On the morning of 7 March 1936, Hitler’s foreign minister, Konstantin von Neurath, convened a meeting of the French, British, Italian and Belgian ambassadors. He proposed a twenty-five-year non-aggression pact, including demilitarisation on both banks of the Rhine and limitations on air forces of all parties.
At noon that day, Hitler announced that Germany would reoccupy the Rhineland – the area west of the Rhine and bordering France and the low countries which had been demilitarised since the Versailles Treaty. By then, German columns were already streaming across the border of the zone. Hitler bamboozled the western leaders by announcing that the occupation was purely symbolic.
German troops march into the Rhineland
Hitler’s generals knew Germany was not ready for military confrontation with the major powers. Had there been the slightest show of force from Britain or France, they would have forced Hitler to withdraw. In the end, apart from solemn hand wringing and protests from the Western Powers, nothing was done.
Hitler commenced fortifying this area, leaving him free to pursue other adventures to the east – and providing him a focal point for attack more than 150 kilometres closer to Paris. It was from the Rhineland that the German attack on France would develop most powerfully in 1940.
Hitler had shown that the western powers would not stand against determined action. He greatly enhanced his prestige and that of the Nazi regime. To the world he proclaimed: ‘All Germany’s territorial ambitions have now been satisfied.’
This is an edited extract from TREASON: Claus von Stauffenberg and the Plot to Kill Hitler