If the power relations of Europe in 1938 made it inevitable that Czecho-Slovakia should lose part of its territory and eventually her independence, it was preferable … that this should come about as a result of discussions round a table in Munich…
E. H. Carr, 1939 edition of The Twenty Years’ Crisis.
In the circumstances of Europe to-day the problem of the Historic Provinces [of the Bohemian Crown] cannot be satisfactorily solved.
Elizabeth Wiskemann, Czechs and Germans, 1938.
2019 is the eightieth anniversary of E. H. Carr’s book The Twenty Years’ Crisis. What better way to celebrate the occasion than showing how a book published the year before by Elizabeth Wiskemann had already undermined Carr’s solution for the peace of Central Europe.
Prologue: 1950s South London, 1945 Czechoslovakia, Interwar IR
My mother grew up in a south London suburb during the 1950s. Memories and mementoes of the 1939-1945 war were not hard to come by. She attended a Catholic school with historic links to Belgium, and the student body included Catholic girls from families that had fled hostilities in Europe. One of her friends was of German origin. Her house was a little piece of central Europe in London suburbia. What my mother remembered most was the bare wooden floors and the carpets hanging on the walls. This seemed a strange inversion of the natural order of carpets and floors. Only later did she realize that the carpets were too expensive to be walked on. The family had fled their home in the predominantly German Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia after the Axis defeat in 1945.
The transfer/expulsion of the Sudeten Germans was part of the post-war settlement. It had been agreed to by the Czechoslovak government in exile, as well as the ‘Big Three’ Allied Governments of Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States. At the Potsdam Conference in July 1945 it was included as part of Agreement no. XII on the ‘Orderly Transfer of German Populations’ in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary (renumbered XIII in the first censured public release of 1945). Overall perhaps two and a quarter million Germans were expelled from Czechoslovakia, although exact numbers are difficult to come by, and with refugees from the east there may have been as much as 4.5 million German civilians in Bohemia by the end of the war. Deaths have been a matter of conjecture, but a commission of Czech and German historians did conclude that there were about 15,000 violent deaths, with an estimate of 30,000 related to the expulsion overall. By 1946 a community that could trace its origins back to the Middle Ages had gone.
Relations between the Czechs and Germans of Bohemia/Czechia formed a complex history of multiple narratives. During the Habsburg Empire, and especially after the Ausgleich of 1867, Czech-German relations were complicated by the incompatible claims of pan-German and pan-Slav nationalisms. These problems were not solved by the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 (and, in fairness, could never be), although some form of fragile modus vivendi was arrived at through the constitution and government processes of the de facto multi-ethnic Czechoslovak state. While both class and ethnic tensions remained, the democratic constitution of Czechoslovakia did provide a forum in which serious (and otherwise violent) tensions could be played out largely peacefully & legally. Yet, as they stood in 1919-1938 the ethnic tensions did not allow a clear and easy permanent settlement, and like other parts of Central and Eastern Europe, fissures remained ready to widen should European politics grow more tense.
In International Relations (IR), we tend to see the interwar crisis from a safe distance. The writers we use to understand the international wrangling are at their happiest writing from a city outside the conflict zone, or in diplomatic corridors of power. This does give an important perspective, and certainly the shuttle diplomacy of Chamberlain, the bombing fears of Londoners, and the war plans of the French Army are important parts of this story. Yet, in all of this, it is Central Europe (the Mitteleuropa of German geopolitics) that is in the eye of the storm. After all, two of the key international thinkers of the interwar period – one at the beginning in 1919, the other at the end in 1939 – saw Eastern Europe as central to their vision of what global order was, and also what it should be. The contrasting, yet at one level compatible, visions of Eastern Europe found in Halford Mackinder and E. H. Carr demonstrate the salience of German-Slav relations between the wars. Yet, there is another way of looking at this problem, and it is provided by another historian-turned-IR specialist. In 1938 Elizabeth Wiskemann – then a journalist and Cambridge historian, but a future Montague Burton Professor of International Relations at the University of Edinburgh – wrote a ground-breaking study for the Royal Institute of International Affairs that would become her book Czechs and Germans.
Both the God’s-eye views of Mackinder and Carr, and the ground-zero of Wiskemann are legitimate positions that we can learn from, but each also contain vast silences. In this blog I want to initially re-read Mackinder and Carr through their views of Central Europe. Both base their arguments on the immediate Central European situation, and their interpretation of the place of Central Europe in global security is at the heart of their foreign policy recommendations for Britain and France. Here Wiskemann is a fly in the IR ointment. Both Mackinder’s and Carr’s views of a future stable peace rely on a particular reading of Central European relations. Wiskemann, despite the fact that she spends no time in her book discussing global order, lays out a central European reality that is clearly at odds with the plans favoured by Mackinder and Carr. Rather, Wiskemann emphasizes the absence of a set of institutionalized arrangements that could possibly bring stability to the region. Her criticism of the implications of pan-Germanism is particularly damaging to Carr’s interpretation of the road to peace in Central Europe, although it also calls out Mackinder’s optimism.
From 1919 to 1939: Professors Mackinder and Carr on the Post-War Crisis
Mackinder’s Democratic Ideals and Reality of 1919 & Carr’s Twenty Years’ Crisis of 1939 stand at the start and the end of the interwar period. Both begin from the assumption that approaches to foreign policy could be understood through a bifurcation of thought. For Mackinder the two public policy ideal types were organizers and idealists, while Carr divided thought into utopianism and realism. While there are differences in how they applied this split (for Mackinder it was an attribute of policy makers, for Carr it was linked to science and the nature of the social sciences), the family resemblance is important. The concept of a realist/idealist split was a common aspect of popular interpretations of politics at the time, although it took radically different forms depending on the political leanings of the user. During the First World War, for example, H. N. Brailsford divided up British attitudes to the war into realists (found among Conservatives), idealists (Liberals), and his preferred socialists (Labour). After the War F. E. Smith contrasted the idealism of supporters of a new international order with the realism of British Imperial destiny (his preference). US President Woodrow Wilson’s presentation of the US as an idealist power also helped develop the bifurcation as a popular ordering concept, even as US policy under his presidency proved itself to be far from idealist in its approach to inter-Allied war debt and other direct American foreign policy interests.
Mackinder’s idealist/organiser ideal types served as a vehicle for the promotion of two of his core ideas. The first was the need for democratic politicians to fully understand the geographical realities that he believed dictated great power strategic thinking. The second was the importance of preserving liberal democratic principles in a harshly competitive world order. Idealists, in this perspective were the ‘salt of the earth’ amateur generalists of the major maritime ‘rimland’ democracies (especially The UK, USA, and France, although Japan was sometimes added when talking about maritime powers). They thought in abstract terms, so were often able to think outside of the box, thus furthering progress. Their big weakness was the lack of specialist spatial and strategic thinking. By contrast, organisers were the specialists. Unable to think outside of their immediate competencies, they treated people as means towards very narrow ends. Fundamentally anti-progressive, the big advantage organisers had was their attention to the details of geo-strategic thinking. For Mackinder organisers were the ideal type found commonly in the great authoritarian land powers, but especially in Germany.
While there were strengths and weaknesses to both idealists and organisers, Mackinder’s book argued for the importance of the knowledge held by organisers, but also stressed the necessity of leadership by idealists. Idealists needed to learn that geo-strategic realities should be heeded, and this knowledge could only come from organisers. The key lesson for Mackinder was how the interaction of technology and the Earth’s surface was now fundamentally rewriting the great power game. Before the twentieth century technology had favoured sea power, as the great maritime states converted the oceans of the world into highways in a process that a later political geographer Derwent Whittlesey would call ‘turning the continents inside out’. With the advent of technologies favourable to land power (railways, the internal combustion engine and the airplane are singled out), the balance had shifted to land power. Since land was concentrated into one super ‘World Island’ and lesser outer landmasses, control of the world via control of the World Island was now possible. The best way to do this was to develop a power base in the Eurasian Heartland or Pivot Area. The natural springboard for that control was Eastern Europe. The great power best placed to exploit this in 1919 was Germany, and hence the makers of the new peace must be aware of the potential for German control in Eastern Europe. From this Mackinder advocated a strong set of alliances linking the new states of central Europe with the western maritime powers in order to prevent the region coming under the control of Germany. Czechoslovakia and Poland, therefore, became vital points for the preservation of western maritime democracies.
Carr’s division of utopian and realist would eventually enter the IR canon, but its roots lay in the earlier common trope of realism and idealism. To Carr these were less ideal types as they were metaphysical concepts that existed in the development of science. Sciences usually progressed from an idealist to a realist phase, but this process was arrested in the social sciences by the realities of the nature of the subject matter. Like Mackinder, Carr advocated a mix of the two (again, a trait common to the realist/idealist trope of the early twentieth century, which was always more of a rhetorical device than scientific categories). Carr, though, is critical of both modern variants of utopianism and realism, and the book ends with Carr’s attempt to create a better set and synthesis of the two.
Like Mackinder, Carr’s eyes were on Eastern Europe, but his analysis of the geo-strategic reality was quite different. A supporter of the Munich Agreement as an example of peaceful change, Carr saw the redrawing of Eastern European borders as a response to power shifts. That these shifts were able to be accommodated peacefully, rather than by violent great power war, was evidence of a positive step towards a more stable world order. The falling of Eastern Europe under German control, therefore, is a recognition of the return of German power. While the book is careful to not prescribe too far into the future of Central and Eastern Europe, we know from unpublished sources used by Charles Jones in his intellectual biography of Carr that Carr favoured giving Germany a free hand in Eastern Europe (something, ironically, that the Munich Agreement had explicitly refused to give to Germany).
Thus, both Mackinder and Carr focus their work on Eastern Europe, and despite using approaches that have a close family resemblance, both end up with diametrically opposed prescriptions for Eastern Europe. For Mackinder realities dictate a security system that protects the states of the region from German expansion, while for Carr the region becomes a necessary sacrifice to the realities of global power. Both are broad brush approaches that apply an abstract logic of either geo-strategy or power politics to Eastern European politics.
Elizabeth Wiskemann & the Complexity of the ‘Historic Provinces’
Elizabeth Wiskemann’s approach, in many respects, works in the opposite direction to Mackinder and Carr. The latter two develop fine-tuned world views that are then brought to a point by their application to Eastern Europe. Wiskemann begins in Eastern Europe, or more specifically begins in the ‘Historic Provinces’ of the Bohemian Crown (particularly Bohemia and Moravia). Rather than relying on an asymmetrical realist/idealist split, Wiskemann’s protagonists (pan-Germans and pan-Slavs) are identical in their ideological approach, but their world views are incapable of amalgamation at an intellectual level. Czechs and Germans consists of an detailed analysis of both the history and the current status of Czech-German relations as of 1938. What emerges is a complex ethno-class analysis that offers no simple solutions, but rather presents reasons why instability is the most likely result in the short to medium term. The mix of populations, despite the existence of majority areas, along with the economic integration of the region, meant that a simple Swiss-style federation would not necessarily offer an effective solution. More often than not, outside events and conflicts would exacerbate divisions in the Historic Provinces, and shifting alliances meant that unlikely heroes in the search for a permanent solution emerge at key points. Events, such as the 1848 revolutions, found themselves refracted through ethnic conflicts. Thus in 1848 the progressive anti-Habsburg movement found itself adopted by pan-German nationalists, and consequently Czechs found themselves as supporters of imperial policy. While predominantly German Habsburg authority was often alienated from Czech society, the Imperial government often performed an ‘arbiter’ role that protected Czechs from Germans, and guaranteed a free trade area throughout the Danuban region that helped reduce ethnic tensions and underwrote regional prosperity.
This concept of an arbiter in the region emerges regularly in the work. For all its legitimist and bureaucratic faults, the Habsburg Empire and its institutions often provided a neutral venue in which competing Czech and German ethnic and class interests could be ameliorated. The various layers of elected assemblies offered Czechs a way of presenting their views, and anger at central government was as likely to emerge from Bohemian Germans as Czechs. By the twentieth century, though, the arbiter role offered by Austria-Hungary was in crisis. The Czech intellectual elite looked outside the Empire to pan-Slavist Russia or Republican France for future models as Austrian authorities failed to enact constitutional reform that might have saved the Empire. The First World War brought about the final split, with Germans remaining loyal to the Central Powers, while Czechs increasingly turned to the Entente powers. The twin powerful ideologies of pan-Germanism and pan-Slavism finally succeeded in dividing the populations of the Historic Provinces.
Through her analysis of relations of the Historic Provinces Wiskemann contradicts an article of faith found implicitly in Mackinder and explicitly in Carr. Both assumed that the predominantly western peacemakers in Paris did not fully understand the situation in Central Europe. Mackinder, in his famous formula of ‘He who controls Eastern Europe controls the Heartland, he who controls the Heartland controls the World Island, he who controls the World Island Commands the World’ saw his role as an expert advising idealist amateurs at the Conference. Similarly, Carr is critical of the Peace for failing to grasp the realities of power in Eastern Europe. Wiskemann paints a different picture. The peacemakers actually engaged in detailed studies of the region, and listened ‘politely but hastily’ to the conflicting demands of the various nations. Detailed studies by Czech authorities, while flawed and partisan, were read and critically understood. The problem lay not in the knowledge of the peacemakers, but in the complexities of the issues, and in the conflicting claims that in the absence of an arbiter could never be reconciled.
What was needed was a new arbiter, and here Wiskemann saw a possible solution. The Czechoslovak state hade emerged as a multi-ethnic entity with a Czech leadership that often seemed willing to accept the need for arrangements that reflected this reality. In this sense, and much against its will, Czechoslovakia was emerging as a republican version of the Habsburg Empire. Wiskemann was well aware that Czech policies were often ham-fisted, but at the same time Czech institutions offered a rule of law that could protect minority rights, and many Czech leaders showed a vision that had been missing in the last decades of the Habsburg Empire. Given the economic integration of the whole area, and the mixed nature of most regions, federalization or even partition would fail to offer a reasonable alternative. Czechoslovakia, on the other hand, could provide some stability between Czechs and Germans.
Wiskemann spends much of the end of the book looking at how the rise of Nazi-backed pan-Germanism was fuelling tensions, and how any redrawing of borders (pace Carr) was likely to exacerbate, rather than ease, tensions. The economic unity of Czechoslovakia (and the dependence of Sudeten economies on the rest of Bohemia) meant that the result of a transfer of the Sudetenland to Germany would necessarily lead to a need for Germany to control all the Czech lands. The direct result of the satisfaction of pan-German desires in the Sudetenland would be the dominance of Central Europe by Germany, that in turn would fuel a pan-Slav reaction. Far from solving anything, the peaceful change that Carr so admired in the Munich agreement was the first step in a chain of events that would lead to the expulsion of the Bohemian German population after 1945. To be fair to Chamberlain, he made it clear to those close to him that Munich was merely a playing for time before a final confrontation. Carr, on the other hand, was more optimistic — and naïve — about the agreement.
Conclusion: At the Heart of Europe
Mackinder, Carr, and Wiskemann all anchor their work in the centrality of Eastern Europe. To Mackinder spatial realities and technological developments have given an importance to the region that meant its independence (especially its distance from Germany) was central to any future post-war security order. To Carr it was the region that must fall under German influence if realities of power were to be accepted and war avoided. Wiskemann’s detailed exploration of the Historic Provinces demonstrates how conditions on the ground made the aspirational conclusions of Mackinder and Carr unsustainable. The realities of ethno-class divisions kept alive the incompatible forces of pan-Germanism and pan-Slavism. Only some form of arbiter in the region could help stabilize the relationships that fed these two immoveable and unstoppable forces. Wiskemann saw hope in the emerging arbiter status of the Czechoslovak state, but her optimism was a cautious one, and the Munich Agreement would eventually take this option off the table. While the instability of this agreement would quickly lead to great power war, the Nazi promotion of pan-Germanism was at its base a destabilization of the region that Germany then tried to restabilize through a policy of enslavement and genocide in the Slav lands. These murderous policies, in turn, would lead to the Allied-supported expulsions of 1945-6.
There is here a warning that was all too familiar to the neo-realist IR theorist Kenneth Waltz: the problem that abstract understandings of global order do not transfer well to foreign policy prescriptions. The reason for this is highlighted in the work of Wiskemann: that despite the usefulness of global order models, they are blind to the specific and often idiosyncratic conditions that influence specific foreign policy cases. Once Mackinder and Carr left their abstract comfort zones to concentrate on policy prescriptions in Eastern Europe they became dilettante amateurs blundering around in a world they did not understand. There is a wide gulf between the study of global orders and foreign policy, and it can only be successfully bridged by using the kind of detailed knowledge constructed by Wiskemann. Those trained in understanding broader global structures and trends should, like Waltz, think twice before making specific foreign policy prescriptions. Structural and geo-strategic studies are poor tools for understanding regions like Eastern Europe.
Perhaps Wiskemann’s most important contribution to the debates about world order in Czechs and Germans is the idea of an arbiter that could smooth regional ethnic conflicts that otherwise stood to undermine world order projects. The two examples she gives – the Habsburgs and Czechoslovakia – were only ever half-formed, and left much to be desired. The same might be said for the Soviet and Titoist Yugoslav ‘arbiters’ that often stored up trouble by using ethnic identities to divide and control. Despite the ethnic cleansings of the twentieth century the need for an arbiter in many regions remains, and at some levels the European Union plays that role in twenty-first century Europe. An arbiter role can also be found in the order underwritten by the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. In this sense, while the Czech-German issue in the Historic Provinces was finally solved by an expulsion in reaction to genocidal pan-German policies, Wiskemann’s study has some value for us today. It also stands as a corrective and warning to the abstract visions of world order that we find in the work of Mackinder and Carr. Their abstract approaches were valuable for understanding the dynamics of global order. Unfortunately, when applied to a specific and complex region their learned sophistication transmogrified into a simplistic and amateur idealism. Their dilettantism needed the corrective of the works of specialist organisers like Wiskemann.
Modified on 15 May 2019: in the full signed version of the Potsdam Agreement it was Article XII that covered the transfer of German populations, not XIII as I previously stated in this post. It was, however, renumbered XIII in the censured first release of the document in August 1945. It is correctly numbered XII in the subsequent releases of the Agreement. My thanks to Martin D. Brown of Tallinn University for pointing this out.