacular surprises, and a virile nation never despairs.
The new relationship got off to a good start. Chancellor Adenauer--saluted by Sir Winston Churchill as the greatest German statesman since Bismarck--has steered the ship with unfaltering hands since the recovery of sovereignty and has contributed more than any single individual to securing the confidence of the Western powers in the reliability of the Federal Republic. So great is the trust placed in Dr. Adenauer's integrity that when the United States became alarmed by the blatant hostility of the Kremlin, it was prepared to take the risk of urging German rearmament. The Chancellor's loyalty to the cause of the West was guaranteed not merely by his own record but by his devotion to his Church, the fiercest opponent of Communism in the world. "We are again a free and independent state," he joyfully declared in 1955 when the Occupation ended; "our goal is a free and united Germany in a free and united Europe." Though both goals seem very far away, he will work towards them till his last hour. Without him, it is generally agreed, the détente with France would not have progressed so fast and so far. The Rhine, he declared, must become a meeting-place, not a barrier. He was bitterly denounced by the late S.P.D. leader Dr. Schumacher as "the Chancellor of the Allies;" yet no one really doubts his devotion to the spiritual values of Western civilization. "It is Christianity versus Communism," he exclaims. It is the spirit of the Crusades.
The synchronizing of practicing Catholics of high character at the helm of their respective states is an auspicious coincidence. Like most French rulers and statesmen, from Richelieu and Mazarin to Poincaré and Foch, General de Gaulle thirsted for les frontières naturelles--the Rhine, the Alps and the Pyrenees. Since unification had made the Hohenzollern Empire and the Nazi Reich such a dangerous neighbor, France's obvious policy was to turn back the hands of the clock. Speaking in 1948 on the tercentenary of the Treaty of Westphalia, General de Gaulle declared that there must never be another German Empire, merely sovereign German states, each with its own institutions but allowed to form alliances among themselves and to enter a European group if they wished. The need for this drastic denationalization, he explained, was that "the nature of the Germans inclines them to vast ambitions." Between his first and second premiership, however, he discovered that France can no longer say sic volo, sic jubeo, like the last of the Hohenzollerns, and that it is less difficult to get a large muscular people down than to keep it down. Today, with the larger portion of the German people on their feet again, a litter of petty states could neither be created nor maintained. The existing federation of Länder meets the needs and wishes of the people and has come to stay. The shrinkage of French demands has gone pari passu with the waning of French strength.
The General, like everybody else, understands that a new chapter in Franco-German relations opened when the Communist menace loomed up, and he is prepared to accept the Federal Republic and its frontiers as he finds them. Necessity makes strange bedfellows, and a businesslike collaboration is no more paradoxical today than was the alliance of France and Russia, each detesting the régime of the other, at the turn of the century. No formal agreement is necessary since treaties can be broken as easily as they are made. Bismarck declared that every pact contained an unwritten clause which was perfectly understood by the signatories--that it only remained valid rebus sic stantibus. Lasting relationships are more likely to be achieved by a process of organic growth than by a stroke of a conjuror's wand. For de Gaulle, an additional attraction of the "new look" is that it might diminish the tutelage of the United States which he, as the unbending champion of the dignity of France, has always resented. Since the passion of his life is the restoration of his country to the ranks of the great powers and since this is unrealizable by its unaided efforts, where else can he turn except to his eastern neighbor? The switch in the grand strategy of France can be made without loss of prestige since the Federal Republic needs a friendly France as much as France needs friendly faces beyond the Rhine.
Germany is a child of the West and it is an axiom of the free world to keep her there. Next to the Chancellor, no statesman on either side of the Rhine has labored so zealously and successfully to rebuild the bridges as Robert Schuman, the bilingual Lorrainer who has studied in German universities and has taken the first practical step towards economic integration. His monument is the Coal and Steel Community which has proved that industrialists can work together for their mutual benefit.
Cultural contacts have played little part in keeping the peace throughout the ages, since governments can quarrel and armies clash even when private citizens shake hands. Yet they are not to be neglected or despised. Anglomania was at its height in the eighteenth century when Montesquieu and Mirabeau fell in love with our English invention of limited monarchy, and Voltaire applauded our religious toleration, though it was none the less a period of long and ruinous wars. Since Frederick the Great set the fashion of talking and writing in French--even to the extent of composing French verses--some acquaintance with the language and literature has been regarded as an essential part of German higher education; but the compliment has not been returned. No German authors have become such best-sellers in France as Dumas, Victor Hugo, Zola and Anatole France have been beyond the Rhine. Since French tourists prefer Latin countries for their holidays, and Germans make for the cosmopolitan Côte d'Azur, the two peoples know too little of one another.
The work of statesmen, if it is to endure, requires the approval of the communities they represent. No one could expect greater mutual respect after the Second World War than after the First, for fresh grievances were added to the store accumulating for generations. Hatred, however, is beyond the capacity of normal human beings, or even of nations, to maintain indefinitely. If Englishmen and Frenchmen could live down their emotional resentments, France and Germany may, with time and patience, do the same. Shortly after l'année terrible, Juliette Adam, Gambetta's hostess and friend, recorded in her memoirs that she started back in horror when she accidentally touched the arm of a German customs official. Since then, despite two far greater struggles, the clinical thermometer has fallen. Many Frenchmen today share the feelings of Goethe who confessed that he could not hate the French though he was heartily glad to see them go. Many members of the Resistance hated the Vichy quislings more fiercely than the invading hordes, and inflicted the most terrible penalties on them when the tide turned. Few Frenchmen today would accept Lord Vansittart's picture of the German race as unique in wickedness, the brazen horde and the butcher-bird throughout the ages. If his verdict were correct there would be little hope for the West.
A considerable portion of the German youth of today appear to have reverted to the more humane traditions which in the days of Lessing and Kant, Goethe and Schiller, Wilhelm von Humboldt and the Schlegel brothers, earned the respectful admiration of Mme. de Staël, Coleridge, Byron, Carlyle and many another lover of good literature and philosophy. Just as the outstanding legacy of Napoleon III was a healthy distrust of dictators, so Hitler's disastrous performances may beget a horror of the Führer principle. In his pregnant little treatise on "Perpetual Peace," Kant for the first time argued that self-determining communities were less likely to go to war than an irresponsible autocrat who could issue orders for a campaign as easily as for a hunt. Since democracy, as Montesquieu rightly argued two centuries ago, requires more virtue in the citizen than any other type of government, the color of the new Germany will in some measure depend on the history teachers in the schools and the choice of textbooks for their students. Truth must not be concealed; but abuse is something else. The cessation of mudslinging is a need of the times. Since the writing of history, as Ranke declared, is a matter of conscience, the compilers of French and German schoolbooks carry an exceptionally heavy burden of responsibility.
The moods of nations, as of individuals, sometimes undergo profound and enduring changes in response to novel and deeply felt experiences. Clemenceau and Poincaré would scarcely recognize their weakened fatherland today, and the paladins of the Hohenzollern Empire would rub their eyes if they read Meinecke's "The German Catastrophe," in which the veteran historian recanted his Bismarckian enthusiasm and summoned his countrymen to turn their eyes from Potsdam to Weimar. At the height of the Anglo-German feud, Count Reventlow denounced England in a book entitled "The Vampire of the Continent." Today all parties in the Bundestag except the Communists rejoice that their old enemy survives as a bulwark of the free world. French and Germans alike are learning that coexistence, not blinkered nationalism, is the condition of peace and progress. The old slogans which recently corrupted the German soul have lost their appeal. Reunion, not expansion, is their demand. If nothing succeeds like success, nothing discredits like catastrophic failure. Next to Dr. Adenauer, no living German has done so much as President Heuss to disassociate postwar Germany from the crimes of the Nazi thugs. The disappearance of Prussia allows the liberalism of the south and the Rhineland to raise its head, and every student knows how influential a factor in the growth of West German liberalism were the ideas of the French Revolution which brushed away many cobwebs of feudalism and fostered the idea of the Rechtsstaat, the reign of law.
Among the factors making for harmony is the widely felt need of both peoples for the moral support of the British Commonwealth. With the thorny problem of Alsace and Lorraine out of the way, Englishmen can at last be on terms of friendship with both peoples--an achievement which Lansdowne and Grey, to their regret, found impossible. England, declared Palmerston in a memorable phrase, has no eternal friendships, only eternal interests. Today, next to the maintenance of closer relations with the United States, no section of our foreign front is of such cardinal importance as the collaboration of the new France and the new Germany, both sick of the horrors and futility of war. Super-patriots like Treitschke were reminded by Bismarck in the opening phase of the Reichsgründung that putting forward the hands of the clock would not make it go faster. Confidence, declared Burke, was a plant of slow growth in an ancient bosom, and both French and German bosoms are stored with secular resentments. The establishment of confidence in each other's good will must be a slow process, an organic growth rather than a mechanical contrivance.
The omens are favorable, for self-preservation is the master instinct of man and beast. French and German representatives and experts sit together at Strasbourg, on the High Authority of the Coal and Steel Community, at the military headquarters of NATO, at UNESCO and on other bodies. Isolationism is out of date in the nuclear age. In England it ended with the Japanese alliance of 1902 and the Entente Cordiale in 1904. In the United States its last remnants disappeared with the revelation of settled Russian hostility after the Second World War. France and Germany, who have been used to making and breaking alliances for centuries, no longer dream of standing alone. Defensive regional pacts are envisaged in the Charter of the United Nations. Russia would not be so formidable or feel so sure of herself without the comradeship of China and her subservient satellites. Everything points to the integration of communities with a similar ideology. Is it too much to suggest that one of the brightest features of a storm-tossed world is the Franco-German rapprochement now in progress? Every year should quicken the pace as the bitter memories of the past grow dimmer and the material advantages are increasingly experienced. Though a historian, with the whole panorama of the past spread out before his inner vision like a scroll, realizes as well as anybody that the future is unpredictable, I venture to close this causerie on a major chord.