The Rhineland Crisis

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

This first book-length examination of the Rhineland crisis, by James Thomas Emmerson, provides a detailed account of the crisis, and its origins in the international system created in the wake of the Versailles treaties. It is difficult to find fault in the substance of Emmerson’s account of the crisis and the unfolding sequence of events, and his portrayal of the participants and their motivations. His documentation is impressive. Many new details are based on previously inaccessible documents which only became available after the passage of the Public Records Act of 1967.

The author’s caution in interpreting the evidence is commendable; when the documentary evidence is inconclusive—as in the case of Hitler’s contingency plans should his coup provoke a military reaction—this is frankly admitted. The account of German preparation and decisionmaking before and during the crisis is very convincing. It is difficult not to be impressed with the mixture of daring and shrewd diplomacy that enabled Hitler to carry out his plans for the systematic revision of Versailles and other arrangements that limited Germany’s foreign policy options. There is some new information on the role of Konstantin von Neurath, Hitler’s foreign minister, a career diplomat who was anything but a reluctant accomplice in Hitler’s schemes.

On the other hand, in Britain—the nation that probably held the key to any early move to contain Hitler’s expansionist drives—there was little evidence of a similar shrewdness. Today it is hard to see how Baldwin, Eden, Simon, and others could have held with such determination to their hopes of moderating Hitler’s foreign policy plans. A number of diplomatic actions were initiated, starting with the effort to draw Germany into a network of agreements with respect to disarmament (air and naval pacts), to return Germany to Geneva, and to guarantee the security of Germany’s Eastern European neighbors (East Locarno). Equally perplexing is the British willingness to take each of Hitler’s new peace proposals at face value and to pursue with great diligence even the slightest hint of German cooperation. With the evidence that is available now, it is clear that Hitler was perfectly willing to negotiate and to advance “constructive” proposals for this or that as long as he could avoid signing any agreements.

The account of the crisis adds new insights about close connections between domestic and foreign policy. Hitler’s timing of the plebiscite following the Rhine coup was at least in part designed to influence French and British public opinion, as well as to strengthen Hitler’s hand in any subsequent negotiations with the Locarno powers. There are also speculations that the coup itself was timed to divert the attention of the German public from the economic difficulties of the winter of 1935-1936. In Britain as well foreign policy was very much affected by the need to satisfy domestic critics such as the Labor Party, which was strongly committed to the desirability of disarmament negotiations. This is a point that deserves more attention than Emmerson grants it. Also, some discussion of the after effects of the Depression on the concerns of the British public would have been helpful. One wonders to what extent the willingness of British public opinion to write off the Rhineland was a result of their preoccupation with domestic events such as the Jarrow March. In the case of France, governmental uncertainty sapped the ability to take a strong stand; economic difficulties further limited the available options.

There are related difficulties in Emmerson’s failure to assess the significance of Hitler’s announcement of the introduction of universal conscription and the build-up of a German air force in 1935. While the decisions are mentioned repeatedly, their implications are never clarified. In both instances, Hitler surprised his neighbors with the announcement that Germany would no longer honor its treaty obligations, and in both instances the reaction was limited to verbal protests. In many ways, these events were rehearsals for the Rhineland coup, a nod to proceed further. Another point that receives no discussion is Lebensraum. In Mein Kampf Hitler was very explicit about his plans for an eventual solution to the “population problem,” and insofar as the remilitarization of the Rhineland increased Germany’s options in the East, the coup was part of that plan. There is little evidence that decisionmakers in France or England heeded any of the warnings expressed in Hitler’s work.

The most persistent shortcoming of The Rhineland Crisis is Emmerson’s reluctance to judge and evaluate...

(The entire section is 1939 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Economist. CCLXIII, June 4, 1977, p. 140.