Some of the more important and vexing questions of the period between the two world wars are examined in German Rearmament and the West. The elements of continuity and change in German foreign policy from the Weimar Republic to Hitler have often been debated; the stability of the international order established by the Treaty of Versailles has often been contested. Questions have also been raised on the position of Britain and France and their acquiescence in the face of unilateral revision of the Versailles system. All of these matters in their turn are related to the breakdown of the European balance of power and the origins of World War II, as, during the 1930’s, the dictators moved to overthrow the existing international order while the Western powers wavered between acceptance of and resistance to the actions of the revisionist states. In Bennett’s work, some of the underlying themes of this period are displayed against the personalities and events that figured in one of the turning points of interwar diplomacy; his use of many of the German, British, and American archival materials also permits a modification of some of the traditional views on the aims and tactics of the various powers.
One of the first areas in which conflict arose was on disarmament, where the ideals of Western statesmen clashed with the aims pursued by defeated Germany; German rearmament eventually marked the first stage in the breakdown of the Allies’ hopes for an enduring peace, and the advent of German Nazism signaled a change in the political and diplomatic climate in interwar Europe. Hence it is Germany that is at the center of Bennett’s study.
For Germany, the peace treaty of 1919 had imposed territorial losses and a reparations burden that were the cause for widespread resentment; moreover, the German Army was restricted to 100,000 soldiers, and tanks, heavy artillery, and military aircraft were prohibited. With the tacit consent of many civilian political leaders, the German defense ministry engaged in some measures of clandestine rearmament, such as the accumulation of forbidden weapons and the training of volunteers for short-term service, with a view toward their eventual mobilization as military reserves. Such programs, devised to provide for Germany’s needs in a possible military confrontation, acquired a logic and momentum of their own, quite apart from the efforts of German diplomacy to obtain a place of respect in international relations. Undeterred by such considerations, beginning in January, 1931, military leaders had drafted several expansion plans, the most ambitious of which would require a budget of one billion marks. Furthermore, since at about this time the Nazi Party had grown to a major political force, some of its paramilitary contingents were allowed to serve in the volunteer units to further supplement the regular army.
With German politicians and military men divided among themselves, but for the most part working toward some form of rearmament, the Western powers reacted as suited their particular views of national security. Both the British and the French intelligence services had enough information on German rearmament to realize that treaty infractions had taken place, but German military aims and the scope of German planning remained unclear. Unable to obtain a military alliance or other firm commitments from the British, France had adopted an essentially defensive posture with its armed forces prepared largely for a possible conflict with Germany. The nominal strength of the French Army, with colonial troops, was at least five times that of the German forces as defined by the Versailles Treaty; with a superiority in matériel, and also in the military aircraft that the Treaty had denied Germany, France held a definite advantage over its former adversary.
Nevertheless, the severity of its losses during World War I and uncertainty on the diplomatic orientation of its former allies left France as a conservative force intent largely on preserving the existing situation. Britain was still in some ways inclined to act in consultation with its former ally, but also remained open to a policy of reconciliation elsewhere in Europe. The British Army had been reduced to a small expeditionary force after the war, and attention was given largely to Britain’s naval superiority; efforts were also made to maintain parity with France in aircraft. To a greater extent than in Germany or France, financial considerations were vital for British military planning, and with its war debts and the chronic economic crisis that affected Britain during the interwar years, military expenditures were maintained only at reduced levels....
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