German Troops March into the Rhineland Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Having already successfully violated armament provisions of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, Adolf Hitler embarked on his first great gamble: moving his troops into the Rhineland frontier toward France. The French government, torn by internal debate over how best to respond, was unable to secure backing from Britain in support of intervention against this move and consequently allowed Germany again to flout post-World War I peace accords.

Summary of Event

From 1918 to 1930, the German Rhineland was occupied by Allied—mainly French—troops. After this period, in accordance with the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles of 1919 and the Locarno Treaties of 1925, Locarno Treaties (1925) the area was to be permanently demilitarized. Versailles, Treaty of (1919);German violations Through his early official foreign policy statements, German chancellor Adolf Hitler indicated support for the Rhineland demilitarization and the settlements at Versailles and Locarno, but his domestic statements to the German people carried a different message. At home, Hitler made no secret of his contempt for the treaties’ provisions and of his determination to undo the settlement one provision at a time. Upon gaining power on January 30, 1933, Hitler launched what was at first a clandestine buildup of German military power. As time went on, this became a more overt campaign that clearly violated the military limitations set forth in the Versailles treaty. As Hitler continued to push his boundaries, he encountered no effective opposition from other European powers or from the United States. [kw]German Troops March into the Rhineland (Mar. 7, 1936) [kw]Troops March into the Rhineland, German (Mar. 7, 1936) [kw]Rhineland, German Troops March into the (Mar. 7, 1936) Rhineland;German occupation World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];prewar period [g]Germany;Mar. 7, 1936: German Troops March into the Rhineland[09170] [c]Military history;Mar. 7, 1936: German Troops March into the Rhineland[09170] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Mar. 7, 1936: German Troops March into the Rhineland[09170] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Mar. 7, 1936: German Troops March into the Rhineland[09170] [c]Government and politics;Mar. 7, 1936: German Troops March into the Rhineland[09170] [c]World War II;Mar. 7, 1936: German Troops March into the Rhineland[09170] Hitler, Adolf [p]Hitler, Adolf;Rhineland occupation Blomberg, Werner von Fritsch, Werner von Sarraut, Albert Flandin, Pierre-Étienne Gamelin, Maurice Churchill, Winston Baldwin, Stanley Mussolini, Benito

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Prior to 1936, Hitler had limited himself to internal rearmament, but by March of that year he was poised to embark on a riskier, much more aggressive project: the reoccupation of the Rhineland by German troops. A rift had developed between Italy and its former allies France and Britain over Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s decision to attack Ethiopia in 1935, an action that had been condemned by the French and British governments. Hitler saw an opportunity to profit from this disagreement by making his move at a time when the erstwhile Allies were unlikely to cooperate with one another. Hitler’s secret plan for remilitarizing the Rhineland was opposed by Minister of War Werner von Blomberg and Commander General Werner von Fritsch, who argued that the German army was vastly inferior to the French army and that any military intervention by France would have to be met by a quick and humiliating retreat that would probably prove fatal to the Nazi regime.

Although Blomberg and Fritsch might be right, Hitler conceded, he was convinced that the British and French leadership would not intervene because they were desperate to avoid renewing the horrors of trench warfare that had been a hallmark of World War I. Appeasement and national self-interest, he believed, would prevail over any desire to enforce international agreements. Furthermore, Hitler argued, Mussolini was unlikely to mend his relationships with Britain and France.

On March 7, 1936, a small contingent of German troops—estimated at no more than thirty-five thousand—marched across the line of demarcation and began to garrison the Rhineland all the way to the French border. The orders from Blomberg, however, were to retire immediately in the event of any French advance across the German border. Hitler insisted that his intentions were strictly nonaggressive and driven by concerns for German national security. Morever, he said, recent French diplomatic overtures to the Soviet Union had violated the Locarno Treaties, and Germany was therefore freed from the terms of those agreements.

Prime Minister Albert Sarraut and Foreign Minister Pierre-Étienne Flandin of France favored an instant and overwhelming military response. However, they were countered by General Maurice Gamelin, who warned that war with the Germans could be perilous, even though the French army numbered 1.5 million soldiers. Gamelin ordered only thirteen divisions and some tanks into a defensive position near the German border. The debate between Sarraut and Gamelin divided and paralyzed the French government, and Flandin was dispatched to London on March 11, where he tried to convince the British to help repel the Germans.

Flandin’s diplomatic mission was a total failure; he could garner support only from Winston Churchill, who was adamant that Germany’s rearmament and aggressive defiance of the Versailles provisions were threats to future world peace. Churchill argued that Hitler must be stopped before he gained so much strength that another global conflict would be required to prevent him from attaining world control. However, at this time Churchill was a shunned and ignored political figure, even within the ranks of his own Conservative Party. The real power in Britain lay with Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, who had scant knowledge of (and even less interest in) foreign affairs. Baldwin believed that Britain and the British public were unready for war and did not think that the nation should take even the smallest risk of another conflict like World War I. Diplomatically abandoned, the French government was not willing to make further moves, and Germany’s rearmament in the Rhineland was allowed to stand unchallenged.

Significance

Hitler’s assessment of the Allies’ war-weary state and their lack of will to enforce the Versailles provisions proved to be shrewd, timely, and accurate. The German army would soon build a formidable network of fortifications known as the Siegfried line, which facilitated German aggression in the region by preventing any Anglo-French efforts to safeguard the integrity of smaller Eastern European states such as Austria and Czechoslovakia. The setback further demoralized the French, who became increasingly defense-oriented and obsessed with dependence on the Maginot line.

Internationally and domestically, Hitler’s prestige rose as a result of this triumph, and he was able to secure greater control over Germany’s armed forces. Blomberg and Fritsch were undermined, and they were relieved of their posts in 1938. The Nazi seizure of military control over the Rhineland set into motion a campaign of “racial purity” against the so-called Rhineland bastards (the offspring of German women and African or Southeast Asian soldiers stationed in the area during France’s garrisoning of the Rhineland). These children and adolescents were persecuted and in many cases sterilized. Rhineland;German occupation World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];prewar period

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Churchill, Winston S. Memories of World War II. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987. In his assessment of the events of 1936, Churchill views the Rhineland occupation as one of the most significant steps to World War II, and he chides his Conservative Party colleagues for failing predict later developments.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Eimerl, Sarel. Hitler over Europe: The Road to World War II. Boston: Little, Brown, 1972. The author sees a paranoid fear on the part of the Western Allies as the most significant element behind the success of Hitler’s military and diplomatic coup.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kershaw, Ian. Hitler, 1889-1945: Hubris. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999. The Rhineland rearmament is viewed as the triumphant capstone of Hitler’s early political career and the springboard for his more aggressive global initiatives.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Redlich, Fritz. Hitler: Diagnosis of a Destructive Prophet. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Although mainly a behavioral study, this book does focus some attention on the Rhineland reoccupation as a psychological milestone in the Nazi dictator’s obsessive quest for power.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shirer, William L. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany. 30th anniversary ed. New York: Ballantine, 1991. Classic account of Hitler’s rise and fall; extremely detailed. Credits the success of the Rhineland occupation to Hitler’s iron nerve and instinct for bluffing.

Hitler Comes to Power in Germany

Reichstag Fire

Great Blood Purge

Germany and Japan Sign the Anti-Comintern Pact

The Anschluss

Munich Conference

Kristallnacht

Nazi Extermination of the Jews

Nazi-Soviet Pact

Germany Invades Poland

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