The Next War



July 1939


SELDOM if ever have the oft-gathering war clouds east such clear-cut shadows on the face of Europe. Seldom if ever have the European Great Powers known so accurately before the event how they, and their clients, would line up. Every European talks war, breathes war, acts in fear of war. Every European government, whether obligated to war or to the defense of its neutrality, is now preparing for a future in which preparedness for war will control normal civil life.

It may be that we ought all to expect peace — however uneasy a peace — because we all talk and think of war; just as the cleverest stock-market manipulators buy when everyone is selling, and sell when everyone is buying. We cannot, however, view the curve of European crises as if it were essentially the same as that of stock-market quotations. The crisis curve goes on reaching new ‘highs.’ We stand too close to the last epoch of pre-war crises, the decade 19041914. We remember how wrong were the constitutional optimists of Europe between the murder of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and August 4 of the latter year; how right were the American observers who said that, unless the madcap career of the arms race were halted, ‘the guns would go off by themselves.’ If that was true of the last pre-war European epoch, how much more likely is it so to-day, when the arms race has attained astronomical dimensions?

The arms race of 1904-1914 looks positively decorous beside that of Europe to-day; yet the basic principles, the causal factors, are no different in kind. They have merely been raised to the nth degree of intensity. The factors making for war in Europe, for the second time within one generation, are manifesting themselves — despite new frontiers, strange ideologies, and unprecedented means of destruction — in the same vicious upward spiral of offensive and defensive preparations. The prophylactic does as much to bring about the catastrophe as the disease itself. To-day the whole world looks on, helplessly fascinated, while an irresistible force inexorably approaches an immovable wall.

The force may peter out. The wall, which has frequently been moved back at the last minute during recent years and months, may once more be hastily dismantled and reërected in another place; and so the world may gain another reprieve. But — and this is the point — nothing has been done, and less is currently being done than in the immediate past, to prevent an encounter which, though it may still be postponed, remains otherwise inevitable. As I said, the trend of the crisis curve is not being reversed. Accordingly, though we may paradoxically hope for the opposite of what all expect, though we may prophesy the futility, the impossibility, or the non-durability of another European war, like Sir Norman Angell1 and Mr. Francis Hirst2 before the Great War and like Mr. Possony 3 to-day, we should be fools ourselves if we did not expect the majority of our fellows to be fools also. The signs are too grimly evident, the contour and outline of the war clouds too sharply etched. Europe is zigzagging in the direction of a general war. How will protagonists and antagonists line up? On what issue? How will the war be waged? What will be the relative distribution of advantages and drawbacks at the outset, halfway, and at the end? Who will win? And why? Let us first see what arouses these queries.

Copyright 1939, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass, All rights reserved.


All observers of the European scene now realize — what Mr. Neville Chamberlain has publicly avowed — that the Munich Agreements and the policy of ‘appeasement,’ instead of reversing the entire trend of the crisis curve, have given it a terrible upward boost. This fact was not apparent to Mr. Chamberlain or MM. Bonnet and Daladier during the Munich crisis. (If it was, they can only have gone into the Munich conference as the French cynic said men go into second marriages, allowing hope to triumph over experience.) Realization was thrust upon them by Herr Hitler in the shape of the outright annexation of Bohemia and Moravia, and the establishment of the so-called ‘protectorate’ over Slovakia, on March 12-14. That unkind cut was driven deeper by the further breakdown of Mr. Chamberlain’s personal policy of ‘appeasing’ Italy separately. This second blow at Mr. Chamberlain’s policy was delivered on Good Friday, in the shape of the Italian annexation of Albania, and to the accompaniment of bombs and shells bursting indiscriminately among Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Mohammedan Albanians.

These blows from Berlin and Rome were followed by a lesser — but in the long run, perhaps, even more discomfiting — cut from Burgos. The hopes of the British Prime Minister, on which reposed his personal policy of bribing Generalissimo Franco into gentility and Anglophilia by the power of the British purse, were dashed, for a critical short run if not longer, by the extremely proaxis policy which the Generalissimo forthwith adopted. (It can hardly be maintained that he did so out of gratitude to Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini, for if gratitude alone were the reason for his policy, then he should surely have done at least as much for Mr. Chamberlain’s Government!)

The immediate reactions of the British and French Governments to such unkind cuts have been remarkable alike for their speed and determination. Indeed, one may well define the last three months of Anglo-French policy as the epoch of the Great Reversals. Consider the behavior of the British and French Governments in this epoch, and you will be utterly unable to square it with their actions for seven years before last March.

They would not fight for Czechoslovakia. They have given black-andwhite military guarantees to far weaker sisters in Europe within six months of Munich — to Rumania, Greece, and Turkey. They would not increase their trade with these countries, nor extend credits. Now they are positively falling over backwards, prodigal with their loans, and running up almost unlimited bills for extra imports. They ostentatiously cold-shouldered Russia out of Europe’s councils during the Munich crisis, and for years before it. Indeed, Munich can only be interpreted from the Anglo-French angle, if it were Machiavellian at all, as a deliberate incitement of Germany to expand anywhere in Europe as long as it was eastwards — that is, against Russia. Now the very same British and French Governments, led by the same individuals, are in cahoots with the red brand of Communism because of their fear of the brown kind. The defense of British and French democracy and private property, which hitherto led Conservatives to befriend and build up Germany and Italy, is now to be sought by Conservatives on the red plains of Russia.

Yet these reversals were not enough. Mr. Chamberlain demanded from the British people what no Prime Minister had been able to extract from them in peacetime since the days of the press gang: conscription. This, the necessary price for the solidarity of the French military alliance, and the equally necessary pledge to Britain’s newly guaranteed allies, was the greatest reversal of all. As late as the end of March, Mr. Chamberlain reiterated his oft-repeated pledge to the Commons that conscription would never be forced on the British people without a general election. Within a month he had made the momentous reversal, in these indicative words before the Commons: —

Well, since then [March 29] I have changed my mind. I hope that everybody is ready to change his mind when necessity demands. Nothing would be more likely to lead the country into disaster than that the Government should refuse to change its mind if changed conditions required it. . . . [Since March 29] we felt compelled to give an assurance to Poland, followed by similar assurances to Greece and Rumania. ... If they [these assurances] are to be effective we must inspire confidence, not only in the countries to which we gave them, but throughout Europe, that we mean to carry them through to the end.

In other words peacetime conscription had been rendered necessary in order to reëstablish confidence abroad in the word and good faith of Mr. Chamberlain’s Government. In other words ‘necessity,’ alias Herr Hitler, had made mincemeat of the Munich pact and policy. In other words Britain herself could not rely on her new allies to keep their word unless she herself pledged a material proof of her own involvement, over and above the signature on the dotted line.

To sum up: the British Government’s convulsive volte-face could not extract Britain herself from perils too late perceived, unless sacrifices unparalleled in peacetime were hastily shouldered by the British people pour encourager les autres. Unhappily, the bankruptcy of the British Government’s former policies made the final volte-face too rapid, the sacrifices too extensive. Thus, for the eleventh-hour effort to be successful, Mr. Chamberlain’s own measures have had to appear so bellicose as to increase, rather than diminish, the European tension. What might once have been a factor for peace became inevitably a factor, if not for actual war, at least for such a final European showdown as might involve war. What, in brief, were these Anglo-French measures? How has the ‘non-aggression front’ been drawn up, drilled, and disposed?

First, Mr. Chamberlain made it clear in his radio address to the nation on September 26, 1938 that he was abandoning Czechoslovakia to Herr Hitler only because he, Mr. Chamberlain, did not believe that the Third Reich was aiming at world domination by threats of force. After the elimination of what was left of Czechoslovakia last March, the British Prime Minister made it equally clear that he thought Herr Hitler was so aiming at world domination. The British Government’s full military alliance with France, the unprecedented guarantees to the various East European states, followed within a few weeks of Mr. Chamberlain’s aggrieved condemnations of Herr Hitler at Birmingham and in the Commons. The extent of this about-face was striking enough; but it was emphasized by reference to Mr. Chamberlain’s earlier refusal to be drawn into war over Czechoslovakia. In the September radio address the British Prime Minister could talk of ’a quarrel in a faraway country between peoples of whom we know nothing.’ There is little doubt that the British Cabinet and people know far less about Poland, Rumania, and Greece than they ever knew about Germany and Czechoslovakia. The states newly guaranteed by Britain are certainly much farther away than Germany or Czechoslovakia. Within four weeks of that faraway country’s total destruction by Herr Hitler, Mr. Chamberlain was pledging Britain to fight for Poland, Rumania, and Greece, provided only that these countries defended themselves against an aggressor.

Then, secondly, Signor Mussolini’s coup against his own ally, Albania, led the British and French Cabinets to extend their commitments very considerably. Greece and Turkey were added to the list of guaranteed states before two months had elapsed from the annihilation of Czechoslovakia, and before five weeks had elapsed from the Albanian stroke. British warships were concentrated near Corfu and in the eastern Mediterranean, while French warships defended Gibraltar.

Thirdly, the new Anglo-French (but mainly English) guarantees appeared useless without support for the guaranteed states from their rear—that is, from Russia. This was obvious as soon as Mr. Chamberlain announced them to the Commons. Both Mr. Lloyd George and Mr. Winston Churchill were quick to observe that Britain was thereby saddled with possibly unlimited commitments. These commitments had never before been shouldered in peacetime. They virtually gave to Europe’s weak sisters the power to decide when British blood should be shed on the Continent. For instance, if Poland, Rumania, Greece, or Turkey decided to oppose an aggressor by force of arms, then Britain was bound by her own bond to levy war on that aggressor; and only in the case of Turkey did Britain obtain a really reciprocal pledge. (In the event of war anywhere in Europe reaching into the Mediterranean area—an area hitherto undefined by Mr. Chamberlain — Turkey and Britain are mutually bound to defend each other.) One glance at the map shows how hard it would be, if indeed possible, for Britain to carry military aid to Poland. Turkey’s entrance into the ‘non-aggression front’ gives Britain the ability to aid Rumania from the eastern Mediterranean through the Dardanelles, placed under Turkish defense since the Montreux conference of 1936; but no effective military aid can be given to Poland or Rumania in wartime without Russian participation on Britain’s behalf.

In the negotiations with Russia, Mr. Chamberlain found himself in the position of a Daniel come to judgment. He and his Cabinet had, grievously late in the day, awakened to the peril facing Britain after Munich, and had promptly turned about-face. But their new East European policy stood the chance of proving a broken reed. Worse, it might prove a formidable liability without some measure of Russian coöperation. Yet they had studiously frozen out the Russians at Munich. How were they to secure just the right amount of Russian coöperation, (a) without frightening Poland and Rumania out of the allied group, (b) without giving Russia a quid pro quo which would leave her free to invoke Anglo-French military aid in other quarters of the globe (in the Far East, or in the upper Baltic), and finally (c) without goading Herr Hitler to an act of despair by what would seem mere unprincipled ‘encirclement’? The negotiations were so tortuous, pursued with such obvious distaste on both English and Russian sides, that the ad interim disappearance of M. Litvinov from the Foreign Commissariat, and the exasperated embarrassment which Mr. Chamberlain unguardedly manifested at this news, nearly threw the AngloFrench ‘non-aggression front’ into utter rout. It was only rallied and re-formed, in evident haste, by the prompt inclusion of Turkey — a dictatorship state modeled on Russia, on excellent terms with her, and calculated to serve as a bridge between the capitalist Western democracies and the Soviet Union. And so, like an inverted Pope going up to Canossa, Lord Halifax, that loyal performer of distasteful rôles created by Mr. Chamberlain, went to Geneva in May to placate the Russians.

Without a clear-cut agreement with Russia, then, the ‘front’ might prove far from strategic. On the other hand, the states of the eastern front distrusted Russia behind them, while they made it quite clear that after Munich they could not fully trust Mr. Chamberlain and the British Cabinet in front of them. Even Britain’s written word was henceforth not enough. Accordingly, to brace French morale, to prove good faith to Britain’s new allies, as much as to convince Russia that Mr. Chamberlain meant business, it was necessary for the British Cabinet to take the fourth military measure: the momentous step of conscription.

Fifthly, and last, a whole series of preparations for early warfare on a national scale had been set up or accelerated since Herr Hitler rebuffed Mr. Chamberlain’s friendly hand after Munich. These British measures went far beyond the rapid expansion of aircraft production. That expansion had carried the rate of monthly output, by June 1939, to a figure around 900, which is equal to, if not surpassing, that of the Reich. They extended beyond the naval and military expansion programs. They were almost exclusively composed of civil measures which a democracy, especially the British kind, never takes in peace unless it is morally certain of war; because to a large extent they do away with democracy itself.

Such measures, all executed since Munich and almost all greatly accelerated since March 14, are the following: blast-proof steel shelters for all urban citizens at a cost to the state of some $100,000,000; increased storage of food and raw materials; division of civil government into twelve self-administered, self-supplying regions in wartime; registration for complete food rationing; the assimilation of the Territorial (militia) Army to the regular Army, and the decision to send a British Expeditionary Force of some thirty-two divisions to the Continent in wartime; registration and organization of all private road transport for war purposes; and plans for evacuation of certain big cities. Industry, civil trade, gold, foreign assets, foreign trade, freedom of movement, freedom of labor — all these gave way to some form of centralized control by a Government in power for nearly eight years. To purely civil measures of this kind must be added certain half-military activities. For instance, the rerouting of British shipping round the Cape of Good Hope under naval convoys; the new trade agreements with Rumania and Poland, under which the former is to receive three installments of $25,000,000 each for armaments, additional exports, and large-scale works; and the credibly reported British Government’s backing for the proposed $100,000,000 AngloFrench loan to General Franco (private in form, under the auspices of Mendelssohn and Company). This loan is really an indirect way of bailing out Signor Mussolini, by enabling General Franco to repay the Duce for two and a half years of Italian non-intervention in Spain. Finally, on top of conscription (revoking a promise), came very strong hints of complete wartime censorship of radio, public meetings, and the press — before a war!

The whole complex of civil and halfmilitary measures, taken with the sudden disposition of British and French fleets, air forces, and air defenses, with the French manning of the Maginot Line and partial mobilization, has apparently proved sufficient to inculcate in both Führer and Duce a wholesome, if temporary, regard for realities. So much is evident in their speeches of April-May. Yet the tension has risen in Europe. Whatever lull there may be is ominously like that before a hurricane.

The pitiful upshot is that Mr. Chamberlain and MM. Bonnet and Daladier are strenuously trying to impress on the dictators that the ‘democracies’ mean business this time; while, on the other hand, the execution of Anglo-French ‘business’ has now been gravely hampered by the loss of so many onetime vantage points: Spain, Czechoslovakia, Jugoslavia, Austria, and so forth. Thus the ignorance, myopia, and incompetence of certain British Conservative politicians during the last five years have forced their Government to incur, on awakening with a start, far graver commitments than those which they steadfastly refused to shoulder throughout that period. Yet these very commitments, ironically enough, may now provoke war.

There is, unhappily, nothing new in this. We need not be surprised. It took two years of the last war before politicians realized that conscription in Britain was necessary. Then Sir John Simon resigned, and Mr. Neville Chamberlain secured from Mr. Lloyd George the portfolio of the National Service (that is, conscription) Department. (Now Sir John Simon and Mr. Chamberlain are in the closest of double harness, while Mr. Lloyd George has been out for over fifteen years.) Again, it took more than two years of futile battering tactics during the last war, by which hundreds of thousands of British soldiers perished, to teach the British Staff as a whole that a unified command under the French was imperative.

Once more, it would seem that the familiar British process of ‘muddling through’ is nearing its equally familiar peak. At that point it has generally become necessary for all Europe, and the young blood of another generation, to pay for the peculiar lymphatic system of Britain’s elder statesmen. (As H. G. Wells remarked, ‘I suppose the last dinosaur to survive thought it was muddling through quite nicely.’) Yet it would be perilous in the extreme for Herr Hitler or Signor Mussolini to assume that Britain, because of her elder statesmen’s antics and gestures in the last seven years, will be inefficient in war. It would be equally dangerous to copy the Kaiser, and sniff at ‘England’s contemptible little army,’ to doubt the young Englishman’s will or ability to be a fine conscript, or to minimize (as the German press is doing) England’s potential contribution to a war because of her falling birth rate.

Britain had in 1914 a population, up to the age of forty-five, only six sevenths of its present figure; but she put 5,000,000 men into the army between 1914 and 1918, of whom only 2,100,000 were conscripted after the initial date, February 10, 1916. The majority were volunteers. At that time, conscription could only be secured in the fevered emotion of war. Now it has been grimly accorded to a Government whose peacetime blunders have been made public property, whose record is anything but one of efficiency, and under whom less than 37 per cent of the electorate in recent by-elections could be got to turn out and vote either Aye or No. This paradox is, of course, ascribable to only one cause: the even more passive, pitiable, and incompetent behavior of the official opposition, the Labor Party. Thus, though British and French democracy is dying by inches and of pernicious political anæmia, it is at least dying on its feet.

Accordingly, with all unfavorable factors duly weighed, the seriousness of the British and French Governments’ recent actions must be emphasized. Both Governments are now out on a limb before the eyes of their peoples and the world. Having obtained, and committed themselves to, so much, they can hardly scramble back. Apart from the ruin of their countries, it would now spell the ruin of themselves and of their party.


Suppose, therefore, that another preMunich situation arises — how will the European Powers line up?

That depends, of course, on the issue creating the situation. It might be in the Mediterranean, but will almost certainly be in Eastern Europe. While Mr. Chamberlain has expressly stated that Britain is obligated to support Poland by force of arms if Poland’s ‘independence’ is threatened by an aggression against Danzig as much as against the Corridor or Silesia, we have grounds for believing that Danzig may not prove a casus belli. For Britain and France on one side, Italy on another (she has once more nothing to gain from a German victory in Eastern Europe), and Nazi Germany herself, may well agree to make such formal concessions to Poland as will salve alike Polish interests and prestige.

But then, whether Danzig goes back to the Reich or Herr Hitler agrees to remain content with de facto and not de jure sovereignty over the Free City, Danzig has only been a symbol of East Prussia’s separation from the Fatherland. It is a territorial reintegration of Memel, East Prussia, and Danzig with the Reich at which Nazi policy has been aimed. That means, of course, the effective elimination of the Corridor— either by annexation of the Polish province of Pomorze, which would merely prelude the seizure of the provinces of Poznan (including Posen) and Polish Silesia, or by such Polish cessions of ‘corridors within the Corridor’ as would in fact lead to the same result. Colonel Beck’s speech to the Sejm, just before Herr Hitler’s speech of April 28 ‘answering’ President Roosevelt, showed a bold perception of the vital issues for Poland and little evidence of willingness to make concessions. Therefore on the Corridor question, if not on Danzig, the Poles may be expected to stand adamant, strengthened by the Anglo-French guarantee. Even if they do, however, Britain cannot get into the Baltic in time of war; so Russia becomes the decisive supply base for Poland.

Farther south lies Germany’s second eastern expansion chamber, Rumania. She now possesses, besides her treaty and common frontier with Poland, an Anglo-French guarantee, a virtual common front with Germany (Hungary - Ruthenia-Slovakia), and also a common front with Russia. Accordingly she is almost precisely in Poland’s position, though she has two added advantages and one extra disadvantage. Rumania now finds Italy’s frontiers only a few miles away, in what was recently Albania, across the southern tip of Jugoslavia. But she has, to offset this disadvantage, access to the Black Sea, Dardanelles, and Eastern Mediterranean, in which British and French warships can operate by virtue of the recent British and French guarantees and agreements with Turkey and Greece. Moreover, seen in conjunction with the foregoing, Rumania can boast what Poland sorely lacks: a natural strategic front for defense, comprising the Carpathians and Transylvanian Alps which screen her wheat and oil fields. Within these advantageous boundaries, supported by Anglo-French funds, supplies, and warships, buttressed by Turkey and Greece, and likely to benefit from Russian material support, Rumania may prove a far stronger sister than, solitary, she undoubtedly is.

Accordingly, if we assume a German drive to the east against Polish or Rumanian territory, we must expect a general European war. Only on this assumption can the recent reversals in Anglo-French policy acquire any sense. And, a fortiori, we must go on to conclude that some kind of understanding with Russia will be reached by Britain (since France still has one on paper). However the manœuvres and higglings between such ill-assorted principals may develop, it is now crystalclear that Russia’s vital interests — the integrity of her Ukrainian granary, the immunity of her vast experimental laboratory from interference on the part of a triumphant Naziism athwart all Europe — demand alignment with Britain’s new allies along her borders. Indeed, the very reasons given by Izvestia for the Russians’ rejection of the first British proposals show that M. Stalin and his associates, like the Poles and the Rumanians, want to have the British obligations as clear-cut, comprehensive, and unequivocal as possible. For the Russians demanded a British commitment to fight for the integrity even of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Finland. In other words, Russia required an outright triple defensive alliance with Britain and France, not because she wanted to choke these Powers off, but because she apprehended an even more extensive German Drang nach Osten than they did. She knew its victory spelled her defeat, and wanted her capitalistic allies as much ‘in the bag’ as they wanted their Communist one, and for precisely the same reason.

The higgling occurred over the cause of all higgling: not the thing itself, but the terms on which the thing shall be exchanged. Consequently, whether final agreement on those terms be reached or not, the ultimate interests of the parties coincide on the desirability of exchange. And the importance of this will only emerge once war really begins in Eastern Europe. To that extent, perhaps, Mr.

Chamberlain and his colleagues unwisely thought they could stall for time with ‘the Bear that walks like a Man.’ Unwisely, because their stalling ran the risk of being interpreted in Berlin (a) as evidence that they never intended to fight for their new Eastern allies’ integrity, and (b) as stalling from the Moscow end — that is, as evidence that Russia wouldn’t play ball in Eastern Europe. To that extent, therefore, both interpretations in Berlin might lure the Nazis forward to the east. And that would precipitate general war, on the grounds of what Mr. Chamberlain himself took pains to warn Germany would prove ‘a tragic misunderstanding.’

It was, indeed, precisely to prevent German ‘misunderstanding’ of England’s pre-war position, similar to that committed by the Second Reich in 1914, that Mr. Chamberlain’s Cabinet decided on the big reversals of policy between March and May. It would be paradoxical, the extreme irony of fate, if this time after Britain had announced such new and sweeping military commitments the Third Reich perpetrated the very blunder for which Herr Hitler castigated the Kaiser and his advisers in Mein Kampf. Yet here we glimpse once again the central danger in the vicious spiral of current European politics: the utter lack of confidence in any country’s commitments.

At this point Italy’s position assumes great importance. For not only the question whether war will come, but also the questions what kind of war it will be, how long it can last, and how it will be won, depend for adequate answers upon the rôle which Italy will choose, or can be compelled, to play. Moreover, a refinement in the argument must here be introduced, according as we assess Italy’s rôle up to the outbreak of a European war or after its outbreak. For example, Signor Mussolini has gone very far in one way to publish the military solidarity of the Rome-Berlin axis. He has had a stream of Nazi callers in Italy: Field Marshal Göring, General Keitel, General von Brauchitsch. They have consulted with their Italian staff colleagues; and while General Pariani has been to Innsbruck to confer with General Keitel, having also received him in Italy, Count Ciano has been to Germany, and Herr von Ribbentrop to Italy, to confer over Albania, Jugoslavia, and so forth. The vaunted military solidarity of the axis has been codified in a military alliance. But none of this has altered European alignments by one iota. They remain where they will always be in peacetime.

Yet in another way the Duce has made it pretty plain that he does not want to be drawn into a general European war over, let us say, Eastern Europe. He even went on record in Turin, on May 12, as contradicting his bellicose anti-French speeches earlier this year, when he said that there was no European problem over which a war need break out. He obviously refrained from accepting any responsibility for an answer to President Roosevelt’s appeal, by ostentatiously ‘passing the buck’ to Herr Hitler. This is probably the outcome of public anxiety inside Italy, of the Duce’s dissatisfaction with Generalissimo Franco’s commercial concessions to the Nazis in Spain, and of his own anxiety about the German drive down to the Adriatic and Ægean. Already he has lost the buffers of Austria and Czechoslovakia while up to his neck in Spain. His erstwhile ally Hungary, and his more recent friend Jugoslavia, have the German harrow almost on their fields. Hence, perhaps, quite another significance of that Albanian coup, so suddenly on the heels of Germany’s elimination of Czechoslovakia. It gave the Duce some material gain to rank beside the spectacular recent gains by Herr Hitler. But it also gave him a nice foothold south of the sturdy, independent Serbs and Hungarians, if ever they — and the rest of the Balkan peoples, mostly backed by Britain — should fight against a German aggressor.

Accordingly, while in peacetime we may expect no overt wavering from the axis by Signor Mussolini, we may well wonder what he would do in wartime. It is not unthinkable that the British and French, fearing such Italian ‘neutrality’ as was ‘non-intervention,’ would prefer to send the Duce an old-fashioned twenty-four-hour ultimatum, couched in the words ‘He who is not with me is against me.’ That would properly put Italy, Signor Mussolini, and the Fascist régime on the spot. It would be a terrible dilemma. It would not be a choice between good and evil, peace and war, glory and ignominy, or victory and defeat; but a choice, as the comedian said, ‘between the bad and the lousy.’ It would mean taking a certain rap from Britain and France, or taking whatever rap could be spared by a desperate Germany, let down by her axis partner when the Reich’s back was against the wall. Cornered rats go berserk. A cornered Reich could first pulverize Italy’s industrial belt in the Lombardy plain, take Trieste and Fiume, and overrun Venezia Giulia. If the circumstantial accounts of swarming German Staff officers and Gestapo men in Northern Italy speak true, and if the German generals’ visits to Libya and the concentration of German ‘colonial divisions’ a day’s run from Trieste are part of a joint plan of campaign, Signor Mussolini and the Italian people may find themselves in a fix.

They may be in for shocking surprises, either way; for Italy is only a long neck stuck out. If the Duce is forced at pistol’s point to make war with the Reich against Britain, France, and their allies, the Mediterranean will be closed to everything but warships. Both British and French vital communications can be secured round Africa or via the Atlantic, under convoy, and with only a little longer delay in voyage. That leaves the Italian navy and air force to break an Anglo-French blockade, exercised as much from outside Gibraltar and Suez as within the Mediterranean. This can only be done by finding and attacking Anglo-French concentrations far from Italian air or naval bases. Cost what it may in the loss of an Anglo-French warship here or there, it cannot be accomplished by Italy. And her economic and social situation to-day gives little reason to think she could last out as long as Germany once a war begins. Again, the Reich will not be able to help her to any significant economic extent. Finally, there is the serious possibility that, if Italy joined Germany in a general European war, British and French forces might be compelled to crush Italy at the outset in a costly but successful offensive, mainly in Mediterranean waters. Thus the rap which the Duce might have to take from Germany (if he ran out on her) cannot be as great as the rap he would assuredly take from Britain and France. Moreover, the interests of Italy and the Italian people, despite all the rude words on either side of the Italo-French frontier, are remorselessly being fused by Germany with those of Britain and France.

For example, look now at Central Europe, the Adriatic, the Balkans, the position of the Dodecanese now Turkey is allied with Britain, the lack of Italian gains from Spain. Almost every factor which superficially might seem to draw Italy alongside the Reich to safeguard recent Italian acquisitions — the Dodecanese, Libya, the Balearic Isles, Ethiopia, Albania — is, in terms of real warfare, a strategic liability to Italy. These possessions are terribly scattered for a country which cannot command communications with them, and whose only ally is not only impotent to do so, but also, if it were able to, is quite likely to ‘safeguard’ by pocketing them. The dilemma of Italy’s axis policy only emerges clearly once we assume the general war is ‘on.’ Then the Duce will certainly recall (if he has not already done so) Machiavelli’s advice to the Prince: ‘Never go into a war on the side of a Power greater than yourself; for if you lose, you lose; and if by your aid the greater Power wins, then you will assuredly lose, too.’

Unfortunately, in seeking to avoid the disappointments which Italy experienced at the hands of victorious allies greater than herself in 1919, Signor Mussolini has landed her in a dilemma which seems infinitely more grievous. For it now looks as if she would take a rap whatever she does, whereas after 1918 she did get the South Tyrol, Trieste, and Fiume, part of Slovenia, Jubaland from Britain, and one or two lesser morsels. At any rate, as long as Britain and France are led by Mr. Chamberlain, M. Daladier, and their colleagues, Signor Mussolini can be immorally certain of, let us say, sympathetic treatment after a war in which (but not before which) Italy unaccountably showed up as a poacher among the gamekeepers. Cynical, perhaps; but the frequency and fervor of deathbed conversions have not killed religion. They are a belated tribute to it. Herr Hitler once called the attitude of democracies that of a governess. Well, it was an English governess who, not quite sure of the afterworld, made her little charges curtsy at the names of both God and Beelzebub. Why, in these uncertain days, should not Il Duce have a reinsurance policy up his sleeve?


And supposing this war comes, over some petty incident like an assassination, or a ship sunk by a ‘submarine of unknown nationality,’ or some graver event like another German invasion of non-German territory? How will it be fought? How strong will be the opposing sides? And who wall win? And why?

It is very dangerous to prophesy. Yet I feel fairly certain of two things. If it is from the outset a general war, — and that I now think it is almost certain to be, if it comes at all, — then I feel pretty sure that the eastern front, Poland and Rumania in particular, will receive supplies, munitions, and probably coöperating aircraft from Russia. That would be common prudence on M. Stalin’s part, whether he wanted all Western Europe to collapse into anarchy or whether he wanted to crush Nazi Germany in the company of British and French capitalists. For if Germany wins a lightning war in the east, as she otherwise would in a matter of months, then (a) she sits on Russia’s frontiers from Finland to the Caucasus, and (b) she may finally defeat Britain and France and emerge as the European colossus. That would be bad for Russia, both in Europe and in the Far East, whereas judicious Russian aid would weaken Germany, keep the war going, and weaken everybody.

Italy’s role may be decisive, in determining Russia’s contribution. If Italy marches with Germany, Eastern Europe and the eastern Mediterranean will need Russian support. If Italy runs out on the axis, Russia may then limit her participation, seeing a German defeat inevitable. In any case, neither Poland nor Rumania, neither Greece nor Turkey, wants the Red Army on her soil. But, whether you think of Russia as wanting red ruin throughout Europe or as wanting to defeat Naziism as quickly as possible, she would have to aid the eastern front: either to keep Germany busy if Germany were winning too fast, or to beat Germany as quickly as possible.

Secondly, I am pretty sure that Italy can either be kept altogether from entering the war on the side of Germany or else be crushed, militarily and economically, in a matter of months. To force Italy on to the Anglo-French side, drastic Anglo-French action at the very twelfth hour is necessary. I think it will be forthcoming. It will perform the useful function of reënforcing Signor Mussolini’s (and the vast majority of Italians’) own predispositions, and of making up the Duce’s mind. Yet, even if in this particular I am wrong, the Italian entry on Germany’s side would only be an initial strategic asset, and a rapidly wasting one. Italy would almost immediately prove a drain on Germany’s limited resources. She would lengthen the war without altering its outcome. Only a neutral Italy (benevolent to Germany, malevolent to Britain and France) would really aid Germany, by supplying her over their common frontier and acting as a continual anxiety to Britain and France. The German General Staff may well, as is reported, desire this. They may have sent their staff officers and the Gestapo into Italy to ensure it. But the last word, unfortunately for Germany and Italy alike, lies perforce with Britain and France. They can compel Italy to choose. The choice is unenviable; but that need be no concern of theirs.

Now as to campaigns. Germany can bank only on her Blitzkrieg, her ‘lightning war,’ inherited from the Schlieffen Plan before the last war. It is the only kind of war, totalitarian war, the war of overwhelming force, for which her last six years of organization have fitted her. Her stocks, her substitute industries, both aimed to parry blockade; her rapidly (perhaps overrapidly) trained armed forces and air force; her overrapidly expanded armament industries — all these have drained her powers of long endurance. Her overrapid expansion across new territories has greatly increased her need to guard communications and keep down unsympathetic civil populations. A new and serious military front now opposes her to the cast and southeast, where she reckoned only eight months ago that the elimination of Czechoslovakia had put Poland and Rumania ‘in the bag.’ France can put 1,500,000 trained reserves into the field within a few weeks of the time her standing army of 1,000,000 becomes engaged; and the British are to add a mobile force of some 200,000. Germany’s army and reserves at full strength amount to only 2,500,000 men, including the air force and the Black S. S, (militarily trained), but excluding police and Brown S. A. (The latter will certainly be needed at home.) Skilled labor is already in acute shortage, in so-called peacetime; and the enormously swollen bureaucracy and administration cannot be denuded of men. In another two years her fully armed and trained man power will be over 3,000,000; but not now. Her exports are not keeping pace with her increased need of imports. Her output of aircraft has scarcely risen (except by the seizure of 1500 Czech planes since last October), owing to difficulties with labor supply, materials, and finance. Her whole naval program is modest and slow, for practically the same reasons.

Germany might last a year of general war; scarcely more, for her stocks and available production would not permit it, unless she could annex, control, and work Rumania. Even then it is doubtful if all Rumania’s, Poland’s, and Jugoslavia’s output of oils and minerals would suffice for her wartime needs as the war progressed. Stocks and reclamation would provide leeway; but Germany has to defeat, not merely defend herself against, Britain and France. That is presumably the aim of the war. And on that score, whatever the damage, massacres, and embarrassments to the civil and military forces of Britain and France from the initial superiority in numbers of the German air force, it is now almost impossible to see how German offensives, by land or air or underwater, could to-day inflict defeat on Britain, France, and their associates before the German internal system collapsed. The utmost Germany might hope for would be the ruin of her adversaries with that of herself. No one might win; but Germany would certainly lose.

This is, of course, summary judgment. To give every ground for such conclusions — military, naval, aerial, economic, and even moral — would require many books. But some examples may suffice. Take the improvement of de-fense on land and on sea. The inextricable struggles of masses of men in trenches, the inviolability of tanks, the peril from submarines, the effect of heavy artillery — these old factors have given way to the new (mediæval!) fortified position, the anti-tank gun and trap, the modern automatic shoulder gun and machine gun, the listening apparatus, the convoy, the depth charge, and so forth. The offensive must remain the strategy of someone who begins a war, — especially of someone who begins a lightning war, — otherwise there’s no lightning victory, but a remorselessly slow and sure defeat. Yet our twenty years’ progress in instruments of death, by increasing the destructive power of any one soldier, have merely done what overrapid installations of machinery have done in industry. They have enormously raised the output (of death) per man; but they have rendered great armies of men less necessary. To put it another way, they have raised the ratio of necessary superiority in numbers for an offensive from about 2:1 to about 4:1 or even more.

Now this would aid Germany only if she could be certain of meeting no diversion at all in the east or southeast, so that she could throw all against the west; or else if Russia stayed out altogether, and Italy came in, with much the same effect. Even then, apart from greater naval and aerial embarrassments to Britain and France, one cannot see how the mere death and damage they suffer can be turned into their military defeat. And if Germany meets 1,500,000 Polish soldiers and 800,000 Rumanian soldiers in real warfare, not enough of even 3,000,000 soldiers will be left for a lightning victory in the west.

Similarly in the air or at sea, even a 2:1 superiority of the German air force at the outset cannot secure victory; nor can a superiority of submarines. The defense loses less, and inflicts terribly heavy losses. Britain and France cannot be starved out, terrorized out, or shot out, as long as they retain (as they are already pledged to do in unison) joint superiority on the high seas, effective equality in fire power on land from the fortified French lines, and enough military and civil air defense to make enemy bombings indecisive. Over and above this, if they have allies who will keep up a running war elsewhere in Europe, it will prove a running sore to Germany. Japan may fish in troubled waters, but all Europe would have to suffer it. Moreover, if Russia is ‘in’ to the extent of military supplies, aircraft, and submarines, and Italy is ‘out’ of the German front, the case would appear utterly hopeless from Germany’s standpoint.

Hopeless except to this extent: an act of despair of a warlike kind might not be ‘liquidated’ in Europe’s present state until even the victors were vanquished, like Pyrrhus, by the effects of their victory. Such a calculation may well play a decisive part in the decisions of desperate men, who hate desperately.

Doomed themselves, like a modern Catiline, they may doom us all. In that event — and this is equally true if there’s no war at all — the crucial query for all of us now should not be ‘Who will win the war?’ but ‘What kind of peace can we make?’

Indeed, all the foregoing reflections lead us to one conclusion. Either by or without a war, Europe will have to end this so-called peace and establish real peace. The democracies will have to do that very soon, because Europe cannot stand, cannot afford, even this kind of peace for much longer, without going the road already trodden bare by Russia, Germany, and Italy.

When we view current debates about ‘peace’ or ‘war,’ democracy or dictatorship, private capitalism or state capitalism, from this angle, we begin to glimpse the magnitude of the crisis in our civilization. Indeed, it is the crisis of our civilization; and it is epitomized in the one query: Can we maintain both peace and democracy, anyhow?

  1. The Great Illusion, 1910.
  2. In the Economist, summer of 1914.
  3. To-morrow’s War, 1938.