Thursday, December 7, 2006

History Question: The Hoare-Laval Pact

A e-mailed response to my last post asked me to explain the Hoare-Laval Pact better than the somewhat incomplete Wikipedia entry linked in my post, (which appears to me to have been a translated entry that possibly lost something in the process). Here goes.
The Hoare-Laval Pact was fundamentally an attempt by France and Britain to draw Benito Mussolini’s Italy back into the “Stresa Front” – a diplomatic bloc directed against Nazi Germany. Italy, in search of cheap military prestige and African colonies like France and Britain, had invaded Ethiopia in 1935. Unfortunately for Mussolini, he was no longer in the 19th Century, and Italy’s invasion garnered not prestige but worldwide condemnation and, at the behest of the modern UN’s forerunner, the League of Nations – ineffectual economic sanctions.

The French and British, subject to pressure from public opinion, joined in the condemnation and sanctions. However, this carried a real cost – the French and British were already locked in diplomatic struggle with Hitler’s Germany, and the British had problems with Japan in the Pacific. The Americans were living in their isolationist fool’s paradise; Stalin’s Soviets were a rather mysterious and sinister unknown quantity. Britain and France were very, very alone. Militarily and economically overstretched, (this was the middle of the Great Depression), the last thing the two allies needed was another enemy in the form of Italy.

Still, the Ethiopia invasion had been tougher than Mussolini expected, and the Duce was looking for a face-saving way to ease his difficulties. Besides, Mussolini really didn’t like the Germans, much. There was thus room for a deal.

Without discussing the details, the Hoare-Laval Pact amounted to an agreement by the French and British to abandon their mostly rhetorical support of the Ethiopian cause in Italy’s favor. The British Foreign Secretary, Sir Samuel Hoare, and the French Prime Minister, (the later infamous Pierre Laval), agreed on behalf of their governments to use their influence to obtain international sanction by the great powers of Italy’s annexation of part of Ethiopia, and what amounted to recognition of Italian suzerainty over the rest, in return for resumption of cooperation by Mussolini in a common front against Nazi Germany. (Italy had helped block a Nazi takeover in Austria in 1934).

The proposal would end the war in Ethiopia, (at the price to the Ethiopians of a good chunk of their territory and puppet state status), shore up the British naval and military position in the Mediterranean, and get the British and French some cooperation against the Nazis. Whether and how this would have worked out over the longer run is less clear. But for the moment, the Hoare-Laval Pact promised a win-win for everybody. Except, that is, for the poor Ethiopians. . .

But in the age of mass politics, such cozy 19th Century-style deals no longer worked. The arrangement was leaked to the French press in December of 1935, before the governments were ready for the deal to be public – and it immediately collapsed in a worldwide firestorm of media and Franco-British left wing parliamentary criticism. The Hoare-Laval Pact was denounced as generally immoral; as well as a sellout of both the Ethiopians and the League of Nations, which of course it was.

The collapse of the Hoare-Laval Pact had very serious consequences. First, the British and French governments had to disavow the deal. Hoare left the Foreign Office, (King George VI said: “[n]o more coals to Newcastle, no more Hoares to Paris"). Laval’s ministry fell in France, and the ineffectual League of Nations sanctions against Italy on Ethiopia’s behalf, without more, continued.

Much more importantly, Britain and France lost a potential ally, and Hitler broke out of diplomatic isolation. Mussolini gave up cooperation with Britain and France for good, shrugged-off the sanctions, annexed all of Ethiopia, and moved firmly into Hitler’s camp. Instead of getting half-a-loaf, the Ethiopians got nothing at all, and the next time Hitler moved on Austria in 1938 . . . he had Mussolini’s backing, and Austrian independence disappeared till 1955. When war with what became the Rome-Berlin Axis finally arrived in 1939 (Italy entering in June 1940), the British naval position in the Mediterranean was almost fatally compromised by Italian hostility.

Pierre Laval (at the time of the Hoare-Laval Pact an opponent of Germany) would never forget the personal humiliation he suffered at the hands of the French media and left wing politicians. He devoted the rest of his political life to the destruction of the French Third Republic. . .and started down the road that would lead him to control of Vichy France, collaboration with Germany, and a traitor’s death by firing squad in Fresnes prison near Paris on 15 October 1945.
Today, as some of us celebrate the virtues of "realism" and pragmatism in foreign policy, we would do well to remember Monsieur Laval, who really believed he was the ultimate realist: first he thought to contain Hitler with his clever pact -- that instead exploded in his country's face. Then, the "realist" Laval turned to collaboration with Hitler, because he thought it was pragmatic: that German domination of Europe could not be avoided. Like Monsieur Pig dickering with Herr Leopard about whether dinner will be bacon or ham. The best that can be said for Monsieur Laval is that he died well.
Hoare did better, ending his career in the peerage as a Viscount – and deservedly so. Hoare accepted his necessary demotion and humiliation loyally and in good part, and spent the bulk of World War II in Madrid as British Ambassador. In 1940 he moved diplomatic heaven and earth, successfully, to help keep Franco’s Spain neutral. (Spain’s entry into the war in the autumn of 1940 on Hitler’s side might have finished the British).

What It All Meant is not so easy to say. In 1940-1941, French and British leaders probably wished that the Hoare-Laval Pact had worked out, in 1945, with the war safely won, they could possibly afford to take the higher moral road, leaving the Italians to wish it had worked out.

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