(PASSIVITY and AGGRESSION in EUROPE, to 1936 – continued)

home | 1901-WW2 Index

PASSIVITY and AGGRESSION in EUROPE, to 1936 (2 of 3)

previous | next

Hitler, Mussolini and the British, 1935-36

The year 1935 began with the question of Germany getting back its coal producing Saar region – a region just south of independent Luxembourg, and about as big. The treaty that had ended World War I, signed at Versailles, had entrusted the Saar region to the League of Nations and an occupation by France, and a plebiscite was to decide the region's future. A little over two thousand people (0.4 percent) in the Saar voted to join France; nine percent voted to remain under the League of Nations; and ninety percent voted to join Germany. Hitler responded by saying he was proud of the German people. He announced that Germany had no more territorial claims against France (in other words no claim on Alsace and Lorraine) and he spoke of hope that the decision regarding the Saar was a decisive step on the road to gradual reconciliation with Germany's former enemies.

Instead of moving closer to reconciliation, as the year progressed Europe moved closer to war. In 1935 Britain announced an increase in armaments, and the French increased conscripted military service from one to two years because of a shortage of young men of draft age. Hitler said he was responding to the failure of other European powers to disarm and to the Soviet Union having enlarged its military forces. He announced to the world that Germany was rearming, that he was establishing military conscription, enlarging Germany's army to thirty-six divisions and increasing Germany's airforce. Germany's rearmament was in violation of the Versailles Treaty, which Hitler included in his denunciations. What Germany wanted, he said, was for Germany to be treated as an equal among the leading powers and for Germany to be "able to respect itself."

The French and British governments protested Hitler's rearmament announcement. Hitler responded by speaking of his good intentions and of his word being better than any treaty. If his word could not be taken in trust, he asked, what good was an agreement on paper? To some in Europe, Hitler's disdain for the treaty signed at Versailles appeared reckless and threatening. With an apparent normalcy having returned to Germany, hostility in Britain against Hitler's police state methods and his anti-Semitism had subsided. There had been a swing toward sympathy for Germany's treatment at Versailles. Germany appeared burdened by a hostile combination of neighbors against it: France, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Romania and the Soviet Union, and Britain's Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin did not want to appear to be a part of any such hostile combination. He wished instead to demonstrate a peaceful disposition, and his government announced its intentions to settle its differences with Germany.

The National Council of Jewish Women in New York City saw Hitler as more of a threat than did Britain's government. In March, 1935, they described Hitler as a "world menace." In Germany, National Socialists were describing hostility toward Hitler as Jewish inspired, and they threatened to retaliate against Jews should an attempt be made on Hitler's life. In Germany, Julius Streicher was comparing Hitler to Jesus Christ. A professor Hauser made news by declaring that God had revealed himself to Germany through Hitler, and Dr. Reinhardt Krause declared that Hitler alone had "God's order" for the German nation.

Representatives from Britain, France and Italy met on April 11 at the village of Stresa in Italy. They agreed to maintain their 1925 Locarno Treaty obligations and agreed that Germany should not be allowed to absorb Austria. France already had a defensive treaty with Czechoslovakia, and, on May 2, France moved to enhance its security by signing a mutual assistance treaty with the Soviet Union. On May 16, the Soviet Union promised that if France fulfilled its defensive obligations to Czechoslovakia it too would support Czechoslovakia. Britain did not join these combinations. Hitler denounced the French and Soviet moves and spoke of the absurdity of war and of the "follies" of the past. Wars of revenge, he said, were out of date. "A deliberate maker of war may have been a patriot in the old days," he declared, "but today such a person would be a traitor." "We are not imperialist," he added, and he held to his position that the German people wanted only "equal rights for all" and its honor restored.

Since 1933 Churchill had been speaking of Germany secretly rearming, and now at the end of May, 1935, from his seat in the House of Commons he was still speaking of a danger emanating from Germany. He spoke of arms manufacturing having "first claim" in German industry, of Germany's "war power" being built with "ever-increasing momentum" and of Britain's slow pace of research concerning military aircraft. The Baldwin government considered Churchill an alarmist, and it continued to pursue making what agreements with Hitler it could. Hitler wished to keep the British friendly, or at least passive. He was anxious to avoid alarming Britain as Germany had before World War I with the naval arms race. In mid-June, Germany and Britain signed a naval accord, Germany accepting a ratio of 35 ships to 100 for Britain. Hitler was pleased and the British were pleased, but the French were alarmed. They feared that Britain's friendliness was encouraging Hitler.

On June 6, Britain's leading cleric, the Archbishop of Canterbury, expressed sympathy for Germany's position among nations, declaring that Germany "must be recognized as a nation entitled to an equal place among other nations." Also in June, the results of a poll in Britain called the "peace ballot" expressed support for armament reductions.

But Britons favoring world peace had reason for concern: Mussolini was talking about expanding into Ethiopia. Mussolini had been preparing to expand into Ethiopia since 1933. In April at the Stresa Conference Britain had not voiced its opposition to it, and Mussolini was under the impression that Britain would not stand in his way. Ethiopia and Italy were members of the League of Nations, and aggression against Ethiopia was a violation of the League of Nations Charter. The British government wanted to maintain its friendship with Mussolini and tried to talk Mussolini into taking just a portion of Ethiopia. Mussolini refused, wishing to have a great military victory to impress his nation and signify fascism's success. He wanted Italy to appear to be a great power.

The debate as to what caused wars had intensified. Some claimed that military alliances caused wars. Marxist-Leninists were still claiming that it was capitalism that caused wars. A re-energized pacifist movement in Britain discussed Einstein's idea that if only two percent refused to be drafted there would be no war. Richard Gregg, who had recently spent four years with Mahatma Gandhi in India, advocated the training of a corps of war resisters who could stop soldiers from fighting. He distributed a manual called Training for Peace in which he recommended meditation, group singing and folk dancing, spinning cloth or knitting clothes. A Quaker named Humphrey Moore started a paper called Peace News which frequently displayed a photo of Gandhi. Members of Moore's congregation distributed the paper on street corners, and soon about a thousand anti-war persons were distributing the paper across the country. Some pacifists took action in the form of sitting down and singing in front of a march by British fascists. An anti-war leader, Dick Sheppard, was in great demand as a speaker, and Sheppard came up with the idea of writing to Hitler, suggesting that Hitler allow him to go to Germany to preach peace. But Hitler never replied.

Meanwhile, German law continued toward greater repression. The Prussian Supreme Court ruled that the orders and actions of Hitler's police, the Gestapo, were not subject to judicial review. And by now Germany's defense lawyers had to have the approval from a National Socialist official to represent a client. A few lawyers were sent to concentration camps after trying to represent someone out of favor with Hitler's regime. Among them was the lawyer who had represented the widow of Dr. Klausener, the Catholic Action Leader who had been murdered during the purge of 1934.

In Germany, jazz was described as having Negro or Jewish origin and was banned. Tensions had been developing between Hitler's regime and some people of faith, and, in July 1935, political activities by Catholics were outlawed. Some Catholics and Protestants expressed their discomfort with "the paganism" among the National Socialists, and Hitler tried to appease this opinion by repudiating paganism and holding to his claim that he would lead the German nation along the path of positive Christianity. But soon his propaganda minister, Dr. Goebbels, came to the defense of the National Socialists and denied that Hitler had made any repudiation.

In September 1935 came the Nuremberg Laws that denied the rights of citizenship to Jews and reduced them to the status of "subjects." These laws forbade marriage and extramarital relations between Jews and "Aryans." Jews were forbidden from employing an Aryan female under the age of thirty-five as a servant. Other edicts forbade Jews to shop in gentile stores, or gentiles to shop in Jewish stores. Jews could not attend movies, theaters or stroll in public parks. The majority of the Germans felt unaffected by all this and let it pass. And Hitler promised that signs suggesting hostility to Jews in Germany would be removed in time for the Olympic games – which were to be held in 1936 in Berlin.

On October 2, 1935, Mussolini invaded Ethiopia, and on October 7 the League of Nations declared Italy to be in violation of its position on aggression. League members began discussing sanctions against their fellow League member, Italy – as they had against Japan regarding its aggression in Manchuria. On October 11, the League Assembly voted for sanctions to go into effect in November unless Italian forces evacuated Ethiopian territory.

Some anti-war activists in Britain opposed sanctions against Italy, claiming that sanctions might spread the war beyond Ethiopia. Other anti-war activists were concerned that if the League did nothing to stop Mussolini the League would be destroyed. Britain's Labour Party remained a strong supporter of sanctions and was labeled by some conservatives as the "war party." Britain's National Coalition government was standing for elections while calling for sanctions short of war, which was what the majority in Britain supported, and the National Coalition won the elections by a comfortable margin.

Mussolini threatened war against France in retaliation for its support of League sanctions against his regime. On November 18, the League voted for only light sanctions against Italy, leaving Italy with the oil that it needed for its war effort. The British public got its way: sanctions would not lead to war. Italy was on its way to conquering all of Ethiopia, and the League was exposed as impotent.

Hitler Marches His Military to the Rhine River

Pierre Laval had been France's premier and minister of foreign affairs since June 1935. Having lost confidence in Britain when Britain signed the naval agreement with Germany, Laval had moved toward accommodation with Germany. Laval attempted to keep France on friendly terms with Italy, and he allowed Italy to have its way in Ethiopia. But Laval's diplomacy was not appreciated enough in France that it could keep him in office. In January, 1936, Laval's government fell, and a caretaker government took office.

Hitler watched Mussolini's move into Ethiopia and the failure of the League of Nations. He was not a believer in the League of Nations and had taken Germany out of the League in 1933. On 7 March 1936, while France was having one of its political crises and had only a caretaker government, Hitler defied both the Versailles Treaty and the Locarno Treaty by moving troops into the Rhineland. The German people liked it. For them it was an issue of national sovereignty, the Rhineland being a part of Germany. But Hitler's generals were concerned. Germany's army was still not ready for combat. Hitler assured his generals that they could withdraw at the first sign of a counter move by France's army, but he was confident that France and Britain would do nothing.

A demilitarized Rhineland was intended as security for France. Hitler's move has been described as enhancing Germany militarily on its Western front and making it possible for Germany to pursue a policy of aggression in Eastern Europe. Responding to the move, France's military command in the person of General Gamelin insisted that a counteraction against Germany could not be undertaken without France calling up troops for a general mobilization, and he complained that France should make no such move without support from Britain. If France acted alone, he said, France might be accused of aggression.

The British, French, and Belgian governments, and even the Italian government, denounced Germany for violations of the Versailles and Locarno treaties. But nothing more was done. Britain's Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin made it clear that it did not want to live up to the obligations of Locarno. Italy did not want to go further and offend Germany, the only supporter of its move into Ethiopia. In the League of Nations only the Soviet Union's foreign minister, Litvinov, called for sanctions against Germany, while Hitler complained that his move was defensive in nature. It was made necessary, he said, because France had signed a treaty with the Russians, a treaty he described as a threat against Germany.

Belgium's government declared Belgium neutral on the issue. In the US, Roosevelt's secretary of state, Cordell Hull, said that Hitler's actions were not America's concern because the US had signed neither the Versailles nor Locarno treaties. Churchill in the House of Commons declared the remilitarization of the Rhineland a triumph for Hitler. He spoke of the danger to parliamentary nations from heavily armed dictatorships. He complained that Britain was confronting dictators "without weapons or military force" and that the spirit of the British people was being tamed and cowed "with peace films, anti-recruiting propaganda and resistance to defense measures."


Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.