History Lesson

Wednesday, March 01, 2006
The occupation of the Rhineland in defiance of the Versailles and Locarno treaties was a major step forward in Hitler's plan to re-establish Germany as a respected and feared Great Power. The failure of Britain and France to threaten, much less employ, military force to prevent or reverse the occupation revealed their unwillingness to confront a revisionist, totalitarian regime that didn't hide its contempt for Western values—individualism, tolerance, and democracy. By allowing his gambit to succeed, the two most powerful European liberal democracies encouraged Hitler's megalomania and fueled his transformation into Germany's messiah. The end result was a clash of civilizations that resulted in the most destructive war in the history of the world.


(See The American Future)

11 comments:

David Thomson said...

“Flandin has dinner with Prime Minister Baldwin in London. Baldwin tells him that

. . . although [I understand] little of foreign affairs [I am] able to interpret accurately the feelings of the British people. They [want] peace . . . if 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.”

The feckless Stanley Baldwin meant no harm. Nonetheless, his inability to do his duty contributed greatly to the catastrophe of WWII. "He is no better than an epileptic corpse," is how Winston Churchill once described Baldwin.

http://www.winstonchurchill.org/i4a/pages/index.cfm?pageid=746

Peter UK said...

As the saying goes,"You go to war with what you have got",in this case Britain had nothing.There had been disarmament following the 1914-18 War,the "War to End all Wars",remember,the Oxford Union had voted in February 1933 that they "Would not fight for King and Country",under these circumstances there was no will in the country at large to fight another war.
Britain has never maintained a large standing army in peacetime,relying on a small corps of professionals to stiffen a conscript and volunteer army in time of war.
This method was toatlly unsuited to the Blitzkrieg,rapid form of warfare practiced by the Germans.

France relied solely on a defensive war predicated on the Maginot line,she would not have permitted a British force on French soil.

The only option open to the British was either the one taken or a maritime blockade of Germany.Bearing in mind the German Strategy of submarine warfare and the powerful capital ships that Germany had built illegally this was likely to be long drawn out and bloody.
No single power could have taken on Germany without the cooperation of France.That was simply not there.

Consider also,that time was bought to get the Hurricanes and Spitfires into production,these successfully fought Goering's Luftwaffe and denied the Germans air superiority over the English Channel that was essential for Hitler's invasion of England.fwgvut

Seneca the Younger said...

Peter, the problem is that if Hitler had been stopped in the Rheinlands and the Sudetenland --- which could have been done by six gendarmes and a large head of garlic --- we might well not have had to rush the Spits into production.

And that sonuvabitch with the little mustache might have shot himself 10 years earlier.

Knucklehead said...

PeterUK,

There are always reasons and explanations. The point, at least to me, is that there are moments when action is distasteful and painful, and would surely lead to bloodshed and yet they should be (or should have been) taken.

How familiar does the language of Policy Memorandum of the Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, March 8, 1936 sound to us today?

We must discourage any military action by France against Germany. A possible course which might have its advocates would be for the Locarno signatories to call upon Germany to evacuate the Rhineland. It is difficult now to suppose that Herr Hitler could agree to such a demand, and it certainly should not be made unless the Powers, who made it, were prepared to enforce it by military action. Fortunately, M. Flandin [French Foreign Minister]has said that France will not act alone but will take the matter to the Council [of the League of Nations]. This he must be encouraged to do. But we must beware lest the French public, if further irritated or frightened, get restless at such a slow and indecisive action and demand retaliatory action of a military character such, for instance, as the reoccupation of the Saar [German territory ceded to France by the Treaty of Versailles and returned to Germany in 1935]. Such a development must be avoided if possible.

While we obviously cannot object to the Council adopting . . . a 'finding' that Germany has violated the demilitarized zone provisions, this ought to be on the distinct understanding that it is not to be followed by a French attack on Germany and a request for our armed assistance under that article. . . .

We must be ready at the Council to offer the French some satisfaction in return for their acquiescence...


Military reaction a no-no. Discourage the one who can from doing. Take the matter to the international body of world peace and harmony. Condemn the action in the strongest words, negotiate, find something to offer in return...

The Rhineland Crisis was a matter of will over capability. When the Germans sent some 20,000 troops (approx. 2 divisions) into the Rhineland the French sent some dozen or so divisions (approx. 120,000 troops) to reinforce the Maginot Line. The most fearful assessments of German strength was 35,000 troops. When the French reiforced the Maginot Line the German military begged Hitler to pull back.

France was capable of crushing the Germans at that stage of the game. With some encouragement they probably would have leaped at the chance. If they would have stepped across the border chances are Hitler would have pulled back. But even if he hadn't the battle would have resulted in German defeat and quite probably have changed the course of history.

And therein lies the problem. Had the French gone and smacked Hitler upside the head with whatever support England could have offered, the debate would rage even today about whether or not the bloodshed was necessary, or wise, or if some peaceful means could have been found. France and England would have gone down in history as warmongering monsters preying upon defenseless Germany who just wanted to exercise control over her own territory and people.

Perhaps Hitler would have been unable to recover from such humiliation. Perhaps he would have still done all that he did. If that latter had turned out to be the case history would probably tell us it was all France and England's fault for provoking Germany.

It is very unlikely that spanking the Germans over the Rhineland Crisis would have resulted in a peaceful world of blueberries and butterflies but it is quite likely that things would not have become what they became.

Oh well, blood under the bridge now. I'd hate to see the western world make the same mistake again. Sometimes the proper choice is to deal with a problem sooner rather than later. I believe the likes of Saddam and the Mad Mullahs would have, will, only get worse. The price for dealing with them is, unfortunately, blood. Better to shed some now rather than rivers of it later.

Peter UK said...

We cannot look at this from our perspective without taking into account the perspective of those who took the decisions.
The casualties the plain figures.

Belgium 45,550
British Empire 942,135
France 1,368,000
Greece 23,098
Italy 680,000
Japan 1,344
Montenegro 3,000
Portugal 8,145
Romania 300,000
Russia 1,700,000
Serbia 45,000
United States 116,516
Austria-Hungary 1,200,000
Bulgaria 87,495
Germany 1,935,000
Ottoman Empire 725,000

The other point is that Germany had begun to rearm in the, 1920s,although the Nazis increased the pace when they took power,it is a mistake to believe that military action would be a walkover.

terrye said...

Peter:

I think WW1 might have been the war to end all wars back then, but today it has become the war the world forgot.

But in 1936, it was not forgotten. In fact a scant 20 years had passed since that horrible conflict. And Russia was still in a revolution of sorts with millions locked up.

It is easy today for people to say what could have should have been done back then, but people today by and large can not even comprehend a world war.

We get the vapors over Iraq. In those days, 2,500 casualties in three years would scarce have qualified as war.

Knucklehead said...

Peter,

I suspect we're each trying to make a different point. The pacifism of England, and even all of Europe except Germany, even in 1936 was completely understandable. Public attitudes in the US were no different. There were precious few "hawks" following the slaughter of WWI.

There was no strong political will for war in 1936. Pacifism was the order of the day and there were plenty of reasons why it was so.

The idea that, perhaps, the Rhineland Crisis was the final opportunity to have put the kabosh to Hitler's Nazis and thus to have saved the world from the slaughter of WWII is an interesting one. But it is a discussion, as far as it goes, that is on the one hand mere speculation about alternate historic scenarios and, on the other hand, a warning for today, and the future, about that should be taken into account.

In the end there was no stomach for dealing with Hitler at that time. France, though capable, would not go it alone and England was not about to support France in a war with Germany. To the best of my knowledge the general consensus among historians is that even if France had decided to go it alone the Germans would have merely withdrawn and Hitler would have used the French occupation of the Rhineland to further foment German public opinion in his favor.

I make no claim that had the French acted and the Germans stood their ground that it would have been a cakewalk. But the German war machine was in its relative infancy at the time. There is no way they could have defeated the French. The lessons and weapons developments and increases in war making industrial capacity were out ahead of them.

But what was purchased by failing to act? The idea of the time was that, at the least, time to rearm was bought. It seems to me that, at the very least, taking action would have bought more time at, perhaps, the cost of tens of thousands of casualties. But the entire game board would also have been changed. it is very unlikely that things would have played out the way they did and, in my unprofessional judgement, things were likely to have played out not nearly as badly as they did.

It is all moot, of course, in the historical sense. It happened the way it happened. Opportunity comes and opportunity goes and only hindsight tells us which came and went unused. We never know for sure which is the best, or final, or best and final.

My assessment - and nobody pays me to run the world - is that we are pretty much looking at the final opportunity to deal with Iran before she reaches the capability to wreak real havoc. I believe the western world should treat with Iran very forcefully right up to, and including if necessary, military action. But the US is unlikely to "go it alone" and none of France, England, Germany, or Russia is likely to kick in whatever small support they could were they willing. So the problem will not be dealt with until it is too late.

Peter UK said...

The point is,that if france had acted and the Germans had withdrawn,it would have only postponed the inevitable,for a year or two, perhaps only even months.
The main problem was Hitler and the ruling Nazi Party,the legitimately elected government of Germany.We are back in the realms of containment again,there was not much that could have been done without an invasion and the deposing of the Regime.
It is moot whether the French,who contrary to popular belief did fight bravely,could have countered the new Blitzkrieg form of warfare.
In 1939 France still had more powerful forces than Germany,the French tanks were better armed for example,but they were still fighting the last war.The German General Staff had realised that using combined forces and speed the could obtain local superiority,the strategy was to not get bogged down in a static war.
Interestingly the concept was originally conceived by a British Officer.Combined infantry,tanks and aircraft had been used by the British at Cambrai,although the logistics had not been perfected and the strategic advantage had been lost.

Knucklehead said...

Peter,

We're way OT here but I thoroughly enjoy the generalized discussion of whether or not huge pieces of history could have been changed by relatively small acts (at least small compared with the actions that came later).

I particularly enjoy the specific case of that regarding Hitler's Germany and WWII. A million things could have been done differently between the wars that almost surely would have yielded a very different outcome. By 1936 things were moving much closer to the realm of "inevitability". Things played out the way they played out but "what ifs" can be useful and, at the very least, are entertaining.

So, if you don't mind, I'll get on with it.

The point is,that if france had acted and the Germans had withdrawn,it would have only postponed the inevitable,for a year or two, perhaps only even months.

It seems almost certain that the Germans would have withdrawn had the French acted (moved significant troops into the Rhineland). The stuff at The American Future that Seneca originally linked to reports, and I'm pretty sure it is accurate although I'm not going to go digging in my books to confirm it, that the Germans had standing orders to pull out at the sight of French troops. IIRC it also quoted Hitler as commenting that the French would have crushed them.

I find those two things somewhat contradictory so I don't fully buy into the claim that the Germans would have pulled out. OK, they had orders to but Hitler himself says they would have been crushed. Well, they wouldn't get crushed if they pulled out. It is at least possible that Hitler would have insisted on the battle even knowing full well that his two divisions would get their butts kicked. He was, after all, a demented man.

But let's assume they would have pulled back. That seems most likely. Had the French acted and driven the fledgling Wehrmacht out of the Rhineland how does that alter the dynamics in play?

The fact that the Wehrmacht of 1939 was a combined arms nightmare capable of running through the rest of the world's militaries like a hot knife through butter was not the case in 1936. It took the Wehrmact some testing in Spain and a few years at Grafenwehr to put together the combined arms juggernaut that crushed Poland and, later, France.

But I digress. What changes in the dynamics if France sends a crushing weight of divisions into the Rhineland and chases the Wehrmacht out?

For one thing the French have now demonstrated that they aren't going to hide behind the Maginot Line. It demonstrates French willingness to put troops on German soil. Yeah, so how does that change anything?

Well, for one, is Hitler as willing to move into the Sudentenland a year and a half later with a France that has demonstrated willingness to move into Germany? Does it delay that move by a few months, maybe a year, whatever while he builds enough forces to protect his back because it has been shown that he might need to? Does the west just feed Checkloslovakia to the Beast if they've demonstrated to themselves that standing up to the Beast has effect? What do France and England do with the few months, or the year, or whatever delay is tossed into the Fuhrer's plans? How does North Africa play out? What changes does the Evil Brain Trust - the Prussian genius behind the Blitzkreig - have to make to their plans for overrunning France if the French have demonstrated they aren't going to sit back behind the Maginot Line? What does Russia do with the extra time, if any?

Does it all mean that Germany has the time to build an extra 50 subs, 2,000 aircraft, maybe some heavy bombers, and wins the Battle of the Atlantic and the Battle of Britain?

Does it make the High Command, or some portion of it, think "This loon is going to get us killed!" and lead someone to plant a bomb under his conference table in 1937?

Does some bespectacled dweeb in a lab in Germany keep fiddling with Enigma until its a seven wheel device the Allies can't crack?

The bottom line of the entire thing is that the west played Hitler's game rather than overturning his bridge table.

If France moves 6 or 8 divisions into the Rhineland in April of 1936 everything changes. The "what" and the "inevitable" changes. Something might still be inevitable but what it is is very unlikely to be the same as what it was. I'm personally inclined to change the game if I'm losing. I don't hang around to keep losing. When the other guy is out to get you you can't keep reacting to his moves, you have to change something and get him into a reaction mode, even if only temporarily.

Oddly enough, when the stuff is flying toward the fan, and there isn't enough time anymore to get the heck out of the room, it is time to charge at the danged fan and try to knock the stupid thing over.

The main problem was Hitler and the ruling Nazi Party,the legitimately elected government of Germany. We are back in the realms of containment again,there was not much that could have been done without an invasion and the deposing of the Regime.

Well, maybe. But what is "containment"? Saddam's Iraq was more or less "contained" following the Iran-Iraq war. Then they let out some hints that perhaps they were interested in taking Kuwait. Some second rate diplomat misses the clues and, instead of saying "That would be a really bad idea that would be looked on very unfavorably by my government" says, instead, "We're not particularly concerned with minor give and take within the petty states of the mid-east" or somesuch.

What was contained is no longer contained and now it takes a major effort to undo the damage. And then, shame on us, we snapped back into playing the stupid "containment" game.

The US and Britain set up the ridiculous no-fly zone containment game and then let the Loon regain control of the card table. He goes off and starts chatting with the Russians and Chinese and French and says, "Hey guys. I got the Brits and the Amis flying around with their top of the line aircraft. You guys have any interest in setting up a lab to try and figure out their capabilities and how to counter them?"

And in the meantime he goes and changes the game to corrupt the entire box he's being "contained" within. WTF were we thinking?


It is moot whether the French,who contrary to popular belief did fight bravely, could have countered the new Blitzkrieg form of warfare.

See my point above about the Wehrmact of 1936 not being the same thing as the Wehrmacht of 1939.


In 1939 France still had more powerful forces than Germany,the French tanks were better armed for example,but they were still fighting the last war.

in 1939 France had larger forces than the Germans. By then the Germans had more powerful forces. That was not the case in 1936. In 1936 the French had larger and more powerful forces. They had it within their reach to change the freakin' game to their advantage.

That is the thing that leads me to support Geroge W. Bush. Whatever the failures and mistakes and missteps, he had the audacity to change the freakin' game. The ME is not what it was. It may be that we're letting the Iranians and Syrians go back on the offensive but, even if that's true the a-Q and Libya and the Wrath of Kahn Paki bomb loons are not longer in the game.

The man turned over the card table. Letting the bastids set it right again and start telling everyone what the rules of the game are would be dumb on our part.

The German General Staff had realised that using combined forces and speed the could obtain local superiority, the strategy was to not get bogged down in a static war.

Understanding it and "realizing it" - putting the understanding into practice - are two different things. I assert that sufficient numbers of large enough monkey wrenches could have been tossed into those gears. If only...

Interestingly the concept was originally conceived by a British Officer. Combined infantry,tanks and aircraft had been used by the British at Cambrai,although the logistics had not been perfected and the strategic advantage had been lost.

Failure to maintain strategic advantage when one has it and failure to re-establish it once it is lost. That is the weakness of the Democratic west. The ruthless loons of the totalitarian world don't have the same problem. Let them have control of the table and they'll take every advantage.

Peter UK said...

Knucklehead,
The concept of Blitzkrieg,lightning war,war originally posited by Basil Liddel-Hart and developed by Guderian.

The Germans were already at war in Spain 1936-39,it was here that the concept of "total war" was first practiced,Guernica was bombed in 1937.

France did little to avert the bitter conflict next door,it cannot have escaped french strategists that there war a German army on its right flank.

German rearmament was well on its way in 1936,the Bismarck and the Tirpizt were laid down in that year,submarine construction had long been outsourced to a German ownde yard in the Netherlands
The weak little Germany is somewhat of a myth.

Knucklehead said...

Peter,

Now that we've totally hijacked this thread...

The concept of Blitzkrieg,lightning war,war originally posited by Basil Liddel-Hart and developed by Guderian.

I'm aware of the contributions of men like Hart and Fuller to the concepts of mechanized, combined arms warfare. But so what? The victors write the history books and the losers tend to be far more honestly analytical about failures. The Germans paid close attention to the likes of Hart and Fuller but also to the concepts of warfare developed by guys like Ludendorf and Moltke.

The Germans built their war machine to fight according to the concepts of what became known as Blitzkrieg. Everyone else was still living in the past with, of course, the exception of the "strategic bombing" mavens who thought the age of infantry was a thing of the past.

But the Rhineland Crisis was in the Spring of 1936. The Kriegsmarine was a handful of commerce raiders, some torpedo boats, less than two dozens submarines, and some keels in some construction yards. As weak as the British Navy may have been the Kriegsmarine of early 1936 was no match for it.

The Luftwaffe of early 1936 was a small collection of interesting planes barely beyond the test flight stages. A few squadrons with few trained pilots.

The Wehrmacht of early 1936 was the sketch of a skeleton. There were barely any bones let alone any sinew or muscle. Superior tactics or not it was no match for the French and certainly not for any combined French and English force.

The Germans were already at war in Spain 1936-39,it was here that the concept of "total war" was first practiced,Guernica was bombed in 1937.

So what? What has this got to do with the Rhineland Crisis of March, 1936? Hitler began sending men and material into Spain for testing and gaining war experience in the summer of '36. They didn't even reach production rates of 1,000 planes/year until '38.

You seem to be trying to make some case that the Germany of the Rhineland Crisis was already a military power beyond the ability of France and/or England to have dealt with. That just flat out isn't the case.

Failure to deal with Germany at the time of the Rhineland Crisis - spring of 1936 - was not a matter of insufficient military capability. It was a matter of lack of political will and public sentiment. The reasons for that are understandable and clearly could not be overcome but that is the point.

There's no lack of capability in the West to deal with the lunatic despotic regimes of the world today. What is lacking is the will.

France did little to avert the bitter conflict next door,it cannot have escaped french strategists that there war a German army on its right flank.

I don't see what point you are making here. Germany didn't start sending stuff to Franco until July of '36. And that was pretty much transport stuff. Combat aircraft were later that that.

There was no German army on France's right flank at the time of Rhineland. There was a German presence later in the year but the scale of it was not something that was capable of marching against France.

German rearmament was well on its way in 1936,the Bismarck and the Tirpizt were laid down in that year,

Are you suggesting that in the Spring of '36 France and England were afraid of keels that wouldn't be laid until July and October? These ships didn't even launch for a couple years.

submarine construction had long been outsourced to a German ownde yard in the Netherlands

There were less than two dozen operational uboats in March of 1936. This was not a force capable of waging the Battle of the Atlantic. It was a test and training force.

The weak little Germany is somewhat of a myth.

I think you are overstating the military capability of Germany in early 1936.