France’s policies against Germany after the First World War

France’s policies against Germany after the First World War

When France Stood Firm

When France Stood Firm {Les années de fermeté} is the subtitle of the volume of the official history of the French Army which covers the years after WW1. (l’Armée Française de 1919 à 1939 by Colonel F-A Paoli, Ministry of the Army, Service Historique. Undated but approved by General De Gaulle in 1969).
This period saw France endeavour to protect itself against another war with Germany by making Germany too weak to wage war. These attempts were countered by Britain, and France had to choose between helping to bring about a weakened, divided Germany and having Britain and the United States as allies.
Germany had only been united since 1871; in 1914 its erstwhile kingdoms still had their own names and royal or princely families with their flags and insignia. The Wittelsbach royal family was still on the throne in Bavaria. Bavaria still administered the parts of the Rhineland which had been attributed to it in 1814, and Prussia still administered the parts of the Rhineland attributed to it at the same time. Catholic administrators and politicians ruled over the Palatinate, a Protestant state, while Protestant administrators, policemen and politicians ruled over the Catholic Rhineland.
It was not absurd therefore for the French to dream of a return to the pre-1871 situation: in other words, to see Alsace-Lorraine returned to them, and at the same time also the unity of Germany undone.
The unity of Germany was tottering at the end of the war. There were several factors involved. The war had destabilised all of Europe and Germany, but Germany was also suffering the effect of a total blockade imposed by the British Navy which meant that civilians were affected more than in other countries. Germany depended, like France and England, on overseas trade in order to continue manufacturing and, vitally, to feed itself. The Royal Navy had been ready on the first day of the War to set up the blockade of German ports, and of the neutral ports of Holland and Scandinavia which could have supplied Germany. So it was not surprising that Germany, which by 1918 had suffered four years of privation, faced revolution. (The blockade continued after the Armistice and was only lifted on 12th July 1919, after the Versailles Treaty was signed; the Weimar assembly voted to accept the Treaty on June 23rd.)
Germany was also weakened by enemy propaganda. Perhaps because it was a young country, it was receptive to ideas put forward by the Allies. Ludendorff, the Quartermaster General of the German army wrote in his memoirs (Ludendorff’s Own Story 1920):
“Blockade and propaganda began gradually to undermine our spirits and to shake the belief in ultimate victory.”
“Before the enemy propaganda we were like rabbits before a snake.”
“The German people ad themselves coined the phrase “German militarism”. [The German] people failed to appreciate the national strength which rested therein.”

Catchphrases such as “peace of understanding”, ‘disarmament after the war’, ‘league of nations’, and ‘right of self-determination of peoples’ found an echo. On the other hand, while Britain had a solidly organized propaganda service under Lord Beaverbrook—Ludendorff lists Lord Northcliffe as being in charge of propaganda directed at enemy countries, Rothermere in charge of neutrals and Kipling of home— Germany had no countering equivalent:
The War Chancellors “never gathered the people and led them, like the great dictators, Clemenceau, Lloyd George and Wilson.”

France had also had social unrest, albeit on a much smaller scale, as a result of the appalling devastation caused by War; some leading politicians had campaigned for a negotiated peace in 1916, the Army had mutinied in 1917; Clemenceau came out of semi-retirement and took things in hand. In Germany there was revolutionary unrest. President Wilson had also published his 14 Points, which promoted the idea that overthrowing existing constitutional structures would enable Germany to obtain a more favourable peace settlement. When Germany approached Wilson asking for an armistice, Wilson told them that the Allies would not “deal with the military masters or monarchial autocrats of Germany.”

So Ludendorff was dismissed and the Emperor was forced to go into exile; the local Kings and Princes also left the country. A republic was declared over the whole territory. In several regions, particularly Bavaria and the Rhineland, separatist movements rose up. France did what it could to foster this development.

The Rhineland
The Versailles Treaty stipulated that the Rhineland would be occupied by Allied troops for up to 15 years; furthermore, the area would be demilitarised permanently, giving France a military border along the Rhine. This was not enough for the French who wanted a stronger protection. They favoured an independent Rhineland, which would not have the military strength of a united Germany and might in fact become an ally of France.
The Germans appealed to the Peace Conference against French policy on the Rhineland.
The German delegates to the Paris Peace Conference were allowed sight of the Treaty of Versailles after it had been written, and it was only then that they were allowed to communicate with the victors over the terms of the Treaty. This was when they complained, in a Note of 3rd June 1919, against four French military men (including two Generals, Mangin and Gerard) who were encouraging separatists in the Rhineland.

Konrad Adenauer for example, the then Mayor of Cologne, was in favour of a separate Rhineland for a time. There was a Constituent Assembly of the Rhineland region. Dorten, a separatist leader, and Konrad Adenauer planned that at the meeting of 1st February 1919, to be held in Cologne, a Westdeutscher Freistaat would be proclaimed.
Meanwhile, according to J.C. King:

“in Berlin, the Provisional Government let it be known that the draft of the future German constitution would contain a clause allowing the Rhineland to demand separation from Prussia for the purpose of forming an autonomous state within the German Reich” (France And German Dismemberment 1918-19, Harvard University Press, 1960).

However, when it came to a vote for the proclamation of the West German Free State, Adenauer did not give it his support. It is probable that the reason for this was that he had become aware of British opposition to such a development. When the region was occupied by the Allies, and in particular the strategically important bridgeheads on the Rhine, the British had specifically asked to be allocated Cologne, the most important city in the region, and Foch had accepted. Their hostility to separatism must have been clear.
This may explain why Adenauer did not support the vote to declare the region independent, even though he had been part of the movement that instigated the move to independence.
In 1920 however he was still ambivalent on the issue. According to W.A. McDougall,

“Adenauer was prepared to form a Rheno-Westphalian state to pacify the French, but the offer, he added, would have to come from Berlin” (France’s Rhineland Diplomacy 1914-1924, the last bid for a balance of Power in Europe (Princeton University Press 1978).

Nevertheless an independent Rhineland Republic was proclaimed on 1st June 1919. The Langer Encyclopaedia Of World History says: the proclamation was “instigated and supported by France”; after some months it collapsed “because of the hostility of the inhabitants”.
The movement may have been supported by France but it had genuine local roots, even if it did not gather unanimous support. British hostility to it also ensured that it would not succeed.
The British applied pressure on French politicians to make them desist, and desist they did. This led to conflict among the French between the military and the politicians. Clemenceau, the anglophile Prime Minister (1917-1920), kept Marshall Foch, the Allied Commander in Chief, away from the Peace Conference because Foch insisted on the dismemberment of Germany, against the will of the British and the Americans. Foch was consistently rebuffed by Clemenceau (see Liddell Hart’s biography of Foch (1932) where he comments on “Clemenceau’s annoyance at Foch’s persistent intrusions into policy”). Foch was not given a hearing in Cabinet either. The British commented on his insubordination.
The separatist movement continued however for a number of years. On 21st October 1923 a Rhineland republic was proclaimed at Aix la Chapelle with Belgian and French support, but collapsed on 31st January 1924. Carl Landauer, in The Bavarian Problem In The Weimar Republic (1944) says that the separatists were a minority, but “the antiseparatists were almost helpless because the separatists were protected by the French and Belgian troops”.
In September/October 1923 separatists started an uprising in all the important Rhenish cities, under the continued protection of the French and Belgian Armies. The movement eventually failed. According to King, “In September 30th, 1923, nearly 100 separatists were massacred at Düsseldorf by Prussian police, with the British refusing to intervene in an “internal” German affair”. And the German Free Corps military killed several hundred separatists in the vicinity of Bonn on 15th November 1923. Another massacre occurred in Pirmasens on February 12th 1924.

Bavaria, the biggest and richest German State, had a strong sense of its identity. It had its own army, the Citizen Corps, which was kept up after the Armistice until June 1921 despite the demand of the Allies that the German military be reduced to 100,000 nationally, and despite similar demands from the Weimar authorities.
There were various movements for the autonomy of Bavaria.
The French did try and encourage separatists, to the extent that the Münchner Post lead story on 29th December 1919 was titled “Is Bavaria French or German?”. It was in this context that French newspapers were banned there in 1920, while other papers changed ownership and political line. Millerand, the President of the French Republic, created a post of Ambassador to Bavaria in 1920 and sent a Minister to fill the post.
Some Bavarians supported a return of the royal Wittelsbach family, and the ‘pretender’, Prince Rupprecht, was not hostile to France. Heim was a monarchist leader at a time when being a Bavarian monarchist in a Republican Germany was tantamount to being a separatist. He “undoubtedly wished to inaugurate official relations with the French in order to win French support for a more or less independent Bavarian monarchy” (Carl Landauer, The Bavarian Problem In The Weimar Republic, 1944).
Carl Landauer tells the story of the trial of George Fuchs in Munich during June 1923. “Fuchs was a Bavarian separatist with whom a French emissary, Lieutenant-Colonel Richert, had got in touch {in 1923}.” Richert had paid Fuchs large sums of money to promote the movement for Bavarian independence. Fuchs and a friend tried to gather support by appealing to other groups who were hostile to Berlin but not separatists. These eventually denounced Fuchs to the police. Richert escaped, but Fuchs was tried and received a long sentence with hard labour. Landauer concludes the story by saying that, even though a separatist was tried and received a heavy sentence, there continued to be separatists in Bavaria, even some in high places who planned to initiate a separation, temporary at first, but to be turned into a permanent one.
However, the separatist movements were at odds with each other as regards politics as well as their ultimate aims and did not succeed.
According to Landauer, Hitler’s failed “Beer hall putsch” of 8th November 1923 was planned to counter a movement to separate Bavaria from Germany, and to replace it with a march on Berlin to change the Government.

The Saarland
The French had succeeded at the Peace Conference in obtaining the right to exploit the mines of the Saarland for 15 years; for that time the region would be placed under a League of Nations mandate and then a plebiscite would let the population decide whether they wanted to be reunited with Germany or united with France. This was an opportunity for France to acquire the territory permanently, so France took measures to separate the region from the rest of Germany. Saarland was given the trappings of an independent state, with its own flag, coat of arms and stamps. The railways were joined to the French network and separated from the German one; a customs barrier was erected against the rest of Germany. Previous suppliers of food and materials were replaced by French ones. Local miners continued to work the mines, but were paid in Francs. Their children were offered places in French language schools, and their parents given advantages if they sent them there.
The Saarland was administered by a League of Nations council; in 1934 this was led by a British man, Knox, who was suspected by the French magazine Le Crapouillot (April 1934) of taking measures unpopular with the local population in order to discredit the French project.
The plebiscite in 1935 was near unanimous in supporting a return to Germany.

The British against the French
The British campaign to prevent the French from achieving security on the Rhine is documented in books such as “Rhineland And Ruhr” (1923) and The Treachery Of France” (1924) by Major C.J.C. Street, parts of which are quoted in The Administration Of Ireland (Athol Books, 2001). Major Street argued that if the French were allowed to detach the Rhineland from the rest of Germany, Britain and the world would be in the same situation as in 1914, that is, with a dominant country in Europe (other than Britain, that is):

“If France achieves its end, it will result in the Rhine becoming the practical Eastern frontier of France, who would also be in control of large and valuable tracts on the right bank of that river. This would involve the reproduction of the conditions which existed in Europe before the war; the establishment of a great military and commercial power which would overshadow all its rivals. The danger to Britain which would result is obvious. France would be the sole power on the continent.”

Would not the removal of Germany as an economic rival be a good thing for Britain? It would not, according to Street, because Germany is needed as a market, and France would be a more dangerous rival than Germany was.
Liddell Hart concurred in his biography of Foch:

“Once Germany had been beaten, England was sure to revert instinctively to her traditional policy of checking the victor—in this case, France—from becoming over-powerful.”

Christopher Seton-Watson made a similar point:

“{From 1919 France was confronted} with the painful choice between the restraint of Germany and the friendship of Britain, which was to characterise the following 20 years.”

Faced with Anglo-Saxon opposition, Clemenceau thought he could at least demand a 30-year occupation of the Rhineland. He was persuaded however by the British and the Americans to give up his demand in exchange for the offer of an Anglo-American guarantee of immediate support to France in case of attack by Germany. In the event, the Americans did not sign the agreement and the British declared it null and void as a result of American withdrawal.
Clemenceau, the Prime Minister, made the decisions; Poincaré, the President of the Republic, might have had other sentiments, but constitutionally he had no power.
When France occupied the Ruhr in 1923, Poincaré, told “the Belgian premier that Rhenish economic unrest following a Ruhr occupation might lead to a new Rhenish currency, the expulsion of Prussian functionaries and the creation of a ‘neutral’ Rhineland” (McDougall, op cit).
While neutralising Foch’s policies, the British gave him empty honours. On 19th July 1919 he was wildly acclaimed in a victory parade in London, and on the 29th he accepted the proffered baton of British Field Marshal.

French historians and journalists
In 1916 the press and historians were calling for the dismemberment of Germany. The latter wrote books showing that the inhabitants of the Rhineland were closer to the French that to the rest of Germany. However, in 1917 the press and the historians were told to desist and Censorship ensured that the topic was no longer aired, for the sake of Allied unity.
However, after the War, the stance taken by Foch for a dismemberment of Germany was supported by the mass of the population, according to Liddell Hart.
In 1916, a leading historian and ex-Foreign Minister, Gabriel Hanotaux, made the case in the influential Revue des Deux Mondes for the dissolution of the German Reich, and his view was supported by Le Matin, Le Figaro and other mass circulation papers, as well as by a flood of pamphlets. After the War, Hanotaux’s first complaint against the Versailles Treaty was that it consecrated the unity of Germany, precisely because it was a treaty with Germany. (Foch had actually envisaged making a separate peace with the states of Southern Germany.) Hanotaux said:

“Germany has been allowed to keep her strongest weapon, Bismarkian unity”.

The Versailles Treaty was, according to Hanotaux, the first official international consecration of the unity of Germany.
“The Weimar republic voted to accept the Versailles Treaty, but before that it was a Council of German States that considered whether to sign it; Eastern German states voted against, central and southern states voted for. What remained was German political imperialism; Germany was weakened and beaten but was in a position to regain its strength, and quickly. It had kept friends in the small countries like Austria and Hungary. Russia was no longer a counter weight, so France and Italy were now alone on the continent. The German economic and social imperialism remained. Germany had the smallest amount of debt due to war, no destructions, it had worked to become more independent of imports; it had lost fewer men proportionally to its population. The US and the UK, erstwhile economic rivals of Germany, had left Germany standing.”
“Large financial firms and credit organisations wanted a strong Germany to save the world from ruin and avoid revolution. So they arranged that Germany kept her political and commercial organisation.”

By comparison, France was crippled by debts of 22 billion gold Francs, mainly to the US. Half of all her young men aged between 20 and 34 at the beginning of the war had died.
The same idea appears in McDougall’s book cited above: “The war had failed to destroy the aggregation of demographic and industrial power that had upset the pre-war balance”, yet the Anglo-Americans protected a united Germany. The Treaty of Versailles was the product of the conflicts between the victor nations. And the “French need for Anglo-American financial support limited French pretensions on the Rhine”.
McDougall cites Karl Polanyi in support of the idea that “In the 1920s the perceived needs of the international monetary system and the politics of international finance were more important than balance of power questions.”
McDougall continues: “France wanted continued financial and economic solidarity with her Allies the Anglo-Saxon powers” , however “Clemenceau failed to achieve either German disruption or Allied unity”. For its part, Germany had been weakened psychologically, so that no one in Germany would remember with pride the time of William II, its military parades, its uniforms, or its speeches.

Allied War Aims
War had been planned since the beginning of the century by France and England—but in secret; there were no explicit war aims. By 1917, the Allies had not even publicly recognised the return of Alsace-Lorraine to France as a war aim.
By December 1916 Balfour and Lloyd George saw French designs on the Rhineland as upsetting the balance of power in Europe. Clemenceau’s response to British uneasiness was to enforce a strict policy of silence on war aims, hence the end of annexionist propaganda.
On 5th June 1917 the French Senate and Chamber of Deputies passed a resolution demanding Alsace-Lorraine and reparations—no more, except a vague statement calling for “durable guarantees for peace and independence for peoples great and small”. Later official pronouncements even dropped that statement. However, a desire for the dismemberment of Germany continued, as shown in a Foreign Office memorandum of October 1917:

“To prevent post-war German economic expansion at the expense of the exhausted Allies, the German Zollverein {Customs Union} must be shattered and the Reich restructured into a loose federal state.”

At the Peace Conference Clemenceau made sure that his desire to preserve unity with Britain and the United States prevailed.
“He went against his public opinion and ignored his civil servants; there were no elections, censorship was maintained. His aides at the Paris Conference he chose himself from his personal collaborators.”

At the end of the First World War France was desperately weakened by destruction, loss of life and crippling debt; she wanted both guarantees of territorial security and financial recovery, but both depended on America and England. France could see that humiliated Germany would recover and be in a position again to invade through the Western Frontier. Britain persuaded a compliant Prime Minister to give up the policy of weakening Germany in exchange for what turned out to be a worthless guarantee. Twenty years later, as feared in 1919, the country was again invaded through the same route.


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