The REMILITARISATION OF THE RHINELAND by the German Army took place
on 7 March 1936 when German military forces entered the
This was significant because it violated the terms of the Treaty of
Versailles and the
Locarno Treaties , marking the first time since the
World War I
World War I that German troops had been in this region. The
remilitarisation changed the balance of power in Europe from France
towards Germany, and made it possible for
Germany to pursue a policy
of aggression in
Eastern Europe that the demilitarized status of the
Rhineland had blocked until then.
* 1 Background
* 1.1 Versailles and Locarno
* 1.2 The foreign policies of the interested powers
* 2 The European Situation, 1933–36
* 2.1 The diplomatic maneuvers
* 2.2 The
* 3 German remilitarisation
* 3.1 Neurath and secret intelligence
* 3.2 The decision to remilitarize
* 3.3 The
* 4 Reactions
* 4.2 France
* 4.3 United Kingdom
* 4.4 Belgium
* 4.7 The Soviet Union
League of Nations
* 5 Significance
* 6 Notes
* 7 References
* 8 External links
VERSAILLES AND LOCARNO
Consequences of the Treaty of Versailles: dotted areas were
demilitarized zones Occupation of the
Rhineland after the War,
the dotted line indicates the extent of the demilitarized zone
Under Articles 42, 43 and 44 of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles
Germany by the Allies after the Great War —
"forbidden to maintain or construct any fortification either on the
Left bank of the
Rhine or on the Right bank to the west of a line
drawn fifty kilometers to the East of the Rhine". If a violation "in
any manner whatsoever" of this Article took place, this "shall be
regarded as committing a hostile act...and as calculated to disturb
the peace of the world". The
Locarno Treaties , signed in October
1925 by Germany, France,
Italy and Britain, stated that the Rhineland
should continue its demilitarized status permanently. Locarno was
regarded as important as it was a voluntary German acceptance of the
Rhineland's demilitarized status as opposed to the diktat (dictate) of
Versailles. Under the terms of Locarno, Britain and Italy
guaranteed the Franco-German border and the continued demilitarized
status of the
Rhineland against a "flagrant violation" without however
defining what constituted a "flagrant violation". Under the terms of
Germany should attempt to attack France, then Britain and
Italy were obliged to go to France's aid and likewise, if France
should attack Germany, then Britain and
Italy would be obliged to
Germany's aid. The American historian
Gerhard Weinberg called the
demilitarized status of the
Rhineland the "single most important
guarantee of peace in Europe" as it made it impossible for
attack its neighbors in the West and as the demilitarized zone
Germany defenseless in the West, impossible to attack its
neighbors in the East as it left
Germany open to devastating French
offensive if the Reich tried to invade any of the states guaranteed by
the French alliance system in Eastern Europe, the so-called Cordon
The Versailles Treaty also stipulated that the Allied military forces
would withdraw from the
Rhineland in 1935, although they actually
withdrew in 1930. The German Foreign Minister Gustav Stresemann
announced in 1929 that
Germany would not ratify the 1928 Young Plan
for continuing to pay reparations unless the Allies agreed to leave
Rhineland in 1930. The British delegation at the Hague Conference
on German reparations in 1929 (headed by Philip Snowden , Chancellor
of the Exchequer , and including
Arthur Henderson , Foreign Secretary
) proposed that the reparations paid by
Germany should be reduced and
that the British and French forces should evacuate the Rhineland.
Henderson persuaded the skeptical French Premier,
Aristide Briand , to
accept the proposal that all Allied occupation forces would evacuate
Rhineland by June 1930. The last British soldiers left in late
1929 and the last French soldiers left in June 1930. As long as the
French continued to occupy the Rhineland, the
Rhineland functioned as
a form of "collateral" under which the French would respond to any
German attempt at overt rearmament by annexing the Rhineland. It was
the fear that the French would take this step that had deterred
successive Weimar governments from attempting any overt breaches of
Part V and VI of Versailles, which had disarmed
Germany (as opposed to
covert rearmament which began almost as soon as Versailles was
signed). Once the last French soldiers left the
Rhineland in June
1930, it could no longer play its "collateral" role, which thus opened
the door to German rearmament. The French decision to build the
Maginot Line in 1929 (which cost hundreds of millions of francs) was a
tacit French admission that it was only a matter of time before German
rearmament on a massive scale would begin sometime in the 1930s and
Rhineland was going to be remilitarized sooner or later.
Intelligence from the
Deuxième Bureau indicated that
Germany had been
violating Versailles continuously all though the 1920s with the
considerable help of the Soviet Union, and with the French troops out
of the Rhineland, it could only be expected that
Germany would become
more open about violating Versailles. The
Maginot Line in its turn
lessened the importance of the Rhineland's demilitarized status from a
French security viewpoint.
THE FOREIGN POLICIES OF THE INTERESTED POWERS
The foreign policy of Fascist
Italy was the traditional Italian one
of maintaining an "equidistant" stance from all the major powers in
order to exercise "determinant weight", which by whatever power Italy
chose to align with would decisively change the balance of power in
Europe, and the price of such an alignment would be support for
Italian ambitions in Europe and/or Africa. The foreign policy goal of
the Soviet Union was set forth by
Joseph Stalin in a speech on 19
January 1925 that if another world war would break out between the
capitalist states (which Stalin saw as inevitable) that: "We will
enter the fray at the end, throwing our critical weight onto the
scale, a weight that should prove to be decisive". To promote this
goal of another world war which would lead to the global triumph of
Communism, the Soviet Union tended to support German efforts to
challenge the Versailles system by assisting German secret rearmament,
a policy that caused much tension with France. An additional problem
in Franco-Soviet relations was the Russian debt issue. Before 1917,
the French had been by far the largest investors in Imperial Russia,
and the largest buyers of Russian debt, so the decision by Lenin in
1918 to repudiate all debts and to confiscate all private property,
whatever it be owned by Russians or foreigners had hurt the world of
French business and finance quite badly. The question of the Russian
debt repudiation and compensation for French businesses affected by
Soviet nationalisation policies were to poison Franco-Soviet relations
until the early 1930s. The centerpiece of interwar French diplomacy
had been the cordon sanitaire in Eastern Europe, which was intended to
keep both the Soviet Union and
Germany out of Eastern Europe. To this
end, France had signed treaties of alliance with
Poland in 1921,
Czechoslovakia in 1924,
Romania in 1926 and
Yugoslavia in 1927. The
cordon sanitaire states were intended as a collective replacement for
Imperial Russia as France's chief eastern ally. The states of the
cordon sanitaire emerged as an area of French political, military,
economic and cultural influence. As regards Germany, it had always
been assumed by the states of the cordon sanitaire that if Germany
should attack any of them, France would respond by beginning an
offensive into western Germany. Long before 1933, German military and
diplomatic elites had regarded the Rhineland's demilitarized status as
only temporary, and planned to remilitarize the
Rhineland at the first
favorable diplomatic opportunity. In December 1918, at a meeting of
Germany's leading generals (the German Army functioned as a "state
within the state"), it had decided that the chief aim would be to
rebuild German military power to launch a new world war to win the
"world power status" that the Reich had sought, but failed to win in
the last war. All through the 1920s and the early 1930s, the
Reichswehr had been developing plans for a war to destroy France and
its ally Poland, which by their necessity presumed remilitarization of
the Rhineland. All through the 1920s, steps had taken by the German
government to prepare for the remilitarization such as keeping former
barracks in a good state of repair, hiding military materials in
secret depots and building customs and fire watch towers that could be
easily converted into observation and machine gun posts along the
From 1919 to 1932, British defense spending was based upon the Ten
Year Rule , which assumed that there was to be no major war for the
next ten years, a policy that led to the British military being cut to
the bone. Amongst British decision-makers, the idea of the
"continental commitment" of sending a large army to fight on the
European mainland against
Germany was never explicitly rejected, but
was not favored. The memory of the heavy losses taken in the Great
War had led many to see the "continental commitment" of 1914 as a
serious mistake. For most of the inter-war period, the British were
extremely reluctant to make security commitments in Eastern Europe,
regarding the region as too unstable and likely to embroil Britain in
unwanted wars. At most, Britain was willing to make only limited
security commitments in Western Europe, and even then tried to avoid
the "continental commitment" as much as possible. In 1925, the British
Foreign Secretary, Sir
Austen Chamberlain had famously stated in
public at the Locarno conference that the
Polish Corridor was "not
worth the bones of a single British grenadier". As such, Chamberlain
declared that Britain would not guarantee the German-Polish border on
the grounds that the
Polish Corridor should be returned to Germany.
That the British did not take even their Locarno commitments seriously
could be seen in Whitehall's prohibition of the British military
chiefs' holding staff talks with German, French and Italian militaries
about what to do if a "flagrant violation" of Locarno occurred. In
general, for most of the 1920s–30s, British foreign policy was based
upon appeasement, under which the international system established by
Versailles would be revised in Germany's favor, within limits in order
to win German acceptance of that international order, and thereby
ensure the peace. One of the main British aims at Locarno was to
create a situation where
Germany could pursue territorial revisionism
Eastern Europe peacefully. The British viewpoint was that if
Franco-German relations improved, France would gradually abandon the
cordon sanitaire. Once France had abandoned its allies in Eastern
Europe as the price of better relations with the Reich, this would
create a situation where the Poles and Czechoslovaks having no Great
Power ally to protect them, would be forced to adjust to German
demands, and hence would peacefully hand over the territories claimed
Germany such as the
Sudetenland , the
Polish Corridor and the Free
City of Danzig (modern
Gdańsk , Poland). British policy-makers
tended to exaggerate French power with the normally Francophile Sir
Robert "Van" Vansittart , the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign
Office writing in 1931 that Britain was faced with an "unbearable"
French domination of Europe, and what was needed was a revival of
German power to counterbalance French power. French economic and
demographic weaknesses in the face of Germany's strengths such as the
Reich's far larger population and economy together with the fact that
much of France had been devastated by
World War I
World War I while
escaped mostly undamaged were little appreciated in Whitehall.
THE EUROPEAN SITUATION, 1933–36
THE DIPLOMATIC MANEUVERS
In March 1933, the German Defence Minister, General Werner von
Blomberg had plans drawn up for remilitarization. Blomberg starting
in the fall of 1933 had a number of the para-military Landspolizei
units in the
Rhineland given secret military training and equipped
with military weapons in order to prepare for remilitarization.
Ludwig Beck 's memo of March 1935 on the need for
Lebensraum (living space) in
Eastern Europe had accepted that
remilitarization should take place as soon it was diplomatically
possible. In general, it was believed by German military, diplomatic
and political elites that it would not be possible to remiltarize
The change of regime in
Germany in 1933 did cause alarm in London,
but there was considerable uncertainty about what Hitler’s long term
intentions were. In August 1933, the chief of the Committee of
Imperial Defence (CID),
Royal Marine General Sir
Maurice Hankey who
served as the éminence grise of British defense and foreign policy,
visited Germany, and wrote down his impressions of the “New
Germany” in October 1933. Hankey’s report concluded with the
words: “Are we still dealing with the Hitler of
Mein Kampf , lulling
his opponents to sleep with fair words to gain time to arm his people,
and looking always to the day when he can throw off the mask and
attack Poland? Or is it a new Hitler, who discovered the burden of
responsible office, and wants to extricate himself, like many an
earlier tyrant from the commitments of his irresponsible days? That is
the riddle that has to be solved”. This uncertainty over what
Hitler’s ultimate intentions in foreign policy were was to color
much of British policy towards
Germany until 1939. British
decision-makers could never quite decide if Hitler was merely seeking
the acceptable goal (to the British) of revising Versailles or the
unacceptable goal of seeking to dominate Europe. British policy
Germany was a dual-track policy of seeking a "general
settlement" with the Reich in which the "legitimate" German complaints
about the Versailles treaty would be addressed in Germany's favor
while at the same time pursuing rearmament to negotiate with Germany
from a position of strength, to deter Hitler from choosing war as an
option, and in a worse case scenario ensure that Britain was prepared
if Hitler really did want to conquer Europe. In February 1934, a
secret report by the Defence Requirements Committee identified Germany
as the "ultimate potential enemy", which British rearmament was to be
directed against. Although the possibility of German bombing attacks
against British cities increased the importance of having a friendly
power on the other side of the English Channel, many British
decision-makers were cool, if not downright hostile, towards the idea
of the "continental commitment". When British rearmament began in
1934, the Army received the lowest priority in terms of funding after
the air force and the navy, in part to rule out the "continental
commitment" as an option. Increasingly, decision-makers came to favor
the idea of "limited liability", under which if the "continental
commitment" were to be made, Britain should only send the smallest
possible expeditionary force to Europe, and reserve its main efforts
towards the war in the air and on the sea. Britain's refusal to make
the "continental commitment" on the same scale as
World War I
World War I caused
tensions with the French, who believed that it would be impossible to
Germany without another large-scale "continental commitment",
and deeply disliked the idea that they should do the bulk of the
fighting on the land.
Starting in 1934, the French Foreign Minister
Louis Barthou had
decided to put an end to any potential German aggression by building a
network of alliances intended to encircle Germany, and made overtures
to the Soviet Union and Italy. Until 1933, the Soviet Union had
supported German efforts to challenge the Versailles system, but the
strident anti-communism of the National Socialist regime together with
its claim for
Lebensraum had led the Soviets to do a volte-face on the
question of maintaining the Versailles system. In September 1933, the
Soviet Union ended its secret support for German rearmament, which had
started in 1921. Under the guise of collective security, the Soviet
Maxim Litvinov started to praise the Versailles
system, which until then the Soviet leaders had denounced as a
capitalist plot to "enslave" Germany. Starting in the 1920s, Benito
Mussolini had subsidized the right-wing
Heimwehr ("Home Defense")
movement in Austria, and after the ultra-conservative Chancellor
Engelbert Dollfuss had seized dictatorial power in March 1933, Austria
had fallen within the Italian sphere of influence. The terrorist
campaign mounted by Austrian Nazis with the open support of Germany
against the Dollfuss regime with the aim of overthrowing Dollfuss to
Anschluss caused considerable tensions between Rome and
Berlin. Mussolini had warned Hitler several times that Austria was
within the Italian sphere of influence, not the German, and to cease
trying to overthrow his protégé Dollfuss. On 25 July 1934 there had
July Putsch in Vienna that saw Dollfuss assassinated by
the Austrian SS, and an announcement by the Austrian Nazis that the
Anschluss was at hand. At the same time that Austrian Nazis attempted
to seize power all over Austria, the SS Austrian Legion based in
Bavaria began to attack frontier posts along the German-Austrian
border in what looked like the beginning of an invasion. In response,
Mussolini had mobilized the Italian Army, concentrated several
divisions at the
Brenner Pass , and warned Hitler that
Italy would go
to war with
Germany if he tried to follow up the putsch by invading
Austria. Hitler was forced to beat a humiliating retreat as he had to
disallow the Putsch he had ordered and he did not follow it up by
invading Austria while the Austrian government crushed the Putsch by
the Austrian Nazis. After Barthou was assassinated on 9 October 1934,
his work in trying to build anti-German alliances with the Soviet
Italy was continued by
Pierre Laval . On 7 January 1935
during a summit in Rome, Laval essentially told Mussolini that he had
a "free hand" in the Horn of Africa, and France would not oppose an
Italian invasion of Ethiopia. On 14 April 1935, Prime Minister Ramsay
MacDonald of Great Britain, Premier
Pierre Laval of France and Prime
Benito Mussolini met in
Stresa to form the
Stresa Front to
oppose any further German violations of Versailles following the
German statement in March 1935 that
Germany would no longer abide by
Parts V or VI of the Treaty of Versailles. In the spring of 1935,
joint staff talks had begun between France and
Italy with the aim of
forming an anti-German military alliance. On 2 May 1935, Laval
travelled to Moscow, where he a signed a treaty of alliance with
Soviet Union. At once, the German government began a violent press
campaign against the Franco-Soviet pact, claiming it was a violation
of Locarno that was an immense danger for the Reich.
In his "peace speech" of May 21, 1935,
Adolf Hitler stated "In
particular, they will uphold and fulfill all obligations arising out
of the Locarno Treaty, so long as the other parties are on their side
ready to stand by that pact". That line in Hitler's speech was
written by his foreign minister, Baron
Konstantin von Neurath who
wished to reassure foreign leaders who felt threatened by Germany's
denunciation in March 1935 of Part V of the Treaty of Versailles,
which had disarmed Germany. At the same time, Neurath wanted to
provide an opening for the eventual remilitarization of the Rhineland,
hence the conditional hedging of the promise to obey Locarno only as
long as other powers did. Hitler always took the line (at least in
Germany did not consider itself bound by the Diktat of
Versailles, but that
Germany would respect any treaty that it
willingly signed such as Locarno, under which
Germany had promised to
Rhineland demilitarized forever; hence Hitler always promised
during his "peace speeches" to obey Locarno as opposed to Versailles.
Hitler would have remilitarized the
Rhineland in March 1935 when he
Germany would no longer obey either Parts V or VI of
Versailles, which had disarmed Germany, but since the
covered by Locarno, its demilitarized status continued. Furthermore,
given that under Locarno, Britain and
Italy were obliged to defend
Germany if France should invade, from the German viewpoint, it made
sense to continue to abide by Locarno, given the fear that France
might march when
Germany repudiated the disarmament clauses of
Versailles in March 1935.
THE ABYSSINIA CRISIS
On 7 June 1935, MacDonald resigned as British Prime Minister due to
ailing health and was replaced by
Stanley Baldwin of the Conservative
Party; the leadership change did not affect British foreign policy in
any meaningful way. On October 3, 1935,
Ethiopia , and
thus began the
Abyssinia Crisis . Under strong pressure from a
moralistic British public opinion, which was very much in favor of
collective security , the British government took the lead in pressing
League of Nations for sanctions against Italy. The decision of
the British Prime Minister
Stanley Baldwin took a strong line in favor
of collective security was mostly motivated by domestic politics. The
A. J. P. Taylor
A. J. P. Taylor wrote:
"Cautious support for the League of Nations, though inadequate to
restrain Mussolini, proved a triumphant manoeuvre in domestic
politics. During the previous two years, the Labour Opposition had
made all the running in foreign affairs. It caught the National
government, both ways round, denouncing at one moment the failure to
assert collective security, and at the next, the alleged sabotage of
the Disarmament conference. Thus Labour hoped to win the votes both of
the pacifists and of enthusiasts for the League. With casual
adroitness, Baldwin turned the tables. "All sanctions short of war",
which Hoare was supposed to be advocating at Geneva, presented Labour
with a terrible dilemma. Should they demand stronger sanctions, with
the risk of war, and thus lose the votes of the pacifists? Or should
they denounce the League as a dangerous sham, and thus lose the votes
of the enthusiasts for it? After fierce debate, Labour decided to do
both, and the inevitable result followed. In November 1935 there was a
general election...The National government was returned with a
majority of nearly two hundred and fifty".
Having just won an election on 14 November 1935 on the platform of
upholding collective security, the Baldwin government pressed very
strongly for sanctions against
Italy for invading Ethiopia. The League
Assembly voted for a British motion to impose sanctions on
immediate effect on 18 November 1935. The British line that collective
security must be upheld with regard to
Ethiopia caused considerable
tensions between Paris and London, with the French taking the
viewpoint that Hitler, not Mussolini, was the real danger to the
peace, and that if the price of continuing
Stresa Front was accepting
the conquest of Ethiopia, it was worth paying. Weinberg wrote:
"The French were amazed at the enthusiasm with which the British
public endorsed in Africa the very principle of collective security
that they had hitherto rejected with such emphasis in Europe. The
nation that had been unwilling to accept responsibility for the
integrity of the Eastern European allies of France suddenly seemed
eager to support Ethiopia."
The British historian
Correlli Barnett wrote for Laval: "...all that
really mattered was Nazi Germany. His eyes were on the demilitarised
zone of the Rhineland; his thoughts on the Locarno guarantees. To
estrange Italy, one of the Locarno powers, over such a question as
Abyssinia did not appeal to Laval's Auvergnat peasant mind". With
Paris and London openly at loggerheads over the correct response to
Italian invasion of Ethiopia, to say nothing of the very public rift
between Rome and London, an opening was seen in
remilitarization of the Rhineland. The Anglo-Italian dispute placed
the French in an uncomfortable position. On one hand, Britain's
repeated refusal to make the "continental commitment" increased the
value to the French of
Italy as the only other nation in Western
Europe capable of fielding a large army against Germany. But on the
other hand, the British economy was far larger than the Italian
economy, which thus meant from the long-term French perspective,
Britain was a much better ally as Britain had vastly more economic
staying power than
Italy for what was assumed would be another guerre
de la longue durée ("war of the long duration", i.e. a long war
against Germany). The American historian Zach Shore wrote that:
"...French leaders found themselves in the awkward position of seeking
the military co-operation of two incompatible allies. Since
Britain had clashing interests in the Mediterranean, France could not
ally with one without alienating the other". To avoid a total rupture
with Britain, France did not use its veto power as a member of the
League Council, and instead voted for the sanctions. But Laval did use
the threat of a French veto to water down the sanctions, and to have
such items such as oil and coal, which might have crippled Italy,
removed from the sanctions list. Nonetheless, Mussolini felt betrayed
by his French friends, and next to Britain, France was the nation that
he was most angry with for the sanctions. Despite all of Mussolini's
outrage about the sanctions, they were largely ineffective. The United
States and Germany-both of which were not members of the League-chose
not to abide by the sanctions, and as result, American and German
Italy with all of the goods that League had placed
on the sanctions list, making the sanctions more of an annoyance than
a problem for the Italians.
Italian cryptographers had broken the British naval and diplomatic
codes in the early 1930s; consequently, Mussolini knew very well that
although Britain might threaten war through such moves like
reinforcing the Mediterranean Fleet in September 1935, the British had
already decided in advance that they would never go to war for
Ethiopia. Armed with this knowledge, Mussolini felt free to engage in
all sorts of wild threats of war against Britain from late 1935
onwards, declaring at one point that he rather see the entire world
"go up in a blaze" than stop his invasion of Ethiopia. Mussolini's
frequent threats to destroy the British Empire if the British
continued to oppose his Ethiopian war had created the impression in
late 1935-early 1936 that Britain and
Italy were on the verge of war.
In late 1935, Neurath started rumours that
Germany was considering
Rhineland in response to the Franco-Soviet pact of
May 1935, which Neurath insisted was a violation of Locarno that
menaced Germany. At the same time, Neurath ordered German diplomats
to start drawing up legal briefs justifying remilitarization of the
Rhineland under the grounds that the Franco-Soviet pact violated
Locarno. In doing so, Neurath was acting without orders from Hitler,
but in the expectation that time was ripe for remilitarization due to
the crisis in Anglo-Italian relations caused by the Italo-Ethiopian
War . To resolve the
Abyssinia Crisis , Robert Vansittart , the
Permanent Undersecretary at the British Foreign Office proposed to the
Foreign Secretary Samuel Hoare what came to be known as the
Hoare–Laval plan under which half of
Ethiopia would be given to
Italy with the rest nominally independent under the Emperor Haile
Selassie . Vansittart who was a passionate Francophile and an equally
ardent Germanophobe saw
Germany as the real danger, and wanted to
Ethiopia for the sake of maintaining the
Vansittart had a powerful ally in Hankey, a proponent of realpolitik
who saw the entire idea of imposing sanctions on
Italy as so much
folly. Persuaded of the merits of Vansittart's approach, Hoare
travelled to Paris to meet with Laval, who agreed to the plan.
However, Alexis St. Leger , the General Secretary at the Quai d\'Orsay
-who unusually amongst the generally pro-Italian French officials,
happened to have a visceral dislike of Fascist Italy-and he decided to
sabotage the Hoare-Laval plan by leaking it to the French press. St.
Leger was by all accounts a "rather strange" character who sometimes
chose to undercut policy initiatives that he disapproved of. The
eccentric St. Leger was especially noted for his obsession with
writing long erotic poems celebrating the beauty and sensuality of
women and the joys of sex, on which he spent a disproportionate amount
of time on (St. Leger was however awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature
in 1960 for his poetry). In a strange asymmetricity, the Francophile
Vansittart at the Foreign Office was in favor the French approach that
it was worth letting
Ethiopia to continue the Stresa
Front while the Anglophile St. Leger at the
Quai d'Orsay was in favor
of the British approach of upholding collective security, even at the
risk of damaging the
Stresa Front. When the news of the Hoare-Laval
plan to essentially reward Mussolini reached Britain, it caused such
an uproar that Hoare had to resign in disgrace (to be replaced by
Anthony Eden ) and the newly elected Baldwin government was almost
toppled by a backbenchers' revolt. Baldwin lied to the House of
Commons by claiming quite falsely that the cabinet was unaware of the
Hoare-Laval plan, and that Hoare was a rogue minister acting on his
own. In France, public opinion was just as outraged by the Hoare-Laval
plan as British public opinion was. Laval's policy of internal
devaluation of forcing deflation on the French economy in order to
increase French exports to combat the
Great Depression had already
made him extremely unpopular, and the Hoare-Laval plan further damaged
his reputation. The Chamber of Deputies debated the plan on 27 and 28
December, the Popular Front condemned it, with
Léon Blum telling
Laval: "You have tried to give and to keep. You wanted to have your
cake and eat it. You cancelled your words by your deeds and your deeds
by your words. You have debased everything by fixing, intrigue and
slickness...Not sensitive enough to the importance of great moral
issues, you have reduced everything to the level of your petty
Yvon Delbos declared: "Your plan is dead and buried. From
its failure, which is as total as possible, you could have – but you
have not – drawn a personal conclusion. Two lessons emerge. The
first is that you were in a dead end because you upset everyone
without satisfying Italy. The second is that we must return to the
spirit of the Covenant by preserving agreement with the nations
gathered at Geneva".
Paul Reynaud attacked the government for aiding
Hitler by ruining the Anglo-French alliance.
Mussolini for his part rejected the Hoare-Laval plan, saying he
wanted to subject all of Ethiopia, not just half. Following the fiasco
of the Hoare-Laval plan, the British government resumed its previous
policy of imposing sanctions against
Italy in a half-hearted way,
which in turn imposed serious strains on relations with both Paris and
especially Rome. Given the provocative Italian attitude, Britain
wanted to begin staff talks with France for a possible war with Italy.
On 13 December 1935, Neurath told the British ambassador Sir Eric
Phipps that Berlin regarded any Anglo-French staff talks without
Germany-even if directed only against Italy-as a violation of Locarno
that would force
Germany to remilitarize the Rhineland. Through
Italo-German relations were quite unfriendly in 1935,
Germany had been
an outspoken supporter of the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, and
offered Mussolini a benevolent neutrality. Under the banner of white
supremacy and fascism, Hitler came out strongly for the Italian
invasion, and he made a point of shipping the Italians various raw
materials and weapons, which the
League of Nations sanctions had
forbidden Italy. Hitler's support for the Italian aggression won him
much goodwill in Rome. By contrast, Laval's pro-Italian intrigues and
his efforts to sabotage the British-led effort to impose sanctions on
Italy created a lasting climate of distrust between the British and
In the fall of 1935, a serious economic crisis gripped Germany, with
inflation rapidly rising, currency reserves collapsing, living
standards falling, well over half of the German people living below
the poverty line, and most damaging of all to the Nazi regime's
popularity, there were alarming shortages of food. After experiencing
an upsurge in 1933 and 1934, the German economy had fallen back into
depression in 1935 mostly because the Nazi regime gave a priority to
importing raw materials needed for rearmament over food imports
Germany had more people than it was capable of feeding) while at the
same time refusing for reasons of prestige to consider devaluation of
the Reichmark. It was common in the fall of 1935 for people to speak
of the "food crisis" (Ernährungskrise) as queues at food shops become
longer and longer. By January 1936, the Berlin police were reporting
that "a shockingly high percentage of the population in Berlin" were
"directly negative towards the State and the Movement". The same
report mentioned that in recent months there had been a huge increase
in the number of pamphlets calling for the overthrow of the Nazi
regime that had been issued by activists from the underground KPD .
In such a climate, Hitler was looking for a quick and easy foreign
policy triumph to distract attention from the economic crisis.
Furthermore, in January 1936 in response to the
Abyssinia Crisis , it
was announced that the
League of Nations was considering applying oil
Italy (which possessed no oil), a step that
Mussolini had always said would lead to
Italy going to war against any
nation that voted at the League Council for oil sanctions. Given
Mussolini's open threats to attack any nation that voted for oil
sanctions together with strong pressure from British public for the
British government to vote for oil sanctions, Britain had deployed the
majority of its military to the Mediterranean, and thus far from
Germany. As the news spread that Italian forces were committing
widespread atrocities in Ethiopia, such as the massacres of civilians
and the frequent use of chemical warfare against defenseless Ethiopian
civilians, British public opinion started to press their government to
do more with regards to sanctions against Italy. Such was the
brutality of the Italian forces that between 1936–41 during
anti-guerrilla operations to "pacify"
Ethiopia that the Italians
killed about 7% of Ethiopia's population. Though the British had
decided not to go to war with Italy, it was very clear that Mussolini
was enraged at Britain as the nation most responsible for the League
of Nations sanctions imposed on Italy. In such a context, within
Whitehall fear started to grow that Mussolini would commit a reckless
"mad dog act" like trying to destroy the British Mediterranean Fleet
as he had threatened to do several times, and hence deployed the
majority of British military power to the Mediterranean to guard
against a possible war with Italy. When the French Admiral Jean
Decoux told the First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Ernle Chatfield that war
Italy was unlikely, Chatfield replied: "With dictators you never
can tell. No one can say for sure that Mr. Mussolini will not take
some serious decisions someday".
NEURATH AND SECRET INTELLIGENCE
The British Foreign Secretary
Anthony Eden anticipated that by 1940
Germany might be persuaded to return to the
League of Nations , accept
arms limitations, and renounce her territorial claims in Europe in
exchange for remilitarization of the Rhineland, return of the former
German African colonies and German "economic priority along the
Danube" The Foreign Office's
Ralph Wigram advised that
be permitted to remilitarise the
Rhineland in exchange for an "air
pact" outlawing bombing and a German promise not to use force to
change their borders. However, 'Wigram did not succeed in convincing
his colleagues or cabinet ministers'. Eden's goal has been defined as
that of a "general settlement", which sought "a return to the
normality of the twenties and the creation of conditions in which
Hitler could behave like Stresemann." (
Gustav Stresemann German
chancellor, foreign minister and democrat during the Weimar Republic)
On 16 January 1936, the French Premier
Pierre Laval submitted the
Franco-Soviet Pact to the Chamber of Deputies for ratification. In
January 1936, during his visit to London to attend the funeral of King
George V , Neurath told Eden: "If, however, the other signatories or
guarantors of the Locarno Pact should conclude bilateral agreements
contrary to the spirit of Locarno Pact, we should be compelled to
reconsider our attitude." Eden's response to Neurath's veiled threat
Germany would remilitarize the
Rhineland if the French National
Assembly ratified the Franco-Soviet pact convinced him that if Germany
remilitarized, then Britain would take Germany's side against France.
There was a clause in the Locarno treaty calling for binding
international arbitration if the one of the signatory powers signed a
treaty that the other powers considered to be incompatible with
Locarno. Both Neurath and his State Secretary Prince Bernhard von
Bülow professed to every foreign diplomat with whom they spoke to
that the Franco-Soviet Pact was a violation of Locarno, but at the
same time both strongly advised Hitler not to seek international
arbitration to see if Franco-Soviet pact really was a violation of
Locarno. Seeking international arbitration was a "lose-lose"
situation for Germany: on the one hand, if it were ruled that the
Franco-Soviet pact was incompatible with Locarno, then the French
would have to abandon the pact, thereby depriving
Germany of an excuse
to remilitarize; on the other hand, if it were ruled that
Franco-Soviet pact was compatible with Locarno,
Germany would likewise
have no excuse for remilitarization. Although Neurath indicated
several times in press conferences in early 1936 that
planning on using the arbitration clause in Locarno, in order to help
convince public opinion abroad that the Franco-Soviet pact was a
violation of Locarno, the German government never invoked the
At the same time, Neurath received an intelligence report on 10
January 1936 from Gottfried Aschmann, the Chief of the Auswärtiges
Amt 's Press Division, who during a visit to Paris in early January
1936 had talked to a minor French politician named Jean Montiny who
was a close friend of Premier Laval, who had frankly mentioned that
France's economic problems had retarded French military modernization
and that France would do nothing if
Germany remilitarized the
Rhineland. According to Aschmann, Montiny had said:
"In Paris one begins to realise that
Germany wants to overturn the
current status, be it through real concerns or fictitious ones. One
longer sees it as an absolute casus belli, as in the recent past, but
the politicians believe a judgement on this matter must come first and
foremost from the Army General Staff. There has naturally been
discussion over the consequences, but to date, no consensus has been
reached. One group believes that given the extraordinary advances in
military motorization, the entire question is less a matter of
practical military significance than of moral value to the German
self-image. Another group in the General Staff are of the opinion that
remilitarization could only be accepted if a full reorganization of
the border defense system were to take place and above all if the
defensive garrisons were promptly improved. As the situation stands
today, one is neither ready nor willingly unhesitating to go to war
over the eventuality of a German reoccupation (the last sentence was
underlined by Neurath)."
Aschmann did not explicitly state this, but he strongly implied that
he had bribed Montiny into talking so frankly. Neurath did not pass on
Aschmann's report to Hitler, but he placed a high value upon it.
Neurath was seeking to improve his position within the Nazi regime; by
repeatedly assuring Hitler during the
Rhineland crisis that the French
would do nothing without telling Hitler the source of his
self-assurance, Neurath came across as a diplomat blessed with an
uncanny intuition, something that improved his standing with Hitler.
Germany the conduct of foreign policy had been the
work of the Auswärtiges Amt (Foreign Office), but starting in 1933
Neurath had been faced with the threat of Nazi "interlopers in
diplomacy" as various NSDAP agencies started to conduct their own
foreign policies independent of and often against the Auswärtiges
Amt. The most serious of the "interlopers in diplomacy" was the
Dienststelle Ribbentrop, a sort of alternative foreign ministry
loosely linked to the NSDAP headed by
Joachim von Ribbentrop
Joachim von Ribbentrop that
aggressively sought to undercut the work of the Auswärtiges Amt at
every turn. Further exacerbating the rivalry between the Dienststelle
Ribbentrop and the Auswärtiges Amt was the fact that Neurath and
Ribbentrop utterly hated one another, with Ribbentrop making no secret
of his belief that he would be a much better foreign minister than
Neurath, whereas Neurath viewed Ribbentrop as a hopelessly inept
amateur diplomat meddling in matters that did not concern him. In
this environment, Baron von Neurath was determined to prove to Hitler
that he, a professional diplomat of the old school who had joined the
Auswärtiges Amt in 1901 was the man best qualified to carry out the
Reich's foreign policy, and thereby prove that the Auswärtiges Amt
should be allowed to conduct foreign policy alone as traditionally had
been the case rather than the Nazi "interlopers in diplomacy".
Konstantin von Neurath in 1939. As Foreign Minister in 1936,
Neurath played a decisive role in German decision-making that led to
THE DECISION TO REMILITARIZE
During January 1936, the German Chancellor and Führer Adolf Hitler
decided to reoccupy the Rhineland. Originally Hitler had planned to
Rhineland in 1937, but chose in early 1936 to move
re-militarization forward by a year for several reasons, namely: the
ratification by the French National Assembly of the Franco-Soviet pact
of 1935 allowed him to present his coup both at home and abroad as a
defensive move against Franco-Soviet "encirclement"; the expectation
that France would be better armed in 1937; the government in Paris had
just fallen and a caretaker government was in charge; economic
problems at home required a foreign policy success to restore the
regime's popularity; the Italo-Ethiopian War , which had set Britain
against Italy, had effectively broken up the
Stresa Front ; and
apparently because Hitler simply did not feel like waiting an extra
year. In his biography of Hitler, the British historian Sir Ian
Kershaw argued that the primary reasons for the decision to
remilitarize in 1936 as opposed to 1937 were Hitler's preference for
dramatic unilateral coups to obtain what could easily be achieved via
quiet talks, and Hitler's need for a foreign policy triumph to
distract public attention from the major economic crisis that was
Germany in 1935–36. The German War Minister General
Werner von Blomberg.
During a meeting between Prince Bernhard von Bülow, the State
Secretary at the Auswärtiges Amt (who is not to be confused with his
more famous uncle Chancellor
Bernhard von Bülow ) and the French
André François-Poncet on 13 January 1936, where Bülow
handed François-Poncet yet another note protesting against the
Franco-Soviet pact, François-Poncet accused Bülow to his face of
seeking any excuse, no matter how bizarre, strange or implausible to
send troops back into the Rhineland. On 15 January 1936, a top-secret
NKVD report was sent to
Joseph Stalin entitled "Summary of Military
and Political Intelligence on Germany", which reported – based on
statements from various diplomats in the Auswärtiges Amt – that
Germany was planning on remilitarizing the
Rhineland in the
near-future. The same summary quoted Bülow as saying that if Britain
and France made any sort of agreement concerning military co-operation
that did not involve Germany: "We would view this as a violation of
Locarno, and if we are not dragged into participating in negotiations,
we will not consider ourselves bound by Locarno obligations concerning
the preservation of the
Rhine demilitarized zone". The Soviet report
warning of German plans for remilitarization was not passed on to
either the British or French governments.
On 17 January 1936
Benito Mussolini – who was angry about the
League of Nations sanctions applied against his country for aggression
Ethiopia – told the German Ambassador in Rome, Ulrich von
Hassell , that he wanted to see an Austro-German agreement "which
would in practice bring Austria into Germany's wake, so that she could
pursue no other foreign policy than one parallel with Germany. If
Austria, as a formally independent state, were thus in practice to
become a German satellite, he would have no objection". By
recognizing Austria was within the German sphere of influence,
Mussolini had removed the principal problem in Italo-German relations.
Italo-German relations had been quite bad since mid-1933, and
especially since the
July Putsch of 1934, so Mussolini's remarks to
Hassell in early 1936 indicating that he wanted a rapprochement with
Germany were considered extremely significant in Berlin. In another
meeting, Mussolini told Hassell that he regarded the
Stresa Front of
1935 as "dead", and that
Italy would do nothing to uphold Locarno
Germany violate it. Initially German officials did not believe
in Mussolini's desire for a rapprochement, but after Hitler sent Hans
Frank on a secret visit to Rome carrying a message from the Führer
about Germany's support for Italy's actions in the conquest of
Ethiopia , Italo-German relations improved markedly. On 24 January,
the very unpopular Laval resigned as premier rather than be defeated
on a motion of no-confidence in the National Assembly as the Radical
Socialists decided to join the left-wing Popular Front, thereby
ensuring an anti-Laval majority in the Chamber of Deputies. A
caretaker government was formed in Paris led by
Albert Sarraut until
new elections could be held. The Sarraut cabinet was a mixture of men
of the right like
Georges Mandel , the center like
Georges Bonnet and
the left like
Joseph Paul-Boncour which made it almost impossible for
the cabinet to make decisions. Immediately, the Sarraut government
came into conflict with Britain as Eden started to press the League
for oil sanctions against Italy, something that the French were
completely opposed to, and threatened to veto.
On 11 February 1936, the new French Premier
Albert Sarraut affirmed
that his government would work for the ratification of the
Franco-Soviet pact. On February 12, 1936, Hitler met with Neurath and
Joachim von Ribbentrop
Joachim von Ribbentrop to ask their opinion of
the likely foreign reaction to remilitarization. Neurath supported
remiltarization, but argued that
Germany should negotiate more before
doing so whereas Ribbentrop argued for unilateral remilitarization at
once. Ribbentrop told Hitler that if France went to war in response
to German remiltarization, then Britain would go to war with France,
an assessment of the situation with which Neurath did not agree, but
one that encouraged Hitler to proceed with remiltarization.
On the 12th of February Hitler informed his War Minister , Field
Werner von Blomberg , of his intentions and asked the head of
the Army, General
Werner von Fritsch , how long it would take to
transport a few infantry battalions and an artillery battery into the
Rhineland. Fritsch answered that it would take three days organization
but he was in favour of negotiation, as he believed that the German
Army was in no state for armed combat with the French Army. The Chief
of the General Staff, General
Ludwig Beck warned Hitler that the
German Army would be unable to successfully defend
Germany against a
possible retaliatory French attack. Hitler reassured Fritsch that he
would withdraw his forces if there were a French countermove. Weinberg
"German military plans provided for small German units to move into
the Rhineland, joining the local militarized police (Landespolizei)
and staging a fighting withdrawal if there were a military
counter-action from the West. The story that the Germans had orders to
withdraw if France moved against them is partially correct, but
essentially misleading; the withdrawal was to be a tactical defensive
move, not a return to the earlier position. The possibility of a war
was thus accepted by Hitler, but he clearly did not think the
contingency very likely."
The operation was codenamed Winter Exercise. Unknown to Hitler, on 14
February Eden had written to the
Quai d'Orsay stating that Britain and
France should "enter betimes into negotiations...for the surrender on
conditions of our rights in the zone while such surrender still has
got a bargaining value". Eden wrote to the British cabinet that the
end of the demilitarized zone would "not merely change local military
values, but is likely to lead to far-reaching political repercussions
of a kind which will further weaken France's influence in Central and
Eastern Europe". In February 1936, the
Deuxième Bureau started to
submit reports suggesting that
Germany was planning on sending troops
Rhineland in the very near-future. Because
François-Poncet's reports from Berlin indicated that the German
economic situation was quite precarious, it was felt in Paris that
Germany could be quite devastating, and might even
lead to the collapse of the Nazi regime. Along with Ribbentrop and
Neurath, Hitler discussed the planned remilitarization in detail with
War Minister General
Werner von Blomberg , Chief of General Staff
Ludwig Beck ,
Hermann Göring , Army Commander-in-Chief
Werner von Fritsch and
Ulrich von Hassell . Ribbentrop and
Blomberg were in favor; Beck and Fritsch were opposed and Neurath and
Hassell were supportive, but argued that there was no real need to act
now as quiet diplomacy would soon ensure remilitarization. That
Hitler was in close and regular contact with Hassell, the ambassador
Italy all through February and early March, showed how much
importance Hitler attached to Italy. Of the three leaders of the
Stresa front, Mussolini was easily the one Hitler most respected, and
so Hitler viewed
Italy as the key, taking the view that if Mussolini
decided to oppose the remilitarization, then Britain and France would
follow. Not withstanding Mussolini's remarks in January, Hitler was
still not convinced of Italian support, and ordered Hassell to find
out Mussolini's attitude. On 22 February, Hassell wrote in his diary
that the pending ratification of the Franco-Soviet pact was just a
pretext, writing: "it was quite clear that he really wanted the
ratification to use as a platform for his action". That same day,
Hassell held a meeting with Mussolini, where Il Duce stated if oil
sanctions were applied against Italy, he would "make Locarno disappear
of its own accord", and that anyhow
Italy would not act if German
troops were to enter the Rhineland. The Polish Ambassador to Germany
Józef Lipski reported about Göring that:
"Göring was visibly terrified of the Chancellor's decision to
remilitarise the Rhineland, and he didn't conceal that it was taken
against the Reichswehr's advice. I had several talks with him then. I
found him in an utmost state of agitation, and this was just at the
time of the London conference. He openly gave me to understand that
Hitler had taken this extremely risky step by his own decision, in
contradiction of the advice of his own generals. Göring went so far
in his declaration as to say literally that, if France entered upon a
war with Germany, the Reich would defend itself to the last man, but
Poland joined France, then Germany's situation would be
catastrophic. In a broken voice, Göring said he saw many misfortunes
befalling the German nation, bereaved mothers and wives...Göring's
breakdown during the
Rhineland period made me wonder about his
psychological stamina. I thought this might be due to his physical
condition, since he was using narcotics."
At the same time, Neurath started preparing elaborate documents
justifying remilitarization as a response forced on
Germany by the
Franco-Soviet pact, and advised Hitler to keep the number of troops
sent into the
Rhineland very small so to allow the Germans to claim
that they had not committed a "flagrant violation" of Locarno (both
Italy were only committed to offering a military response
to a "flagrant violation"). In the statement justifying
remilitarization that Neurath prepared for the foreign press, the
German move was portrayed as something forced on a reluctant Germany
by ratification of the Franco-Soviet pact, and strongly hinted that
Germany would return to the
League of Nations if remilitarization was
accepted. After meeting with Hitler on 18 February, Baron von Neurath
expressed the viewpoint "for Hitler in the first instance domestic
motives were decisive".
At the same time that Frank was visiting Rome, Göring had been
dispatched to Warsaw to meet the Polish Foreign Minister Colonel
Józef Beck and to ask the Poles to remain neutral if France decided
on war in response to the remilitarization of the Rhineland. Colonel
Beck believed that the French would do nothing if Germany
remilitarized the Rhineland, and thus could assure those in the Polish
government who wished for
Poland to stay close to its traditional ally
Poland would act if France did while at the same time
telling Göring that he wanted closer German-Polish relations and
would do nothing in the event of remilitarization.
On 13 February 1936 during a meeting with Prince Bismarck of the
German Embassy in London,
Ralph Wigram , the head of the Central
Department of the British Foreign Office stated that the British
government (whose Prime Minister from 1935 to 1937 was Stanley Baldwin
) wanted a "working agreement" on an air pact that would outlaw
bombing, and that Britain would consider revising Versailles and
Locarno in Germany's favor for an air pact. Prince Bismarck reported
to Berlin that Wigram had hinted quite strongly that the "things" that
Britain were willing to consider revising included remilitarization.
On 22 February 1936 Mussolini, who was still angry about the League of
Nations sanctions applied against his country for aggression against
Ethiopia told von Hassell that
Italy would not honour Locarno if
Germany were to remilitarize the Rhineland. Even if Mussolini had
wanted to honour Locarno, practical problems would have arisen as the
bulk of the Italian Army was at that time engaged in the conquest of
Ethiopia, and as there is no common Italo-German frontier.
Historians debate the relation between Hitler's decision to
Rhineland in 1936 and his broad long-term goals.
Those historians who favour an "intentionist" interpretation of German
foreign policy such as
Klaus Hildebrand and the late Andreas
Hillgruber see the
Rhineland remilitarization as only one "stage" of
Hitler's stufenplan (stage by stage plan) for world conquest. Those
historians who take a "functionist" interpretation see the Rhineland
remilitarization more as ad hoc, improvised response on the part of
Hitler to the economic crisis of 1936 as a cheap and easy way of
restoring the regime's popularity. The British Marxist historian
Timothy Mason famously argued that Hitler's foreign policy was driven
by domestic needs related to a failing economy, and that it was
economic problems at home as opposed to Hitler's "will" or
"intentions" that drove Nazi foreign policy from 1936 onwards, which
ultimately degenerated into a “barbaric variant of social
imperialism", which led to a "flight into war" in 1939. As
Hildebrand himself has noted, these interpretations are not
necessarily mutually exclusive. Hildebrand has argued that although
Hitler did have a "programme" for world domination, the way in which
Hitler attempted to execute his "programme" was highly improvised and
much subject to structural factors both on the international stage and
domestically that were often not under Hitler's control. On February
26 the French National Assembly ratified the Franco-Soviet pact. On
February 27, Hitler had lunch with
Hermann Göring and Joseph Goebbels
to discuss the planned remilitarization, with Goebbels writing in his
diary afterwards: "Still somewhat too early". On February 29 an
interview Hitler had on February 21 with the French fascist and
Bertrand de Jouvenel was published in the newspaper
Paris-Midi. During his interview with a clearly admiring de Jouvenel,
Hitler professed himself a man of peace who desperately wanted
friendship with France and blamed all of the problems in Franco-German
relations on the French who for some strange reason were trying to
Germany via the Franco-Soviet pact, despite the evident
fact that the Fuhrer was not seeking to threaten France. Hitler's
interview with de Jouvenel was intended to influence French public
opinion into believing that it was their government that was
responsible for the remilitarization. Only on March 1 did Hitler
finally make up his mind to proceed. A further factor in Hitler's
decision was that the sanctions committee of the League was due to
start discussing possible oil sanctions against
Italy on 2 March,
something that was likely to lead the diplomats of Europe to be
focused on the
Abyssinia Crisis at the expense of everything else.
THE WEHRMACHT MARCHES
Not long after dawn on March 7, 1936, nineteen German infantry
battalions and a handful of planes entered the Rhineland. By doing so,
Germany violated Articles 42 and 43 of the
Treaty of Versailles
Treaty of Versailles and
Articles 1 and 2 of the Treaty of Locarno. They reached the river
Rhine by 11:00 a.m. and then three battalions crossed to the west bank
of the Rhine. At the same time, Baron von Neurath summoned the Italian
ambassador Count Bernardo Attolico, the British ambassador Sir Eric
Phipps and the French ambassador
André François-Poncet to the
Wilhelmstrasse to hand them notes accusing France of violating Locarno
by ratifying the Franco-Soviet pact, and announcing that as such
Germany had decided to renounce Locarno and remilitarize the
When German reconnaissance learned that thousands of French soldiers
were congregating on the Franco-German border, General Blomberg begged
Hitler to evacuate the German forces. Under Blomberg's influence,
Hitler nearly ordered the German troops to withdraw, but was then
persuaded by the resolutely calm Neurath to continue with Operation
Winter Exercise. Following Neurath's advice, Hitler inquired whether
the French forces had actually crossed the border and when informed
that they had not, he assured Blomberg that
Germany would wait until
this happened. In marked contrast to Blomberg who was highly nervous
during Operation Winter Exercise, Neurath stayed calm and very much
urged Hitler to stay the course.
Rhineland coup is often seen as the moment when Hitler could have
been stopped with very little effort; the German forces involved in
the move were small, compared to the much larger, and at the time more
powerful, French military. The American journalist William L. Shirer
wrote if the French had marched into the Rhineland,
that almost certainly would have been the end of Hitler, after which
history might have taken quite a different and brighter turn than it
did, for the dictator could never have survived such a
fiasco...France's failure to repel the
Wehrmacht battalions and
Britain's failure to back her in what would have been nothing more
than a police action was a disaster for the West from which sprang all
the later ones of even greater magnitude. In March 1936 the two
Western democracies, were given their last chance to halt, without the
risk of a serious war, the rise of a militarized, aggressive,
Germany and, in, fact-as we have seen Hitler
admitting-bring the Nazi dictator and his regime tumbling down. They
let the chance slip.
A German officer assigned to the
Bendlerstrasse during the crisis
H. R. Knickerbocker during the
Spanish Civil War
Spanish Civil War : "I can tell
you that for five days and five nights not one of us closed an eye. We
knew that if the French marched, we were done. We had no
fortifications, and no army to match the French. If the French had
even mobilized, we should have been compelled to retire." The general
staff, the officer said, considered Hitler's action suicidal. General
Heinz Guderian , a German general interviewed by French officers after
the Second World War, claimed: "If you French had intervened in the
Rhineland in 1936 we should have been sunk and Hitler would have
That Hitler faced serious opposition gains apparent weight from the
Ludwig Beck and
Werner von Fritsch did indeed become
opponents of Hitler but according to the American historian Ernest May
there is not a scrap of evidence for this at this stage. May wrote
that the German Army officer corps was all for remilitarizing the
Rhineland, and only the question of timing of such a move divided them
from Hitler. May further noted that there is no evidence that the
German Army was planning on overthrowing Hitler if he had been forced
to order a withdraw from the Rhineland, and the fact that Mussolini
utterly humiliated Hitler during the
July Putsch in 1934 by forcing
Germany to climb-down on Austria without leading to the slightest
effort on the part of the
Reichswehr to overthrow Hitler must cast
further doubt on the thesis that Hitler would have been toppled if
only he been forced to withdraw from the Rhineland.
Writing about relations between Hitler and his generals in early
1936, the American historian J.T. Emerson declared: "In fact, at no
time during the twelve-year existence of the Third Reich did Hitler
enjoy more amicable relations with his generals than in 1935 and 1936.
During these years, there was nothing like an organized military
resistance to party politics". Later on in
World War II
World War II , despite the
increasing desperate situation of
Germany from 1942 onwards and a
whole series of humiliating defeats, the overwhelming majority of the
Wehrmacht stayed loyal to the Nazi regime and continued to fight hard
for that regime right up to its destruction in 1945 (the only
exception being the putsch of July 20, 1944, in which only a minority
Wehrmacht rebelled while the majority remained loyal). The
willingness of the
Wehrmacht to continue to fight and die hard for the
National Socialist regime despite the fact
Germany was clearly losing
the war from 1943 onwards reflected the deep commitment of most of the
Wehrmacht to National Socialism.
Furthermore, the senior officers of the
Wehrmacht were deeply corrupt
men, who received huge bribes from Hitler in exchange for their
loyalty. In 1933, Hitler had created a slush fund known as Konto 5
Hans Lammers , which provided bribes to senior officers and
civil servants in exchange for their loyalty to the National Socialist
regime. Given the intense devotion of the
Wehrmacht to the National
Socialist regime and its corrupt senior officers who never got quite
enough in the way of bribes from Hitler, it is very unlikely that the
Wehrmacht would have turned on their Fuhrer if the
forced out of the
Rhineland in 1936. Hitler himself later said:
The forty-eight hours after the march into the
Rhineland were the
most nerve-racking in my life. If the French had then marched into the
Rhineland we would have had to withdraw with our tails between our
legs, for the military resources at our disposal would have been
wholly inadequate for even a moderate resistance.
The British historian
Ian Kershaw wrote that Hitler had conveniently
forgotten his own orders for a fighting retreat if the French should
march, and that Hitler was exaggerating here for effect the extent of
the planned German retreat, in order to prove he was a leader blessed
Goebbels , Hitler, and von Blomberg
On 7 March 1936 Hitler announced before the Reichstag that the
Rhineland had been remilitarized, and to blunt the danger of war,
Hitler offered to return to the League of Nations, to sign an air pact
to outlaw bombing as a way of war, and a non-aggression pact with
France if the other powers agreed to accept the remilitarization. In
his address to the Reichstag, Hitler began with a lengthy denunciation
Treaty of Versailles
Treaty of Versailles as unfair to Germany, claimed that he was
a man of peace who wanted war with no-one, and argued that he was only
seeking equality for
Germany by peacefully overturning the unfair
Treaty of Versailles. Hitler claimed that it was unfair that because
of Versailles a part of
Germany should be demilitarized whereas in
every other nation of the world a government could order its troops to
anywhere within its borders, and claimed all he wanted was "equality"
for Germany. Even then, Hitler claimed that he would have been
willing to accept the continued demilitarization of the
Stresemann had promised at Locarno in 1925 as the price for peace, had
it not been for the Franco-Soviet Pact of 1935, which he maintained
was threatening to
Germany and had left him with no other choice than
to remilitarize the Rhineland. With his eye on public opinion abroad,
Hitler made a point of stressing that the remilitarization was not
intended to threaten anyone else, but was instead only a defensive
measure imposed on
Germany by what he claimed were the menacing
actions of France and the Soviet Union. At least some people abroad
accepted Hitler's claim that he been forced to take this step because
of the Franco-Soviet pact. Former British Prime Minister David
Lloyd-George stated in the House of Commons that Hitler's actions in
the wake of the Franco-Soviet pact were fully justified, and he would
have been a traitor to
Germany if he had not protected his country.
When German troops marched into
Cologne , a vast cheering crowd
formed spontaneously to greet the soldiers, throwing flowers onto the
Wehrmacht while Catholic priests offered to bless the soldiers.
Karl Joseph Schulte of
Cologne held a Mass at Cologne
Cathedral to celebrate and thank Hitler for "sending back our army".
In Germany, the news that the
Rhineland had been remilitarized was
greeted with wild celebrations all over the country; the British
Ian Kershaw wrote of March 1936 that: "People were
besides themselves with delight...It was almost impossible not to be
caught up in the infectious mood of joy". Not until the victory over
France in June 1940 was the Nazi regime to be as popular as it was in
March 1936. Reports to the
Sopade in the spring of 1936 mentioned that
a great many erstwhile Social Democrats and opponents of the Nazis
amongst the working class had nothing but approval of the
remilitarization, and that many who had once been opposed to the Nazis
under the Weimar Republic were now beginning to support them. The
Gerhard Ritter , who was out of favor with the
Nazi regime as a member of the
Confessing Church and who witnessed the
return of the German soldiers to the
Rhineland first-hand wrote in a
letter to his mother that for his children "who had never seen German
soldiers from close up, this is one of the greatest experiences
ever.... Truly a great and magnificent experience. May God grant that
it does not lead to some international catastrophe". In Hamburg, the
ultra-nationalist, conservative housewife Luise Solmitz whose husband
and daughter had recently lost their German citizenship under the
Nuremberg Laws of 1935 as Mischlinge ("half-breeds") wrote in her
diary after the remilitarization:
"I was totally overwhelmed by the events of this hour..overjoyed at
the entry march of our soldiers, at the greatness of Hitler and the
power of his speech, the force of this man. A few years ago, when
demoralization ruled amongst us, we would not have dared contemplate
such deeds. Again and again the Führer faces the world with a fait
accompli. Along with the world, the individual holds his breath. Where
is Hitler heading, what will be the end, the climax of this speech,
what boldness, what surprise will there be? And then it comes, blow on
blow, action is stated without fear of his own courage. That is so
strengthening...That is the deep, unfathomable secret of the Führer's
nature...And he is always lucky".
To capitalize on the vast popularity of the remilitarization, Hitler
called a referendum on 29 March 1936 in which the majority of German
voters expressed their approval of the remilitarization. During his
campaign stops to ask for a yes vote, Hitler was greeted with huge
crowds roaring their approval of his defiance of Versailles. Kershaw
wrote that the 99% ja (yes) vote in the referendum was improbably
high, but it is clear that an overwhelming majority of voters did
genuinely chose to vote yes when asked if they approved of the
remilitarization. The American journalist
William L. Shirer wrote
about the 1936 election:
"Nevertheless, this observer, who covered the "election" from one
corner of the Reich to the other, has no doubt that the vote of
approval for Hitler's coup was overwhelming. And why not? The junking
of Versailles and the appearance of German soldiers marching again
into what was, after all, German territory were things that almost all
Germans naturally approved of. The No vote was given as 540, 211."
In the aftermath of the remilitarization, the economic crisis which
had so damaged the National Socialist regime's popularity was
forgotten by almost all. After the
Rhineland triumph, Hitler's
self-confidence surged to new heights, and those who knew well him
stated that after March 1936 there was a real psychological change as
Hitler was utterly convinced of his infallibility in a way that he not
General Maurice Gamelin, the French Supreme Commander, 1936
Historians writing without benefit of access to the French archives
(which were not opened until the mid-1970s) such as William L. Shirer
in his books
The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960) and The
Collapse of the Third Republic (1969) have claimed that France,
although possessing at this time superior armed forces compared to
Germany, including after a possible mobilization 100 infantry
divisions, was psychologically unprepared to use force against
Germany. Shirer quoted the figure of France having 100 divisions
compared to Germany's 19 battalions in the Rhineland. France's
actions during the
Rhineland crisis have often used as support of the
décadence thesis that during the interwar period the supposed
decadence of the French way of life caused the French people to
degenerate physically and morally to the point that the French were
simply unable to stand up to Hitler, and the French in some way had it
coming when they were defeated in 1940. Shirer wrote that the French
could have easily turned back the German battalions in the Rhineland
had the French people not been "sinking into defeatism" in 1936.
Historians such as the American historian Stephen A. Schuker who have
examined the relevant French primary sources have rejected Shirer's
claims as the work of an amateur historian writing without access to
the primary sources, and have found that a major paralyzing factor on
French policy was the economic situation as opposed to Shirer's claim
that the French were just too cowardly to stand up to Hitler.
France's top military official, General
Maurice Gamelin , informed the
French government that the only way to remove the Germans from the
Rhineland was to mobilize the French Army, which would not only be
unpopular, it would also cost the French treasury 30 million francs
per day. Gamelin assumed a worst-case scenario in which a French move
Rhineland would spark an all-out Franco-German war, a case
which required full mobilization. Gamelin's analysis was supported by
the War Minister, General
Louis Maurin who told the Cabinet that it
was inconceivable that France could reverse the German
remilitarization without full mobilization. This was especially the
case as the
Deuxième Bureau had seriously exaggerated the number of
German troops in the Rhineland, sending in a report to the French
cabinet estimating that there were 295,000 German troops in the
Deuxième Bureau had come up with this estimate by
counting all of the SS , SA and
Landespolizei formations in the
Rhineland as regular troops, and so the French believed only by full
mobilization would France have enough troops to expel the alleged
295,000 German troops from the Rhineland. The real number was
actually 3,000 German soldiers. The French historian Jean-Baptiste
Duroselle accused Gamelin of distorting what the Deuxième Bureau's
intelligence in his report to the cabinet by converting the SS, SA and
Landespolizei units into fully trained troops to provide a reason for
inaction. Neurath's (truthful) statement that
Germany had only sent
19 battalions into the
Rhineland was dismissed by Gamelin as a ruse to
allow Germans to claim that they not committed a "flagrant violation"
of Locarno in order to avoid having Locarno invoked against Germany,
and that Hitler would never risk a war by sending such a small force
into the Rhineland. Albert Sarraut, the French Premier at the
time of the crisis
At the same time, in late 1935-early 1936 France was gripped by a
financial crisis, with the French Treasury informing the government
that sufficient cash reserves to maintain the value of the franc as
currently pegged by the gold standard in regard to the U.S. dollar and
the British pound no longer existed, and only a huge foreign loan on
the money markets of London and New York could prevent the value of
the franc from experiencing a disastrous downfall. Because France was
on the verge of elections scheduled for the spring of 1936,
devaluation of the franc, which was viewed as abhorrent by large
sections of French public opinion, was rejected by the caretaker
government of Premier
Albert Sarraut as politically unacceptable.
Investor fears of a war with
Germany were not conducive to raising the
necessary loans to stabilize the franc: the German remilitarization of
the Rhineland, by sparking fears of war, worsened the French economic
crisis by causing a massive cash flow out of France as worried
investors shifted their savings towards what were felt to be safer
foreign markets. The fact that France had defaulted on its World War
I debts in 1932 understandably led most investors to conclude if
France should be involved in another war with Germany, the French
would default again on their debts. On March 18, 1936 Wilfrid
Baumgartner, the director of the Mouvement général des fonds (the
French equivalent of a permanent under-secretary) reported to the
government that France for all intents and purposes was bankrupt.
Only by desperate arm-twisting from the major French financial
institutions did Baumgartner manage to obtain enough in the way of
short-term loans to prevent France from defaulting on her debts and
keeping the value of the franc from sliding too far, in March 1936.
Given the financial crisis, the French government feared that there
were insufficient funds to cover the costs of mobilization, and that a
full-blown war scare caused by mobilization would only exacerbate the
financial crisis. The American historian Zach Shore wrote that: "It
was not lack of French will to fight in 1936 which permitted Hitler's
coup, but rather France's lack of funds, military might, and therefore
operational plans to counter German remilitarization."
An additional issue for the French was the state of the Armée de
l\'Air . The
Deuxième Bureau reported that not only had the
Luftwaffe developed considerably more advanced aircraft than what
France possessed, but owing to the superior productivity of German
industry and the considerably larger size of the German economy the
Luftwaffe had a three to one advantage in fighters. Problems with
productivity within the French aircraft industry meant the French air
force would have a great deal of trouble replacing their losses in the
event of combat with the Luftwaffe. Thus, it was believed by the
French military elite that should war come, then the
dominate the skies, and not only attack French troops marching into
the Rhineland, but bomb French cities. Yet another problem for the
French were the attitudes of the states of the cordon sanitaire.
Since 1919, it had accepted that France needed the alliance system in
Eastern Europe to provide additional manpower (Germany's population
was three times the size of France's) and to open up an eastern front
against the Reich. Without the states of the cordon sanitaire, it was
believed impossible for France to defeat Germany. Only Czechoslovakia
indicated firmly that it would go to war with
Germany if France
marched into the
indicated that they would only to go to war if German soldiers entered
France. French public opinion and newspapers were very hostile
towards the German coup, but few called for war. The majority of the
French newspapers called for
League of Nations sanctions to be imposed
on the Reich to inflict such economically crippling costs as to force
the German Army out of the Rhineland, and for France to build new and
reinforce the existing alliances with the aim of preventing further
German challenges to the international status quo. One of the few
newspapers to support
Germany was the royalist L'Action Française
which ran a banner headline reading: "The Republic Has Assassinated
the Peace!", and went on to say that the German move was justified by
the Franco-Soviet pact. On the other ideological extreme, the
Communists issued a statement calling for national unity against
"those who would lead us to carnage" who were the "Laval clique" who
were allegedly pushing for a war with
Germany because war was
supposedly good for capitalism.
Georges Mandel in 1932. The
combative conservative Mandel was the only French minister to advocate
war in response to the remilitarization.
Upon hearing of the German move, the French government issued a
statement strongly hinting that military action was a possible option.
From 9:30 am until noon on 7 March, a meeting of the French cabinet
took place to discuss what to do which ended with the conclusion that
the French Foreign Minister ,
Pierre Étienne Flandin should meet the
ambassadors of the Locarno powers to discuss their reaction. Georges
Mandel was the sole voice in the French cabinet demanding that France
should march at once into the
Rhineland to expel the German troops,
regardless of the costs. Later that day, another cabinet meeting was
called with General-Secretary Alexis St. Leger representing the Quai
Maurice Gamelin the military, who decided to issue the
statement saying France reserved every option to oppose the
remilitarization. Flandin upon hearing of the remilitarization
immediately went to London to consult the British Prime Minister,
Stanley Baldwin , as Flandin wished, for domestic political reasons,
to find a way of shifting the onus of not taking action onto British
shoulders. Baldwin asked Flandin what the French Government had in
mind but Flandin said they had not yet decided. Flandin went back to
Paris and consulted the French Government what their response should
be. They agreed that "France would place all her forces at the
disposal of the
League of Nations to oppose a violation of the
Treaties". On 8 March, the Premier
Albert Sarraut went on French
radio to state: "In the name of the French government, I declare that
we intend to see maintained that essential guarantee of French and
Belgian security, countersigned by the English and Italian
governments, constituted by the Treaty of Locarno. We are not disposed
to allow Strasbourg to come under fire from German guns". At the same
time, the French cabinet had decided that: "We will put all our
forces, material and moral, at the disposal of the League of
Nations...on the one condition that we shall be accompanied in the
fight for peace by those who are clearly bound themselves to do so by
Rhineland pact". In other words, France would act against Germany
only if Britain and
Italy acted likewise. Pierre-Étienne
Flandin, the French Foreign Minister at the time of the crisis.
Since the French government for economic reasons had already ruled
out mobilization, and hence war as a way of reversing Hitler's
Rhineland coup, it was decided that the best that France could do
under the situation was to use the crisis to obtain the "continental
commitment" (i.e. a British commitment to send large ground forces to
the defense of France on the same scale of World War I). The strategy
of Flandin was to strongly imply to the British that France was
willing to go to war with
Germany over the
Rhineland issue, in the
expectation that the British were not willing to see their Locarno
commitments lead them into a war with the Germans over an issue where
many in Britain felt that the Germans were in the right. As such,
Flandin expected London to apply pressure for "restraint" on Paris.
The price of the French "restraint" in regards to the Rhineland
provocation, an open violation of both the Versailles and Locarno
treaties was to be the British "continental commitment" unequivocally
linking British security to French security, and committing the
British to send another large expeditionary force to defend France in
the event of a German attack.
During his visit to London to consult with the British Prime Minister
Stanley Baldwin and Foreign Secretary
Anthony Eden , Flandin carried
out what the Canadian historian
Robert J. Young called "the
performance of a lifetime", in which he expressed a great deal of
outrage at the German move, stated quite openly that France was
prepared to go to war over the issue, and strongly criticized his
British hosts for the demands for French "restraint" while not
offering to do anything for French sécurité (security). As expected
by Flandin, Eden was opposed to the French taking military action, and
appealed for French "restraint". Not aware of what Flandin was
attempting to do, French military officials urged the government to
tell Flandin to tone down his language. In the face of Flandin's
tactics, on March 19, 1936 the British government made a vague
statement linking British security to French security, and for the
first time since
World War I
World War I agreed to Anglo-French staff talks,
albeit of very limited scope. Though disappointed with the British
offers, which the French felt were too little, the French nonetheless
considered the pledges of British support gained in 1936 to be a
worthwhile achievement, especially given that for economic reasons
mobilization was not considered a realistic option in 1936. Those
French officials such as Quai d'Orsay's directeur politique (Political
René Massigli who believed in the idea of an Anglo-French
alliance as the best way of stopping German expansionism expressed a
great deal of disappointment that Britain was not prepared to do more
for French sécurité. In a report to Flandin, Massigli warned that
if French accepted remilitarization, then the Poles, the Yugoslavs and
the Romanians would drift into the German orbit while Czechoslovakia
would do its best to stay loyal to its 1924 alliance with France, and
it would only be a matter of time before
Germany annexed Austria. In
particular, Massigli warned if the Germans were able to fortify the
Rhineland, that would essentially mean giving the Reich a free hand to
expand into Eastern Europe. As part of an effort to secure more in
the way of the long-desired "continental commitment" that had been a
major goal of French foreign policy since 1919, Gamelin told the
British military attaché that:
"France could fight its own battles and also send some immediate
reinforcements to Belgium, but only if it was known for sure that a
British Expeditionary Force was on the way. The lack of such a force
would mean that France might have to reconsider its commitments in
Belgium and the leave the latter to fend for itself... Such action
would mean conceding to
Germany potential air bases, and facilities
for air raids against England, to which we could scarcely be
The generalissimo of the French Army, General Gamelin , told the
French government that if France countered the German forces and this
caused a long war, France would be unable to win fighting alone and
therefore would need British assistance. The French Government, with
an upcoming general election in mind, decided against general
mobilization of the French Army. The remilitarization removed the
last hold France had over
Germany and therefore ended the security
France had gained from the Treaty of Versailles. As long as the
Rhineland was demilitarized, the French could easily re-occupy the
area and threaten the economically important Ruhr industrial area
which was liable to French invasion if France believed the situation
Germany ever became a threat.
See also: Policy of appeasement
The reaction in Britain was mixed, but they did not generally regard
the remilitarization as harmful. Lord Lothian famously said it was no
more than the Germans walking into their own backyard. George Bernard
Shaw similarly claimed it was no different than if Britain had
Portsmouth . In his diary entry for 23 March, Harold
Nicolson MP noted that "the feeling in the House is terribly
pro-German, which means afraid of war". During the
of 1936, no public meetings or rallies were held anywhere in protest
at the remilitarization of the Rhineland, and instead there were
several "peace" rallies where it was demanded that Britain not use war
to resolve the crisis. Ever since the economist John Maynard Keynes
had published his best-selling book The Economic Consequences of the
Peace in 1919—in which Keynes depicted Versailles as an unbearably
Carthaginian peace imposed by the vindictive Allies—an
increasingly large segment of British public opinion had become
convinced that the
Treaty of Versailles
Treaty of Versailles was deeply "unjust" to
Germany. By 1936, when German troops marched back into the Rhineland,
the majority of British people believed that Hitler was right to
violate the "unjust" Versailles treaty, and it would be morally wrong
for Britain to go to war to uphold the "unjust" Treaty of Versailles.
The British War Secretary Alfred
Duff Cooper told the German
Leopold von Hoesch on 8 March: "through the British people
were prepared to fight for France in the event of a German incursion
into French territory, they would not resort to arms on account of the
recent occupation of the Rhineland. The people did not know much about
the demilitarization provisions and most of them probably took the
view that they did not care 'two hoots' about the Germans reoccupying
their own territory". Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, unknown
The Prime Minister
Stanley Baldwin claimed, with tears in his eyes,
that Britain lacked the resources to enforce her treaty guarantees and
that public opinion would not stand for military force anyway. The
British Chiefs of Staff had warned that war with
inadvisable under the grounds that the deep cuts imposed by the Ten
Year Rule together with the fact that rearmament had only begun in
1934 meant that at most Britain could do in the event of war would be
to send two divisions with backward equipment to France after three
weeks of preparation. Additionally, fears were expressed in Whitehall
if Britain went to war with
Germany , then
Japan , which since 1931
when Japanese had seized Manchuria from China had been making claims
to be the only power in the Far East, might take advantage of the war
to start seizing Britain's Asian colonies.
The British Foreign Secretary,
Anthony Eden , discouraged military
action by the French and was against any financial or economic
sanctions against Germany, immediately meeting the French ambassador
Charles Corbin to urge restraint on the French. Eden instead wanted
Germany to pull out all but a symbolic number of troops, the number
they said they were going to put in the first place, and then
renegotiate. An additional factor that influenced British policy was
the lack of the Dominion support. All of the Dominion High
Commissioners in London, with
South Africa and
Canada being especially
outspoken in this regard, made it quite clear that they would not go
to war to restore the demilitarized status of the Rhineland, and that
if Britain did so, she would be on her own. The American historian
Gerhard Weinberg wrote that "...by 13 March that the British
Dominions, especially the Union of
South Africa and Canada, would not
stand with England if war came. The South African government in
particular was busy backing the German position in London and with the
other Dominion governments". Both the South African Prime Minister
J. B. M. Hertzog and the Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon
Mackenzie King had to face domestic constituencies, respectively the
Afrikaners and the French Canadians , many of whom had deep objections
to fighting in another "British war" against Germany, and as such both
Hertzog and Mackenzie King were staunch supporters of appeasement as
the best way of avoiding such a war. Neither Hertzog and Mackenzie
King wished to have chose between loyalty to the British Empire vs.
dealing with anti-British voters if war came. Ever since the Chanak
Crisis of 1922, Britain had been keenly conscious that Dominion
support could no longer be automatically assumed, and remembering the
huge role the Dominions had played in the victory of 1918, could not
consider fighting another major war without Dominion support.
The British Foreign Office for its part expressed a great deal of
frustration over Hitler's action in unilaterally taking what London
had proposed to negotiate. As a Foreign Office memo complained:
"Hitler has deprived us of the possibility of making to him a
concession which might otherwise have been a useful bargaining counter
in our hands in the general negotiations with
Germany which we had it
in contemplation to initiate". The
Rhineland crisis completed the
estrangement between Eden who believed that Hitler's proposals in his
speech of 7 March were the grounds for a "general settlement" with
Germany, and Vansittart who argued that Hitler was negotiating in bad
faith. Eden and Vansittart had already clashed during the Abyssinia
Crisis with Eden supporting sanctions against
Italy while Vansittart
Italy as an ally against Germany. Vansittart argued that there
was no prospect of a "general settlement" with Hitler, and the best
that could be done was to strengthen ties with the French in order to
confront Germany. The Germanophobe Vansittart had always hated the
Germans, and especially disliked the Nazis, whom he saw as a menace to
civilization. Vansittart had supported Eden's efforts to defuse the
Rhineland crisis as British rearmament had only just began, but being
an intense Francophile Vansittart urged the government to use the
crisis as a chance to begin forming a military alliance with France
against Germany. By the spring of 1936, Vansittart had become
convinced that a "general settlement" with
Germany was not possible,
and Hitler was seeking the conquest of the world. A Foreign Office
official Owen O\'Malley suggested that Britain give
Germany a "free
hand in the East" (i.e. accept the German conquest of all Eastern
Europe) in exchange for a German promise to accept the status quo in
Western Europe. Vansittart wrote in response that Hitler was seeking
world conquest, and that to allow
Germany to conquer all of Eastern
Europe would give the Reich sufficient raw materials to make Germany
immune to a British blockade, which would then allow the Germans to
overrun Western Europe. Vansittart commented that to allow
Eastern Europe would "lead to the disappearance of liberty and
democracy in Europe". By contrast, Eden saw British interests as
confided only to Western Europe, and did not share Vansittart's
beliefs about what Hitler's ultimate intentions might be. Nor did
Eden, the rest of the Cabinet or the majority of the British people
share Vansittart's conviction that Britain could not afford to be
indifferent about Eastern Europe.
Though the British had agreed to staff talks with the French as the
price of French "restraint", many British ministers were unhappy with
these talks. The Home Secretary Sir John Simon wrote to Eden and
Baldwin that staff talks to be held with the French after the
Rhineland remilitarization would lead the French to perceive that:
"they have got us tied that they can safely wait for the breakdown of
discussions with Germany. In such circumstances France will be as
selfish and as pig-headed as France has always been and the prospect
of agreement with
Germany will grow dimmer and dimmer".
In response to objections like Simon's, the British ended the staff
talks with the French five days after they had begun; Anglo-French
staff talks were not to occur again until February 1939 in the
aftermath of the
Dutch War Scare of January 1939. Besides opposition
within the cabinet, the Anglo-French staff talks generated furious
David Lloyd-George and the Beaverbrook and Rothermere
press who fumed, as the
Daily Mail put it in a leader over "military
arrangements that will commit us to some war at the call of others".
Furthermore, Hitler's Extraordinary Ambassador-at-Large Joachim von
Ribbentrop had warned Baldwin and Eden that
Germany regarded the
Anglo-French staff talks as a mortal threat, and any hope of a
"general settlement" with
Germany would end forever if the talks
continued. However, the rather hazily phrased British statement
linking British security to French sécurité was not disallowed out
of the fear that it would irreparably damage Anglo-French relations,
which as the British historian
A. J. P. Taylor
A. J. P. Taylor observed, meant should
France become involved in a war with Germany, there would be at a
minimum a strong moral case because of the statement of March 19, 1936
for Britain to fight on the side of France.
Until the statement by
Neville Chamberlain on March 31, 1939 offering
the "guarantee" of Poland, there were no British security commitments
Eastern Europe beyond the Covenant of the League of Nations.
However, because of the French alliance system in Eastern Europe, the
Cordon sanitaire , any German attack on France's Eastern
European allies would cause a Franco-German war, and because of the
statement of March 19, 1936 a Franco-German war would create strong
pressure for British intervention on the side of France. This was all
the more the case because unlike the Locarno, where Britain was
committed to come to France's defence only in the event of a German
attack, the British statement of March 19 as part of an effort to be
as vague as possible only stated Britain considered French security to
be a vital national need, and did not distinguish between a German
attack on France vs. France going to war with
Germany in the event of
a German attack on a member of the cordon sanitarie. Thus, in this
way, the British statement of March 1936 offered not only a direct
British commitment to defend France (albeit phrased in exceedingly
ambiguous language), but also indirectly to the Eastern European
states of the cordon sanitaire. In this way, the British government
found itself drawn into the Central European crisis of 1938 because
the Franco-Czechoslovak alliance of 1924 meant any German-Czechoslovak
war would automatically become a Franco-German war. It was because of
this indirect security commitment that the British involved themselves
in the Central European crisis of 1938, despite the widespread feeling
that the German-Czechoslovak dispute did not concern Britain directly.
During a House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee meeting on 12
Winston Churchill , a backbench Conservative MP, argued for
Anglo-French co-ordination under the
League of Nations to help France
challenge the remilitarization of the Rhineland, but this never
happened. On 6 April Churchill said of the remilitarization, "The
creation of a line of forts opposite to the French frontier will
enable the German troops to be economized on that line and will enable
the main forces to swing round through Belgium and Holland",
accurately predicting the
Battle of France .
Belgium concluded an alliance with France in 1920 but after the
remilitarization Belgium opted again for neutrality. On 14 October
Leopold III of Belgium said in a speech:
"The reoccupation of the Rhineland, by ending the Locarno
arrangement, has almost brought us back to our international position
before the war... We must follow a policy exclusively and entirely
Belgian. The policy must aim solely at placing us outside the quarrels
of our neighbors".
Since the leaders of
Germany knew well that neither Britain nor
France would violate Belgian neutrality, the declaration of Belgian
neutrality effectively meant that there was no more danger of an
Allied offensive in the West should
Germany start another war as the
Germans were now busy building the
Siegfried Line along their border
with France. By contrast, just as before 1914, Germany's leaders were
all too willing to violate Belgian neutrality. Belgian neutrality
meant there could be no staff talks between the Belgian military and
those of other nations, which meant that when German forces invaded
Belgium in 1940, there were no plans whatsoever for coordinating the
movement of Belgian forces with those of France and Britain, which
gave the Germans a head-start in their offensive.
Poland, announced that the
Franco-Polish Military Alliance signed in
1921 would be honoured, although the treaty stipulated that Poland
would aid France only if France was invaded. At the same time that
Colonel Beck was assuring the French ambassador
Léon Noël of his
commitment to the Franco-Polish alliance and Poland's willingness to
stand with France, he was also telling the German ambassador Count
Hans-Adolf von Moltke that since
Germany was not planning on invading
France, the Franco-Polish alliance would not come into effect and
Poland would do nothing if France acted. Beck made a point of
stressing to Moltke that
Poland had not been allowed to sign Locarno
and would not go to war for Locarno, and that as one of the architects
of the German-Polish nonaggression pact of 1934 that he was a friend
of the Reich. Beck told Moltke on 9 March that his promise to go to
war with France was "in practice, without effect" because it only came
into effect if German troops entered France. Weinberg wrote that
Beck's "duplicity" during the
Rhineland crisis of telling the German
and French ambassadors different things about what
Poland would do
"… did nothing for Beck's personal reputation and involved enormous
risks …" for Poland.
Poland did agree to mobilize its forces if
France did first, however they abstained from voting against the
remilitarization in the Council of the League of Nations.
Rhineland crisis, the isolationist American government
took a strict "hands off" policy of doing nothing. During the crisis,
Franklin D. Roosevelt went off on a "diplomatically
convenient" extended fishing trip to
Florida to avoid having to answer
questions from journalists about what his administration planned to do
in response to the crisis in Europe. The general sentiment within the
U.S. government was expressed by Truman Smith , the American military
attaché in Berlin who wrote that Hitler was seeking only to end
French domination in Europe, and was not seeking to destroy France as
a power. Smith's report concluded: "Versailles is dead. There may
possibly be a German catastrophe and a new Versailles, but it will not
be the Versailles which has hung like a dark cloud over Europe since
THE SOVIET UNION
In public, the Soviet government took a strong line in denouncing the
German coup as a threat to peace. At the same that the Soviet Foreign
Maxim Litvinov was giving speeches before the General
Assembly of the
League of Nations praising collective security and
urging the world to oppose Hitler's coup, Soviet diplomats in Berlin
were telling their counterparts at the Auswärtiges Amt of their
desire for better commercial relations, which in turn might lead to
better political relations. Just after the remilitarization, the
Vyacheslav Molotov gave an interview with the Swiss
Le Temps hinting that the Soviet Union wanted better
relations with Germany. In April 1936, the Soviet Union signed a
commercial treaty with
Germany providing for expanded German-Soviet
trade. A major problem for the Soviet Union to go to war with Germany
was the lack of a common German-Soviet frontier, which would require
both the Polish and Romanian governments to grant transit right to the
Red Army . Despite their professed willingness to engage with the
Wehrmacht , the
Narkomindel tended to negotiate with the Poles and the
Romanians over transit rights in the event of a war in such a manner
to suggest that they wanted the talks to fail, suggesting that the
Soviet hard line against
Germany was just posturing. The Romanians
and even more so the Poles expressed a great deal of fear that if the
Red Army were allowed transit rights to enter their countries on the
way to fight
Germany that they would fail to leave once the war was
Narkomindel failed to provide convincing reassurances on
LEAGUE OF NATIONS
When the Council of the
League of Nations met in London, the only
delegate in favour of sanctions against
Maxim Litvinov ,
the representative of the Soviet Union. Though
Germany was a no longer
a member of the League, Ribbentrop was allowed to give a speech before
the League Assembly on 19 March where he tried to justify Germany's
actions as something imposed on the Reich by the Franco-Soviet pact,
and warned that there would be serious economic consequences for those
states who voted to impose sanctions on Germany. By 1936, a number of
Eastern European, Scandinavian and Latin American countries whose
economies were hard-pressed by the
Great Depression had become very
dependent upon trade with
Germany to keep their economies afloat,
which meant for economic reasons alone none of those states wished to
offend Germany. President
Federico Páez of
Ecuador gave a speech in
which he declared the idea of sanctions against the Reich to be
"nonsensical". At the time, the British Foreign Office estimated that
Britain, France, Romania, Belgium,
Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union
were the only nations in the entire world willing to impose sanctions
on Germany. The Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Polish, Dutch, Greek,
Swiss, Turkish, Chilean, Estonian, Portuguese, Spanish, and Finnish
ambassadors to the League all let it be known that they regarded
Germany as "economic suicide" for their countries.
Mussolini, who was still angry with the League sanctions applied
against Italy, made a speech in which he made it clear that he
definitely would not be joining any sanctions against
remilitarizing the Rhineland. In the fall of 1935, Britain had been
able to have the League impose limited sanctions on Italy, but by the
later winter of 1936, the idea of imposing sweeping sanctions on
Germany—whose economy was four times the size of Italy's, making
Germany an "economic octopus" whose tentacles were everywhere around
the world—was unthinkable for rest of the world. Moreover, for the
sanctions to work, the
United States had to join in. In 1935, the
American government had declared that as the U.S. was not a League
member, it would not abide by the League sanctions on Italy, which was
hardly a hopeful precedent for the idea that U.S. would join in with
imposing sanctions on Germany.
Argentina declared that it would vote
for sanctions against
Germany only if the
United States promised to
join in. The Council declared, though not unanimously, that the
remilitarization constituted a breach of the Treaties of Versailles
and Locarno. Hitler was invited to plan a new scheme for European
security, and he responded by claiming he had "no territorial claims
in Europe" and wanted a 25-year pact of non-aggression with Britain
and France. However, when the British Government inquired further into
this proposed pact, they did not receive a reply.
The remilitarization changed the balance of power decisively in favor
of the Reich. With the
Germany started the
construction of the
Siegfried Line , which meant that if Germany
attacked any of the states in the cordon sanitaire, the ability of
France to start an offensive against
Germany in response to a German
aggression against the states of the cordon sanitaire was henceforward
limited. Such was the impact of the remilitarization on the balance
of power that the Czechoslovak President
Edvard Beneš seriously
considered renouncing the alliance with France, and instead seeking a
rapprochement with Germany, only abandoning that idea when it become
clear that the price of a rapprochement with Reich would be the
effective loss of his country's independence. Likewise, King Carol II
Romania concluded that
Romania might have to abandon its alliance
with France, and instead accept that his country would have to move
from being in the French sphere of influence to being in the German
sphere of influence. When William C. Bullitt , the newly appointed
American ambassador to France visited
Germany in May 1936, he met with
Baron von Neurath. On 18 May 1936, Bullitt reported to President
"Von Neurath said that it was the policy of the German government to
do nothing active in foreign affairs until "the
Rhineland had been
digested". He explained that he meant that until the German
fortifications had been constructed on the French and Belgian borders,
the German government would do everything possible to prevent rather
than encourage an outbreak by Nazis in Austria and would pursue a
quiet line with regard to Czechoslovakia. "As soon as our
fortifications are constructed and the countries of Central Europe
realize that France cannot enter German territory at will, all those
countries will begin to feel very differently about their foreign
policies and a new constellation will develop", he said".
Between the 15–20 June 1936, the chiefs of staff of the Little
Entente of Czechoslovakia, Romania, and
Yugoslavia met to discuss the
changed international situation. They decided to maintain their
present plans for a war with Hungary, but concluded that, with the
Rhineland now remilitarized, there was little hope of effective French
action in the event of a war with Germany. The meeting ended with the
conclusion that there now were only two great powers in Eastern
Germany and the Soviet Union, and the best that could
be hoped for was to avoid another war that would almost certainly mean
the loss of their nations' independence, regardless of who won.
Weinberg wrote that attitude of the entire German elite and much of
the German people, that any new war would only benefit
that ending the Rhineland's demilitarized status could only be a good
thing as it opened the door to starting a new war, was an extremely
short-sighted, self-destructive and stupid attitude, even from a
narrowly German viewpoint. Weinberg notes that
Germany lost its
independence in 1945 and lost far more territory under the Oder-Neisse
line imposed in 1945 than it ever had under Versailles, together with
millions of dead and the destruction of its cities. Thus, from the
German viewpoint, the best thing to do would have been to accept
Versailles rather than start a new war—one which ended with Germany
being totally crushed, partitioned and occupied.
Martin Gilbert and Richard Gott, The Appeasers (Phoenix Press,
2000), p. 41.
* ^ A B Kallis, pp. 112–113.
* ^ Emmerson, pp. 22–23
* ^ A B Shore, p. 7.
* ^ Duroselle, pp. 116–117
* ^ Emmerson, pp. 23 & 97.
* ^ A B C Weinberg (1970), p. 239.
* ^ Emmerson, p. 25.
* ^ Young (1996), pp. 19–21.
* ^ Young (1996), p. 21.
* ^ Kallis, pp. 129 & 141.
* ^ Ueberschär, Gerd & Müller, Rolf-Dieter Hitler\'s War in the
East, 1941–1945 : A Critical Assessment, Oxford: Berghahn Books,
2002 page 14
* ^ A B Young, (1996), pp. 17–18.
* ^ Duroselle, pp. 172–182.
* ^ Kallis, pp. 78–79 & 82–83.
* ^ Müller, Klaus Jürgen The Army, Politics and Society in
Germany, 1933–1945, Manchester: Manchester University Press,
* ^ Kallis, p. 79.
* ^ Emmerson, p. 28.
* ^ Bond, pp. 197–198.
* ^ Bond, p. 198.
* ^ (in English) Andrew Rothstein (1980). The Soldiers’ Strikes
of 1919. Basingstoke: Macmillan Publishing. p. 35. ISBN 0-333-27693-0
* ^ Arthur Harris used the same phrase in 1945 and the historian
Frederick Taylor on p. 432 in Dresden: Tuesday, February 13, 1945
mentions that it was a deliberate echo of a famous sentence used by
Bismarck "The whole of the Balkans is not worth the bones of a single
* ^ Emmerson, p. 24.
* ^ A B C Schuker (1999), pp. 48–49.
* ^ Bennett, Edward German Rearmament and the West, 1932–1933,
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015 page 109
* ^ A B Kallis, p. 82.
* ^ Emmerson, pp. 28–29.
* ^ Kallis, p. 83.
* ^ Document 181 C10156/2293/118 “Notes by Sir
Maurice Hankey on
Hitler’s External Policy in Theory and Practice October 24, 1933”
from British Documents on Foreign Affairs
Germany 1933 page 339.
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* ^ A B Emmerson, p. 33.
* ^ A B C D E F Heinemann, p. 112.
* ^ A B Weinberg (2013), p. 188.
* ^ Emmerson, pp. 30–31.
* ^ A B C D Weinberg (2013), p. 171.
* ^ Taylor, A.J.P The Origins of the Second World War, London:
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* ^ Correlli Barnett, The Collapse of British Power, London:
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* ^ A B C Shore, p. 8.
* ^ A B Duroselle, p. 109.
* ^ Duroselle, p. 114.
* ^ Smith, p. 261.
* ^ Smith, p. 262.
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* ^ Neville, Peter Hitler and Appeasement: The British Attempt to
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* ^ Pratt, Larry East of Malta, West of Suez: Britain's
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* ^ Duroselle, p. 111.
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* ^ Geoffrey Warner,
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* ^ A B Warner, p. 126.
* ^ A B Emmerson, p. 35.
* ^ Emmerson, p. 37
* ^ A B Kallis, p. 144-145.
* ^ Pratt, Larry East of Malta, West of Suez: Britain's
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* ^ A B Kershaw (1998), pp. 576–577.
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* ^ A B Kershaw (1998), p. 577.
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* ^ Pratt, Larry East of Malta, West of Suez: Britain's
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* ^ Crozier, Andrew
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* ^ A B C D E Heinemann, p. 113.
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* ^ Shore, pp. 5–6.
* ^ A B Shore, p. 6.
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* ^ Shore, pp. 14–15.
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* ^ Shore, p. 16.
* ^ Emmerson, pp. 72–74.
* ^ Weinberg (1970), p. 246.
* ^ Kershaw (1998), pp. 582–586.
* ^ Emmerson, p. 39
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