Re-militarization of Rhineland
Contributor: C. Peter Chen
After WW1, in order to place a buffer between Germany and themselves, France and the Low Countries dictated that Rhineland was to be a demilitarized zone. Within Rhineland were many of Germany's greatest cities, Cologne, Aachen, Frankfurt, and Düsseldorf; it was not only a collection of beautiful vineyards, but it was also Germany's industrial center. In 1925, Germany was entered into the Locarno Pact with France, Britain, Belgium, and Italy to extend the demilitarization clause of the Versailles Treaty into the foreseeable future. As late as Mar 1935, Adolf Hitler publicly claimed that a demilitarized Rhineland was Germany's contribution of peace; however, he already had the plans to violate the Locarno Pact. On 21 Oct 1935, French intelligence detected Germany troop movements east of the Rhine, and immediately informed Britain. But deep in appeasement mentality, nothing was heard from Britain. The French government was as unresponsive as their British counterparts.
On Saturday, 7 Mar 1936, German troops crossed the Rhine. Hitler chose that date knowing that British Ministers of Parliament would be unavailable on that day; the British ruling class was accustomed "to take its weekends in the country," criticized Winston Churchill, while "Hitler takes his countries in the weekends." Messerschmitt fighters first flew over the river in tight formation as scouts, then the infantry crossed the bridges soon after. Local Nazi leaders coordinated rallies to welcome the troops, singing military songs and Nazi anthems. In Berlin, at the Kroll Opera House, Hitler announced that Germany was no longer bound by the Locarno Pact because of her "interests of the basic rights of its people to the security of their frontier"; the members of the Reichstag rejoiced in an ocean of "Heil! Heil! Heil!", believing that German honor, through the restoration of sovereignty, had been restored. Behind Hitler's façade of confidence, however, was a great gamble. The French Army was considered one of the finest armies in the world, and Britain could land five divisions of men within weeks. The German occupation troops at Rhineland, on the other hand, were young and inexperienced soldiers. German generals such as Werner von Blomberg, Werner von Fritsch, and Ludwig Beck, who all voiced against the re-militarization before Hitler overrode their recommendations, were convinced that should the French decide to take action with their overwhelming quantity of infantry with the support of the "finest artillery in the world", the Nazi government would fall within a week. Alfred Jodl admitted during the post-WW2 Nuremberg trials that he thought "the French covering army could have blown us to pieces". But Hitler intuition proved to be correct, and the gamble paid off. Britain stood and watched. France had a faint notion to uphold their Locarno Pact responsibilities, spearheaded by General Maurice Gamelin who noted that if France wished to take action, it had to be now and the campaign had to be fast, otherwise Germany's superior industrial capacities might tip the tide of the war after a few years. France sink under the sea of indecisiveness.
In Britain, the appeasement policy continued to reign, despite powerful speeches delivered by the likes of Winston Churchill.
Lord Lothian noted in London that "after all, [the Germans] are only going into their own back garden." To Churchill's dismay, the popular sentiment in Britain at this time was that Germany must be given its full sovereignty and dignity; with their honor restored, a general disarmament then would take place. Hitler, however, had no such notion in mind.
Source: the Last Lion.
Re-militarization of Rhineland Timeline
|2 Mar 1936||Werner von Blomberg issued orders for the reoccupation of Rhineland in western Germany.|
|7 Mar 1936||Upon the success of the Rhineland reoccupation in western Germany, Adolf Hitler dissolved the Reichstag and called for re-elections, which saw overwhelming approval for the action.|
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Winston Churchill, 1935