French Appeasement: Andrew Boxer Considers Explanations for France's Disastrous Foreign Policy between the Wars

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In the early summer of 1940 French armies were defeated in just six weeks and surrender was followed by four years of German occupation. And yet just 22 years earlier France had been victorious over Germany and had helped to fashion a peace treaty designed to prevent any resurgence of German power. How did France go from triumphant victor to humiliated victim in so short a time?

Interpretations of the French Collapse

For many Frenchmen at the time, and a number of historians since, the answer was simple--France had been betrayed by its unreliable ally, Britain. French efforts to restrain Germany and enforce the Treaty of Versailles had been obstructed by successive pro-German British governments determined to pursue appeasement. Other explanations of France's collapse have looked inwards, describing interwar France as a decadent, divided society led by nonentities who lacked the courage to pursue tough policies. A third analysis emphasises the difficulties France faced in the interwar period. Given that France's population and economic resources were inferior to those of Germany, and that the victorious powers were almost as badly damaged by the First World War as the defeated, it was only a matter of time before Germany reasserted itself and sought revenge for its defeat in 1918.

There is some truth in each of these explanations, but none is satisfactory on its own.

Blaming the British

Not surprisingly, many Frenchmen made the British the scapegoat for their abject defeat of 1940. Blaming the British offered a convenient way of assuaging French guilt and shame.

It is not hard to see why the French felt they had been given inadequate support by Britain in the interwar period. In Britain, sympathy for the defeated Germans and suspicion of the French were evident very soon after the First World War. The English poet Robert Graves recalled that, among fellow ex-soldiers in Oxford in 1919, 'anti-French feeling amounted almost to an obsession' and that 'pro-German feeling was increasing. I often heard it said that ... we had been fighting on the wrong side; our natural enemies were the French'.

These sentiments seemed to be mirrored by British government policy. Britain and France disagreed fundamentally about how Germany should be treated. The British believed that peace and security in Europe could be guaranteed only if Germany became a fully functioning democratic state strong enough to trade with its European partners. They argued for a peace treaty that would not breed resentment in Germany. The French, on the other hand, were preoccupied with the threat to their security from Germany. They required a tough peace treaty, rigorously enforced, which would prevent Germany from threatening them again. Many in France felt that British policy ensured that the Versailles Peace Treaty of 1919 was neither tough nor rigorously enforced.

Worse, during the peace negotiations of 1919 the French had been persuaded by the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, to drop their demand for a separate Rhineland state in return for a promise of an Anglo-American guarantee of French security. But the guarantee never materialised. Lloyd George argued that it had been nullified by the US Senate's rejection of the Versailles Treaty. This, in the words of Anthony Lentin, gave the French 'a sense of betrayal, vulnerability and isolation'.

Enforcement of the Treaty of Versailles was the subject of rancorous dispute between Britain and France until, in French eyes, Britain's determination to accommodate German grievances had, by the middle of the 1930s, destroyed the Treaty, leaving the French with no option but to co-operate with British appeasement of Hitler. Many Frenchmen believed that Britain's pro-German policies were foolish because the Germans were bound to seek revenge for 1918, and any threat to French security would endanger Britain as well. …