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The Tragedy of What Could Have Been - France and Germany in the 1920s

Updated on May 20, 2017

The Interwar (1919-1939) is a tragic period in history. There are few other times which are defined in even name not by themselves, but rather by the events that surrounded them, as if the tide of history was so sweeping that even in name it was left powerless before it. The First World War and the Second lie like nightmares, poised over the epoch- not only in our memories, but in the life of the people who lived through this epoch, scarred by the tragedy of the Great World War, which had for nations like France left almost nobody untouched by the loss of somebody, be it a father, brother, son. If the beginning of the Second World War would be marked by a phony war, perhaps the armistice between it and the Great War was a phony peace, haunted by the terror of another war, this time one which would end civilization in a final cataclysmic conflict, as books like The Shape of Things to Come and its attendant movie Things to Come represented the terror of annihilation from the air being translated from the theories of aviation theorists to the general public. The past full of death, and the future of fear of the same. It would be as the French Marshal Ferdinand Foch said at the signing of the Treaty of Versailles "This is not a peace. It is an armistice for twenty years".

And yet, partially this is our own view, we who gaze backwards upon history, seeing with our clear vision that which was obscure and unknown to those who had not yet passed them along the march of time. To us, the Great War is the First World War; to those who lived through it, an alternate name was the War to End All Wars. After living through such horror and death, perhaps the survivors can be forgiven for the hubris in naming it such. To them, it must truly have seemed inconceivable that barely two decades later, once again humanity would choose to play its most terrible of games. There is more to the 1920s than simply the gloomy anticipation of another war to come; there were also the desperate attempt to avoid it, fueled with the conviction that civilization could not survive a second inferno.

And from this, emerges one of the most surprising and forgotten (in popular memory) moments of the 1920s; the temporary reconciliation of France and Germany. Neither had forgotten the endless rows of tombstones - if the dead had the privilege of them - that lay upon the chalky fields of Champagne, nobody had forgotten the trenches, nobody the litany of old hatreds and fresh grievances that stretched back centuries. But for both, the price of repeating the past was too high. For both, if civilization was to survive, then the grievances of the past would have to be left behind, in order to embrace the present.

Perhaps the greatest sentence of the spirit of the times, perhaps the greatest testament of the spirit of Europe after 1919, came in May 1930, when Joseph Barthélmy declared German-French unification would happen "because it is necessary. Pan Europe will be, because it is necessary."

Necessity would come too late to prevent another, final conflagration, coming kicking and screaming into the world so reluctantly after the tragedy that so many had feared and prophesied had come to pass. But she was not the first, and this looks at her stillborn sister, and the ideal of Franco-German rapprochement in the 1920s.

The Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations it created would be both the centerpiece and the symbol of the times; built with great hopes, then sliding into despair and leading to the inevitability of another war
The Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations it created would be both the centerpiece and the symbol of the times; built with great hopes, then sliding into despair and leading to the inevitability of another war

At the heart of this need for rapprochement of course, was the rivalry between France and Germany. France and Germany had been the two principal combatants of the Great War, the culmination of a bitter rivalry which dated immediately to 1870 and in some form centuries earlier. The end of the war was a victory for France, but the victory did not end disputes between the two nations; France was weakened heavily by the war, with tremendous losses of people, and the destruction of much of her industrial heartland in the North-East by German troops (in some cases quite purposefully at the time of the armistice, such as the French coal mines being flooded), while Germany was essentially untouched by the war, other than its own manpower losses. France's advantage was its position of temporary superiority, which it could use to impose an advantageous peace settlement. Thus emerged the Treaty of Versailles, between the Allied Powers (America not included) and Germany.

The view of the Treaty has varied over time, but the current orthodox view is ironically the revisionist one of the treaty - holding that it was overly harsh and unrealistic, and assigning the cause for this to France as being vengeful towards Germany, in contrast to Woodrow Wilson's generosity. In my opinion, this view is wrong, with France neither be as vengeful as posited nor Wilson as much of a saint - or if he was one, certainly not a saint which was one of mercy towards Germany - and the treaty itself being less harsh than it is viewed, but I'm writing this article about France and Germany in the 1920s, not 1919.

The most important elements of the treaty included;

- The transfer by annexation or plebiscite of Alsace-Lorraine to France, Eupen-Malmedy to Belgium, Schleswig to Denmark, Posen, parts of Eastern Prussia, parts of Sileia, and Pomerelia to Poland, parts of Silesia to Czechoslovakia, Danzig to the Free City of Danzig, and Memel to the Allies (later to be annexed by Lithuania).

- Transfer of German colonies to mandates, overseen by the French, British, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan.

- Reduction of the German Army to 100,000 volunteers with equipment restrictions.

- Reparations to pay for certain war damages sustained by the Allied Powers, which also included an Article 231 which would be interpreted by Germany as a "War guilt clause".

- Occupation of the Rhineland for fifteen years, and its demilitarization thereafter

- Outlawing of a potential union (anschluss) between Germany and Austria.

- Foundation of the League of Nations

The map of Europe, once the post-WW1 order had been roughly established, nearly a decade after the fateful assassination of Franz Ferdinand
The map of Europe, once the post-WW1 order had been roughly established, nearly a decade after the fateful assassination of Franz Ferdinand

The years after the war brought but limited relief to these tensions between France or Germany. Regardless if the treaty was harsh or not, the Germans certainly saw it as such, and disagreements and the German failure to pay reparations, the French would occupy the Ruhr in January 1923, aiming to force the Germans to pay or to extract the resources that the Germans weren't paying (coal in particular, a resource that France is heavily lacking in). This might be considered the nadir of Franco-German relations in the period, and both sides would be damaged by the event. The Germans would go into hyper-inflation, stemming from their project of passive resistance and German internal spending, while the French economy would continue to be weak and vulnerable to external shocks, ultimately resulting in them caving to Anglo-Saxon pressure to negotiate. The resultant Dawes Plan would replace the previous reparations schedule, reducing reparation payments, and placing political controls on Germany to ensure payment of reparations. Germany's financial situation would be ameliorated by American loans however, and over the next few years the Germans would take out vast American loans, not merely for paying off reparations, but also a host of private loans and municipal loans. These would be arguably disastrous for both sides in the long run, but in the short term it permitted a stabilization for the German economy and for it to pay off reparations.

French troops in the Ruhr
French troops in the Ruhr | Source

All of this is fairly conventional, if one stopped there. France and Germany were opposed, this resulted in clashes, the British and the Americans stepped in and separated the two feuding sides, the result was an agreement that was a truce, but tensions would presumably continue to simmer and relations would continue to be deplorable between the two countries.

Conversely however, the next half a decade would be a brief flowering of Franco-German relations, diplomatically, culturally, politically, and economically. Some of this owes itself to international elements, as the international situation finally stabilized in the 1920s after the chaos of the after-year wars, but much of it came from genuine (and some not so genuine) efforts put forth on both the French and German sides.

Gustav Stresemann, Austen Chamberlain, and Aristide Briand - the foreign ministers of Germany, the United Kingdom, and France - during the negotiations for the Locarno Pact
Gustav Stresemann, Austen Chamberlain, and Aristide Briand - the foreign ministers of Germany, the United Kingdom, and France - during the negotiations for the Locarno Pact | Source

Security on the frontiers

For France, the 1920s was a search for security. The Locarno Treaty was one of the ways in which France attempted to solve this. Under the Locarno pact, the western borders of Germany - with Belgium and France - were both recognized by Germany, and Italy and the United Kingdom, the two neutral great powers in any Franco-German conflict, both pledged to assist any part under attack. Germany's Eastern frontiers would not receive the same recognition, opening up potential revisionism against Poland and Czechoslovakia (and for this reason was certainly not well received there), but it marked the start of the Locarno spirit, that international treaties and agreements, conciliation and diplomacy, would succeed in preventing another war. Locarno, as with many other proposals of the Interwar, would ultimately fail in preventing peace, but it was the fulcrum about which many of the efforts for peace would turn. The Locarno treaties would provide for a solution to the problems of French security and diplomatic conflict that would open up possibilities for both sides.

Political and diplomatic rapproachment

In 1926, Germany would enter the League of Nations, with a permanent seat on the League Council. France had initially played a role in blocking German involvement in the League of Nations, helped by the unpopularity of the League itself - viewed as a "victors' club" by the defeated Germans - but by 1926 it would be the French foreign minister Aristide Briand who would give the welcoming speech to Germany joining the organization.

This would be followed up by another one of the litany of "what might have beens", the Thoiry Conference between Briand and Stresemann, the German foreign minister. This was a private meeting between the two officials, which proposed a host of various changes to solve various problems between the two states - the return of the Saar (a League of Nations mandate of a coal-rich region in Western Germany) and the repurchasing of its coal mines, in exchange for 300 million marks, the disbandment of the Inter-Allied Military Control Commission which handled German disarmament, a variety of compromises on disarmament, athe withdrawal of French objections about Eupen-Malmedy being returned to Belgium, and the termination of the Allied occupation of the Rhineland, in exchange for advanced reparations payments. These would not come to pass, but Thoiry is easy to compare to events like the entente cordiale between the UK and France - as what might have been a decisive turning point in Franco-German relations.

In 1930, the the final evacuation of French troops from the Rhineland would occur, ahead of schedule by five years. This would however, expose that feelings of friendship, while existing at the highest levels, and also existing in a variety of cross-border endeavors that will be talked about later, were... not always universally widespread. The French expected the Germans to receive the withdrawal, which they saw as a enormous concession of their security, to be greeted with tact and some thanks. Instead, paramilitary war veterans of the Stalheim would hold triumphal ceremonies celebrating the event.

Political and diplomatic conciliation, despite high hopes, would in many ways be the area in which a rapprochement between the two countries was the hardest to come to terms on. On issue after issue - be it Germany's Eastern borders and relations to Austria, reparations, military, war guilt - the interests of France and Germany were still diametrically opposed. But even if so, the period was far more than one of simply antagonism, and in economics and social affairs would hold far richer fruit.

The collapse of the pre-war liberal trading regime resulted in protectionism and tariff wars during the interwar. A critical component of Franco-German reconciliation and pan-Europeanism in the era would be to remove them.
The collapse of the pre-war liberal trading regime resulted in protectionism and tariff wars during the interwar. A critical component of Franco-German reconciliation and pan-Europeanism in the era would be to remove them.

Economic cooperation

The post-WW2 European Union would be underpinned by economic cooperation between European states, which would aim to make war inconceivable between them and to foster economic growth. While the post-WW1 order would never achieve the same degree of success, many of the same institutions and developments that occurred more than decades later were pioneered in prototype form in the late 1920s and during the first years of the Great Depression, before ultimately being destroyed by the Nazi rise.

In this, perhaps the best place to start discussion would be on the predecessor of that most celebrated of European institutions: the European Coal and Steel Community, widely hailed as the first institution of a modern Europe. The ECSC came about to deal with a fundamental problem of the distribution of resources between Germany and France, that Germany held large supplies of coal, while France held large supplies of iron, with steel production hinging upon their marriage. Due to the nature of steel production, which favored placing the steel mills at the coalfields, Germany would inevitably hold a dominating position in an industrial sector vital for industrial warfare. Both for economic reasons - for production of steel was impossible without the cooperation of the two - and for reasons of French security, something had to be done to bridge the difference.

Thus emerged a Franco-Belgian-Luxembourg-German steel cartel on the 7th of October, 1926, which established French production of 31.38%, Belgian production of 11.56%, Luxembourgish production of 8.30%, German production of 43.18%, and production in the Saar of 5.78%. The Entente Internationale de l'Acier (EIA) would be a vital first step towards economic collaboration.

More would follow. On July 23rd, 1927, France and Germany, after several years of negotiations, came to an agreement on a trade treaty. The first since the Great War, the new treaty cut tariffs and stabilized commercial relations, which had previously been placing maximum tariff rates on the other power. Economic relations between the two countries recovered from their post-war nadir. It would be soon after, during the Great Depression, or perhaps more precisely the calm before the storm of its late arrival in Europe, that the final, tragically doomed, efforts for Franco-German economic cooperation valiantly made their appearance.

In 1931, US President Herber Hoover issued proposed an international debt moratorium, including on Germany's reparations (while technically only for the span of a year, in practice this would be permanent). Germany's economy was in a miserable state, as a program of internal deflation had inflicted widespread miseries upon the population and France and Germany held bilateral talks, where Paris - with large gold reserves built up over the previous years - offered a loan of some $500 million, but in return for Allied control of Germans customs and excise, a freeze for 10 years on German military spending, and a non-aggression and arbitration pact between France and Germany. These were terms which were impossible for the Germans to accept. Hopes would remain high however, with a Franco-German Commission chaired by the foreign ministers of the two states, and with political, business, and social experts, being created to advance economic integration, with an idea for an eventual larger European Union, as well as the extension of international cartels, transportation, economic integration, and economic collaboration in the French Empire and the USSR.

It was not to be. A growing French trade deficit with Germany, as Germany's internal deflation and domestic economic collapse led to exports, and the recession arriving in France, meant that France would be unable to sustain political cooperation on trade. Quotas appeared on German products, even as the Foreign Ministries discussed continually more ambitious plans to liberalize economic relations. Economic collaboration was dead in body, even if the ideal would linger on in spirit.

Childre, do not play at war.  Parents, if you want your children to live, prepare the moral disarmament. Do away with military toys.
Childre, do not play at war. Parents, if you want your children to live, prepare the moral disarmament. Do away with military toys.
Émile Mayrisch, a Luxembourger who was vital in creating the international steel cartel and the Comité franco-allemand d'information et de documentation
Émile Mayrisch, a Luxembourger who was vital in creating the international steel cartel and the Comité franco-allemand d'information et de documentation

Cultural cooperation

The very fact that in Franco-German relations there is virtually no connection between the question asked and the answer aimed at, that the truth about Germany does not fit into the ideological frame we have made to receive it: that is perhaps the essence of the whole Franco-German problem. Even in the purely political sphere, where question and answer seem to bear on the same realities, the two countries are unconsciously talking to themselves. –Pierre Viénot, 1932

Disarmament was an important topic in the 1920s, the subject of conferences, widespread international attention, and a stated objective of the League of Nations. But at the same time as nations pursued material disarmament, there was also a belief that moral and intellectual disarmament would be necessary to secure peace. In of this, there were a variety of different strains to this pacifism. International pacifism existed of course, but there was also pan-Europeanism, with the Paneuropean Union established in 1923, and bilateral attempts at promoting understanding and peace. Some of the most prevalent of this was that between France and Germany.

They certainly had need of it. For both France and Germany, their counterpart formed the other, the fount of innumerable sins. Aggression and militarism (which were hardly just French opinions on Germans, who are the bearers of that stereotype today - memories in Germany harkened back to the French occupation of Germany, and countless French invasions before then. The Franco-Prussian War is perhaps a case of irony; remembered by the French as a Prussian invasion of France and the theft of Alsace-Lorraine, for the Germans it would be a justified war of defense against a French declaration of war), shallowness, servitude (again to quote the Germans, this time Heinrich von Treitschke in 1870, because these stereotypes are, due to the existence of the Nazis, easy to see upon the Germans - "At all times the subjection of a German race to France has been an unhealthy thing; today it is an offense against the reason of History - a vassalship of free men to half-educated barbarians."), and morality and immorality. Although these stereotypes were in particular formed and accentuated by the Franco-Prussian war, years of tensions afterward and then the Great War brought them to a new peak and fervor. These were both fostered on both sides by ideological mobilization of intellectual as vital for any modern war effort as the actual war effort.

For advocates of reconciliation in the 1920s, the task was to achieve an intellectual disarmament, counter-acting years of propaganda and negative opinions of the other. One of the first organizations to take up this goal would be the Deutsch-Franzöische Studienkomitee (Franco-German Study Group), or the Comité franco-allemand d'information et de documentation (Franco-German Committee for Information and Documentation), which worked against stereotypes and for improving relations, with business, political, and social figures composing an organization devoted specifically for Franco-German cooperation (and specifically rejecting association with pacifism, Europeanism - later changing upon this, in tune with interest in a federalized Europe, and internationalism). The DFS/CFAID would play a critical role in establishing the guiding principal of Franco-German associations; reciprocal exchange, with equal numbers of French and Germans participating, later extended in other organizations to equal funding, equal objectives, and equal institutions on both sides.

Both Germany and France have proud literary traditions, and reciprocal literary journals were subsidized by the French and German foreign ministries, in France the Revue d’Allemagne et des Pays de Langue allemande, and in Germany the Deutsch-Französische Rundschau. These constituted membership in the Deutsch-Franzöische Gesellschaft (DFG), dedicated to Germans interested in learning of France. Educational exchanges, both of teachers and students, and textbook reform projects - although joint textbook revision never quite materialized - which aimed to remove the most egregiously nationalistic and offensive declarations, worked at promoting a more amiable relationship for the future. Youth associations (including a substantial pen pal exchange, which claimed to match 15,000), sports, and war veteran reconciliation, joined with them. In a vision of what would come decades later, Otto Grautoff, a former German propagandist and head of the DFG, would embrace Colonel Yves Picot, of the disabled veterans' association Gueules Cassés - followed the next day by Grautoff in a leaf-laying ceremony on German soldiers' graves at Bagneux. Less symbolic, but still important cooperation came, with programs like bimonthly French-German lunches in Berlin, and projects of guest speakers and intellectuals in the respective countries. Catholic cooperation in the forebear of the later Christian Democratic politicians and parties who would be vital in European Unification post-war was an important part of this, with the French Popular Democrats (a Catholic party, reconciled with the Republic and democracy, unlike a significant portion of previous French Catholic political engagement which tended towards reactionary and ultra-nationalist principles) and the Catholic Center Party both cultivating ties and relationships with each other.

These would not end with the coming to power of the Nazis, but Franco-German relations in the 1930s, and in the Vichy Years, would assume an ultimately entirely different character.

The Fall and Legacy

The saddest words ever said have always been "what might have been". We all know well what would be, and the story of France and Germany in the 1920s is one which to us, we know the ending of; failure, and war.

Aristide Briand died on May 7th, 1932, removing one of the vital drivers towards Franco-German reconciliation. The two architects of European peace, Briand and Stresemann, lay dead. French politics would resume their divided character on relations with Germany, and in Germany itself, the conciliatory Brüning government was dismissed by Paul von Hindenberg, leading to further Nazi electoral gains that crippled political energy for relations with France. Combined with the aforementioned collapse of economic relations, Gustav Stresemann's memories would be published, with sections giving the appearance that Stresemann had aimed to dupe Briand into making Germany a great power again, and a worse section yet, Stresemann musing about Alsace and Moselle (former Alsace-Lorraine) where autonomist movements had sprung into existence. He also possibly made disparaging comments upon French leaders such as Hanriot - calling him a "fat jellyfish". Despite the French center-left, more open to reconciliation with Germany, winning the 1932 elections in France, the damage was done. Perhaps if time, that most precious of commodities, had been in abundance, then the story would have been different, but if one thing was in short supply in 1932, it was time.

On January 30th, 1933, Adolf Hitler was sworn in as the German chancellor. In March 1933, Germany would hold its last elections, heavily marred by electoral violence and repression by brownshirts and SS troops, returning enough votes for the German far-right to lead to the passage of the Enabling Act, the end of any pretense of German democracy, and the cementing of Nazi dictatorship. Some hopes continued to hold out for some form of co-existence and dètente; they would come to nothing.

What would remain of this brief moment in the history of Europe?

In physical terms, very little would survive. Europe and the world would be plunged into another war, even more terrible than the last. The period of rapprochement between France and Germany ended with war, and whatever still existed, was cruelly subverted to collaborationism. And yet, the ideas lived on. European integration in the 1920s pinned its hopes upon economic cooperation, that would gradually remove the protectionist barriers between European nations, and the post-War European efforts would adopt the same approach, with just as in the 1920s, France and Germany lying as the centerpieces of such a movement.

Perhaps it is as the old saying says, that history repeats. But then, as Marx said, history repeats, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. The end result of Franco-German rapprochement in the 1920s was the former; there still lasts time to see if the latter comes to pass as well.

Yet, perhaps the gratest tragedy of it all was that history had to repeat, and that it took a second world war for the hopes of the 1920s to become a reality. The greatest tragedy was what might have been.

Suggested reading:


The Failed European Union: Franco-German Relations during the Great Depression of 1929–32, by Conan Fischer

The Cultivation of Friendship: French and German Cultural Cooperation, 1925-1954, by Elana Passman

The Franco-Prussian War, the German Conquest of France in 1870-1871, by Geoffrey Wawro

The Impulse for a Franco-German Entente: The Origins of the Thoiry Conference, 1926, by Jon Jacobson and John T. Walker

The Franco-Prussian War: The German Conquest of France in 1870-1871

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