Anglo-French [non]-Intervention in the Spanish Civil War II

It would be false to convey the impression that only Stalin, Negrín, and the Spanish Communists placed their hopes of victory in the Civil War in the eventual outbreak of a European conflict, for these hopes were also entertained, as we have seen, by some leaders of the CNT. They were also entertained for some time by certain prominent Socialists. Referring to the occupation of the Basque provinces and Asturias by General Franco in the summer and autumn of 1937, Wenceslao Carrillo, a supporter of Largo Caballero and director general of security in his government, wrote: “Nevertheless, the hope of victory that the Communist party and the Negrín government held out to us, based on the possibility of world war, had not disappeared. Neither France nor England, they argued, can consent to an out-and-out triumph of fascism in Spain because that would put them in a critical position in the Mediterranean. As I am ready to tell the whole truth, I refuse to conceal the fact that, in the beginning, I too shared this belief. . . . But I did not think of profiting from war; nor was I in the service of interests other than those of my country.”

On the other hand, President Azaña, like Julián Besteiro, the right-wing Socialist, who hoped for a negotiated settlement, frowned on the prospect of a European conflict. In reply to Juan-Simeón Vidarte, a member of the Socialist executive and a Negrín supporter, Azaña once stated: “I already know that there is someone among you who believes that the just cause of the Republic would be saved by a world war. That war would be a catastrophe of inconceivable dimensions and it is not right for us to seek salvation in the martyrdom of millions of human beings. . . . I see that you are infected by the Negrín thesis. . . . Suppose that at the end of the war Communism were implanted in Western Europe just as it was implanted in Eastern Europe at the end of the last war. To the majority of Republicans and, I suppose, Socialists that solution would be repugnant.”       

If the hope that a general conflict would eventually erupt was disappointed, this was not because those who determined policy in Britain and France contemplated lightly the extension of Italo-German power in the Mediterranean; it was because the purview of their foreign policy went beyond the Spanish problem and embraced the whole of Europe. If Britain and France refused to challenge Germany in Spain; if, moreover, they sacrificed the independence of Austria and Czechoslovakia; if, finally, Neville Chamberlain, as will be seen shortly, secretly proposed before being outmaneuvered by the Hitler-Stalin pacta political settlement with Germany that would free Britain from her guarantee to Poland, it was because they knew that the frustration of German aims at this stage, even if it did not lead to war, would weaken the Nazi regime and enhance Russia’s influence on the continent. Above all, those who molded policy in Britain and France wished to avoid war in the West until Germany had weakened herself in the East. To have resisted Germany before she had blunted her teeth on Russian soil would have left the Soviet Union arbiter of the continent, infinitely more powerful than if she had to bear the main burden of the fighting.  

Of course, in the long run, Britain and France could no more have desired Germany to obtain a complete mastery over the greater part of Europe than they could Russia. They wished for the domination of neither. Of this, German leaders were supremely conscious. Hence, if, after the occupation of Poland, Germany invaded Belgium, France, and the Netherlands before attacking the Soviet Union, this was because the subjection of Western Europe and the control of its coastline were, in the German mind, indispensable prerequisites for war on the Soviet Union; for although Britain and France might encourage German ambitions in Eastern Europe, Germany could not feel certain that once she was involved in an exhausting struggle on Soviet soil, these powers would not attempt to restore the balance in their favor. Undoubtedly the conviction that Germany would attack the West before assailing Russia lay at the root of some of the opposition in Britain and France to the policy of giving Germany a free hand in Eastern Europe.

Although the direction of the German thrust seemed unmistakable, there is evidence that both the British and French leaders were not unmindful of the danger that appeasement might backfire and that Germany might march west instead of east. On 1 November 1938, one month after the Munich agreement, Lord Halifax, in a letter to Sir Eric Phipps, the British ambassador in Paris, outlined his thoughts: “Henceforward, we must count with German predominance in Central Europe. . . . In these conditions, it seems to me that Great Britain and France have to uphold their predominant position in Western Europe by the maintenance of such armed strength as would render any attack upon them hazardous. . . . It is one thing to allow German expansion in Central Europe, which to my mind is a normal and natural thing, but we must be able to resist German expansion in Western Europe or else our whole position is undermined.”              

The possibility that Germany might attack Western Europe before marching East was conveyed to Halifax by Sir G. Ogilvie-Forbes, the British chargé d’affaires in Berlin, in a dispatch dated 6 December 1938. There was a school of thought, he stated, that believed that “Herr Hitler will not risk a Russian adventure until he has made quite certain that his western flank will not be attacked while he is operating in the east, and that consequently his first task will be to liquidate France and England, before British rearmament is ready.” Equally disturbing was a report by William Strang, Halifax’s assistant undersecretary of state, dated 18 January 1939, in which he referred to “reports we have had of Hitler’s intention to attack in the West this Spring. . . . Germany cannot conduct a war on two fronts in present circumstances, and material conditions will make it easier for her to operate in the West than in the East.”

That French leaders were aware of the dangers is also evident. In a letter to French foreign minister Georges Bonnet on 19 March 1939, a few days after the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia, the French ambassador in Moscow, Robert Coulondre, stated that the Nazi leaders saw two ways open to them: “Either to proceed without intermission in the subjugation of east and south-east Europe” or to “attack France and Britain before these two Powers have, with American help, caught up with German armaments. . . . This second possibility is not at present the more probable. But we must reckon with the risk of seeing Germany engaged in such an undertaking.”              

The general assumption, however, after the occupation of Czechoslovakia on 15 March 1939 was that Hitler’s next move would be against Poland. But despite Chamberlain’s treaty guarantees to defend Polish independence guarantees hastily given under pressure from the parliamentary Opposition and the aroused state of British public opinion he did what he could to evade his commitments. This is clear from the meticulously documented study by the British historians Martín Gilbert and Richard Gott of British treaty obligations to Poland, of the subsequent efforts to wriggle out of them, and the eight-month “phoney” war, during which Chamberlain still hoped for an Anglo-German agreement that would avert war in Western Europe. It is also clear from the secret proposals that Sir Horace Wilson, his chief collaborator and adviser, made to Helmut Wohlthat, Hermann Goering’s emissary in London, in mid-July 1939, and the conversations a few days later between Wilson and Herbert von Dirksen, the German ambassador to London.     

These “back-stair negotiations,” as the British historian Sir Lewis Namier called them, in which the prime minister “unwisely engaged” without the knowledge of the Foreign Office, were the zenith of the appeasement policy. Wilson’s proposals were recorded by von Dirksen in a long memorandum written after the outbreak of war, which was found on his estate at Gröditzberg by the Soviet army, and also in a shorter “strictly secret” report dated 21 July 1939 drawn up at the time of his ambassadorship. The authenticity of the proposals is beyond doubt, not only because Dirksen later confirmed them in every important detail in a work published in London in 1951, but because Wohlthat himself refers to them in his report to Goering. Moreover, Wilson’s proposals (which quite naturally he concealed from the Foreign Office) have never been challenged by a single British historian. Although conveniently ignored by many historians (for example, William N. Medlicott, Robert Skidelsky, and Simon Newman) in their revisionist assessments of Chamberlain’s foreign policy, they have been accepted without question by others, notably, Ian Colvin, Sir Lewis Namier, and A. J. P. Taylor. Nevertheless, they have not been accorded the significance they deserve.        

While not directly related to the Spanish Civil War, the Dirksen memoranda shed more light than any other documents on the mainspring of appeasement to divert German aggression eastward and illustrate how far Chamberlain was prepared to go in order to reach a political settlement with Germany in order to preserve peace in Western Europe. Therefore they are particularly relevant to the Civil War since they demonstrate the futility of Stalin’s efforts to provoke a conflagration in Western Europe by involving Britain and France in the Spanish conflict and are the clearest proof of the inevitable failure of his attempts to influence Western governments by distorting the true nature of the revolution.

In the longer of the two documents, Dirksen testifies:         

When Herr [Helmut] Wohlthat [emissary of Goering] was in London for the whaling negotiations in July [1939], Wilson [Sir Horace Wilson] invited him for a talk, and, consulting prepared notes, outlined a program for a comprehensive adjustment of Anglo-German relations. . . . 

In the political sphere, a non-aggression pact was contemplated, in which aggression would be renounced in principle. The underlying purpose of this treaty was to make it possible for the British gradually to disembarrass themselves of their commitments towards Poland, on the ground that they had by this treaty secured Germany’s renunciation of methods of aggression. . . .             

The importance of Wilson’s proposals was demonstrated by the fact that Wilson invited Wohlthat to have them confirmed by Chamberlain personally, whose room was not far from Wilson’s. Wohlthat, however, declined this in order not to prejudice the unofficial character of his mission. . . .           

In order to avoid all publicity, I visited Wilson at his home on August 3 [one month before Hitler’s invasion of Poland] and we had a conversation which lasted nearly two hours. . . . Again Wilson affirmed, and in a clearer form than he had done to Wohlthat, that the conclusion of an Anglo-German entente would practically render Britain’s guarantee policy nugatory. Agreement with Germany would enable Britain to extricate herself from her predicament in regard to Poland on the ground that the non-aggression pact protected Poland from German attack; England would thus be relieved of her commitments. Then Poland, so to speak, would be left to face Germany alone.   

Sir Horace Wilson, on my insistence, also touched on the question of how the negotiations were to be conducted in face of the inflamed state of British public opinion [resulting from Hitler’s seizure of Czechoslovakia in March 1939]. . . . He admitted quite frankly that by taking this step Chamberlain was incurring a great risk and laying himself open to the danger of a fall. But with skill and strict secrecy, the reefs could be avoided. . . .         

The tragic and paramount thing about the rise of the new Anglo-German war was that Germany demanded an equal place with Britain as a world power and that Britain was in principle prepared to concede. But whereas Germany demanded immediate, complete and unequivocal satisfaction of her demand, Britain although she was ready to renounce her eastern commitments, and there with her encirclement policy, as well as to allow Germany a predominant position in east and south-east Europe and to discuss genuine world political partnership with Germany wanted this to be done only by way of negotiation and a gradual revision of British policy. This change could be effected in a period of months, but not of days or weeks. 

A. J. P. Taylor, one of the few British historians who have ventured to mention Sir Horace Wilson’s proposals, writes: “Wilson produced a memorandum on 10 Downing Street notepaper, which, not surprisingly, has disappeared from the British records. This proposed an Anglo-German treaty of non-aggression and non-interference. . . . A pact of this kind ‘would enable Britain to rid herself of her commitments vis-à-vis Poland.’ . . . [It] is inconceivable that these proposals were made without Chamberlain’s knowledge or approval.”         

Although Wilson’s proposals met with no response in Berlin and were “simply thrown into the wastepaper basket,” as von Dirksen put it, undoubtedly because Hitler, impatient to dispose of the Polish problem before the onset of winter, favored a pact with Stalin that offered immediate territorial gains rather than a pact with Britain that would have required a long period of uncertain negotiations in view of the inflamed state of British opinion they were the culminating effort, the final desperate gamble of the British government to direct Germany’s course away from Western Europe.    

Oddly enough, A. J. P. Taylor questions whether the British and French governments intended that Nazi Germany should destroy the “Bolshevik menace.” “This was the Soviet suspicion, both at the time and later. There is little evidence of it in the official record, or even outside it. British and French statesmen were far too distracted by the German problem to consider what would happen when Germany had become the dominant Power in Eastern Europe. Of course they preferred that Germany should march east not west, if she marched at all. But their object was to prevent war, not to prepare one; and they sincerely believed at any rate Chamberlain believed that Hitler would be content and pacific if his claims were met.” If this be so, then the policy of the British government of encouraging German rearmament from the beginning of 1935, of conniving at the German reoccupation of the Rhineland in 1936, of forcing Czechoslovakia to submit to German demands in 1938, and of secretly attempting to negotiate a settlement with Germany at the expense of Poland in July 1939, makes positively no sense and becomes a succession of moronic moves in the perilous diplomatic game being played by Britain and Russia in the prewar years. It is impossible to believe that there was no strategic thinking behind Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement and that he did not take into account what might happen once Germany became predominant in Eastern Europe and established a common border with Russia. 

The British military expert Liddell Hart acknowledges in his History of the Second World War with reference to the strategic situation after the German invasion of Poland that “the best hope [of Britain and France] now that Germany and Russia faced each other on a common border, was that friction would develop between these two mutually distrustful confederates and draw Hitler’s explosive force eastward, instead of westward.” Although Liddell Hart does not relate this hope to any prewar strategy, it is unimaginable, given the massive evidence presented, that British and French leaders long before the outbreak of World War II “were far too distracted by the German problem [as A. J. P. Taylor puts it] to consider what would happen when Germany had become the dominant Power in Eastern Europe” and a common border between Germany and the Soviet Union had been established.           

Of course it would be idle to suggest that in the prewar years British leaders in pursuit of their policy of appeasement were not influenced to some degree by other considerations than the fear that a Western European conflagration would redound to Russia’s benefit. Among these considerations, according to the earl of Birkenhead, were the conclusions of the chiefs of staff in their report to the Committee of Imperial Defense in the late summer of 1938 that Great Britain was not ready for war and that she could not fight a war on three fronts German, Italian, and Japanese without powerful allies. “[Chamberlain and Halifax],” Lord Birkenhead affirms, “were apprehensive of the situation in the Far East, of what action Japan might take there if Great Britain became involved in a war with Germany in the West; and they were at all times uneasily conscious of America’s neutrality and of the unpalatable fact that no help could be looked for from that quarter in case of trouble. The British Government was also alarmed about the attitude of the Dominions to involvement in war. South Africa had decided to remain neutral, should it come; the Australian Labour Party were against intervention and there was grave doubt whether [Prime Minister] Mackenzie King could bring the Canadian people into war.” Furthermore, the British historian Charles L. Mowat states that since World War I the policy of the dominions had been one of no commitments “and certainly they were not going to be bound by Britain’s commitments. . . . [They] naturally opposed involvement in war and rejoiced that appeasement was keeping the threat of war at a distance.” But all these considerations, although used by various historians to explain the policy of appeasement, pale before the single most important consideration: the deep-rooted fear of Russia.      

That the wells of appeasement lay in this fear of Russia, in the conviction that Nazi Germany was a barrier against the spread of Communism, and that a war in Western Europe could only benefit the Soviet Union by extending her power and influence has been amply demonstrated in this and other chapters. But these cardinal elements in the policy of appeasement have been underrated or almost totally ignored by the British historical establishment.     

There are two reasons for this failure by British historians to come to terms with their country’s diplomatic past. Firstly, there is the accepted tradition not to attribute to their government Machiavellian designs against a foreign power. Hence, no matter how patriotic or realistic Chamberlain and his supporters may have felt themselves to be in attempting to spare Western Europe the ravages of war and revolution, they should not be accused of conspiring to pit one totalitarian power against the other. “Of course,” writes Robert Skidelsky, the British neorevisionist historian, “there were a number of groups in Britain who . . . advocated the bargain that Hitler must always have hoped for ‘a German deal with the British Empire at the expense of the Soviet Union.’ But such cynicism (or realism) was foreign to the British Establishment.” Secondly, because of the ideological divide between East and West, no establishment historian (despite Stalin’s own Machiavellian aims) wishes to play into the hands of the Soviet Union by acknowledging Britain’s share of responsibility for the rebirth of German militarism and the calamity of the Second World War.        

This failure to expose the main roots of appeasement is unfortunate not only for the historiography of this crucial period in world history, but for those seeking a true understanding of the Spanish Civil War and Revolution and of the reason why Stalin’s democratic camouflage in Spain was doomed to failure.

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