5 Dec 2017

The Forces And The Factors That Made For War

Dictatorship v. Democracy, The Age-long Contest, Post-War Liberalism, Mussolini and the Rise of Fascism, The Weimar Republic, Brüning, Birth of Nazism, Hitler Attains Power, League,  Defied, Rhineland,  Occupied, Germany Arms Again, Engulfment of Austria, The Rape of Czechoslovakia, Threat, to Poland, Preparation for the Lightning Stroke

Turning the pages of newspapers, reading what “ Our Correspondent” in Berlin has to say, and then his brother in Moscow, listening to the voices which come to us over the wireless, giving an ear now and again to the rumours whispered in the train or across the dinner-table, we may well be excused if we find the situation filled with confusion and altogether baffling in its complexity. Only when we rise above the babble of the moment and strive to breathe the purer air of calm reflection can we detect behind the shifting phantasmagoria the clear outlines of a principle which we may hold and cherish. Boundaries, acts, frontier incidents, speeches and pronouncements of every kind these belong to the world of change, and change indeed from day to day, even from hour to hour. Not on these things do the most vital moves of the political chessboard depend for their origin and inspiration. If we seek that guiding principle we shall find it in the conflict which endures today as it has endured through all the centuries of human history, between the belief in dictatorship and the belief in democracy. Neither the one nor the other is a newcomer to the field of political speculation. 2,500 years ago the Greeks submitted themselves to the rule of dictators, and then, tired of the yoke, changed over to democracy of the most advanced type. The Roman system was nominally a democracy with a dictatorial core. During the Middle Ages history records democratic states, existing side by side with the dictatorship of Emperor and Pope. In the modern world we still have a conflict between the principles of the French Revolution of 1789 and those of the Fascist and Bolshevik Revolutions of our own day. For thousands of years, then, the battle has been engaged. Now one system and now the other has won the mastery, but on every occasion complete victory has been denied. There seems to be something in the human spirit which revolts against the too long continued domination of one personality, however great; at the same time it must be admitted that history points to many occasions when men have gladly abandoned their most cherished individual rights in favour of the rule of a strong man who promised a way out from the menacing situation of the moment.
When the Great War ended in 1919 it seemed as if democracy had won its last and greatest triumph a triumph which apparently bore all the seeds of permanence. Countries which had been subjected to autocratic rule had crashed in hopeless ruin, while others in which democracy had been the guiding principle had endured to the end and won the most complete victory. The War had been widely advertised by the Allies as a struggle between Democracy and  Autocracy, and with the coming of peace there was a rush on the part of the defeated to reproduce within their own borders those democratic institu- tions which apparently were the prerequisites of victory. Germany kicked Kaiserism into the gutter, and at Weimar proclaimed a constitution of the most extraordinary liberality. The Successi_on States which emerged from the debris of the Austro Hungarian Empire, together with re-born Poland, enlarged Rumania, and the congeries of Baltic states, all hastened to provide themselves with parliaments, presidents, cabinets and parties on the approved lines of democratic parliamentarianism.  If parliaments spell democracy, then democracy had never seemed so assured of its future as in 1919. Victors and vanquished alike paid tribute to its virtues in word and in deed. Years passed, and the rhythmic alternation referred to above became once more in evidence. Parliamentarianism had reached the crest of its wave ere long it was half engulfed in the trough. To change the metaphor, the first break in the democratic facade came in Italy, which, although nominally one of the victorious powers, was bitterly disappointed with her share of the material fruits of the struggle.

For years past parliamentary government in Italy had been almost a synonym for corruption and inefficiency, and after the War its defects became too blatant to be endured. In 1922 a militant journalist, Benito Mussolini, at the head of a private army of black shirted Fascists, gave a push to the rotting fabric which sent it toppling to the ground. As the saviour of public order he was granted the premiership, and in due course proceeded with a programme of complete regimentation of the Italian people. By skilful manipulation the Italian parliament became of less and less importance, until it emerged as the sounding-board of ministerial opinion. In the realm of economics the foundations were laid of a system in·which  masters and men were grouped in corporations., At the head of the " Corporative State ” stood the  dictator, II Duce, Mussolini himself, in whose hands were grasped all the reins of power. He was Caesar in all but name, and his interest in the imperial tradition was evidenced at once by his care for the recovery of relics of ancient Rome and for the creation of an empire not unworthy to be compared with that of Augustus and the Antonines.  Just as Fascism was born out of, or was at least fertilized by, the disappointment and disillusionment of the post War period, so German Nazism may be traced back to the aftermath of the same great struggle. The prouder a nation, the greater her humiliation in the hour of defeat. It was a bitter cup which the Weimar Republic had to taste in those  first years of its existence. The Rhineland was in the occupation of the Allies an  immense, indeed, an impossibly large, sum was demanded by way of reparations for the damage and loss indicted in the course of the War for six months after the Armistice the blockade was maintained with disastrous effects on the lives and health of the German people the value of the mark dwindled into nothingness, and with the collapse of the currency there collapsed  to the standard of life of the great majority of the people. Unemployment, moreover, was rampant; thousands of exservicemen were without jobs in the political sphere men who only yesterday were insignificant nobodies now lorded it over those who by birth and prestige regarded themselves as belonging to the elect.  In retrospect it cannot but be admitted that those at the helm of the Republic did their best to make good in an increasingly difficult situation. When the Allied troops were withdrawn from the Rhineland, when the currency was rehabilitated. when Germany, under the wise guidance Stresemann, entered the League of Nations and added her signature to the Pact of Locarno the clouds seemed to lift above the country’s future but in 1930 Germany a financial satellite of the United States, was caught in the economic blizzard which had already devastated America. Deprived of the funds which had enabled her industrial system to function, the Republic staggered beneath the load of reparations and was rent afresh by the feuds of internal factions. Gradually, by force of circumstance, the liberal system of government was abrogated and under the chancellorship of Brüning a dictatorship in all but name took its place. Then it was that the world became conscious of the menace that lay in the personality of one who had been hitherto derided as but a noisy agitator. In ten years Hitler had become the focus of all that was dissatisfied and disillusioned in the German state. First to a handful, then to hundreds, then to thousands, and so at last to millions of the German people he became a symbol. He was just a plain ex-serviceman who, like millions of others, had found it hard to make a living in the post War years. Gradually he had overcome obstacle after obstacle he had framed a programme, founded a party, taken part in an armed revolt, spent months in a, prison cell where he had penned a book which might well become the evangel of a reawakened people. And as the German public watched him grow from strength to strength, they felt that they, too, were growing with him.  As he came to the fore in his own country they felt that he might well be the leader who would win back for Germany her place in the sun. In 1924 the party of which he was the head had 32 seats in the Reichstag; eight years later they captured 230 seats with thirteen million votes.

On January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler the Austrian who once had been a casual labourer, a house-painter became Chancellor of the German Reich. Looking back on the events of the six years that followed, it must be admitted that the Chancellor pursued a bold policy with the most striking success. First he prepared the way for Germany’s revanche in secret then, when his preparations had reached an advanced stage, he was able to throw off the disguise, and an astounded world found itself face to face with a Germany which refused any longer to be bound by the shackles of Versailles. The Saar was returned to the Reich with the consent of the democracies, but the occupation of the Rhineland by German armed forces was al distinct and direct challenge which many in later years regretted that the Allies had not instantly taken up. An air force, the foundations of which had been laid in conditions of the greatest secrecy, was openly expanded, and all the factories of the Reich were speeded up to produce ’planes and guns and war material of one kind and another.  Conscription, which had been definitely forbidden by the treaty makers in 1919, was reintroduced, and Germany could once again boast an army. As the months passed Germany presented an ever bolder face to the world, and when she allied herself with Italy, and later with Japan, it was seen that the democracies might soon be confronted with a definite challenge to their supremacy. The challenge came in 1938 when the Fuehrer staked a claim for the return, of the Germans outside the borders of the Reich. In March Austria was overrun by German troops and constituted a province of Greater Germany. No greater affront to the complacency of the Allies could well be imagined, for the union of Austria and Germany had been definitely banned time after time. Czechoslovakia was the next to experience the weight of his attack an attack in which the First line was a vigorously directed campaign of Propaganda of the most unscrupulous form. Hitler extended his protection to the Germans of the Sudetenland, and following his agitation Europe and the world were on the verge of war in September, 1938, when, as the result of the efforts of Mr; Chamberlain, supported by President Roosevelt and Signor Mussolini, the partial dismemberment of Czechoslovakia was agreed upon. With this bloodless victory the Fuehrer professed himself content; but early in 1939 the machinery of intimidation was once again- set in motion, and a year after the engulfment of Austria, the bulk of what the “ men of Munich " had left of Czechoslovakia followed suit. Though they still possessed nominal independence, Moravia and Bohemia were in effect annexed to the Reich. More months passed months of tremendous military and economic preparations on all sides. Germany, it was seen, was girding up her loins for yet another onslaught perchance on Rumania, or possibly it might be on Poland. By now, however, the democracies were awake, and under the A firm leadership of Britain a new peace front was organized! Abandoning her traditional policy of isolation from the political affairs of the Continent, Great Britain threw the mantle of her protection over Poland, and entered into similar offensive and defensive alliances with Greece and Turkey. At the same time efforts were made to conclude a pact with Soviet Russia a pact which was prevented at the last  moment by the most complete reorientation of German policy. Having for years denounced the Bolsheviks as enemies of civilization, having evolved an ideology for the Nazi party in which hostility to Bolshevism and Communism was the guiding principle, Herr Hitler now completed a volte face almost without precedent in history.

The execution of such a complete reversal of policy was at once a sign of German adaptability and of the growing strength of the democratic opposition to the German menace. The conclusion of the German Soviet Pact might be held to justify the view of those who maintain that Nazism and Bolshevism are not the incompatibles which they usually have been alleged to be, but are on the contrary systems with many essential resemblances. It is true that in the course of years mainly under economic pressure the Soviet system assumed many appendages of a democratic nature, but it might well be supposed that Stalin was no more hampered by democratic forms than the Fuehrer or the Duce. In Russia, as in Germany and Italy, there is one party and one party only in the State. It is true that it goes by a different name but it is none the less a concrete expression of totalitarianism in action, and endows the leader or dictator or president with enormous powers over his subjects unhampered by any of the checks or limits imposed by democracy. Apologists tor the Communist regime urge that the ends envisaged in the Soviet theory are very different from those which are the inspiration of Nazism or Fascism, And it must not be forgotten that the source of power in the Soviet system is the will of the people as expressed by their delegates and translated into action by the ultimate governing committee. There is, of course, a concentration of authority in the hands of a few individuals and at the head is one who is virtually a dictator.  Fascism, Nazism, and Communism are all expressions of twentieth-century  dictatorship, but besides Italy, Germany, and Russia, there are many other countries now subject to totalitarian rule. For some years, indeed, it might seem that dictatorship was gaining in the iight with democracy. In our own country, as in France and America, many have urged that there is something in a dictatorship, representing a greater or lesser degree of state control, which is much more suited to the conditions of the modern world than are the institutions of parliamentary democracy. Many who have knowledge of the working of the parliamentary machine complain of its cumbrous and creaky nature. How much easier it is for a dictator to elect a reform than it is for a reform bill to be passed through the House of Commons It must be pointed out, however, that dictators, like doctors, bury their own mistakes.

Human nature being what it is, we cannot but believe that in the dictator countries there are innumerable instances of inefficiency of corruption, of maladjustment, that in a democratic state would give rise to a how of condemnation and  an outburst of public indignation on a huge scale.The strongest argument, however, in favour of democracy as ta system of government is that it has actually lasted for many centuries at a time and has weathered innumerable storms. As Walter Bagehot said of that extra ordinary undeniable and nonexistent something, the English Constitution, it works! , It should never be forgotten both by the partisans of dictatorship and by its critics, that it has never yet stood up against a test of the most serious and exhaustive kind. Parliamentary government in England has existed in more or less its present form for nearly seven hundred years, and it has successfully resisted war and civil war, revolution and counter-revolution. Today, it is true, the machine creaks, but there is not the slightest evidence of its breaking down. During its last great time of testing in the course of the Great War it functioned admirably, and no vital change was found to be necessary in its machinery. As. the expression of public opinion,. as the ventilator of grievances, as the controller of the public purse, the House of Commons is without an effective rival.

Dictatorships, on the other hand, in their modern shape are comparatively young. There have been many dictatorships in the past, but none has endured more than a few decades. Sooner or later the ordinary man resents his position as a mere cog in the state machine, and asserts the supreme importance of himself and his fellow individuals. Dictatorships are the fruit of disillusionment, defeat, and despair. They may dispel the disillusion, solace the defeats, give new hope to the despairing. But hitherto they have never proved themselves to be long enduring features in the political scene.  They are means, very effective means, to an end when that end has been accomplished it has always been found that other ends require other means. Until 1939 no modern dictator had had to face a war on a grand scale no modern system of dictatorship had had to meet such a challenge as the Great War made to the democratic system of Western Europe in 1914. We cannot tell, though some may suspect, what will happen to a thoroughly regimented people when subjected to the devas- tating and nerve destroying ordeal of modern war. In moments of crisis it is the individual who counts and what if the individual has been so well controlled that he has lost all sense of his individual responsibility? 

In the Great War it was often remarked that the German troops fought with the utmost bravery and determination when they marched shoulder to shoulder and were sent over the top in mass formation. Their superiority however, was by no means so manifest when it came to a question of open fighting in which little groups were left in the air, as it were, to fight their own battles, and to play a worthy part in a struggle which had quite escaped from the control of the gentlemen of the staff. It has been claimed that the well regimented Germans would never have been able to withstand the shock of the great offensive of March, 1918. But the British not only made a stand when their front was broken, but turned at the vital hour to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. It is just here in the varying emphasis laid upon the individual that we reach the heart of the difference between dictatorship and democracy. Under a dictatorship the individual man or woman exists for the State, whereas in democratic countries the State exists to advance the welfare, and to protect the interests, of the individual citizen. At the very root of democracy is the belief that human beings, though not born equal, have an equal right to happiness today as when they were pronounced, the “ Rights of Man ” declared in 1776 and 1789 still ring true. To a dictator men are valuable not man unless he happens to be the Fuehrer or the Duce or one of their indispensable henchmen. There must be men, of course, to hold the rifles, to drive the tanks, to sit behind the  machine guns to guide the aeroplanes and drop the bombs but the activities of the military machine, as of the social and economic system, are set in motion not to promote the welfare of the common citizen, but for the greater glory of that new god of the twentieth century the Totalitarian State. When, therefore we set out to weigh the respective chances of dictatorship and democracy, we must have regard to something more than the numbers enrolled in the armed forces, the quantity of war material, the planes and tanks and guns. We must remember those imponderables of which the  human spirit is the most important. And what can nerve the human spirit to suffer, to endure, to press on through disappointment and defeat until victory is secure, better than the belief that however insignificant his status, however small and weak his contribution to the common purpose, the individual nevertheless counts ?

Second Great War - a Standard History (9 Volume Set)


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