The French became increasingly apprehensive as evidence accumulated to indicate that Hitler planned much more formidable forces than those of which he had spoken in October and November 1933. On March 10, 1935, one of his officials disclosed that the projected German Air Force would be larger than the French. Six days later, Hitler himself proclaimed the reinstitution of compulsory military service.
To cope with the prospective peril, the French had begun to mature a strategy. Foreign Minister Louis Barthou summarized it as an effort “to group the European interests that could be menaced by the rapid revival of Germany.” Although Barthou was assassinated at Marseille on Oct. 9, 1934, in company with King Alexander I of Yugoslavia, his policy was carried on ( albeit somewhat irresolutely) by his successor, Pierre Laval. To begin with, in January 1935, Laval held formal conversations with Mussolini, seeking a common Franco-Italian front. These conversations were welcomed by the Italian dictator. Soon after the emergence of Hitler he had proposed that Italy, France, Great Britain, and Germany agree to procedures by which they alone, bypassing the League of Nations, might revise the Treaty of Versailles. The French and British had declined, and the resultant Four-Power Pact initialed at Rome on June 7, 1933 (signed on July 15), provided for nothing more than consultation on matters of mutual interest. Now the growth of French apprehension about Hitler gave Italy more leverage.
Mussolini’s principal aim was to circumvent the provisions of the League Covenant that might give protection to Ethiopia, for he had been trying unsuccessfully since the early 1920’s to make that nation an economic colony of Italy, and at some point before 1933 he had decided to attempt its forcible conquest. He feared that, since Ethiopia had been admitted to the League in 1923, it might be able to win that body’s support, but he recognized that if the British and French did not join in collective resolutions and sanctions, these would be ineffectual. A clash between Italian and Ethiopian troops at the watering hole of Wal Wal on Dec. 5, 1934, had just given him a potential casus belli. To Ethiopia’s appeal for League arbitration he had rejoined that he would settle the incident exclusively in Italy’s interest. Now the trip of Laval to Rome, seeking Italian support against Hitler, gave him the opportunity to bargain for the acquiescence of France and perhaps, through France, of Britain.
The formal convention signed by Laval and Mussolini on Jan. 7, 1935, said nothing about Ethiopia: it merely resolved certain issues with regard to French and Italian colonies already existing in Africa. Mussolini declared later, however, that Laval had given him verbal assurance of a free hand in Ethiopia, and Laval himself admitted that he had promised not to interfere with Italian economic penetration there. The Frenchman professed not to have made any commitment with regard to political or military penetration, but what was said and left unsaid gave Mussolini warrant for interpreting the conversations as he did, and he accelerated preparations for war, apparently much less concerned now about interference by the League.
Laval had gotten what he had sought. Another convention, signed on the same day, affirmed that France and Italy would jointly keep watch on events in Austria and confer about common action if that nation were imperiled, and it was agreed that Mussolini should invite the British to a meeting at Stresa, with the object of adding them to the anti-German front. This conference, held on April 11-44, 1935, was a partial success. All three governments joined in a commitment to oppose, “by all practicable means, any unilateral repudiation of treaties which may endanger the peace of Europe.” While this commitment was qualified by a provision requiring the use of League machinery, it seemed a direct warning to Hitler. The Stresa declaration was followed, moreover, by action to open a League debate on the question of whether or not Germany’s reinstitution of compulsory military service constituted a unilateral breach of the Treaty of Versailles. On April 17, the Council, with only one abstention (that of Denmark) voted in principle its condemnation of all unilateral violations of treaties and referred the German case to the Assembly.
Meanwhile, Laval began negotiations with the ambassador of the USSR in Paris. On May 2, they announced the signature of a five-year pact pledging mutual assistance in the event that either nation. was the victim of aggression. This was followed on May 16 by a similar pact between the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia. Coupled with the earlier treaties that allied Poland and the Little Entente with France, these accords seemed to close the ring around Nazi Germany, and they were accompanied by movements within all the major European governments to increase spending on armaments. In June 1935, the French ambassador in Berlin, Andre FrancoisPoncet, reported the German leaders to be more “defeated and discouraged” than he had ever seen them.