Remilitarization of the Rhineland

Under Articles 42, 43 and 44 of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles—imposed on Germany by the Allies after the Great War—Germany was “forbidden to maintain or construct any fortification either on the west bank of the Rhine or on the east bank behind 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 1925 by Germany, France, Italy and Britain, stated that the Rhineland should continue its demilitarized status permanently. Locarno was regarded as important as it was a voluntary German acceptance of the Rhineland’s demilitarized status as opposed to the ‘diktat’ (dictate) of Versailles. Since the 1920s were a time of economic boom, the Germans and the French shared a certain cautious peace and thus the friendly situations would allow for the treaty Locarno to be accepted, however the treaty failed to list any reparations to be made for transgressions against its clauses.

The Versailles Treaty also stipulated that the Allied military forces would withdraw from the Rhineland in 1935, although they actually withdrew 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 that all Allied occupation forces would evacuate the Rhineland by June 1930. The last British soldiers left in late 1929 and the last French soldiers left in June 1930.

German Remilitarization

In early 1936, the British Foreign Secretary Sir Anthony Eden had secretly unveiled a plan for a “general settlement” that was intended to resolve all of Germany’s grievances. Eden’s plan called for a German return to the League of Nations, acceptance of arms limitations, and renunciation of 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.” As such, the Germans were informed that the British were willing to begin talks on allowing the Rhineland to be remilitarized in exchange for an “air pact” outlawing bombing and a German promise not to use force to change their borders. Eden defined his goal as that of a “general statement,” which sought “a return to the normality of the twenties and the creation of conditions in which Hitler could behave like Stresemann.” The offer to discuss remilitarizing the Rhineland in exchange for an “air pact” placed the British in a weak moral position to oppose a unilateral remilitarization, since the very offer to consider remilitarization implied that remilitarization was not considered a vital security threat, but something to be traded, which thus led the British to oppose the way that the act of remilitarization was carried out (namely unilaterally) as opposed to the act itself.

During January 1936, the Führer Adolf Hitler decided to reoccupy the Rhineland. Originally Hitler had planned to remilitarize the Rhineland in 1937, but chose in early 1936 to move re-militarization forward by a year for several reasons, namely 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 the need for 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.

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 favor 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 ensure that the German forces would leave at once if the French intervened militarily to halt their advance. The operation was codenamed Winter Exercise. On February 22, 1936, Benito Mussolini who was angry about the League of Nations sanctions applied against his country for aggression against Ethiopia told the German Ambassador in Rome, Ulrich von Hassell, that Italy would dishonor Locarno if Germany were to remilitarize the Rhineland. Even if Mussolini had wanted to honor 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.

Not long after dawn on March 7, 1936, nineteen German infantry battalions and a handful of planes entered the Rhineland. They reached the river Rhine by 11:00 a.m. and then three battalions crossed to the west bank of the Rhine. 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. Hitler inquired whether the French forces had actually crossed the border and when informed that they had not, he assured Blomberg that they would wait until this happened.

Hitler himself 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.

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France

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. A major paralyzing factor on French policy was the economic situation. 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 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.

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 government of 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 was felt to be safer foreign markets. 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.

Upon hearing of the German move, the French government issued a statement strongly hinting that military action was a possible option. When the French Foreign Secretary, Pierre Étienne Flandin, heard of the remilitarization he immediately went to London to consult the British Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, as Flandin wished, for domestic political reasons, to find a way of shifting the onus of not taking action onto British shoulders. Baldwin asked Flandin what the French Government had in mind but Flandin said they had not yet decided. Flandin went back to Paris and consulted the French Government what their response should be. They agreed that “France would place all her forces at the disposal of the League of Nations to oppose a violation of the Treaties”. 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 Sir Anthony Eden, Flandin carried out “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. As intended 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 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 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. 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 indifferent.

The generalissimo of the French Army, General Gamelin, told the French government that if France countered the German forces and this caused a long war, France would be unable to win fighting alone and therefore would need British assistance. The French Government, with an upcoming general election in mind, decided against general mobilization of the French Army. The remilitarization removed the last hold France had over Germany and therefore ended the security France had gained from the Treaty of Versailles. As long as the Rhineland was demilitarized, the French could easily re-occupy the area and threaten the economically important Ruhr industrial area which was liable to French invasion if France believed the situation in Germany ever became a threat.

United Kingdom

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.

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 Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, discouraged military action by the French and was against any financial or economic sanctions against Germany. Eden instead wanted Germany to pull out all but a symbolic number of troops, the number they said they were going to put in the first place, and then renegotiate. An additional factor that influenced British policy was the lack of the Dominion support. All of the Dominion High Commissioners in London, with South Africa and Canada being especially outspoken in this regard, made it quite clear that they would not go to war to restore the demilitarized status of the Rhineland, and that if Britain did so, she would be on her own. Ever since the Chanak Crisis of 1922, Britain had been keenly conscious that Dominion support could not be automatically assumed, and remembering the huge role the Dominions had played in the victory of 1918 could not consider fighting another major war without Dominion support.

The British Foreign Office for its part expressed a great deal of frustration over Hitler’s action in unilaterally taking what London had proposed to negotiate. As a Foreign Office memo complained “Hitler has deprived us of the possibility of making to him a concession which might otherwise have been a useful bargaining counter in our hands in the general negotiations with Germany which we had it in contemplation to initiate.” 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 led the French perceive that:

they have got us tied that they can safely wait for the breakdown of discussions with Germany. In such circumstances France will be as selfish and as pig-headed as France has always been and the prospect of agreement with Germany will grow dimmer and dimmer.

In response to objections like Simon, the British ended the staff talks with the French five days after they had begun.

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 to help France challenge the remilitarization of the Rhineland, but this never happened.

Belgium

Belgium concluded an alliance with France in 1920 but after the remilitarization Belgium opted again for neutrality. On 14 October 1936 King Leopold III of Belgium said in a speech:

The reoccupation of the Rhineland, by ending the Locarno arrangement, has almost brought us back to our international position before the war… We must follow a policy exclusively and entirely Belgian. The policy must aim solely at placing us outside the quarrels of our neighbors.

Poland

Poland announced that the Franco-Polish Military Alliance signed in 1921 would be honored, although the treaty stipulated that Poland would aid France only if France was invaded. 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.

League of Nations

When the Council of the League of Nations met in London, no one was in favor of sanctions against Germany. The Council impotently declared 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 was “retaking German land from foreign occupation.”

Consequences for German Foreign Policy

Hitler Emboldened

Growing bolder following his triumph on the Rhine, Hitler decided to broaden his foreign policy goals by intervening in the Spanish Civil War on the side of the Nationalists.

Following Francisco Franco’s request for aid, Hitler would order three major military operations in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. He authorized Operation Feuerzauber (“Fire Magic”) in late July 1936. He mobilized 20 three-motor Junkers Ju 52 planes with six escort fighters, 85 Germans on the SS Usaramo ship to work on the planes, and transferred German troops stationed in Morocco to Spain. A few months later in late September, Hitler again mobilized men and materials to aid Franco for Operation Otto. He sent 24 more Panzer I light tanks, a flak, and some radio equipment. German commander Major Alexander von Scheele also converted the Junkers 52s to bombers. By October, there were an estimated 600–800 German soldiers in Spain. Hitler’s largest and last move was the Condor Legion. Initiated in November 1936, he sent an additional 3,500 troops into combat and supplied the Spanish Nationalists with 92 new planes. Hitler kept the Condor Legion in Spain until the end of the war in May 1939. At its zenith, The German force numbered about 12,000 men, and as many as 19,000 Germans fought in Spain. In total Nazi Germany provided Nationalists with 600 planes, 200 tanks, and 1,000 artillery pieces.

Hitler’s decision to intervene in Spain were threefold: to give the German military combat experience, to foster a new ally in Franco, and to split Italy away from Great Britain and France. All three efforts proved successful.

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