Finest Hour 141, Winter 2008-09
Churchill and the Rhineland
By Richard M. Langworth
This article is dedicated to the memory of the late Sir Robert Rhodes James, with whom the author shared a spirited discussion of Churchill and the Rhineland from different perspectives. —RML
After three years, I believe that, with the present day, the struggle for German equal rights can be regarded as closed….we have no territorial claims to make in Europe.”1
—Adolf Hitler, 7 March 1936
“Churchill would have called Hitler’s bluff, but he was in no position to do so. All he could do was virtually to shriek in the press, concerning the ‘hideous drift’ to war, ‘Stop it now!’”2
—Manfred Weidhorn, 29 October 1994
“Churchill said nothing about the Rhineland—nothing at all. He was hoping for Cabinet office and so he kept quiet.3
—Sir Robert Rhodes James, 29 October 1994
The Rhineland, in western Germany, is washed by the River Rhine in the east and bounded by France and the Benelux countries in the west. It includes the industrial Ruhr Valley, and such famous cities as Aachen, Bonn, Cologne, Düsseldorf, Essen, Koblenz, Mainz, Mannheim, Wiesbaden and Wuppertal.
At the end of World War I the Rhineland, along with a number of bridgeheads into Germany proper at places like Cologne, was militarily occupied by the victorious Allies. Though the occupation was to last through 1935, troops withdrew in 1930 as a good-will gesture to the Weimar Republic following the Locarno Treaties, signed in 1925 to normalize relations with Germany.4 But, quite unacceptably to Germans, the Allies were authorized to reoccupy the Rhineland any time Germany violated provisions of the Versailles Treaty.
On Saturday, 7 March 1936, a few thousand German troops reoccupied the Rhineland as a rejoicing populace waved swastika flags. They had orders to “turn back and not to resist” if challenged by the all-dominant French Army. Hitler later said that the forty-eight hours following his action were the most tense of his life.5
The Rhineland was a watershed in history—the event which divides Ian Kershaw’s two masterly volumes of Hitler biography. Though he defended it on legal grounds, the coup marked Hitler’s first foray into territory where he was not legally permitted. Churchill admirers correctly cite the Rhineland as first proof of Churchill’s warnings about Hitler since 1933; but debate continues over what Churchill proposed to do about it.
Typically, Churchill early recognized the crisis to come, predicting Hitler’s move to his wife6 on 17 January 1936: “The League of Nations Union folk, who have done their best to get us disarmed, may find themselves confronted by terrible consequences.”7
Churchill’s expectations were well-founded. Hitler too was thinking of reoccupying the Rhineland and anxious for ways to justify it, according to Joachim von Ribbentrop, who later became Hitler’s foreign minister:
…it occurred to me that it might help a peaceful outcome if we declared ourselves willing to return to the League of Nations [which Germany had left in November 1933]. I made a note and put it on the table. In the morning the Führer rang me quite unexpectedly: he wanted to come to see me to discuss something very important. When he arrived he said: “Ribbentrop, it occurred to me last night how we can occupy the Rhineland without any friction. We return to the League!…I took up my note from the table and showed it to him….Is there not such a thing as telepathy?8
At Ribbentrop’s suggestion Hitler marched on a Saturday, while the French and British were enjoying the weekend (a tactic he would employ frequently), and issued a diplomatic memorandum defending his action:
France has replied to the repeated friendly offers and peaceful assurances made by Germany by infringing the Rhine Pact through a military alliance with the Soviet Union exclusively directed against Germany. In this manner, however, the Locarno Rhine Pact has lost its inner meaning and ceased in practice to exist. Consequently, Germany regards herself for her part as no longer bound by this dissolved treaty.9
Hitler balanced his bitter pill with a sweet: the offer of a security system establishing “a real pacification of Europe between states that are equal in rights, and Germany’s return to the League of Nations provided she eventually got back the colonies she had been deprived of at Versailles.” Yet Hitler had “personally given his assurance about Locarno” to Eden in 1934.10
The question turned on how France would react. Would she march? Would she demand Britain march with her? Would she demand intervention by the League of Nations? Or just dither and do nothing? Eden, Churchill believed, favored action:
In a determined speech he declared that England would stand by France in the future, and he insisted upon “Staff Conversations” being proclaimed. This was the most he could wring from the Baldwin Cabinet, and it was a good deal more than anyone else could have got.11
Unfortunately for “staff conversations,” the French military was led by Gustave-Maurice Gamelin, a former aide to Marshal Joffre who would later lead the Anglo-French armies to perdition following the German onslaught of 1940: “…in mufti he was just another non-descript fonctionnaire…under pressure he became everything a commander ought not to be: indecisive, given to issuing impulsive orders which he almost always countermanded, and timid to and beyond a fault.”12 The rot in France had already gone a long way: the French government may have yearned for a way to stop Hitler invading other places; French generals were more worried about stopping him from invading France herself.13
The bulk of opinion was that France was unwilling to act, with or without Britain. But was she? Not according to Churchill, describing the resolve of Pierre-Etienne Flandin, the French foreign minister, who arrived in London on 11 March:
He told me that he proposed to demand from the British Government simultaneous mobilisation of the land, sea, and air forces of both countries, and that he had received assurances of support from all the nations of the “Little Entente” [Czechoslovakia, Rumania and Yugoslavia, supported by France] and from other States. He read out an impressive list of the replies received. There was no doubt that superior strength still lay with the Allies of the former war. They had only to act to win.14
Heartened by Flandin’s attitude, Churchill urged him to demand a meeting with the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, who, as Churchill saw it, handed him a dusty response:
Mr. Baldwin explained that although he knew little of foreign affairs he was able to interpret accurately the feelings of the British people. And they wanted peace. M. Flandin says that he rejoined that the only way to ensure this was to stop Hitlerite aggression while such action was still possible. France had no wish to drag Great Britain into war; she asked for no practical aid, and she would herself undertake what would be a simple police operation, as, according to French information, the German troops in the Rhineland had orders to withdraw if opposed in a forcible manner. Flandin asserts that he said that all that France asked of her Ally was a free hand.15
Churchill realized that Flandin was putting his own spin on the situation: “How could Britain have restrained France from action to which, under the Locarno Treaty, she was legally entitled?” In the event, however, Baldwin’s answer ended any chance of French resistance. Flandin, Churchill wrote, returned to France
convinced, first that his own divided country could not be united except in the presence of a strong will-power in Britain, and secondly that, so far from this being forthcoming, no strong impulse could be expected from her. Quite wrongly he plunged into the dismal conclusion that the only hope for France was in an arrangement with an ever more aggressive Germany.16
Churchill’s account was far more positive than the reality, according to Maurice Ashley, WSC’s literary assistant. All Flandin actually proposed to Baldwin, Ashley wrote, was to convene the League Council, and perhaps to adopt “sanctions by stages.”17
But Churchill does accurately record Stanley Baldwin’s judgment of the mood of Great Britain. The pressure to avoid a confrontation with Germany was immense. At a dinner of ex-servicemen in Leicester, a Churchill ally in the rearmament debate, Leo Amery, gave a fiery speech declaring that Britain’s very existence was threatened. To the amazement of an observer, the former servicemen sided with the Germans, saying in effect, “Why shouldn’t they have their own territory back; if they get it, it’s no concern of ours.”18
Although Hitler’s timing was certainly not based on any concern for Churchill’s reaction, he had nevertheless chosen a moment particularly inconvenient to WSC politically. Churchill recognized the strategic implications of the Rhineland’s occupation, and agreed with Austen Chamberlain, who warned that Austria was next on Hitler’s list. But when he addressed the Commons on 10 March, wrote Robert Rhodes James, Churchill spoke mildly, and was far from bellicose:
He subsequently wrote that “I was careful not to derogate in the slightest degree from my attitude of severe though friendly criticism of Government policy, and I was held to have made a successful speech.” The friendliness is more evident than the severity. Neville Chamberlain recorded that Churchill had “suppressed the attack he had intended and made a constructive and helpful speech.”19
In a discussion of Churchill actions in 1994, Sir Robert maintained that Churchill made “no direct reference whatever” in his 10 March speech to the German reoccupation of the Rhineland.”20 This may be true in the technical sense, but Churchill was certainly referring to the Rhineland when he spoke of “the last few days,” and recommended a ministry of supply or defence:
If what we have seen in the last few days is the mood of a partially armed Germany, imagine what the tone will be when these colossal preparations are approaching their zenith…. Let us never accept the theory of inevitable war; neither let us blind our eyes to the remorseless march of events.21
Later, at a meeting of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, Churchill urged a “coordinated plan” under the League of Nations to help France challenge the German action. Sir Samuel Hoare replied for the Government, saying the participants in such a plan were “totally unprepared from a military point of view.” That, one observer noted, “definitely sobered them down.”22
On March 12th, five days after Hitler’s coup, Prime Minister Baldwin did two things which disappointed Churchill: He announced, not a new Minister of Defence or Supply, which Churchill had been urging, but a “Minister for the Coordination of Defence,” something less entirely; and he gave the job to his Attorney General, Sir Thomas Inskip, who knew nothing of the subject.
Inskip might “excite no enthusiasm,” Neville Chamberlain wrote, but at least “he would involve us in no fresh perplexities.” A British general wrote: “Thank God we are preserved from Winston Churchill.”23
Baldwin’s appointment had an electrifying effect on Churchill, who, hoping to be called to office, had carefully been avoiding criticizing the government:
Mr. Baldwin certainly had good reason to use the last flickers of his power against one who had exposed his mistakes so severely and so often. Moreover, as a profoundly astute Party manager, thinking in majorities and aiming at a quiet life between elections, he did not wish to have my disturbing aid. He thought no doubt that he had dealt me a politically fatal stroke, and I felt he might well be right.24
On March 13th Churchill, having decided that if he could not have office he would at least have audience, began a series of fortnightly articles on foreign affairs for the Evening Standard.
In the first article, “Britain, Germany and Locarno,” he renewed his call for League of Nations action. The following evening in Birmingham, Churchill sounded conciliatory toward Hitler when he argued that there were peaceful ways to determine if Germany was justified in her action:
The Germans claim that the Treaty of Locarno has been ruptured by the Franco-Soviet pact. That is their case and it is one that should be argued before the World Court at The Hague. The French have expressed themselves willing to submit this point to arbitration and to abide by the result. Germany should be asked to act in the same spirit and to agree. If the German case is good and the World Court pronounces that the Treaty of Locarno has been vitiated by the Franco-Soviet pact, then clearly the German action, although utterly wrong in method, can not be seriously challenged by the League of Nations.25
This is not the familiar voice of defiance which Churchill was soon to become. He was insisting that it was a matter for international action—much as opponents of the 2003 Iraq War insisted that the United Nations should determine what action was necessary. But Churchill did not accept international inertia: If the League of Nations failed, and no other action was taken, he warned, it would cause events to “slide remorselessly downhill towards the pit in which Western civilization might be fatally engulfed.” Opponents of war in 2003 didn’t tend to consider the perils of inaction.
On 26 March in the Commons Churchill warmly applauded Anthony Eden’s “great speech” in which Eden had said that “the appeasement of Europe” was the aim.26
Let us suppose that any one of us were a German and living in Germany, and perhaps entirely discontented with many things that he saw around him, but thinking that here is the Führer, the great Leader of the country, who has raised it so high—and I admire him for that— able to bring home once again a great trophy. One year it is the Saar, another month the right to have conscription, another month to gain from Britain the right to build submarines, another month the Rhineland. What will it be next? Austria, Memel, other territories and disturbed areas, are already in view. If we were Germans, and discontented with the present regime, nevertheless on patriotic grounds there is many a man who would say, “While the Government is bringing home these trophies I cannot indulge my personal, sectional or party feelings against it”…. last August, I said that we must do our duty under the Covenant of the League, but that we should not press France unduly, and that we should not go beyond the point where we could carry France.27
Robert Rhodes James noted in Churchill: A Study in Failure 1900-1939, that Churchill had said, later in this speech, “Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him” (Matthew 5:25). But he didn’t quote the full context. Churchill preceded this by saying— as he very frequently did when it came to negotiating with adversaries—that Germany must be confronted with overwhelming strength and resolution:
I desire to see the collective forces of the world invested with overwhelming power. If you are going to depend on a slight margin, one way or the other, you will have war. But if you get five or ten to one on one side, all bound rigorously by the Covenant [of the League] and the conventions which they own, then you may have an opportunity of a settlement which will heal the wounds of the world. Let us have this blessed union of power and of justice: “Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him.”28
Churchill was still urging international adjudication when his next Evening Standard article “Stop It Now!” was published on April 3rd. The title did not refer to militarily challenging Hitler, but to prevarication and lack of resolve. This was no task for France or Britain, or the Locarno Powers, Churchill declared. It was a task for all: “There may still be time. Let the States and peoples who lie in fear of Germany carry their alarms to the League of Nations at Geneva.”29
Speaking in the Commons three days later, now more critical of the government, Churchill was no less resolved on international action; and he reminded Members that it ought to include Italy, which the British and French had alienated with fruitless sanctions following Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia:
The Government ask for a Vote of Confidence. They do not ask it because they have done exceptionally well. They will no doubt get the Vote of Confidence, but I hope they will not make the mistake of thinking that it is a testimonial, or a bouquet, or that it arises from long-pent-up spontaneous feelings of enthusiasm which can no longer be held in check….Here you have strong nations banded together by solemn treaties, armed most powerfully, whose vital interests are affected; here you have nations small in numbers who, individually, may be helpless, but who, organized and united under the authority of the League, may exert a very great power indeed.30
Churchill, more than Baldwin, was attempting to see matters from the French viewpoint. The French were “afraid of the Germans,” he wrote to The Times; yet France had joined the sanctions against Italy, and the estrangement of Italy had given Hitler an opportunity:
He struck his blow, and the safety of France suffered an injury so grievous that we are actually at this moment making our war plans, although we have virtually no army to defend France and Belgium if they should be attacked. In fact Mr. Baldwin’s Government, from the very highest motives, endorsed by the country at the General Election, has, without helping Abyssinia at all, got France into grievous trouble which has to be compensated by the precise engagement of our armed forces. Surely in the light of these facts, undisputed as I deem them to be, we might at least judge the French, with whom our fortunes appear to be so decisively linked, with a reasonable understanding of their difficulties, which in the long run may also be our own.31
Churchill had the ability to look far ahead. As the anti-appeaser Bob Boothby put it,
The military occupation of the Rhineland separated France from her allies in Eastern Europe. The occupation of Austria isolated Czechoslovakia. The betrayal of Czechoslovakia by the West isolated Poland. The defeat of Poland isolated France. The defeat of France isolated Britain. If Britain had been defeated the United States would have been given true and total isolation for the first time.32
Churchill certainly would have supported, as Henry Pelling suggested, French military reoccupation, even just the bridgeheads in places like Cologne.33 But with France unwilling, he fell back on the League. He never urged unilateral British action, but he did believe and insist that firmness would produce results.
Churchill was certain that Hitler, at least in those years, would recoil if confronted with united, overwhelming force. And there was an example which suggested he was right. It was Austria’s defeat of an attempted Nazi coup in July 1934, under its Vice-Chancellor Ernst Rüdiger Starhemberg: an event ignored by Anglo-French leaders in the slow, sorry drift to war. Austria’s resistance caused Hitler to recoil:
Hitler felt he had not only been defeated in the confrontation, but personally humiliated by the unexpected strength of Austrian resistance and the bold move by Mussolini to support Austria. He immediately made a U-turn, and stopped all further political interference in Austria’s internal affairs. Not only was the Nazi propaganda campaign abandoned but the murders and bomb attacks were abruptly ended.34
Some historians, such as Donald Watt, posit the notion that the Rhineland caused Churchill to turn to the Russians: He “fell into the clutches of Ivan Maisky, the Soviet ambassador in London. In April 1936 we find him writing to Viscount Cecil [of Chelwood] of the need to ‘organise a European mass, and perhaps a world mass which would confront them, overawe them, and perhaps let their peoples loose upon them.’”35
John Charmley believes that Churchill knew all along that the League was toothless: “Espousal of the League was a flimsy cover for his balance-of-power conception of foreign policy; but where the political left would excoriate the latter view, they were more likely to support Churchill if he covered the nakedness of his Realpolitik with the veil of the League.36
But Churchill’s tune did not suddenly change in 1936. It had evolved from the principles of collective security he had declared as early as 1933:
I believe that we shall find our greatest safety in cooperating with the other Powers of Europe, not taking a leading part but coming in with all the neutral States and the smaller States of Europe which will gather together anxiously in the near future at Geneva. We shall make a great mistake to separate ourselves entirely from them at this juncture. Whatever way we turn there is risk. But the least risk and the greatest help will be found in recreating the Concert of Europe through the League of Nations, not for the purpose of fiercely quarrelling and haggling about the details of disarmament, but in an attempt to address Germany collectively, so that there may be some redress of the grievances of the German nation and that that may be effected before this peril of [Nazi Germany’s] rearmament reaches a point which may endanger the peace of the world.37
As John Charmley wrote: “The lack of concerted response from the Versailles Powers revealed what was already apparent, that where the threat of defeat had brought unity, the reality of peace had engendered disunion.”38
Sir Robert Rhodes James maintained to the end that Churchill said and did nothing about the Rhineland, even in the weeks after he had been denied office: “He kept well clear of the uproar over Abyssinia, being an admirer of Mussolini, and, although fearful of German rearmament, was writing with admiration about Hitler until late in 1937. None of this derogates from his essential greatness, but the record of March 1936 is unassailable, and fully justifies my protest at Professor Weidhorn’s inaccurate version in his paper.”39
That wasn’t quite the case. Professor Weidhorn never connected the “Stop It Now!” article as meaning Britain must stop the German occupation of the Rhine-land. What Churchill wanted to stop was “the hideous drift to war.” Churchill did say much about the Rhine-land. But what it amounted to was appealing for action under the League of Nations—which Sir Robert described as “hardly a clarion call.”40
Maybe so. But Churchill did say something, and what he said favored action, despite the inertia of the French and Baldwin. The Rhineland did lead to Churchill’s abandonment of hope in the League of Nations, and hastened his calls for collective security through “a coalition of the willing” (to use a more recent and perhaps uncomfortable phrase). Manfred Weidhorn and Robert Rhodes James were both right: Churchill did not demand war; but he did want action.
1. Ian Kershaw, Hitler 1936-1945: Nemesis (New York: Norton, 2000), xxxv.
2. Manfred Weidhorn, “A Contrarian’s Approach to Peace,” in James W. Muller, ed., Churchill as Peacemaker (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 50.
3. Robert Rhodes James, “Churchill as Peacemaker”: Churchill Centre symposium in conjunction with the Woodrow Wilson Center, Washington, D.C., 1994.
4. Richard M. Langworth, Churchill by Himself (New York: Public Affairs, 2008), 438.
5. Ian Kershaw, Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris (New York: W.W. Norton, 1999), 588.
6. Martin Gilbert, In Search of Churchill (London: HarperCollins, 1994), 144.
7. Martin Gilbert, Churchill: The Wilderness Years (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992), 145.
8. Michael Bloch, Ribbentrop (New York: Crown, 1993), 84.
9. Anthony Eden, Facing the Dictators (London: Cassell, 1962), 339.
10. Ibid., 330.
11. Winston S. Churchill, “The Rt. Hon. Anthony Eden,” Strand Magazine, August 1939, reprinted in The Collected Essays of Sir Winston Churchill, vol. III, Churchill and People (London: Library of Imperial History, 1975), 345.
12. William Manchester, The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, vol. II, Alone 1932-1940 (Boston: Little Brown, 1988), 581.
13. A.J.P. Taylor, English History 1914-1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970), 387-88.
14. Winston S. Churchill, The Gathering Storm (London: Cassell, 1948), 152.
15. Ibid., 154.
16. Ibid., 154.
17. Maurice Ashley, Churchill as Historian (London: Secker & Warburg, 1968), 163.
18. Ronald Tree, When the Moon Was High (London: Macmillan, 1975), 64.
19. Robert Rhodes James, Churchill: A Study in Failure 1900-1939 (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1970), 262-63.
20. Robert Rhodes James to the author, 15 November 1994.
21. Robert Rhodes James, ed., Winston S. Churchill: His Complete Speeches 1897-1963, 8 vols. (New York: Bowker, 1974), V: 5701.
22. Martin Gilbert, Churchill: A Life (London: Heinemann, 1991), 552.
23. Study in Failure, 262-63.
24. Gathering Storm, 157.
25. Jewellers’ Association Annual Dinner, Birmingham, 14 March 1936, in Complete Speeches, VI: 5704-05.
26. Study in Failure, 262.
27. Winston S. Churchill, Arms and the Covenant (London: Harrap, 1938), 296-97.
28. Arms and the Covenant, 301.
29. Winston S. Churchill, “Stop it Now!” Evening Standard, 3 April 1936, reprinted in Step by Step (London: Thornton Butterworth, 1939), 17; London: Odhams, 1947), 5.
30. Arms and the Covenant, 306, 313, 314.
31. WSC to The Times, 20 April 1936, in Martin Gilbert, ed., Winston S. Churchill: Companion Volume V, Part III, The Coming of War 1936-1939 (London: Heinemann, 1982), 101.
32. Robert Boothby, Recollections of a Rebel (London: Hutchinson, 1978), 93.
33. Henry Pelling, Winston Churchill (rev. ed., Ware: Wordsworth, 1999), 375.
34. Richard Lamb, The Drift to War 1922-1939 (London: Bloomsbury, 1991), 103.
35. Donald Cameron Watt, “Churchill and Appeasement,” in Robert Blake and Wm. Roger Louis, eds., Churchill: A Major New Assessment of His Life in Peace and War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 205. Watt musquotes Churchill; his correct words have been supplied (Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, vol. V, 721).
36. John Charmley, Churchill: The End of Glory (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1993), 307.
37. Speech of 7 November 1933, in Arms and the Covenant, 102-03.
38 John Charmley, Chamberlain and the Lost Peace (London: John Curtis, 1989), xiii.
39. Robert Rhodes James to the author, 15 November 1994.
40. Robert Rhodes James to the author, 24 May 1995.