The Remilitarization of the
Rhineland by the German Army took place on
7 March 1936 when German military forces entered the Rhineland. 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
remilitarization changed the balance of power in Europe from France
towards Germany, and made it possible for
Germany to pursue a policy
of aggression in Western Europe that the demilitarized status of the
Rhineland had blocked until then.
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 Abyssinia Crisis
3 German remilitarisation
3.1 Neurath and secret intelligence
3.2 The decision to remilitarize
4.3 United Kingdom
4.6 United States
4.7 The Soviet Union
4.8 League of Nations
8 External links
Versailles and Locarno
Consequences of the Treaty of Versailles: dotted areas were
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
Germany by the Allies after the Great
Germany was "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,
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
a "flagrant violation" without however defining what constituted a
"flagrant violation". Under the terms of Locarno, if
attempt to attack France, then Britain and
Italy were obliged to go to
France's aid and likewise, if France should attack Germany, then
Italy would be obliged to Germany's aid. The American
Gerhard Weinberg called the demilitarized status of the
Rhineland the "single most important guarantee of peace in Europe" as
it made it impossible for
Germany to attack its neighbors in the West
and as the demilitarized zone rendered
Germany defenseless in the
West, impossible to attack its neighbors in the East as it left
Germany open to a 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 sanitaire.
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
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, whether
it be owned by Russians or by 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
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 necessarily presumed remilitarization of the
Rhineland. All through the 1920s, steps were 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 in
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 by
Germany such as the
Polish Corridor and the
Free City of Danzig
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. General Ludwig Beck's memo of March 1935 on the
Germany to secure
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 before 1937.
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 worst-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
caused tensions with the French, who believed that it would be
impossible to defeat
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. The Austrian-born Hitler, although deeply offended by
Mussolini's blunt assertions that his birthplace was within the sphere
of influence of any power other than Germany, nevertheless realized he
was in no position to do anything except to beat a humiliating
retreat. To his disgust, the German Fuhrer had to disallow the Putsch
he had ordered and 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 Union and
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 Minister
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 [the Germans] 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 public) that
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
promised to keep the
Rhineland demilitarized forever; hence Hitler
always promised during his "peace speeches" to obey Locarno as opposed
to Versailles. Hitler would have remilitarized the
March 1935 when he announced that
Germany would no longer obey either
Parts V or VI of Versailles, which had disarmed Germany, but since the
Rhineland was 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,
Italy invaded 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
League of Nations for sanctions against Italy. The decision of
the British Prime Minister
Stanley Baldwin to take a strong line in
favor of collective security was mostly motivated by domestic
politics. The British historian
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
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 businesses supplied
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
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
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
Ethiopia for the sake of maintaining the Stresa
Front. 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. In a strange asymmetry, the Francophile Vansittart at the
Foreign Office was in favor the French approach that it was worth
Ethiopia in order to continue the
whereas 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 [of the League of Nations] by preserving
agreement with the nations gathered at Geneva". Paul Reynaud
attacked the government for aiding Hitler by ruining the Anglo-French
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
Eric Phipps that Berlin regarded any Anglo-French staff talks
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
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 the French.
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
League of Nations was
considering applying oil sanctions against
Italy (which possessed no
oil), a step that Mussolini had always said would lead to
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
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 with
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 Germany
should 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 that
Germany would remilitarize
Rhineland if the French National Assembly ratified the
Franco-Soviet pact convinced Neurath that if
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
Bernhard von Bülow professed
to every foreign diplomat with whom they spoke that the Franco-Soviet
Pact was a violation of Locarno, but at the same time both strongly
advised Hitler not to seek international arbitration in order to
determine whether the 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 no
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. Traditionally in
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 which
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
Konstantin von Neurath
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
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 –
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
zone". The Soviet report warning of German plans for
remilitarization was not passed on to either the British or French
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 that 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
Germany were considered extremely significant in
Berlin. In another meeting, Mussolini told Hassell that he
Stresa Front of 1935 as "dead", and that
Italy would do
nothing to uphold Locarno should
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
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 his Ambassador-at-Large
Joachim von Ribbentrop
Joachim von Ribbentrop to ask their
opinion of the likely foreign reaction to remilitarization.
Neurath supported remiltarization, but argued that
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
Marshal 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 wrote that:
"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 into the
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 sanctions against
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 General Ludwig Beck, Hermann Göring, Army
Werner von Fritsch
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 to
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 [Hitler] 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
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
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
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 journalist
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 "encircle"
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
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
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
A German officer assigned to the
Bendlerstrasse during the crisis told
H. R. Knickerbocker
H. R. Knickerbocker during the 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
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
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, 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 run by 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
Wehrmacht would have turned on their Fuhrer if the Wehrmacht
were 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 of the
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
Rhineland as 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
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
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 historian Sir
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 conservative historian 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
"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,
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
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 into the
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 Rhineland. The Deuxième
Bureau had come up with this estimate by counting all of the SS, SA
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
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 had 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
An additional issue for the French was the state of the Armée de
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 one and half 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
Rhineland while Poland,
Yugoslavia all 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
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
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 d'Orsay and
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
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 the
Rhineland pact". In other words,
France would act against
Germany only if Britain and
Pierre-Étienne Flandin, the French Foreign Minister at the time of
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 Director)
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
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
Germany and therefore ended the security France had gained
from the Treaty of Versailles. As long as the
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 in
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
reoccupied Portsmouth. In his diary entry for 23 March, Harold
Nicolson MP noted that "the feeling in the House [of Commons] is
terribly pro-German, which means afraid of war". During the
Rhineland crisis 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
John Maynard Keynes
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 harsh
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 Ambassador
Leopold von Hoesch
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 date
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
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
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
J. B. M. Hertzog
J. B. M. Hertzog and the Canadian Prime Minister
William Lyon Mackenzie King
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
nor Mackenzie King wished to have chose between loyalty to the British
Empire vs. dealing with anti-British voters if war came. Ever since
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
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 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
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
Owen O'Malley suggested that Britain give
"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
Eastern Europe would give the Reich sufficient raw materials to
Germany immune to a British blockade, which would then allow the
Germans to overrun Western Europe. Vansittart commented that to
Germany to conquer
Eastern Europe would "lead to the
disappearance of liberty and democracy in Europe". By contrast,
Eden saw British interests as confined 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 so 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
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
so-called 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
During a House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee meeting on 12
March, Winston Churchill, a backbench Conservative MP, argued for
Anglo-French co-ordination under the
League of Nations
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 time the Soviet
Maxim Litvinov was giving speeches before the
General Assembly of the
League of Nations
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 Soviet Premier
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 over; the
Narkomindel failed to provide
convincing reassurances on that point.
League of Nations
When the Council of the
League of Nations
League of Nations met in London, the only
delegate in favour of sanctions against
Germany was 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 sanctions on
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
Germany for 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
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
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 of
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 Roosevelt that:
"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
^ 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, 1987page 48.
^ 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.
^ 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.
^ Keith Neilson; Greg Kennedy; David French (2010). The British Way in
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^ Bond, pp. 200–201.
^ a b c d e f g Sullivan, Barry "More than meets the eye: the
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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: Penguin,
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^ Correlli Barnett, The Collapse of British Power, London: Methuen,
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^ Duroselle, p. 114.
^ Smith, p. 261.
^ Smith, p. 262.
^ Doerr, Paul British Foreign Policy, 1919–1939, Manchester:
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^ Neville, Peter Hitler and Appeasement: The British Attempt to
Prevent the Second World War, London: A&C Black, 2006 page 138
^ Pratt, Larry East of Malta, West of Suez: Britain's Mediterranean
Crisis, 1936–1939, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975 pages
^ Duroselle, p. 111.
^ Cairns, John "Reflections on France, Britain and the Winter War
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Island, 1998 page 285
^ Geoffrey Warner,
Pierre Laval and the Eclipse of France (New York:
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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 Mediterranean
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^ a b Kershaw (1998), p. 577.
^ Kershaw (1998), pp. 580–581.
^ a b Weinberg (3013), p. 192.
^ Sullivan, Barry "More than meets the eye: the Ethiopian War and the
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the Second World War Reconsidered A.J.P. Taylor and the Historians,
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^ Pratt, Larry East of Malta, West of Suez: Britain's Mediterranean
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Macmillan Press: London, United Kingdom, 1988 p. 33.
^ Emmerson, pp. 62–3.
^ Crozier, Andrew
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^ a b c d e Heinemann, p. 113.
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^ Shore, pp. 14–15.
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^ Emmerson, pp. 72–74.
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^ Kershaw (1998), pp. 582–586.
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^ a b Shore, p. 11.
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Lukes & Erik Goldstein, Frank Cass: London, 1999 page 173.
^ a b Cassels, Alan "Mussolini and the Myth of Rome" pages 57–74
from The Origins of the Second World War Reconsidered A.J.P. Taylor
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^ Duroselle, p. 113.
^ Duroselle, p. 115.
^ a b Heinemann, p. 114.
^ Rupert Matthews, Hitler: Military Commander (Arcturus, 2003), p.
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Map of Europe showing political situation during Hitler's
remilitarization of the Rhinelan