1936: Remilitarisation of the Rhineland
During the Paris Peace Conference, France insisted that the Rhineland should be a demilitarised zone as France and Belgium had experienced invasion by Germany through this area in 1914.
Upon signing the Locarno Treaties of 1925, Germany agreed to maintain its status as a demilitarised area.
As part of the Treaty of Versailles, Germany wasn’t allowed to keep military forces in a 50 km stretch of the Rhineland. Hitler despised this term, claiming that it made Germany vulnerable to invasion. This is ironic, as the reason for it to be put in place was that France, who feared Germany, believed that a militarised Rhineland made themselves vulnerable to invasion from the Germans.
Why was it a risk?
Hitler took a gamble. Knowing the German army was totally unprepared for war*, he ordered his generals to withdraw if they met any opposition. Many of the German generals already disliked Hitler and opposed his plan, so if the German Army had been forced to withdraw, he would have faced public humiliation and would have lost the support of the German army and angered the German public.
* The German army was totally unprepared for war— It was much smaller than the British and French armies and would have been hopelessly outnumbered if the French or British had decided to confront him. Hitler had actually given his army to retreat at the first sign of resistance.
In March 1936, although Hitler took a massive risk by moving German troops into the demilitarised Rhineland area of Germany, although he justified the remilitarisation by saying that the Franco-Soviet Treaty of 1935 (a Treaty of friendship and mutual support) posed a serious border threat to Germany.
It was made with the aim of reducing the threat of Nazi Germany from Central Europe.
The Rhineland was important for German security as it lay on Germany’s border with France. Hitler’s plans to expand eastwards meant that he needed to secure this border with France.
Why was it successful?
The gamble of the remilitarisation paid off for Hitler, who had timed the action well as France was in the middle of a major financial crisis and was increasingly reliant on loans to avoid bankruptcy. Elections were also taking place in France at that time.
Due to the lack of effective action in response to Germany’s remilitarisation of the Rhineland, it has exposed major weaknesses in the relationship between Britain and France and the growing distrust between them.
Hitler’s believed that both Britain and France would do nothing to prevent his further attempts to undermine the Treaty of Versailles, such as reuniting with Austria (and annexing them) and taking over Czechoslovakia (after claiming the Sudetenland).
The League’s inability to come to a decision due to Britain’s fear of a war fueled Hitler to undermine more terms of the Treaty of Versailles.
The remilitarisation of the Rhineland was able to test Britain’s response in the event of a violation to the Treaty of Versailles and the Locarno Treaty.
However, Britain did nothing and claimed to have reasons for not wanting to take any military actions:
The British could see little harm in German troops occupying German territory
Politician Lord Lothian, claimed it was simply Germans walking into their own backyard, while Socialist Playwright George Bernard Shaw, argued that it was no different from British occupying Portsmouth
To many British, Hitler’s actions were justified as a response to the Franco-Soviet Treaty of 1935.
Even before German troops entered the Rhineland, Britain had wanted to negotiate with Germany over its rights to remilitarise the area as they saw this as an opportunity to develop more effective relations with Hitler’s Germany.
British prime minister, Stanley Baldwin argued that Britain itself was suffering from the Great Depression and lacked resources to enforce the Treaty.
British public opinion was strongly anti-war, as well as their overseas territories such as Canada and South Africa.
The British politicians had little trust and respect for their French counterparts
All in all, the British government was convinced that the best way of dealing with Germany was negotiation