Third Reich Day by Day: March 1936

The Olympic Games gave Nazi Germany a chance to show the world that the Third Reich was a well-ordered, powerful society. For propaganda purposes measures against Jews were relaxed, and Berlin became the home of fraternal international friendship, albeit temporarily. However, away from the Olympics the Germans re-occupied the demilitarized Rhineland and began to channel military aid to the Franco’s Nationalists fighting a civil war in Spain. As they did so, Great Britain and France, the major powers of Europe, did nothing but watch idly.


Germany, Treaties

The Locarno Treaty is renounced. This was a non-aggression treaty signed in 1925 between Germany, France and Belgium. It recognized the demilitarization of the Rhineland as being permanent, with the post-Versailles Treaty borders of the three signatories being mutually accepted.

7 March

Germany, The Rhineland

German troops move into the Rhineland in March 1936. They had orders to withdraw if opposed by the French.
German troops move into the Rhineland in March 1936. They had orders to withdraw if opposed by the French.

It had been another specification of the hated Treaty of Versailles that the Rhineland should be demilitarized. This turned the Rhineland into an unoccupied buffer zone between Germany and France. It comprised all German territory west of the Rhine and a 48km (30-mile) strip east of the river which included Köln, Düsseldorf and Bonn.

Hitler has been burning to send troops marching back into the Rhineland, both in order to assert that it is an indivisible part of his new Germany and to show his contempt for the Treaty of Versailles. His chance came in February 1936 when the nervous French ratified a treaty with the Soviet Union, a power which Hitler claimed, at the time, was particularly detestable to his Nazi State because it is Asiatic and Bolshevik. In response to this threat, and against the advice of his more cautious associates, he orders his army to march into the Rhineland in an operation codenamed Winter Exercise on the morning of March 7. The new Luftwaffe fighters make their first public display, while the Leibstandarte provides the advance guard in the retaking of the Rhineland demilitary zone. Orders to the Wehrmacht are to retreat immediately should French forces move to oppose the occupation. That evening the Führer makes a gloating speech in the packed Reichstag.

The occupation of the Rhineland has been an enormous risk, which only a man as determined as Hitler would have taken. The German Army had only mustered one division to make the march into the Rhineland, and of that only three battalions had crossed the Rhine. If the worst had come to the worst, these puny forces could only have been strengthened by a few brigades, while the French, with their Polish and Czech allies, could have immediately mobilized 90 divisions and brought up reserves of 100 more.

To make the situation even more dangerous, the re-occupation of the Rhineland is not a mundane breach of the Treaty, but a casus foederis; that is to say that it virtually obliges France to declare war. However, despite the terrifying prospect of a humiliating climb-down, Hitler was confident that the French would make no move against him and he has been proved right.

After this success Hitler’s diplomacy began to take on a new edge. This operation was achieved without the predicted political and military consequences. In the ensuing crisis Hitler’s resolute position split Great Britain and France diplomatically, ensuring the international acceptance of his fait accompli and giving him confidence to undertake his other expansionist desires.