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Nader Elhefnawy



AUTHOR'S NOTE: This essay began when I was reading Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men. One of the first major events in his "future history" of the world is "the Anglo-French War." Naturally this seemed surprising from the standpoint of 2002, but apparently it had seemed plausible in 1930, and it reminded me of a slim volume by Basil Liddell Hart, Paris, or the Future of War, which appeared just five years earlier. In it Hart, one of the most respected military theorists of the twentieth century, was preoccupied with French military power and its potential threat to Britain--much more so than any potential German threat. Naturally that got me wondering about the relationship between Britain and France in the 1920s, and whether a war could have really happened between them, and what its consequences might have been, but I didn't think very much about it until I began researching the critical literature about Stapledon for my Ph.D dissertation. While Last and First Men is on the whole regarded as a masterpiece, its early chapters, concerning humanity's near future, are widely dismissed by critics like Brian Aldiss and Gregory Benford. This only made me more curious, and contrary to the received opinion, I found that there was a great deal to at least this part of the story. Using what I found, I began constructing my own counterfactual around that point of divergence, presented below.


- N.E., 11 Feb. 2007



While this fact is often forgotten because of the century of Anglo-French alliance recently celebrated in 1904, the "ancient antagonism between Britain and France revived very soon after the end of the" First World War.1 Indeed, some at the time predicted that the next great conflict would be between these two countries--a scenario that Olaf Stapledon notably played out in his future history, the science fiction classic Last and First Men.2


A glance at maps of Europe and the world before and after the war makes the reasons for such thinking quickly apparent. France's combination of size, wealth and location made it the most direct potential threat to the United Kingdom, as indeed it was for several centuries. The same went for its colonies, given the extent of France's own colonial possessions in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, as well as France's position along sea lanes crucial to Britain's interests--particularly the Mediterranean route linking it to India and the Far East. (That geography was one reason why Britain feared German dominion over France; it would then have been able to exploit bases on France's Atlantic coast for threatening British territory.)


Furthermore, World War I may have hurt France badly, but arguably hurt it less than most of the other great powers which had participated in the nineteenth century "Concert of Europe." Austria's empire was dismantled, and both Russia and Germany suffered substantial territorial losses--much of which went to form new states in Eastern Europe which allied themselves with France (like Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia). Germany, moreover, was crippled economically by reparations payments, and militarily by the Versailles Treaty's restrictions on its forces.3 


This left France in its most promising strategic situation since Napoleon's day, in the view of the more alarmist British observers, who were of course no more willing to accept French domination of the continent than German. British foreign policy had, after all, been driven for centuries by the desire to preserve a balance of power, keeping any one nation from becoming dominant, with France usually the nation Britain tried to keep in check.


French military power in particular raised eyebrows. While Britain rushed to demobilize, France, unwilling to disarm without guarantees of its security, retained a large standing military force, including the world's largest air force.5 In combination with the air forces of its East European allies, it could muster twice the air power of the rest of Europe combined.6 Even alone, it had three times as many planes as Britain, more than 900 aircraft to Britain's 300.7


British writers routinely obsessed over the tonnage the French air force might be able to drop on London in a single day--greater than was dropped on it during the war. In the early 1920s British officials justified the expansion of the Royal Air Force through reference to France's considerable air power, a matter understood in quite different terms from today.


Airplanes: Yesteryear's WMDs


In this period the airplane was seen as a virtually unstoppable weapon, a view epitomized by British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin's notorious quip that "The bomber will always get through."8 Wrong as Baldwin was, this view was not totally baseless at the time. One reason for this was the increasing advantage of aircraft over air defenses as their speed rose, reducing the warning time that "visual and acoustic" methods gave air defense commanders in the pre-radar age.9 At the same time it was logistically impractical to completely and thoroughly cover the territory of a nation of any size with fighter patrols and anti-aircraft guns--as Italian General Giulio Douhet pointedly emphasized in his 1921 book Command of the Air, still the most influential treatise on the subject.


This made air power a purely offensive instrument, and at that, one best used not in tactical support of armies and navies, but in a strategic campaign against the enemy's rear areas. In his book he explicitly posited the use of massed air power, dropping explosive, incendiary and bio-chemical weapons on civilian populations, shattering a nation's fighting power in a very short time. Indeed, he went so far as to say that a fleet of even twenty operational planes put a nation's "aero-chemical arm" in a position "to break up the whole social structure of the enemy in less than a week, no matter what his army and navy may do."10


While extreme even by the standards of the time, Douhet was far from alone in making such excessive claims. Like him the noted British military theorist Basil Liddell Hart argued that the mere threat of an attack was enough to empty cities and causing more disruption than the bombs themselves. As Liddell Hart wrote in Paris, or The Future of War, a volume specifically addressing non-experts, the "modern state is such a complex and interdependent fabric that it offers a target highly sensitive to a sudden and overwhelming blow from the air."11 "Provided that the blow be sufficiently swift and powerful . . . within a few hours, or at most a few days from the commencement of hostilities" an air attack could paralyze an entire country.12 Not content with such abstractions, he went on to paint a rather lurid picture of the chaos:



Imagine for a moment London, Manchester, Birmingham, and half a dozen other great cities simultaneously attacked, the business localities and Fleet Street wrecked, Whitehall a heap of ruins, the slum districts maddened into the impulse to break loose and maraud.13



Liddell Hart's thinking, moreover, reflected not just the speculations of cutting-edge theorists, but the formation of policy at the highest levels. An October 1925 estimate by the British Air Staff posited that a French air campaign would kill three thousand people and wound twice that many in the first forty-eight hours.14 There would be another twenty-five hundred casualties every day the campaign continued after that, though the campaign probably would not have had to continue for long, as "moral collapse" would have come swiftly enough.


This particular combination of a purely offensive instrument against which no defense is practical (save for the destruction of the enemy's own forces through the judicious use of that instrument); the explicit direction of this instrument primarily at civilian populations; and the use of qualitatively different weapons enabling the destruction of a city in a single stroke, a good-sized country in a few such strokes; is remarkably similar to how later theorists would think about nuclear missiles.15


This equation of relatively primitive air power with the destructive force of such later weaponry did involve a great deal of exaggeration, both on the part of theorists hyping a favored weapon and bureaucratic in-fighters trying to frighten treasuries into bigger defense budgets.16  Even then, the British General Staff notably attacked these predictions as an exaggeration, particularly in their estimates of how many attacking aircraft would reach their targets.17 Additionally--though this would be more apparent later--the French air force was organized to operate in tactical support of the French army, rather than as a strategic bombing force, making the scenario even more unlikely.18 Nonetheless, this is very far from saying that these ideas did not have real adherents, or that they were without influence at the level of policy, however. There is no question that these scenarios facilitated the growth of the Royal Air Force.


However, even if other services rightly saw the RAF's claims as suspect, they too were worried over French military strength. The British favored a ban on the submarine after the war, but the French favored their retention, and their position was the reason why the 1922 Washington Naval Treaties saw no limit placed on submarine construction.19 Nor was the French position a formality. The French also invested heavily in submarines in the years that followed, building 21 submarines in the 1922-24 period alone.20 This led B.L. Hart to term it the world's foremost submarine power, and to conclude rather dramatically that the "existence of [Britain] is dependent on the good-will of France, the supreme air and submarine power commanding both the vital centers of England and our overseas communications."21 Such goodwill was not something the British felt they could count on.


The Post-War Anglo-French Relationship


The anxiety about France was not merely due to a perceived superabundance of French military power. French attitudes and actions also contributed. As P.H. Bell noted, the French fear of Germany seemed to the British exaggerated and neurotic, and its more general attitude militaristic and aggressive.22


The image of French militarism was all the stronger because it was not novel. Through the nineteenth century it was France, not Germany, which was seen as exemplifying militarism in Europe, old memories of Louis XIV and Napoleon dying hard. As Niall Ferguson recently noted, the French remained the more militaristic nation prior to World War I, going by the measurable indexes of this: the share of national income devoted to military spending, and the percentage of the population under arms.23 One result was that France was at the time the world's foremost air power, and through the 1930s would retain Europe's second-largest army and air force apart from the Soviet Union.24 France's navy was less impressive, with just a third of the capital ship tonnage of Britain (or the United States) under the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922, but its responsibilities were more limited, and as described above, its submarine arm was particularly impressive.25 Additionally, in a Franco-German confrontation its advantage would have been overwhelming.26


Apart from the desire for balance on the continent, which implied a Germany strong enough to counterbalance France (though not strong enough to dominate the continent itself), the British government wanted to see Germany's economy recover.27 Despite economic competition between Britain and Germany in certain areas (for instance, in forming trade relationships with the Baltic countries), Germany had been an important trading partner for Britain, a "market equal to that of Canada and South Africa combined" as Norman Angell put it in The Great Illusion.28 Britain's post-war economy was in a precarious enough position without its forgoing the renewal of that relationship.29


Moreover, France demonstrated a willingness to use its military weight to achieve its ends, not just unilaterally, but in the face of British disapproval. Britain refused to support France in its attempts to enforce Germany's reparations payments, as when it occupied the Ruhr from 1923 to 1925--an act which important sectors of the British policy establishment saw as threatening.30


Britain also refused to extend to France the guarantee of its border with Germany that it wanted. Britain's initial promise of such a guarantee had been conditional on the U.S. ratifying an agreement in which it extended a similar guarantee, but this never came to pass in the isolationist political atmosphere of post-World War I America. (Unlike the Versailles Treaty, President Woodrow Wilson did not even put the American guarantee before the Senate.) This nullified Britain's guarantee.


The attempt to remedy the situation at the Locarno conference of 1925, instead of belatedly giving the French what they were looking for, provided for "the maintenance of the territorial status quo" between Germany and France, Belgium, Poland and Czechoslovakia (with Britain and Italy acting as external backers). In this case the "guarantee" not only obliged Britain to aid France in the event of a German attack, but obliged Britain to similarly aid Germany should France attack it. Additionally, while the signatories to the treaty were all required to aid the attacked country, the text is vague about what exactly would have been expected of the participants. What, for instance, constituted an actionable offense, short of outright invasion?31 Moreover, military aid is not explicitly specified, let alone the large commitment of ground troops the French expected from Britain. Other gestures, such as the British government's again quashing the idea for a Channel Tunnel (which the French had hoped would allow for the more rapid deployment of British troops to the continent), similarly undermined French confidence in Britain.32


The settlement in the Near East was less fundamental to French interests, but perhaps also less satisfactory. For all of France's grievances over British attitudes in Europe, Britain was not actively working against French interests there (even if it was willing to dismiss them), or the French against the British. This was not so where the partition of the Ottoman Empire was concerned.


Under the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, Britain would control eastern Arabia, Mesopotamia and Jordan. France would receive control over southeastern Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and the oil-rich Ottoman province of Mosul.33 Palestine would be an allied condominium. Britain, however, reneged on this agreement. Britain's sponsorship of Feisal as King of Syria undermined France's control of its zone, and the Balfour Declaration of a Jewish homeland in Palestine has been interpreted in some sectors as an anti-French move. Additionally, Britain speedily grabbed Mosul at the end of World War I and welded it together with Baghdad and Basra to form modern Iraq.34


Later, the French would go so far as to imagine T.E. Lawrence stirring up trouble in their colonies on behalf of British imperial interests--though of course, the duplicity was not all on one side.35 When the Allies faced down Mustapha Kemal in Turkey, France cut a separate deal, and even agreed to sell arms to him while the fighting was still ongoing. Partly as a result of France's betrayal, the 1920 Treaty of Sevres which ended the fighting between the Allies and the Ottoman Empire was nullified, and the subsequent Treaty of Lausanne frustrated many important British aims.36 Turkey retained eastern Thrace and Smyrna (which Sevres had granted control of over to Britain's ally Greece), and discarded the Capitulations, special trade concessions the major Western powers had enjoyed throughout the Ottoman Empire. While "the Straits" were subjected to the control of an international commission upholding the freedom of passage through it, Turkey retained sovereignty over the shores along them and islands inside them (and they would be demilitarized until 1936).37 Additionally, the plans for an independent Armenia and Kurdistan were quashed.


It should also be noted that the interests of Britain and particularly France were tied to those of still other states, and the interests of various French and British clients often conflicted. This left France and Britain on opposite sides in still more issues, Polish behavior a case in point.


Poland's comparative weakness aside, its territory lay between Germany and the Soviet Union. Moreover, it was more dissatisfied than France with the territorial settlement ending the war. As a result, the new Polish state frequently clashed with its neighbors (not just Germany, but Lithuania, Soviet Russia and Ukraine) in its quest for more favorable borders. It also sought a new version of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth of the late Middle Ages, through grouping the Baltic countries, Belarus and Ukraine with itself in a bloc strong enough to resist both the Soviet Union and Germany.38


France, which viewed Poland as a necessary eastern check to Germany, was naturally much more supportive of such action on Poland's part than Britain was, a reality reflected in the early disagreement over the question of Upper Silesia after the war. The British favored Germany's retention of the entire territory, France its going to Poland. (In the end it was partitioned between the two countries, neither of which was fully satisfied by the resulting arrangement.40)


Of course, despite all these conflicts, there were powerful factors keeping the Anglo-French conflict from getting out of hand, besides the aforementioned war-weariness and their mutual, if quite different, concern about Germany. One was Britain's bad case of "imperial overstretch," which had become undeniable by the late nineteenth century, and had grown steadily worse since then. The country's economic exhaustion and political troubles in the colonies and at home after World War I left it even worse off than it was at the start of the conflict, despite the aggrandizement of its territory.


As a result, British policymakers tended to respond cautiously to challenges during these years, and their perception of overwhelming French power was more intimidating than anything they faced from other potential foes during the crises of the 1920s.41 Neither Kemal, nor Mussolini, wielded anything like the threat of French bombers blasting London and French submarines disrupting their shipping lanes.


Moreover, Britain was preoccupied with threats further afield, even as the Air Staff pointed to the French air force. Some of those problems were relatively abstract, such as its competition with the United States and the perceived threat from Soviet Bolsheviks aside. Others were not. In particular Japan's considerable and growing military power, which compelled Britain to forge an alliance with it in 1902, continued to occupy much of the energy of British planners.42 In short, just as Britain went to considerable lengths to limit its commitment to France, there would have been even less enthusiasm for going to war on Germany's behalf.


French belligerence also should not be exaggerated, either, a substantial party in that country calling for reconciliation with Germany.43 The left, a significant political force in France, was on the whole strongly opposed to a repeat of the conflict. Germany had been an important trading partner for the French as well as the British, and powerful industrial and other economic interests wished to see those links restored, in France as well as England. Additionally, just as the British wished to limit their commitment to France, so did the French wish to limit their commitment to their East European allies, who were rarely as effective as they could have been. The Little Entente of Poland and Czechoslovakia were no substitute for Russia and Austria, and the problem was compounded by the failure of the Poles and the Czech to cooperate with one another.44


At the same time the French continued to hope for British cooperation in the security realm, especially given their more precarious view of their strategic situation. France's "inferiority to Germany in the industrial and human resources necessary for war" meant that it needed strong friends, and was willing to give up a great deal to have them.45 Turning Britain from a friend into an enemy was not a risk they would have run lightly, especially given that they were far less paranoid about Britain's less formidable aerial capabilities. The French were also less dependent on their colonies than Britain was, tending to be objects of emotional or symbolic more than strategic value, as in the case of Syria. Even were this not the case, given their naval weakness, the French may have been unwilling to fight a colonial war in which they had to sail over waters patrolled by the Royal Navy.46


Given these factors, even the combination of Britain's fears of French power, influence and militarism with the numerous conflicts of interest between the two countries seems unlikely to have produced a scenario in which either side could have seen an opportunity, or danger, justifying a resort to force by one against the other. On the other hand, the sense of threat was very severe in some quarters, albeit for brief periods; and the theorists of the day were selling the idea of quick, decisive victory, particularly through air power, but also through armor and submarines.


The introduction of some new factor into the calculus could also have changed their perceptions of their interests, such as a heightened sense of threat from Germany on the part of the French and the Poles. In particular, earlier successes by Germany's radical right might have made the French and their allies feel more threatened, and indeed, Marshall Jozef Pilsudski of Poland proposed they undertake a preventive war after Hitler's rise to power in the 1930s.47 Alternatively, greater anxiety about the Soviet Union on the part of British policymakers (which they saw as more dangerous than a resurgent Germany after the war's end) might have compelled an even more conciliatory attitude toward Germany in an attempt to woo it away from "the Bolsheviks."


This could, of course, have alleviated France's position. France feared both the potential of Germany to develop the Soviet economy, and the joining of the Soviet Union's military weight to Germany's own. Indeed, one of Locarno's disappointments for the French was its failure to secure against such a German-Soviet connection. Nonetheless, it may also have backfired with regard to Anglo-French relations. British friendliness toward Germany, already problematic for French policymakers, could have exceeded what France thought tolerable. Of course, this raises the question of whether Britain, in attempting to shore up its position by reconciling with an enemy, might alienate an important ally, which sounds implausible. However, Niall Ferguson argues that this is exactly what Britain did prior to World War I as it mended its fences with its traditional enemies France and Russia (ironically, because they had seemed the more threatening).48 The French may well have feared that Britain had returned to its traditional practice of using Germany to contain French power.


Smaller, less directly relevant events could have also played a role. An emotionally charged incident, perhaps a confrontation over their colonies in the Near East, insufficient to start a war but enough to poison relations, could also have caused their relationship to deteriorate, the two nations later suffering the consequences in a moment of crisis.


The Anglo-French War of 192?


In such circumstances the French may then have ceased to place any hope in British military support, just as they had lost confidence in American support after the U.S.'s inward turn, and decided to rely on themselves and their East European allies. They may, for instance, have opted to wage a preventive war on Germany, perhaps a limited one, but perhaps also one which would definitively settle "the German question" before the country could capitalize on its massive potential power.


To that end they may have settled on the obvious alternate to conciliating Germany or containing it through a truly robust alliance system: partition not of German states, but Germany as a whole, reversing the country's unification in the nineteenth century. One option they had was the imposition of a more decentralized, confederal constitution. Another was to strip Germany of additional territory, either annexing it (as Poland might have done with Silesia, or less plausibly, France with the Rhinelnad) or perhaps created new independent states out of captured territory, such as a sovereign Bavarian republic.49


In the event of such an action Britain (and Italy) would have been legally obliged to come to Germany's aid.50 It is conceivable that Britain's simply clarifying its readiness to intervene militarily would have stopped these events short of war, but the French may have viewed Britain's threat as lacking credibility; been convinced of the prospect of securing a quick victory, before Britain could mobilize; or believed even British action was less dangerous than their not acting at the time.


This is more plausible than it seems in hindsight. Part of France's rationale in attacking Germany at this time would have been its skepticism about the reliability of "perfidious Albion." Had they felt themselves able to rely on British support, they would not have been acting in this way at this point. They also may not have seen a British commitment to Germany as having had all that much more solidity than the commitment Britain was supposed to extend to them. It is in fact probable that once the fighting started the British would have dragged their feet on intervention, because of distaste for another war, a difficult strategic situation--and their lack of preparedness. They may have opted to not act in accordance with their Locarno commitment, at least initially, perhaps while they rearmed and tried to compel France and its allies to change course through cheaper diplomatic and other measures.


Britain's slowness to act, in turn, would also have made Italy--a considerably weaker ally than the United Kingdom--slower to act. While Italy did in the end oppose the French-led occupation of the Ruhr, it appears that Italy's policy toward Germany was shaped more by fear of Germany than any other factor. Additionally, Italian foreign policy was highly opportunistic, suggesting that France could have bought Italy off from fulfilling its treaty obligation, or perhaps even persuaded it to join the effort in some way.51


As a result Germany would have probably had to hold out with at the most some degree of Italian or Soviet support (though neither country was in an especially strong position to take such action in the 1920s)--and at this point, Germany's military was no match for the French. The naval imbalance aside, its army was limited by the Versailles Treaty to a paltry 100,000 troops, without armored cars, tanks or aircraft.


It should be noted, however, that the German military was not quite as weak as it appeared on paper, the German government routinely cheating on the terms of the treaty. For instance, while Germany was forbidden to have an air force, the national airline Lufthansa and an assortment of flying clubs provided a convenient cover for maintaining the human and technical base for one. German officers also trained as pilots in the Soviet Union, and Germany put a great deal of effort into gliders and rockets as a way of circumventing the restrictions on planes and airships, a track which would pay off for it during World War II. Nonetheless, there was a limit to what such dodges could accomplish, and it is far from certain that the approach to war would have given even a more militaristic German government the opportunity to recover significantly. (Hitler's own rearmament process in the 1930s took several years, and that after the treaty's enforcement had become much more relaxed.)


It is conceivable, however, that the German military would not have been the only thing the French and their allies had to face. Just as Mustapha Kemal rallied the nationalists in the wake of the Ottoman government's defeat, something similar may have happened in a Germany on the point of being overrun. While resistance to the French occupation of the Ruhr in actuality was more limited than the Nazis later made it out to be, paramilitary groups played a prominent role in German history during that period. It was such paramilitaries, the Freikorps, which fought the Spartacist League and put down the Bavarian Soviet Republic during the German Revolution.


Groups like the Steel Helmet, League of Frontline Soldiers; the Young German Order; and the SA (Stormtroopers), already commanded tens or hundreds of thousands of members in the early 1920s, dwarfing the German army. The vast numbers of demobilized, often alienated veterans were quite capable of rapidly swelling the membership of these groups on short notice, the SA numbering in the millions prior to the Night of the Long Knives. It is conceivable that they would have similarly taken up arms against the invading French and their allies in the event of war, and that some of them (like the SA) would have temporarily made common cause with leftist groups to this end, further boosting the size of the force they could put in the field.


The British, deeply interested in slowing or stopping the French with a minimum of effort, may well have opted to sell arms to the German nationalists.52 Of course, it would have been difficult to get arms to them through the country's Baltic and North Sea ports short of fighting a naval war in these regions. Short of such an open intervention, Britain might have tried to move those weapons through other states, with perhaps Italy via Austria the most likely route.


A "people's war" of this kind, even with limited support from foreign government, may not have made victory impossible for the French. The Germans would still have been seriously disadvantaged in heavy weaponry and air power. However, it would have made the conflict that much more difficult for the French-led coalition. At the same time, the protraction of the conflict would have made it difficult for other states to keep their distance, Britain included, particularly if it seemed likely that France would achieve its aims. Equally, Italy's competition with the French in the Mediterranean could have contributed to its eventually entering the war in a significant way against the French-led alliance.53


Britain may have been resistant to commit large numbers of ground troops (given its anomalous and unhappy experience of this in World War I), but its air force and navy could have intervened in support of Germany. Italian troop deployments could have tied down French troops and planes in the south of the country and the North African colonies, while Italian warships menaced France's Mediterranean coast. Meanwhile French subs would likely have struck at Britain's lifeline through the Med, while the British in turn tried to pry away French colonies, perhaps attempting to squeeze the French out of Syria.54


Whatever the precise strategies the belligerents followed, the war would have borne a closer resemblance to World War I than II, the new aerial and armored instruments that enabled quick victories still being comparatively undeveloped. Air power in particular would have produced results far short of what its "prophets" predicted.55 As with World War I, decision might have come instead through exhaustion (though given the demographic and economic costs of the previous war, and the widespread war-weariness, this would probably not have taken four years).56


Of course, this seems to hold out the hope of a brief war which might have prevented worse later--the rise of the Nazis, the collapse of the League of Nations, World War II. However, while this may have been possible, it does not seem probable. Rather than the League of Nations rising to the occasion, it is more likely that the League's true weakness would have been exposed. In particular the U.S. seems unlikely to have paid more attention to European and world affairs as a result. Even in World War II, when the memory of war was more distant and the stakes higher, the U.S. did not openly and significantly enter until the attack on Pearl Harbor, which would not have been forthcoming.


The war would also have fueled domestic turmoil in the belligerent countries. Besides Germany's problems, Mussolini was still consolidating his position, and Britain was seeing increased agitation by its labor movement. Western Europe may have seen new outbreaks of socialist revolution, but fascist takeovers of some kind seem more likely, even if the specifics would have differed. (For instance, Mussolini might have fallen if the war went badly for Italy, but Oswald Mosley might have risen to power in England.)


The combination of war damage and political instability would have probably accelerated the decline of Europe's empires, making their grip on their colonies tenuous and opening up opportunities for actors like the U.S., the Soviet Union and Japan to expand their influence. Still, while they would have fallen faster up to a point, they might not have fallen quite so far, at least where their being eclipsed by other powers is concerned. American expansion may have been predominantly economic, U.S. political leadership and military superpower status coming along more slowly than they did in our history. Bretton Woods, the Marshall Plan, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the United Nations--these things would have come about much later, or not at all. The Soviet Union might have recovered lost territory in Eastern Europe (perhaps repartitioning Poland with Germany), but it is hard to picture a Soviet army standing at the Fulda Gap as a result. Japan might have enjoyed a freer hand in China, and earlier or more successfully made a play for European colonies like French Indochina, or the Dutch East Indies. The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere may have become a reality.


Technological progress, by contrast, would probably have been slowed, particularly in fields where the prospects of progress and the return on investment were unclear--like rocketry and nuclear energy. The radical impact of ballistic missiles and nuclear weaponry on warfare may well have been delayed, fundamentally changing the military balance in a radically different political landscape. The Cold War, which was a direct result of the division of Europe between nuclear-armed superpowers, would have happened quite differently or not at all.


Along with the more primitive state of rocketry, this would have delayed the beginning of the space age, and perhaps also the development of many of its spin-offs in areas ranging from solar panels, to high-speed, long-distance communications, to computing. In the end those of us looking back from 2007 might be living in a world whose transformation had been less revolutionary and more evolutionary. Perhaps that would have been the biggest difference of all.




1 Stephen Roskill, Naval Policy Between the Wars, vol. 1 (London: Collins, 1968) pp. 19-20.

2 Olaf Stapledon, Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future (Los Angeles: Jeffrey P. Tarcher, Inc., 1988), pp. 3-13.

3 Germany, however, retained considerable potential power. Even in 1920 Germany was producing almost three times as much steel as France, and while Germany's population was only slightly larger than France's, its much higher birth rate (France's population growth was nearly static at the time) caused French planners great consternation. Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (New York: Random House, 1987), pp. 200-202. Additionally, the removal of Russia as a check on Germany could also be read as a disadvantage in a future Franco-German confrontation.

4 Meanwhile, Britain was more anxious about the Soviet Union than about any German resurgence, which was a prime reason for its moderation toward Germany, where a socialist revolution broke out at the end of the war. In the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution there had been fears that the Soviets would overrun Poland and link up the two revolutions, assuring socialist dominance of the continent. For one of the few works available in English on the subject of Germany's revolution, see Sebastian Haffner, Failure of a Revolution: Germany 1918-1919, trans. by George Rapp (New York: Library Press, 1973).

5 Lee Kennett, A History of Strategic Bombing (New York: Scribner, 1982) p. 72.

6 Ibid.

7 Basil Liddell Hart, Paris, or The Future of War (New York: Garland Publishing, 1925), p. 39.

8 Basil Collier, A History of Air Power (New York: Macmillan, 1974), p. 98.

9 Ibid.

10 Guilio Douhet, The Command of the Air, trans. Dino Ferrari (New York: Coward-McCann, 1942), p. 142.

11 Hart, p. 41.

12 Hart, pp. 40-41.

13 Hart, pp. 41-42.

14 Webster, pp. 62-63.

15 Indeed, this was reflected in the presentation of the sort of "post-apocalyptic world" today familiar from nuclear war stories as the aftermath of aerial wars in early fiction on that subject. An excellent example is H.G. Wells's 1907 novel The War in the Air.

16 P.M.H. Bell, France and Britain 1900-1940: Entente and Estrangement (London: Longman, 1996), p. 162.

17 Charles Webster and Noble Frankland, The Strategic Air Offensive Against Germany, 1939-1945, vol. 1 (London: H.M. Stationery Office, 1961) p. 63.

18 Collier, p. 96.

19 Roskill, p. 92; pp. 326-328.

20 Additionally, while the construction rate fell to 2 a year for 1925-26, built another 43 between 1927 and 1930. Only Japan's investment was comparable--which, of course, was even more worrying to British planners. Roskill, pp. 580-585.

21 Hart, pp. 60-61.

22 Bell, pp. 160-161.

23 In fact, he goes so far as to argue that Germany's action in World War I was a preventive war motivated by justified fears of French (and Russian) militarism. See Ferguson, The Pity of War: Explaning World War I (New York: BasicBooks, 1998). Of course, since France had only half as much national income and sixty percent as large a population as Germany in 1914, it may have had to make that much more effort. Kennedy, Great Powers, pp. 200-202.

24 Kennedy, Great Powers, p. 310.

25 The capital ship (battleship) tonnage of France's navy was limited to 175,000 tons, compared with 525,000 tons for the American and British navies under the agreement.

26 The Versailles Treaty specified strict limits on the number, type and age of the ships Germany could retain, with a total tonnage set for 108,000 tons for all ship classes, down to torpedo boats. It was also limited to six battleships of no more than 10,000 tons, where Washington Treaty signatories could build ships displacing up to 35,000 tons, and explicitly forbidden from building any submarines. As a result, the German navy was little more than a coastal defense force.

27 In cases it was more than implied, many British officials explicitly taking the view that a united, viable Germany was a necessary counterbalance to French power. Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), pp. 251-252.

28 This book is, of course, Angell's classic 1911 rendition of the argument that trade had rendered great power war a thing of the past--and frequently cited today as an example of how history quickly disproved that argument.

29 Marie-Jacqueline Powell, The Battleground of High Politics: A Comparative Study of British and French Policies Toward the Baltic States 1917-1939 (Sussex, England: The Book Guild, 2003) pp. 165-194.

30 The Central Department of the British Foreign Office in 1924 took the position that France's occupation of the Ruhr may have been a jumping-off point into Central Europe. Additionally, the Admiralty expressed concern that a French position in the Rhineland might enable it to occupy key ports in the Low Countries, enlarging its naval threat to Britain. See Stephen A. Schuker, The End of French Predominance in Europe: The Financial Crisis of 1924 and the Adoption of the Dawes Plan (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1976).

31 The British, notably, hoped that the Locarno agreement would enable them to limit their involvement on the continent, rather than increase it as the French wanted. Bell, p. 151.

32 Bell, pp. 155-160.

33 Bell, pp. 87-88.

34 Ibid.

35 Bell, p. 128.

36 Alan Palmer, The Decline and Fall of the Ottoman Empire (New York: M. Evans and Co., Inc., 1992), pp. 263-264.

37 Palmer, p. 263.

38 The more extreme versions of this involved an annexation of substantial Lithuanian, Belarussian and Ukrainian territory. Jerzy Lukowski and Hubert Zawadzki, A Concise History of Poland (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), pp. 197-200.

39 British Foreign Secretary Austen Chamberlain would state that the Polish corridor was not worth the bones of a British grenadier, echoing Bismarck's earlier comment about the Balkans. Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery (New York: Scribner, 1976), p. 280.

40 Powell, pp. 120-121.

41 For a particularly hawkish critique of British policy in these years, see Donald Kagan and Frederick Kagan, While America Sleeps: Self-Delusion, Military Weakness and the Threat to Peace Today (New York: St. Martin's, 2000). The great weakness of this study, however, is its failure to point out where Britain in its weakened state could have come up with resources adequate to meet the responsibilities they believe properly belonged to it--so that rather than suggesting another way, they end up accentuating the British dilemma.

42 By the 1890s, the Japanese navy had already established a larger presence in Chinese waters than Britain could afford to maintain. The problem only worsened with the rise of Germany and the United States as naval powers. Kennedy, pp. 208-212. It should also be noted that in 1919-1922, Japan was outbuilding the navies of all the other great powers combined. In 1920 and 1921, Japan built 48 ships and submarines, compared with a total of 11 vessels for Britain, the U.S., France and Italy. See Roskill, pp. 580-581.

43 See Piotr S. Wandycz, The Twilight of French Eastern Alliances: French-Czechoslovak-Polish Relations From Locarno to the Remilitarization of the Rhineland (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988); and Edward David Keeton, Briand's Locarno Policy: French Economics, Politics and Diplomacy, 1925-1929 (New York: Garland, 1987).

44 Wandycz, pp. 158-159.

45 Keeton, p. 115.

46 This was, ultimately, what kept the famous Fashoda Incident from escalating back in 1898.

47 H.G. Wells notably predicted World War II beginning with such a preventive attack by France and Poland in The Shape of Things to Come (New York: Macmillan, 1933).

48 Ferguson, pp. 31-55.

49 During the peace negotiations at the war's end, French President Georges Clemenceau "demanded a thirty-year Allied military occupation of the left bank [of the Rhine], plus bridgeheads at Mainz, Coblenz and Cologne." Bell, p. 121.

50 It is also conceivable that they may have attempted to engineer a crisis or incident as a pretext for action, so as to delay or soften the international reaction to their plans. It is today scarcely remembered that the Nazi government staged a series of false flag operations in "Operation Himmler" (most famously, the Gleiwitz incident) to justify its invasion of Poland.

51 Nicholas Farrell, Mussolini: A New Life (London: Phoenix, 2004).

52 They could also have seen such action as a way of getting back at the French for similarly arming Kemal when British troops faced off against him during the Chanak crisis.

53 Italy had long coveted French-owned Tunisia, and sought to play an imperial role in the Balkans, which France viewed as part of its sphere of influence. The 1926 Treaty of Tirana between Italy and Albania caused friction with France, while after the fall of France in 1940, Mussolini asked Hitler for Corsica, Tunisia and some Algerian ports. (He was refused.) Edward P. Von Der Porten, The German Navy in World War Two (New York: Ballantine Books, 1969), p. 110.

54 Unrestricted submarine warfare would have meant running the risk of drawing in the United States against it, something the French would have scrupulously avoided.

55 Of course, there is the possibility of large-scale gas attacks on cities. While militaries have used chemical weapons since that time, they generally did so against opponents who could not reply in kind--like Italy did in its invasion of Ethiopia. My guess is that the "balance of terror" would have held, as it did during World War II, though there is a chance that France would have tried to use chemical weapons against Germany in the early phase of the conflict, while it fought more or less alone and had not yet mobilized a capability to fight back effectively.

56 Wells, describing such a war, specifically anticipated the rapid collapse of the belligerents under the strain of war in The Shape of Things to Come.


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