Remilitarization of the Rhineland


Remilitarization of the Rhineland

The Remilitarization of the Rhineland by the German Army took place on 7 March 1936 when German forces entered the Rhineland.

Background

Under Articles 42 and 44 of the 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 Left bank of the Rhine or on the Right bank to the west of a line drawn fifty kilometres 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". [Martin Gilbert and Richard Gott, "The Appeasers" (Phoenix Press, 2000), p. 41.]

The Locarno Treaties, signed in 1925 by Germany, France and Britain, stated that the Rhineland should be demilitarized.The Versailles Treaty also stipulated that the Allied military forces would evacuate the Rhineland in 1935, although they actually evacuated 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 Germany paid be reduced and that the British and French forces should evacuate the Rhineland. Henderson persuaded the sceptical French Prime Minister, 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

During January 1936 German Führer Adolf Hitler decided to reoccupy the Rhineland. On the 12th of February he informed his War Minister, General 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 organisation 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. [Rupert Matthews, "Hitler: Military Commander" (Arcturus, 2003), p. 115.] General Ludwig Beck warned Hitler that the German Army would be unable to successfully defend Germany against a possible retaliatory French attack. [Ibid, p. 13.] 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. Not long after dawn, nineteen German infantry battalions and a handful of planes entered the Rhineland. They reached the river Rhine by 11am 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. [Ibid, p. 116.]

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 fallen". [J. R. Tournoux, "Petain et de Gaulle" (Paris: Plon, 1964), p. 159.] 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." [Alan Bullock, "Hitler: A Study in Tyranny" (London: Odhams, 1952), p. 135.]

Reactions

France

France, although possessing at this time superior armed forces compared to Germany, including after a possible mobilisation 100 infantry divisions, was psychologically unprepared to use force against Germany. [Shirer quotes the figure of France having 100 divisions compared to Germany's four battlions.] 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 France did not wish to take decisive action without British support. 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". [A. J. P. Taylor, "The Origins of the Second World War" (Penguin, 1991), p. 130.] 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. [Ibid, p. 131.] The remilitarization removed the last hold France had over Germany and therefore ended the security France had gained from the Treaty of Versailles. So long as the French Army occupied the Rhineland, the economically important Ruhr industrial area was liable to French invasion if France believed the situation in Germany ever became a threat. [Correlli Barnett, "The Collapse of British Power" (Pan, 2002), p. 336.]

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". [Harold Nicolson, "The Harold Nicolson Diaries: 1919-1964" (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2004), p. 139.] 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. [ [http://www.learningcurve.gov.uk/snapshots/snapshot30/snapshot30.htm The National Archives Learning Curve | Snapshots | The German Occupation of The Rhineland,1936 ] ] [ [http://www.learningcurve.gov.uk/snapshots/snapshot30/30d.htm The German Occupation of The Rhineland,1936 | Source 5 ] ]

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, [Martin Gilbert, "Churchill: A Life" (Pimlico, 2000), p. 552.] 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 neighbours. [Charles Cheney Hyde, 'Belgium and Neutrality', "The American Journal of International Law", Vol. 31, No. 1. (January 1937), p. 82.]

Poland

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. 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, the only delegate in favour of sanctions against Germany was Maxim Litvinov, the representative of the Soviet Union. 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 twenty-five 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. [Taylor, p. 133.]

Notes

References

*Correlli Barnett, "The Collapse of British Power" (Pan, 2002).
*Alan Bullock, "Hitler: A Study in Tyranny" (London: Odhams, 1952).
*Martin Gilbert, "Churchill: A Life" (Pimlico, 2000).
*Martin Gilbert and Richard Gott, "The Appeasers" (Phoenix Press, 2000).
*Charles Cheney Hyde, 'Belgium and Neutrality', "The American Journal of International Law", Vol. 31, No. 1. (January 1937), pp. 81-85.
*Rupert Matthews, "Hitler: Military Commander" (Arcturus, 2003).
*Harold Nicolson, "The Harold Nicolson Diaries: 1919-1964" (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2004).
*Stephen Schuker "France and the Remilitarization of the Rhineland, 1936" pages 206-221 from "The Origins of the Second World War" edited by Patrick Finney, Arnold Press, London, United Kingdom, 1997
*A. J. P. Taylor, "The Origins of the Second World War" (Penguin, 1991).
*J. R. Tournoux, "Petain et de Gaulle" (Paris: Plon, 1964).
*Robert J. Young "In Command of France French Foreign Policy and Military Planning, 1933-1940", Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States of America, 1978.


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