Memorandum by the Minister in Norway (Biddle)40

In Norwegian Government circles it is generally felt that the present tense European situation will be liquidated within the next two years, either through statesmanship and diplomacy or by military force. This will be for two reasons: first, all the leading European nations will have completed their armament within two years, thereby neutralizing the advantage now held by the nations whose armaments are more advanced than others; and second, it is held here that beyond the next one and a half to two years, the peoples of the various heavily arming nations will revolt against their Governments’ continued exhausting taxation for armament purposes. They will be no longer willing or able to bear the burden. The Governments are beginning to realize this, and it is felt that serious thought will soon be given to preparations to meet the situation. This, barring a war in the meantime, will cause these Governments, in self interest, to seek round-table discussions towards liquidating top-heavy armaments.

I beg to refer to my “Chart Showing Prices Paid for Dynamite-Glycerine (in Norwegian currency, 1884–1936)”, forwarded by me May 8, 1936.41 As then pointed out, munitions manufacturing circles here regard this chart as a “war-tendency barometer”. At date of my last years despatch, the price was approximately 130 ore per kilo. At [Page 42] the turn of the year (1936–37) the price had advanced above 2 kroner. At this writing the price is approximately 3 kroner—a new high since the period 1918–19—and not a ton available for purchase. Until December it could be purchased with difficulty in Holland—but now, even that market is closed. Incidentally, the main Norwegian munitions plant has two years’ supply on hand, at low cost. Munitions circles here look for this situation to continue thus for at least two years. They do not necessarily, however, look for a war in the interim, barring consequential incidents.

Norwegian business and other informed circles hold it will be difficult even to estimate what Britain’s not having maintained an adequate defense has cost her in prestige, intra-Empire disturbances, current extraordinary defense expenditures under pressure, et cetera. In the aggregate cost over the past two years and the next two years, it is held that Britain must include financial accommodation and economic assistance to other nations—either to hold them as allies or hold them off as potential enemies, until Britain will have attained her own adequate strength in striking power. This will all be part of the price she must pay. Naturally she would like her friends and neighbors to contribute towards this “price”—but should they be unable or unwilling to do so, she will have to bear the burden herself—as her entire future is at stake.

Referring to my cable of December 11, 1936, to the Department,42 the following are excerpts:

“The following comprises the British long-term objective in foreign policy: Britain aims acting in capacity of honest peace broker towards eventual general European agreement envisaging German and Russian participation. Immediate objective: to break up Italo-German combination through action favorable to Italy (note: this was realized through subsequent Mediterranean Pact43). In connection therewith, Vansittart’s44 conviction gaining credence in high British circles to effect: Germany should be regarded as Britain’s potential aggressor; this warning has regard to British and German relative armed positions, whereby estimated peaks are attainable in two years and eighteen months respectively. British aim to block Germany’s increasing alliances to south and west, thus hoping to get Germany eventually into general agreement—also to block Italy’s grabbing bases near Gibraltar.”

As regards Britain’s holding off Germany until she can rearm, Norwegian circles see Britain now apprehensively looking at the German economic situation with a view to conceiving means to avert a breakdown and explosion.

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Generally viewed, the Spartan spirit has entirely replaced the Athenian, which fact works for the disadvantage of all Europe. In other words, a thoroughly military-minded generation tends to create a situation seething with potential repercussions.

Referring to my cable of December 19, 1936, to the Department,45 the following are excerpts:

“Reliable sources inform me secret German-Russian conversations taking place envisaging cooperation at price of neutralization of Polish and Japanese fronts. This means Germany not to assist Japan against Russia and Russia not to assist Poland or France against Germany. British circles concerned lest this lead to war through Germany’s getting free hand. Understand Russia would be prepared to tear up recent agreements if Germany would do likewise. Such arrangements would indicate Voroshilov’s46 aims overshadowing Litvinov’s objectives. Though indications are reported to be of sufficiently definite character to cause apprehension in Scandinavian and British high circles, like all matters of such importance, the reported plan is subject to change or abandonment through terrific pressure which might be brought.”

Since early December, 1936, rumors regarding the possibility of an eventual Russo-German rapprochement have come to me confidentially from four distinct sources: quarters here identified with British, Finnish, Polish and German high circles. Differing somewhat perhaps in detail, they nevertheless all point to the same possible outcome: an eventual Russo-German rapprochement. I was at first inclined to classify information to this effect, emanating from important and informed Finnish and Polish communicants in Oslo, as home-inspired, due to the geographic and political positions of both these countries, and their possible desire for focussed sympathetic attention. I may add that information from the foregoing sources was obtained subsequent to that which was transmitted to me by circles here close to the British, and which prompted my above cable of December 19th.

Now, however, in the course of the past few days, comes fresh information of the same character from informed Norwegian observers known to me to be close to German governmental and banking circles. These reports, in effect, point out that German high circles feel that all indications point to Germany’s being bottled up; she may be compelled eventually to come to terms with Russia. Having brought the colonial question to the fore, while stressing it as the paramount issue of the day, Germany finds Britain blocking her every day at every turn. Although Hitler would still go far towards holding Britain’s friendship, it is conceivable, if present circumstances continue, that Germany will have to resort to the alternative of alliances unsympathetic to those nations now in control of Germany’s [Page 44] former colonies. In this connection, some German circles are reported as discussing quite openly now the possibility of a German break with Western Europe, and a new line-up with Russia. They point to Stalin’s growing tendency to nationalize Bolshevism—to confine it within Russian frontiers. They can foresee therefore a change in that system’s complexion. Anyway, Germany’s hatred is directed against Bolshevism solely, and not against Russia. It is conceivable that as an emergency measure an economic-military arrangement might be effected, exclusive of mutual acceptance of the respective political principles of the parties. Besides, the General Staffs of both countries have long advocated an amicable tie-up on some basis, aside from political considerations.

In connection with the foregoing possibilities, informed opinion here points out that any connection which might eventuate between Germany and Russia, would be contingent on what develops politically in Russia. Thus, a strengthening of the Russian Government’s position would probably lead to an amicable arrangement with it. It is conceivable, however, that if the Russian Government’s position weakens, the Germans might consider means of forcibly availing themselves of Russian territories containing the raw materials and grain they need. Such action would be to a large extent influenced by Poland’s attitude. Quarters here have no definite opinion regarding Poland’s probable attitude in such circumstances. They feel, however, that Poland might be willing to throw her support behind a German move, were she sufficiently convinced of the likelihood of revolution within Russia resulting from an aggressive move against that country.

In this connection, a meeting of leading Swedish and Norwegian shipowners recently took place here. The leading Swedish representative expressed his opinion: to the effect that Germany would turn to Russia in one capacity or another, once she was convinced Britain would or could do no more for her. Moreover, his information led him to believe that the Stalin Government was so unstable that a revolution paralyzing a united defensive front would take place almost instantly in the event of Germany’s taking action against Russia. Though Germany could never absorb Russia in the long run, her initial efforts would more than likely result in occupation of the Ukraine, at least, without much intensive fighting, and would afford Germany the opportunity to reorganize Russia along different lines. He added that perhaps, after all, it would be better to let this come about.

Similar in general character were the observations recently expressed to me by one of Norway’s leading statesmen and by a prominent, well-informed officer of the Norwegian Foreign Office. Both are regarded as intelligent observers of international affairs, having importantly participated at Geneva during recent years.

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The former observed in effect that Germany was in increasingly precarious economic straits, resulting in a growing schism in leading industrial and political circles. The rate of concentration camp confinements has markedly increased during the past several months, as a result of a growing tendency toward recalcitrant public utterances. The underlying political structure was weakening. It was conceivable that as this weakened, the General Staff’s hold on the political situation would strengthen. If this continued, we might look for a growing tendency towards a military deal with Russia—irrespective of continued political barking between the two countries.

My other above-mentioned informant (of the Norwegian Foreign Office) referred to a conversation we had previously had, bearing on the possibility of an agreement either of an aggressive or non-aggressive nature between Germany and Russia. He believed that even the complexities of the political-economic arena of modern Europe had not succeeded in dislodging Bismarck’s influence from the minds of the German General Staff. It was more than possible that the latter and the Russian Staff could find common ground on which to make an agreement—and that they would both conceivably welcome the opportunity. He then drew my attention to an article which appeared in a recent edition of the League of Nation’s press organ, citing a discussion of recent date between a representative of an important French conservative group and a French Government official. In effect, this discussion disclosed that in reply to the former’s question as why France had effected a rapprochement with Russia, and as to why M. Barthou,47 of all people, should have been the one to advocate it, the Government official explained that M. Barthou had urged the agreement for the simple reason that it was, to his mind, the only way of preventing a Russo-German rapprochement.

Practised in the art of “war threats” and muddying European waters towards accomplishing his successive objectives, Hitler, since late December has been pursuing a “pin-pricking” policy, with an understanding with the “General Staff,” not to go so far as to incur a major conflict. This intermediate policy is aimed at his long-term objective: economic assistance and colonies.

Recent confidential reports indicate this “pin-pricking” policy continues, and can be looked for to have an important bearing on the Spanish situation. According to this information, the General Staff has persuaded Hitler not to send more troops to Spain, because from Germany’s standpoint they consider it strategically advantageous to let this Spanish conflict drag on through the summer. It will provide an ever-ready spark when necessary—an excuse always handy [Page 46] to throw a fire-brand into the powder barrel—and a constant menace to the allies. Besides, this would mean a prolongation of the presence of a body of soldiers in France’s rear—an annoyance envisaged in the “pin-pricking” policy.

In connection with the question of colonies, I am confidentially informed as follows: Von Ribbentrop has been instructed to take up the colonial matter generally—but not to press the issue.

Britain is adamant, and at present is determined not to yield the colonies—under any circumstances.

She plans to counter with an offer of raw materials—but through the League. This plan entails advising Germany to establish purchasing bureaus at the required raw material points of origin throughout the Colonies. In order to facilitate German purchases, Britain is prepared to consider setting up a League credit and the removal of trade restrictions.

The foregoing offer, it is understood, will be advanced on the basis of the following understanding:

Contingent on its functioning through the League.
Part of the price of a general European settlement.
It will involve no territorial changes.

In conclusion, I might add that, taking into consideration the foregoing, it is my belief there are three important factors which should not be lost sight of, in considering the European outlook for the next year:

The advent of another great war is not a certainty. As a matter of fact, Hitler may be compelled to change his policy, for its economic results are so unfavorable as to have considerably weakened even Germany’s position as a political factor. Both possible opponents and possible allies are watching the economic development in Germany with close attention and are drawing their conclusions accordingly.
Probable realignment in Europe resulting from Britain’s approaching rearmed position.
Britain’s determined long-term objective, envisaging a general European settlement.

A. J. Drexel Biddle, Jr.
  1. Copy transmitted to the Department by the Minister in his despatch No. 375, February 19; received March 13.
  2. Despatch No. 176, not printed.
  3. Telegram No. 65, not printed.
  4. Agreement between the United Kingdom and Italy, signed January 2, 1937, League of Nations Treaty Series, vol. clxxvii, p. 241.
  5. Sir Robert Vansittart, British Permanent Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs.
  6. Telegram No. 66, not printed.
  7. Marshal Kliment Efremovich Voroshilov, Soviet Commissar for Defense.
  8. Louis Barthou, French Minister for Foreign Affairs in the Doumergue Cabinet, February 1934.