Hitler: The Rhineland and Austria
In 1936 Hitler defied the Treats of Versailles. He ordered German troops to march into the Rhineland. Two years later he broke the Treaty again by uniting Germany with Austria.
The risk of war
Hitler took considerable risks in moving into the Rhineland. There was a good chance that France would send troops to resist the German forces and this would mean war. The German army was not ready for war. No one in Germany knew how the French would react. Many German generals were unhappy at Hitler's plan.
If the French had sent an army into the Rhineland they could easily have outnumbered the German forces. The first troops into the Rhineland were ordered to retreat if they met with French resistance. In the days immediately after the invasion the German generals called upon Hitler to retreat. He refused.
Hitler the peacemaker?
Instead of giving way, Hitler tried to show the world that the action in the Rhineland was reasonable. The ambassadors of Britain, Italy and France were told that Hitler had important new plans for long-term peace in Europe. He proposed a 25-year agreement between Germany, France and Belgium: Germany promised not to attack its western neighbors.
Hitler also suggested that there should be a demilitarized zone on either side of the French-German borders. He talked about Germany returning to the League of Nations. These were not serious proposals, but they made Hitler seem reasonable. Many people were taken in by his proposals. In Britain, for example, the Labor politician Arthur Henderson said that Hitler's offer of the 'olive branch. . .ought to be taken at face value'.
On the day of the reoccupation Hitler spoke to the Reichstag. Again, his intention was to convince the world that the action in the Rhineland was not worth fighting for. He suggested that he was actually trying to build a new peaceful Europe.
The reaction of the French and the British
French ministers and generals met in emergency session on the day of the occupation. They thought about sending the French army to fight. In the end the French decided to protest but not to fight.
In Britain hardly anyone wanted to go to war over the Rhineland. Many British people approved of what Hitler had done; this was German territory, and they thought the German army had a right to be there. One politician said that the British did not care 'two hoots' about the Rhineland. The British government sympathized with this view. They took no action.
The Rhineland crisis showed that Hitler could seize an opportunity on the spur of the moment. He had been planning to wait until 1937, by which time the German army would have been stronger due to rearmament. However, he recognized that the Abyssinian crisis provided an unusual opportunity. Britain, France and the League of Nations were overwhelmed by the crisis in Abyssinia and there was a reluctance to get involved in any more conflicts.
The 'Anschluss': the German take-over of Austria
In early 1938 Austria was in a state of crisis. Local Nazis were making life difficult for the government of Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg. Hitler did not have complete control over these Austrian Nazis, and they sometimes acted without waiting for orders from Berlin.
In January 1938 it was discovered by the Austrian authorities that there was a plot by Austrian Nazis to create chaos in Austria by killing the German ambassador. Austrian Nazis hoped that in the turmoil the German government would take over Austria.
The Austrian leader, Schuschnigg, visited Hitler for crisis talks in Germany in February 1938. Schuschnigg was badly treated at this meeting. Hitler raved and shouted at him for two hours. He demanded that Nazis be allowed to join the Austrian government and be given control of law and order. Schuschnigg felt that he had no option and agreed to Hitler's terms.
When Schuschnigg got back to Austria he was in a difficult situation. He took very seriously Hitler's threat of force unless Nazis were given more power in Austria. There was no chance of help from abroad. The British had made it clear that they would not stop a German take-over.
On 9 March Schuschnigg made one last desperate attempt to keep Austria independent. He announced that there would be a plebiscite, or referendum, in Austria to decide whether Austrians wanted their country to remain independent. He fixed the lowest age of voting at twenty-four, so that young Nazis would not be able to vote.
Hitler was enraged when he heard about the plebiscite plan. He feared that Schuschnigg would win the plebiscite and he ordered the army to invade before the plebiscite. On 11 March 1938 the German army invaded Austria. Arrests began immediately of enemies of the Nazis. In the city of Vienna alone 76.000 people were arrested in the aftermath of the invasion. On 12 March Hitler himself crossed into Austria. He went to his own home town of Linz where he was greeted by cheering crowds.