Remilitarization of the Rhineland

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

Background[edit]

Under Articles 42 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 kilometres to the East of the Rhine". If a violation "in any manner whatsoever" of this Article took place, this "shall be regarded as committing a hostile act...and as calculated to disturb the peace of the world".

The Locarno Treaties, signed in 1925 by Germany, France, Italy and Britain, stated that the Rhineland should continue its demilitarized status permanently. Locarno was regarded as important as it was a voluntary German acceptance of the Rhineland's demilitarized status as opposed to the diktat (dictate) of Versailles.

The Versailles Treaty also stipulated that the Allied military forces would evacuate the Rhineland in 1935, although they actually evacuated in 1930. The British delegation at the Hague Conference on German reparations in 1929 (headed by Philip Snowden, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and including Arthur Henderson, Foreign Secretary) proposed that the reparations Germany paid be reduced and that the British and French forces should evacuate the Rhineland. Henderson persuaded the skeptical French Premier, Aristide Briand, to accept that all Allied occupation forces would evacuate the Rhineland by June 1930. The last British soldiers left in late 1929 and the last French soldiers left in June 1930.

German remilitarization[edit]

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

During January 1936, the 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 caretaker government was in charge; economic problems at home required the need for a foreign policy success to restore the regime's popularity; the Italo-Ethiopian War, which had set Britain against Italy had effectively broken up the Stresa Front; and apparently because Hitler simply did not feel like waiting an extra year. 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 due to Hitler’s preference for dramatic unilateral coups de grace to obtain what could be easily be achieved via quiet talks, and because of Hitler’s need for a foreign policy triumph to distract public attention from the major economic crisis which gripped Germany in 1935-1936.

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 ensure that the German forces would leave at once if the French intervened militarily to halt their advance. The operation was codenamed Winter Exercise. On February 22, 1936, Benito Mussolini who was angry about the League of Nations sanctions applied against his country for aggression against Ethiopia told the German Ambassador in Rome, Ulrich von Hassell that Italy would dishonour Locarno if Germany were to remilitarize the Rhineland. Even if Mussolini had wanted to honour Locarno, the fact that the bulk of the Italian Army was engaged in the conquest of Ethiopia in early 1936, and the lack of a common Italo-German frontier would have presented practical problems.

A major historical debate regarding Hitler’s decision to remilitarize the Rhineland in 1936 concerns how to relate to what, if any broad long-term goals he may have had. 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. These interpreations are not necessariliy mutally exclusive as Hildbrand himself has noted. Hildebrand has argued that though Hitler did have a “programme” for world domination, that the way in which Hitler attempted to excute 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.

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

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". 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."


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