International relations between the two world wars: 1919-1933 (Part-1)

International relations between the two world wars fall into two distinct phases, with the division at January 1933, the fateful month in which Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany. Before that, there seemed reasonable hope that world peace could be maintained, in spite of the failure of the League of Nations to curb Japanese aggression in Manchuria. Once Hitler was firmly in control, there was little chance of preventing a war of some sort, either limited or full-scale. The first phase can be divided roughly into three:

  • 1919-23
  • 1923-9
  • 1930-3

(a) 1919 to 1923

In the aftermath of the First World War, relations were disturbed by problems arising from the peace settlement, while the newborn League of Nations struggled to sort things out.

  • Both Turkey and Italy were dissatisfied with their treatment; Turkey was prepared to defy the settlement. The Italians, soon to come under the rule of Mussolini (1922), showed their resentment first by the seizure of Fiume, which had been awarded to Yugoslavia, and then in the Corfu Incident; later, Italian aggression was turned against Abyssinia (1935).
  • The problem of German reparations and whether or not she could afford to pay caused strained relations between Britain and France, because of their different attitudes towards German recovery. France wanted a weak Germany; Britain wanted an economically strong Germany which would be able to buy British exports.
  • An attempt by Lloyd George to reconcile France and Germany at the 1922 Genoa Conference failed miserably.
  • Relations deteriorated still further in 1923 when French troops occupied the Ruhr (an important German industrial region) in an attempt to seize in goods what the Germans were refusing to pay in cash. This succeeded only in bringing about the collapse of the German currency.
  • Meanwhile the USA, while choosing to remain politically isolated, exercised considerable economic influence on Europe by, among other things, insisting on full payment of European war debts.
  • Russia, now under Bolshevik (Communist) rule, was viewed with suspicion by the western countries, several of which, along with Japan, intervened against the Bolsheviks in the civil war which ravaged Russia during 1918-20.
  • The new states which came into existence as a result of the war and the peace settlement – these included Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary and Poland – all had serious problems and were divided among themselves. These problems and divisions had important effects on international relations.

(b) 1924 to 1929

  • There was a general improvement in the international atmosphere, caused partly by changes in political leadership. In France, Edouard Herriot and Aristide Briand, in Germany Gustav Stresemann, and in Britain James Ramsay MacDonald, came to power, and all were keen to improve relations. The result was the Dawes Plan, worked out in 1924 with American help, which eased the situation regarding German reparations; 1925 saw the signing of the Locarno Treaties, which guaranteed the frontiers in western Europe fixed at Versailles: this seemed to remove French suspicions of German intentions. Germany was allowed to join the League in 1926 and two years later, 65 nations signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact, renouncing war. The 1929 Young Plan reduced German reparations to a more manageable figure; all seemed set fair for a peaceful future.

(c) 1930 to 1933

  • Towards the end of 1929 the world began to run into economic difficulties, which contributed towards a deterioration in international relations. It was partly for economic reasons that Japanese troops invaded Manchuria in 1931; mass unemployment in Germany was important in enabling Hitler to come to power. In this unpromising climate, the World Disarmament Conference met in 1932, only to break up in failure after the German delegates walked out (1933).


(a) The League of Nations

The League played an important role, settling a number of international disputes and problems. However, its authority tended to be weakened by the fact that many states seemed to prefer signing agreements independently of the League, which suggests that they were not exactly brimming with confidence at the League’s prospects. Nor were they prepared to commit themselves to providing military support in order to curb any aggressor.

(b) The Washington Conferences (1921-2)

The purpose of these meetings was to try to improve relations between the USA and Japan. The USA was increasingly suspicious of growing Japanese power in the Far East, and of Japanese influence in China, especially bearing in mind that during the First World War, Japan had seized Kiaochow and all the German islands in the Pacific.

  • To prevent a naval building race, it was agreed that the Japanese navy would be limited to three-fifths the size of the American and British navies.
  • Japan agreed to withdraw from Kiaochow and the Shantung province of China, which she had occupied since 1914.
  • In return she was allowed to keep the former German Pacific islands as mandates.
  • The western powers promised not to build any more naval bases within striking distance of Japan.

The USA, Japan, Britain and France agreed to guarantee the neutrality of China and to respect each other’s possessions in the Far East. At the time, the agreements were regarded as a great success, and relations between the powers involved improved. In reality, however, Japan was left supreme in the Far East, possessor of the world’s third largest navy, which she could concentrate in the Pacific. On the other hand, the navies of Britain and the USA, though larger, were spread more widely. This was to have unfortunate consequences for China in the 1930s when the USA refused to become involved in checking Japanese aggression.

(c) The Genoa Conference (1922)

This was the brainchild of the British prime minister Lloyd George; he hoped it would solve the pressing problems of Franco-German hostility (the Germans were threatening to stop paying reparations), European war debts to the USA and the need to resume proper diplomatic relations with Soviet Russia. Unfortunately the conference failed: the French refused all compromise and insisted on full reparations payments; the Americans refused even to attend, and the Russians and Germans withdrew, moved to Rapallo, a resort about 20 miles from Genoa, and signed a mutual agreement there. When, the following year, the Germans refused to pay the amount due, French troops occupied the Ruhr, and deadlock quickly developed when the Germans responded with a campaign of passive resistance.

(d) The Dawes Plan

Worked out at a conference in London in 1924, this was an attempt to break the general deadlock. The three newcomers to international politics, MacDonald, Herriot and Stresemann (German Foreign Minister 1924-9), were eager for reconciliation; the Americans were persuaded to take part, and the conference was chaired for part of the time by the American representative, General Dawes. No reduction was made in the total amount that the Germans were expected to pay, but it was agreed that they should pay annually only what they could reasonably afford until they became more prosperous. A foreign loan of 800 million gold marks, mostly from the USA, was to be made to Germany. The French, now assured of at least some reparations from Germany, agreed to withdraw their troops from the Ruhr. The plan was successful: the German economy began to recover on the basis of the American loans, and international tensions gradually relaxed, preparing the way for the next agreements.

(e) The Locarno Treaties (1925)

These were a number of different agreements involving Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Belgium, Poland and Czechoslovakia. The most important one was that Germany, France and Belgium promised to respect their joint frontiers; if one of the three broke the agreement, Britain and Italy would assist the state which was being attacked. Germany signed agreements with Poland and Czechoslovakia providing for arbitration over possible disputes, but Germany would not guarantee her frontiers with Poland and Czechoslovakia. It was also agreed that France would help Poland and Czechoslovakia if Germany attacked them.

The agreements were greeted with wild enthusiasm all over Europe, and the reconciliation between France and Germany was referred to as the ‘Locarno honeymoon’. It was regarded as Stresemann’ s greatest success to date. Later, historians were not so enthusiastic about Locarno; there was one glaring omission from the agreements – no guarantees were given by Germany or Britain about Germany’s eastern frontiers with Poland and Czechoslovakia, the very areas where trouble was most likely to arise. By ignoring this prob]em, the British gave the impression that they might not act if Germany attacked Poland or Czechoslovakia.

For the time being though, as the world enjoyed a period of great economic prosperity, such uneasy thoughts were pushed into the background and Germany was allowed to enter the League in 1926 with a seat on the Permanent Council. Stresemann and Briand (French Foreign Minister 1925-32) met regularly and had friendly discussions; often Austen Chamberlain (British Foreign Minister 1924-9) joined them. The three of them were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In September 1926 Stresemann and Briand reached agreement on the withdrawal of French troops from the Rhineland. This ‘Locarno spirit’ culminated in the next piece of paper-signing.

(f) The Kellogg-Briand Pact (1928)

This was originally Briand’s idea; he proposed that France and the USA should sign a pact renouncing war. Frank B. Kellogg (American Secretary of State) proposed that the whole world should be involved; eventually 65 states signed, agreeing to renounce war as an instrument of national policy. This sounded impressive but was completely useless because no mention was made of sanctions against any state which broke its pledge. Japan signed the Pact, but this did not prevent her from waging war against China only three years later.

(g) The Young Plan (1929)

The aim of this new initiative was to settle the remaining problem of reparations – the Dawes Plan had left the total amount payable uncertain. In the improved atmosphere, the French were willing to compromise, and a committee chaired by an American banker, Owen Young, decided to reduce reparations from £6600 million to £2000 million, to be paid on a graded scale over the next 59 years. This was the figure that Keynes had urged at Versailles, and its acceptance ten years later was an admission of error by the Allies. The plan was welcomed by many in Germany, but the Nazi party campaigned against accepting it, because they thought it offered Germany far too little. They wanted a much quicker and a much more radical revision of the peace settlement. Even before there was time to put the Young Plan into operation, a series of events following in rapid succession destroyed the fragile harmony of Locarno:

  1. First came the death of Stresemann (October 1929), reportedly from overwork at the age of only 51. Tragically this removed one of the outstanding ‘men of Locarno’, a German leader who aimed at peaceful change in Europe and hoped that his country’s economic recovery would be successful enough to prevent the extremists of both right and left from gaining power in Germany.
  2. The Wall Street Crash on the American stock exchange in the same month soon developed into a worldwide economic crisis – the Great Depression, and by 1932 there were over six million people unemployed in Germany. Hope was kept alive by the Lausanne Conference (1932), at which Britain and France released Germany from most of the remaining reparations payments. However, in January 1933 Hitler became German Chancellor, and after that, international tension mounted.

(h) The World Disarmament Conference (1932-3)

Although all member states of the League of Nations had undertaken to reduce armaments when they accepted the Covenant, only Germany had made any moves towards disarmament, as Stresemann regularly pointed out. In fact the rest seem to have increased their arms expenditure – between 1925 and 1933 world expenditure on arms rose from $3.5 billion to around $5 billion. The World Disarmament Conference met in Geneva to try and work out a formula for scaling down armaments. But if no progress could be made during the Locarno honeymoon, there was little chance of any in the disturbed atmosphere of the 1930s. The British said they needed more armaments to protect their empire. The French, alarmed by the rapid increase in support for the Nazis in Germany, refused either to disarm or to allow Germany equality of armaments with them. Hitler, knowing that Britain and Italy sympathized with Germany, withdrew from the conference (October 1933), which was doomed from that moment. A week later Germany also withdrew from the League.

In retrospect, it can be seen that the statesmen of the world had only limited success in improving international relations. Even the ‘Locarno spirit’ proved an illusion, because so much depended on economic prosperity. When this evaporated, all the old hostilities and suspicions surfaced again, and authoritarian regimes came to power, which were prepared to risk aggression.


As soon as the First World War ended, the French, after all they had suffered in two German invasions in less than 50 years, wanted to make sure that the Germans never again violated the sacred soil of France; this remained the major concern of French foreign policy throughout the inter-war years. At different times, depending on who was in charge of foreign affairs, the French tried different methods of dealing with the problem:

  • trying to keep Germany economically and militarily weak;
  • signing alliances with other states to isolate Germany, and working for a strong League of Nations;
  • extending the hand of reconciliation and friendship.

In the end, all three tactics failed.

(a) Trying to keep Germany weak

1. Insistence on a harsh peace settlement

At the Paris peace conference the French premier, Clemenceau, insisted on a harsh settlement.

  • In order to strengthen French security, the German army was to number no more than 100000 men and there were to be severe limitations on armaments.
  • The German Rhineland was to be demilitarized to a distance of 50 kilometers east of the river.
  • France was to have the use of the area known as the Saar, for 15 years.

Britain and the USA promised to help France if Germany attacked again. Although many French people were disappointed (Foch wanted France to be given the whole of the German Rhineland west of the river, but they were only allowed to occupy it for 15 years), it looked at first as though security was guaranteed. Unfortunately French satisfaction was short-lived: the Americans were afraid that membership of the League might involve them in another war, and preferred apolicy of isolation. Consequently they rejected the entire peace settlement (March 1920) and abandoned their guarantees of assistance. The British used this as an excuse to cancel their promises, and the French understandably felt betrayed.

2. Clemenceau demanded that the Germans should pay reparations

The figure to be paid for reparations was fixed in 1921 at £6600 million. It was thought that the strain of paying this huge amount would keep Germany economically weak for the next 66 years – the period over which reparations were to be paid in annual installments – and consequently another German attack on France would be less likely. However, financial troubles in Germany soon caused the government to fall behind with its payments. The French, who claimed to need the cash from reparations to balance their budget and pay their own debts to the USA, became desperate.

3. Attempts to.force the Germans to pay

The next prime minister, the anti-German Raymond Poincare, decided that drastic methods were needed to force the Germans to pay and to weaken their powers of revival. In January 1923, French and Belgian troops occupied the Ruhr (the important German industrial area which includes the cities of Essen and Dusseldorf). The Germans replied with passive resistance, strikes and sabotage. A number of nasty incidents between troops and civilians resulted in the deaths of over a hundred people.

Although the French managed to seize goods worth about £40 million, the whole episode caused galloping inflation and the collapse of the German mark, which by November 1923 was completely valueless. It also revealed the basic difference between the French and British attitudes towards Germany: while France adopted a hard line and wanted Germany completely crippled, Britain now saw moderation and reconciliation as the best security; she believed that an economically healthy Germany would be good for the stability of Europe (as well as for British exports). Consequently Britain strongly disapproved of the Ruhr occupation and sympathized with Germany.

(b) A network of alliances and a strong League

At the same time, the French tried to increase their security by building up a network of alliances, first with Poland (1921) and later with Czechoslovakia (1924), Romania (1926) and Yugoslavia (1927). This network, known as the ‘Little Entente‘, though impressive on paper, did not amount to much because the states involved were comparatively weak. What the French needed was a renewal of the old alliance with Russia, which had served them well during the First World War; but this seemed out of the question now that Russia had become communist.

The French worked for a strong League of Nations, with the victorious powers acting as a military police force, compelling aggressive powers to behave themselves. However, in the end it was the much vaguer Wilson version of the League that was adopted. French disappointment was bitter when Britain took the lead in rejecting the Geneva Protocol, which might have strengthened the League. Clearly there was no point in expecting much guarantee of security from that direction.

(c) Compromise and reconciliation

By the summer of 1924, when the failure of Poincare’s Ruhr occupation was obvious, the new premier, Herriot, was prepared to accept a compromise solution to the reparations problem; this led to the Dawes Plan. During the Briand era (he was Foreign Minister in 11 successive governments between 1925 and 1932), the French approach to the German problem was one of reconciliation. Briand persevered with great skill to build up genuinely good relations with Germany, as well as to improve relations with Britain and strengthen the League. Fortunately Stresemann, who was in charge of German foreign policy from November 1923 until 1929, believed that the best way to foster German recovery was by co-operation with Britain and France. The result was the Locarno Treaties, the Kellogg-Briand Pact, the Young Plan and the cancellation of most of the remaining reparations payments.

There is some debate among historians about how genuine this apparent reconciliation between France and Germany really was. A. J. P. Taylor suggested that though Briand and Stresemann were sincere, ‘they did not carry their peoples with them’, nationalist feeling in the two countries was so strong that both men were limited in the concessions they could offer. The fact that Stresemann was secretly determined to get the frontier with Poland redrawn to Germany’s advantage would have caused friction later, since Poland was France’s ally. He was equally determined to work for union with Austria and a revision of the Versailles terms.

(d) A tougher attitude towards Germany

The death of Stresemann in October 1929, the world economic crisis and the growth of support in Germany for the Nazis, alarmed the French, and made them adopt a tougher attitude towards Germany. When, in 1931, the Germans proposed an Austro-German customs union to ease the economic crisis, the French insisted that the matter be referred to the International Court of Justice at the Hague, on the grounds that it was a violation of the Versailles Treaty. Though a customs union made economic sense, the court ruled against it, and the plan was dropped. At the World Disarmament Conference (1932-3) relations worsened, and when Hitler took Germany out of the Conference and the League, all Briand’s work was ruined. The German problem was as far from being solved as ever.


For the first three years after the Bolsheviks came to power in Russia (November 1917), relations between the new government and the western countries deteriorated to the point of open war. This was mainly because the Bolsheviks tried to spread the revolution further, especially in Germany. As early as December 1917, they began to pour floods of propaganda into Germany in an attempt to turn the masses against their capitalist masters. Lenin called together representatives from communist parties all over the world to a conference in Moscow in March 1919. It was known as the Third International, or Comintern. Its aim was to bring the world’s communists under Russian leadership and show them how to organize strikes and uprisings. Karl Radek, one of the Russian Bolshevik leaders, went secretly to Berlin to plan the revolution, while other agents did the same in other countries. Zinoviev, the chairman of the Comintern, confidently predicted that ‘in a year the whole of Europe will be Communist’.

This sort of activity did not endear the communists to the governments of countries like Britain, France, the USA, Czechoslovakia and Japan. These states tried rather half-heartedly to destroy the Bolsheviks by intervening in the Russian civil war to help the other side (known as the Whites). The Russians were not invited to the Versailles Conference in 1919. By the middle of 1920, however, circumstances were gradually changing: the countries which had interfered in Russia had admitted failure and withdrawn their troops; communist revolutions in Germany and Hungary had failed; and Russia was too exhausted by the civil war to think about stirring up any more revolutions for the time being. At the Third Comintern Congress, in June 1921, Lenin acknowledged that Russia needed peaceful coexistence and co-operation in the form of trade with, and investment from, the capitalist world. The way was open for communications to be reestablished.

(a) The USSR and Britain

Relations blew hot and cold according to which government was in power in Britain. The two Labour governments (1924 and 1929-31) were much more sympathetic to Russia than the others.

  1. After the failure to overthrow the communists, Lloyd George (British prime minister 1916-22) was prepared for reconciliation. This corresponded with Lenin’s desire for improved relations with the west so that Russia could attract foreign trade and capital. The result was an Anglo-Russian trade treaty (March 1921 ), which was important for Russia, not only commercially, but also because Britain was one of the first states to acknowledge the existence of the Bolshevik government; it was to lead to similar agreements with other countries and to full political recognition.                  The new rapprochement was soon shaken, however, when at the Genoa conference (1922), Lloyd George suggested that the Bolsheviks should pay war debts incurred by the tsarist regime. The Russians were offended; they left the conference and signed the separate Treaty of Rapallo with the Germans. This alarmed Britain and France, who could see no good coming from what Lloyd George called ‘this fierce friendship’ between the two ‘outcast’ nations of Europe.
  2. Relations improved briefly in 1924 when MacDonald and the new Labour government gave full diplomatic recognition to the communists. A new trade treaty was signed and a British loan to Russia was proposed. However, this was unpopular with British Conservatives and Liberals who soon brought MacDonald’s government down.
  3. Under the Conservatives (1924-9), relations with Russia worsened. British Conservatives had no love for the communists, and there was evidence that Russian propaganda was encouraging the Indian demands for independence. Police raided the British Communist Party headquarters in London (1925) and the premises of Arcos, a soviet trading organization based in London (1927), and claimed to have found evidence of Russians plotting with British communists to overthrow the system. The government expelled the mission and broke off diplomatic relations with the Russians, who replied by arresting some British residents in Moscow.
  4. Matters took a turn for the better in 1929 when Labour, encouraged by the new pro-western Foreign Minister, Maxim Litvinov, resumed diplomatic relations with Russia and signed another trade agreement the following year. But the improvement was only short-lived.
  5. The Conservative-dominated National government, which came to power in 1931, cancelled the trade agreement (1932), and in retaliation the Russians arrested four Metropolitan-Vickers engineers working in Moscow. They were tried and given sentences ranging from two to three years for ‘spying and wrecking’. However, when Britain placed an embargo on imports from Russia, Stalin released them (June 1933). By this time Stalin was becoming nervous about the possible threat from Hitler, and was therefore prepared to take pains to improve relations with Britain.

(b) The USSR and Germany

The USSR’s relations with Germany were more consistent and more friendly than with Britain. This was because the Germans saw advantages to be gained from exploiting friendship with the USSR, and because the Bolsheviks were anxious to have stable relations with at least one capitalist power.

A trade treaty was signed (May 1921 ), followed by the granting of Russian trade and mineral concessions to some German industrialists.

The Rapallo Treaty, signed on Easter Sunday 1922 after both Germany and Russia had withdrawn from the Genoa conference, was an important step forward:

  • Full diplomatic relations were resumed and reparations claims between the two states cancelled.
  • Both could look forward to advantages from the new friendship: they could co-operate to keep Poland weak, which was in both their interests.
  • The USSR had Germany as a buffer against any future attack from the west.
  • The Germans were allowed to build factories in Russia for the manufacture of aeroplanes and ammunition, enabling them to get round the Versailles disarmament terms; German officers trained in Russia in the use of the new forbidden weapons.
  • In return, the Russians would supply Germany with grain.

The Treaty of Berlin ( 1926) renewed the Rapallo agreement for a further five years; it was understood that Germany would remain neutral if Russia were to be attacked by another power, and neither would use economic sanctions against the other.

About 1930, relations began to cool as some Russians expressed concern at the growing power of Germany; the German attempt to form a customs union with Austria in 1931 was taken as an ominous sign of increasing German nationalism. Russian concern changed to alarm at the growth of the Nazi party, which was strongly anti-communist. Though Stalin and Litvinov tried to continue the friendship with Germany, they also began approaches to Poland, France and Britain. In January 1934, Hitler abruptly ended Germany’s special relationship with the Soviets by signing a non-aggression pact with Poland.

(c) The USSR and France

The Bolshevik takeover in 1917 was a serious blow for France, because Russia had been an important ally whom she relied on to keep Germany in check. Now her former ally was calling for revolution in all capitalist states, and the French regarded the Bolsheviks as a menace to be destroyed as soon as possible. The French sent troops to help the anti-Bolsheviks (Whites) in the civil war, and it was because of French insistence, that the Bolsheviks were not invited to Versailles. The French also intervened in the war between Russia and Poland in 1920; troops commanded by General Weygand helped to drive back a Russian advance on Warsaw (the Polish capital), and afterwards the French government claimed to have stemmed the westward spread of Bolshevism. The subsequent alliance between France and Poland (1921) seemed to be directed as much against Russia as against Germany. Relations improved in 1924 when the moderate Herriot government resumed diplomatic relations. But the French were never very enthusiastic, especially as the French Communist Party was under orders from Moscow not to co-operate with other left-wing parties. Not until the early 1930s did the rise of the German Nazis cause a change of heart on both sides.


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