Sidney Alexander 1936 Letter

Picture of Sidney Alexander and German boy Sidney Alexander was 20 years old when he wrote the following letter. He had graduated from Harvard College the previous spring having majored in economics and had received a fellowship to study at Kings College, Cambridge, England under John Maynard Keynes and other leading economists of that time. While in England, he took advantage of the proximity of the European continent to travel.

What follows is a fascinating analysis of prewar Europe from a sharp mind trained in economics. If you have any comments or insights on this letter or his analysis, please e-mail his daughter, Miriam Baker.

The following link may help you remember Europe around this time: map

November 7, 1936

Dear Folks,

      This is to let you know that I am well and happy. I've been thinking more and more about going to Law School next year, unless I should just take a year off to go tramping around the world. I'll probably never get a chance to do that again whether I'm successful or not in a financial way. The depression seems well on the way out of England. I'm told and figures indicate that there's been a large advance in the U.S. too. Of course F.C's an exception as is the whole hard coal industry.

      Were's Lil now? Is she in Simsbury.

      At the end of this month I have a 6 weeks vacation. I'm hot-footing it over to the Continent where I will continue my wanderings. It's much cheaper than living at Cambridge, which is frightfully expensive.

      Send your next letters c/o American Express, Paris. You ought to see me in cap + gown. We have to wear them a great deal. Have not heard from you since Sylvia's baby. Whats the name? How's it getting along.

      Love, Sidney

I am enclosing a picture taken between Magdeburg + Hanover, Germany. It was taken by the German boy with whom I appear on the picture. How do you like the beard? The picture does not do it justice. I shaved it off when I reached London.

      I forget whether I continued the account of my travels beyond Brunn (Brno) Czechs. In case I haven't done so, here's the outline:

      Brno-Prague with Dutch girls. Prague very interesting, especially for the prominent part played by Jews in that city. The place is full of Taunig's and it is here the Professor Taunig's family originates. They are all Jewish there. Two Jewish-German boys acted as my hosts and showed me the city. I met these boys in Budapest. They were very nice. From Prague to Dresden. Dresden is one of the finest cities I have seen. It's a shame that its part of modern Germany. It's especially strong in art + music. It is decidedly less pro-Nazi than most of the small towns about Saxony. The combination of the large percentage of Catholics and the high intellectual level of the people must be responsible. But don't get the idea that National Socialism is not very strong there. Real opposition of an open sort is out of the question. But the compulsion to Heil Hitler is not so open as one might believe. That is, everybody does heil Hitler whether they like it or not, so that you don't seem to feel that they're forced to do it. But when someone does it unenthusiastically you can guess how they stand. You know that legally one is not supposed to say "guten tag" or "guten abend" or "auf wiedersehen" but just "Heil Hitler" as hello, good-bye, and any sort of "grüss". As I always avoided saying Heil Hitler, I was several times taken into the confidence of anti-Hitlerites to the extent of their telling me that "they were not completely in favor of Hitler." Naturally that was not often. But the propaganda in the press is so strong that the people can't help feeling on the whole very pro-Nazi, much the same as you couldn't help feeling anti-German or anti-Austrian during the war, even though you knew the Germans + the Austrians weren't much different from the English or the French. It's all a Hell of a mix up. The fear of German aggression in Czecho-Slovackia is something tremendous. Strong as is the Franco-German enmity, it pales into insignificance compared with the Czecho-Slovakian case. And it seems to be very well founded. Germany is even trying to be friendly with Franco for a free hand in the East and Silesia (that part of it which belongs to Czecho seems to be the first objective. As Serbia is largely filled with German-speaking people, the region itself is strongely in favor of joining Germany. The Germans in Czecho are among the strongest of the Nazi sympathizers. It is also significant that while Germany is working for "autarky" and trying to cut down trade with most of the world, it is encouraging trade with the Balkans, especially Jugoslavia, and to some degree Hungary.

      The position of Hungary is especially curious. I was very much surprised at the Hungarian irredentist movement, which I mentioned in a previous letter. It seems most intensely confined to Budapest, but then, the rest of Hungary isn't very much interested in international questions except as respects the chance of selling agricultural products. As the areas which Hungary claims (they include all the portions of the pre-war kingdom of Hungary) are largely agricultural, this does not interest the framers, except to the extent that they feel Hungary should be a more important country. While I was in Budapest someone pointed out to me a military gentlemen riding by and told me that was a special Italian ambassador who had come to promise Italian help to Hungary. It was a little exaggerated but Mussolini's recent speeches have contained references to the assistance of Hungary. The Italian object, of course, is to help break up the little Entente, which is composed of Jugoslavia, Rumania, and Czecho-Slovakia, the very three countries from which Hungary claims land (Austria also has some "Hungarian land" but the main attention of the claims is directed elsewhere). It is here that the position of Italy, Poland, + Germany become complicated + interesting. I don't know Poland's position very well, but I am told, neither does Poland. Poland was formerly closely affiliated with the little Entente, all under the wing of France. But the Franco-Russian alliance, to-gether with the German-Polish non-aggression pact seems to have switched Poland to the side of Germany in spite of the Polish corridor, the German claims to which corridor having been hushed up by Hitler. So now Poland seems to be wanting a bit of Czecho-Slovakia. (It may be interesting to note that the Polish claims would be just north of Kaschan, now called Kosice, while the Hungarian claims would, of course, include Kosice.)

      So Italy + Germany are united in both wanting influence in the Balkans (as well as Austria, which doesn't seem, on the whole, to be terrifically worried, though its there that Italy + Germany seem to clash) but both feeling that their interests may not be conflicting. That, combined with the fact of the questionable way in which the French regard the Franco-Soviet Alliance, just about exhausts my first hand knowledge of the situation (except that Germany does not seem so interested in her colonies as she is in England's letting her have a free hand in the East, as the colonies are of little or no practical use to Germany, while Germany intensely desires political control of all the agricultural territory she can get. When one compares the high price of foods stuffs etc. in Germany with the give-away prices of the same materials in the Balkans, one can well understand her motivation. It is unquestionable that a United States of Central Europe would be of tremendous benefit to all concerned, but under German control it is for France + Russia, and even for Italy rather out of the question.

      (I hope I am not boring you with this analysis which is not of direct interest to any of us, but yet the facts are so very obvious and are so little understood that I thought it worthwhile to present what I believe to be the true case.)

      The Spanish question is of significance in the general picture only in so far as it cements the friendship of Germany and Italy which is somewhat weak on certain other points. Of course a fascist Spain closely bound to the two countries might be a good working base against France or England in case of trouble on that line, but the advantage is somewhat remote. The English aid (in the form of the non-intervention pact) to the Spanish nationalists seems to indicate that the British diplomats do not consider this a vital question. It is partly balanced by the British-Portuguese alliance and overbalanced by the advantages to British trade + investment of a fascist government in Spain.

      Holland's attitude seems strongly set against Germany in strong contrast to her strong pre-German stand during the war. I hardly know to what this may be attributed but I suspect that a large part may be played by the fear of losing one of her best customers, Germany, to the agricultural states of southern Europe. Whether Germany has any immediate drive to control, directly or indirectly, the mouth of the Rhine which lies in Holland, I do not know.

      France, of course, wants to sit tight, and maintain her political hold on the little Entente (which is purely strategic and very little economic, with the exception of the investments which French capitalists have been encouraged, or almost forced, to make in these countries). She is deathly frightened by the threat of the tremendous growth in Hitler's power which the economic annexation of central Europe would entail.

      England, of course, is the deciding factor, and, strange as it may seem, it is England which Germany is courting for permission to proceed. It is here where Germany's "friendship" with Italy is costly. For England is chiefly worried about Italian strength in the Mediterranean, and it is this preoccupation that has set England Building so many warships and airplanes that her steel industry, which was once so hard-hit by the depression is now building new steel-mills by leaps and bounds to take care of the new armament orders. We see the prewar situation reversed very significantly. Instead of Germany pitted against England with Italy seeking the most profitable side, we see an Italian-English antagonism with Germany making the most of it. The crucial question is, of course, will Germany get the support of England to the extent of that country's allowing her a free hand in the East, or must she take Italy as second best? There is no question where Germany's preference lies. England's position, on the other hand, seems to depend upon what Mussolini intends to do next. So long as he merely concentrates on consolidating the conquest of Abyssinia, the chances of peace are good. But to the extent that he takes action tending to increase his power over that portion of the Mediterranean between Italy and Suez, just so much is he encouraging German-English understanding. It would be a policy worthy of Bismarck if Germany were encouraging Italian expansion in the Mediterranean in order to make a German-English rapprochement easier.

      But it is not easy to know what is in the minds of the English Foreign Office. I can hardly doubt, however, that there is an increasing friendliness with Germany, but one would suspect that this has a long way to go. If Britain wishes to maintain the traditional balance of power, a strong Germany in the East would not be much more palatable than a strong Italy in the Mediterranean. What England hopes to gain by a new Locarno pact I do not know unless she hopes that this will help keep her balance on the fence os between Italy and Germany. Of course the English-French understanding must be strained in either case, which complicates matters still further. That France does not want to go to war with Italy is quite certain, in spite of Mussolini's recent "ungrateful" remarks in her direction. It is probably Mussolini's realization of this that allows him to play rather free with France. France has only one enemy. England learned this from the half-hearted French application of sanctions. England must be peculiarly aware that French understanding only really concerns action against Germany. This is rather similar to the French feeling that the Franco-Russian pact will only entail Russia's aid if Russia itself is threatened. Of course it is rather naïve to believe that any ally will come to your aid if it is not itself immediately greatly concerned.

      So the action clearly lies with Germany; and Germany will wait both to strengthen her hand and to attempt either to secure England's permission or obtain a more definite alignment.

      From this I conclude that the immediate prospects for peace are very good for the next, say, two years, but if Germany is not allowed to gain economic control in the East, there will be war, unless of course again Italy should give up dreams of Mare Nostrum.

      This of course, is only my guess of the situation, which may in fact be far different from the hypothesis here developed. But I think it is a good guess.

      I really should apologize for going on like that but the subject really ran away with me. I hope you were interested enough to read it through. If you think its any good you might send it to the good old J.C. News. I know they didn't want my opinions but preferred my adventures, but up to the point where I stated my first hand knowledge ends, it is strictly dependable. It is the first time that I tried to construct an organized view of the whole situation. Don't give it to the J.C. News unless father thinks its worth it. Then, too, if you do give it to the J.C. News, it should probably be edited as I wrote very rapidly and carelessly, as it is very late, and I really didn't intend to write it at all. I started out, if I remember correctly (I'm too sleepy to look back) to outline the last lap of my trip. I'll do that some other time.

      After more mature consideration, both of the content, and the fact that while writing I was too sleepy to pay much attention either to what I was saying or how best to say it. So I definitely don't want it to appear publicly. I hope I can trust you not to take it to Peter as I don't want to tear all that writing up, and it was a good exercize [sic] in analysing [sic] a political situation.

      Its after 2 am and this is the seventh letter I've written to-day, so do you wonder I'm groggy? When I started to write I thought I'd write only one page but when really interested one can keep on going almost without thinking. I'll write again more sensibly soon.