“It is sad to think that our British guys will be drawn into a war for some Czechs”

A cycle of interviews by the 80th anniversary of the start of WWII. Part 1: Great Britain and France

The world will celebrate a tragic date on 1 September — 80 years since the start of First World War. Unfortunately, at that moment the leading world powers didn’t manage to stand together against Hitler. In an interview with Realnoe Vremya, Candidate for Historical Sciences, Senior Scientific Secretary of the Russian Association of WWII Historians Dmitry Surzhik explains why the possible coalition of Great Britain, France and the USSR didn’t become such a necessary reality in 1939.

Great Britain and France saw Hitler as a leader who would pursue quite a firm anti-Soviet course”

Mr Surzhik, many historians are inclined to consider Great Britain and France as instigators of the world fire in 1939 set to Europe as Nazi Germany. Their inaction in reply to Hitler’s power reinforcement from 1933 and connivance of his occupation of eastern territories are called to be the reason. How do you assess this point?

One can agree with this point because, on the one hand, the whole world dealt with open aggressors during those years — the Hitler regime in Germany, the militaristic course of imperial Japan and, on the other hand, with Great Britain and France that set a pace to the European and world politics. And in the 30s, Great Britain and France really occupied the position of conniving in aggressors — these state acted on the premise that “If a war starts, it will affect only some small powers, new peoples, except for us, the mother country; and might Germany and Japan content themselves with these colonies”. And I should say that all international documents in the late 30s are full of this spirit. For instance, the Craigie-Arita agreement signed at the height of battles in Lake Khasan (the agreement between Great Britain and Japan on recognition of Japan’s “free hands” in China with the conservation of British interests there) or Hitler’s Munich Agreement.

Why did Great Britain and France begin to connive in Germany? There was moral tiredness of the previous war against the Germans, too, hence the psychological unpreparedness to oppose the Hitler aggression. Here it is important to note another thing: unfortunately, both France and Great Britain had quite a positive evaluation of Hitler. They saw him as a strong national leader, a leader who united the people and, most importantly, a leader who would pursue quite a firm anti-Soviet course.

Unfortunately, both France and Great Britain had quite a positive evaluation of Hitler

Hitler’s words that Germany would become the anti-Communist bastion of Europe and be the vanguard on the way of spreading Bolshevik ideas found an echo among officials of Great Britain and France, which, it is also important to note, had strong pro-Nazi moods. Why were these moods strong? Because fascist and semi-fascist parties were created in both France and Great Britain at that time. The same British Union of Fascists or Action Française that required strong authoritarian power, persecution of all dissidents (especially if they had leftist views) and new imperialistic seizures.

You are saying that there were fascist moods among the officials of Great Britain and France. Does it mean that the governments of these countries were under their fascists’ thumb?

The government sympathised these fascist moods. After Minister of Foreign Affairs Louis Barthou was killed in France in 1934, the idea of European collective security, the idea of resistance to fascism suffered a crushing defeat, while the new head of French diplomacy, far-right Pierre Laval followed the course of agreement with Hitler having thought that the anti-fascist union of all European forces was a kind of arm of Moscow, which wanted to stage a bloodbath in France. But nobody was going to hold a world revolution in France.

It was the other way around in Great Britain — conservatives headed by Neville Chamberlain came to power in 1937 who didn’t distinguish by far-sightedness, while Chamberlain himself, as head of treasury in the middle of the 30s, did his best to optimise costs on defence, reduce armed forces and not to develop promising types of troops (for instance, aviation), which backfired Britain soon.

In addition, Chamberlain as an old lord thought Hitler was one of the old leaders of Europe, and the old leaders, and it is also important to note, didn’t consider new states that arose after WWI (Poland, Czechoslovakia) as equals to the old European powers — Great Britain, France, Germany. This is why both Great Britain and France thought it was fine to compromise security guarantees for those countries they provided these guarantees with.

Conservatives headed by Neville Chamberlain came to power in 1937 who didn’t distinguish by far-sightedness

“They could have easily forced Hitler to make peace”

Didn’t it occur to any French and English politician until 1938 to see Hitler’s serious preparations for the war they would be inevitably drawn in too? The war at which they could become a victim.

Of course, they saw these preparations. We see in Alfred Rosenberg’s diary, the shadow head of the Office of Foreign Affairs of Germany, that Hitler’s efforts in the 30s were aimed at military and technical cooperation with Great Britain, and Fred Winterbotham, a British Royal Air Force officer who, as it turned out after the war, was an MI-6 employee, was the person who carried out such cooperation on the British side. In the 30s, he managed to worm his way into Rosenberg’s confidence so well that the latter considered him his friend helping to recover Germany’s military power.

So Winterbotham repeatedly stressed in his reports to the “centre” that Hitler was aspiring to reinforce military power. From the middle of the 30s, Winston Churchill already openly said that Germany was preparing for rearmament and the start of a new war with so much enthusiasm nobody had previously seen, and that war would break out sooner or later. The French staff also got information that Germans were recovering their armed forces, and it was a gross violation of the Treaty of Versailles, according to which Germany was allowed to have an army of only 100,000 people without aviation, tanks and submarine fleet. And Hitler himself didn’t hide that his goal was to take military revenge, that the Weimar Republic was a kind of deviation of the course of German history and that it would continue the politics of Kaiser Wilhelm, that’s to say, it would trigger off the next world war. In March 1935, he already announced the creation of Wehrmacht — the reinstated armed forces of Germany, which was a direct violation of the Treaty of Versailles. But just several weak notes followed from European capitals in answer — in fact, nobody in Paris and London reacted seriously. Though they could have easily forced Hitler to make peace.

In 1936, Hitler remilitarised the Rhine zone where core mining enterprises were located and which belonged to France and Belgium, that’s to say, Hitler afforded another gross violation of the Treaty of Versailles — no reaction of France and Great Britain again. Hitler was forgiven what the Weimar Republic wouldn’t have been forgiven, though the latter was a democratic institution.

In March 1935, he already announced the creation of Wehrmacht — the reinstated armed forces of Germany, which was a direct violation of the Treaty of Versailles

Previously, Germany, Italy, France and Britain had signed an agreement that all issues of relationships of these countries should be settled peacefully — Hitler was already insinuated that what he would do against Eastern European countries he could do with clean hands and freedom of conscience, and nobody would bother him — if only mother countries remained untouched.

You know, for the officials of England and France, Hitler was as capitalist manager as they were. He didn’t go after a social revolution, and this is why London and Paris considered fascism as a situation of Germany’s fight against the world economic crisis in its own way. And, as I already said, Britain and France had strong fascist movements — these movements welcomed everything Hitler got tough with Communists and hoped that their governments would stop making concessions to the same trade unions and the working class. While London and Paris were fed up with the topics of the same Versailles by the middle of the 30s.

Chamberlain didn’t want to become a wartime premier”

Well, let’s say that the weak reaction of London and Paris to Hitler’s violations of the Treaty of Versailles are a possible consequence of the fact that Hitler was seen more as a protector of Europe from Communism and the USSR. But Czechoslovakia and Poland became strong capitalist countries, however, they didn’t meet the support of Great Britain and France. How come?

Talking about the threat from the USSR, the following can be said here. After the Trotskyism was criticised in the USSR in the late 20s for its orientation to a world revolution, the Communist threat was rather a bogeyman for Great Britain and France, which was taken from the “storeroom” by European right-wingers to argument their right to existence. In fact, the USSR didn’t pose any threat to London and Paris from the late 20s already. Our country dealt with industrialisation and an accelerated reduction in the technological gap from Europe, this is why the USSR needed good relationships with the West then — to get engineers, patents for the construction of its industry from there.

This began with a general strike of English miners in 1936 in which British special services spotted a Soviet trace

The Soviet Union had good relationships, but were they so in the 30s if Hitler got free hands?

The relationships of the USSR and Britain were really cold. This began with a general strike of English miners in 1936 in which British special services spotted a Soviet trace. Whether there was a Soviet trace or not is another issue, and it requires additional research. But it was beneficial for some forces in Great Britain to show the threat of Communist, the world revolution, the Communist International and freeze the relationships with the USSR for almost 10 years. As for France, as I already said, there was a fight for uniting all anti-fascist forces to create a government, and Laval and radicals made of fascists and monarchists were opposition to them. Minister Barthou was the only ally of the USSR in collective security — he had already introduced a proposal on Czechoslovakia’s guarantees of security in case of fascist aggression to the parliament, but he was killed, and the case got complicated, Barthou’s many ideas of collective security weren’t adopted.

As for the unwillingness of Great Britain and France to help Poland and Czechoslovakia in trouble, imperialism was the case. Imperialism considers some people don’t deserve a special attitude, they are lower by birth, and all this attitude has deep roots, especially among the British. Chamberlain has a famous quote like: “It is sad to think that our British guys will be drawn into a war for some Czechs who live in a faraway country and we even don’t know who they are”. The imperial snobbism, the habit of dividing people into pools of supreme and Untermensch people (as Hitler used to say) were the point at which London, Paris and the Nazi regime coincided.

We know that following the Sudetes after the Munich Agreement in 1938, Hitler already occupied whole Czechoslovakia by motivating it by the fact that the Germans’ security issue in the Sudetes wasn’t solved. Did France and Great Britain understand Hitler that it was already a threat to the world and including to them after the occupation of the whole country? Or did nothing surprise them because Hitler was moving only to the East he was interested in and no more?

It is very hard to say if France understood it — the country was still severely injured by big losses at WWI. And Britain understood it in the person of its leaders. According to some memories, Chamberlain said the following: “This crowd doesn’t understand what it is glad about”. In other words, in September 1938, the British premier began to understand the war was inevitable. However, all his further steps suggest that he tried to drag the British involvement in it by all means. Either his personal short-sightedness or illnesses were the case (later historians found out that Chamberlain had cancer), but many historians write that he didn’t want to become a wartime premier and mainly this is why he followed the course for the pacification of the aggressor.

The talks had two stages — political consultations first, and then, in August 1939, consultations of military representatives where British Admiral Reginald Drax and General Josef Doumenc arrived. But the fact who these people were and how they held talks said a lot

Does it mean that the idea of creating a coalition against Hitler in 1939 did not belong to either Britain or France?

The idea of trilateral English-French-Soviet talks belonged to the Soviet side, and the Soviet Union did its best to try to guarantee the security of Poland’s borders. The talks had two stages — political consultations first, and then, in August 1939, consultations of military representatives where British Admiral Reginald Drax and General Josef Doumenc arrived. But the fact who these people were and how they held talks said a lot.

Firstly, they chose the longest path one could invent. If same Chamberlain flew to meet Hitler by plane, and his trip took literally several hours, Doumenc and Drax spent a week to get to the USSR by ship. Secondly, during the talks in Moscow, the representatives of France and Great Britain (one of them was a retired general, the other was the commander of a remote garrison) quite evasively replied to all the proposals of same head of the USSR People’s Commissariat of Defence Industry Voroshilov who offered certain numbers for the amount of troops that could certainly put the USSR against Germany. And Britain and France probably insisted on the cooperation of these troops when signing the documents. But Doumenc and Drax simply didn’t have any authority.

Does it turn out that the representatives of these countries arrived to hear out the details of the USSR’s idea?

Absolutely correct, they came just to listen to the proposal and communicate it to their capitals.

Nevertheless, they did communicate this proposal despite their status. Great Britain and France began talks with Poland about their readiness to help and, as historians state, achieved nothing — Poland didn’t want to allow USSR troops to go through its territory in case of Hitler’s aggression, and the coalition wasn’t created. Is everything correct here?

Great Britain and France had the potential for political pressure on Warsaw, and this pressure brought to positive results: Poland agreed to consider the issue of the advance of Soviet troops. But it was late, and Ribbentrop had already landed in Moscow — the talks with Great Britain and France were too long.

To be continued

Realnoe Vremya online newspaper