The Paradox of France

I

I AM not sure that America is a good place from which to obtain an accurate view of Europe.

Distance may lend perspective and sometimes enchantment to a scene, but as often it distorts it. Detail is lost, and in the lives of men and of nations detail may happen to be of vital importance. In the small-scale map of Europe which offers itself to the American eye the bigness and blackness of the Fascist countries seem overwhelming. Germany, with her new Austrian province, her vassals or near-vassals in Hungary, Rumania, and Yugoslavia, her benevolently neutral neighbor Poland, seems to bestride the continent. Italy, with her bombing planes and submarine bases dotted over the eastern and western Mediterranean, her new empire acquired in northeast Africa and on the shores of the Red Sea, her active espionage and diplomacy among the Arabs in Syria, Palestine, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia, seems to have acquired a strangle hold on the life lines of the great empire whose financial, moral, and economic centre is so precariously fixed within two hours’ flight from the German air bases on the Rhine.

So must have seemed, to American spectators in 1914, the aspect of Europe, dominated by the military might of the Central Powers, with the Turkish Empire sprawling across British communications with the Far East as Mussolini’s new Roman empire does to-day. Yet that 1914 continent of Europe contained, almost imperceptible to the eye at the American end of the telescope, the small country of Belgium, with a population less than one half that of Greater New York. And it was the existence of Belgium which proved, directly and indirectly, fatal to the war plans and the world ambitions of the Central Powers.

The decision of Belgium to fight, and the toughness of her resistance, were the first of the unknown and unforeseen factors in the World War of 1914-1918. The desperate resistance of the Serbian army, against Austria and Bulgaria, was another. Greatest of all perhaps, and in the end most damaging to German morale, was the long, tenacious, and unconquerable resistance of the French nation — a nation which survived four years of war without surrendering any of its democratic privileges, without investing even in Clemenceau, its ultimate organizer of victory, the powers possessed by Lloyd George and his Downing Street junta, without yielding supreme political, naval, and military power to the General Staff; a nation dispossessed of the wealthiest part of its territory and the greater part of its coal field, and equipped with an industrial organization and war machine infinitely inferior to those of its enemies; a nation frequently harassed by changes of government and once by a mutiny in its army in the field, disillusioned and at length abandoned by one of its allies, Tsarist Russia, with its other allies, Belgium and Serbia, invaded and conquered, and a fourth ally, Italy, disabled and almost impotent in the third year of the war.

The survival of France, politically and economically intact, territorially even aggrandized by the recovery of AlsaceLorraine, economically in far better plight than Great Britain, since she inherited practically none of the great and terrible legacy of unemployment which was Britain’s permanent heritage from the World War, was perhaps the greatest miracle of the war. Can the miracle be repeated? The danger which threatens France is greater than in 1914. Her politics are in greater disorder. She has been weakened internally by a quarter century of political confusion, parliamentary futility, class struggle, and the multiplicity of political parties in the Chamber. Her finances have steadily grown more unstable, shaken by three successive devaluations of the franc, by a long series of unbalanced budgets, by the flight of capital abroad, by the higher and higher interest exacted by the banks on short-term loans to an empty state treasury, by the refusal of the small investor to entrust his meagre savings to long-term government bonds.

Her economic structure, which long escaped the ravages that shattered British economy in the immediate post-war years, which miraculously was the last to be affected by the world depression of 1929, and then comparatively lightly, has lately been shaken if not destroyed by a combination of ruinous taxation, strikes and lockouts, high wages, short hours, and the bitter hostility between big business and the labor unions, on the one hand, and a series of Popular Front governments on the other. Many factories are idle altogether or are working on half time. Strikes in the steel and allied industries arrested aircraft production completely during the most critical week France or Europe has known since 1918, the week of the German invasion of Austria.

The formation of the Daladier Government in April did indeed arrest the flight of capital and call a temporary truce in the industrial war. But the underlying causes of financial, political, and economic instability are left intact.

II

From the military point of view the defenses of France seem less assured to-day than at almost any time since 1914. The native-born population is steadily decreasing. The effects of the war shortage of males are evident in the statistics of recruits called to the colors. France is now living through that long and gloomily anticipated period of conscript deficiency which began in 1935 (the year which Mussolini and other prophets predicted as the fatal year for European peace) and which will not end until 1939. To a foreigner, and above all to the experienced eyes of the numerous agents maintained by Hitler and Mussolini in this country, France presents a dramatic contrast to her Nazi and Fascist neighbors. Here are no legions of men in uniform, highly trained and drilled, lean and muscular, obedient to discipline, marching eagerly to the beat of military music. Uniforms, indeed, are strangely absent from the French scene.

In garrison towns and along the German and Italian frontiers an apparently insignificant force of French troops in shabby horizon blue or in the dark blue of the Chasseur Alpin may be identified. But in Paris and the other great French cities there are few signs of a military machine which once numbered four or five million men in its ranks, and at the first hint of war might be expected to mobilize at least two millions. Even the formidable and almost fabulous Maginot Line, with its hidden fortresses, its concrete gun shelters, its hundreds of miles of underground roads, its concealed munition dumps, its network of mysterious communications, is as yet an unknown and little-considered factor in the moral and material preparedness of the French nation for war. Its value cannot be calculated. Aerial strategy might render it useless. And at its best, since Germany has lately constructed a similar line of concealed fortifications along her Rhine frontier, the Maginot Line might merely transform the next war into the immobile and sterile war of positions which proved so exhausting, futile, and fatal in the last world struggle.

Diplomatically, France is in worse case than at any time since 1914. Her post-war system of alliances, of which the newly created state of Poland was the foundation in eastern Europe, and the newly created or newly enlarged states of Czechoslovakia, Rumania, and Yugoslavia were the bases in southeastern Europe, has been badly damaged. Poland, under the Russophobe Pilsudski and his Colonels, turned secretly and at last openly from her alliance with France as French influence weakened in Europe and that of Germany under Hitler increased. Yugoslavia, for long a bulwark against Italian expansionism in the Balkans, has steadily moved away from the orbit of French diplomacy and into that of Germany since the assassination of King Alexander in Marseilles in 1934. Rumania has moved rapidly into the Fascist camp since the elimination of the Francophile Titulescu from the direction of her foreign policy.

Czechoslovakia, alone of France’s onetime allies of the Little Entente, with her concentration of forty-five million people and her triple army against Hapsburg or German or Italian imperialism, is left as a lone and much-threatened sentinel on Germany’s eastern frontiers, and is now almost completely isolated from her friend and protector in Western Europe by a hostile Germany, an Austria now become German, a Hungary hungering for revenge for the humiliations and mutilations of the Treaty of the Trianon, and a Poland which has no love for the Czechs, which protested violently against the absorption of three hundred thousand Poles into Versaillescreated Czechoslovakia in the region of Teschen, and would probably watch complacently enough the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia by Germany, if only as the temporary price of her own retention of the Polish Corridor, with its minority population of Germans.

As the only sources of consolation and relief in this dismal outlook there remain the alliances between Soviet Russia and France and Czechoslovakia, and France’s new understanding with Great Britain. The Russian treaty was not entered into lightly by France, nor with the unanimous consent of her people. After years of fruitless negotiations and repeated delays and hesitations, the Pact of alliance was only signed by France when it seemed to some of her military advisers that further delay would encourage the long-feared realization of an agreement between the German Reichswehr and the Red Army. Even then M. Pierre Laval, who signed the Pact in Moscow, was the first to denounce it privily by word and deed. Only the rearmament of Germany, the weakening of the League of Nations, the hesitations of Great Britain, and the collapse or partial collapse of France’s alliances in eastern and southeastern Europe have transformed a purely paper treaty with the Soviet Union into one of the mainstays of France’s security and the guarantee of Czechoslovakia’s independence.

Nevertheless, there are obvious weaknesses in this new military system of defense. France and Russia agree to go to the assistance of Czechoslovakia only if the latter is invaded from without, and if both powers lend assistance simultaneously. No provision was made in the Pact for such an emergency as that which occurred in Austria, and which now appears to have become the typical pretext for armed invasion — an insurrection begun by a national minority within the threatened country, fomented and organized from without, and aided by regular troops from the aggressor country. This gap has since been filled in verbal negotiations between France and Czechoslovakia, and France has now stated her intention of taking military measures to protect Czechoslovakia from intervention of any kind, whether open or masked.

The other weakness in Czechoslovakia’s (and therefore in France’s) system of defense arises out of geographical conditions. Czechoslovakia is separated from France by Southern Germany. During the few days which would precede an inevitably general war in Europe, the French could at best hope to prevent the lightning conquest and occupation of Czechoslovakia by sending several air squadrons from their base at Nancy to reenforce the Czechoslovak air force and to attack the invading German army from the rear. Czechoslovakia is separated from Soviet Russia by a hostile or at least malevolently neutral Poland in the north, and by a doubtfully neutral and pro-Fascist Rumania in the south. Aerial reënforcements from the Soviet Union, with possibly one or two battalions of infantry and machine-gun units transported by plane and dropped by parachute, would have to be flown over one or another of these intervening territories, with the risk of attack or reprisals from the Poles and Rumanians.

Since time is of the very essence of surprise and conquest in the new Hitler technique of warfare, and the German invaders of Czechoslovakia would presumably have dispensed with the oldfashioned convention of declaring war by diplomatic procedure, it cannot be assumed that the French and Russian air forces will be able to intervene in time to spare their Czechoslovak allies the brunt of the German aggression. The main weight of the German thrust will already have been felt by the army and air force of President Beneý before his allies appear in the air over his warstricken territory, and their intervention will be of efficacy to prevent the rapid conquest of Czechoslovakia, and the uninterrupted advance of Germany to the oil fields of Rumania and hence to the wheat fields of Russian Ukraine, only if the Czechoslovaks, like the Belgians in 1914, are valiant enough and desperate enough to hold up the invaders for at least two weeks.

Militarily, as well as politically, the chances of France’s victory in the next general European war are therefore meagre. They depend for the first time in her history, perhaps, less upon circumstances under her control than upon circumstances remote and independent of all direction by her. For the first time, equally, France will be unable to declare and to influence the time and circumstances of her going to war. It is true that as a result of Hitler’s conquest and absorption of Austria the long hesitation of Great Britain has at last been ended, and that since M. Édouard Daladier’s visit to London at the end of April Mr. Neville Chamberlain has apparently pledged British support to Czechoslovakia in the event of an unprovoked German invasion. But the strategy of European warfare has been revolutionized since 1914. British intervention on the side of France no longer assures to the French the security of their northern ports. The aerial command by Germany of the English Channel may isolate the two democratic allies from each other much more effectively than a victory of the German Navy might have done in 1914. Moreover, it is conceivable, and even probable, that Germany will strike at England first, rather than France, and seek to overcome or at least to immobilize the slower war machine of Great Britain before she turns to dispose of France at her leisure.

III

For these and for other reasons, therefore, the situation of France in the summer of 1938 may well seem precarious if not desperate. Viewed from the United States, as I viewed it recently, it seemed a subject for the gravest fears. Yet it was in the United States, and not in France, that i found the friends of European democracy in panic. On landing on French shores I, like other visitors, have found anxiety but not fear, and even a kind of desperate calm very curious and impressive in view of the political confusion, the bitter and ruthless controversies over social, financial, and economic issues, which divide the many political parties here, and seem fated to divide them without surcease to the very day when France finds herself again at war.

Whether the calmness of her leaders in the face of the external danger proceeds from an almost Oriental fatalism, or from an almost mystical faith in her destiny, the fact is that France alone in Europe to-day faces the future steadily and without fear. Great Britain, as I found since my return, is more alarmed by the trend of European events than at any time since 1914, not even excluding that dark day in March 1918 when the Germans broke through before Amiens. Germany, in spite of her state of artificially induced exaltation, is apprehensive and uncertain — witness the nervous and apologetic terms of Hitler’s letter to Mussolini explaining his seizure of Austria. Italy is still heavily involved in Ethiopia and in Spain. Soviet Russia has one eye on Japan and another on Germany, and is too concerned for the success of her fifty-year industrial experiment to regard the oncoming of war with anything but dismay.

The Succession Slates in Europe can only see in war their ruin or dismemberment, the end of the Versailles dream of independence. Even the neutrals cannot hope this time to escape the general calamity. Denmark is already menaced by the ferment among her Germans in Schleswig-Holstein. Norway and Sweden might escape only if they became the vassals of Germany. Holland and Belgium already know their fate. Czechoslovakia is doomed. Poland could not survive the victory of either Russia or Germany. Hungary will go, if she is not already going, the way of Austria. Yugoslavia, Rumania, Bulgaria, Greece, may survive as vassals. Turkey might escape, since she is more Asiatic than European, and so long as Kemal Ataturk lives it will be difficult to destroy him in the uplands of Anatolia.

By a paradox without parallel in history, France alone, weakened, underpopulated, poverty-stricken, torn by dissensions as she is, looks at the remorseless advance of history with a certain heroic equanimity. One of her recent governments, on the eve of certain defeat in the Chamber on a financial question, even had the temerity to assert to the world that France would fight to protect Czechoslovakia. And doubtless Hitler knows that this is no mere idle boasting. It is significant that, for all his almost reckless acts in eastern and southeastern Europe, the Nazi dictator has scrupulously refrained from attacking or denouncing France directly. Indeed, he has repeatedly announced that he has no territorial or other claims against France.

It may be that in this knowledge of France’s intention to go to war in certain circumstances lies her only strong card. Hitherto Hitler’s aims have been achieved without fighting. The conviction that war with France would inevitably result from certain provocations may prove the ultimate deterrent in Germany’s case. The leaders of the Reichswehr are familiar with France’s fighting record, and have a healthy respect for it. The leaders of the French Army know that France will mobilize to the last man to defend her territory. And the leaders of the rival political parties in Parliament know that, whatever the feuds which now divide them, they will clasp hands and sing the ‘Marseillaise’ bareheaded in the Chamber of Deputies at the outbreak of war, as they or their predecessors did on that historic day in August 1914.