The Rhineland was the areas of Germany west of the Rhine. It was the area that Louis XIV coveted and fought enless wars to make the Rhine the Frenvh border with Germany. The Rhineland had been permanently demilitarized under the terms of the Versailles Peace Treaty ending World War I. This was one of the restictions that Hitler railed against in his speeches. The situation in the Rhineland was different than in Saarland. French authorities had been in control of the Saarland. Germany was in control of the Rhineland, they were simply not allowed to militarize it. Hitler's developing relationship with Mussolini by 1936 had ensured that Italy would not object. By 1936 the question was what France would do. The French agreement wth the Soviets in 1936 gave Hitler a pretext for action. This allowed Hitler the ability to appeal to the anti-Communist forces in Britain and France to dnounce the Locarno Pact. Hitler had reason to believe that the French would not react. [Davidson, p. 131.] The Whermacht was ordered to march into the Rhineland March 7, 1936). The Whermacht force sent uinto the Rhineland was weak one. They were under orders to withdraw if the British and French responded militarily. A military response from Britain and France could have dramatically changed 20th century history. Germany at the time did not have the capability of wageing a major war. And there was Poland and Czechoslovakia in the east if the Allies struck in the west. Hitler had gambled nd was proven right. Neither France or Britain reacted with force. Many in both countries, especially pacifist spokespersons, charged that the Versailles Treaty was unfair to Germany. The Allies meerly submitted diplomatic protests. This was Hitler's second flagrant violation of the Versailles Treaty. The first was the reintroiduction of conscription. Of course he had already begun the secret rearmanent program which was a violation of the Treaty and details on the rearmament program became apparent in 1936. Perhaps the major outcome of Hitler's gamble was the imense prestige it brought him domestically. The German people approved his action in the Third NAZI Referendum (March 1936).
The Rhineland in historical terms is a variously defined term for the land on either bank of the River Rhine north of Switzerland. The Rhineland was the areas of Germany west of the Rhine. It was the area that Louis XIV coveted and fought enless wars to make the Rhine the Frenvh border with Germany. In more recent years it has become seen as the area populated by German-speaking people west of the middle and lower Rhine. The Rhineland was not affected by the World War I fighting. The war on the Western Front was fought in Belgiunm and northern France where there was trendous destruction.
The Saarland wss seen as a separate area, largely because the French had hope of annexing it.
The Americans and British with the Hundred Day Offensive, broke the German lines wide open on the Western Front (August-November 1918). This forced the Germans to to ask for an Armistice which finally ended the War (November 1918). The terms of the Armistice provided for the immediate evacuation of German troops from Belgium, France, and Luxembourg as well as Alsace-Lorraine within 15 days. (The Germans had not invaded the Netherlands.) The Allies (American, Belgian, British and French) proceded to occupy the Rhineland. The United States already on the move east provided nearly auarter million troops for the occuption, about a third of the total. AEP commander, General Pershing. established the U.S.Third Army for this purpose and chose Major General Joseph Dickman to command it. The Americans completed their withdrawl (1923). They vacated the Ehrenbreitstein Fortress, an imposing structure which the French immediately occupied themselves.
The Belgians committed five divisions and establisged its headquarters at Aachen with a headquaters at Krefeld. The British reached the Rhineland (December 3, 1918). The British created thr Army of the Rhine for the occupation (March 1919). They set up a headquaters in Cologne
The French Eighth Army and Tenth Army entered the Rhineland. The two armies were combined to form the French Army of the Rhine (October 21, 1919). The French used colonia troops on the Western Front. Some 15,000-40,000 French colonial soldiers were involved in the occupation. The principal colonial formations used were Senegalese Tirailleurs. The Germans, who had been a colonial power in Africa were shocked at this. The right wing parties including the NAZIs made it a political issue. They charged that the French did this to humiliate Germany. They referred to it as The events resulted in a widespread campaign by the German right wing press that dubbed them as Die schwarze Schande / Die schwarze Schmach (the black shame) and it was depicted as a form of French humiliation of the German nation. Some Germam women had babies with the colonial soldiers and slme married them. The right wing press referredcto them as the Rhineland Bastards. The right wing press also concocted stories of attacks, rapes, and other violence targetting Germn women. There is no evidence thst there was a wave of such violence.
The Allies imposed the Treaty of Versailles on Germany after their victory in World War I (1919). ThecGermans were not allowed to participate in the Versailles Conference, but were presented the Treaty and given the option or signing or not signing whih would have resulted in an immediate Allied invasion and occupation.
Under provisions of the Treaty (Articles 42, 43 and 44), Germany was to prohibited from maintaining or building 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". A German violation "in any manner whatsoever" of this Article was to be "regarded as committing a hostile act...and as calculated to disturb the peace of the world". The Treaty also provided for French occupation of the adjoining Saarland. By demilitarizing the Rhineland, the Allies made any future German invasion of France and Belgium much more difficult. (Notably the staging areas for the 1940 Western offensive wwere in the Sarland and Rhineland.) Hitler in his rise to power was a decisive force in German politics. Many Germans were afraid of him and even disagreed with manybof his positions. The Versille Peace Treaty ws reviled in Germany. Germans of all political stripes objected to the Versailles Treaty, finding it both punativ and vindictive. (Few mentioned that the Treaty of Breast-Litiovsk imposed by the Germans on Russia ws much more punative and include no provisions for plebecites which allowed local populations to choose their national affiliagions.) The de-militarization of the Rhineland was one of the restictions that Hitler railed against in his speeches. The Rhineland remained part of Germany and the Germans retained political control, but they could not station army troops there or build fortificatiins. Thus most Germans agreed with Hitler that it was an affont to German honor and meant that the Rhineland was not fully part of the nation.
The Locarno Treaties were signed by Germany, France, Italy and Britain (1925). The parties agreed that the Rhineland should continue its demilitarized status permanently. Locarno was in the 1920s regarded as a major diplomatic chievement. It was a voluntary German acceptance by Germany of the cojntry's wesrern borders as well as the Rhineland's demilitarized status in contrast to the Versailles diktat. Britain and Italy guaranteed the Franco-German border and the continued demilitarized Rhineland against a "flagrant violation". A "flagrant violation" was not defined or were the consequences.
The Versailles Treaty had stipulated that the Allied military forces would withdraw from the Rhineland in 1935. Actually they withdrew earlier (1930). The Americans withdrew at an early point (1923). The British convinced the skeptical French to do so. The last British troops left (1929). The French left (1930).
The Saar was a small territory in northwestern Germany with a population of about 800,000 people in 1933. It is bounded by France on the south, Luxembourg in the west, and the German Rhineland-Palatinate on the north and east. The situation in the Rhineland was different than in Saarland which had been occupied by the French. France returned the Saarland to the Reich after a League of Nations sponsored plebecite in 1935. French authorities had been in control of the Saarland. And they for a time hoped to convince the population tochoose an association wih France. Language and culture were, however, too powerful. The Saarlanders freely voted to associate with Germanhy, although by 1935 it was dangerous to advocate anything but rejoining Germany. This was, however, different than the Rhineland where Germany was in control, simply not allowed to militarize it.
Germany ended World War I surronded by countries that were for the most-part either hostile are extremely warry of Germany. This had not matterially changed by the time Hitler seized power (1933). Even Fascist Italy was warry of Hitler, especially over German designs on neigboring Austria. And Italy has a population of ethnic Germans in the north and a small slize of Austria awarded in the World war I settlement. Hitler worked on developing a relationship with Mussolini. The turning point was Italy's invasion of Ethiopia (1935). While the Allies sharly criticized Mussolini and worked on modest League of Nations sanctions, Hitler supported the Italian move. This developing relationship with Mussolini by 1936 ensured that Italy would not object. The question in 1936 was what France would do.
Germany at the time did not have the capability of wageing a major war. Concscriptin had only begun a year earlier (1935). There were only a habdful of German divisions that were combat ready, with a full compliment and well armed. The British and French had demobilized from World War I, but had modern, well equipped militaries that Germany could not possibly resist. The French Army was widely believed to be the most powerful in the world. And Britain was able to land five divisions within weeks to support the French. And there was Poland and Czechoslovakia in the east if the Allies struck in the west. And this did not even include a calculation of Soviet forces.
Given the dangers, Hitler began preparing a diplomatic minuet. This he began with an interview granted to Bertrand de Jouvenel, an important French journalist (February 21). He told him that despite what he wrote in Mein Kampf there was no longer in real reason for Franco-German conflict, wanting to disrupt ratification of the Franco-Soviety Treaty. [Fest, p. 496.] This would prive to be his pretext. Hitler liked to find pretexts for his aggressive acts. The one chose for the Rhineland ction was the French agreement wth the Soviets (May 2, 1935). This was a step of enormous significance. The Western powers until this had attempted to isolate the Soviet Union. This was the first major agreement with a Western power. Amd it was not lost on Hitler that the Franco-Soviet alliance in World War I was the deciding factor in the German Army's failure to reach Paris in World War I. While the agrreement was signed in 1935, Hitler chose to make the ratification the pretext. A pretext was needed both for domestic and political auduiences. Hitler had been criticized before seiing power as advicating another ar, something most Germans did not want. Thus he needed to justigy the actiin as adefensive measure. Hitler insisted
that it was all part of Germany's need to improve its defenses. Unsaid was the gact thst the French alliance with the Soviets was prompted by the massive German rearmament program. It was a diplomatically astute move. It allowed Hitler the ability to appeal to the anti-Communist forces in Britain and France which opposed any accomdation with the Soviets. Hitler also used the occassion to renounce the Locarno Pact. This was a treaty negotiated by Britain, France, and Germany (1925). The Treaties recognized the boundary between France and Germany. The feeling of good will resulting from the Treaty among the world War I atagonists is known as the Locarno Honeymoon. The Treaty included no guarantee for boundaries with Polabd and Czechoslovakia. The Soviet Union was not included in the negotiations. Many Bolshevicks and thus Communists in the West considered the treaty as a hostile act aimed at the Soviet Union. Thus Hitler's denunciation of the Locarno Pact was actually beneficial in defusing Soviet and Communist reaction.
Remilitarizing the Rhineland was one of the many gambles Hitler made. In fact, Hitler would afterwards tell his
intimates that ordering troops into the Rhineland was the most nerve-racking 48 hours of his life. Hitler had, however, reason to believe that the French would not react. [Davidson, p. 131.] Hitler had originally planned to rmilitarized thec Rhineland in 1937 but as events develooed, he decided to moved the schedule forward. The principal factor here was Mussolini. He had begun to respond to Hitler's overtutes, He informed Higtler that the spirit of Stresa was dead. Italy would not support sanctions against Germany. [Fest, p. 496.] Hitler according to one unconfirmed source would later say, "If France had then marched into the Rhineland, we would have had to withdraw with our tails between our legs, for the military resourcesat our disposal would have been wholly inadequate for even a moderate resistance." [Kordt, p. 134.] Von Blomberg seems, hiwever, to have been more nervous than Hitler. [Fest, p. 497.]
French intelligence detected Germany troop movements east of the Rhine. The immediately informed Britain (October 21, 1935). It prived to be a false alarm. But the British had not responded. This set the tone for the French. It Hitler did move into the Rhineland, they would be on their own. Hitler ordered War Minister von Blomberg to prepare to march into the Rhineland (March 2, 1936). Blomberg admired Hitler as a skilled politican. And he was providing Blomberg the men and weapons go build a great army. He was, however, very nervous about how the Allies would respond. Hitler was also nervous, but determined to throw the dice. Here his increasingly contemptuous view of France was central. [Fest, p. 497.] Von Blomberg despite his reservayion issued orders to march into the Rhineland. Hitler ordered 32,000 soldiers and armed policemen to march accross the Rhine bridges onto the left bank of the Rhineland (March 7, 1936). Luftwaffe Me-109s began the operation, flying over the Rhine in tight formation, actging as as scouts. Then the soldiers began marching accross the bridges. Hitler chose Saturday knowing that the weekend woukd slow any Allied resonse. The Whermacht force sent into the Rhineland was a weak one and not heavily armed. They were under orders to withdraw if the British and French responded militarily. A military response from Britain and France could have dramatically changed 20th century history. On that first day they were not accompanied by tanks and artillery for propaganda ressons and to set the tone of press coverage.
The press coverage focused on the frenzy of exileration with whjich the German popilation treated the arrival of the Wehrmacht. The Whermacht today has a well-deserved sinsister repulation. But in its wearly operations involving areas with German populations, the Wehrmacht was seen largely as an army of national liberation. And the remilitarization of the Rhineland was one of these occassions. The population received the Wehrmacht as the arrival of long lost bothers and an act of liberation. There was no previous announcenent beause Hitler did not want to give the Allies time to react. As was so often the case, the idea was to present them a fait accompli. NAZI officials may have been informed. As soon as the operation began, it would have dominated thecradio. Pelope along the streets cheered energetically and threw flowers if they were handy. I do not know if the crowds at the bridges grew sponateously or if they were orgazied. There were more formal ceremonies in city squares. The NAZI aperatus already existed in the Rhineland, onlt the military had been absent. Local NAZI officials organized rallies to welcome the troops. The crowds sang patriotic songs and NAZI anthems. The joy of the people at the bridhes and along the streets seems geuine. The clebrations in the squares are carefully orchestrated NAZI pagentry.
Hitler had gambled and was proven right again. Neither France or Britain reacted with force. Many in both countries, especially pacifist spokespersons, charged that the Versailles Treaty was unfair to Germany. In most democratic countries, especially Britain and France, pacifism ws a very influential force. France arwas going through an domestiv internal political. Not only was pacifist sentimrnt string, but many (especially in Britain) felt that this was basically a domestic political action. The Vesailles Treaty was increasingly viewed by the Bfitish as too vindictivdwand Hitler was just doing what any German or fior that matter any othef governmebnt would eventually do, There was no political will any lnger to ebforce the Versailles Treaty. Had Britain and France reacted in force, they would have been criticized not only by Hitler, but by many domestic observers of being war mongers and vindicative against the poor Germans. The Allies, as a result, meekly submitted feeble diplomatic protests. And Hitler encouraged this my pledges of moderation and offering the French a 25-year non-aggression pact. He also talked about rejoining the League of Nations. This was Hitler's second flagrant violation of the Versailles Treaty. The first was the reintroduction of conscription. Of course he had already begun the secret rearmanent program which was a violation of the Treaty and details on the rearmament program became apparent in 1936. Essentially after tge Remilitarization of the Rhineland, the Versailles Peace Treaty no longer existed. Now Hitler could begin the prepare to redraw Germany's borders.
Hitler spoke at the Kroll Opera House in Berlin, used for meetings of the Reichstag after it burned in 1933. He informed both the NAZI faithful and the German people 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 response was instananeous, the Reichstag erupted in a sea of "Heil! Heil! Heil!"
Hitler then dissolved the Reichstag and called for new elections which by this time were nonlongercreal democratic elections. Nor did the Reichstag have any real power.
Perhaps the major outcome of Hitler's gamble was the imense prestige it brought him domestically. The German people overwealmingly approved his action in the Third NAZI Referendum (March 1936). And Hitler learned that gambles, while dangerous, had spectacular payoffs. He also got a feel for British abd French politicians. The French could be counted on to do nothing, especially without British support. Even with Hitler remocing this impediment for a future invaion, the French did nothing. And the British had no interest in any military operation in Europe, even on France's borders. Hitler reasoned with some alacraty that if the Allies would not respoond to a violation of such a key provision of the Versailles Treaty in the West, they would be even less likely go respond to further provocations in eastern and southern Europe. And even more importantly the German military was both growing and recdiving modern new weaoons. Each month that went by Hitler increased Germany's military capability. Never again would Germany be so militarily vulnerable as it had been in the first years of NAZI rule.
The Germans poroceeded to build the West Wall, usually referred to as the Siegfried Line by Western historians. The Organization Todt's first major military project was awarded befote the War began. The OT built the West Wall. As the War progressed the West Wall, a defensive instalation, played little role in the first years of the War. It did play a role after the breakout from Normandy in slowing down the Allied advance during Winter 1944-45. The Americans after liberating Paris pressed on north to Germany. There have been two Siegfried lines, both were German defensive lines built west of the Rhine between France and Germany. The first was built by the Germans during World War I (1916-17). Much of this line was in Belgium and Alsace. The second was built during the 1930s by OT. The Germans called it the West Wall. It faced the much more extensive French Maginot Line. The West Wall was a series of fortified positions and tank traps. The defensive line was constructed from Switzerland north to where the Rhine enters the Netherlands. It was up to 3-miles deep and consisted of concrete pillboxes, artillery positions, observation posts, command posts, and troop shelters. The dragon’s teeth were covered by fire from overlooking heights where a complex networks of heavy, concrete pill-boxes, set into the ground and well camouflaged, included elaborate systems of trenches and wire obstacles. Both natural obstacles like streams or concrete projections called dragon's teeth were designed as anti-tank defenses along the length of the line. After building the line in the 1930s, little attention was given to it until the D-Day Invasion (June 1944) amd defeat of the Wehrmacht in France (July-August 1944). The West Wall consisted of fortified towns and several belts of permanent fortifications guarding the approaches to Germany. Goebbels began highligting the West Wall in German propagada after the liberation of France. The most striking feature of the West Wall was endless rows of contrete "dragons teeth" designed to block the passge of Allied tanks. While neglected after the German success in the west during 1940, the West Wall fortifications were still a formidable obstacle, especially in certain sectors.
As the Allies would soon realize, the Rhineland was demilitarized for good reason. The Rhineland was strategically the most important area in the West. Allowing Weimar Germany to remilitaize the Rhineland, but the Allies oermitted Hitler to do it at the same gome he was pursuing a vast rearmament program. Without military bases in the Rhineland, the Germans were restricted in their ability to invade France, rspecially a surprise invasion. The German Western Offensive (May 1940) which led to the fall of France was launched through the Ardennes Forrest from staging sreas in the Rhineland, including the Saarland. But this was just the beginning of the World War II story. After the Normandy landings, the Germans began strengthening the West Wall. The Americans after crossing the Seine hoped for a quick dash into the Reich to end the War. This proved impossible. Without an operational port, the llies had supply problems. And much of what was available was given to Montgomery for Operation Market Garden. In addition the West Wall in the Rhineland proved to be a tough nut to crack. Some 200,000 workers frantically work to strengthen the West Wall defenses. The Germans escaping from the Falaise Pocket and other areas in France were rearmed and reinforced and thus ready when the Americans reached the West Wall. And they were convinced that this was a battle for their country's very existemce. The Americans thus had to fight a seies of tough campaigns in terrible weather, including Aachen, the Huertgen Forest, Metz, and in the foothills of the Vosges Mountains. And if thst was bad enough, the Germans simehow managed to launch another Ardennes offnsive from staging afeas in the Rhineland--the Battle of the Bulge. A very substsntialm portion of American World War II casualties wee suffered in the Rhineland and associated Bulge campaign. Over after the Rhineland was occupied and the Allies crossed the Rhine and invaded Germany, or what was left of it, did German resistance begin go collpse (March 1945).
Davidson, Eugene. The Unmaking of Adolf Hitler (Univesity of Missouri: Columbia, 1996), 519p.
Fest, Joaquim C. Trans, Richard and Clara Winston. Hitler (Vintage Books: New York, 1973), 844p.
Kordt, Erich. Nicht ausden Akten: Die Wilhelm strasse in Frieden und KriegErlebnisse, Begegnugen und Eindrücke, 19281945 (Stuttgart, 1950).
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