Retaking the Rhineland

Hitler's first gamble

The Remilitarization of the Rhineland was a significant event in European history that occurred on March 7th, 1936.

It involved the German military reoccupying the demilitarized zone of the Rhineland, a region located in western Germany that was prohibited from having any military presence under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles that ended the First World War.

The decision to remilitarize the Rhineland was made by German Chancellor Adolf Hitler and was a clear violation of the treaty.

The remilitarization of the Rhineland generated dramatic headlines and suspiciously flattering sketches of Hitler across Europe.

Adolf Hitler & Germans attack Rhineland... -

German troops entering the Rhineland in 1936.

...a move that would test the resolve of the other major powers in Europe...

The remilitarization of the Rhineland was a significant move in Hitler's plan to expand the territory and power of Germany, as he sought to create a "Greater Germany" that would include all German-speaking people within its borders.

It was also a move that would test the resolve of the other major powers in Europe, including France and Britain, who were signatories of the Treaty of Versailles and were committed to maintaining peace and stability in the region.

A historically significant region

The term "Rhineland" historically refers to a broadly defined area that includes the land along the Rhine river's banks in Central Europe. The region's eastern portion includes the towns and cities along the river as well as the Bergisches Land region up to the Westphalian (Siegerland) and Hessian areas, while its western portion reaches the borders with Luxembourg, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

The region includes the western portion of the significant Ruhr industrial sector as well as the Cologne Lowland. The southern and eastern parts are primarily hill country and river valleys. It also includes some significant cities, including Aachen, Bonn, Cologne, Duisburg, Düsseldorf, and Essen.

After the First World War, British and French soldiers held the western Rhineland, which was later demilitarised by the 1919 Treaty of Versailles and the 1925 Locarno TreatiesWhen Hitler came to power in 1933, he began a process of remilitarizing Germany almost immediately. In violation of the Treaty of Versailles, which prohibited the country from rearming and maintaining armed forces, Hitler began the process to bring about that end.

A 1905 map of the Rhineland region showing the territories which would become one of the flashpoints that led to the outbreak of the Second World War.

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Raffelberg Hydroelectric Power Plant, built in 1925, was part of the important industrial Ruhr region, partly located in the Rhineland.

Raffelberg Hydroelectric Power Plant (Mülheim an der Ruhr, 1925) | Structurae one took action against him...

In 1935, the Nazi regime began a process of gradually bringing back the military presence in the Rhineland region. This was a direct violation of the Treaty of Versailles, but under Article 420 of that same treaty, it also became an opportunity for Hitler to test how much opposition he would face from other European powers if he were to take military action elsewhere.

Ultimately, no one took action against him and thus this was when Hitler knew he could proceed with his plans for expansionism without any threat of significant repercussions.

The Treaty of Versailles

The Treaty of Versailles, signed by the Allies and Germany at the end of World War I, established the terms under which Germany would surrender and then be occupied by France, the United Kingdom, Italy, and the U.S. The treaty included extraordinarily harsh terms and punitive measures against Germany. At issue was the tremendous destruction in Europe from the war and the need to prevent another such disaster; to that end, the treaty included many restrictions on the German military.

Border between France and Germany after World War I (1919–1926).

...these measures were intended to keep Germany weak...

Specifically, it required Germany to reduce its armed forces to 100,000 soldiers and forbid it from building any new weapons or aircraft. The treaty also forced Germany to pay reparations of billions of dollars to France and other nations for war damages. All of these measures were intended to keep Germany weak while the other nations recovered from the war.

The treaty also required Germany to give up any territory it had acquired from other countries during the war, including Alsace-Lorraine from France, the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia, and the Polish Corridor.

The Polish Corridor was a narrow strip of land that connected Poland with the Baltic Sea, separating it from East Prussia. Its creation in 1919 as part of the Treaty of Versailles was a major source of tension between Poland and Germany.

Additionally, Germany was "forbidden to maintain or construct any fortification either on the Left bank of the Rhine or on the Right bank to the west of a line drawn fifty kilometers to the East of the Rhine," according to Articles 42, 43, and 44 of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles.

If a violation "in any manner whatsoever" of the article took place, it "shall be regarded as committing a hostile act... and as calculated to disturb the peace of the world"

The Locarno Treaties

The Rhineland's demilitarised status should be maintained indefinitely, according to the Locarno Treaties, which were signed in October 1925 by Germany, France, Italy, and Britain.

The signing of the Locarno Treaties was viewed as significant since it represented a voluntarily German acceptance of the demilitarised situation of the Rhineland.

Left to right: Gustav Stresemann, Austen Chamberlain and Aristide Briand at the Locarno negotiations.

Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R03618

...the single most essential guarantee of peace in Europe...

In accordance with the conditions of Locarno, Britain and Italy were required to tacitly guarantee the demilitarised status of the Rhineland and the Franco-German border against "flagrant violations". Under Locarno, a French attack on Germany needed Britain and Italy to support Germany, while a German attack on France required Britain and Italy to support France.

The Rhineland's demilitarised position has been hailed as "the single most essential guarantee of peace in Europe" by American historian Gerhard Weinberg.

 French troops entering Essen, Germany, on the afternoon of 11 January 1923, beginning the Franco-Belgian occupation of the Ruhr Valley after Germany had been declared in default on coal deliveries, part of the post First World War reparations they were expected to pay.

Rhineland Occupation, 1923 Photograph by Granger | Fine Art America

This made it effectively impossible for Germany to attack its eastern neighbours, since the demilitarised zone rendered it defenceless in the West. Additionally, it left Germany vulnerable to a devastating French offensive if the Germans attempted to invade any state in Eastern Europe that was protected by the French alliance system.

Withdrawal of occupying troops

The Versailles Treaty also established a 1935 deadline for the withdrawal of Allied military forces from the Rhineland.

However, German Foreign Minister Gustav Stresemann declared in 1929 that unless the Allies agreed to withdraw from the Rhineland in 1930, Germany would not approve the 1928 Young Plan and would cease making reparations. 

In exchange for the British and French forces leaving the Rhineland, the British delegation at the Hague Conference on German War Reparations advocated lowering the amount of money paid by Germany in reparations.

In late 1929, the last British forces withdrew, and in June 1930, the final French soldiers did as well.

German Foreign Minister Gustav Stresemann

Tensions in Europe

As tensions started to rise, other European countries started to plan and manoeuvre, each seeking to further their own goals.

  • Fascist Italy's foreign policy aimed to maintain an equal approach to all the major nations and to use its influence effectively so that whichever country it chose to associate with would significantly alter the balance of power in Europe. Support for Italian goals in Europe or Africa would be the cost of such an alignment.
  • In a speech on January 19, 1925, Joseph Stalin stated the Soviet Union's foreign policy objective, saying that if a new world war broke out between capitalist nations, "We will enter the fray at the end, throwing our critical weight onto the scale, a weight that should prove to be decisive." The Soviet Union supported German efforts to overthrow the Versailles system by supporting Germany's covert rearmament, (a strategy that greatly irked France), in order to further the goal of the global triumph of communism.

Soviet leader Joseph Stalin supported Germanys efforts to overthrow the terms of the Treaty of Versailles as he felt it would help the cause of global communism.

Stalin Facts: 10 little known facts | Military History Matters (

...France signed alliance treaties with Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Yugoslavia...

  • The French were by far the biggest investors in Imperial Russia prior to 1917, as well as the biggest consumers of Russian debt. Thus, Vladimir Lenin's 1918 decision to repudiate all debts and confiscate all privately held property owned by Russians or foreigners had a significant negative impact on French commerce and finance. Franco-Soviet ties were poisoned until the early 1930s by the issues of Russian debt repudiation and compensation for French companies harmed by Soviet nationalisation programmes. The "cordon sanitaire" in Eastern Europe, which was designed to keep both the Soviets and the Germans out, had been the cornerstone of interwar French diplomacy. As a result, in 1921, 1924, 1926, and 1927, France signed alliance treaties with Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Yugoslavia. The cordon sanitaire nations developed as centres of French political, military, economic, and cultural power as a replacement for Imperial Russia as France's principal ally in the east.

Plans to Remilitarize the Rhineland

Long before 1933, German military and diplomatic elites had planned to remilitarize the Rhineland at the earliest favourable diplomatic opportunity and had seen the region's demilitarised status as only temporary.

At a meeting of Germany's top generals in December 1918, it was decided that the main objective would be to rebuild German military force in order to start a new war and achieve the "world power status" that the Germans had unsuccessfully sought in the previous conflict.

Soldiers of the Reichswehr man a Maschinengewehr (MG) 08/15, during an exercise in the interwar years. The largescale introduction of the machine gun by all combatants before outbreak of the First World War totally changed infantry warfare.

The Reichswehr had steadily been remilitarizing in preparation for a future European conflict. 

Men of Wehrmacht: Reichswehr MG Crew During Manoeuvre soon as Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany, he began working to reverse the terms of the Treaty of Versailles...

The Reichswehr had been planning a war that would destroy France and its ally, Poland, and that presupposed the remilitarization of the Rhineland during the 1920s and the early 1930s.

The German government took measures to get ready for the remilitarization, such as maintaining former barracks in good condition, concealing military supplies in secret warehouses, and constructing customs and fire watchtowers along the border that could be quickly transformed into observation and machine gun posts.

As soon as Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany, he began working to reverse the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. In 1935. But in order to proceed, Hitler needed to test whether the other powers who had imposed the treaty would actually do anything about it.

Britain withdraws

From 1919 to 1932, British defence spending was cut to the bone as it was assumed no major European war would be fought for the next ten years.

The idea of making a "continental commitment" to combat Germany on the continent of Europe was never outright opposed in Britain, but it was not favoured either.

Many people believed that the 1914 "continental commitment" had been a grave error in light of the significant losses sustained during World War I.

The British were exceedingly hesitant to commit to providing security in Eastern Europe for most of the Interwar Period because they believed that the region was so unstable that it would surely drag Britain into unwelcome wars.

Photo of a British Army 3.7" Howitzer Artillery position - North West Frontier -  in the 1930's. The UK prioritised its Empire over Europe, a policy which would ultimately contribute to Hitler's actions in the Rhineland.

Photo of a British Army Artillery position - North West Frontier - 1930's - Artillery & Anti-Tank Weapons - HMVF - Historic Military Vehicles Forum

...for many in Britain, the Empire came first...

Britain was only willing to take on a limited amount of responsibility for security in Western Europe, and even then, it made every effort to avoid a "continental commitment."

For many in Britain, the Empire came first and governing and policing the numerous, far away (but extremely valuable) dominions, colonies, protectorates, mandates, and other territories, was always the priority.

An unnecessary European war would be a wasteful distraction from the real business of running the Empire.

British assurance of the German-Polish boundary would not be provided, according to British Prime minister Neville Chamberlain, because Germany should reclaim the Polish Corridor.

...Britain could not be relied on to intervene should conflict break out...

Even more notably, Whitehall forbade the British military chiefs from consulting with the militaries of the German, French, and Italian governments about possible responses in the event of a "flagrant violation" of Locarno, demonstrating the British lack of respect for even their own Locarno agreements.

This clearly highlighted to other European countries that Britain could not be relied on to intervene should conflict break out. 

British Prime Minister (seen here during the Munich Crisis of 1938) is forever associated with the policy of appeasement due to is ultimately unsuccessful attempts to negotiate a peaceful solution to Hitler's increasingly aggressive actions in Europe during the late 1930's.

Original photo by Edward Malindine, for Daily Herald

In general, British foreign policy for the majority of the 1920s and 1930s was based on appeasement, in which the Versailles-era international order would be reassuringly modified in Germany's favour to win German approval of that international order in order to maintain peace.

Creating a scenario in which Germany might pursue territorial revisionism in Eastern Europe peacefully was one of the key British goals at Locarno.

...the British pursued a "general settlement" with Germany...

London was alarmed by the 1933 government change in Germany, but there remained a great deal of doubt about Hitler's long-term goals, which dominated much of British policy towards Germany up until 1939. Hitler sought to undo Versailles, but the British were never quite sure if his real objective was to rule Europe, which was unthinkable. 

The British pursued a "general settlement" with Germany in which "legitimate" German complaints about the Versailles Treaty would be addressed, but they would also re-arm in order to negotiate with Germany from a position of strength, deter Hitler from considering war, and make sure that Britain was ready in the worst-case scenario in which Hitler actually intended to conquer Europe.

The league shows its weakness

Italy invaded Ethiopia on October 3, 1935, igniting the Second Italo-Ethiopian War. The British government took the lead in pressing the League of Nations for penalties against Italy under intense pressure from the British public opinion, which was strongly in favour of collective security.

...the French viewed Hitler, not Mussolini, as the real danger...

On November 18, 1935, the League Assembly approved a British move to penalise Italy immediately.

The British line that collective security had to be upheld caused considerable tensions between Paris and London.

The French viewed Hitler, not Mussolini, as the real danger to the peace and so it was worth paying the price to accept the conquest of Ethiopia if it maintained the status quo in Europe.

Germany perceived a window of opportunity for the remilitarization of the Rhineland since Paris and London were publicly at odds on how best to respond to the Italian invasion, and there was a highly visible conflict between Rome and London.

Hitler felt he could see the cracks appearing...

Germany on the march

Originally Hitler had planned to remilitarize the Rhineland in 1937, but chose in early 1936 to move re-militarization forward by a year for several reasons:

  • The ratification by the French National Assembly of the Franco-Soviet pact of 1935 allowed him to present his coup both at home and abroad as a defensive move against Franco-Soviet "encirclement" of Germany.
  • The expectation that France would be better armed and prepared for a conflict in 1937.
  • The government in Paris had just fallen and a caretaker government was in charge which suggested France would like the political will to confront Germany.
  • Germanys own economic problems required a foreign policy success to restore the regime's popularity and distract the population from any internal issues.
  • The Second Italo-Ethiopian War, which had set Britain against Italy, had effectively broken up the Stresa Front.
  • And because Hitler simply did not feel like waiting an extra year as he was impatient to move forward with his political plans.

Italian soldiers during the Second Italo-Ethiopian war.

...Hitler had been looking for: a chance to test whether the other powers would actually do anything about his actions...

On the 7th March 1936, he sent German troops into the Rhineland region, claiming they were there to deal with any potential issues with communist groups in the area. Under the terms of the treaty, France and the UK could have sent their own soldiers to the Rhineland to confront the Germans, but they did not.

This incident became what Hitler had been looking for: a chance to test whether the other powers would actually do anything about his actions. And when they didn't, he knew he had nothing to worry about.

German soldiers greeted by jubilant locals are entering the Rhineland in 1936.

German troops entering the Rhineland. Note the crowd giving Nazi salutes and the Swastika in the background. 

WWII in Photographs, The Rhineland was demilitarized by the Treaty of... (

In total, the Rhineland was invaded by nineteen German army battalions and a handful of planes. Germany breached Articles 42 and 43 of the Treaty of Versailles, as well as Articles 1 and 2 of the Treaty of Locarno, by doing so.

They arrived at the Rhine around 11:00 a.m., and three battalions crossed to the west bank. The German troops that entered the Rhineland on March 7 were met with little resistance, as French and British forces remained largely inactive.

At the same time, The Italian ambassador, Baron Bernardo Attolico, the British ambassador, Sir Eric Phipps, and the French ambassador, André François-Poncet, were told that France was accused of violating the Locarno Treaty by ratifying the Franco-Soviet pact, and in response, Germany had decided to renounce the treaty and remilitarize the Rhineland.

...the remilitarization of the Rhineland was a risky move for Hitler...

German War Minister General Werner von Blomberg pleaded with Hitler to withdraw the German forces when German reconnaissance discovered that thousands of French soldiers had gathered near the Franco-German border. Would the French attack? Hitler was on the verge of doing so when the steadfastly composed Diplomat Baron Konstantin von Neurath urged him to persevere and carry out Operation Winter Exercise.

Reassured, Hitler followed Neurath's suggestion and asked if the French forces had truly crossed the border. When told they hadn't, he assured Blomberg that Germany would wait until they did. Neurath’s calm composure had won through.

The remilitarization of the Rhineland was a risky move for Hitler, as it could have led to a military confrontation with France and Britain. However, he believed that the other powers would be hesitant to take any military action, given their reluctance to go to war over Germany's previous territorial demands.

German Diplomat Baron Konstantin von Neurath, who persuaded Hitler to stay the course during the remilitirisation of the Rhineland.

Hitler's gamble paid off, as the other powers did not take any immediate military action. France, in particular, was reluctant to risk a war with Germany and did not want to act without the support of Britain.

Britain, for its part, was preoccupied with its own domestic issues and did not want to get involved in continental affairs.

German troops - accompanied by young locals - marching in the Rhineland, 1936.

The Rhineland Invasion of 1936: How Appeasement Ruined the Chance to Crush Hitler | (

A year of tests

The Rhineland incident was only one of a number of instances in 1936 when Hitler tested the waters for how aggressively he could proceed in his plans for expansion. He also did the following: - He installed new military equipment in the demilitarized zone. –

  • He made it clear to the German people that he wanted a more powerful military.
  • He replaced the military commander who had been selected by the previous government.
  • He made plans for a military alliance with Japan.

All of these actions marked a clear shift in the way that Hitler was governing Germany. They also marked a shift in how the other powers were reacting to his actions. Up until 1936, the other nations had been reacting to Hitler's actions with concern, but they had not taken any significant steps to stop him.

After the annexation of Austria, they began to realise how much of a threat to world peace Hitler was becoming.

German Troops in Kufstein, Vienna, during the  Anschluss - the German annexation of Austria - in 1938.

LIFE magazine

Consequences of the Rhineland Incident

The remilitarization of the Rhineland was a major victory for Hitler and a significant step towards his goal of creating a "Greater Germany."

It also marked a turning point in European history, as it demonstrated that the other powers were unwilling or unable to confront Hitler's expansionist ambitions.

In the long term, the remilitarization of the Rhineland had serious consequences for Europe and the world.

It emboldened Hitler to pursue further territorial demands, such as the annexation of Austria and the Sudetenland, which eventually led to the outbreak of the Second World War.

It also highlighted the weaknesses of the international system that had been established after World War I and the failure of the other powers to deter German aggression.

...many residents of the Rhineland were forced to flee...

The remilitarization of the Rhineland also had significant consequences for the people living in the region.

The reoccupation of the Rhineland by German forces marked the beginning of a period of military rule and repression in the region, as the Nazi regime sought to impose its authority and ideology on the local population.

Many residents of the Rhineland were forced to flee or were subjected to persecution and violence by the occupying forces.

The incident in the Rhineland changed the world in a number of ways. Most directly, it allowed Hitler to continue his march towards war. It also led to significant changes in the world of international relations. In particular, it marked the beginning of the end for the League of Nations as the treaty that ended  the First World War had been drafted by that organization.

After the Rhineland incident, the League of Nations was essentially powerless.

Stanley Bruce chairing the League of Nations Council in 1936. German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop is addressing the council. The failure of the League to prevent the Remilitarization of the Rhineland was yet another failure and increasingly demonstrated its powerlessness.

The League of Nations: The ‘Great Experiment’ and the Failure of Collective Security, 1916-1936 – Brewminate: A Bold Blend of News and Ideas

...Germany continued to pursue its territorial demands...

In the aftermath of the remilitarization of the Rhineland, the other powers began to reassess their strategies and policies towards Germany. France and Britain began to take a more assertive stance towards Germany, seeking to contain its expansionist ambitions through diplomatic means.

However, their efforts proved insufficient, and Germany continued to pursue its territorial demands, eventually leading to the outbreak of the Second World War.


It was also a turning point in the way that other countries dealt with one another. Up until the Rhineland incident, the European powers had been governed by the idea of collective security. This meant that each individual country could rely on its allies to be responsible for its own defence. After the Rhineland incident, France and the UK began to rely instead on deterrence.

This meant that each country had to be able to take care of its own defence, with the hope that the other powers would be deterred if they tried to attack.

The Maginot Line during the 1930's. With the failure of the League of Nations and 'collective security' and the increased aggression of Nazi Germany, many European countries focussed on their own defences. For France which shared a border with Germany, much stock was put in the formidable Maginot line - miles and miles of defensive fortifications and underground tunnels, manned by a substantial garrison.

The Maginot Line: The Symbol of Failed Strategy - WW2 Explained

Further reading


Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R03618

Bundesarchiv, N 1310 Bild-135 / CC-BY-SA 3.0,that%20could%20be%20mobilised%20at%20times%20of%20crisis.

Original photo by Edward Malindine, for Daily Herald

LIFE magazine

William Shirer, “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”. (1960)

Winston Churchill, “The Second World War: The Gathering Storm.”(1948)

Antony Beevor, “The Second World War” (2012)

James Holland, “The War in the West: Germany Ascendant 1939-1941” (2015)

Max Hastings, “All Hell Let Loose: The World at War 1939-1945” (2011)