Germany rearms in Breach of the Treaty of Versailles

Adolf Hitler came to power with a fixed determination to extend Germany's borders to create Lebensraum (living space) for Germany. His immediate targets were Austria and Czechoslovakia, but his plans included conquest and occupation of Poland and the Soviet Union (now Russia). With these aims, and in breach of the Treaty of Versailles, Hitler began in 1934 to build secretly a powerful war machine.

To test the resolve of Britain and France to stand up to him on an important matter of principle, Hitler announced publicly in March 1935 that he was rearming Germany despite the prohibition of German rearmament in the Treaty of Versailles. The British and French governments were obsessed at this time with maintaining peace at almost any cost. Both governments protested formally to Hitler, but did nothing more, despite the fact that their armies could have crushed the much smaller German army at this stage. In response to the British and French protests, Hitler offered vague assurances of peace which were gratefully accepted by Britain and France as evidence of Hitler's goodwill.

Hitler builds the first of Nazi Germany's "pocket" battleships in breach of the Treaty of Versailles

The successful repudiation by Hitler of one of the key terms of a treaty despised by most Germans produced celebrations across Germany, and greatly increased Hitler's standing with the German people. The failure of Britain and France to resist Hitler's flouting of the treaty would open the way for unlimited German rearmament, and take Germany on its first step towards World War II.

Hitler sends German troops into the Rhineland in breach of the Treaty of Versailles

Having exposed the weakness of the two great democracies on a matter of principle as important as German rearmament, Hitler decided to test further the resolve of Britain and France to stand up to him. He had noted the failure of Britain and France to take firm action against Italy, their ally under the Locarno Pact of 1925, when the fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, launched Italy's army against Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) in 1935. After Mussolini had bombed and gassed that independent country's poorly armed tribesmen into submission, he annexed Abyssinia as a province of Italy in 1936. Hitler observed with interest that relations between Britain, France and Italy had merely been strained by this outrage against a defenceless country.

Feeling that he had correctly assessed the spinelessness of the British and French governments at this time, on 1 March 1936, Hitler ordered German troops to re-enter the demilitarised Rhineland in a further breach of the Treaty of Versailles. Only a token force of three German battalions actually entered the Rhineland, and they were under strict orders from their nervous generals to withdraw at once if the French responded to this breach of the treaty with military force. The German generals knew that the much larger French army could crush their army at this time, and believed that their Fuehrer was taking a dangerous gamble.

German troops march into the Rhineland in 1936 in defiance of the Treaty of Versailles.

The British were obliged under the Locarno Pact to provide France with military support in such a situation, but when asked by France for that support, the British government refused to honour its treaty obligation. Although entitled to resist entry of German troops to the demilitarised Rhineland with military force, and despite having thirty army divisions at the border in readiness to cross and disperse the three German battalions, the French lost their nerve in the absence of support from Britain. When Hitler cynically offered further assurances of peace, the British government seized on this offer as evidence of his good faith. Winston Churchill, the man who would later be Britain's great wartime leader against the Nazis, was the only person in Britain's parliament to denounce this dishonourable surrender to Hitler and betrayal of France.

So Hitler had gambled and won again. The Nazi leader had shown that he could flout the Treaty of Versailles with impunity. His prestige and popularity soared in Germany, while France's allies in eastern Europe were forced to review the value of their alliances with her. If France had acted firmly in what would have been little more than a police action, and Britain had fulfilled its treaty obligations to France, the German troops would certainly have been instantly withdrawn, and Hitler's prestige would have been dealt a deadly blow from which it might never have recovered. The last opportunity to bring Hitler to heel, and halt the rise of a militarised, aggressive Germany without risk of a serious war, had been thrown away by weak politicians.