Remilitarization of the Rhineland
|Territorial evolution of Germany
in the 20th century
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 end of 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 Background
- 2 The European Situation, 1933–36
- 3 German remilitarisation
- 4 Reactions
- 5 Significance
- 6 Notes
- 7 References
- 8 External links
Versailles and Locarno
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 Left bank of the Rhine or on the Right bank to the west of a line drawn fifty kilometers to the East of the Rhine". If a violation "in any manner whatsoever" of this Article took place, this "shall be regarded as committing a hostile act...and as calculated to disturb the peace of the world". The Locarno Treaties, signed in October 1925 by Germany, France, Italy and Britain, stated that the Rhineland should continue its demilitarized status permanently. Locarno was regarded as important as it was a voluntary German acceptance of the Rhineland's demilitarized status as opposed to the diktat (dictate) of Versailles. Under the terms of Locarno, Britain and Italy guaranteed the Franco-German border and the continued demilitarized status of the Rhineland against a "flagrant violation" without however defining what constituted a "flagrant violation". Under the terms of Locarno, if Germany should attempt to attack France, then Britain and Italy were obliged to go to France's aid and likewise, if France should attack Germany, then Britain and Italy would be obliged to Germany's aid. The American historian Gerhard Weinberg called the demilitarized status of the Rhineland the "single most important guarantee of peace in Europe" as it made it impossible for 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 the 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 the 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 that the Rhineland was going to be remilitarized sooner or later. Intelligence from the Deuxième Bureau indicated that Germany had been violating Versailles continuously all though the 1920s with the considerable help of the Soviet Union, and with the French troops out of the Rhineland, it could only be expected that Germany would become more open about violating Versailles. The Maginot Line in its turn lessened the importance of the Rhineland's demilitarized status from a French security viewpoint.
The foreign policies of the interested powers
The foreign policy of Fascist Italy was the traditional Italian one of maintaining an "equidistant" stance from all the major powers in order to exercise "determinant weight", which by whatever power Italy chose to align with would decisively change the balance of power in Europe, and the price of such an alignment would be support for Italian ambitions in Europe and/or Africa. The foreign policy goal of the Soviet Union was set forth by Joseph Stalin in a speech on 19 January 1925 that if another world war would break out between the capitalist states (which Stalin saw as inevitable) that: "We will enter the fray at the end, throwing our critical weight onto the scale, a weight that should prove to be decisive". To promote this goal of another world war which would lead to the global triumph of Communism, the Soviet Union tended to support German efforts to challenge the Versailles system by assisting German secret rearmament, a policy that caused much tension with France. An additional problem in Franco-Soviet relations was the Russian debt issue. Before 1917, the French had been by far the largest investors in Imperial Russia, and the largest buyers of Russian debt, so the decision by Lenin in 1918 to repudiate all debts and to confiscate all private property, 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 Rhineland at the first favorable diplomatic opportunity. In December 1918, at a meeting of Germany's leading generals (the German Army functioned as a "state within the state"), it had decided that the chief aim would be to rebuild German military power to launch a new world war to win the "world power status" that the Reich had sought, but failed to win in the last war. All through the 1920s and the early 1930s, the Reichswehr had been developing plans for a war to destroy France and its ally Poland, which 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 frontier.
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 Sudetenland, the Polish Corridor and the Free City of Danzig (modern Gdańsk, Poland). British policy-makers tended to exaggerate French power with the normally Francophile Sir Robert "Van" Vansittart, the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office writing in 1931 that Britain was faced with an "unbearable" French domination of Europe, and what was needed was a revival of German power to counterbalance French power. French economic and demographic weaknesses in the face of Germany's strengths such as the Reich's far larger population and economy together with the fact that much of France had been devastated by World War I while Germany had 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 need for 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 towards 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 Foreign Commissar 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 achieve an 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 occurred the 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 Italy was continued by Pierre Laval. On 7 January 1935 during a summit in Rome, Laval essentially told Mussolini that he had a "free hand" in the Horn of Africa, and France would not oppose an Italian invasion of Ethiopia. On 14 April 1935, Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald of Great Britain, Premier Pierre Laval of France and Prime 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 Germany had 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 Rhineland in 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 the 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 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 Italy with 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 Germany for 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 Italy and Britain had clashing interests in the Mediterranean, France could not ally with one without alienating the other". To avoid a total rupture with Britain, France did not use its veto power as a member of the League Council, and instead voted for the sanctions. But Laval did use the threat of a French veto to water down the sanctions, and to have such items such as oil and coal, which might have crippled Italy, removed from the sanctions list. Nonetheless, Mussolini felt betrayed by his French friends, and next to Britain, France was the nation that he was most angry with for the sanctions. Despite all of Mussolini's outrage about the sanctions, they were largely ineffective. The United States and Germany-both of which were not members of the League-chose not to abide by the sanctions, and as result, American and German 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 remilitarizing the Rhineland in response to the Franco-Soviet pact of May 1935, which Neurath insisted was a violation of Locarno that menaced Germany. At the same time, Neurath ordered German diplomats to start drawing up legal briefs justifying remilitarization of the Rhineland under the grounds that the Franco-Soviet pact violated Locarno. In doing so, Neurath was acting without orders from Hitler, but in the expectation that time was ripe for remilitarization due to the crisis in Anglo-Italian relations caused by the Italo-Ethiopian War. To resolve the Abyssinia Crisis, Robert Vansittart, the Permanent Undersecretary at the British Foreign Office proposed to the Foreign Secretary Samuel Hoare what came to be known as the Hoare–Laval plan under which half of Ethiopia would be given to Italy with the rest nominally independent under the Emperor Haile Selassie. Vansittart who was a passionate Francophile and an equally ardent Germanophobe saw Germany as the real danger, and wanted to sacrifice 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 letting Italy conquer Ethiopia in order to continue the Stresa Front, 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 methods". 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 alliance.
Mussolini for his part rejected the Hoare-Laval plan, saying he wanted to subject all of Ethiopia, not just half. Following the fiasco of the Hoare-Laval plan, the British government resumed its previous policy of imposing sanctions against Italy in a half-hearted way, which in turn imposed serious strains on relations with both Paris and especially Rome. Given the provocative Italian attitude, Britain wanted to begin staff talks with France for a possible war with Italy. On 13 December 1935, Neurath told the British ambassador Sir Eric Phipps that Berlin regarded any Anglo-French staff talks without Germany – even if directed only against Italy – as a violation of Locarno that would force Germany to remilitarize the Rhineland. Through Italo-German relations were quite unfriendly in 1935, Germany had been an outspoken supporter of the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, and offered Mussolini a benevolent neutrality. Under the banner of white supremacy and fascism, Hitler came out strongly for the Italian invasion, and he made a point of shipping the Italians various raw materials and weapons, which the League of Nations sanctions had forbidden Italy. Hitler's support for the Italian aggression won him much goodwill in Rome. By contrast, Laval's pro-Italian intrigues and his efforts to sabotage the British-led effort to impose sanctions on Italy created a lasting climate of distrust between the British and 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 was considering applying oil sanctions against Italy (which possessed no oil), a step that Mussolini had always said would lead to Italy going to war against any nation that voted at the League Council for oil sanctions. Given Mussolini's open threats to attack any nation that voted for oil sanctions together with strong pressure from British public for the British government to vote for oil sanctions, Britain had deployed the majority of its military to the Mediterranean, and thus far from Germany. As the news spread that Italian forces were committing widespread atrocities in Ethiopia, such as the massacres of civilians and the frequent use of chemical warfare against defenseless Ethiopian civilians, British public opinion started to press their government to do more with regards to sanctions against Italy. Such was the brutality of the Italian forces that between 1936–41 during anti-guerrilla operations to "pacify" Ethiopia that the Italians killed about 7% of Ethiopia's population. Though the British had decided not to go to war with Italy, it was very clear that Mussolini was enraged at Britain as the nation most responsible for the League of Nations sanctions imposed on Italy. In such a context, within Whitehall fear started to grow that Mussolini would commit a reckless "mad dog act" like trying to destroy the British Mediterranean Fleet as he had threatened to do several times, and hence deployed the majority of British military power to the Mediterranean to guard against a possible war with Italy. When the French Admiral Jean Decoux told the First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Ernle Chatfield that war 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 the Rhineland if the French National Assembly ratified the Franco-Soviet pact convinced Neurath that if Germany remilitarized, then Britain would take Germany's side against France. There was a clause in the Locarno treaty calling for binding international arbitration if the one of the signatory powers signed a treaty that the other powers considered to be incompatible with Locarno. Both Neurath and his State Secretary Prince Bernhard von Bülow professed to every foreign diplomat with whom they spoke 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 Germany was 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 arbitration clause.
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 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 diplomacy".
The decision to remilitarize
During January 1936, the German Chancellor and 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 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 gripping Germany in 1935–36.
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 Ambassador André François-Poncet on 13 January 1936, where Bülow handed François-Poncet yet another note protesting against the Franco-Soviet pact, François-Poncet accused Bülow to his face of seeking any excuse, no matter how bizarre, strange or implausible to send troops back into the Rhineland. On 15 January 1936, a top-secret NKVD report was sent to Joseph Stalin entitled "Summary of Military and Political Intelligence on Germany", which reported – based on statements from various diplomats in the Auswärtiges Amt – that Germany was planning on remilitarizing the Rhineland in the near-future. The same summary quoted Bülow as saying that if Britain and France made any sort of agreement concerning military co-operation that did not involve Germany: "We would view this as a violation of Locarno, and if we are not dragged into participating in negotiations, we will not consider ourselves bound by Locarno obligations concerning the preservation of the Rhine demilitarized zone". The Soviet report warning of German plans for remilitarization was not passed on to either the British or French governments.
On 17 January 1936 Benito Mussolini – who was angry about the League of Nations sanctions applied against his country for aggression against 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 rapprochement with Germany were considered extremely significant in Berlin. In another meeting, Mussolini told Hassell that he regarded the Stresa Front of 1935 as "dead", and that Italy would do nothing to uphold Locarno 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 left like Joseph Paul-Boncour which made it almost impossible for the cabinet to make decisions. Immediately, the Sarraut government came into conflict with Britain as Eden started to press the League for oil sanctions against Italy, something that the French were completely opposed to, and threatened to veto.
On 11 February 1936, the new French Premier Albert Sarraut affirmed that his government would work for the ratification of the Franco-Soviet pact. On February 12, 1936, Hitler met with Neurath and his Ambassador-at-Large Joachim von Ribbentrop to ask their opinion of the likely foreign reaction to remilitarization. Neurath supported remiltarization, but argued that Germany should negotiate more before doing so whereas Ribbentrop argued for unilateral remilitarization at once. Ribbentrop told Hitler that if France went to war in response to German remiltarization, then Britain would go to war with France, an assessment of the situation with which Neurath did not agree, but one that encouraged Hitler to proceed with remiltarization.
On the 12th of February Hitler informed his War Minister, Field 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 Commander-in-Chief General 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 anyhow Italy would not act if German troops were to enter the Rhineland. The Polish Ambassador to Germany Józef Lipski reported about Göring that:
"Göring was visibly terrified of the Chancellor's decision to remilitarise the Rhineland, and he didn't conceal that it was taken against the Reichswehr's advice. I had several talks with him then. I found him in an utmost state of agitation, and this was just at the time of the London conference. He openly gave me to understand that Hitler had taken this extremely risky step by his own decision, in contradiction of the advice of his own generals. Göring went so far in his declaration as to say literally that, if France entered upon a war with Germany, the Reich would defend itself to the last man, but if 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 Britain and Italy were only committed to offering a military response to a "flagrant violation"). In the statement justifying remilitarization that Neurath prepared for the foreign press, the German move was portrayed as something forced on a reluctant Germany by ratification of the Franco-Soviet pact, and strongly hinted that Germany would return to the League of Nations if remilitarization was accepted. After meeting with Hitler on 18 February, Baron von Neurath expressed the viewpoint "for Hitler in the first instance domestic motives were decisive".
At the same time that Frank was visiting Rome, Göring had been dispatched to Warsaw to meet the Polish Foreign Minister Colonel Józef Beck and to ask the Poles to remain neutral if France decided on war in response to the remilitarization of the Rhineland. Colonel Beck believed that the French would do nothing if Germany remilitarized the Rhineland, and thus could assure those in the Polish government who wished for Poland to stay close to its traditional ally France that Poland would act if France did while at the same time telling Göring that he wanted closer German-Polish relations and would do nothing in the event of remilitarization.
On 13 February 1936 during a meeting with Prince Bismarck of the German Embassy in London, Ralph Wigram, the head of the Central Department of the British Foreign Office stated that the British government (whose Prime Minister from 1935 to 1937 was Stanley Baldwin) wanted a "working agreement" on an air pact that would outlaw bombing, and that Britain would consider revising Versailles and Locarno in Germany's favor for an air pact. Prince Bismarck reported to Berlin that Wigram had hinted quite strongly that the "things" that Britain were willing to consider revising included remilitarization. On 22 February 1936 Mussolini, who was still angry about the League of Nations sanctions applied against his country for aggression against Ethiopia, told von Hassell that Italy would not honour Locarno if Germany were to remilitarize the Rhineland. Even if Mussolini had wanted to honour Locarno, practical problems would have arisen as the bulk of the Italian Army was at that time engaged in the conquest of Ethiopia, and as there is no common Italo-German frontier.
Historians debate the relation between Hitler's decision to remilitarize the 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 everything else.
The Wehrmacht marches
Not long after dawn on March 7, 1936, nineteen German infantry battalions and a handful of planes entered the Rhineland. By doing so, Germany violated Articles 42 and 43 of the Treaty of Versailles 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 Rhineland.
When German reconnaissance learned that thousands of French soldiers were congregating on the Franco-German border, General Blomberg begged Hitler to evacuate the German forces. Under Blomberg's influence, Hitler nearly ordered the German troops to withdraw, but was then persuaded by the resolutely calm Neurath to continue with Operation Winter Exercise. Following Neurath's advice, Hitler inquired whether the French forces had actually crossed the border and when informed that they had not, he assured Blomberg that Germany would wait until this happened. In marked contrast to Blomberg who was highly nervous during Operation Winter Exercise, Neurath stayed calm and very much urged Hitler to stay the course.
The 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, totalitarian Germany and, in fact – as we have seen Hitler admitting – bring the Nazi dictator and his regime tumbling down. They let the chance slip.
A German officer assigned to the Bendlerstrasse during the crisis told 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 fallen."
That Hitler faced serious opposition gains apparent weight from the fact that Ludwig Beck and Werner von Fritsch did indeed become opponents of Hitler but according to the American historian Ernest May there is not a scrap of evidence for this at this stage. May wrote that the German Army officer corps was all for remilitarizing the Rhineland, and only the question of timing of such a move divided them from Hitler. May further noted that there is no evidence that the German Army was planning on overthrowing Hitler if he had been forced to order a withdraw from the Rhineland, and the fact that Mussolini utterly humiliated Hitler during the July Putsch in 1934 by forcing Germany to climb-down on Austria without leading to the slightest effort on the part of the Reichswehr to overthrow Hitler must cast further doubt on the thesis that Hitler would have been toppled if only he been forced to withdraw from the Rhineland.
Writing about relations between Hitler and his generals in early 1936, the American historian J.T. Emerson declared: "In fact, at no time during the twelve-year existence of the Third Reich did Hitler enjoy more amicable relations with his generals than in 1935 and 1936. During these years, there was nothing like an organized military resistance to party politics". Later on in World War II, 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 of the 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 that the 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 by "providence".
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 as unfair to Germany, claimed that he was a man of peace who wanted war with no-one, and argued that he was only seeking equality for Germany by peacefully overturning the unfair Treaty of Versailles. Hitler claimed that it was unfair that because of Versailles a part of Germany should be demilitarized whereas in every other nation of the world a government could order its troops to anywhere within its borders, and claimed all he wanted was "equality" for Germany. Even then, Hitler claimed that he would have been willing to accept the continued demilitarization of the 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 Prime Minister David Lloyd George stated in the House of Commons that Hitler's actions in the wake of the Franco-Soviet pact were fully justified, and he would have been a traitor to Germany if he had not protected his country.
When German troops marched into Cologne, a vast cheering crowd formed spontaneously to greet the soldiers, throwing flowers onto the Wehrmacht while Catholic priests offered to bless the soldiers. Cardinal 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 remilitarization:
"I was totally overwhelmed by the events of this hour..overjoyed at the entry march of our soldiers, at the greatness of Hitler and the power of his speech, the force of this man. A few years ago, when demoralization ruled amongst us, we would not have dared contemplate such deeds. Again and again the Führer faces the world with a fait accompli. Along with the world, the individual holds his breath. Where is Hitler heading, what will be the end, the climax of this speech, what boldness, what surprise will there be? And then it comes, blow on blow, action is stated without fear of his own courage. That is so strengthening … That is the deep, unfathomable secret of the Führer's nature … And he is always lucky".
To capitalize on the vast popularity of the remilitarization, Hitler called a referendum on 29 March 1936 in which the majority of German voters expressed their approval of the remilitarization. During his campaign stops to ask for a yes vote, Hitler was greeted with huge crowds roaring their approval of his defiance of Versailles. Kershaw wrote that the 99% ja (yes) vote in the referendum was improbably high, but it is clear that an overwhelming majority of voters did genuinely chose to vote yes when asked if they approved of the remilitarization. The American journalist William L. Shirer wrote about the 1936 election:
"Nevertheless, this observer, who covered the "election" from one corner of the Reich to the other, has no doubt that the vote of approval for Hitler's coup was overwhelming. And why not? The junking of Versailles and the appearance of German soldiers marching again into what was, after all, German territory were things that almost all Germans naturally approved of. The No vote was given as 540, 211."
In the aftermath of the remilitarization, the economic crisis which had so damaged the National Socialist regime's popularity was forgotten by almost all. After the Rhineland triumph, Hitler's self-confidence surged to new heights, and those who knew well him stated that after March 1936 there was a real psychological change as Hitler was utterly convinced of his infallibility in a way that he not been before.
Historians writing without benefit of access to the French archives (which were not opened until the mid-1970s) such as William L. Shirer in his books The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960) and The Collapse of the Third Republic (1969) have claimed that France, although possessing at this time superior armed forces compared to Germany, including after a possible mobilization 100 infantry divisions, was psychologically unprepared to use force against Germany. Shirer quoted the figure of France having 100 divisions compared to Germany's 19 battalions in the Rhineland. France's actions during the Rhineland crisis have often used as support of the décadence thesis that during the interwar period the supposed decadence of the French way of life caused the French people to degenerate physically and morally to the point that the French were simply unable to stand up to Hitler, and the French in some way had it coming when they were defeated in 1940. Shirer wrote that the French could have easily turned back the German battalions in the Rhineland had the French people not been "sinking into defeatism" in 1936. Historians such as the American historian Stephen A. Schuker who have examined the relevant French primary sources have rejected Shirer's claims as the work of an amateur historian writing without access to the primary sources, and have found that a major paralyzing factor on French policy was the economic situation as opposed to Shirer's claim that the French were just too cowardly to stand up to Hitler. France's top military official, General Maurice Gamelin, informed the French government that the only way to remove the Germans from the Rhineland was to mobilize the French Army, which would not only be unpopular, it would also cost the French treasury 30 million francs per day. Gamelin assumed a worst-case scenario in which a French move 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 and Landespolizei formations in the Rhineland as regular troops, and so the French believed only by full mobilization would France have enough troops to expel the alleged 295,000 German troops from the Rhineland. The real number was actually 3,000 German soldiers. The French historian Jean-Baptiste Duroselle accused Gamelin of distorting what the Deuxième Bureau's intelligence in his report to the cabinet by converting the SS, SA and Landespolizei units into fully trained troops to provide a reason for inaction. Neurath's (truthful) statement that Germany had only sent 19 battalions into the Rhineland was dismissed by Gamelin as a ruse to allow Germans to claim that they 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.
At the same time, in late 1935-early 1936 France was gripped by a financial crisis, with the French Treasury informing the government that sufficient cash reserves to maintain the value of the franc as currently pegged by the gold standard in regard to the U.S. dollar and the British pound no longer existed, and only a huge foreign loan on the money markets of London and New York could prevent the value of the franc from experiencing a disastrous downfall. Because France was on the verge of elections scheduled for the spring of 1936, devaluation of the franc, which was viewed as abhorrent by large sections of French public opinion, was rejected by the caretaker government of Premier Albert Sarraut as politically unacceptable. Investor fears of a war with Germany were not conducive to raising the necessary loans to stabilize the franc: the German remilitarization of the Rhineland, by sparking fears of war, worsened the French economic crisis by causing a massive cash flow out of France as worried investors shifted their savings towards what were felt to be safer foreign markets. The fact that France had defaulted on its World War I debts in 1932 understandably led most investors to conclude if France should be involved in another war with Germany, the French would default again on their debts. On March 18, 1936 Wilfrid Baumgartner, the director of the Mouvement général des fonds (the French equivalent of a permanent under-secretary) reported to the government that France for all intents and purposes was bankrupt. Only by desperate arm-twisting from the major French financial institutions did Baumgartner manage to obtain enough in the way of short-term loans to prevent France from defaulting on her debts and keeping the value of the franc from sliding too far, in March 1936. Given the financial crisis, the French government feared that there were insufficient funds to cover the costs of mobilization, and that a full-blown war scare caused by mobilization would only exacerbate the financial crisis. The American historian Zach Shore wrote that: "It was not lack of French will to fight in 1936 which permitted Hitler's coup, but rather France's lack of funds, military might, and therefore operational plans to counter German remilitarization."
An additional issue for the French was the state of the Armée de l'Air. The Deuxième Bureau reported that not only had the Luftwaffe developed considerably more advanced aircraft than what France possessed, but owing to the superior productivity of German industry and the considerably larger size of the German economy the Luftwaffe had a three to one advantage in fighters. Problems with productivity within the French aircraft industry meant the French air force would have a great deal of trouble replacing their losses in the event of combat with the Luftwaffe. Thus, it was believed by the French military elite that should war come, then the Luftwaffe would 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, Romania and 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 capitalism.
Upon hearing of the German move, the French government issued a statement strongly hinting that military action was a possible option. From 9:30 am until noon on 7 March, a meeting of the French cabinet took place to discuss what to do which ended with the conclusion that the French Foreign Minister, Pierre Étienne Flandin should meet the ambassadors of the Locarno powers to discuss their reaction. Georges Mandel was the sole voice in the French cabinet demanding that France should march at once into the Rhineland to expel the German troops, regardless of the costs. Later that day, another cabinet meeting was called with General-Secretary Alexis St. Leger representing the Quai 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 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 Italy acted likewise.
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 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 before Germany annexed Austria. In particular, Massigli warned if the Germans were able to fortify the Rhineland, that would essentially mean giving the Reich a free hand to expand into Eastern Europe. As part of an effort to secure more in the way of the long-desired "continental commitment" that had been a major goal of French foreign policy since 1919, Gamelin told the British military attaché that:
"France could fight its own battles and also send some immediate reinforcements to Belgium, but only if it was known for sure that a British Expeditionary Force was on the way. The lack of such a force would mean that France might have to reconsider its commitments in Belgium and the leave the latter to fend for itself... Such action would mean conceding to Germany potential air bases, and facilities for air raids against England, to which we could scarcely be 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.
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 economist John Maynard Keynes had published his best-selling book The Economic Consequences of the Peace in 1919—in which Keynes depicted Versailles as an unbearably harsh Carthaginian peace imposed by the vindictive Allies—an increasingly large segment of British public opinion had become convinced that the 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 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".
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 Germany was inadvisable under the grounds that the deep cuts imposed by the Ten Year Rule together with the fact that rearmament had only begun in 1934 meant that at most Britain could do in the event of war would be to send two divisions with backward equipment to France after three weeks of preparation. Additionally, fears were expressed in Whitehall if Britain went to war with Germany, then Japan, which since 1931 when Japanese had seized Manchuria from China had been making claims to be the only power in the Far East, might take advantage of the war to start seizing Britain's Asian colonies.
The British Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, discouraged military action by the French and was against any financial or economic sanctions against Germany, immediately meeting the French ambassador Charles Corbin to urge restraint on the French. Eden instead wanted Germany to pull out all but a symbolic number of troops, the number they said they were going to put in the first place, and then renegotiate. An additional factor that influenced British policy was the lack of the Dominion support. All of the Dominion High Commissioners in London, with South Africa and Canada being especially outspoken in this regard, made it quite clear that they would not go to war to restore the demilitarized status of the Rhineland, and that if Britain did so, she would be on her own. The American historian Gerhard Weinberg wrote that "...by 13 March that the British Dominions, especially the Union of South Africa and Canada, would not stand with England if war came. The South African government in particular was busy backing the German position in London and with the other Dominion governments". Both the South African Prime Minister General J. B. M. Hertzog and the Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King had to face domestic constituencies, respectively the Afrikaners and the French Canadians, many of whom had deep objections to fighting in another "British war" against Germany, and as such both Hertzog and Mackenzie King were staunch supporters of appeasement as the best way of avoiding such a war. Neither Hertzog nor Mackenzie King wished to have chose between loyalty to the British Empire vs. dealing with anti-British voters if war came. Ever since the Chanak Crisis of 1922, Britain had been keenly conscious that Dominion support could no longer be automatically assumed, and remembering the huge role the Dominions had played in the victory of 1918, could not consider fighting another major war without Dominion support.
The British Foreign Office for its part expressed a great deal of frustration over Hitler's action in unilaterally taking what London had proposed to negotiate. As a Foreign Office memo complained: "Hitler has deprived us of the possibility of making to him a concession which might otherwise have been a useful bargaining counter in our hands in the general negotiations with Germany which we had it in contemplation to initiate". The Rhineland crisis completed the estrangement between Eden who believed that Hitler's proposals in his speech of 7 March were the grounds for a "general settlement" with Germany, and Vansittart who argued that Hitler was negotiating in bad faith. Eden and Vansittart had already clashed during the Abyssinia Crisis with Eden supporting sanctions against Italy while Vansittart wanted Italy as an ally against Germany. Vansittart argued that there was no prospect of a "general settlement" with Hitler, and the best that could be done was to strengthen ties with the French in order to confront Germany. The Germanophobe Vansittart had always hated the Germans, and especially disliked the Nazis, whom he saw as a menace to civilization. Vansittart had supported Eden's efforts to defuse the Rhineland crisis as British rearmament had only just began, but being an intense Francophile Vansittart urged the government to use the crisis as a chance to begin forming a military alliance with France against Germany. By the spring of 1936, Vansittart had become convinced that a "general settlement" with Germany was not possible, and Hitler was seeking the conquest of the world. A Foreign Office official Owen O'Malley suggested that Britain give Germany a "free hand in the East" (i.e. accept the German conquest of all Eastern Europe) in exchange for a German promise to accept the status quo in Western Europe. Vansittart wrote in response that Hitler was seeking world conquest, and that to allow Germany to conquer all of Eastern Europe would give the Reich sufficient raw materials to make Germany immune to a British blockade, which would then allow the Germans to overrun Western Europe. Vansittart commented that to allow 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 criticism from David Lloyd George and the Beaverbrook and Rothermere press who fumed, as the Daily Mail put it in a leader, over "military arrangements that will commit us to some war at the call of others". Furthermore, Hitler's Extraordinary Ambassador-at-Large Joachim von Ribbentrop had warned Baldwin and Eden that Germany regarded the Anglo-French staff talks as a mortal threat, and any hope of a "general settlement" with Germany would end forever if the talks continued. However, the rather hazily phrased British statement linking British security to French sécurité was not disallowed out of the fear that it would irreparably damage Anglo-French relations, which as the British historian A. J. P. Taylor 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 in 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 directly.
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. 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 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".
Since the leaders of Germany knew well that neither Britain nor France would violate Belgian neutrality, the declaration of Belgian neutrality effectively meant that there was no more danger of an Allied offensive in the West should Germany start another war as the Germans were now busy building the Siegfried Line along their border with France. By contrast, just as before 1914, Germany's leaders were all too willing to violate Belgian neutrality. Belgian neutrality meant there could be no staff talks between the Belgian military and those of other nations, which meant that when German forces invaded Belgium in 1940, there were no plans whatsoever for coordinating the movement of Belgian forces with those of France and Britain, which gave the Germans a head-start in their offensive.
Poland, announced that the Franco-Polish Military Alliance signed in 1921 would be honoured, although the treaty stipulated that Poland would aid France only if France was invaded. At the same time that Colonel Beck was assuring the French ambassador Léon Noël of his commitment to the Franco-Polish alliance and Poland's willingness to stand with France, he was also telling the German ambassador Count Hans-Adolf von Moltke that since Germany was not planning on invading France, the Franco-Polish alliance would not come into effect and Poland would do nothing if France acted. Beck made a point of stressing to Moltke that Poland had not been allowed to sign Locarno and would not go to war for Locarno, and that as one of the architects of the German-Polish nonaggression pact of 1934 that he was a friend of the Reich. Beck told Moltke on 9 March that his promise to go to war with France was "in practice, without effect" because it only came into effect if German troops entered France. Weinberg wrote that Beck's "duplicity" during the Rhineland crisis of telling the German and French ambassadors different things about what Poland would do "… did nothing for Beck's personal reputation and involved enormous risks …" for Poland. Poland did agree to mobilize its forces if France did first, however they abstained from voting against the remilitarization in the Council of the League of Nations.
During the Rhineland crisis, the isolationist American government took a strict "hands off" policy of doing nothing. During the crisis, President Franklin D. Roosevelt went off on a "diplomatically convenient" extended fishing trip to Florida to avoid having to answer questions from journalists about what his administration planned to do in response to the crisis in Europe. The general sentiment within the U.S. government was expressed by Truman Smith, the American military attaché in Berlin who wrote that Hitler was seeking only to end French domination in Europe, and was not seeking to destroy France as a power. Smith's report concluded: "Versailles is dead. There may possibly be a German catastrophe and a new Versailles, but it will not be the Versailles which has hung like a dark cloud over Europe since 1920".
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 Foreign Commissar Maxim Litvinov was giving speeches before the General Assembly of the League of Nations praising collective security and urging the world to oppose Hitler's coup, Soviet diplomats in Berlin were telling their counterparts at the Auswärtiges Amt of their desire for better commercial relations, which in turn might lead to better political relations. Just after the remilitarization, the Soviet Premier Vyacheslav Molotov gave an interview with the Swiss newspaper 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 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 Italy's, making Germany an "economic octopus" whose tentacles were everywhere around the world—was unthinkable for rest of the world. Moreover, for the sanctions to work, the United States had to join in. In 1935, the American government had declared that as the U.S. was not a League member, it would not abide by the League sanctions on Italy, which was hardly a hopeful precedent for the idea that U.S. would join in with imposing sanctions on Germany. Argentina declared that it would vote for sanctions against Germany only if the United States promised to join in. The Council declared, though not unanimously, that the remilitarization constituted a breach of the Treaties of Versailles and Locarno. Hitler was invited to plan a new scheme for European security, and he responded by claiming he had "no territorial claims in Europe" and wanted a 25-year pact of non-aggression with Britain and France. However, when the British Government inquired further into this proposed pact, they did not receive a reply.
The remilitarization changed the balance of power decisively in favor of the Reich. With the Rhineland remilitarized, Germany started the construction of the Siegfried Line, which meant that if Germany attacked any of the states in the cordon sanitaire, the ability of France to start an offensive against Germany in response to a German aggression against the states of the cordon sanitaire was henceforward limited. Such was the impact of the remilitarization on the balance of power that the Czechoslovak President Edvard Beneš seriously considered renouncing the alliance with France, and instead seeking a rapprochement with Germany, only abandoning that idea when it become clear that the price of a rapprochement with Reich would be the effective loss of his country's independence. Likewise, King Carol II 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 Europe, namely 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 Germany and 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.
- Kallis, pp. 112–113.
- Emmerson, pp. 22–23
- Shore, p. 7.
- Duroselle, pp. 116–117
- Emmerson, pp. 23 & 97.
- Weinberg (1970), p. 239.
- Emmerson, p. 25.
- Young (1996), pp. 19–21.
- Young (1996), p. 21.
- Kallis, pp. 129 & 141.
- Ueberschär, Gerd & Müller, Rolf-Dieter Hitler's War in the East, 1941–1945: A Critical Assessment, Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2002 page 14
- 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. ISBN 0-333-27693-0.
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