Lecture review: ‘THE WEIGHT OF THE PAST AND THE COLLAPSE OF THE FRANCO-BRITISH ENTENTE, 1919-1924’ by Professor Peter Jackson

Written by Lewis Twiby


On 30 January 2018, Professor Peter Jackson of the University of Glasgow gave a lecture detailing his research on the collapse of the Franco-British Entente following the First World War, including how history became involved with this, and how this influences today’s politics. Professor Jackson began with an overview introducing the topic at hand. The last conflict between Britain and France ended in 1815 and with a few exceptions – such as the 1898 Fashoda Incident – the two states have been somewhat cordial towards each other, even fighting three major conflicts side-by-side. As early as the 1850s there were serious proposals being made to create a tunnel linking Britain to France, which culminated in the Channel Tunnel. However, France and Britain have long harboured animosity towards one another after 1815, as centuries of mutual antagonism have outweighed moments of their friendship. Charles de Gaulle commented that Britain ‘is not inclined to treat us well’, while in the 1920s, in heavily gendered language, the British Foreign Office commented that an alliance with France required ‘one hand on her collar’. Professor Jackson also highlighted this with regards to recent politics. A survey taken on both sides of the Channel in 2004 showed continued mistrust between both states, which has been recently evidenced by the harsh rhetoric used against France during the Brexit debates.

Professor Jackson went on to describe why he believes this is so, and the methodology behind his research. To summarise, politics and international relations are intrinsically linked to memory and history. History shapes memory and the present retrospectively shapes the past. Professor Jackson went on to add that expectations and anxieties about the future in turn shaped – and continue to shape – memory and history. Therefore, the Entente collapsed after long histories of antagonism – in 1920, the future French ambassador Charles Hardy commented that ‘Until a century ago France was England’s natural enemy’, and that Britain should be wary of the Entente, just two years after a major war against Germany.

Professor Jackson then aimed to show memory and history in practice and how they broke apart the Entente. After being invaded by Germany twice in less than fifty years, many French politicians feared a revived Germany. Diplomats reached out to the newly independent states in eastern and central Europe and called for a revival of the ‘Eastern barrier’ against Germany which France had used against the Habsburgs centuries prior. Others, such as Ferdinand Foch, the Supreme Allied Commander during the War, surprisingly took up the rhetoric of the French revolutionaries to move the French borders to their ‘natural boundaries’. Foch himself said that the revolutionaries had ‘saved’ the Rhinelanders from feudalism and so were in fact of a ‘Latin character’ in an attempt to justify trying to wrest the Rhineland from Germany. However, France had recognised the importance of Britain and the United States during the War, and Georges Clemenceau had hoped for a ‘Transatlantic Community of Democratic Powers’ (something Professor Jackson argued was absent from the historiography). Here, Professor Jackson identified a parallel with Brexit. Like the British nationalist press, the French press criticised Clemenceau for resting France’s future security on the good-will of a long-term rival.

Professor Jackson then went on to explain the British aspect of the breakdown. Lloyd George would only sign on to a Transatlantic Community if the Americans did too.  This was dashed when the US Congress refused to ratify the League of Nations Charter. Meanwhile, history and memory helped to destroy the Entente with France. Britain used its history of good economic ties with Germany against French fears of German revivalism, and Professor Jackson went on to argue that German weakness created a psychological issue for British politicians. France became the possible future enemy in Europe, with the future Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Lord Curzon, claiming that France had ‘a different national character to ours’. In 1921, a ‘Continental Air Menace Committee’ was made in fear of French air power!

Professor Jackson concluded his lecture with complimentary comments from Edinburgh’s own David Kaufman. Anglo-French historical hostilities and uncertainties over the future let the Entente die. Invaded twice by Germany, France – as it turned out rightly – feared a revanchist Germany and became disillusioned with apparent British abandonment of them. Meanwhile, British distrust of France led to accusations of France of being too narrow-minded; British statesmen argued that France only had to deal with Europe while Britain had to deal with a global empire (ignoring the fact that France too had a global empire). Professor Jackson showed how ingrained history and memory were in international relations of the 1920s, and how it lingers today over contemporary Anglo-French relations during the current Brexit discussions.


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