Among the most important projects by France during the 1930s would be relations with other nations.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 63 - The Third Republic Part 3 - France and Friends. This week a big thank you goes out to Ryan for supporting the podcast on Patreon where they now have access to ad free versions of all of the podcast’s episodes plus special Member only episodes roughly every month. If that sounds interesting to you head on over to historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members to find out more. Last episode we discussed some of the internal problems faced by successive French governments during the 1920s and early 1930s. This time we are going to talk about French security, and how both foreign relations with other nations and the French military viewed security. At a basic level the two groups viewed ensuring French security in two very different ways. On the front of foreign relations they hoped to build and maintain a robust system of alliances that would force Germany into a position of isolation in central Europe. Ideally this would recreate the threat from the east that had existed before 1914 with France’s alliance with Tsarist Russia. These easter alliances would then complement support that France was more confident in from the nations in Western Europe like Britain, Belgium, and Italy. On the military side of the equation, they focused heavily on defensive preparations, with the plan being to let Germany attack France nd then react, instead of the other way around. This put the two schemes in opposition ot one another. To build and support alliances, France, a nation destined to almost always have the strongest military in an alliance, had to provide guarantees of support and of some kind of offensive action against Germany. But with their army structured around a focus on a defensive stance at the beginning of a conflict, this type of proactive support of allies was not going to happen. This contradiction would never really be resolved, as evidenced by the lack of French action during the invasion of Poland in 1939, even though the Poles were assured that such an action would take place. Such trivialities as whether or not an attack would actually happen did not prevent the French foreign office from promising that they would be done. During this episode we will focus on the efforts of the French foreign office to curate relations with the Soviet Union and Italy, before looking at the French military mindset, particularly among its leaders, in the years before the Popular Front.
The October Revolution, and then the Russian Civil War, had seen Russia ostracized from the international community, but over the course of hte 1920s this reversed as the Soviet Union was welcomed back into relations with other nations. During the 1920s this often took the form of official recognition and trade agreements, but then during the 1930s these agreements pushed forward to more impactful types of relations. For the French, in December 1932 a non-aggression pact would be signed between the two nations. This would be voted through the Chamber of Deputies with massive support, with a vote of 554 to 1, although there were 41 abstentions. As with many such agreements the nonaggression treaty meant very little, as the chances of the two nations being at war with each other were infintessimal, but what it did do was to open the door for other agreements. In August 1933 a new trade proposal was signed, with increased access to the French market for Soviet goods and agreements for the Soviet Union to sign contracts with French manufacturers. The second, and perhaps more important for our overall story, was that after the signing of the nonaggression pact, the Soviets proposed that the local next step was a full alliance. This would begin an on again and off again series of conversations that would not really end until 1939 when the Soviet Union signed the Molotiv-Ribbentrop pact. During the intervening years French and Soviet representatives would move closer and further apart from an agreement on an alliance due to domestic and international political developments.
Improving relations with the Soviets was a real win for French diplomacy, which was fortunate because in many other areas they were far less successful in their endeavors. The Disarmament Conference that we have touched on several times was soemthing of a black eye for the French, with blame being placed on the French for not conceding more to the Germans. This blame was probably ill placed, and it was unlikely that an agreement would have been signed even with those concessions. Very close to home there would be growing issues with Belgium during 1934 and 1935 as well. After the end of the First World War France and Belgium had worked closely together to ensure that German opportunities in Western Europe remained limited. However, during the early 1930s and as German military strength was once again firmly on the rise, Brussels began to reconsider its position. It did not want to be a pawn on the French military chess board, and they would infor the French that they would not allow a military advance into their territory without an explicit invitation, an invtiation that would not arrive before the beginning of a war. They would eventually even revoke their military alliance with France, due to concerns that it was simply going to antagonize the Germans, instead of deter them. These were some of the problems faced by Pierre Laval when he became Foreign Minister in October 1934. Laval’s stint as Foreign Minister and then Prime Minister would be a critical point in time for French foreign relations. Beginning in October 1934 and ending in January 1935 it would contain the Abyssinian Crisis, an important moment when the post-war system of cooperation between Italy, France, and Great Britain was put under incredibly strain, with the French being the most concerned about holding it all together. Laval in particular was very concered about Italian relations, believing that it was critical for French security that relations with Italy were maintained, and that any issues between the two nations were ironed out as quickly as possible. He then hoped that by solving problems like Italy’s relations with Yugoslavia, that French prospects in Eastern Europe would also be improved. This was because, while France had good relations with many nations in Eastern Europe, they were also separated by Germany, maintaining good relations with Italy would ensure that the sea routes of the Mediterranean could be easily used to bring the disparate parts of the French alliance together.
Laval’s hope was that he could get Italy to openly declare that it wanted to improve relations with Yugoslavia with terms that the government of Yugoslavia found acceptable because there had been antagonism between the two nations since Yugoslavia’s creation. The core problem was that there was territory that had been given to Yugoslavia that the Italians wanted. Laval wanted the two nations to come to an agreement becasue he believed that both of the nations were critical allies of France against Germany. Initial discussions with Italian representatives went well, and it was proposed that in December Laval himself should stage an official visit to Rome for further discussions. How these types of discussions usually worked was that the two nations would often iron out many of the rough details before such important people like a Foreign Minister would get directly involved. This was done to save time, but also to prevent a higher level government official from participating in negotiations that were likely to completely fail. The invitationn of Laval to Rome was seen as a very positive sign, and the date was set for January 4th, 1935. The meeting between Laval and Mussolini would take place over the next two days and they would be somewhat infamous due to future events. There were two pieces to the agreements made during the meetings. The first involved Italian support for an agreement in the Balkans to ensure security in that region. Laval saw this as an important piece of France’s eastern alliance structure designed to encircle Germany. The second part would end up being the most important, and that was an agreement around some territory in Africa. Italy’s quest for larger territorial possessions was an important part of why the nation entered the First World War on the side of France, but when the war was over the peace agreements did not exactly deliver on the promises made by the governments in London and Paris. Laval hoped to redress these concerns somewhat, and in exchange for Italy giving up any claims to French Tunisia, Laval was prepared to expand Italian holdings in Libya and in the area around Djibuti in eastern Africa. This type of horse trading of African territory was a time honored traditional among European leaders, but Mussolini was still unsatisfied. Specifically he wanted to ensure that if and when he wanted to expand Italian territory into Ethiopia that France would stay neutral and out of the way. What precisely was agreed to in this regard was soon up for debate. After the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, Mussolini would make it known that Laval had given Mussolini and Italy a free hand in Ethiopia during these January discussion. Laval would then anser that he did nothing of the sort, instead claiming that he had simply agreed that France was economically disinterested in the region. This little disagreement would never really be cleared up, but it was also several months in the future, and in the meantime relations between the two nations would continue to seem very good.
An important part of any alliance, or at least those of a military nature, was getting onto the same page militarily. To this end Marshal Badoglio wanted official military discussions to occur between the two militaries. The French were not opposed to these conversations and so they would agree on January 26th. It would take a bit of time but they would finally occur in May 1935. These talks would occur after the Stresa conference where the British, French, and Italians had agreed to prevent any future German changes to the Versailles agreements after Germany had announced its intention to rearm and to reintroduce conscription. The discussions between the French and Italian military leaders revolved around plans for cooperation among air and ground forces should the two nations find themselves at war with Germany. To give an example of the type of decisions that were made: plans were put in place for Italian heavy bombers to move onto French air fields so that they would have easier access to German targets. Similar discussions were had around ground forces, although plans varied a bit more depending on the exact nature of the war that might occur. Overall the French leaders, both in the military and in the government, believed that the talks had been very productive. They would end the meeting feeling like they had a far more solid and helpful set of understandings with Italy. Or as Laval would say “the bridge constructed between France and all those countries of central and eastern Europe which were allied with our country…It was our chance to benefit, not only from the whole Italian military effort, but to benefit from the military effort of Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Romania”
At this same time further discussions were happening with the Soviet Union as well, which would result in a mutual assistance pact in May 1935, but there was very little to this agreement and it was generally just a reiteration of previous agreements between the two nations within the framework of the League of Nations. As always with France in the 1930s, relations with the British were also an ongoing concern. While relations with other nations like Italy, the Soviet Union, and all of the nations of Eastern Europe were important to Laval and the French, they all stood far below relations with London in overall importance. The French would be in a constant balancing act between doing what they felt was best for France and working within the realm of keeping London happy. This was all dealt a serious blow when the Anglo-German Naval agreement was announced. This agreement was made between Britain and Germany and effectively allowed the German Navy to be built up to 35% of the size of the Royal Navy. It was a pretty big deal because before the agreement, at least officially, the Germany were alllowed almost no real navy, but now they were. The British had their reasons for this agreement, which I discussed in some detail on a recent Members episode, and which will be touched on in a future episode, but from the French perspective it was a complete betrayal. It was not even so much the contents of the agreement, but just the fact that the British had not involved the French in the discussions. A key part of the French strategy was that nobody should try and negotiate with Germany alone, because that could bring disaster. Instead all negotiations should be done with several other nations involved, so that all of the different viewpoints could be properly accounted for, and most importantly Germany could not slowly worm its way out of the net one nations at a time. Or as Laval would tell British Foreign Minister Eden in June 1935: “Why should not other powers now deal separately with Germany? France might have done so. It had not done so and would not do so. France would always inform Great Britain of the course of any negotiation which it undertook and consult with Great Britain before coming to a conclusion. It was the German policy to deal separately with each subject and each party concerned.”
In June 1935 Laval would be elevated to the position of Prime Minister of France, although he would retain his old position as Foreign Minister as well. One real concern in London during the middle of the year was that the French were close to a rapprochment with Germany. This concern became even more acute as Laval became more powerful, as there was the belief that he was the one pushing for discussions and compromises with Germany, perhaps even without involving other nations. Robert J. Young In Command of France: French Foreign Policy and Military Planning, 1933-1940 “The British read into Laval’s wish for peace with Germany a willingness to resort to underhanded deals-a conviction that grew stronger rather than weaker with each denial from the premier’s office.” While this was never in reality a particularly likely scenario, it was just one of many points of friction between the two nations in the run up to the Abyssinian Crisis as the Briitsh were concerned that the French would do, basically exactly what the British had already done with the naval treaty. When the Abyssinian crisis then occurred London and Paris found themselves in very different positions. In the run up to the crisis talks between the French and Italian air forces were still ongoing, in September there were lengthy meetings where more details of their cooperation in a future war with Germany were ironed out. They would both agree to use their diplomatic channels to ask if Austria and Czechoslovakia would be interested in allowing French and Italian squadrons to be based in their countries in case of war. There were also many other discussions about details, and they were to the point where they were working out the fuel required by Italian bomber squadrons in their missions to hit specific targets in Germany, and French bombs were being shipped off to Italy to ensure that they could be mounted on Italian bombers. These were very precise details that make it clear that the two militaries were very much on the same page and ready to work together. Then Italy invaded Ethiopia, and France found itself in the middle of its two most important allies. It seemed very likely that Britain and Italy would come to blows, which put the French in an impossible situation. Pressure was being put on the French to support British operations in the Mediterranean, including the basing of British squadrons in French air fields and the participating of French bombers in air raids against Italy. The Royal Navy was also requesting access to French naval bases in the Mediterranean. The French response was to try and commit to absolutely as little as possible while not completely destroying relations with the British. In the end the value placed on relations with Britain as a counterweight against German aggression would simply be too high, and the French would eventually agree not just to the Royal Navy’s basing request but also to mobilize in case of war. While an Anglo-Italian war would be avoided, the result was still less than optimal for France, as it seemed clear that Italy was shifting away from the Stresa front that had been created earlier in 1935.
Eventually Laval would be pushed out of his leadership position in January 1936, as with many French governments it was due to a shift in support among the ruling coalition. In this case a handful of Radical ministers removed their support and the government fell. He would be replaced by Albert Sarraut, just in time for the Germans to move into the Rhineland in March. This was an incredibly pivotal moment, as it was yet another major breach of the Versailles treaty by the Germans. It would then be the British that were pushing for the French to exercise caution in their response, a response that was already being moderated by many within the government and military. For the new Sarraut government there was hesitancy to call for even a partial mobilization in response due to the political problems that might cause at the elections scheduled for later in the year. Mobilization was never going to be popular in any scenario that did not involve a German invasion. However, they were able to talk about taking action and standing up to the Germans, even though they knew they would never commit to that action because the military would advise against it. On the military side, well they had been planning for a defensive war for almost 15 years. In the end the only real positive to come out of the Remilitarization of the Rhineland was that the French were able to get further guarantees to help defend French security.
When it came to French military preparations, the men who would be the leading voices when it came to course of the French Army would for the entire interwar period be occupied by leaders who had made their careers during the First World War. For 13 years after the war ended this position would be occupied by Petain, whose wartime service record made his position generally unassailable for much of the time before 1931 when General Weygand took over. Weygand had been Chief of the General Staff under Petain, and when he retired in 1935 at the age of 68 he would be replaced by his own Chief of the General Staff General Gamelin. All three of these leaders had been in important leadership positions during the war, with Gamelin having been Joffre’s adjutant an then later chief of staff. Petain and Weygand had mindsets that were firmly rooted in the lessons learned during the First World War, and believed that future wars would be similar trials of attrition. They were also both quite cautious in their approach to preparations, and this caused them to put greater emphasis on strength at the given moment rather than innovation or improving the future of the French Army. Nowhere was this more apparent than in their views on motorization and mechanization. These two processes were, among other things, very expensive and both Petain and Weygand put a greater emphasis on using the limited budgets provided to the French army on more immediate strength in the form of more men under arms. This did begin to change when Gamelin took over for Weygand, but there was still a lot of inertia within the French Army that had to be overcome. There were many officers, particularly of a younger generation who had experienced the First World War quite differently than the older French generals. These men pushed for more mechanization to be matched with an increase in the size of the professional core of the army. In their mind this would allow the French Army to have some sort of striking power, even if it would always have to be backed up by the large numbers of conscripts that would be brought in during the early part of any war. The numbers of these younger officers was much smaller than might have been expected, due primarily to the fact that junior officers had such a crushing casualty rate during the war. This meant that the men who should have been ascending to the upper echelons of the French officer corps in the late 1930s were instead buried in the cemetaries of 1914 to 1918. It was not just the military leaders that were cautious though, there was also political pressure to ensure that the number of professional soldiers in the army was kept to a reasonable number. Part of this was due to just traditional suspicions of career military officers which had a long history in France, with many politicians feeling that an officer corps would always be anti-republican just by its very nature. It did not at all help that for much of the interwar period there was a lot of friction between French political and military leaders. This was most apparent during the years of Petain’s and Weygand’s leadership with both officers being quite confrontational. This antagonism was problematic during the 1920s and early 1930s, but it would become critical that the French leadership, both in the military and political arenas found a way to be on the same page as the chances of war seemed to increase. Fortunately Gamelin proved far more interested in close relations with the French government, but this would not magically solve all of their disagreements. One of the major areas of disagreement was how and when rearmament should be done. This would also be a major topic of conversation in Britain, and it basically boiled down to the balancing act of how much money should be spent on military hardware and training at that exact moment, and how much money should instead be focused on laying the groundwork for future expansion when the war started. Money would be very constrained up until just before the war, which meant that before say the beginning of 1939 there was a constant discussion of trade-offs. What was better for the protection of France, 10 new tanks now, or an investment in the manufacturing of more tanks later, or the expansion of iron production, or money in the bank for something totally different and unforeseen? It is an easy question to answer in hindset, but would be very problematic to answer at the time, and it also differed based on the political group within France that you asked. The radicals and those on the right might have a very different answer than the socialists or those on the left. And speaking of that left, I hope you will join me next episode as we discuss the Popular Front, a coalition of Socialists and Communists in France that would take control of the government in 1936 for what would be a very important year.