14 December 2010
I’ve come to realise that memories of the First World War and its aftermath were an important factor in understanding British policy and actions in occupied Germany after the Second World War. I wrote about this last year in a post on The Watch on the Rhine: the British Occupation of the Rhineland after World War One.
According to his entry in the Dictionary of National Biography, Eric Gedye was ‘the greatest British foreign correspondent of the inter-war years’. His book The Revolver Republic, first published in 1930, is probably the best contemporary British account of the Occupation of the Rhineland. Gedye fought in the First World War and was part of the British army advance guard that occupied Cologne after the Armistice in November 1918. After the Treaty of Versailles was signed in June 1919, he was a member of staff on the joint Allied Rhineland High Commission, but left in 1922. According to his friend and colleague, Vaughan Berry, he married a German woman and as a result was forced to resign and lost his job. He stayed in Germany making a precarious living as a freelance journalist, but when the French invaded the Ruhr in 1923, he was appointed Special Correspondent for The Times.
His dispatches were widely read in Britain and his criticism of French policy and tactics, in encouraging and supporting separatists attempting to establish an independent Rhineland state, probably influenced British government policy, which became increasingly critical of French support for the Rhineland separatists. In the book, he quoted a report in the Guardian newspaper in 1926 that he was leaving The Times to join the Daily Express: ‘it is little exaggeration to credit this journalist [ie Gedye] with quite a large share in the defeat of M. Poincare’s [the French Prime Minister’s] grandiose and imperialist plan.’ Gedye added that it was pleasant to find that his work ‘had contributed in some measure, however slight, to cause the disappointment of those French aspirations to German territory which, had they been successful, must inevitably have led to a repetition of the horrors of 1914-18.’
This comment highlights his view, shared by many other British people in Germany at the time, that the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles and thinly disguised attempts by the French to annex more territory and advance their border to the Rhine, rather than improving security and deterring aggression, could only provoke a desire for revenge and lead to another war.
The title of the book, The Revolver Republic referred to the various desperadoes (as he described them), armed and financed by the French, who tried to seize power and gain control of town halls and municipal buildings in the Rhineland, in a number of attempted Putsches (or coups). According to Gedye:
‘The real “Separatist” movement, headed by a few fools and many gaolbirds, and supported by hired renegades, which, with its “Revolver Republic” as loyal Germans christened the “State” it pretended to establish, was later to drench Rhineland in blood in times of peace, was from start to finish a creation of the French, organized and paid for by their secret service and chauvinist organizations.’
The great mistake made by the Allies, in his view, was not to give more support to the moderate German Social Democratic government, which came to power at the end of the war, after the Kaiser abdicated and German sailors and soldiers mutinied, creating revolutionary conditions in many parts of the country. By imposing harsh conditions in the Treaty of Versailles, supporting separatist movements in the Rhineland and taking advantage of their superior military power in the occupied areas to rule by force, rather than in strict accordance with the law, the Allies fatally weakened the moderate Social Democratic government, set the example of rule by force and paved the way for a revival of nationalism which was to lead to the Nazi seizure of power in 1933. According to Gedye:
‘Fascism, Hitlerism, dreamers of revanche and of a new-born militarism – those are the plants which the Allies nurtured in German soil. Democracy, pacifism, international understanding – those are the plants, which springing up after the Revolution, found themselves faced with the withering lack of sympathy and encouragement from the victorious Allies, who had it in their power for several vital years to encourage their growth by moderation and understanding….’
‘All the world knows to-day that British and American statesmanship at Paris [during the negotiations which led to the Treaty of Versailles] tried to stand out for more reasonable treatment for Germany, but was out-manoeuvred by the implacable determination of France to be revenged on her enemy and to push the disruption of the German State to the extreme limit….’
‘Month after month we watched the spontaneous efforts of the German people … to secure and consolidate the ground which had been won for democracy being foiled by Allied severity and distrust.’
Despite (perhaps because of) his pro-German and anti-French views at the time, Eric Gedye was no advocate of appeasement or the re-militarisation of Germany. In 1925 he left Germany to take up a position as Central European correspondent, based in Vienna, where he remained until 1938, working first for The Times, then for the Daily Express, and after 1929 for the Daily Telegraph and the New York Times. Fallen Bastions, another, later, book he wrote about his experiences leading up to the fall of Austria and Czechoslovakia to the Nazis, was a searing indictment of Nazi brutality and the failure of the British government to take a stand and confront Hitler head on. Here is a brief extract of what he wrote then, from a vivid description of the persecution of Jews by the Nazis in Vienna:
‘Mine [his apartment in Vienna] proved a good centre, too, for watching the favourite amusement of the Nazi mobs during many long weeks of forcing Jewish men and women to go down on hands and knees and scrub the pavements with acid preparations which bit into the skin, obliging them to go straight to hospital for treatment.’
In his view, the British government shared responsibility for and was complicit in permitting Nazi brutality, after agreeing to the German annexation of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. He wrote, in an article for a British audience:
‘The whole horrible drama [which he saw and described in Austria] is to-day being re-acted in the Sudeten areas. This time you must not blame Hitler so much. He has three colleagues. The immediate cause of the new horrors is that document signed at Munich on September 30th bearing the signatures of Chamberlain and Daladier as well as of Hitler and Mussolini which says:- “Great Britain, France, Italy and Germany have agreed on the following conditions and procedure and declare themselves individually responsible for their fulfilment.” Plunder, murder, insult, torture, concentration camps, ruined existences, head-hunting, refusal of asylum by the Czechs and brutal handing over of refugees to the Nazis – “individually responsible” are these four Powers, excluding Czechoslovakia but including Britain. Does that disturb your sleep?’
Some Nazis regarded him favourably during his time in Austria, without understanding his real views, (which were always to support the underdog and oppose extremism and violence), because (to quote him writing in Fallen Bastions), ‘in a book written some years before [ie The Revolver Republic], I had tried to arouse public opinion to the criminal follies of Poincaré-imperialism during the occupation of the Ruhr and the attempted establishment of a dummy separatist republic in the Rhineland.…. Apparently my Nazi admirers overlooked one little sentence in my book, written in 1929 to 1930, in which I warned against the dangers of a policy which was “causing a desperate nation to raise an obscure fanatic like Adolf Hitler to the threshold of a Fascist dictatorship under the device of ‘force to meet force’”. Evidently also my dossier did not contain a signed article which I wrote in the Contemporary Review soon after Hitler came to power in 1933. In it I compared the attitude of France and Britain towards the defeated democratic German republic after the war to that of two men, one of whom throughout a sultry summer day stones and torments a helpless dog on the chain, while the other occasionally says deprecatingly, “I don’t think you ought to be so cruel – and also unwise”, although doing nothing to interfere. I added, that when the wretched animal finally went mad under torment and broke its chains, that was not the moment for the inactive onlooker to run forward and try to pet and conciliate the mad dog with gifts. Whatever the dog’s innocence and the fault of its tormentor, there was only one thing to be done to the dog, once it had gone mad.’
The British learnt two different, contradictory lessons from their experience in Germany between the First and Second World War. The Rhineland occupation had failed twice in its supposed aim of preventing another war: it had been both too harsh, and too soft. The occupation had not been strict enough to enforce disarmament and prevent renewed aggression, but the withdrawal of all troops in 1930 had completely failed to promote reconciliation.
G. E. R. Gedye, The Revolver Republic: France’s Bid for the Rhine (London: J. W. Arrowsmith Limited, 1930)
G. E. R. Gedye, Fallen Bastions: The Central European Tragedy (London: Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1939)
Hugh Greene, ‘Gedye, (George) Eric Rowe (1890–1970)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004)