What breaks down the argument that the iniquities of Versailles alone explain the Second World War is the so-called era of fulfillment. The landmark of this era was a series of treaties negotiated in 1925 at Locarno in Switzerland.
Germany there agreed with France and Belgium on a mutual guarantee of their common frontiers; Britain and Italy agreed to act as guarantors—that is, to provide military aid against the aggressor if frontiers were violated. Germany affirmed its acceptance of the western frontier drawn at Versailles by the Rhineland Treaty. France affirmed the new moderate direction that its German policy had taken since the failure of the occupation of the Ruhr.
Ostensibly, the Locarno settlement endured for several years. It was nourished by the general prosperity of the French and the Germans and by the policies of their respective foreign ministers. In 1926 Germany was admitted to the League of Nations, an event that seemed to signify not only its restoration to international respectability but also its acceptance of the peaceful purposes of League membership.
These hopeful impressions appeared to receive confirmation when Germany signed the Kellogg-Briand Peace Pact of 1928. In 1929 the French consented to withdraw the last of their occupation troops from the Rhineland by 1930, thus ending the Allied occupation of Germany at a date considerably in advance of the one stipulated in the Versailles Treaty.
Though not a member of the League, the United States took a leading part in furthering one of the League’s chief objectives—disarmament. Meeting in Washington during the winter of 1921-1922, a naval conference of the major sea powers achieved an agreement establishing a ten-year “holiday” in the construction of capital ships (defined as battleships and heavy cruisers).
A conference at London in 1930 had less success in limiting noncapital ships, including submarines. The partial failure of the London naval conference was a portent. Two years later, after long preparation, the League itself convoked a meeting to address the problem of limiting military armaments. Not only League members but also the United States and the Soviet Union sent representatives to Geneva. The World Disarmament Conference of 1932, however, accomplished nothing.
By 1932 the Locarno spirit was dead, and the era of fulfillment had ended. One obvious explanation was the worldwide depression that had begun in 1929. In Germany the depression was decisive in putting Hitler in
power. In the democracies, too, it had serious consequences for the peace of the world, since the depression sapped their morale and made them less confident.
In any case, even when the era of fulfillment was most successful, there had been clear warnings that appearances and reality did not fully coincide. The Germans had remained unwilling to accept a Locarno-style settlement of their eastern frontiers; the French had begun to seek out renewed alliances and to build a massive defensive line; and the Germans had begun a secret collaboration with the Soviets to bypass the Versailles restriction on armaments.
Another unsettling factor was Soviet Russia. The West regarded it as a revolutionary power that could not be fully integrated into the international state system. The Soviet Union was the center of a revolutionary faith hated by Western politicians. Westerners simply could not trust a government that was based on the Marxist belief that all Western capitalist democracies were destined to collapse and become communist after a violent class war.
Yet another factor that led to World War II was the continuing failure of the three major Western democracies—Britain, France, and the United States—to present a united front. Although each was a capitalist and a democratic state, the nature of their governments differed. The United States had widely diverse ethnic communities that traced their origins to Europe and took different positions on the problems emerging there. Britain and France were often at cross-purposes within the League of Nations, and the United States, not being a member, could exercise only modest influence in bringing them together.
France, exhausted and suffering a decline in population, was trying to play the part of a first-rate power with only second-rate resources, and it lived in growing fear of a revived Germany. The French sought not only to apply in full the economic and political measures of the Versailles Treaty that aimed at keeping Germany weak but also to make up for Russia’s defection as its eastern ally against Germany. Beginning in 1921 France did this by making alliances with the smaller states to the east of Germany— Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Yugoslavia. All except Poland were informally linked together as the Little Entente. To British politicians who remembered the long story of Anglo-French conflicts from the Hundred Years War to Napoleon, the France of the 1920s seemed once more to be aiming at European supremacy.
Some advocates of “splendid isolation” had survived the war and made the British unwilling to commit themselves to intervene with force in Continental Europe. Although Britain did accept Locarno and its commitment to punish any violator, in the previous year the dominions had played a large part in British rejection of the more sweeping Geneva protocol, which would have committed its signatories to compulsory arbitration of international disputes. Pacifist sentiment in Britain and the dominions further strengthened the German perception that Britain would not resist limited aggression on the Continent.
The difficulties of the Anglo-French partnership partly explain the weakness of the League of Nations. In addition, the League had no means to enforce its decisions, and it was top-heavy, since the fully representative Assembly counted for less than the smaller Council, which Britain and France dominated. When these two powers disagreed, the League scarcely operated at all.
One example of how the grand purposes of the League suffered from Anglo-French friction was the rejection of the Geneva protocol; another was the Corfu incident of 1923, when Mussolini defied the League for a time. During the Corfu crisis the League was crippled by Anglo-French discord over the Ruhr policy of France.
After 1935 Germany was engaged in what some historians have called a “unilateral armaments race,” while two of the greatest nations in the world, the United States and the Soviet Union, were generally absent from the overall balance of power.