Nazi Germany’s Intimidating Challenge to the West

From the Lecture Series: A History of Hitler's Empire, 2nd Edition

By Thomas Childers, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania

In 1935, the Saar, a region in the southwest of Germany which had been  put under League of Nations auspices since the end of the war and had been administered by the League, was now given the opportunity to hold a plebiscite. What did it mean for the Nazi regime?

German troops entering Cologne, March 1936.
Nazi Germany’s troops entered Cologne in 1936 when Hitler decided to remilitarize the Rhineland. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

The vote in the Saar in 1935 was overwhelmingly to come back to Germany, to go heim ist Reich, to return to the Reich. This was trumpeted of course by the Nazis as a great success.

One of the great principles of the Treaty of Versailles had been the national self-determination of peoples. This had been one of the reasons that Woodrow Wilson believed that Europe had gone to war in 1914—it was frustrated, legitimate desire for national unification, or national sentiments. Hence, the creation of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and so on after the war.

This is a transcript from the video series A History of Hitler’s Empire, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The National Self-Determinations of People

Whenever there was a case where national self-determination of peoples would work in Germany’s favor, it was blocked by the Allies. In 1919, the Austrians had wished to become united with Germany, only to be blocked by the Allies. So, Hitler’s view, and the way he presented this, was always:

We’ve got legitimate claims on the basis of national self-determination of peoples that were just completely ignored, suppressed by the victors at Versailles.

The Weak National Defense of Germany

Medical inspection of young German men.
In 1935, Hitler announced that he was going to introduce conscription. (Image: Bundesarchiv, Bild/CC-BY/3.0/Public domain)

Hitler believed that Germany was defenseless, surrounded by potential enemies in the center of Europe. On March 1, 1935, Hitler announced his determination to build an air force, a Luftwaffe. This was specifically banned by the Treaty of Versailles. Hitler argued that if Britain was going to modernize its air force to give it more striking power, then Germany needed a Luftwaffe to be able to defend itself.

There was protest from the predictable sources, the French in particular, but no real concerted action was taken against this German decision. So, two weeks later, on March 15, Hitler announced that he was going to introduce conscription. 

He was going to build a German army that, within a year, would be half a million men in size, and that it would grow after that.

Learn more about Hitler’s challenge to the international system, 1933-1936.

German Troops in the Rhineland

Hitler also announced, just to make explicit what he’d done, that he was renouncing the Versailles clauses on re-armament. The League of Nations certainly lodged a protest, but it fell on deaf ears.

Then, on March 7, 1936, Hitler moved German troops into the Rhineland.

According to the treaty, that area of the Rhineland was to be demilitarized. As long as there were no German troops in the Rhineland, French troops could simply march across the Franco-German border, be in the Rhineland, and be at the Ruhr, the industrial heartland of Germany, in a flash, just as they’d done in 1923.

The decision to remilitarize the Rhineland meant that France was going to be deprived of its one bit of military leverage in dealing with the Germans.

Hitler’s Advantage and France’s Worry

The British didn’t protest the move. This was a worrisome matter to the French, as they couldn’t trust the British, they believed. And, nobody could trust the Americans.

These actions were taken with protest, but with no real concerted effort to stop what the Germans were doing. Part of the reason for this could be that by the late 1920s, there had been a sea change in the way the West viewed the Treaty of Versailles.

Was the Great War a Mistake?

There was, by the late 1920s, a growing pacifist movement in Britain and a feeling among the educated elites in Britain and the United States that the Great War had been a mistake. What, after all, was the great issue at stake in the First World War? And what was worth the loss of millions of lives?

John Maynard Keynes, who’d been part of the British delegation to Versailles, finally said that even the economic demands and the reparations and so on had been too harsh. So there was an international climate that was conducive for Hitler to play this particular song, that Germany had been mistreated. 

Learn more about the impact of World War I.

1936 Olympics: Hitler’s Great Public Relations Victory

Hitler with the members of the International and National Olympic Committee.
The world came to Berlin in 1936 for the Olympic games, so Hitler and the Nazis stopped the humiliation of the Jews for sometime. (Image: Bundesarchiv/CC-BY-SA 3.0/Public domain)

Then in 1936 came the jewel in the crown as far as Nazi foreign policy was concerned, and that was the Olympic games. Part of the reason for the end of the Einzelaktionen, the individual acts of harassment by local Nazi radicals against Jews, was to present the best possible view of the new Germany to all the journalists and tourists who would be coming to the games.

The Olympic coach of the American track team pulled a Jewish athlete from the last relay team and replaced him with Jesse Owens. He pulled the athlete because he didn’t want to put Hitler in the embarrassing position of having to receive a Jewish athlete.

So, it isn’t as if somehow Nazi anti-Semitism in this period was sending out shock signals of outrage to the rest of the world. The world had come to Berlin. And Germany showed off.

Common Questions about Nazi Germany’s Intimidating Challenge to the West

Q: Why did Hitler decide to build an air force, a Luftwaffe?

Hitler argued that if Britain was going to modernize its air force to give it more striking power, then Germany needed a Luftwaffe to be able to defend itself.

Q: Why were the French worried with the remilitarization of the Rhineland?

The decision to remilitarize the Rhineland meant that France was going to be deprived of its military leverage in dealing with the Germans.

Q: What was the result of the plebiscite in Saar in 1935?

The vote in Saar in 1935 was overwhelmingly to come back to Germany, to go heim ist Reich, to return to the Reich.

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