Britain, France, the Germans, Continental Wars and the Perils of Diplomacy: the 18th June Anniversary, and the Anglo-German Naval Agreement

Eighty years ago, in London, Sir Samuel Hoare and Joachim von Ribbentrop (seen here emerging after) appended their signatures to what history knows as the Anglo-German Naval Agreement. It was, in essence, a naval arms limitation agreement based upon a ratio of 35:100: for every 100 British tonnes, the Germans agreed to limit themselves to 35. It was, in fact, a limitation of expansion agreement.

The Treaty of Versailles forbade the Germans from having anything larger than a 10,000 ton cruiser, and allowed no submarines. By 1935, of course, Hitler had flagrantly disregarded the military terms of the treaty in all sorts of ways. The question was what to do about it.

One approach was led by the French. It was, in essence, an attempt to recreate the alliance that had defeated Germany in the First World War. In 1934/35, such an approach seemed to make sense. For a start, the Soviet Union was making overtures to the west. In 1934, it had joined the League of Nations. Its new foreign commissar, Maxim Litvinov, was a Francophile strongly associated with a policy of seeking collective security by agreement with the west. This paid dividends in May 1935, with the signing of the Franco-Soviet Pact, in which both parties agreed to protect the territorial integrity of Czechoslovakia. Already in existence were the Locarno Treaties of 1925, which guaranteed the western borders created by the Treaty of Versailles. One of the signatories of Locarno, Mussolini, had showed his teeth in 1934. In That July Austrian Nazis staged a failed putsch, murdering the Austrian Chancellor. In response, Mussolini had mobilised Italian troops on the Austrian border. In January 1935, the French and Italians pledged mutual cooperation in the event of further German threats to Austrian independence. Building on this, the French, Italians and British met at Stresa in April 1935.


All three pledged to preserve Austrian independence, maintain the status quo in Europe and criticised German infringement of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. What immediately became known as the Stresa Front seemed to betoken a firm stance against Hitler, based upon Locarno and collective security. On the face of it, Britain seemed fully on board. Arrangements had been made for Eden, number two in the Foreign Office, to visit Moscow and other Eastern European capitals. The prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, and foreign secretary Sir John Simon were at Stresa.

In fact, British policy was heading in another direction altogether. Even before going to Stresa, Simon had made preliminary arrangements to go to Berlin. His objective was, instead of reinforcing British commitment to collective security and what would become the Stresa Front, was to try and make a bilateral agreement with Germany. Portrait_of_John_Simon,_1st_Viscount_Simon

Simon’s logic was pretty straightforward. German rearmament was a clear threat to British security. In 1934, Japan tore up the Washington Naval Agreement, effectively announcing an expansion of their navy. The Admiralty told the cabinet, in no uncertain terms, that Britain could not deal with Japan and Germany. Already, Whitehall knew, the Germans were building a few U-boats. Worse than that, on 16th March 1935, Hitler had announced the reintroduction of conscription in Germany and his intention of building an army roughly equivalent to the French. What really chilled the bones in Britain was, however, Goering’s announcement a week before that the Germans now had an air force; when he boasted that it was already strong enough to take on any other power, public opinion back in Britain seemed seriously spooked.

One logical response was to rearm. On 4th March, the French government had announced the extension of conscription from one year to two, thus almost doubling the size of the French army. On the same day the British government had published a defence white paper. That white paper had its origins in a committee report a year before. The Defence Requirements Committee recognised the threat of German rearmament. It recommended spending an additional £82m on creating a Regular Expeditionary Force capable of being sent to France, and an expansion of the RAF. In cabinet, however, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Neville Chamberlain, turned the DRC’s recommendations on its head. The lion’s share of the new money was to go on the building of a deterrent bomber force.

What underpinned this was a series of assumptions that also underpinned the policy of appeasement. The first was that, whilst rearmament was necessary, there were strictly limited funds available. The national governments of the 1930s were firmly committed to balanced budgets which they believed, with a modicum of justice, had created the conditions which had made the economic recovery of the mid-‘thirties possible.

They also firmly believed that rearmament was risky politics. Labour called for investment in schools or hospitals, not arms. Baldwin was convinced that public opinion was opposed. His famous ‘appalling frankness’ speech in 1936 made the case for limited rearmament, but also recognised the fact that public opinion would not allow the government to rearm too much or too quickly.

Another consideration was military. Especially after Guernica, it became axiomatic in Whitehall that ‘the bomber will always get through’. Thus, the preservation of British security against German air attack became paramount.

Then, there was the assumption that Britain had been dragged into the Great War because of its agreements with the French. Britain should not allow its diplomatic freedom of manoeuvre to be constrained by alliances. Furthermore, Whitehall was none too impressed by any potential allies. The Soviet Union was communist. The French were unreliable and unstable (there were frequent changes of government), and wedded to their Maginot Line. Thus, Simon was deeply worried about the implications of the Stresa Front: could the French drag Britain into their war?

And peace, even if only peace at home, was precious, sentiment voiced by Baldwin here in 1936.

It was also a widely held belief in the foreign office that the Treaty of Versailles had been too harsh, and that there was some justice in German demands for its revision. Added to all this was a diplomatic ploy. On method of constraining Germany might be, rather than collective security, diplomatic. If Germany could be tied into a web of agreements, giving them some of what they wanted in return, Hitlerite Germany might well be constrained.

Arguably, appeasement was conceived sometime on 25th-26th March 1935, when Simon went to Berlin. Arguably, it was misconceived from the start. Britain, above all, wanted an air pact: a pact to limit the threat of German bombing. The British had originally hoped that by granting German concessions, Hitler would limit both his air force and navy. By the time Simon flew to Berlin, the aerial lever was bust: Hitler already had his air force. Thus, in Berlin, Hitler was studiedly non-committal about an air pact. However, he made more favourable noises about a naval deal.

The cabinet were not fooled by Goering’s claims about the strength of the Luftwaffe in 1935. However, they were terrified by the possibility of its threat in the near future. As the Admiralty were pressing strongly for a naval deal, why not try and secure that as a diplomatic down payment for an air pact to follow? In that light, Chamberlain’s policy of building up a British bomber force as a deterrent made diplomatic sense. It also made a naval pact appear a diplomatic imperative.

At the time it was heralded as a diplomatic coup. It is a still possible to divine a logic behind it now. Hindsight makes life easy for the historian, true, but with hindsight the Anglo-German Naval Agreement looks like the folly of very clever men. In 1935, Germany was still week. Whereas by 1938 collective security was dead in the water and there was no alternative to appeasement, in 1935 collective security was at least possible. Rather than tie Hitler into a web of agreements, it tied the British to the vain hope that Hitler was a man they could do business with, despite the evidence to the contrary; they would cling too long to that hope. DL0980

Most of all, it destroyed the Stresa Front every bit as much as did the Italian invasion of Abyssinia that soon followed. On 18th July 1815, Napoleon was defeated by the coalition of forces: British, Dutch, German and Prussian. The lead was taken in substantial part by a Britain which recognised that if Britain, despite her relatively small forces, committed itself militarily on the continent, allies would follow. In 1935, an isolationist Britain tried to extricate itself from just such a possibility by dealing with a dictator even less likely to honour his agreement than Napoleon. Few sensible historians now argue the simplistic case against appeasement we all grew up with. However, the Anglo-German Naval Agreement looks now to be at best misguided.

If for no other reason than this one perhaps. When faced with the possibility of German threat, did it make sense to (one assumes by absent mindedness rather than wilful neglect) to slap your most important ally privately, and publicly, in the face? The French government were not informed in advance of the Anglo-German Naval Agreement. Hitler was heard to remark be believed it opened up the way to an Anglo-German alliance. And most stupidly of all: on the 18th July 1815 the British and Prussians had together defeated the French; the Anglo-German Naval Agreement was signed on 18th June 1935.


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