Whitehall has just witnessed an unusual meeting between British and German naval officers. With the utmost good nature they have fixed the tonnage with which each of them shall enter the next world war. For every hundred tons that the British launch as targets for German shells and torpedoes, the Germans shall have thirty-five tons, charged with all the instruments of destruction that civilization has devised. This agreement was reached promptly, with big-hearted Nordic gestures; both sides were satisfied as they surveyed their future fleets, and to the general contentment of the British nation, after prayers had been said, the papers were laid on the table of the House of Commons. In Glasgow and Liverpool the owners and architects of the shipyards reckon with complacency on the building of the merchant ships that will offer their hulls to the submarines Mr. Baldwin has allotted to Hitler.
Since the French officers at Fontenoy bowed to the British and invited them to fire first, Europe has seen no more singular spectacle than this. What does it mean? Some weeks back, when Mr. Churchill was thundering against the contrite National Government for the inadequacy of its aerial armaments, the assumption prevailed that Germany would again be the enemy in the next war. If that be so, then these genial naval gentlemen, who met in Whitehall, were commendably courteous and accommodating in their enmity. The conduct of the Germans was perfectly intelligible. It was revealed to Herr Hitler, during his meditations in the trenches, that the capital mistake of the Kaiser was to challenge British sea power. He has, therefore, as he tells us in “Mein Kampf,” devised a policy of Continental expansion eastwards, which neither offends the British Empire nor requires a supreme navy. On this view his naval representatives acted in London. They obtained British approval for a fleet of considerable but not dangerous strength, and they met all the stipulations of the British experts with the most accommodating good will.
The master stroke of their diplomacy consisted in defining German naval strength as a percentage of British strength. Henceforward in conferences and conversations the two nations stand interlocked with identical interests, advancing and receding together in the face of the rest of the world. The Germans have a stake in promoting British power at lea, while the English sense of fair play will see to it that the Germans are not defrauded of their full 35 percent in battleships, cruisers, airplane carriers and even submarines, though in this last category comes the most surprising concession of all, for here the Germans may claim with British consent anything from 45 percent to parity. One good turn deserves another: these obliging Nazi gentlemen will back the British in asking for a limit of 25,000 tons on the battleships of the future.
All this was in line with everything we know or divine about Nazi policy: it aims at detaching Great Britain from the Powers that must oppose German expansion. But what are we to think of the British performance? Less than a month before this talk in Whitehall, the British at the League's Council in Geneva joined the French and Italians in reciting, in bands, gown and surplice, a solemn commination service over Herr Hitler, because he had torn up the Versailles Treaty without the consent of all its signatories. They joined, too, in the threat (somewhat vague, it is true) of an economic blockade, if he should ever do it again. And now they have actually helped him to do it again. One may, in one’s own inner consciousness, rejoice to see this miserable treaty torn to tatters by British as well as German hands. But other states, more than a score of them, have rights in this matter, which the breezy gentlemen in Whitehall ignored. Or did they feel that in a matter of this kind it is understood that Britannia rules the waves?
The anger of the French at this proceeding is as intelligible as Nazi policy. That resolution at Geneva was of their drafting: they were simple enough to suppose that it had a meaning. They thought, too, that at Stresa they had arranged with Britain and Italy a common front against German ambitions. The manner in which this pact came into being without their assent was bad: but its contents are no better. For the British should have recollected that in assigning to the Germans 35 percent of their own naval strength, they were consenting to German naval parity with France, or to something very near it. This may be reasonable in itself, but it happens that the French, without reckoning colonies, have two seacoasts to defend, while the Germans have only one. Nor is that the whole of the initial disparity between the two: the Germans have a greater merchant marine on which to draw, and a more highly developed building industry. The French reaction, then, is to say that they will have to claim something beyond the ratio for capital ships assigned to them at Washington. That will have consequences. It is not the way of the Italians to allow themselves to be distanced by the French navy: they, too, will claim an increase. The British, in their turn, who claim superiority over any two Continental Powers, will thereupon enlarge their program. At this point one perceives the subtlety of German tactics. For they will next be entitled to a percentage addition, proportionate to any British increase. So we go on, as musicians say, da capo, till at sea the armaments race becomes a mad, unending tarantella, with British and Germans dancing as inseparable partners.
One need not take this prospect of indefinite competitive building too gravely: some time will pass before the Germans can build up to their allowance, if, indeed, they can ever afford to do so. What is grave is the repercussion of this agreement on the mutual relationship among the European Powers. The French had been persuaded with some difficulty to back at Geneva the timid and belated effort of the British to stop the conquest of Ethiopia on which Italy is bent. They did so, not from any humanitarian concern, but on the sound calculation that if the Italians, whose military capacity no one in Paris rates high, should tie up their army in this difficult adventure. Hitler may think the moment ripe for some enterprising stroke in Austria. That prudent reckoning they now in their anger forget. After obliging the British at Geneva, who have their own considerable stake in the rains of the Ethiopian highlands, which feed the Nile and Egypt’s cotton fields, they are now rewarded by this naval agreement. There is therefore a tendency in Paris to shout “Vive Mussolini!” and some go so far as to suggest an open Franco-Italian alliance.
The French aim at securing themselves, with such disguises as Genevan prudery may suggest, by two trustworthy alliances, one in the East, the other in the West. If the British, whom they would trust more readily, are not prepared for the latter role, then the inevitable substitute must be sought at Rome, where, indeed, all the preliminary soundings were taken some months ago. The effect of this new mood in Paris may not be to precipitate an Italian attack on Ethiopia, though even of this one cannot be sure. The more likely consequence is that in one way or another the League may be used to impose on Ethiopia a surrender that would differ only in name from a conquest. The latest suggestion, that Italy should be given a League mandate over Ethiopia, is rather too crude to succeed. More specious is the alternative plan of authorizing Mussolini to build a railway across this country, encircling its capital and provided with a wide belt of territory to be policed by Italian troops. If once, by military and diplomatic pressure, Ethiopia is driven to accept this cynical solution, her fate will run exactly parallel to Manchuria’s.
There is no mystery about the German state of mind, or the French. But of what is the British governing class thinking? There is an unknown quantity here. Sir Samuel Hoare, who steered the Indian Constitution through Parliament with hard-headed capacity, has succeeded Sir John Simon at the Foreign Office. He is a Tory of the Center, a traditional mind, yet not averse from a cautious liberalism that sacrifices none of the essentials of Empire. He was promoted far services rendered, but what detailed views on foreign policy, if any, he may hold, only his intimates know. Was this naval performance an indiscretion that the Foreign Office failed to control because an inexperienced pilot held the wheel, or did it mark a conscious reorientation of British policy?
This writer does not pretend to have a confident answer to the question. It is probable that the Foreign Office was lacking in foresight and imagination, and did not intend either to offend the French or to back German ambitions unreservedly. None the less, a reorientation of British feeling towards Germany is going on with big and visible strides. It was puzzling to many students of British policy that the traditional preference for a balance of power in Europe was so slow in manifesting itself after the World War. British policy was always less harsh than French, and prompter in its adjustments, but it took no risks and used no pressure, beyond verbal remonstrances. This is explicable enough. There could be no balance of power, since Germany was powerless. Today, she has snatched power: a balance may be attainable.
The first effect of the exhibition of Nazi barbarism was to cause throughout the British Isles a shudder of apprehension and disgust. When in the early days of the dictatorship, the arch-francophile of the Tory Party, Sir Austen Chamberlain, delivered a passionate oration against it, the whole House of Commons was with him. The other day, when he ended a similar speech with a plain threat of war, the House perceptibly winced. Time blunts the edge of humane indignation, when no interest whets it. The signs of a change are many. The Times, after a discreet silence of sixteen years, discovers all the iniquities of the Versailles Treaty. Sincere Liberals of Lord Lothian's type, who had no audience a few years ago, are now heard with respectful attention when they advocate revision, even territorial revision. The popular Tory middle-class daily, Lord Rothermere’s Daily Mail, conducts a cult of the Fuhrer. The Prince of Wales, boldly abandoning the rule of silence imposed on the royal family, advocates reconciliation in a moving speech. The war veterans are arranging a pilgrimage to Germany, and the German veterans, landing at Dover, receive an emotional welcome.
All this, as a popular impulse, is genuine and wholly creditable. It means shame for the harsh peace, and a resolve to avoid another war with that same enemy. The older generation of Chamberlains and Churchills who took this so-called peace to be a mere truce, like the intervals that broke the eighteenth-century wars with France, are repudiated by the main stream of public opinion. There is a wish for something more original. The average man would phrase it as a square deal for Germany and the restoration of the League. In technical language this is not easy to translate. My own suspicion is that it will come in practice to something perilously like the traditional policy of the balance, with results that may not make for peace. The first essay at Whitehall is far from promising.
H. N. Brailsford is the London correspondent of The New Republic. His books include “Rebel India” and “Property or Peace.”
This article originally ran in the July 17, 1935, issue of the magazine.