6 Revisionism – Five Parallels, a Wild Card and Future Uncertainty: China’s Revisionism Today and Germany in the 1920/30 in:

Maximilian Terhalle

Strategie als Beruf, page 141 - 150

Überlegungen zu Strategie, Weltordnung und Strategic Studies

1. Edition 2020, ISBN print: 978-3-8288-4409-4, ISBN online: 978-3-8288-7409-1,

Tectum, Baden-Baden
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141 6 Revisionism – Five Parallels, a Wild Card and Future Uncertainty: China’s Revisionism Today and Germany in the 1920/30 Germany’s revisionism after WW I provides a powerful example of how the unabated denial of a re-emerging power’s claim to historical possessions, real or misconstrued, can crystallise its unsatisfied status. This article will draw parallels to China’s revisionism today. To begin with, most studies analyse the Rhineland crisis based on the short timespan between Hitler’s coming to power in 1933 and the Reichswehr’s march into the Rhineland in 1936. This leads them to conclude that this move demonstrated the Third Reich’s aggressiveness and the concomitant failure of appeasement, which then led to war. Nevertheless, such an approach fails to take into account some of the most significant periods of time during the 16 years before the invasion of the Rhineland actually occurred and, consequently, some of the lost opportunities to prevent the hardening of Germany’s revisionism (e. g. Ripsman/Levy 2013). The Treaty of Versailles of 1919 determined that the Rhineland bordering France was to be occupied by allied troops on both sides of the river Rhine (> 30 miles). As only French and Belgian troops (but not American and British ones) provided the occupation force, their rule was perceived as particularly harsh and discriminating by the German population. Moreover, France’s purely defensive policies reflected no intention to reintegrate Germany into the ranks of Europe’s great powers again; rather, its clearly stated core aim was to keep its eastern neighbour as weak as possible for as long as possible (Jackson 2011). Officially and privately organised German ‘passive’ resistance first culminated in 1923 when large quantities of French troops supplemented the occupational force and invaded the Rhineland’s Ruhr area (coal mining) on the grounds that Germany had not paid one of the tranches it was obliged to pay under the Versailles Treaty. The broad resistance on display reflected to a large extent that while Germany had had to sign the Versailles Treaty in 1919, its population and governments were far from accepting its conditions. At the end of the Ruhr crisis, the UK and the US recognized that leaving the policing of the Treaty to France’s insistence on the status quo was not sustainable. Therefore, the London (1924) and Locarno (1925) conferences aimed to address the “three critical and inseparable” problems underlying the tensions between the continent’s major powers: “European (in-) security, reparations and war-debt politics” (Cohrs 2008, 284). The policy impetus provided by the US and the UK was to channel Germany’s future path into a new European order, while leaving the Versailles Treaty’s core stipulations untouched. French insecurity could only be alleviated, though, if those two powers buttressed their proposals with their political weight, respectively. Realistically gauging Germany’s dependence on the outside powers, its conciliatory chancellor and foreign secretary, Gustav Stresemann, was the leader who pushed the process of accommodation forward. Domestically under immense nationalistic pressure, his foremost goal was to end the still unresolved French occupation of the Rhineland as early as possible and by peaceful means. Despite his strong efforts, though, he could not deliver any significant results that proved the aptness of his policies before his sudden death in 1929 (Wright 2002). The main reason for his failure was not a lack of attempts. Rather, those powers that had intervened in 1923/4 in order to re-channel a possible rapprochement between Germany and France had retreated 142 Maximilian Terhalle into four years of “passivity” thereafter (Cohrs 2008, 574, 620). In other words, while the UK and the US had helped offer a new politico-financial framework, they showed no interest in shaping and sustaining it between 1925 and 1929, as they believed that the fine-grained shaping and implementing of new policies was to be in the hands of Germany and France (Cohrs 2008, 294). But, as recent scholarship has argued, this turned out to be the “‘Achilles heel’ of the unfinished peace order after the Great War” (Cohrs 2008, 574). Therefore, while a renewed effort under US auspices led to a lightly refined war-debts agreement in 1929/30, expiring after 59 years, and provided the basis for the French agreement to withdraw from the Rhineland in June 1930, the latter’s left bank had to remain demilitarized. Taken together, with the drastic curtailment of Weimar Germany’s armed forces still in place since 1919, France’s continued military rearmament conspicuously clear, German war-debts to be terminated no earlier than in 1989 and the great depression having ultimately brought down the German economy, Berlin’s subsequent governments did not have much to offer to its fervently nationalistic and, more importantly, increasingly politically frustrated public (Wright 2002; Terhalle 2009). Thus, when the allies eventually conceded the end of the occupation, Germany’s new government under Bruening “reflected ever more widespread frustration [among] … influential voices [with] the lacklustre revisionist progress achievable” through moderate foreign policies (Cohrs 2008, 579). As the Rhineland’s left bank had to remain demilitarized, celebrations of its ‘liberation’ could not hide the fact that the concession was perceived as a humiliating buffer in that even though the territory had been returned it was not part of its sovereign rule. Notwithstanding the impact of the great depression (which did not initiate the US’ retrenchment to ‘America first’, but only reinforced it), what in effect explains Germany taking its first step in its transition towards a considerably harder revisionism under Bruening between 1930 and 1932 lies precisely in the fact that the United King- 143 Revisionism dom and the United States had “not succeeded in giving Weimar Germany’s leaders of the Stresemann period sufficient incentives … to keep Germany on a path of difficult yet continually closer integration with the predominantly western order” (Cohrs 2008, 574–5). This is not to say that the trajectory of its revisionism had to be preordained from now on. But, as Berlin’s new revisionism was – expectedly – not well received especially in France, it became increasingly more difficult to channel its “distinctly more assertive and unilateral style to restore Germany to its rightful great-power status” into constructive lanes (Cohrs 2008, 579). Put briefly, (British-)American longstanding, freely chosen ‘passivity’ substantiated the denial of Berlin’s status and, in turn, heightened the existing nationalist fervor that came to underpin its hardened revisionism. Such nationalistic sentiments were to play into Hitler’s hands soon after Bruening was forced to resign in May 1932. Hitler sensed that the allies’ commitment to upholding their position of denial had weakened over the years. Thus, when he embarked on the invasion of the Rhineland’s left bank in 1936 he merely faced negligible verbal resistance from Britain and the. Thus, what Hitler really did was to test the US’ and UK’s willingness to stand up to his actions. Since he did not get the sense that others wanted to resist him, an emboldened Hitler took this as a sign of weakness and marched on into Austria and Czechoslovakia. As E. H. Carr put it, “Stresemann had tried in the twenties to restore Germany’s dignity by bringing the country back on terms of equal friendship into the company of the Great Powers. But Hitler had to face a situation in which this endeavour seemed to have failed, in which, despite every effort, equality had proved unattainable by friendly means” (quoted in Haslam, 59). In other words, had the allies made more and more timely concessions to Stresemann between 1925 and 1929, they could have done so from a position of strength and thereby most likely defused Germany’s revisionism early on. Instead, when the allies partially con- 144 Maximilian Terhalle ceded the Rhineland in 1930, it was from a position of weakness and thus fuelled Germany’s increasingly hardening revisionism. In sum, the allied powers had lost valuable time and missed critical opportunities between 1925 and 1929 and had thereby helped harden Germany’s revisionism under Bruening by 1930 – three years before Hitler took power. There are manifold differences that Germany’s revisionism of the 1930s reveals when compared to China today. Not the least, China is not obliged to pay war-debts; its economy has not been crushed by a financial crisis; and its former war-time adversary Japan has not occupied some of its territory (in the last 80 years). Nevertheless, a closer though broader approach offers several powerful resemblances that permit the analysis to present systematic analogies which may illuminate the present case. In fact, both Yan Xuetong’s questions about China’s role in world politics today and Carr’s conclusion about the 1920s draw our attention to the phenomenon of the hardening of a country’s revisionism and to the possible (but not inevitable) implications that such a development may bring about. Thus, when Carr insinuates future political times in which, “despite every effort, equality had proved unattainable by friendly means”, he anticipates Yan’s question to the extent that, “[what] if the means of peace does not lead to the goal of rise” (2019, 96)? In other words, despite the aforementioned differences between Weimar Germany and today’s China (and their environments), it is possible to observe five important parallels that allow us to construe a useful analogy between the two countries. First, as shown, the United States viewed the end of the Cold War as the beginning of the global spread of its politico-economic model and the global entrenchment of the liberal international institutions of which it founded many. The ‘global commons’ and their protection through America are the most powerful expression of this view. In this sense, China has had to accept the unipole’s peace treaty of 145 Revisionism 1991 and, in that, the privilege that the US reserves for itself, namely, to ‘sail and fly’ through China’s EEZ and its self-acclaimed sphere of interest in the SCS since 1979. If much less drastically imposed, this power situation resembles Germany forced acceptance of the occupation of the Rhineland between 1919 and 1930. Second, as shown, the US’ defensive policy of SOTD is highly political in that it denies any need for actively adapting the first-order elements of today’s international environment (e. g. spheres of influence). Moreover, the US’s stance today quintessentially resembles its position some 90 years ago. It was the deliberately chosen passivity vis-à-vis Germany in the latter 1920s that failed to take advantage of the available room to manoeuver then and which, in turn, reveals strong similarities to its policies today. The US failed to facilitate a ‘negotiated bargain’ then and might do so again today. Third, in regard to implications of these developments then and now, Bruening’s hardening of his style and policies after taking office in 1930 can be seen as a consequence of the extended denial that Stresemann and others had encountered in the late 1920s. Faced with no room for accommodation, Bruening stood at the beginning of a still – at this point – reversible process in which Berlin came to harden its revisionist stance. Today, it seems that president Xi’s conspicuous departure from Deng Xiaoping’s policy of ‘keeping a low profile’ to his own ‘striving for achievement’, together with his endorsement of a considerably more assertive approach to its security policies in the SCS equally betrays a first move towards a hardening of China’s revisionism in the wake of the US continued denial. As in Bruening’s case, Xi is not doomed to the radicalization of its revisionism (going down the road of the Rhineland in 1936), but his deeds appear to reflect a significant change in China’s view of its revisionism that resembles Bruening’s moving away from the Stresemann approach. Finally, precisely because France’s end of the Rhineland’s occupation in 1930 came somewhat belatedly and was limited by the fact that its left bank had to remain demilitarized, Germany’s 146 Maximilian Terhalle government and its population alike perceived this buffer as a humiliating concession that still awaited the final verdict to be spoken. The frustration which accompanied this French decision further fuelled the nationalistic hardening of Germany’s revisionism. It is not unlikely that, if similar proposals were implemented in the SCS, China would perceive of the international environment the way Germany did at the beginning of the 1930s (Swaine 2016, 123–6). Nevertheless, it may not be entirely accurate to suggest that the United States is the only power that is in a position to review its stance on its power rivalry with China; in fact, assuming that China’s position has merely hardened over the years because of US policies (SOTD) leaves little room for an alternative understanding of, and approach to, the pertaining context. Such a notion is based on Xi’s undeniable and built-in strife for regaining China’s historical power status; in fact, Xi might well instrumentalize the US’ uncompromising attitude in order to justify the future plans that he has long held in the first place, and largely independent of the US’ defence of its own power position. Such an understanding of his agency would also provide a better fit with the greatness that Xi often invokes on behalf of the People’s Republic. In that sense, the parallels identified between Bruening and Xi might still embolden the latter and harden his revisionism; though, they might not be fully appropriate to capture the drivers behind China’s status-seeking policies. In sum, the analogy between Stresemann/Bruening’s Germany of the late 1920 and early 1930, on the one hand, and Xi’s China since 2012 reveals that the denial of a re-emerging power’s status accommodation often leads to varying degrees of hardening its revisionism. It also seems to be the case that while the process of hardening the respective revisionism is not preordained, continued denial correspondingly leads to a less reversible trajectory of revisionisms. Finally, while the strategic passivity on the part of hegemonic powers is usually based on the conviction of their inherent political aptness, the 147 Revisionism corresponding hardening of the unaddressed revisionism may only partly be a reaction to the former’s passivity. It may also indicate, and possibly even more decisively so, a revisionist great power’s strategic intention to aggrandize the political scope of its power. If so, such thinking might well suggest a very different analogy. Xi would then resemble much more Germany’s Wilhelm II. than Bismarck (and Bruening for that matter). Just as Deng, at the end of his tenure in the 1990s, began to subtly feel the impatience of a younger generation’s power aspirations that did not want to ‘hide its strength and bide its time’ any longer, Bismarck’s speeches of the late 1880s, with their insistence on the empire’s saturation, similarly started to resonate less and less with the younger generation, including the Kaiser. In any event, China and the United States still have considerable room for adopting strategic choices that offer them an alternative to war. They may also choose to forego those choices. Bibliography (selected) Cohrs, Patrick (2006). The Unfinished Peace after World War I: America, Britain and the Stabilisation of Europe, 1919–1932. Cambridge. Haslam, Jonathan (1999). The Vices of Integrity: A Biography of E. H. Carr. London. Ripsman, Norrin and Levy, Jack (2013). British Grand Strategy and the Rise of Germany. In Lobell, Stephen et al., eds., The Challenge of Grand Strategy. Cambridge. Terhalle, Maximilian (2009). Deutschnational in Weimar. Cologne. Swaine, Michael et al. (2016). Creating a Stable Asia: An Agenda for a U. S.- China Balance of Power. S.-china-balance-of-power-pub–64943 (retrieved 18/1/2020). 148 Maximilian Terhalle Wright, Jonathan (2002). Gustav Stresemann: Weimar’s Greatest Statesman. Oxford. Xuetong, Yan (2019). Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers. Princeton. 149 Revisionism

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Cohrs, Patrick (2006). The Unfinished Peace after World War I: America, Britain and the Stabilisation of Europe, 1919-1932. Cambridge.
Haslam, Jonathan (1999). The Vices of Integrity: A Biography of E. H. Carr. London.
Ripsman, Norrin and Levy, Jack (2013). British Grand Strategy and the Rise of Germany. In Lobell, Stephen et al., eds., The Challenge of Grand Strategy. Cambridge.
Terhalle, Maximilian (2009). Deutschnational in Weimar. Cologne.
Swaine, Michael et al. (2016). Creating a Stable Asia: An Agenda for a U. S.-China Balance of Power. S.-china-balance-of-power-pub-64943 (retrieved 18/1/2020).
Wright, Jonathan (2002). Gustav Stresemann: Weimar’s Greatest Statesman. Oxford.
Xuetong, Yan (2019). Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers. Princeton.


Thinking and making strategy serve states’ vital interests. Innately bound up with power, strategy devises a future that reflects vital interests, using its willpower to protect them. Unprecedented, “Strategy as Vocation” introduces Strategic Studies while also offering Germany practical strategies.

The book contains articles in German and in English.


Strategisches Denken und Handeln dient vitalen Interessen. Es verlangt den Blick auf die Macht – und in eine Zukunft, die diese vitalen Interessen entsprechend widerspiegeln soll. Dies gilt immer, besonders aber, wenn Weltordnungen im Umbruch sind. Strategie als Beruf widmet sich den zentralen Konzeptionen der hierzulande vernachlässigten, wiewohl von Deutschen mitgeprägten Strategic Studies und bietet strategischem Denken und Handeln damit erstmalig Grundlagen auf dem Stand der internationalen Forschung an. Konkrete Strategievorschläge sind integraler Bestandteil des Buches.

Das Buch enthält deutsche und englische Beiträge.

Prof. Maximilian Terhalle (@M_Terhalle) lehrt Strategic Studies an der Universität Winchester, ist mit dem King’s College London affiliiert und berät das britische Verteidigungsministerium. Zuvor hat er einige Jahre an den Universitäten Columbia, Yale, Oxford und Renmin (Peking) geforscht und gelehrt.

Terhalle's insightful, balanced, and perceptive essays bring the tools of strategic studies to bear on a range of current international issues. Theoretically sophisticated and empirically grounded, the analysis will be of great value to both the scholarly and policy communities.”

Prof. Robert Jervis, Columbia University, New York

Maximilian Terhalle gehört zu den frühen Streitern für eine strategische Ausrichtung unseres internationalen Ordnungsdenkens und der deutschen Außenpolitik. Sein scharfsinniges Buch bietet eine klare Analyse der instabil gewordenen Welt. Und zieht daraus konkrete Folgerungen für die Verantwortung Deutschlands und seiner Partner für westliche Werte und Interessen.“

Prof. Matthias Herdegen, Universität Bonn

Maximilian Terhalle is a refreshing independent voice on European and German security policy. There is a pressing need for systematic, clear-eyed, and realistic thinking about Germany’s role in a rapidly changing world, and this wide-ranging collection of essays is an important contribution to a much-needed set of debates.”

Prof. Stephen Walt, Harvard University, Kennedy School of Government

The Germans have, for very understandable historical reasons, long been reluctant to engage in the kind of strategic thinking that comes naturally to the Anglo-Saxon world. Maximilian Terhalle, who is one of the Federal Republic’s most innovative experts in the field, is rightly dissatisfied with this opting out of the real world. His new book is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand modern German strategy, or rather the lack of it, and the need for a National Security Council in the FRG.”

Prof. Brendan Simms, Cambridge University

Drawing on wide reading and with a nod to Max Weber, this thoughtful collection of essays by Maximilian Terhalle demonstrates the importance of strategic thinking and how it can be applied to the big issues of war and peace in the modern world.”

Prof. Lawrence Freedman, King’s College London

Die NATO ist strategisch nicht hirntot. Vielleicht aber bald eines seiner Mitglieder. Wer auch immer Deutschland führen wird, täte gut daran, sich den von Terhalle vorgelegten strategischen Kompass sehr genau anzusehen. Die eventuelle Wiederwahl Trumps und der unwahrscheinliche Machtverzicht Putins und Xis bedürfen nicht nur einer erkennbar europäischen Hand im Kanzleramt, sondern auch eines völlig neuen, eben strategischen Mindsets. Terhalles Konzepte für Entscheider sowie seine konkreten Ideen für die Zukunft westlicher Sicherheitspolitik bieten genau das.“

Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, Bundesminister a.D., New York/München

Strategisches Denken fehlt im Land des Carl von Clausewitz in allen Bereichen. In der Politik, der Wirtschaft und der Entwicklung von Leitlinien, wie Europa in einer Welt im Umbruch gestaltet werden sollte. Prof. Terhalles Buch zeigt Grundlagen auf und gibt Anregungen in wesentlichen Feldern der Politik. Es sollte von Entscheidern gelesen und genutzt werden.“

General a.D. Klaus Naumann, ehem. Vorsitzender des NATO-Militärausschusses und Generalinspekteur, München

Can Germany think strategically?’ Indeed, and more broadly, can the European Union become a strategic actor? These questions lie at the heart of Maximilian Terhalle’s no-holds-barred assessment of Europe’s options as the continent faces mounting challenges from both partners and adversaries East, South and West.”

François Heisbourg, Special Advisor, Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique, Paris

Terhalle has produced a rich and wide-ranging series of essays on some of the enduring and more recent dilemmas of international security. These subtle but piercing reflections are in the best tradition of strategic studies, from Clausewitz to Freedman.”

Prof. John Bew, War Studies Department, King’s College London

A thought-provoking and illuminating series of essays that grapple with some of the toughest and most important questions facing contemporary Germany, Europe, and the United States, written by one of Germany's most forward-looking strategists.”

Elbridge Colby, Principal, The Marathon Initiative, former US Ass’t Deputy Secretary of Defence, Washington D.C.

Das neue Buch von Maximilian Terhalle, Strategie als Beruf, ist ein wichtiger Baustein bei der Grundsteinlegung für die hierzulande vernachlässigten ‘Strategic Studies’. Der Autor bürstet kräftig gegen den Strich und stellt liebgewordene Denkmuster in Frage. Man muss Terhalle keineswegs in jeder Hinsicht zustimmen. Aber wenn Deutschland und Europa tatsächlich die ‘Sprache der Macht’ erlernen wollen, wie vom EU-Außenbeauftragten Anfang 2020 gefordert, wird man nicht umhinkommen, sich mit seinen Thesen auseinanderzusetzen.“

Boris Ruge, Berlin

For too long, Germany’s deafening silence on strategic matters has struck international academic and policy observers alike. This is about to change. Maximilian Terhalle’s realpolitik-based as well as erudite deliberations on the art of strategy, closing with novel practical ideas for Europe’s future strategic security, betray exactly that.”

Prof. Christopher Coker, London School of Economics/LSE IDEAS

In Strategie als Beruf schreibt Maximilian Terhalle mit außerordentlich klarem Blick über Fragen sicherheitspolitischer Strategie und füllt damit ein Vakuum in Deutschland. Seine Ergebnisse sind unbequem für die von der Friedensforschung dominierten Debatten. Jeder, dem die Strategiefähigkeit des Landes und Europas wichtig ist, sollte seine Ideen kennen.“

Dr. Bastian Giegerich, International Institute for Strategic Studies, London

“For over a decade, Western scholars of strategy have almost exclusively focused on the likeliness of the Thucydides trap to emerge between the US and China. Remarkably, while Prof. Terhalle acknowledges their global strategic importance, he spells out what the potential trajectory of their relationship implies for NATO’s European members vis-à-vis Russia. – Realpolitik reigns.”

Prof. Wu Zhengyu, Renmin University, Peking