The Events of 1938

An article based on a lecture given by the writer on 20th November, 1938, then
later published in the 1939 Spring Edition of the RN magazine, Naval Review.

It includes a brief history of the causes of the First World War.

by M. C. R. . . an unknown naval officer

To anybody who embarks upon a discussion of these events must come the realization that it is almost impossible to cover such a wide field in the space of a single article. The ramifications of policy, of past history and of future possibility are so tremendous that it is with great diffidence that I have attempted to set down here the reactions of an average brain to the happenings of those momentous days of September, 1938. Readers of this article would do me a service if they were to remember that the opinions expressed are, though based upon the reading of many works dealing with past events and future possibilities, entirely my own. With my opinions there are bound to be many who will violently disagree, but I regard it as a blessing if that disagreement produces some thought and some discussion upon this very important matter.

The "Past" of the Events
In reviewing this side of the question I would like to look back into history for some distance. If one does look back, one sees that the so-called "Hitler Spirit" is not new in Germany. The dream of the German people for world domination, and for the spread of German culture throughout the world, is an old one. It is a dream of very ancient lineage. It is held by some that the Prussian people, who supply the driving power in modern Germany, are the survivors and descendants of the hordes of Attila the Hun, who were impelled westwards from the plains of Tartary by an overwhelming migratory urge. It is possible that this urge to expand has never yet been fully satisfied.

As we leave behind us the land of pre-history and of legend, and bring our minds down to Victorian times, we see that Bismarck, who was the man of action in the Germany of his day, desired a strong and dominating Germany in order that the teachings of contemporary German philosophers might be brought to a logical, and successful, conclusion. These teachers continually wrote and spoke of "The German Folk", of "German Blood", and of the "Unity of the German Tribe". They were consistent advocates of ruthless action to attain an object.

In the reign of Queen Victoria this urge for world domination forced the German nation through various wars of expansion and of consolidation to the crowning of the King of Prussia, as German Emperor, in the Palace at Versailles, on the conclusion of the Franco-Prussian war. Then the rulers of Germany saw that they were barred from the ultimate domination of the world by the British Empire, of which the corner-stone was England. Since the overthrow of English power could only be achieved by the defeat of the British Navy, the Germans began, in the later years of the reign of Queen Victoria, to build a rival navy. They carried out their plan with increasing intensity until the outbreak of the Great War.

Alas! in spite of the millions which had been spent, with such a good result, upon this magnificent fleet, when the day arrived and war broke out between Germany and the British Empire, the Kaiser and his military advisers, refusing to let their navy be used to its best advantage, dissipated its energy and ruined its morale by forcing it to remain idle in the shelter of its ports for long and increasingly weary months at a time.

In the days before the Great War, the rulers of Germany did not fear France or Russia, either together or separately, but they did realize that Great Britain must be defeated if their dream of the German domination of the world were to be translated into fact. The situation in the days prior to 1914 was very similar to that which confronts us to-day. Many of the rulers in Germany firmly believed that the people of Britain were decadent, and that their morale was completely undermined by pacifism.

British statesmen visited Germany in those pre-war days in order to try to discover what the leaders of that nation really wanted and why they were so hostile to Great Britain. The answer was not hard to find, but the seekers after knowledge could not, would not, or dare not open their eyes to a realization of the facts. In that respect they were as fathers to those who came after them, imparting to the mental features of their children an amazing similarity to their own. The answer to their question then was the same as the answer to a similar question to-day. The German rulers wanted to step into the imperial shoes of a despised and decadent British nation.

Furthermore, the acute and incompatible differences of temperament and outlook between German and British officials were not conducive to the harmonious relationship of their countries. At that time the ambition of German statesmen was to obtain control of as much territory as possible without provoking war, and their policy was that, if war were inevitable, then it should be brought about when conditions appeared to them to be most favourable to Germany.

There is but little difference between the ambition and the policy of pre-war days and those of to-day. Perhaps the only difference in the outcome of that ambition and that policy is that, to-day, Germany will get very much more, without fighting for it than she could have got in times gone by. If in these days we can believe that anything short of world domination will satisfy the German rulers, it is preferable that we should give land away rather than that we should lose millions of valuable lives and waste millions of pounds of valuable money in fighting about it.

Eventually those in Germany who were in favour of war saw their chance in the murder at Sarajevo of the heir to the Austrian throne, in July of 1914. They considered that France was unprepared for war, that Russia could be dealt with simply and easily, that Great Britain, torn by internal troubles concerning Ireland, was unlikely to fight, and that, if she did fight, she would have no army which could even remotely compare with that possessed by Germany.

They apparently overlooked, or did not value accurately, the immense power which could be wielded by a naval blockade. Hence Austria was persuaded to place before Serbia demands which Serbia could not possibly accept and, to ensure that these demands should not be accepted, the time limit for a reply was made ridiculously small.

The hoped-for result came about, the demands were refused, and there followed the train of mobilizations which led to the opening of the Great War. The course of the War is of no great importance to this story. It is now well known that there were, in high places on both sides, a tragic number of examples of muddle and of crass stupidity which were often redeemed by tremendous gallantry on the part of those less exalted. In the end the morale of the enemy was undermined, largely by starvation as a result of the blockade, but helped greatly by clever propaganda and by enormous losses in the field. One by one the allies of Germany sued for peace and at last Germany did likewise.

At the end of this almost world-wide struggle, the statesmen of the victorious countries were faced with the task of making peace. For the successful completion of this task they were ill-prepared because they had no chance of thinking about peace. For years their every effort had been expended upon the winning of the war. As a result of this lack of preparation, for which they could scarcely be blamed, the Treaty of Versailles was produced by those who were responsible for making peace with Germany.

Judged in the light of what would have been our fate had we lost the war, it was a reasonable treaty, but, since it made the whole of Germany pay for the sins of a small ruling caste, it was a bad treaty; and the bill, or account, which the German people were expected to settle was grotesquely heavy. It was inevitable that a desire for revenge, or at least for revision, would grow as a result of such a treaty. The allies of Germany were dealt with in a manner which betrayed a similar lack of skill and of preparation. In addition to the fact that those responsible were badly prepared for the heavy task of peace-making, public opinion in Great Britain, in France, and in the other ex-allied countries would not have permitted the ministers gathered at Versailles to produce anything very much less harsh than they did.

At that time an unsympathetic public opinion was perfectly natural and perfectly comprehensible. But, because public opinion concerning the treatment of Germany from 1918 to I933 was at least five years behind official opinion, those responsible for the ruling of Great Britain and France were much to blame. An intelligent education, so sadly lacking also in spheres other than this, would have prepared the people, and made them eager for changes in the world which might well have spared us from the terror under which we now live.

As a result, the embryonic German Republican Government, though much from which it suffered was undoubtedly its own fault, was never given a fair chance to show itself to its people, by the winning of diplomatic successes in the foreign field, as a worthy inheritor of the discarded and discredited Prussian militarism. Hence, out of the soil of ancient German dreams, fertilized by the chaotic and miserable state of post-war German politics, watered by French hate and British apathy, sprang the plant of "Hitlerism", the seeds of which had been sown in days long gone by.

Having thus briefly traced the causes of the rise of "Hitlerism", I feel that it would be of value if we were to look at two of the great objectives of the Nazi Party.

The Objectives of the Nazi Party
I consider that the two most important objectives are :- Firstly, the leaders of the party desire to bring all German-speaking peoples, in all parts of the world, into the fold of the Third Reich, into the "Union of German Folk". Secondly, they desire to spread throughout the world the glories of German "culture" and the teachings of the Nazi Party.

The Methods used by the Nazi Party to Attain their Objectives
I think that these may be divided under two sub-headings, "the short-term" and the "long-term" methods of the Nazi Party.

Under the sub-heading of "short-term," I have chosen to place the immense efforts to re-arm Germany and the plan to use this vastly increased armed strength to obtain, by threat of force, a revision of those clauses in the Treaty of Versailles which deprived Germany of territory. There is no doubt that one is forced to admit that, even in the pre-Hitler German Republic, the rearmament of Germany was proceeding secretly and that technicians were being employed in Russia in order to gain experience in arms manufacture.

Furthermore, the restricted German army was used as a training ground for those who would form the non-commissioned officers of a greatly expanded force. But in 1933, the pace of this rearmament was tremendously accelerated and, since it was impossible any longer to maintain it, secrecy was abandoned. The successive, huge increases in the Reichswehr do not need to be enumerated here. In addition, General Goering was given the task of creating an enormous air force, a task which he has successfully carried out. With this air force, created at the cost of an unknown number of lives, the leaders of the Nazi Party undoubtedly hope to deliver a sudden hammer-blow, with the maximum of surprise, upon those against whom it would most successfully tell.

As for the "long-term" method of the Nazi Party, I regard it as being the re-absorption of territory, Germanic in origin and with an industrial or raw-material value, either by the vote of a portion of the populace, as in the Saar Basin, or by a threat of the employment of force, as in the case of Austria or Sudetenland. The re-absorption of these particular types of territories is a most important consideration in order to place Germany as far from the fear of blockade as is possible, in case war should break out between Germany and another Power which could apply the pressure of blockade. There has been an element of right in all of Hitler's post-1933 exploits, and that element, combined with a vast and steadily increasing amount of might, and combined with Hitler's skill in the use of surprise, has made these exploits irresistible save at the risk of a war for which little public support could have been obtained in Great Britain or in France.

The particular situation confronting Great Britain and France at the end of September, 1938
After the inclusion of Austria in the Third Reich in March, 1938, Hitler intended, as part of his policy of expansion in a south-eastward direction, to add Czechoslovakia to Germany in May. He would have done this had not the Prime Minister of Great Britain warned him that it would have meant war with Great Britain as well as with France. Hitler's reply to this warning was the building of the Siegfried Line on the German bank of the Rhine, which building was accomplished by the use of enormous forces of conscripted labour transferred from other parts of Germany. By unremitting, high-pressure efforts, this line was completed by mid-September; and the invasion of Germany, by a French army, was rendered nearly impossible.

Having thus insured himself against any chance of invasion, Hitler could then have launched a "lightning attack" upon Czechoslovakia, employing the "pincers" to which the second claw had been added by the inclusion of Austria. By this "lightning attack" he could have swamped Czechoslovakia in a very short space of time, and long before any effective help could have reached the Czechs from outside sources.

The Siegfried Line would have held up any rescuing French army until all hope of their being of use would have long since passed away. There was, of course, the possibility that Russia might have intervened; but I regard her promised help as having been of very little potential value, except, perhaps, in the air. Russia is not ready to stand the strain of a first-class offensive war. Her factories are mostly unreliable, her transport is probably no better than it was in 1914 and may easily be worse, and the morale of the population, to say nothing of that of the Red Army, is of so low an order that it could not be depended upon to support a prolonged war outside Russia's borders.

Even had the Russian Army been ordered to march, either Polish or Roumanian territory had to be crossed, and in each case the marching conditions would have been bad, the forces would have been weeks on the journey, and they would have arrived too late to render effective assistance. Herr Hitler was determined to absorb into the Third Reich the whole of Czechoslovakia, by means of a "lightning attack", and, undoubtedly, as was seen by Mr. Chamberlain and M. Daladier, war would not have saved Czechoslovakia even though the declaration of war by Great Britain and France had been made immediately after a hostile action by Hitler.

It was thus vital to reach some form of agreement with Hitler which, while freeing the world from the actuality of war, would give to Hitler a triumph of great propaganda value, but which would still leave Czechoslovakia as a free and independent country. At first sight it appeared as though the agreement concluded at Munich had complied with those requirements and that Hitler had, in fact, obtained less territory than he had demanded. Alas! it now looks as though the Governments of Great Britain and France, having recovered somewhat from a great fright, are now too absorbed in their own affairs to bother about Czechoslovakia any more. In the conference of Ambassadors which followed the Munich conference, the areas to be ceded, which were then agreed upon, were in a few cases less than Hitler had demanded, but in many cases they were more.

As an inevitable result of the Agreement of Munich, Czechoslovakia is now being slowly but surely dominated by Germany and is being bound closer and closer by increasingly strong economic and political ties.

The position of Italy
The reaction of Signor Mussolini to the crisis of September was very interesting. For a time, not many years ago, it appeared probable that Great Britain and Italy would be in conflict in the Mediterranean, owing to revived dreams of an Italian Empire in Africa and along the shores of the Mediterranean. Then, because of similar interests in the Danube Basin and in the Balkans, friction grew between Italy and Germany. This friction has become steadily worse because German economic and political activity in those regions has rapidly increased in the past few years. Mussolini, however, found that an imperial adventure was necessary in order to distract the attention of Italians from internal affairs.

Mussolini's need gave Hitler his chance to decrease Italian influence in the Balkans and to stir up trouble between Italy and France and Great Britain. A temporary friendship, inspired by community of ambition, was formed between Hitler and Mussolini, and Hitler undoubtedly persuaded Mussolini to continue with his Abyssinian project, hoping thereby to make profit out of any trouble in Europe. He also desired to test the reaction of Great Britain and France to a grave breach of the Covenant of the League of Nations close to home. When Hitler saw that the full penalties provided by the Covenant were not to be applied to Italy he knew, what he had already suspected in connection with Japan and China, that Great Britain and France would only intervene with force to save themselves, or a very near and strategically very important neighbour, from attack. He realized that, by daring and by a show of force, he could obtain almost anything in Europe.

The present partnership between Mussolini and Hitler is, save for a similarity in the political life of both their countries, a most unnatural and unhappy one. They have too many similar ambitions, and interests, in too many places to make their friendship sincere. Because the absorption of Austria into the Third Reich brought Germany almost to the Brenner Pass, Mussolini is in a most unhappy position. He has, in the ex-Austrian Tyrol, one of the worst-treated German-speaking minorities in Europe and he knows that this territory is still regarded by Hitler as German. It is, or was, German; and therefore it must be included in modern Germany.

Once, Mussolini would have moved to save Austria. He did, in fact, do so when Dollfuss was murdered on the 25th of July, 1934. By 1938, however, he was heavily involved in Abyssinia and in Spain, and the German strength had increased as the result of four years of tremendous effort. Thus Mussolini could do nothing in March, 1938, and, because of this enforced inertia, he was the recipient of an audacious telegram of thanks from Herr Hitler!

At the present time, therefore, we see, so far as Italy is concerned, an attempt at a reconciliation between that country and Great Britain. This is undoubtedly dictated by self-interest on both sides, but a settlement of outstanding differences, if it can be brought about and if the terms of any settlement are honestly observed on both sides, would be of great benefit to both countries and would certainly do no harm to Europe or to the world.

What of the Future ?
Unless a miracle happens, and the hopes expressed by Mr. Chamberlain after his visit to Munich are realized, a fearful struggle between the German nation, dominated by the Nazi Party, and the British Empire is inevitable. The possibility that the German army or the German people will rebel and will overthrow the present ruling party must not be discounted, but it is not easy to see how such a change could be brought about without early knowledge of the movement coming to Hitler's ears. That he would then take drastic action to stop such a revolt goes without saying. As a last resort, as a desperate measure, he could, and would, involve his nation in war either to save and strengthen his regime or to "go out in a blaze of glory".

Broadly speaking, although the forces hostile to him are considerable and are growing, in numbers if not in compact strength, the longer Hitler can continue in power without war the more he can strengthen his influence over the German nation, for it is on the youth of Germany that he depends for the continuation of his regime. The influence exercised by Hitler over the youth of Germany and over those who were in their 'teens in 1918 cannot be over-estimated, and this is explicable when it is remembered that the youth with which he is now dealing has never known any great comfort nor any form of life to compare favourably with life under Hitler. To a youth shattered by the aftermath of the Great War and grown demoralized under the strain of post-war years in Germany, Hitler brought discipline, increasing self-respect and a focal point for hitherto wasted energies.

It is possible that older people will turn against him when they appreciate how dangerously near to another war he is leading them and how few of his promises of a fairer, more free, and more comfortable life are being redeemed. But it is very difficult to see how these older ones are going to realize the truth behind Dr. Goebbels' incessant propaganda, or how they are to organize themselves to overthrow the existing regime without the outbreak of a war which would remove into the firing line the hordes of secret police with which the country is at present overwhelmed.

What part can Great Britain play ?
It is towards the breaking down of the screen of Nazi propaganda and towards the telling of the truth to the German nation that our immediate energies should be bent. The German nation as a whole does not want war any more than does the French or the British, but the policy of the present rulers of Germany makes war inevitable, sooner or later. Without a change of Government in Germany we cannot avoid war.

There is no doubt but that concessions in tropical lands to the German people are advisable, and that the prolonged withholding of them is indefensible; but I do not consider that the granting of them to the present rulers of Germany will lessen in any respect the desire of the latter for the eventual domination of the world. If, in spite of all our hopes, war is forced upon us by the Nazi Party, we must do anything we can to delay our reprisals on the German people. The dropping of bombs on German towns would do more towards overcoming the anti-war inclination of the Germans than all of Doctor Goebbels' propaganda. We must seek, rather, to divorce the Nazi Party from the German nation. We must strive to give the forces of disruption in Germany a chance to act. All our efforts must be bent towards the discrediting of the Nazi Party and towards its eventual extinction as a political entity.

The peace which will follow must be planned on lines completely different from that which followed the last war, in order to give no excuse for the building up in Germany of another "Hitler" party. The reorganization of the world on a completely international basis is an urgent necessity. Some brilliant planning of the distribution of the sources of raw materials is badly needed, and this distribution must be carried out no matter to whom it involves sacrifice. The principle that the lands in question are being held in trust for their native populations must, in future, be the guiding one.

With a lessening of the selfish nationalism and the egotistic imperialism which are two of the greatest curses afflicting mankind at the moment, with an application to the science of peace of the sort which is now so often given to the science of war, we may yet see, those of us who may be left alive at the conclusion of the next war, that the inhabitants of the world have at last grown up, and that they have at last learned how to live.

M. C. R.

Note.-This article is based on a lecture given by the writer on 20th November, 1938.

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