High above the town of Berchtesgaden in southeastern
Bavaria, Adolf Hitler spent many hours in solitude at his mountain retreat
with its magnificent views of the Alps and the valleys below. It was here
that the Führer came to contemplate the future of Germany and to make
all of his big decisions.
Sometimes he mulled things over for weeks or even
months. But once the final decision was made, it was utterly unshakable
and no one could ever convince him to change his mind.
On Friday, March 15, 1935, Hitler departed his
mountain retreat and returned to Berlin. He immediately convened a Cabinet
meeting and also assembled members of the Army's General Staff. He then
announced a major decision he had just come to – Germany would openly defy
the military limitations set by the Treaty of Versailles and re-arm.
No one in the room objected or voiced any concern.
After the announcement, Nazi legal officials quickly set to work drafting
the necessary laws, while Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels worked with
Hitler to compose the actual proclamations to be read to Nazi Party members
and the German people.
On Saturday, March 16th, the Cabinet and Generals
met once again and listened to Hitler read the finished proclamations,
after which all of those present gave a hearty 'three cheers' for the Führer.
The proclamations were then announced to the world by Goebbels at a hastily
called press conference.
The press was told the Führer had decided
Germany was going to reintroduce military conscription (compulsory enrollment)
and build a new Army consisting of 36 divisions, totaling 550,000 men.
This was actually a flagrant violation of Part
V of the Treaty of Versailles signed by Germany back in 1919 after its
defeat in World War I. Breaking the Treaty was an affront to Germany's
former World War I enemies, France and Great Britain.
Everyone waited to see how they would respond
to the news. Some of Hitler's more cautious Army generals thought there
might even be an immediate military attack by France. But absolutely nothing
happened, except for a few diplomatic protests.
Hitler, for the first time in his career, had
gambled against Germany's old enemies and won. He knew France was suffering
from serious political in-fighting and that Britain was in the grips of
an economic depression. He wagered that the two countries, given their
internal problems, didn't have the stomachs to respond militarily. And
he was right.
But Hitler still found it necessary to soothe
the jangled nerves of the world's democracies and Germany's next door neighbors.
On May 21st, two months after the conscription announcement, he appeared
before the Reichstag in Berlin and delivered a conciliatory speech. "Germany
wants peace...None of us means to threaten anybody," Hitler declared.
He then announced a thirteen-point peace program containing all kinds of
promises such as: Germany will respect all other provisions of the Treaty
of Versailles including the demilitarization of the Rhineland; Germany
is ready to cooperate in a collective system for safeguarding European
peace; and the German government is ready in principle to conclude pacts
of non-aggression with its neighbors.
Hitler's method of diplomacy in dealing with the
gun-shy Western democracies was thus established. His original bombastic
announcement was usually made on a Saturday to catch the other governments
off-guard. It came in the midst of an ongoing action, or after the fact,
and was followed by a conciliatory speech full of reassuring promises.
Between Hitler's gambles, there would be a considerable
lapse of time, during which he returned to Berchtesgaden, contemplating
his next move like a chess master pondering all of the potential outcomes.
Hitler's next big move in the game of international
diplomacy didn't occur until a year later and it would be one of the biggest
risks of his entire career. Beginning at dawn on Saturday, March 7, 1936,
three battalions of the German Army crossed the bridges over the Rhine
and entered into the industrial heartland of Germany known as the Rhineland.
This demilitarized area included all territory west of the Rhine River
extending to the French border as well as a portion east of the river including
the cities of Cologne, Düsseldorf and Bonn.
At 10 a.m. that morning, Hitler's Foreign Minister,
Constantin von Neurath, summoned the ambassadors of France, Britain, and
Italy, and handed them a lengthy memorandum stating that the German government
had "restored the full and unrestricted sovereignty of the Reich
in the demilitarized zone of the Rhineland."
This was another gross violation of the Treaty
At noon, Hitler appeared before a hastily called
Reichstag assembly, accompanied by several visibly nervous Army generals.
The six hundred Reichstag members in attendance had no idea what was happening.
As soon as Hitler informed them that German troops were on the march into
the Rhineland, they jumped to their feet amid wild cheering for the Führer
and shouts of 'Heil!'
When they calmed down, Hitler solemnly promised:
"First, we swear to yield to no force whatever in the restoration
of the honor of our people, preferring to succumb with honor to the severest
hardships rather than to capitulate. Secondly, we pledge that now, more
than ever, we shall strive for an understanding between European peoples,
especially for one with our Western neighbor nations...We have no territorial
demands to make in Europe!...Germany will never break the peace."
Once again, the whole world waited to see how
the French and British would react. German troops entering the Rhineland
even had orders to scoot back across the Rhine bridges if the French Army
attacked. But in France, the politicians were simply unable to convince
their generals to act, and were also unable to get any British support
for a military response. So they did nothing. The French Army, with its
one hundred divisions, never budged against the 30,000 lightly armed German
soldiers occupying the Rhineland, even though France and Britain were both
obligated to preserve the demilitarized zone by the Treaty of Versailles
and the subsequent Locarno Pact of mutual assistance.
It had been a tremendous gamble for Hitler, one
that might have cost him everything if his troops had been humiliated by
their old enemies. Later, Hitler would privately admit: "The forty-eight
hours after the march into the Rhineland were the most nerve-racking in
my life. If the French had marched into the Rhineland, we would have had
to withdraw with our tail between our legs, for the military resources
at our disposal would have been wholly inadequate for even a moderate resistance."
Some of Hitler's top Army generals had gotten
cold feet during the maneuver. Only Neurath, his Foreign Minister, had
calmly assured him: "You can risk it. Nothing will happen." Hitler
would never forget the fearful behavior exhibited by some of his top generals
during his first military venture. As a result, their cautious advice would
often be ignored in the future.
In the Rhineland, German Army troops marching
under the Swastika banner were met by German priests conferring blessings
upon them and women tossing flowers into their path. In Cologne, the people
went wild with joy. Inside Cologne's Catholic Cathedral, Cardinal Schulte
even praised Hitler for "sending back our Army."
A few weeks later, on March 29th, a nationwide referendum
was held in which 99 percent of the registered voters in Germany went to
the polls and gave a 98.8 percent "Ja" vote approving Hitler's
reoccupation of the Rhineland. The Führer had reached new heights
After this victory, Hitler once again went back
to his mountain retreat at Berchtesgaden to relax and ponder his next move.
Meanwhile, in Berlin and throughout Germany, preparations were underway
to host the coming Summer Olympics. For the Nazis, the Berlin Olympics
would be an opportunity to show off the New Order to people from all over
the world. It would also be a chance to impress everyone with the natural
superiority of Nazi athletes.