• jm40556

European Relations and WWII

Last year marked the 75th anniversary of the Invasion of Normandy, the heroic amphibious operation when thousands of allied troops died in the successful attempt to initiate the comprehensive expulsion of Nazism from Europe. Over 4,000 allied and up to 10,000 German troops died on D-Day alone. After remembering the colossal cost of ridding Europe of the Nazi dictatorship, we should not forget the European political relations and miscalculations behind the beginning of World War II.

In international relations, the ‘balance of power’ concept can be understood as an approximate equal distribution of power among states in a political constellation, such that one state (with those allied to it) do(es) not have greater power than the combined force of the rest. Power is a hypothetical construct measured by the resources available to a state, ultimately manifesting in the capability of its military when it comes to defending itself against other states or attacking them to increase or maintain its power. The traditional Balance of Power theory tends to state that a system will eventually ensue where no state or alliance can dominate opposing states or their alliance. This article investigates whether the actors and events of Europe from 1935, which culminated in WWII, are best explained by this traditional Balance theory.


Britain and France had a major issue with Italy from 1935. It was not an issue that occurred and ended in a vacuum. This was demonstrated by the conscious failure of collective security - where states of not significantly different power capabilities agree to respond to attacks on each other as attacks on themselves (but are not interested in achieving the ultimately subjective phantom of a balance) even if an attack could never lead to domination for the attacker, which is a required condition for the Balance theory - as the League of Nations fell and lowered Hitler’s final hurdles to Lebensraum. One reason for this was the absence of a response from Britain to Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia in the October. Although Ethiopia was part of the League, the Maffey Report from 1935 made clear that that was insufficient to justify war with Italy. This was the beginning of Anglo-French appeasement of Italy leading up to the War. Stanley Baldwin was unwilling to score a certain victory against Italy at the cost of naval lives in the Mediterranean as Mussolini was building his empire, taking areas such as Albania by the time Neville Chamberlain, determined to appease Italy to rekindle the WWI friendship, was in office. This was especially the case as Britain was unwilling early on to guarantee support to France to counter a potentially remilitarised Rhineland in turn for no support in the case of a Mediterranean war with Italy. Informal deals such as these collapsed the authority of the League, and hence collective security, and cleared the way for Hitler’s early remilitarisation of the Rhineland on March 7th 1936.


The unopposed remilitarisation occurred from a failure of strategy by French general Gamelin to maintain the Anglo-French balance in the west by diverting German efforts to eastern expansion and, through an alliance with Czechoslovakia, fight there instead. This was more favourable than a western front for France but was exploited by Hitler as appeasement after the Munich agreement in 1938, where France turned to Britain, which allowed German reoccupation of the Sudetenland without hostility. 3 million Sudeten Germans cried out for reoccupation, so Chamberlain, aware that any attempt at reoccupation would be supported in Sudetenland, decided to appease the popular Hitler at Munich and avoid the bloodshed. The Sudeten Germans wanted the balance in Germany’s control, which France and Britain naively thought would secure peace in the west. Of course, the gradual surrendering of the control of the balance to Germany led to Hitler’s attempt to overthrow it completely and claim domination of the continent, assisted by Italy: “When Germany has achieved complete preparedness for war in all fields, the military conditions will have been created for carrying out an offensive war against Czechoslovakia” (Jodl, Head of Operations in German High Command). Here, we can find evidence for the notion of ‘bandwagoning’, which is confirmed when the guiding force for (a) state(s) is overthrowing the balance, compelling other states to join them in fear, or want of a share in the winner-takes-all outcome.


It is important to note that Hitler saw the remilitarisation of the Rhineland as necessary to achieve Lebensraum in the east (initially a buffer against a possible French response to avoid two fronts), but also as part of a wider plan. This included the restoration of full employment in Germany (achieved in 1936, after Rhineland) and the move to autarky because “Germany must have markets for her goods or die and Germany will not die”. Hitler made it clear in Mein Kampf that he despised usury – “international stock exchange capital is the chief instigating factor in bringing on the War” (my italics). He held that any nation with an advantage in gold could direct those which lacked it by commanding the policy of the latter through their desperate need for loans in the absence of other sources of trade. Therefore, to avoid this dependence on and indirect control from other nations, autarky was vital for Hitler, meaning Lebensraum was in strong part influenced by the desire to make autarky easier (indeed, possible, as Germany lacked raw materials). So, a Marxist theory seemed to play a role as Hitler engaged in a class war, except the classes were countries - the commanding bourgeoise the holders of gold, the emerging bourgeoise Germany and the exploited proletariat the to-be occupied territories to save Hitler from dependence on other countries and from confronting capitalism in Germany, which could’ve redistributed wealth without the need for expansion or war. However, it is obviously naïve to believe that a major motive of Hitler’s was not race. Since he represented the most fundamental actor in the relations between states in this context, no theory can be fully accepted (unless bandwagoning is expanded to include the dominance of the winning nation’s overall ideology in a political constellation, which was ultimately Hitler’s aim).


The Spanish Civil War of 1936-39 is sometimes overlooked when considering the onset of WWII, but it represented a microcosm of European relations, forming a unique arena in and out of which the practical policies of the major actors can be studied, thus providing insight into their grand intentions, and how much the desire, if any, for balance played a role. Overall, Italy and Russia were most active in the conflict on the sides of the Nationalists and Republicans, respectively. Germany seemed content to prolong the war while endorsing the Nationalists and securing an alliance with Italy that was fateful for France and eventually Britain. Hitler told his military advisers that the deteriorating Anglo-French relations with Italy and Soviets was opening the balance in Germany’s favour, and that Italy would soon turn to Germany for alliance, and they did in the form of the Berlin-Rome axis at the end of 1937. However, balance played a small role overall, the issue was ideological. The fear of the spread of socialist revolutions was genuine in Italy and Germany. Hitler admitted that if there was no risk of the bolshevisation of Europe, he would not have intervened. He was content to just see the war damage his rivals’ relations.


It is the (in)actions of Britain and France which are fascinating for this investigation, with Britain’s motives suggesting support for the Marxist theory. Britain sought favour with Franco’s Nationalist rebel forces the moment they began challenging the Spanish Republic in the summer of 1936. This was to protect interests such as the Rio Tinto and Tharis Sulphur and Copper companies in the increasingly likely outcome of a Franco win, which Germany threatened if Britain materialised its republican sympathies and alienated the rebels in a hostile Europe. Britain was Spain’s most important trading partner, providing 10% of its imports, a dependence it was keen to maintain; Baldwin: “On no account, French or other, must he [Anthony Eden], bring us on the side of the Russians”. Britain realised the extent to which communist Russia supported the Republicans and could puppet Spain in the case of a republican win, which would “strengthen communism in Europe and precipitate a war between capitalist states that could only benefit the Soviet Union”. The British public realised this, too. Intervention would’ve caused an unwelcome response to the government. Therefore, the Marxist theory seems to best explain the situation here, for Britain’s objective was to prevent the rise of communism rather than Fascist Germany or Italy. The case of France supports this theory, too. The Popular Front government limited support to the Republic to avoid a backlash from the right-wing French opposition, which represented a threat to the new social reform programme. Therefore, Marxists are right to note the importance of internal class relations regarding decisions states make in their relations with others but are witlessly shortcoming in their prediction of a socialist win; the opposite occurred as the Soviets retreated into isolation.


Indeed, French non-intervention helped to deteriorate Franco-Soviet relations, and the Soviets started to suspect Britain and France of using them to halt the potential eastern expansion of Germany to save their own people in preventing a western expansion. This undermines the collective security theory as an Anglo-French-Soviet Mini-League would’ve proved formidable against Hitler and prevented his occupation of the F in that pact. Stalin’s final offer of such an alliance in 1939 did not gain practical acceptance until two years later, with WWII already raging. It seems, then, that in the uselessness of collective security prior to the War, Britain and France were strategically attempting – and failing – to preserve balance by assuming friendly relations with Franco and appeasing Germany and Italy, avoiding giving ground to communism at any cost. Bandwagoning seems to be an unfair accusation as active measures to turn Franco against Germany and Italy were absent, the goal was neutrality, although the ideal was to see Germany in conflict with Russia to fizzle out the two extremes of fascism and communism while rekindling a friendship with Italy. As I hope I have shown, though, the motives of Germany and Italy were sinister – to continue laying the foundations for Fascist domination and, at least in the case of Germany, to prolong the war to deteriorate relations between the other powers, which succeeded in enticing Italy onto the bandwagon and alienating Russia.

The clear conclusion of this essay is the overwhelming rejection of collective security as the guiding force of international relations in the years leading up to WWII. The crises of Abyssinia, Rhineland, Czechoslovakia, hesitant co-operation with the Soviets all show that the political allies were ultimately self-interested and opted for the preservation of the interwar balance and imperial hegemony through a strategy that failed – namely, non-intervention to keep steadfast tyrants on side; appeasement; misjudgement on the loyalties of Italy; and the underestimation of the shrewdness of the Soviets. The Marxist ‘Coalition of Forces’ theory provides a bigger challenge to the Balance one. Although a clear progress to socialism was never evident in the escalating relations before WWII, class interests clearly played a major role as Britain and France sought to maintain balance for their economic interests; Hitler’s Lebensraum was in part the pursuit of autarky; France’s class-conflict contributed to its downfall against the Nazis, who required a greater socialist hostility to defeat them; and the outcome was the end of Fascism in Europe, the east bolshevised and the Anglo-French democracies embracing social programmes in place of imperial interests. However, during the years leading up to WWII Britain and France clearly wished to maintain the balance, and it would be absurdly reductionist to argue that it was only for imperial-economic interests (this Marxist interpretation is laughable as we stared the prospect of life under a socially frightening ideology in the face). Therefore, the Balance theory including preserved economic hegemony was the force guiding Anglo-French relations and actions in the interwar period, while bandwagoning was the driver for Germany and Italy to reshape and dominate imperialism in Europe.


What have we learned and may learn from all of this? Events from the past have an awful knack of repeating or happening only once. As time goes on, they are also often forgotten, or we become complacent with them. The Cold War of the 20th century was a case in point of learning from the risky business of appeasement, while globalisation acts as a bulwark against direct confrontation. The landscape today is certainly vastly different, not least due to the threat of nuclear war in a potential conflict. However, complex, dependent and larger economies matched with the possession of nuclear arsenals inflate a bubble that will likely have potentially world-ending consequences if it was to burst. By the end of this decade, my generation will start its turn at the helm of economic activity, responsibility and power, and it may well be that by that time we will still be awfully liberal, awfully averse to international conflict, potentially docile, and sometimes unfortunately too light in our reading of the War. I hope that this article has shown that the potential for conflict needs to be rooted out as early as possible, defence coalitions need to be fulfilled by and for all members and intervention into growing powers run by mad men should always be seriously considered even during the horrific legacy of Iraq, which is still raw. Boots on the ground should be the last option, however, which is a condition we have seen more recently (recall David Cameron’s boots free intervention in Libya, for example). When eyeing up the East, we can see China as a worry, and should counter any attempts it makes at building the bandwagon with strong, appealing and readily available western alternatives. And if during the pursuit of our liberal ideals, we sacrifice some imperial or economic advantage that can be recuperated in some way instead of lost anyway in the face of horror, so be it. In international relations, nothing should be more paramount than the priority of a liberal peace in and between nations.



Jack Margetson




1936 'THE MAFFEY REPORT', The West Australian (Perth, WA : 1879 - 1954), 22 February, p.17., http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article32969


https://www.theguardian.com/world/from-the-archive-blog/2018/sep/21/munich-chamberlain-hitler-appeasement-1938#img-2

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