German Chancellor Adolf Hitler chose to violate these treaties. Timed to occur in the midst of France's most bitterly contested election campaign after World War I, his move to do so was hastily mounted with the preliminary directive issued on 2 March 1936. On 7 March, in Operation winter exercise, Hitler sent across the Rhine bridges into the Rhineland just 19 battalions of infantry and 13 artillery groups plus 2 antiaircraft battalions and 2 squadrons of 27 single-seater fighter planes without reserves, a total strength of 22,000 men, as well as 14,000 local police. The troops were armed with little more than rifles and machine guns.
To its credit, the weak French government was more inclined to fight than were its generals. Astonishingly, France had no contingency plans for such an eventuality. Army Chief of Staff General Maurice Gamelin informed the cabinet that the choices were to do nothing or to totally mobilize. The French intelligence services grossly overestimated the size of the German forces inside the Rhineland at 265,000 troops. The British more realistically believed Hitler had sent in 35,000 men, but they erroneously accepted his boast that the Luftwaffe had achieved air parity with the Royal Air Force. In reality, the two squadrons of obsolete biplane Arado Ar-65 and Ar-68 and Heinkel He-51 fighter aircraft that Germany put aloft lacked guns or synchronization gear to enable them to fire through their propeller arcs. Had French aircraft appeared, the only German recourse would have been to ram! The sole Luftwaffe aircraft capable of reaching London, the Junkers Ju-52, could not have flown there carrying bombs and returned. But even this prospect was not a realistic one, as the Luftwaffe had few bombs available—a total of perhaps several hundred.
The most that France did was to mobilize 13 divisions and reinforce the Maginot Line. In a vain cover for its own inaction, Paris appealed to Britain for support, but Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden made it clear that Britain would not fight for the Rhineland, which was, after all, German territory. Speaking for the cabinet, Eden announced in the House of Commons that, although Germany's action was "inexcusable" as a breach of a freely signed international treaty, it in no way implied a hostile threat to France!
Had the French acted by themselves, their forces would have defeated the Germans. Hitler later recalled, "We had no army worth mentioning.Ê.Ê.Ê. If the French had taken any action, we would have been defeated; our resistance would have been over in a few days. And what air force we had then was ridiculous. A few Junker 52s from Lufthansa, and not even enough bombs for them." A French military move would probably would have been the end of the Nazi regime. As Hitler noted, "retreat on our part would have spelled collapse."
Acquisition of the Rhineland fortified Hitler's popularity in Germany. It also assured his ascendancy over his generals, who had opposed the move as likely to lead to a war with France for which Germany was not prepared. Strategically, the remilitarization of the Rhineland provided both a buffer for the Ruhr and a springboard for invading France and Belgium. It also shook France's allies in eastern Europe, who now believed that country would not fight to maintain the security system it had created against German aggression. The action had another important negative consequence for France as well, for on 14 October 1936, Belgian leaders denounced their treaty of mutual assistance with France and again sought security in neutrality. Germany promptly guaranteed the inviolability and integrity of Belgium so long as it abstained from military action against Germany. By his action, Hitler had effectively destroyed the post–World War I security system.
Spencer C. Tucker
Emmerson, James T. The Rhineland Crisis, 7 March 1936: A Study in International Diplomacy. Ames: Iowa State University Press in association with the London School of Economics and Political Science, 1977.; Renouvin, Pierre. World War II and Its Origins: International Relations. New York: Harper and Row, 1969.; Shirer, William L. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960.; Speer, Albert. Inside the Third Reich. Trans. Richard and Clara Winston. New York: Macmillan, 1970.