On 7 March 1936 German troops marched into the Rhineland. This action was directly against the Treaty of Versailles which had laid out the terms which the defeated Germany had accepted. It was Hitler’s first illegal act in foreign relations since coming to power in 1933 and it threw the European allies, especially France and Britain, into confusion. What should they do about his actions?
These documents reveal the motives and attitudes of the British government as they discuss their options. They are all extracts from the minutes of the Cabinet meeting on 11 March 1936.
The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs was Anthony Eden, the Prime Minister was Stanley Baldwin.
According to the Treaty of Versailles, the Rhineland, a strip of land inside Germany bordering on France, Belgium and the Netherlands, was to be de-militarised. That is, no German troops were to be stationed inside that area or any fortifications built. The aim was to increase French security by making it impossible for Germany to invade France unawares. Other terms restricted the German army to 100,000 men and the navy to just 36 ships. Germany objected to the terms of the treaty but were told to sign it or the war would begin again.
The Treaty of Versailles also set up the League of Nations, an international peace-keeping organisation. It was based on the idea of collective security, that is, the nations of the world would act together (collectively) to preserve peace. Unfortunately, one of the most powerful, the USA, did not join the League.
Germany in the 1920s was keen to get back on normal terms with other nations and signed the Treaty of Locarno. By this treaty Germany agreed to accept the terms of the Versailles Treaty, at least on her western borders. France continued to worry about their safety against Germany particularly after Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933. He had always declared his firm intention of overthrowing the Treaty of Versailles and uniting all Germans in one country, even if it led to war. Germany began to re-arm. Could France trust collective security, or should they find military allies?
In May 1935 France signed a treaty of friendship and mutual support with the USSR. Germany claimed the treaty was hostile to them and Hitler used this as an excuse to send German troops into the Rhineland in March 1936, contrary to the terms of the treaties of Versailles and Locarno. It was a gamble on his part and his generals were nervous about it. German re-armament had not yet reached a point where they felt ready to take on a well-armed nation like France.
Following the discussions described in the documents, the British Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, did indeed meet the German ambassador and make his proposals. Hitler refused to withdraw his troops, and put pressure on the League of Nations to act. France was on the verge of a general election and would not act without Britain’s support. However the British people felt that the Treaty of Versailles was unfair on Germany and was over-restrictive, and so partly because of this, the British government decided to do nothing. Hitler moved on from the occupation of the Rhineland in 1936, to the annexation of Austria and the seizure of the Sudetenland in 1938, to the take-over of the rest of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 and then Poland in September 1939.
We know that those men sitting round the Cabinet table in Downing Street in March 1936 had no idea that they were only three and a half years away from war. We must not judge them with hindsight.
The amount of background information on the treaties and the League and the need to juggle information about several countries and their attitudes all make this lesson hard. It also has to be understood that, at that time, as Eden says in Source 1: ‘our influence was greater than that of any other nation.’
However, appeasement is an important phase in British foreign policy; it helps to explain why the Second World War broke out when and how it did. It also traumatised a generation of British politicians into trying to redeem themselves, from Suez in 1956 to the Falklands in 1982.
The extracts from the Cabinet minutes show how little room for manoeuvre British politicians actually had. It was going to be re-played again over Czechoslovakia in 1938, but all the key issues are mentioned here:
- horror of war
- unpreparedness for war
- belief that communism was an evil to be avoided an any cost
- mistrust of our key allies
- weakness of the League of Nations
- recognition that the Treaty of Versailles may have been wrong in parts and readiness to revise it
- assumption that Hitler was a reasonable politician with reasonable demands and should be dealt with as such
For this reason, a study of the Rhineland crisis is an excellent case study of British appeasement policy.
Sources 1-5 FO 371/19892 – Minutes from the Foreign Office meeting on the Treaty of Locarno in 1936
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