A NATION OF seventy millions of people suffers, but it does not die.1
—MATTHIAS ERZBERGER TO MARSHAL FOCH
November 11, 1918
I assure the House that it is the appeasement of Europe as a whole that we have constantly before us.2
—ANTHONY EDEN, 1936
WITH THE BREAKUP OF the Stresa Front and the falling-out of the Allies over Abyssinia, Hitler saw his opening to secure his French frontier—before he renewed the Drang nach Osten, the ancient German drive to the east.
Under Versailles, Germany west of the Rhine had been demilitarized, as had the bridgeheads and an area fifty kilometers east of the river. In the Rhineland, German troops, armaments, or fortifications were forbidden. This was to give France time and space to meet any attack inside Germany rather than in Alsace. A demilitarized Rhineland meant that, at the outbreak of war, the French army could march in and occupy the Ruhr, the industrial heartland of Germany. The Rhineland was to France what the Channel was to England.
Under Versailles, France had the right to occupy the Rhineland until 1935. But at British insistence, and as a gesture of goodwill to the German democrats facing nationalist pressure, French troops had been pulled out in 1930, five years ahead of schedule. One British historian calls this withdrawal a “strategic catastrophe.”3
The French military frontier had been brought back from the Rhine and its bridgeheads to the French national frontier. There was no longer a military presence physically to prevent Germany from sending in troops to re-occupy and re-militarise what had now become a strategic No-Man’s-Land. The integrity of the de-militarised zone, upon which the security of France and the Low Countries so depended, rested now either on Germany’s good faith, or, in default of that hitherto fragile safeguard, upon the readiness and willingness of the French to march forward and turn invading German forces out again—a major military operation, indeed an act of war.4
France had abandoned vital strategic terrain. Should the Germans, in belligerency or ingratitude, remilitarize the Rhineland, France would have to go to war to take back what had been given to her at Versailles. Had France consulted her security interests rather than her British allies, the French army would have stood on the Rhine the day Hitler took power. But, in 1936, the Rhineland had been free of French troops for half a decade.
Hitler knew that Western statesmen and peoples nurtured a sense of guilt over Versailles and he intuitively sensed how to play upon that guilt. He would first identify an injustice of Versailles, or a new threat to a disarmed Germany. Then, playing the aggrieved party, he would announce what seemed a proportionate response, protesting all the while that he was acting only in self-defense or to assert Germany’s right to equality of treatment. To soothe Allied fears, Hitler tied his response to an olive branch.
The issue that triggered Hitler’s boldest assault on the terms of Versailles was a vote in the French Chamber of Deputies to approve an anti-German pact between France and Bolshevik Russia, Germany’s mortal enemy. Rising in Kroll Opera House that fateful Saturday, March 7, 1936, Hitler declared that if France and Stalin’s Russia were ganging up on Germany, he had a sworn duty to act in defense of the Fatherland. Ian Kershaw describes Hitler’s speech that was broadcast to the nation:
After a lengthy preamble denouncing Versailles, restating Germany’s demands for equality and security, and declaring his peaceful aims, a screaming onslaught on Bolshevism brought wild applause. This took Hitler into his argument that the Soviet-French pact had invalidated Locarno.5
Under the Locarno pact, Germany, France, and Belgium accepted as inviolate the borders laid down at Versailles. Germany had accepted the loss of Alsace and Lorraine and agreed to the permanent demilitarization of the Rhineland. And, under Locarno, Britain and Italy had agreed to defend those borders against “flagrant aggression.”6
Unlike Versailles, which Germany had signed only under a threat of having Marshal Foch march on Berlin, Locarno had neither been negotiated nor signed under duress. German democrats had proposed the idea to Great Britain. Austen Chamberlain had won the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating Locarno, as had Gustav Stresemann, the German foreign minister. In Allied eyes, Locarno—not Versailles, which Hitler denounced with endless invective—was the real guarantee of peace. For Hitler had himself accepted Locarno.
Thus, when Hitler rose to speak at Kroll Opera House on that fateful day, he began by charging that France had just violated the Locarno pact that Berlin had faithfully observed for ten years by entering an alliance with Soviet Communists—against Germany. And Hitler had a strong case. Any Franco-Soviet security pact implied a French commitment to attack Germany should Germany go to war with Stalin. And any French attack must come through the Rhineland. When the French Chamber of Deputies approved the Soviet mutual security pact on February 27, opponents of the treaty had made Hitler’s precise point: The French-Soviet treaty violates Locarno.
Thus, after reciting arguments heard a week before in the Chamber of Deputies, Hitler paused—and continued:
Germany regards itself, therefore, as…no longer bound by this dissolved [Locarno] pact…. In the interest of the primitive rights of a people to the security of its borders and safeguarding of its defence capability, the German Reich government has therefore from today restored the full and unrestricted sovereignty of the Reich in the demilitarized zone of the Rhineland.7
The Nazis lifted the roof off Kroll Opera House. The six hundred Reichstag deputies, “all appointees of Hitler, little men with big bodies and bulging necks and cropped hair and pouched bellies and brown uniforms and heavy boots, little men of clay in his fine hands, leap to their feet like automatons, their right arms upstretched in the Nazi salute, and scream ‘Heil’s.’”8 “When the tumult eventually subsided,” writes Kershaw,
Hitler advanced his “peace proposals” for Europe: a nonaggression pact with Belgium and France, demilitarization of both sides of the joint borders; an air pact; non-aggression treaties, similar to that with Poland, with other eastern neighbors; and Germany’s return to the League of Nations. Some thought Hitler was offering too much.9
As France’s ambassador, André François-Poncet, wryly put it, “Hitler struck his adversary in the face, and as he did so declared: ‘I bring you proposals for peace!’”10
Thus did Hitler—as a few lightly armed German battalions moved across the Rhine bridges, with bands playing, to the cheers of the crowds—assure the world of the defensive character of his operation. He had coupled the German army’s return to the Rhineland after seventeen years with an offer to negotiate a nonaggresion pact with France and to rejoin the League of Nations.
Hitler had originally set 1937 as the date to send his army across the Rhine bridges, but had come to believe Germany must act sooner, as he feared Soviet and Allied rearmament would make a later move even more risky.11 While his generals had not opposed remilitarization—a strategic necessity if the Reich was to have freedom of action—some questioned his timing. At a February 27 lunch with Göring and Goebbels where the Rhineland had been the topic, Goebbels had summed up, “Still somewhat too early.”12 The German army was unprepared to resist the French army. Minister of War General Blomberg was said to be nearly paralyzed with fear over the French reaction. Walking out of Kroll Opera House after Hitler’s speech, William Shirer encountered the minister. “I ran into General Blomberg…. His face was white, his cheeks twitching.”13 Hitler would describe Blomberg as having behaved like a “hysterical maiden.”14
Looking back, Western men profess astonishment the Allies did not strike and crush Hitler here and now. Why did they not eliminate the menace of Hitler’s Reich when the cost in lives would have been minuscule, compared with the tens of millions Hitler’s war would later consume?
BEHIND THE ALLIED INACTION
AMERICA IGNORED HITLER’S MOVE because she had turned her back on European power politics. Americans had concluded they had been lied to and swindled when they enlisted in the Allied cause in 1917. They had sent their sons across the ocean to “make the world safe for democracy,” only to see the British empire add a million square miles. They had been told it was a “war to end wars.” But out of it had come Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler, far more dangerous despots than Franz Josef or the Kaiser. They had lent billions to the Allied cause, only to watch the Allies walk away from their war debts. They had given America’s word to the world that the peace imposed on Germany would be a just peace based on the Fourteen Points and Wilson’s principle of self-determination, then watched the Allies dishonor America’s word by tearing Germany apart, forcing millions of Germans under foreign rule, and bankrupting Germany with reparations.
For having been deceived and dragged into war, Americans blamed “the Merchants of Death”—the war profiteers—and the British propagandists who had lied about raped Belgian nuns and babies being tossed around on Prussian bayonets. By the 1930s, Americans, in the worst depression in their history, which had left a fourth of all family breadwinners out of work, believed they had been played for fools and gone to war “to pull England’s chestnuts out of the fire” and make the world safe for the British Empire.
America was resolved never again to ignore the wise counsel of the Founding Fathers to stay out of foreign wars. With the outbreak of war in Abyssinia in 1935 and the League of Nations debating sanctions on Italy, a Democratic Congress passed and FDR signed the first of three neutrality acts to ensure that America stayed out of any new European war. At Chautauqua, on August 14, 1936, five months after Hitler’s Rhineland coup, FDR spoke for America as he thundered his anti-interventionist and antiwar sentiments:
We shun political commitments which might entangle us in foreign wars; we avoid connection with the political activities of the League of Nations…. [W]e are not isolationists, except insofar as we seek to isolate ourselves from war…. I have seen war…. I have seen blood running from the wounded. I have seen men coughing out their gassed lungs. I have seen the dead in the mud. I have seen cities destroyed…. I hate war.15
Americans saw no vital U.S. interest in whether German soldiers occupied German soil, on the other side of the Atlantic, 3,500 miles from the United States. They had a Depression to worry about. But why did Britain and France do nothing?
The British had concluded that Keynes and the other savage critics of Versailles had been right in accusing the Allies of imposing a Carthaginian peace on Germany in violation of the terms of armistice. Britain was now led by decent men with dreadful memories and troubled consciences, who were afflicted with guilt over what had been done.
No one wanted another European war. The horrors of the Western Front had been described in the poems and memoirs of those who had survived the trenches. The crippled and maimed were still visible in British cities, begging in the streets. The graves and war memorials were fresh. Few now believed it had been worth it. Three of the great houses of Europe had fallen, four empires had collapsed, nine million soldiers had perished. And what had it all been for? Ten years after the guns had fallen silent, a moving epitaph of the Great War had been penned by that most bellicose of leaders in the War Cabinet, the former First Lord of the Admiralty. Wrote Winston Churchill:
Governments and individuals conformed to the rhythm of the tragedy, and swayed and staggered forward in helpless violence, slaughtering and squandering on ever-increasing scales, till injuries were wrought to the structure of human society which a century will not efface, and which may conceivably prove fatal to the present civilization…. Victory was to be bought so dear as to be almost indistinguishable from defeat. It was not to give even security to the victors…. The most complete victory ever gained in arms has failed to solve the European problem or to remove the dangers which produced the war.16
When visiting French foreign minister Flandin asked what Britain would do if France marched against the German battalions in the Rhineland, Baldwin told him: “[I]f there is even one chance in a hundred that war would follow from your police action I have not the right to commit England. England is simply not in a state to go to war.”17 A.J.P. Taylor describes how Baldwin explained Britain’s impotence:
Tears stood in [Baldwin’s] eyes as he confessed that the British had no forces with which to support France. In any case, he added, British public opinion would not allow it. This was true: there was almost unanimous approval in Great Britain that the Germans had liberated their own territory. What Baldwin did not add was that he agreed with this public opinion. The German reoccupation of the Rhineland was, from the British point of view, an improvement and a success for British policy.18
Baldwin believed and hoped Hitler’s ambitions might be directed to the east. In July of 1936, he met with a deputation of senior Conservatives that included Churchill.
Baldwin told them that he was not convinced that Hitler did not want to “move east,” and if he did, “I should not break my heart.” If there was any “fighting in Europe to be done,” Baldwin would “like to see the Bolshies and the Nazis doing it.”19
A measure of the moral unreadiness of Britain for war may be seen in the mind-set of George V in the Abyssinian crisis. To Foreign Secretary Sam Hoare the king had spoken in anguish, “I am an old man. I have been through one world war. How can I go through another? If I am to go on you must keep us out of this one.”20 When warships were dispatched to the Mediterranean to prepare for action against the Italian navy, George V had been even more emphatic as he poured out his heart to Lloyd George: “I will not have another war. I will not. The last one was none of my doing and if there is another one and we are threatened with being brought into it, I will go to Trafalgar Square and wave a red flag myself rather than allow this country to be brought in.”21 Behind the king’s anguish, writes Andrew Roberts, was a sense that it was “considered axiomatic that another war would spell doom for the British Empire.”22
The royal family, which had watched the stock of monarchies diminishing after European wars, had acquired highly developed antennae for survival. The Franco-Prussian War of 1870 had led to the fall of the French imperial throne. By the end of the Great War the imperial crowns of Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary lay in the dust.
The Second World War was to destroy the thrones of Italy, Albania, Bulgaria, Romania and Yugoslavia, so it was understandable that the British royal familiy should have embraced appeasement.23
Also, many in Britain now believed that France and her huge army were a greater threat to the balance of power than Germany. Some even welcomed Hitler’s buildup—to check France. Others admired how Hitler had revived a crushed nation. And the chickens of Abyssinia had come home to roost.
[T]he Germans had chosen their moment well. English chivalry over Abyssinia had shattered the Stresa front…. Relations between England and her Locarno guarantor, Italy, were at present as hostile as it was possible for them to be, short of outright war. England was now in the absurd situation of having to consult Italy about the German aggression at a time when she was acting as the ringleader at Geneva in attempts to thwart Italy’s ambition in Abyssinia.24
Lloyd George not only opposed any British-French military action in the Rhineland, he called on his colleagues to try to see the world from Germany’s point of view. Even before this latest pact between Paris and Moscow, Germany was encircled by French alliances that included Belgium, Poland, Rumania, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia. Now Germany faced a Stresa Front of Italy, France, and Britain and a new Franco-Soviet alliance that imperiled the most important industrial area of Germany, the undefended Ruhr. Lloyd George implored Parliament to see Germany’s dilemma and forcefully argued Hitler’s case in the House of Commons:
France had built the most gigantic fortifications ever seen in any land, where, almost a hundred feet underground you can keep an army of over 100,000 and where you have guns that can fire straight into Germany. Yet, the Germans are supposed to remain without even a garrison, without even a trench…. If Herr Hitler had allowed that to go on without protecting his country, he would have been a traitor to the Fatherland.25
After commending Hitler for having reoccupied the Rhineland to protect his country, Lloyd George received an invitation—to Berchtesgaden. Out of that meeting, the ex–prime minister emerged “spellbound by Hitler’s astonishing personality and manner.”26 “He is indeed a great man” were Lloyd George’s first words, as he compared Mein Kampf to the Magna Carta and declared Hitler “The Resurrection and the Way” for Germany.27
In an interview with the News-Chronicle on his return to England, Lloyd George assured his countrymen, “Germany has no desire to attack any country in Europe…Hitler is arming for defence and not for attack.”28 Asked what he thought of Germany having become a dictatorship, the old prime minister responded, “Hitler has done great things for his country. He is unquestionably a great leader…a dynamic personality.”29
Nor was Lloyd George alone among British statesmen in being taken with Hitler. Eden had met with Hitler in 1934 and written his wife, “Dare I confess?…I rather liked him.”30 John Simon, Eden’s predecessor as foreign secretary, described Hitler to King George as “an Austrian Joan of Arc with a moustache.”31
In 1937, three years after the Night of the Long Knives murders of Roehm and his SA henchmen, two years after the Nuremberg Laws had been imposed on the Jews, one year after Hitler had marched into the Rhineland, Churchill published Great Contemporaries. He included in it his 1935 essay “Hitler and His Choice.” In this profile, Churchill expresses his “admiration for the courage, the perseverance, and the vital force which enabled [Hitler] to challenge, defy, conciliate, or overcome, all the authorities or resistances which barred his path.”32
“Those who have met Herr Hitler face to face,” wrote Churchill, “have found a highly competent, cool, well-informed functionary with an agreeable manner, a disarming smile, and few have been unaffected by a subtle personal magnetism.”33 Hitler and his Nazis had surely shown “their patriotic ardor and love of country.”34 Churchill went on to conclude:
We cannot tell whether Hitler will be the man who will once again let loose upon the world another war in which civilization will irretrievably succumb, or whether he will go down in history as the man who restored honour and peace of mind to the great Germanic nation…. [H]istory is replete with examples of men who have risen to power by employing stern, grim, and even frightful methods but who, nevertheless, when their life is revealed as a whole, have been regarded as great figures whose lives have enriched the story of mankind. So may it be with Hitler.35
Churchill concluded his essay on a hopeful note: “We may yet live to see Hitler a gentler figure in a happier age.”36
In September of 1937, Churchill wrote of Hitler “in a clearly placatory tone that…sits extremely ill with his image as the mortal foe of Nazism”:
One may dislike Hitler’s system and yet admire his patriotic achievement. If our country were defeated I hope we should find a champion as indomitable to restore our courage and lead us back to our place among the nations.37
Thus did even the Great Man believe about Hitler, a year after he reentered the Rhineland, and years after Dachau was established, Versailles overthrown, Roehm and the SA leaders murdered on Hitler’s orders and with his personal complicity, and the anti-Semitic laws enacted. About the reoccupation of the Rhineland, biographer Roy Jenkins finds Churchill strangely unconcerned:
On March 7 Hitler sent his troops into the demilitarized Rhineland, thereby defying Locarno as well as Versailles. Churchill’s initial reaction was muted. He telegraphed to Clementine that day, merely telling her that nothing was settled (by which he meant his inclusion in the government)…. [H]e did speak on the Tuesday [March 10]but in a curiously tentative and low-key way, never mentioning the Rhineland…. Despite his hindsight [in The Gathering Storm, 1948] Churchill was far from being rampageously strong on the Rhineland issue at the time…. [There was no] indication that Churchill thought irreversible disaster had struck either himself or the country.38
In his fortnightly letter of March 13, 1936, “Britain, Germany and Locarno,” republished in his 1939 collection of columns Step by Step, Churchill commended French restraint: “Instead of retaliating by armed force, as would have been done in a previous generation, France has taken the proper and prescribed course of appealing to the League of Nations.”39
The best solution to the Rhineland crisis, Churchill wrote, would be a beau geste by Adolf Hitler—to show his respect for the sanctity of treaties.
But there is one nation above all others that has the opportunity of rendering a noble service to the world. Herr Hitler and the great disconsolate Germany he leads have now the chance to place themselves in the very forefront of civilization. By a proud and voluntary submission, not to any single country or group of countries, but to the sanctity of Treaties and the authority of public law, by an immediate withdrawal from the Rhineland, they may open a new era for all mankind and create conditions in which German genius may gain its highest glory.40
Since the Allies are unwilling to use military power to enforce the terms of Locarno, Churchill is saying here, Hitler should do the noble thing voluntarily: withdraw all troops from the Rhineland, and thereby earn the goodwill and gratitude of the civilized world.
Nor did Britain’s elite seem concerned by Germany’s reoccupation of the Rhineland. Lord Lothian famously quipped, “The Germans, after all, are only going into their own back-garden.”41 Was it “flagrant aggression,” a violation of Locarno requiring Britain to act, for Germans to walk into their “own back-garden”? “It was as if the British had reoccupied Portsmouth,” echoed Bernard Shaw.42 Foreign Secretary Eden assured Britons, “There is, I am thankful to say, no reason to suppose that Germany’s present actions threaten hostilities.”43 Secretary for War Duff Cooper, who would resign as First Lord over Munich, told the German ambassador the British public “did not care ‘two hoots’ about the Germans reoccupying their own territory.”44
WHY WAS FRANCE PARALYZED?
IT IS FRANCE’S CONDUCT that is inexplicable. The Rhineland bordered on Alsace. Its importance to French security had been recognized at Versailles by Foch and Poincaré, who wanted to annex it, and by Clemenceau, who wanted to convert it into a buffer state. Only after Wilson and Lloyd George offered France a Treaty of Guarantee, an American-British guarantee to come to the aid of France were she attacked again by Germany, had Clemenceau agreed to settle for a fifteen-year occupation and its permanent demilitarization. If the Wehrmacht was in the Rhineland, it was not America or Britain face-to-face with a Germany of seventy million led by a vengeful Adolf Hitler. It was France.
“What was called for on that crucial Saturday of March 7, 1936,” writes William Shirer, “was a police action by the French to chase a few German troops who were parading into the Rhineland—this was clear even to a correspondent in Berlin that weekend.”45
Why, when Hitler had sent in only three lightly armed battalions, with orders to withdraw immediately if they met resistance, did France, with the most powerful army in the world, not march in, send the Germans scurrying back over the Rhine bridges, and restation French troops on the river? Decisive action, warranted by Versailles and Locarno, to which Britain was signatory and which she would have had to back up, might have prevented World War II. The Poles and Czechs had indicated that, if France acted, they would be with her. Even Austria supported her. Why did France not act?
First, the French recalled 1923, when they had marched into the Ruhr to force Germany to pay the war reparations imposed at Versailles, on which the Germans were defaulting. The French move so disgusted the United States that the Americans pulled out their occupation troops and brought them home. Most of the world had denounced France. The Germans had gone on strike. Paris had gotten a black eye in world opinion.
Second, by January 1930, when she acceded to a British request to vacate the Rhineland by midyear, in a concession to German democracy, France had adopted a Maginot Line strategy, named for Minister of War André Maginot, and begun to build vast defensive fortifications on her eastern border, a Great Wall in front of Alsace-Lorraine. Militarily, the Rhineland was now no-man’s-land. By making the Maginot Line her defense line, France had ceded the Rhineland to Germany. By adopting the Maginot Line strategy and mentality, wholly defensive in character, France had signaled to all of Europe, including her allies to the east, in the clearest way possible, that she would fight only if invaded and only a defensive war. The message of the Maginot Line was that any European nation east of the Rhine was on its own.
As the French government debated military action, it called in the army commander in chief. General Maunce Gamelin asked the ministers if they were aware Hitler had a million men under arms and 300,000 already in the Rhineland and that any move to retake the territory would require general mobilization. This was an absurd exaggeration of Nazi strength. Gamelin added that the French army was understrength because the politicians had failed to provide the needed resources. As this was only six weeks before a general election, the Cabinet reacted with shock and horror. Gamelin did muster thirteen divisions near the German border, but they did not cross it.
“The forty-eight hours after the march into the Rhineland were the most nerve-racking in my life,” Hitler later said. “If the French had then marched into the Rhineland, we would have had to withdraw with our tails between our legs.”46 He need not have been alarmed, for Hitler was dealing with defeatist leaders of a morally defeated nation. At Nuremberg, General Jodl would testify, “Considering the situation we were in, the French covering army could have blown us to pieces.”47 Added Shirer,
It could have—and had it, that almost certainly would have been the end of Hitler, after which history might have taken quite a different and brighter turn than it did, for the dictator could never have survived such a fiasco. Hitler himself admitted as much. “A retreat on our part,” he conceded later, “would have spelled collapse.”48
Churchill, in his war memoirs, adopts the same view that, had the French army entered the Rhineland and run the German battalions out, the German generals might have rebelled and overthrown Hitler: “[T]here is no doubt that Hitler would have been compelled by his own General Staff to withdraw, and a check would have been given to his pretensions which might well have proved fatal to his rule.”49
Historian Ernest May ridicules Churchill’s contention. “Not a scrap of evidence supports such a story” of German generals ready in 1936 to oust Hitler for overreaching in the Rhineland, May writes: “Neither Fritsch nor Beck evidenced serious misgivings.”50 Hitler was far more popular in 1936 than he had been in 1934, and there had been no move against him after the Vienna debacle. There is no logical reason “to suppose that a setback in the Rhineland in 1936 would have had any worse effect on Hitler’s standing with the German public than the setback in Austria in 1934.”51
How great a strategic setback was the Rhineland debacle?
For France the failure to oppose the German reoccupation of the demilitarized zone was a disaster, and one from which all the later ones of even greater magnitude followed. The two Western democracies had missed their last chance to halt, without the risk of a serious war, Nazi Germany….
The whole structure of European peace and security set up in 1919 collapsed. The French alliances with the countries to the east of Germany were rendered useless. As soon as Hitler had fortified the Rhineland, the French army, even if it found more resolute generals, would no longer be able to achieve a quick penetration of Germany to aid the Eastern allies if they were attacked.52
Seeing France’s paralysis, Belgium’s King Leopold III, who had succeeded his father, the heroic Albert, in 1934, declared neutrality and scrapped the Franco-Belgian alliance of 1920—“with the optimism of the imprudent little pigs, ‘This policy should aim resolutely at keeping us apart from the quarrels of our neighbors.’”53
As the Maginot Line ended at Belgium, France’s northern border was now as exposed as it had been in 1914, when French generals had to watch and wait as von Kluck’s armies drove through Belgium. “In one stroke,” writes British military historian Alistair Horne, “the whole of her Maginot Line strategy lay in fragments.”54
France would blame Britain for not backing her up when French diplomats went to London to ask for support for military action. But as Churchill wrote, this is an “explanation but no excuse…since the issue was vital to France.”55 Under Versailles and Locarno, France had the right to expel the German battalions that were in the Rhineland in violation of both treaties. And the British were obligated to assist her militarily. What France should have done was act and force Britain’s hand. Britain would have had to back up the French army. But the French army did not move, so Britain was off the hook.
Once he had the Rhineland, Hitler began to construct his West Wall, the Siegfried Line. Its significance was recognized by Churchill. “[I]t will be a barrier across Germany’s front door, which will leave her free to sally out eastward and southward by the back door.”56 On April 6, 1936, Churchill observed that the rising Rhineland fortifications
will enable the German troops to be economised on that line, and…enable the main force to swing round through Belgium and Holland. Then look East. There the consequences of the Rhineland fortifications may be more immediate…. Poland and Czechoslovakia, with which must be associated Yugoslavia, Roumania, Austria and some other countries, are all affected very decisively the moment that this great work of construction has been completed.57
Week by week, the West Wall rose, Germany grew stronger, and the locus of action shifted farther and farther away, and French willingness to die for distant lands eroded. The significance of the lost moment is captured by Shirer:
France’s failure to repel the Wehrmacht battalions and Britain’s failure to back her up in what would have been nothing more than a police action was a disaster for the West from which sprang all the later ones of even greater magnitude. In March 1936 the two Western democracies were given their last chance to halt, without the risk of a serious war, the rise of a militarized, aggressive, totalitarian Germany, and in fact—as we have seen Hitler later admitting—bring the Nazi dictator and his regime tumbling down. They let the chance slip by.
For France it was the beginning of the end.58
All of France’s Eastern allies—Russia, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Rumania, Poland—grasped the significance of Hitler’s coup. If France would not fight in the Rhineland to guarantee her own security, would she order hundreds of thousands of French soldiers to their deaths against a German West Wall—to save the peoples of Central Europe? The German foreign minister, Konstantin von Neurath, explained the new strategic reality to William Bullitt, the U.S. ambassador to France who had called on him in Berlin: “As soon as our [West Wall] fortifications are constructed and the countries of Central Europe realize that France cannot enter German territory at will, all those countries will begin to feel very differently about their foreign policies and a new constellation will develop.”59
The new reality would soon assert itself and all Europe would realize its implications. With Belgium now neutral, France must now extend the Maginot Line to the Channel. With Hitler’s West Wall rising, France could no longer march into the Rhineland and seize the Ruhr on behalf of her allies in Central Europe. With Mussolini now aligned with Hitler, no power could intervene directly to halt Hitler’s inevitable next move—turning Austria into a vassal state. After Austria must come the turn of Czechoslovakia and Poland, both of which held large German populations as anxious to join the Reich as the Saarlanders had been. “The evacuation of the Rhineland led therefore to a calamitous weakening of France’s defensive position,” writes Correlli Barnett. “Perhaps more serious, it removed the last positive French hold over Germany.”60
On March 29, 1936, Hitler held a plebiscite on his decision to send the Wehrmacht in to restore German sovereignty to the Rhineland. Ninety-nine percent of the German people voted to approve his tearing up of the Versailles Treaty and repudiation of the Locarno pact.61
March 1936 was the crucial moment of the postwar era. Versailles was dead. Locarno was dead. Stresa was dead. The League was on life support. The Allies had lost the last chance to stop Hitler without war. “The reoccupation of the Rhineland marked the watershed between 1919 and 1939,” writes Alistair Horne. “No other single event in this period was more loaded with dire significance. From March 1936, the road to France’s doom ran downhill all the way.”62
And the road to Vienna lay open to Hitler.
As an awakened Churchill observed late in that month of March in which Hitler had sent his battalions across the Rhine: “An enormous triumph has been gained by the Nazi regime.”63 Added Prime Minister Baldwin in April, “With two lunatics like Mussolini and Hitler, you can never be sure of anything. But I am determined to keep the country out of war.”64