Between 1933 and 1935, Hitler focused on solidifying the Nazi Party’s control of Germany and building support among its people. He also began to rebuild Germany’s military, keeping it secret because he didn’t know how the world would react to this apparent violation of the Versailles treaty of 1919 (see reading, Negotiating Peace in Chapter 3). By March 1935, however, it was no longer a secret, as Hitler publicly announced his intentions to rebuild the German air force, reinstate conscription (the draft), and rearm the nation. He assured other world leaders that these were not violations of the Treaty of Versailles but purely “defensive” measures. In a speech to the Reichstag, he said, “The principal effect of every war is to destroy the flower of the nation. Germany needs peace and desires peace.” He promised that “the German government is ready to agree to any limitation which leads to the abolition of the heaviest arms, especially suited for aggression, such as the heaviest artillery and the heaviest tanks.” And he warned, “Whoever lights the torch of war in Europe can wish for nothing but chaos.”
The speech was praised both at home and abroad. The American journalist William L. Shirer, one of Hitler’s earliest critics, recalled in his memoir many years later that he had “left the Reichstag that evening convinced that Hitler, despite all my reservations about him, really wanted peace and had made the West, at least, a serious offer.”
A German schoolteacher wrote in her diary that this was
the day that we have longed for since the disgrace of 1918. . . . We would never have experienced Versailles if such actions had always been taken, such answers always given . . . General conscription is to serve not war but the maintenance of peace. For a defenceless country in the midst of heavily armed people must necessarily be an invitation and encouragement to maltreat it as territory to march into or to plunder.
One year later, on March 7, 1936, German soldiers marched into the Rhineland as German fighter planes roared overhead. The Treaty of Versailles had set aside the Rhineland, a strip of land 31 miles wide, as a buffer zone between Germany and France. Although it was officially part of Germany, the nation was not allowed to fortify it or station troops there. Now Hitler had broken that agreement.
Most German generals had opposed the move into the Rhineland. They feared that the French would defeat their half-trained, inadequately equipped army within hours. But Hitler, always watching for reaction inside and outside of Germany, was convinced that neither France nor Britain would intervene. He was right. The French public was worried about entering into another war, and the French government feared that the German forces marching into the Rhineland were larger and stronger than they actually were. In England, the public was indifferent to the German occupation of the Rhineland, making it difficult for any British leaders who wanted to punish Germany to find support. Historian Richard Evans writes that from the perspective of the French and British, “What had happened, after all, was only a recovery of Germany’s sovereignty over its own territory, and no one thought that was worth risking a general war.”
Within Germany, members of the Nazi Party celebrated, while many others responded with cautious approval.
Some businessmen were admittedly pleased because they thought things would now improve for them. Most people indeed quietly approved of the remilitarization. Young people in particular were enthusiastic in some places. “It's our country, after all,” declared one worker. “Why shouldn't we be allowed to have any military there?” But there were also widespread fears that the action would lead to war. Many active Nazis responded to them by pointing to Hitler's professions of pacific [peaceful] intent. Only a few boasted that they would welcome a war. People were proud of the recovery of national sovereignty, but at the same time, they were desperately worried about the dangers of a general war, about the prospect of mass bombing of German cities and about a repeat of the death and destruction of 1914–18.
- In what ways did Hitler break the Treaty of Versailles? What might you expect the consequences to be? What were the actual consequences?
- How did Hitler’s actions attempt to reassert the power of Germany? How did he justify his actions? Why was the appearance of legality important to Hitler?
- Why were so many European leaders reluctant to challenge Hitler’s actions to rebuild Germany’s military and occupy the Rhineland?
- How did Germans respond to Hitler’s plans for rearmament and remilitarization? Why would businesspeople be particularly pleased?
- This reading includes quotations from four different reflections on Hitler’s “actions”: a diary, a memoir, a speech by Hitler, and a summary by a modern historian. How does each source help us to better understand a different aspect of the historical moment? What might be the limitations of each source?