On March 7, 1936, Germany moved to remilitarize the Rhine valley in western Germany, in direct violation of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles.
Though there was some blustering from France and England, the German action was allowed to stand unchallenged. “Herr Hitler’s action is alarming,” said British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden on March 8, “because of the fresh confirmation which it affords of the scant respect paid by German governments to the sanctity of treaties.” “The German action is unacceptable,” said French Prime Minister Leon Blum. But though France could probably have acted alone, the French government was reluctant to act without Britain – and Britain would do nothing. And so the European democracies began their long, slow motion descent into the chaos of World War II, “the most unnecessary war in history,” as Winston Churchill called it. Had the French acted, or had they been encouraged to act by the British, Hitler could have been stopped when the cost of doing so would have been relatively small.
What would the world be like if France and Britain had acted more decisively? What would the world be like if the people denounced at the time as “warmongers”(people like Winston Churchill) had prevailed over the people praised at the time as “peacemakers” (people like Anthony Eden?)
What follows is an attempt to imagine that different world, and how one of our most persistent “advocates for peace”– James Carroll — might look back on the Rhineland Campaign from the safety of a very different 2006, and what judgment he might make about the decision to go to war. (James Carroll is the author of House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power ; Crusade: Chronicles of an Unjust War ; and Constantine’s Sword , among other books. He is a regular columnist for The Boston Globe.)
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On March 8, 1936 (let us pretend) France and England launched a joint military campaign to drive the German army out of the Rhineland. The aim of the campaign was not simply to push back German forces from areas denied to them by the Treaty, but to destroy the military assets that Germany had been developing secretly and illegally.
The Rhineland Campaign was a difficult and costly one, because French and British armies (even with American air support) were unprepared for the German resistance, and uncertain about what Germany’s military capabilities really were. At first, German units retreated to the eastern side of the Rhine; but once it became clear that France and Britain were prepared to engage the German army deep into German territory, retreat turned to bloody resistance.
It was not until six months into the campaign that the outcome was certain; by then much of the Wehrmacht had been killed or captured, and Germany’s small tank corps and air force had been largely destroyed. But costs to the Allies were also high. Total casualties on both sides exceeded 10,000 killed and over 25,000 wounded. Taking place in one of the most densely populated regions in the country, the war also caused much suffering among the civilian population, and produced a flood of refugees fleeing east. Thousands were made homeless by the war.
Germany experienced a dramatic series of events after its defeat in the Rhineland Campaign. Hitler was assassinated on October 12, 1936, in a coup organized by the officer corps, and a moderately liberal Parliamentary regime, under the direction of former Lieutenant Colonel Erwin Rommel, replaced the Third Reich. (Rommel had acquitted himself well during the Rhineland Campaign, but was known to be skeptical about Hitler’s qualities as a leader.)
A League of Nations conference adjusted the terms of the Versailles Treaty, so that Germany was forgiven the reparations that had helped to destroy the German economy. The nation was even permitted to keep a small military force. Germans began to see some improvement of their living standards in the next decade. Especially welcome was the end of the hyperinflation that had earlier wiped out the savings of the middle class. International aid helped rebuild what had been destroyed by the war, and by 1947 the Republic of Germany was experiencing an economic boom for the first time since before the Great War. Indeed, that year was the first sign that the long world-wide depression that had begun in 1929 was finally beginning to end – in no small measure because of the recovery of the German economy, the largest in Europe.
The success of the Rhineland Campaign did not mean, however, the end of the world’s political and military troubles. The Soviet Union, taking advantage of the troubles in the west, continued to menace Poland’s eastern borders. Mussolini refused to cancel the Italian annexation of Ethiopia, and the underground Ethiopian Liberation Movement took thousands of lives in the following decade.
Anti-Semitism was also a continuing problem, especially in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and the Zionist movement grew gradually stronger. In April, 1950, the League of Nations and Great Britain brought a formal end to the British Palestine Mandate with the creation of Arab and Jewish states in Palestine west of the Jordan River. But the surrounding Arab nations immediately declared war on the new state of Israel – a war that has never really ended, though Arab armies have been defeated on three separate occasions. Despite the anti-Semitism, however, there continued to be a vigorous Jewish life in Europe, and by 2003 the world’s 25 million Jews were about equally divided among the three major population centers of Israel, Europe, and the United States. The winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1967, in fact, was Isaac Bashevis Singer, the foremost Yiddish writer living in Poland – a sign that the literary culture of Eastern European Jews could hold its own in the competition with English, German, and Hebrew.
The defeat of the Nazi regime was followed by a robust Western defense of Poland and Czechoslovakia against the new threat from Stalin, which intensified in the mid-1940s, with Soviet-sponsored civil unrest and attempted coups in several Eastern European countries. Finding its moves checked in the west, Soviet foreign policy turned eastward, to meet the growing menace of Japan. By the mid-1950s, there was increasing discontent inside the Soviet Union, even though open dissent was still punished, as in the Czar’s time, by exile to Siberia, or worse. (Jews seeking to emmigrate to British Palestine in the 1940s were singled out for special persecution.) Joseph Stalin died mysteriously in 1953 – some thought that he had been poisoned by members of his own officer corps, angry because of the purges that had so decimated their ranks during the 1930s and 1940s. (Rumors predicted yet another purge.) The Second Russo-Japanese War (1956-1958) was widely interpreted as a last-ditch effort by the Politburo to get control of the Red Army, and rally the Soviet people to a patriotic cause. But the disastrous consequences of the war (Japanese victory, and even Japanese occupation of Vladivostok) helped bring an end to the Communist Party’s grip on the country’s institutions, although the military regime installed after the so-called Christmas Coup of 1959 proved to be not much of an improvement on the old regime.
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Now James Carroll looks back on that long ago spring of 1936, and the Rhineland Campaign, from the vantage point of the very different 2006 produced by the events of that imagined past.
“How unjust it all appears, looking back on it now” [he writes in the Boston Globe, on the 70th anniversary of the war’s end]. “The Versailles Treaty, which Germany was accused of violating, is widely acknowledged by historians to have been notoriously unjust; Germany therefore had legitimate grievances against the Allied powers. No less a personage than the Archbishop of Canterbury, in a valiant attempt to stop the coming war, said that Germany “must be recognized as a nation entitled to an equal place among other nations.” If only his prophetic and deeply Christian message had not fallen on deaf ears.
What version of international law denies armaments to one country and not to others, or tells a sovereign nation where on its own soil it may and may not station its own troops? And if France and England had a quarrel with Germany, why didn’t they take it to the League of Nations? Didn’t English and American corporate interests in fact profit from the rearmament of Germany?
It is true that Hitler was a dictator, but there were dictators in many countries; America, England, and France were all more than willing to do business with dictators before, and they have done so since. And yes, it is true, Hitler appears to have been a rabid anti-Semite, and was obviously a Fascist, like Mussolini. But weren’t fascism and anti-Semitism present in many countries? Experts point out that anti-Semitism was a predictable response to Germany’s losses in the Great War. Was there not anti-Semitism in France and England also, not to mention Italy and Poland – even in America? Have we forgotten Father Coughlin and Henry Ford? What gave us the right to judge the Germans so harshly? What justifies the kind of violence we saw in the Rhineland Campaign, with its tens of thousands killed, including thousands of innocent civilians, the local economy wrecked, priceless cultural monuments – including the magnificent Cathedral in Cologne — ruined beyond repair? Americans bear a special responsibility for this violence, because the American bombing campaign chose its targets in flagrant disregard of the welfare of civilians and the rules of war. In one city alone, American bombs killed over 3000 civilians, as fire spread through old wooden buildings in streets too narrow for fire trucks – as the Army Air Corps should have known would happen.
How could this violence be justified? British and French officials claimed that Hitler’s actions were just the start of a campaign of domination that would have resulted in a much wider war. But there is no evidence for this, and plenty of documentary evidence to suggest that France and Britain were more concerned to protect their overseas colonies from German competition.
So many brave young Frenchmen and Englishmen and Germans killed; so many civilians caught in the crossfire.
And for what?”
The writer is a member of the Political Science department at Boston College.
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