Britain and Central Europe 1918-1933. (Reviews: modern Britain).
The new international order that arose out of the post-World War I treaties began to fall apart within years of its creation. The peacemakers, with President Woodrow Wilson foremost among them, adopted the principle of national self-determination as a guide for the reshaping of Central Europe. As a result, the four-century old Habsburg monarchy was replaced after 1918 by three successor states, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary.
Gabor Batonyi has written a book which attempts to explain British policy towards these successor states. The book consists of three parallel case studies of British diplomatic history, which reflects, according to Batonyi, the shifting priorities of the British Foreign Office in Central Europe. The book is well written and extremely well documented, and will be of great interest to students of inter-war British diplomatic history and of Central Europe.
What was British policy towards Central Europe? At the end of the First World War and then during the peace negotiations, British policymakers played a key role in the destruction of the Habsburg monarchy. The influential "New Europe" group, which consisted of intellectuals concerned with Central European affairs (R.W. Seton-Watson, Lewis Namier, and others), advocated the dismemberment of the Habsburg monarchy through the application of the principle of national self-determination. By 1918 the British Foreign Office regarded the Habsburg monarchy as "obsolete" and "pathetic." The creation of ethnically more homogeneous successor states seemed to offer a politically-viable alternative to the decrepit Habsburg state and to the Bolshevik experiment in Russia.
And yet, in February 1925, the Czechoslovak Minister of Foreign Affairs, Edvard Benes, remarked to the Austrian Minister in Prague that "the British never really knew what they wanted" in Central Europe (p. 56). The story that unfolds in this wonderfully-documented book is one of on-going British diplomatic flux. After supporting the creation of the Central European successor states in 1918-19, in the 1920s British policy favoured the vanquished states, and by the 1930s it became equally indifferent to all of the states, victor and vanquished.
In part, the British policy of favouring the vanquished in the 1920s was designed to counteract the more aggressive French policy of encircling Germany. France's alliances with Poland and Czechoslovakia, in the form of the Little Entente (with Romania and Yugoslavia), were never well received in London. Winston Churchill sarcastically referred to this regional block in Central Europe as a "pack of small nations on a leash to France" (p. 47). Such political formations seemed to the Foreign Office only to "Balkanize" Central Europe even further, and to hamper economic recovery and integration. Under the circumstances, British policy in the 1920s tended to be pro-Austrian and pro-Hungarian, although there were certainly some officials and advisors who resisted such a policy. In the event, as the prospects of economic recovery receded and then were dashed by the onset of the Great Depression, the British began disengaging themselves from Central European affairs altogether.
What Batonyi suggests in this book is that British disengagement occurred between 1918 and 1933, well before the Munich agreement of 1938. It was largely motivated by economic considerations, that is, the failure to promote free trade in the region, and to a lesser extent by political considerations, since the failure to reconstruct a Central European league of states, encompassing both victor and vanquished, also doomed prospects of economic recovery. That being said, Edvard Benes's 1925 remark that the British "never really knew what they wanted" in Central Europe, seems legitimate. Despite the wealth of primary sources that Batonyi brings to bear in his study, and the detailed attempt to make sense of the shifts in British policy, the story that he tells suggests the validity of the Czechoslovak Foreign Minister's assertion. Economic integration and recovery were, Batonyi argues, central to British policy considerations and aims in the region, but when plans were made in the region, in the 1920s, for a prospective Danubian Customs Union, involving at the very least Czechoslovakia and Austria, they were dashed in part because of British opposition. Such a customs union was deemed detrimental to British imports in Central Europe, which suggests that the British interest in reconstructing the economic unity of Central Europe was ephemeral at best. This makes highly suspect Batonyi's assertion that British efforts at regional economic reconstruction represented a determined political commitment to the region. There was never a serious interest on the part of British policymakers -- and nothing in Batonyi's book seems to gainsay this point -- to make a political commitment to the region. Avoiding such a commitment was certainly not at variance with the traditional tenets of British foreign policy. If Britain had vital security interests in Europe, they were in Western Europe and not in Central Europe.
Mark Biondich University of Toronto
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|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2001|
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