Professor Christie Davies
2004 is a year of three sad anniversaries in the unhappy relationship between Britain and France. Ninety years ago in August 1914 Britain was dragged into a war between France and Germany for which France was largely to blame. It was that French war that fatally undermined British power and thus Britain's ability and willingness to withstand the Nazi and Soviet threats that were the very consequence of the war that France began.
Not for the first time France had reduced Europe to ruins with her insane and criminal aggression. There ought to be a monument in English in Compiègne pointing this out. Britain's real folly though took place ten years earlier, one hundred years ago in 1904, when we agreed to the Entente Cordiale. The fact that it is always referred to in French tells us exactly who the beneficiary was. Without it Britain might well have prevaricated over and merely blustered about the German decision to send its troops through Belgium to get to France after war had broken out in 1914. More to the point the French might have had the sense not to go to war with their more powerful neighbour, Germany, if they had been fearful of what an unpredictable Britain might do.
France had been determined to go to war with Germany since her humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 when Germany annexed the German speaking provinces of Alsace and Lorraine which had been acquired in France's long creeping expansion on her eastern frontier. Indeed the history of France from the Thirty Years War to Louis XIV to Napoleon consists largely of aggression against her German neighbours . Napoleon III may have been tricked into going to war in 1870 but his bellicose response was entirely consistent with France's tradition of militarism and expansion. Napoleon III was after all the man who had meddled in Mexico during the American Civil War and fought against Austria alongside the Italians in order to acquire Nice and Savoy. He had also tried to obtain Belgium by subterfuge and behaved in a sufficiently threatening way towards Britain to cause us to improve our coastal fortifications. Bismarck merely sought the unification of Germany; there was no limit to Napoleon III's ambitions.
The French defeat in 1870 decisively confirmed France's decline from being the most powerful nation in Continental Europe to that of a feeble and unimportant country rapidly falling behind Germany in population, economic importance and military strength. A decent and sensible country would have accepted that its relegation to the second division was inevitable but the French now tried to drag every country they could find into fighting the Germans. The French threw enormous sums of money into the economic development and thus military strengthening of Russia, then lost it all and nearly ruined themselves. The French shamelessly manipulated the guileless British into thinking they ought to be at the heart of Europe even though they never got further than the Somme. This delusion of an enfeebled France that it somehow had a historic right to dominate Europe, if not by force then by chicanery, is still the source of many of our more recent problems.
The most tangible expression of the French obsession to reassert themselves was their determination to re-conquer Alsace-Lorraine, even though it was clear that this could only be achieved through a war of great destructiveness. The French had become that most dangerous of nations, a dissatisfied power seeking revenge and revanche, too weak to achieve its aims with ease yet strong enough to threaten the peace of Europe. By chance I have in front of me a textbook for French primary schools dated 3st May, 1902 called Mes Premieres Lectures, Historiettes Morales by M. A. Chalamet, member du conseil superieur de l'instruction publique. Much of it consists of fables about animals and sententious stories about bad but subsequently repentant children. It has the feel of a Sunday School prize given for regular attendance except that all reference to religion has been eliminated by the dogmatic state authorities in charge of French education. Sandwiched in the middle is a patriotic account of Alsace-Lorraine concluding, "Les Alsaciens-Lorrains n'ont pas oublie la France. La France ne doit pas les oublier". [The people of Alsace-Lorraine have not forgotten France. France must not forget them]. It is followed by the story of the trial of 'Un Patriote', Jerome Brunner tried by a German court for seditiously flying the French flag in Alsace. A childishly romantic little illustration shows Herr Brunner standing in the dock between two seated uniformed Germans in spiked helmets gesturing defiantly at the judge and boasting that his twenty year old son left Germany last month to join the French army. Here is the road map to the First World War in which many of the school-children fed on this twaddle would have been slaughtered. Even before the war they might well as teenagers during France's three year long period of conscription have been taken on an exercise into the hills above Colmar to look down on the spires of that German town and promise their officer that one day France would seize it back.
It is unfortunate that it has become customary to depict Imperial Germany as the great source of the worship of the uniform to the neglect of the red trousered French militarists who persecuted Dreyfus and coveted Colmar. Kaiser Wilhelm II was so shocked at the fanaticism, injustice and anti-Semitism of the French army in the trials of Captain Dreyfus that he offered to hand over German intelligence documents to prove the man's innocence. There are still historians in the French army who think Dreyfus was guilty. The sheer crackpot irrationality of the anti-Drefusards was the product of a militaristic revenge-seeking society desperate to believe in the infallibility of its anachronistic army.
By contrast the Germans had no designs on French territory. After all it was they who had chosen where the frontier should be. Their ambitions and their fears lay elsewhere. It was the French who sought the western front on which they were to be decimated. It was the British who in the end held the line on this front and the Americans who saved the day. The Anglo-Saxons whom the French so much resent had been manipulated into propping up an ungrateful France. In their simple-minded idealism the British and the Americans thought they had been fighting for democracy in the war to end war. They had not. They had merely been used as an instrument in the cynical power politics of the French. 1904 and 1914 led inevitably to the third anniversary remembered in 2004 , D-Day 1944 when the British, the Canadians and the Americans once again saved the French. This time the Anglo-Saxons really were fighting for democracy. The French were not. A large proportion of them had been enthusiasts for Petain and another massive segment were loyal only to the Soviet Union. It is no wonder that they subsequently both fought vicious colonial wars in Indo-China and Algeria and were feeble and unreliable allies in NATO.
"Why ", some readers may ask "are you telling us all these unpleasant truths about the wretched French?" Even those who do not doubt the facts may feel that to deploy these arguments in a modern context will only exacerbate our already difficult and adversary relationship with them. Why then does their argument not apply to the Germans? German political leaders are rightly annoyed at the way history is taught in British schools, what has been termed the Hitlerisation of British history teaching. In Britain German history is taught badly and tendentiously to seventeen year olds who have no knowledge of the German language by concentrating on the twelve quite atypical disaster years of National Socialism, 1933-1945. I have taught such students after they had entered the university where I have been appalled at their lack of analytical skills and their inability to think their way outside the interpretations that they had been fed. Those who designed the school syllabuses should be ashamed of themselves; they went for cheap popularity not true learning and have unfairly villainised an entire people by concentrating on a tiny segment of its history. It verges on Vansittartism. The idea that is put in their heads is one that in its extreme version was propounded by Sir Robert Vansittart in his pamphlet Black Record. German history becomes a tale of almost continuous brutal aggression from Arminius' (Hermann) ambush of Varus' legions in the Teutoburgerwald through to the Teutonic knights and the Prussian army, to blood and iron under Bismarck, to the Schlieffen plan, to the shooting of francs-tireurs and Edith Cavelle in Belgium, to the " unfair" waging of war by U-boats and Zeppelins. Everything that doesn't fit is left out and the aggressive episodes in the history of Germany's neighbours are not mentioned, particularly those that have involved repeated invasions and devastation of Germany. In this way all German history has evolved inevitably towards the Third Reich. In a world where everyone else was becoming benign and democratic, Germany was an "exception" and somehow this is the fault of certain inherent aspects of the German character that constitutes the very essence of the German people. If it were said about anyone else it would be immediately denounced as racist nonsense but it is still open season on the Hun. Vansittartism is alive and well.
National Socialism should be studied as sociology not as history. It is part of a wider set of vicious phenomena that are not limited to Germany - a continent wide anti-Semitism that was to be found from Paris to Odessa, the rise of stratification by militant parties which later became Continental Europe's deadly export to China, Cambodia and Iraq, the worship of force and collectivism as an antidote to Anglo-American "materialism". None of these things are peculiar to Germany. That they triumphed together in a singularly horrible form under National Socialism is due to defeat , reparations, the rise of Communism and the failure of the American economy in 1929 rather than anything specifically German. It could not have happened in Britain because we are not part of that Continental world but it could easily have happened in France if that country had been defeated early on in World War I, crushed with reparations and forced to cede core French-speaking areas of France to Germany along with Morrocco and bits of central Africa. There would soon have arisen a National Socialist French workers party with a screaming anti-semitic fanatic to lead it. All the elements to build a Nazi party in France had long been present.
In particular, we should not forget the anti-Semitism of the condemners of Dreyfus, Action Française and the Croix de Feu (the party Mitterand's first joined) which found in its final expression in the rounding up of Jews for deportation by the Milice. During the second world war, after the French defeat, Marshal Pétain, the legitimate ruler of France, placed in his high office by a free vote of the French parliament and an overwhelming majority of those votes would sit and glumly contemplate the ruin of France. After much thought he would say "C'est les Juifs" to a former President of the Senate from Martinique who would reply "Oui c'est les Juifs". At the end of the war when Charles Maurras the anti-Semitic leader of Action Française was expelled from the Academie Française he commented " Dreyfus has won". Fanatical anti-Semitism was not a German monopoly.
We have also already seen the rage for revanche and the blind militarism of the French after 1870. How much more enraged would they have been if they had been forced to surrender yet again in 1914? "Ancient combatants" and red trousered fascists would have brawled in the streets with treasonable communists taking their orders from the Soviet Union. The guilty men who had stabbed France in the back and signed a demeaning peace treaty would have been execrated and even assassinated. Hyper-inflation would have destroyed the savings under the mattress of every peasant in France. The collapse of the banks would have been blamed on the Jews as it had been before.
If a remilitarised National Socialist France had set out to assert itself in Europe there would have been no lack of atrocities for the heirs of Goya to paint. One of the best hidden scandals of World War II is the way the Free French army raped and pillaged its way through Italy. For the inhabitants of Elba there was only one thing worse than being occupied by the Germans and that was being liberated by the French. The horrors of the Epuration in France at the end of the war, the brutal reoccupation of Vietnam, the systematic use of torture in Algeria are all indications that the French would have been quite capable of sustaining a regime of truly Nazi brutality once it had been brought into existence.
The moral of the story is that neither in 1904 nor in 1914 should we have shown or have any sympathy with France's fear of being dominated by Germany , nor should we have any in 2004. A Europe dominated by Hitler would have been horrendous but a Kaiserly Europe would have been better than a war in which over a million British and Imperial troops were killed. What would it have mattered if the Germans had come to dominate the Balkans and run Baghdad for the Turks? As countries like Germany grow in wealth and power they have to be accommodated much as Britain chose to cultivate the growing United States after the Civil War and settle grievances on American terms. For Britain to ally itself with a nation on the way out like France was inane. It was also undemocratic. The conversations and implicit agreements between the British and French General Staffs after the Entente Cordiale were kept secret from the British people because of their traditional distrust and dislike of the French. Edward VII's direct discussions with the French were unconstitutional and his Francophilia was probably based on nothing more than his gratitude to a nation that had invented devices to raise and lower that corpulent king or his two female partners during innovative forms of sexual congress on a specially designed chair. How much better it would have been for the world if Edward VII had been gay! He could have taken his holidays with Krupp in Capri and established a rapport with Wilhelm through the camarilla led by Prince Philip zu Eulenberg, a shrewd, far-sighted and restraining influence on his Kaiser . Better Gomorrah than Armentières.
In recent decades we have gone on making the same mistake. It is taken for granted that the French still have a legitimate interest in reining Germany in, in tying Germany ever tighter in a European Union lest it become too powerful. Many in France opposed and were fearful of German reunification precisely because it recreated a populous and powerful nation in the heart of Europe that will once again overshadow France. Yet why should a democratic and peaceful Germany not dominate Europe and not impose its commercial and agricultural interests on France. It should be Britain's policy to encourage such a development, much as we should have done in 1904-14. It would be better for Britain than the present unnatural Franco-German alliance in which the French, once again struggling to maintain the delusion of their own importance, exercise an influence out of all proportion to their real power. If Germany were to gain her rightful position at the heart of Europe, the French would soon discover the necessity for treating the Americans with a suitable degree of deference or even fawning. It is time for Britain slowly to disentangle itself from Europe and leave the French to their fate and the Germans to their inheritance.