J. A. Grant: Between Depression and Disarmament

Between Depression and Disarmament. The International Armaments Business, 1919–1939

Grant, Jonathan A.
236 S.
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Matthias Middell, Universität Leipzig

At a time when the supply of more or less heavy weapons (to Ukraine) is the focus of public attention, it is worth taking a look in the rearview mirror, and Jonathan Grant, after a well-received book on the period before and during World War I, makes his mark on this subject with the similarly well-researched continuation of his study for the interwar period. In doing so, he overcomes a perspective that is concerned only with the actions of states and their governments, so that arms manufacturers appear only as executors of state policy and a look at government statistics for arms exports and imports seems to suffice. Instead, Grant consistently inquires into the role of the companies - focusing on the European big four of Krupp, Schneider, Skoda, and Vickers. Accordingly, he uses the archives of the Cambridge University Library (where the Vickers Archives are kept), the Krupp archives accessible at the Imperial War Museum and brought there from Essen, and the Académie François Bourdon, focusing on Schneider-Le Creusot. Otherwise, however, he relies on the foreign policy archives of the United States, Great Britain, and France, since the ambassadors appear to him to be extremely reliable (and resourceful) observers of the authoritative arms deals and to have left sufficient material. While the Russian side is covered only on the basis of secondary literature, Grant pays special attention, hitherto hardly found in research, to the area of East-Central Europe as the decisive arms market of the interwar period.

One of the most notorious British arms dealers, Sir Basil Zaharoff, had already predicted this in 1918 and recognized the insatiable hunger of the new states in East-Central Europe for independent armaments as a sign of their now achieved sovereignty as a new driving force of the arms industry. However, this was countered by general war weariness, public condemnation of the "merchants of death" (which gained momentum especially in the 1930s), the exhaustion of finances after world war and inflation, and the colonial powers' concern about a proliferation of uncontrollable arms stocks in their overseas possessions. The League of Nations sought arms control and insisted on disarmament not only in countries that had lost the war but as a general prerequisite for a peaceful future. However, this was countered by continued competition between England and France for the world market in arms, with France seeking to replace its old pre-1914 alliance with Russia with intensified cooperation with the East-Central European states and especially the dynamic Skoda arms factory in Czechoslovakia. From 1933, when Hitler announced that he would henceforth ignore the restrictions of the disarmament agreements, a completely new constellation emerged in which German rearmament was strengthened just five years later by the integration of Skoda into the Hermann-Göring-Werke, while Schneider followed suit after the German invasion of France in 1940. This was the final chapter in a Schneider-Skoda alliance that Grant places at the center of his essentially chronological narrative of the 1920s and 1930s. It is important for him to emphasize that the two together dominated the Eastern European arms market, and that Skoda was by no means a junior partner in this, but was also able to withstand pressure from German competitors until the Munich Agreement in 1938.

The British defense industry was by no means in a politically intended retreat, it experienced rising sales. The Treasury's more restrictive spending policy under the Trade Facilities Act restricted possible expansion into new markets, more in the sense of an unintended consequence, while the limitation of the arms trade to overseas territories did follow a clear political intention.

Arms manufacturers and governments in Western Europe remained skeptical of the excess demand from Eastern Europe, especially in view of the limited creditworthiness of the new states, while general calls for disarmament, on the other hand, remained of marginal importance and never resulted in an effective League of Nations agreement.

Grant's theme from the previous volume – the transition from an arms market entirely in the hands of private companies to one essentially state-controlled – now gives way to a new complexity: alliances were formed between states and between companies, and they overlapped on both strategic and operational issues. Competition in the same business and political alliance-building (such as in the Little Entente) led to regular conflicts (and a failure rate of 25-30 percent). Dissatisfaction, especially in Romania and Yugoslavia, with insufficient arms supplies from France and especially Great Britain undoubtedly weakened the Little Entente as an effective anti-German alliance, but the lack of supplies was not due to a lack of willingness to ally, but to a lack of capacity seen in London and Paris as not even covering the needs of their own military capabilities. As a consequence, the states of eastern and southeastern Europe sought to build up their own arms industries – perhaps the most important lesson learned from the experience of World War I and the period thereafter: the so-called world market proved to be an insufficient vehicle for new states’ own ambitions of rearmament and self-defense. However, the training of workers, the development of the corresponding infrastructures and the connection to leading arms manufacturers with whom license agreements were entered into required considerably more time than the states had until the outbreak of the Second World War. Only Czechoslovakia and Poland (for aircraft construction) achieved a certain military-industrial self-sufficiency, which was continued after 1945. The Soviet Union, incidentally, followed this model of licensing foreign weapons systems. The Soviet leaders, however, distinguished themselves from their counterparts in southeastern Europe as a "more reliable and responsible customer in terms of paying on time and in full" (p. 224). That may have paved the way for the next chapter, when the Red Army became heavily dependent on supply from the Western war allies to overcome German material superiority from 1943 onwards. But this will for sure be treated in more detail in a subsequent volume, we can hope for from an author who has already confirmed convincingly his capacities to challenge traditional wisdom by the means of thorough research.

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