Churchill and the Rhineland: “Terrible Circumstances”

Churchill and the Rhineland: “Terrible Circumstances”

Excerpt­ed from “Churchill and the Rhineland: ‘They Had Only to Act to Win,” writ­ten for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. For the orig­i­nal arti­cle with foot­notes and images, click here. To sub­scribe to week­ly arti­cles from Hills­dale-Churchill, click here, scroll to bot­tom, enter your email in the box “Stay in touch with us.” Your email is nev­er revealed and remains a rid­dle wrapped in a mys­tery inside an enigma.

Hitler to the Reichstag, 7 March 1936

“We ded­i­cate our­selves to achiev­ing an under­stand­ing between the peo­ples of Europe and par­tic­u­lar­ly an under­stand­ing with our West­ern peo­ples and neigh­bors. After three years, I believe that, with the present day, the strug­gle for Ger­man equal rights can be regard­ed as closed…. We have no ter­ri­to­r­i­al claims to make in Europe.” (Fol­low­ing this speech, Hitler dis­solved the Reichstag.)

The Rhineland challenge 

The Rhineland in west­ern Ger­many is bor­dered by the Riv­er Rhine in the east and France and the Benelux coun­tries in the west. It includes the indus­tri­al Ruhr Val­ley, the famous cities of Aachen, Bonn, Cologne, Düs­sel­dorf, Essen, Koblenz, Mannheim and Weiss­baden, and sev­er­al bridge­heads into Ger­many prop­er. 

After the end of the First World War, the Rhineland was occu­pied by the vic­to­ri­ous Allies. Though the occu­pa­tion was set to last through 1935, mil­i­tary forces with­drew in 1930 as a good-will ges­ture to the Weimar Repub­lic. The Allies retained the right to reoc­cu­py the Rhineland should Ger­many vio­late the Treaty of Ver­sailles. 

In March 1936, a few thou­sand Ger­man troops marched into the Rhineland while the pop­u­lace waved swasti­ka flags. The sol­diers had orders to “turn back and not to resist” if chal­lenged by the all-dom­i­nant French Army. Hitler lat­er said that the forty-eight hours fol­low­ing his action were the tens­est of his life.

Ger­man troops march past Cologne Cathe­dral dur­ing the remil­i­ta­riza­tion of the Rhineland. The moder­ni­ty of the trans­porta­tion tes­ti­fies to the state of the Wehrma­cht in 1936. (Caius Cobbe, Cre­ative Commons).

Churchill’s defend­ers cor­rect­ly cite the Rhineland as con­firm­ing his warn­ings about Hitler. But what Churchill actu­al­ly pro­posed to do about it is not as clear.

“Confronted by terrible circumstances” 

In Jan­u­ary 1936, Churchill pre­dict­ed that a Rhineland incur­sion would raise “a very grave Euro­pean issue…. The League of Nations Union folk, who have done their best to get us dis­armed, may find them­selves con­front­ed by ter­ri­ble circumstances.”

Hitler’s future for­eign min­is­ter, Joachim von Ribben­trop, record­ed how Hitler con­ceived of slip­ping the occu­pa­tion past the West­ern allies. Sum­mon­ing Ribben­trop in Jan­u­ary, Hitler said: “[I]t occurred to me last night how we can occu­py the Rhineland with­out any fric­tion. We return to the League!” Ger­many had left the League of Nations in 1933.  

Ribben­trop said he too (of course) had this very idea. He sug­gest­ed they strike while the French and British were on one of their week­end hol­i­days. Hitler act­ed on Sat­ur­day March 7th. France, he said had abro­gat­ed the Rhineland agree­ments by a mil­i­tary alliance with Russia. 

True to plan, Hitler added a sweet­en­er, propos­ing “a real paci­fi­ca­tion of Europe between states that are equal in rights.” Ger­many would return to the League of Nations, pro­vid­ed her colonies, stripped at Ver­sailles, were returned. 

Would France march? 

The ques­tion turned on France. Would she reassert con­trol of the Rhineland? Or just dither and do noth­ing? Antho­ny Eden, Britain’s for­eign sec­re­tary, was san­guine: Great Britain would stand by France, and he offered mil­i­tary staff con­ver­sa­tions. 

Unfor­tu­nate­ly for staff con­ver­sa­tions, the French mil­i­tary was led by Gen­er­al Mau­rice Gamelin, a “non­de­script fonc­tion­naire.” The French gov­ern­ment may have yearned for a way to stop Hitler. Gamelin and his mil­i­tary col­leagues were more wor­ried about stop­ping him from invad­ing France proper.

Stan­ley Bald­win 1867-1947 (Wiki­me­dia Commons)

British Prime Min­is­ter Stan­ley Bald­win believed France was unwill­ing to act—with or with­out Britain. Churchill was unsure, giv­en the resolve of French For­eign Min­is­ter Pierre Flandin. Four days after Hitler’s action Flandin vis­it­ed Lon­don. Churchill recalled: 

He told me he pro­posed to demand from the British Gov­ern­ment simul­ta­ne­ous mobil­i­sa­tion of the land, sea, and air forces of both coun­tries, and that he had received assur­ances of sup­port from all the nations of the “Lit­tle Entente” [Czecho­slo­va­kia, Ruma­nia and Yugoslavia] and from oth­er States. He read out an impres­sive list of the replies received. There was no doubt that supe­ri­or strength still lay with the Allies of the for­mer war. They had only to act to win.

Baldwin’s reluctance 

Churchill urged Flandin to press his views with Bald­win, who was unsym­pa­thet­ic. He knew lit­tle of for­eign affairs, he said, but he did know the British peo­ple want­ed peace. Flandin mod­i­fied his plea. Sup­pose the Anglo-French “invite” Hitler to leave, pend­ing nego­ti­a­tions, which would prob­a­bly restore the Rhineland to Ger­many any­way? Even this was too risky for Bald­win. “I have not the right to involve Eng­land,” he said. “Britain is not in a state to go to war.” Flandin was deflat­ed, and as Bald­win sus­pect­ed, the French cab­i­net was divided.

The pres­sure in Britain to avoid action was strong. At a din­ner of ex-ser­vice­men in Leices­ter, one of Churchill’s sup­port­ers, Leo Amery, gave a fiery speech. Britain’s very exis­tence was threat­ened, he exclaimed. To the amaze­ment of one observ­er, the ex-ser­vice­men sided with the Ger­mans. They said in effect: Why shouldn’t they have their own ter­ri­to­ry back? It’s no con­cern of ours.

“No fresh perplexities” 

Pub­licly, Churchill was being cau­tious. “I was care­ful not to diverge in the slight­est degree from my atti­tude of severe though friend­ly crit­i­cism of Gov­ern­ment pol­i­cy,” he wrote. The friend­li­ness is more evi­dent than the sever­i­ty. Churchill did urge a “coor­di­nat­ed plan” under the League of Nations to help France chal­lenge the Ger­man action. This was denied. Sir Samuel Hoare replied that the nec­es­sary par­tic­i­pants in such a plan were “total­ly unpre­pared from a mil­i­tary point of view.” 

Churchill had polit­i­cal rea­sons for tread­ing light­ly. He had been urg­ing cre­ation of a Min­istry of Defense or Sup­ply, which he hoped to be named to head. Bald­win duly announced a “Min­is­ter for the Coor­di­na­tion of Defense,” which was some­thing less entire­ly. Worse, the job went to Solic­i­tor Gen­er­al Sir Thomas Inskip, who knew noth­ing of the subject. 

Inskip’s appoint­ment dis­ap­point­ed Churchill, who, hop­ing to be called to office, had care­ful­ly avoid­ed pub­lic crit­i­cism of the gov­ern­ment. Bald­win, Churchill rem­i­nisced, “thought, no doubt, that he had dealt me a polit­i­cal­ly fatal stroke, and I felt he might well be right.”

Churchill as peacemaker 

But Churchill still had an audi­ence. He now began a series of fort­night­ly arti­cles on for­eign affairs for the Evening Stan­dard. In the first, “Britain, Ger­many and Locarno,” he renewed his call for League of Nations inter­ces­sion on the Rhineland. He insist­ed that there was a peace­ful way to resolve the prob­lem: 

The Ger­mans claim that the Treaty of Locarno has been rup­tured by the Fran­co-Sovi­et pact. That is their case and it is one that should be argued before the World Court at The Hague. The French have expressed them­selves will­ing to sub­mit this point to arbi­tra­tion and to abide by the result. Ger­many should be asked to act in the same spir­it and to agree. If the Ger­man case is good and the World Court pro­nounces that the Treaty of Locarno has been viti­at­ed by the Fran­co-Sovi­et pact, then clear­ly the Ger­man action, although utter­ly wrong in method, can not be seri­ous­ly chal­lenged by the League of Nations.

This is not Churchill the defi­ant crit­ic of appease­ment, but Churchill the states­man. At this point he was urg­ing pru­dence and adju­di­ca­tion. He did warn that if the League failed in its duty, it might cause events to “slide remorse­less­ly down­hill towards the pit in which West­ern civ­i­liza­tion might be fatal­ly engulfed.”  

He con­tin­ued to urge strength and res­o­lu­tion: “I desire to see the col­lec­tive forces of the world invest­ed with over­whelm­ing pow­er. If you are going to depend on a slight mar­gin, one way or the oth­er, you will have war.”

Collective Security 

Churchill’s next arti­cle returned to his theme of uni­fied action. This was no task for France and Britain alone, he declared. It was a task for all: “There may still be time. Let the States and peo­ple who lie in fear of Ger­many car­ry their alarms to the League of Nations at Gene­va.” In the absence of French mil­i­tary action he was falling back on Col­lec­tive Secu­ri­ty. 

Aside from polit­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions, Churchill was attempt­ing to see things from the view of Britain’s clos­est ally. The French were “afraid of the Ger­mans,” he wrote to The Times; France had joined the sanc­tions against Italy over Mus­soli­ni’s 1935 inva­sion of Abyssinia, and the result­ing estrange­ment had giv­en Hitler his Rhineland oppor­tu­ni­ty: 

In fact Mr. Baldwin’s Gov­ern­ment, from the very high­est motives, endorsed by the coun­try at the Gen­er­al Elec­tion, has, with­out help­ing Abyssinia at all, got France into griev­ous trou­ble which has to be com­pen­sat­ed by the pre­cise engage­ment of our armed forces. Sure­ly in the light of these facts, undis­put­ed as I deem them to be, we might at least judge the French, with whom our for­tunes appear to be so deci­sive­ly linked, with a rea­son­able understanding….

Did Churchill waver? 

Win­ston Churchill favored a col­lec­tive response to the Rhineland, rec­og­niz­ing its impli­ca­tions. One event fol­lowed the oth­er, as the hard­line Mem­ber of Par­lia­ment Robert Booth­by record­ed lat­er:   

The mil­i­tary occu­pa­tion of the Rhineland sep­a­rat­ed France from her allies in East­ern Europe. The occu­pa­tion of Aus­tria iso­lat­ed Czecho­slo­va­kia. The betray­al of Czecho­slo­va­kia by the West iso­lat­ed Poland. The defeat of Poland iso­lat­ed France. The defeat of France iso­lat­ed Britain. If Britain had been defeat­ed, the Unit­ed States would have been giv­en true and total iso­la­tion for the first time.

Churchill cer­tain­ly would have backed French reoc­cu­pa­tion of the Rhineland. But evidence sug­gests that he knew the League was tooth­less. Churchill’s theme did not dra­mat­i­cal­ly change in 1936; it mere­ly evolved. As ear­ly as 1933 he had declared:  “What­ev­er way we turn there is risk. But the least risk and the great­est help will be found in re-cre­at­ing the Con­cert of Europe.”

That was not to be. The fail­ure of a con­cert­ed response over the Rhineland was to be repeat­ed. Each time west­ern states­men hoped the lat­est Hitler inroad would be his last.

Prudence and statesmanship 

It is the belief of many thought­ful his­to­ri­ans that Churchill said and did noth­ing about the Rhineland, even in the weeks after he had been denied office. His actions are more com­plex than that. He did give mixed sig­nals, but he also pro­posed solu­tions. When France refused uni­lat­er­al action, he favored col­lec­tive action. His pub­lic dec­la­ra­tions were hard­ly a clar­i­on call. But we must bear in mind also that he was not in office.  

Churchill nev­er admired Hitler, except in the nar­row sense of Hitler’s polit­i­cal skills. There is no doubt that he spoke well of Mus­soli­ni, up to 1940. Was this because he admired Fas­cism, or because he hoped to influ­ence the Ital­ian dic­ta­tor? Until the mid-1930s, Ita­lo-Ger­man rela­tions were precarious.

The Rhineland marked Churchill’s final dis­il­lu­sion­ment over the League of Nations. It impelled his efforts to secure Col­lec­tive Secu­ri­ty through “a coali­tion of the will­ing” (to use a more recent and per­haps uncom­fort­able phrase). The prob­lem was that the will­ing were few—and demon­stra­bly unwill­ing to coop­er­ate. 

Author’s note 

This essay appeared in longer form in my book, Churchill and the Avoid­able War: Could World War II Have Been Pre­vent­ed? (2015). It was prompt­ed years before by Robert Rhodes James’s argu­ment that Churchill said and did noth­ing to stop Hitler over the Rhineland. I argued oth­er­wise, and he kind­ly agreed to hear me out. Alas my piece appeared too late for his life­time, and cost me his almost cer­tain learned response. I miss my friend. RML 

Related articles

“Great Con­tem­po­raries: The Three Lives of Churchill’s Hitler Essays,” 2024.

“Robert Rhodes James: ‘A Good House of Com­mons Man,” 2023.

“Churchill and the Avoid­able War,” 2015.

“Was the Sec­ond World War Avoid­able?,” 2015.

2 thoughts on “Churchill and the Rhineland: “Terrible Circumstances”

  1. It is use­ful to high­light the Bel­gian sit­u­a­tion at that time, a small coun­try being a buffer between France and Ger­many. I ful­ly agree to the sum­ma­ry as writ­ten by M. Daniel Wybo. Leopold III, King of the Brl­gians, did not have any oth­er choice. In the end Bel­gium was over­run owing to the fail­ure by France and Britain to take prop­er mea­sures in due time. His­to­ry could have been different.

    Mr. van Leem­put is Nation­al Chair­man, Roy­al Vet­er­ans League of King Leopold III.

  2. Some Bel­gian back­ground: In 1936, Bel­gium real­ized that nei­ther the French nor British would do any­thing about Hitler’s reoc­cu­pa­tion of the Rhineland, and France had refused to extend the Mag­inot line along her bor­der with Bel­gium. For one of few times in his­to­ry, the Bel­gian peo­ple were unan­i­mous that their ter­ri­to­ry should nev­er again be used as a bat­tle­field. Thus Bel­gium asked to be absolved of 1925 Locarno Treaty oblig­a­tions and entered into a pol­i­cy of armed neu­tral­i­ty. The British and French Gov­ern­ments rec­og­nized that Bel­gium was mak­ing the most effec­tive con­tri­bu­tion towards the secu­ri­ty of the sur­round­ing States and doing her utmost to ful­fill her func­tion in a part of Europe often exposed to the rav­ages of war. On 24 April 1937 the British and French gov­ern­ments acknowl­edged Belgium’s posi­tion. Armed neu­tral­i­ty might have reduced the risk, but did not pre­vent, Ger­man aggres­sion. Only the Great Pow­ers could have done that. But Belgium’s pol­i­cy cement­ed nation­al uni­ty and strength­ened the com­mon will to resist an onslaught of unpar­al­leled vio­lence, the moral tor­ture of a new occu­pa­tion, and the specter of famine. These were the fun­da­men­tal safe­guards that Bel­gium need­ed to have when her very exis­tence was threat­ened by the storm. I encour­age read­ers to read Richard Langworth’s “Feed­ing the Croc­o­dile: Was Leopold Guilty?”

    Mr. Wybo is a spokesman for The Roy­al League of Vet­er­ans of HM King Leopold III.

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