Monday, December 14, 2009

Into the Rhineland

I just finished reading Munich, 1938 and France in 1938 in quick succession. Both are very well written histories reflecting the weaknesses of Britain and France in politically dealing with first Italy then Germany in the final year before the start of World War Two.

It becomes obvious when you read these books that everything about Hitler’s Anschluss of Austria and conquest of Czechoslovakia in 1938 was predicated upon the weakness of Britain and, particularly, France when Hitler ordered German troops to remilitarize the Rhineland in 1936.

Munich, 1938 gives the reader a blow by blow account of the events primarily in London and Berlin leading up to the Munich Agreement. It does not attempt to give the reader much historical context for the events, however. Germany’s remilitarization of the Rhineland in 1936 is hardly mentioned at all.

But, France in 1938 fills in some of the gaps of the more recent work, specifically stating: “Germany’s remilitarization of the Rhineland in March 1936, illegal but unopposed other than by formal protests, had seriously undermined the potential for the Western democracies to intervene against Hitler’s ambitions in the East.” (Martin, page 3)

The failure to militarily oust Hitler from the Rhineland in 1936 (which France could have easily done) ultimately resulted in Hitler’s confident decision to attack Poland in 1939. Berlin did not believe Britain or France would risk war with Germany so long as Germany did not directly attack them.

To learn more about the details of the German political victory in the Rhineland in 1936 I turned to some older books in my library. This is why I have a personal library. Years later something I read becomes relevant to something I am currently reading and I can expand my knowledge of it with a certain ease.

John Toland’s excellent biography of Hitler (1976) and William Shirer’s still highly relevant history of Nazi Germany (1959) both shine interesting details about how Hitler got away with the Rhineland maneuver and how it led to a dramatic solidification of Hitler’s popularity in Germany.

Here’s how one war leads to another. The Rhineland was a concession of the Treaty of Versailles, which – importantly – the common German abhorred. We are in what I would call the Late-Imperial period. Empires were still recognized as such even if their nature had changed in the last 200 years. The Rhineland was a demilitarized zone. No German military unit or aircraft of any kind could be stationed there.

This made France (who had suffered the physical scars of war more than any nation in the Great War) feel safer because the Germans also had to give up by treaty their ambitions of controlling the Alsace-Lorraine region, which remained solidly French. It is there that the French later built their magnificent Maginot Line, reflecting their thinking about preventing another German invasion of their country.

In March 1936, Hitler decided to send troops into the Rhineland. To occupy it militarily with about 3 battalions of infantry. An extremely trivial amount of force. Nevertheless it was a huge gamble. The French Army could easily, without question, have occupied the area and booted the Germans out.

But, that would risk another major war with Germany. The weight of World War I was heavier in France than anywhere. Internally, France was a confused nation, having just shifted as a people from a 48-hour to a 40-hour workweek as part of France’s response to the Great Depression. The people liked working 40 hours a week better. But they wanted their standard of living to be maintained. This, among other influences, weakened France’s political system. There were only fragments and no “moderates.” France did nothing. Britain made it plain they were disinterested, so Hitler took the gamble.

“London never seriously considered taking action…General Gamelin warned that ‘a war operation, however limited, entailed unpredictable risks’…He did agree to rush 13 divisions to the Maginot Line.” (Toland, page 407) A large response but without intention of acting in the absence of British support. The German Army leaders were terrified in the face of overwhelming odds and begged Hitler to withdraw the 3 battalions. Hitler was intensely worried as well but he was relying on his foreign policy advisers, trusting the instincts of von Ribbentrop and von Neurath. Hitler refused to withdraw. More German troops were positioned nearby to offer assistance. It was a clear military build-up in the area by both sides, but the French far outnumbered the Germans in troops and, more importantly, artillery. Still, the Germans were aggressive...

“By Monday more than 25,000 German troops, greeted by censer-swinging priests conferring blessings on them, were established in the Rhine zone. While there were still only words from the French, Hitler was consumed with anxiety.” (Toland, page 408) But the British labeled the event as “The Germans, after all, are only going into their back garden.” (page 408) However, “the very next day, …the Council of the League of Nations met in London and unanimously passed a resolution condemning Germany as a treaty-breaker.”(page 408)

Hitler’s foreign advisers read the situation well, insisting that there would be no real consequences. It worked. “Holding the weakest hand, Hitler had bluffed England and France, proof that words of condemnation from international bodies were futile without force behind them….He was also shrewd enough to capitalize on the Rhineland to further solidify his power at home. He dissolved the Reichstag and submitted this policy to plebiscite. Rather than an election campaign, it was a triumphal parade from city to city with the majestic dirigible, Hindenburg, painted all over with swastikas, flying escort overhead….On March 29, without benefit of guns, 98.8 percent of the electorate voted for Hitler. No head of state in the world enjoyed such popularity. Moreover, he had maneuvered his country in little more than three years from supplicant to challenger.” (Toland, page 409)

Ian Kershaw agrees in his more recent, great history. Kershaw begins volume two of his Hitler biography quoting Hitler before the Reichstag on March 7, 1936: “’After three years, I believe that, with the present day, the struggle for German equal rights can be regarded as closed.’….there can be no doubt that the overwhelming mass of German people applauded Hitler’s recovery of German sovereignty in the Rhineland (as they had his earlier steps at throwing off the shackles of Versailles). It was a major triumph for Hitler, both externally and internally. It was the culminating point of the first phase of his dictatorship.” (Kershaw, pp. xxxv – xxxvi).

Richard Evans, defines the moment better than anybody I’ve read. “In March 1936, Germans held their breath while 3,000 troops marched deep into the Rhineland backed by another 30,000 troops who remained on or near the eastern bank of the river. Had France chosen to send their own troops in, the Germans would have been driven out within a few hours despite Hitler’s orders to resist. But, they did not. Believing that the German military presence was ten times greater that it really was, and hamstring by public anxiety about war at a time when a general election was looming, the French government chose inaction….No body at this stage thought of Hitler as different from previous German statesmen, and these had never hidden their desire to move troops back into the Rhineland.” (page 635)

But, what these quotes don’t reveal is that Hitler manipulated this entire situation. Munich, 1938 makes Hitler's talent for bold political manipulations very clear and it is one of that book’s strengths. But, how Hitler managed the manipulation is a question only William L. Shirer can answer in my library. My copy of Shirer’s still renowned The Rise and the Fall of the Third Reich is a paperback I bought upon graduating from college. I was renting an apartment for a few more weeks, without any job offers, it was summer there was a pool and I had time to do nothing but read, swim, tan and party at night. I really didn’t know what I would do next. I look back on it now and I’m amazed how little thought I gave to my career while in college. It was that free, present moment kind of Being that ultimately lead me to India.

Anyway, I wanted to read something “thick” with some meat on it. For the past few months, I had been shooting and editing a United Way promotional film and playing cameraman to the film efforts of the college’s drama department. I had been only thinking creatively in the moment. I wanted something grounded. Shirer fits the bill. My badly yellowed-page copy is marked up like almost all my other books but the markings are from subsequent readings. That college summer when I first read the book I didn’t underline anything at all. I laid in the sun by the swimming pool and tanned my young runner’s body.

Shirer’s eyewitness account goes back to May 1935 when Hitler gave a couple of “peace” speeches at the Reichstag in which he emphasized “tolerance and conciliation.” In his last peace speech, Hitler renounced: “all claims to Alsace-Lorraine, a land for which we fought two great wars…Without taking the past into account Germany has concluded a non-aggression pact with Poland…We shall adhere to it unconditionally…We recognize Poland as the home of a great and nationally conscious people. Germany neither intends nor wishes to interfere in the internal affairs of Austria, to annex Austria, or to conclude an Anschluss.” (page 394) Hitler proclaimed that he had no intention of attempting to challenge British naval supremacy and that he had little interest in "colonial" conquests in Africa or Asia.

Hitler waited for the slow moving French government to ratify a pact with the Soviet Union and used this agreement to justify his planned Rhineland operation. Shirer described the wider political context for Hitler’s decision very well: “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….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…” (page 400)

But he got to use the excuse he planned to use. Shirer writes of a memory upon the French ratified agreement with the Soviet Union: “Indeed, two hours later the Fuehrer was standing at the rostrum of the Reichstag before a delirious audience, expounding 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 will never forget, for it was both fascinating and gruesome. After a long harangue about both the evils of Versailles and the threat of Bolshevism, Hitler calmly announced that France’s pact with Russia had in validated the Locarno Treaty, which, unlike that of Versailles, Germany had freely signed.” (page 401)

Hitler whipped the 600 deputies of the Reichstag into a frenzy of Heils. He simultaneously swore to the “unrestricted sovereignty” for Germany in the demilitarized zone and to “never break the peace!” Hitler had the full support of Germany in marching into the Rhineland in spite of the hesitations of Germany’s High Command (Hitler himself was nervous but Shirer does not discuss that, it is a product of more recent research). The combination of public support, the beginnings of a German military build-up in 1935, Mussolini’s conquests in Africa, France’s indecisiveness, and British indifference allowed Hitler to play the situation in grand political style.

Shirer concludes of Hitler’s “coup” in the Rhineland: “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 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.” (page 405)

As I said, Shirer’s history is still highly insightful and relevant. It is a massive work of great detail. Combined with Toland’s work and the other books I mentioned it affords a clearer understanding of how Hitler was able to retake the Rhineland, gain political and cultural momentum, and masterly dupe his enemies at Munich in 1938. He thought himself invincible. Deutschland Uber Alles. A key root cause (among many) of the catastrophic yet world-changing Second World War.

One thing I enjoy about reading is how one topic can lead you to something else. And I enjoy my older books because they contain nuggets that yield fresh understandings years later. Life is for learning. My older books are also enjoyable in the context of the memories they contain, like photographs, of what my life was like when I first purchased them. Links in the chain. My library is like a toy box that I can open up and find old friends that occupy and enrich my mind in very satisfying ways.

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