Military history

A COUP IN THE RHINELAND

In his Reichstag “peace” speech of May 21, 1935, which, as we have seen, had so impressed the world and, above all, Great Britain, Hitler had mentioned that “an element of legal insecurity” had been brought into the Locarno Pact as a result of the mutual-assistance pact which had been signed between Russia and France on March 2 in Paris and on March 14 in Moscow, but which up to the end of the year had not been ratified by the French Parliament. The German Foreign Office called this “element” to the attention of Paris in a formal note to the French government.

On November 21, François-Poncet, the French ambassador, had a talk with Hitler in which the Fuehrer launched “into a long tirade” against the Franco-Soviet Pact. François-Poncet reported to Paris he was convinced that Hitler intended to use the pact as an excuse to occupy the demilitarized zone of the Rhineland. “Hitler’s sole hesitancy,” he added, “is now concerned with the appropriate moment to act.”15

François-Poncet, probably the best-informed ambassador in Berlin, knew what he was talking about, though he was undoubtedly unaware that as early as the previous spring, on May 2, nineteen days before Hitler’s assurances in the Reichstag that he would respect the Locarno Pact and the territorial clauses of Versailles, General von Blomberg had issued his first directive to the three armed services to prepare plans for the reoccupation of the demilitarized Rhineland. The code name Schulung was given to the operation, it was to be “executed by a surprise blow at lightning speed” and its planning was to be so secret that “only the very smallest number of officers should be informed.” In fact, in the interests of secrecy, Blomberg wrote out the order in handwriting.16

On June 16 further discussion of the move into the Rhineland took place at the tenth meeting of the Working Committee of the Reich Defense Council, during which a Colonel Alfred Jodl, who had just become head of the Home Defense Department, reported on the plans and emphasized the need for the strictest secrecy. Nothing should be committed to writing that was not absolutely necessary, he warned, and he added that “without exception such material must be kept in safes.”17

All through the winter of 1935–36 Hitler bided his time. France and Britain, he could not help but note, were preoccupied with stopping Italy’s aggression in Abyssinia, but Mussolini seemed to be getting by with it. Despite its much-publicized sanctions, the League of Nations was proving itself impotent to halt a determined aggressor. In Paris the French Parliament seemed to be in no hurry to ratify the pact with the Soviet Union; the growing sentiment in the Right was all against it. Apparently Hitler thought there was a good chance of the French Chamber or Senate rejecting the alliance with Moscow. In that case he would have to look for another excuse for Schulung. But the pact came before the Chamber on February 11 and it was approved on the twenty-seventh by a vote of 353 to 164. Two days later, on March 1, Hitler reached his decision, somewhat to the consternation of the generals, most of whom were convinced that the French would make mincemeat of the small German forces which had been gathered for the move into the Rhineland. Nevertheless, on the next day, March 2, 1936, in obedience to his master’s instructions, Blomberg issued formal orders for the occupation of the Rhineland. It was, he told the senior commanders of the armed forces, to be a “surprise move.” Blomberg expected it to be a “peaceful operation.” If it turned out that it was not—that is, that the French would fight—the Commander in Chief reserved the “right to decide on any military countermeasures.”18 Actually, as I learned six days later and as would be confirmed from the testimony of the generals at Nuremberg, Blomberg already had in mind what those countermeasures would be: a hasty retreat back over the Rhine!

But the French, their nation already paralyzed by internal strife and the people sinking into defeatism, did not know this when a small token force of German troops paraded across the Rhine bridges at dawn on March 7 and entered the demilitarized zone.* At 10 A.M. Neurath, the compliant Foreign Minister, called in the ambassadors of France, Britain and Italy, apprised them of the news from the Rhineland and handed them a formal note denouncing the Locarno Treaty, which Hitler had just broken—and proposing new plans for peace! “Hitler struck his adversary in the face,” François-Poncet wryly observed, “and as he did so declared: ‘I bring you proposals for peace!’”20

Indeed, two hours later the Fuehrer was standing at the rostrum of the Reichstag before a delirious audience, expounding on his desire for peace and his latest ideas of how to maintain it. I went over to the Kroll Opera House to see the spectacle, which I shall never forget, for it was both fascinating and gruesome. After a long harangue about the evils of Versailles and the threat of Bolshevism, Hitler calmly announced that France’s pact with Russia had invalidated the Locarno Treaty, which, unlike that of Versailles, Germany had freely signed. The scene that followed I noted down in my diary that evening.

   “Germany no longer feels bound by the Locarno Treaty [Hitler said]. In the interest of the primitive rights of its people to the security of their frontier and the safeguarding of their defense, the German government has re-established, as from today, the absolute and unrestricted sovereignty of the Reich in the demilitarized zone!”

Now the six hundred deputies, personal appointees all of Hitler, little men with big bodies and bulging necks and cropped hair and pouched bellies and brown uniforms and heavy boots … leap to their feet like automatons, their right arms upstretched in the Nazi salute, and scream “Heils” … Hitler raises his hand for silence…. He says in a deep, resonant voice, “Men of the German Reichstag!” The silence is utter.

“In this historic hour, when, in the Reich’s western provinces, German troops are at this minute marching into their future peacetime garrisons, we all unite in two sacred vows.”

He can go no further. It is news to this “parliamentary” mob that German soldiers are already on the move into the Rhineland. All the militarism in their German blood surges to their heads. They spring, yelling and crying, to their feet … Their hands are raised in slavish salute, their faces now contorted with hysteria, their mouths wide open, shouting, shouting, their eyes, burning with fanaticism, glued on the new god, the Messiah. The Messiah plays his role superbly. His head lowered, as if in all humbleness, he waits patiently for silence. Then his voice, still low, but choking with emotion, utters the two vows:

“First, we swear to yield to no force whatever in restoration of the honor of our people … Secondly, we pledge that now, more than ever, we shall strive for an understanding between the European peoples, especially for one with our Western neighbor nations … We have no territorial demands to make in Europe! … Germany will never break the peace!”

It was a long time before the cheering stopped … A few generals made their way out. Behind their smiles, however, you could not help detecting a nervousness … I ran into General von Blomberg … His face was white, his cheeks twitching.21

And with reason. The Minister of Defense, who five days before had issued in his own handwriting the order to march, was losing his nerve. The next day I learned that he had given orders for his troops to withdraw across the Rhine should the French move to oppose them. But the French never made the slightest move. François-Poncet says that after his warning of the previous November, the French High Command had asked the government what it would do in case the ambassador proved right. The answer was, he says, that the government would take the matter up with theLeague of Nations.22 Actually, when the blow occurred,* it was the French government which wanted to act and the French General Staff which held back. “General Gamelin,” François-Poncet declares, “advised that a war operation, however limited, entailed unpredictable risks and could not be undertaken without decreeing a general mobilization.”23 The most General Gamelin, the Chief of the General Staff, would do—and did—was concentrate thirteen divisions near the German frontier, but merely to reinforce the Maginot Line. Even this was enough to throw a scare into the German High Command. Blomberg, backed by Jodl and most of the officers at the top, wanted to pull back the three battalions that had crossed the Rhine. As Jodl testified at Nuremberg, “Considering the situation we were in, the French covering army could have blown us to pieces.”24

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.”25 It was Hitler’s iron nerves alone, which now, as during many crises that lay ahead, saved the situation and, confounding the reluctant generals, brought success. But it was no easy moment for him.

“The forty-eight hours after the march into the Rhineland,” Paul Schmidt, his interpreter, heard him later say, “were the most nerve-racking in my life. If the French had then marched into the Rhineland, we would have had to withdraw with our tails between our legs, for the military resources at our disposal would have been wholly inadequate for even a moderate resistance.”26

Confident that the French would not march, he bluntly turned down all suggestions for pulling back by the wavering High Command. General Beck, Chief of the General Staff, wanted the Fuehrer to at least soften the blow by proclaiming that he would not fortify the area west of the Rhine—a suggestion, Jodl later testified, “which the Fuehrer turned down very bluntly”—for obvious reasons, as we shall see.27 Blomberg’s proposal to withdraw, Hitler later told General von Rundstedt, was nothing less than an act of cowardice.28

“What would have happened,” Hitler exclaimed in a bull session with his cronies at headquarters on the evening of March 27, 1942, in recalling the Rhineland coup, “if anybody other than myself had been at the head of the Reich! Anyone you care to mention would have lost his nerve. I was obliged to lie, and what saved us was my unshakable obstinacy and my amazing aplomb.”29

It was true, but it must also be recorded that he was aided not only by the hesitations of the French but by the supineness of their British allies. The French Foreign Minister, Pierre Etienne Flandin, flew to London on March 11 and begged the British government to back France in a military counteraction in the Rhineland. His pleas were unavailing. Britain would not risk war even though Allied superiority over the Germans was overwhelming. As Lord Lothian remarked, “The Germans, after all, are only going into their own back garden.” Even before the French arrived in London, Anthony Eden, who had become Foreign Secretary in the previous December, had told the House of Commons, on March 9, “Occupation of the Rhineland by the Reichswehr deals a heavy blow to the principle of the sanctity of treaties. Fortunately,” he added, “we have no reason to suppose that Germany’s present action threatens hostilities.”30

And yet France was entitled, under the terms of the Locarno Treaty, to take military action against the presence of German troops in the demilitarized zone, and Britain was obligated by that treaty to back her with her own armed forces. The abortive London conversations were a confirmation to Hitler that he had gotten away with his latest gamble.

The British not only shied away from the risk of war but once again they took seriously the latest installment of Hitler’s “peace” proposals. In the notes handed to the three ambassadors on March 7 and in his speech to the Reichstag, Hitler had offered to sign a twenty-five-year nonaggression pact with Belgium and France, to be guaranteed by Britain and Italy; to conclude similar nonaggression pacts with Germany’s neighbors on the east; to agree to the demilitarization of both sides of the Franco–German frontier; and, finally, to return to the League of Nations. Hitler’s sincerity might have been judged by his proposal to demilitarize both sides of the Franco–German border, since it would have forced France to scrap her Maginot Line, her last protection against a surprise German attack.

In London, the esteemed Times, while deploring Hitler’s precipitate action in invading the Rhineland, headed its leading editorial “A Chance to Rebuild.”

In retrospect, it is easy to see that Hitler’s successful gamble in the Rhineland brought him a victory more staggering and more fatal in its immense consequences than could be comprehended at the time. At home it fortified his popularity* and his power, raising them to heights which no German ruler of the past had ever enjoyed. It assured his ascendancy over his generals, who had hesitated and weakened at a moment of crisis when he had held firm. It taught them that in foreign politics and even in military affairs his judgment was superior to theirs. They had feared that the French would fight; he knew better. And finally, and above all, the Rhineland occupation, small as it was as a military operation, opened the way, as only Hitler (and Churchill, alone, in England) seemed to realize, to vast new opportunities in a Europe which was not only shaken but whose strategic situation was irrevocably changed by the parading of three German battalions across the Rhine bridges.

Conversely, it is equally easy to see, in retrospect, that France’s failure to repel the Wehrmacht battalions and Britain’s failure to back her 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 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. Her allies in the East, Russia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Rumania and Yugoslavia, suddenly were faced with the fact that France would not fight against German aggression to preserve the security system which the French government itself had taken the lead in so laboriously building up. But more than that. These Eastern allies began to realize that even if France were not so supine, she would soon not be able to lend them much assistance because of Germany’s feverish construction of a West Wall behind the Franco–German border. The erection of this fortress line, they saw, would quickly change the strategic map of Europe, to their detriment. They could scarcely expect a France which did not dare, with her one hundred divisions, to repel three German battalions, to bleed her young manhood against impregnable German fortifications while the Wehrmacht attacked in the East. But even if the unexpected took place, it would be futile. Henceforth the French could tie down in the West only a small part of the growing German Army. The rest would be free for operations against Germany’s Eastern neighbors.

The value of the Rhineland fortifications to Hitler’s strategy was conveyed to William C. Bullitt, the American ambassador to France, when he called on the German Foreign Minister in Berlin on May 18, 1936.

Von Neurath said [Bullitt reported to the State Department] that it was the policy of the German Government to do nothing active in foreign affairs until “the Rhineland had been digested.” He explained that he meant that until the German fortifications had been constructed on the French and Belgian frontiers, the German Government would do everything possible to prevent rather than encourage an outbreak by the Nazis in Austria and would pursue a quiet line with regard to Czechoslovakia. “As soon as our 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,” he said.31

This development now began.

“As I stood at the grave of my predecessor [the murdered Dollfuss],” Dr. Schuschnigg related in his memoirs, “I knew that in order to save Austrian independence I had to embark on a course of appeasement … Everything had to be avoided which could give Germany a pretext for intervention and everything had to be done to secure in some way Hitler’s toleration of the status quo.”32

The new and youthful Austrian Chancellor had been encouraged by Hitler’s public declaration to the Reichstag on May 21, 1935, that “Germany neither intends nor wishes to interfere in the internal affairs of Austria, to annex Austria or to conclude an Anschluss”; and he had been reassured by the reiteration at Stresa by Italy, France and Britain of their determination to help safeguard Austria’s independence. Then Mussolini, Austria’s principal protector since 1933, had become bogged down in Abyssinia and had broken with France and Britain. When the Germans marched into the Rhineland and began to fortify it, Dr. Schuschnigg realized that some appeasement of Hitler was due. He began negotiating a new treaty with the wily German minister in Vienna, Papen, who, though the Nazis had come within an ace of murdering him during the June purge, had nevertheless gone to work on his arrival in Austria in the late summer of 1934, after the Nazi assassination of Dollfuss, to undermine Austria’s independence and capture Hitler’s native land for the Leader. “National Socialism must and will overpower the new Austrian ideology,” he had written Hitler on July 27, 1935, in giving an account of his first year of service in Vienna.33

In its published text the Austro–German agreement signed on July 11, 1936, seemed to show an unusual amount of generosity and tolerance on the part of Hitler. Germany reaffirmed its recognition of Austria’s sovereignty and the promise not to interfere in the internal affairs of its neighbor. In return, Austria pledged that in its foreign policy it would always act on the principle that it acknowledged itself to be “a German state.”

But there were secret clauses in the treaty,34 and in them Schuschnigg made concessions which would lead him—and his little country—to their doom. He agreed secretly to amnesty Nazi political prisoners in Austria and to appoint representatives of the “so-called ‘National Opposition’”—a euphemism for Nazis or Nazi sympathizers—to positions of “political responsibility.” This was equivalent to allowing Hitler to set up a Trojan horse in Austria. Into it would crawl shortly Seyss-Inquart, a Viennese lawyer, who will cut a certain figure in the subsequent narrative.

Although Papen had obtained Hitler’s approval of the text of the treaty, making a personal visit to Berlin for the purpose early in July, the Fuehrer was furious with his envoy when the latter telephoned him on July 16 to notify him that the agreement had been signed.

Hitler’s reaction astonished me [Papen later wrote]. Instead of expressing his gratification, he broke into a flood of abuse. I had misled him, he said, into making exaggerated concessions … The whole thing was a trap.35

   As it turned out, it was a trap for Schuschnigg, not for Hitler.

The signing of the Austro–German treaty was a sign that Mussolini had lost his grip on Austria. It might have been expected that this would worsen the relations between the two fascist dictators. But just the opposite occurred—due to events which now, in 1936, played into Hitler’s hands.

   On May 2, 1936, Italian forces entered the Abyssinian capital, Addis Ababa, and on July 4 the League of Nations formally capitulated and called off its sanctions against Italy. Two weeks later, on July 16, Franco staged a military revolt in Spain and civil war broke out.

Hitler, as was his custom at that time of year, was taking in the opera at the Wagner Festival at Bayreuth. On the night of July 22, after he had returned from the theater, a German businessman from Morocco, accompanied by the local Nazi leader, arrived in Bayreuth with an urgent letter from Franco. The rebel leader needed planes and other assistance. Hitler immediately summoned Goering and General von Blomberg, who happened to be in Bayreuth, and that very evening the decision was taken to give support to the Spanish rebellion.36

Though German aid to Franco never equaled that given by Italy, which dispatched between sixty and seventy thousand troops as well as vast supplies of arms and planes, it was considerable. The Germans estimated later that they spent half a billion marks on the venture37 besides furnishing planes, tanks, technicians and the Condor Legion, an Air Force unit which distinguished itself by the obliteration of the Spanish town of Guernica and its civilian inhabitants. Relative to Germany’s own massive rearmament it was not much, but it paid handsome dividends to Hitler.

It gave France a third unfriendly fascist power on its borders. It exacerbated the internal strife in France between Right and Left and thus weakened Germany’s principal rival in the West. Above all it rendered impossible a rapprochement of Britain and France with Italy, which the Paris and London governments had hoped for after the termination of the Abyssinian War, and thus drove Mussolini into the arms of Hitler.

From the very beginning the Fuehrer’s Spanish policy was shrewd, calculated and far-seeing. A perusal of the captured German documents makes plain that one of Hitler’s purposes was to prolong the Spanish Civil War in order to keep the Western democracies and Italy at loggerheads and draw Mussolini toward him.* As early as December 1936, Ulrich von Hassell, the German ambassador in Rome, who had not yet achieved that recognition of Nazi aims and practices which he later obtained and which would cost him his life, was reporting to the Wilhelmstrasse:

The role played by the Spanish conflict as regards Italy’s relations with France and England could be similar to that of the Abyssinian conflict, bringing out clearly the actual, opposing interests of the powers and thus preventing Italy from being drawn into the net of the Western powers and used for their machinations. The struggle for dominant political influence in Spain lays bare the natural opposition between Italy and France; at the same time the position of Italy as a power in the western Mediterranean comes into competition with that of Britain. All the more clearly will Italy recognize the advisability of confronting the Western powers shoulder to shoulder with Germany.39

It was these circumstances which gave birth to the Rome–Berlin Axis. On October 24, after conferences with Neurath in Berlin, Count Galeazzo Ciano, Mussolini’s son-in-law and Foreign Minister, made the first of his many pilgrimages to Berchtesgaden. He found the German dictator in a friendly and expansive mood. Mussolini, Hitler declared, was “the leading statesman in the world, to whom none may even remotely compare himself.” Together, Italy and Germany could conquer not only “Bolshevism” but the West. Including England! The British, Hitler thought, might eventually seek an accommodation with a united Italy and Germany. If not, the two powers, acting together, could easily dispose of her. “German and Italian rearmament,” Hitler reminded Ciano, “is proceeding much more rapidly than rearmament can in England … In three years Germany will be ready …”40

The date is interesting. Three years hence would be the fall of 1939.

In Berlin on October 21, Ciano and Neurath had signed a secret protocol which outlined a common policy for Germany and Italy in foreign affairs. In a speech at Milan a few days later (November 1) Mussolini publicly referred to it without divulging the contents, as an agreement which constituted an “Axis”—around which the other European powers “may work together.” It would become a famous—and, for the Duce, a fatal—word.

   With Mussolini in the bag, Hitler turned his attentions elsewhere. In August 1936 he had appointed Ribbentrop as German ambassador in London in an effort to explore the possibility of a settlement with England—on his own terms. Incompetent and lazy, vain as a peacock, arrogant and without humor, Ribbentrop was the worst possible choice for such a post, as Goering realized. “When I criticized Ribbentrop’s qualifications to handle British problems,” he later declared, “the Fuehrer pointed out to me that Ribbentrop knew ‘Lord So and So’ and ‘Minister So and So.’ To which I replied: ‘Yes, but the difficulty is that they know Ribbentrop.’”41

It is true that Ribbentrop, unattractive a figure though he was, was not without influential friends in London. Mrs. Simpson, the friend of the King, was believed in Berlin to be one of these. But Ribbentrop’s initial efforts in his new post were discouraging and in November he flew back to Berlin to conclude some non-British business he had been dabbling in. On November 25 he signed the Anti-Comintern Pact with Japan, in which, he told the correspondents (of whom this writer was one) without batting an eye, Germany and Japan had joined together to defend Westerncivilization. On the surface this pact seemed to be nothing more than a propaganda trick by which Germany and Japan could win world support by exploiting the universal dislike for Communism and the general distrust of the Comintern. But in this treaty too there was a secret protocol, specifically directed against Russia. In case of an unprovoked attack by the Soviet Union against Germany or Japan, the two nations agreed to consult on what measures to take “to safeguard their common interests” and also to “take no measures which would tend to ease the situation of the Soviet Union.” It was also agreed that neither nation would make any political treaties with Russia contrary to the spirit of the agreement without mutual consent.42

It would not be very long before Germany broke the agreement and accused Japan—unjustifiably—of not observing it. But the pact did serve a certain propaganda purpose among the world’s gullible and it brought together for the first time the three have-not and aggressor nations. Italy signed it the following year.

   On January 30, 1937, Hitler addressed the Reichstag, proclaiming “the withdrawal of the German signature” from the Versailles Treaty—an empty but typical gesture, since the treaty was by now dead as a doornail—and reviewing with pride the record of his four years in office. He could be pardoned for his pride, for it was an impressive record in both domestic and foreign affairs. He had, as we have seen, abolished unemployment, created a boom in business, built up a powerful Army, Navy and Air Force, provided them with considerable armaments and the promise of more on a massive scale. He had singlehandedly broken the fetters of Versailles and bluffed his way into occupying the Rhineland. Completely isolated at first, he had found a loyal ally in Mussolini and another in Franco, and he had detached Poland from France. Most important of all, perhaps, he had released the dynamic energy of the German people, reawakening their confidence in the nation and their sense of its mission as a great and expanding world power.

Everyone could see the contrast between this thriving, martial, boldly led new Germany and the decadent democracies in the West, whose confusions and vacillations seemed to increase with each new month of the calendar. Though they were alarmed, Britain and France had not lifted a finger to prevent Hitler from violating the peace treaty by rearming Germany and by reoccupying the Rhineland; they had been unable to stop Mussolini in Abyssinia. And now, as the year 1937 began, they were cutting a sorry figure by their futile gestures to prevent Germany and Italy from determining the outcome of the Spanish Civil War. Everyone knew what Italy and Germany were doing in Spain to assure Franco’s victory. Yet the governments of London and Paris continued for years to engage in empty diplomatic negotiations with Berlin and Rome to assure “nonintervention” in Spain. It was a sport which seems to have amused the German dictator and which certainly increased his contempt for the stumbling political leaders of France and Britain—“little worms,” he would shortly call them on a historic occasion when he again humbled the two Western democracies with the greatest of ease.

Neither Great Britain and France, their governments and their peoples, nor the majority of the German people seemed to realize as 1937 began that almost all that Hitler had done in his first four years was a preparation for war. This writer can testify from personal observation that right up to September 1, 1939, the German people were convinced that Hitler would get what he wanted—and what they wanted—without recourse to war. But among the elite who were running Germany, or serving it in the key positions, there could have been no doubt what Hitler’s objective was. As the four-year “trial” period of Nazi rule, as Hitler called it, approached an end, Goering, who in September 1936 had been put in charge of the Four-Year Plan, bluntly stated what was coming in a secret speech to industrialists and high officials in Berlin.

The battle we are now approaching [he said] demands a colossal measure of production capacity. No limit on rearmament can be visualized. The only alternatives are victory or destruction … We live in a time when the final battle is in sight. We are already on the threshold of mobilization and we are already at war. All that is lacking is the actual shooting.43

   Goering’s warning was given on December 17, 1936. Within eleven months, as we shall shortly see, Hitler made his fateful and inalterable decision to go to war.

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