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Hitler and the Rhineland, 1936 - A Decisive Turning-Point

Hitler's march into the demilitarised Rhineland heralded Churchill's 'gathering storm' – but could the Fuhrer's bluff have been called and the Second World War prevented? Sir Nicholas Hederson, who as Britain's ambassador in Washington during the Falklands crisis saw diplomatic poker eventually turn to war, offers a reassessment of the events of 1936.

We and all nations have a sense that we have come to the turning point of an age.

Hitler. March 22nd, 1936

It is tempting to look for turning points in history and try to perceive in them guidelines for later conduct. Hitler's military re-occupation of the Rhineland in March 1936, in breach of the Versailles Treaty and the freely-negotiated Treaty of Locarno, and the failure of France and Britain to offer any resistance to it, is often cited as a supreme example of where the wrong turning was taken. Eden had this precedent in view when Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal; as apparently did Bush when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. It was at the forefront of Mrs Thatcher's mind when she decided to resist Galtieri's occupation of the Falklands and when she urged Bush to confront Saddam Hussein.

Whether or not the historical analogy was exact or justified in these instances there can be no doubt that the re-militarisation of the Rhineland and its consequences has been widely seen as a turning-point, as an occasion when a different policy would have been possible and, in retrospect, desirable and as a dire warning of the dangers of letting military dictators get away with aggression unscathed. Alexis Leger, who was secretary-general at the Quai d'Orsay 1933-40, believed that it was the Rhineland, not Munich, that made war inevitable.

How this large area of Germany, with a population of 15 million Germans and comprising all German territory on the left bank of the Rhine and a zone reaching to 50 kilometres on the right bank, came to be demilitarised is an essential part of the story.

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