The Saar, 1935: Nazi Aggression Takes its First Steps
The Third Reich’s first success came in the Saar in 1935. This region of Germany was placed under Anglo-French occupation and control in 1920 for a period of 15 years. The Saar was an industrial center and contained coal fields that were given to France. A commission oversaw the territory until 1935, when a plebiscite was held to determine what would happen to the area. The situation was a reminder of German defeat in World War I and another territory stripped from the nation despite the ethnically German citizens in residence.
Once the Nazis came to power in 1933, large numbers of Germans who opposed their rule moved to the Saar precisely to escape them. Over the next two years, as the plebiscite grew near, these opponents of Hitler’s regime campaigned to have the region remain under French occupation. The Führer had other plans, as regaining the Saar would be a propaganda victory for his government. He directed Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels to conduct a media campaign aimed at swaying the populace to vote for return to the Reich. When the vote came in January 1935, over 90 percent of the voters chose to return to Germany. On March 1 the Saar became German again. With German reoccupation came the arrest of those considered to have collaborated with the French government and Nazi opponents who had fled there previously. Regaining the Saar was a first step for Nazi aggression.
The following year Hitler went further and reoccupied the Rhineland. The demilitarization of the area was stipulated in the Versailles Treaty and made permanent in the Locarno Treaty of 1925, which sought to normalize relations between various European powers. The Rhineland was occupied by Allied troops until 1935 under the terms of the treaty. In actuality these troops were withdrawn by 1930. Over the next five years, as the Nazis came to power and more openly disregarded the Versailles Treaty, German reoccupation of the Rhineland became an expected development, calculated to cause a crisis.
Hitler’s Annexation Gambles in the Rhineland, Austria, and the Sudetenland
In early 1936 Hitler gambled and sent a small force into the demilitarized zone. Hitler knew there was a possibility of war but deemed it minimal; when War Minister Field Marshal Werner Von Blomberg expressed his fears, Hitler told him German troops would be withdrawn if French forces entered the Rhineland. The Reich went ahead with the move on March 7, 1936, sending a handful of infantry battalions into the Rhineland, where they joined local police and prepared for a French counterattack, planning a fighting withdrawal if necessary. When French troops stayed on their side of the border, Hitler’s confidence was bolstered, and he ordered the troops to stay.
Two years later Hitler made more moves that consolidated his nation’s position even further and reinforced his belief in the moral cowardice of the Western powers. In March 1938, Germany annexed Austria, incorporating its military into the Reich. There was a small pro-Nazi movement within Austria that was agitating for integration with Germany. This movement was suppressed by the Austrian government, which believed most Austrians wanted nothing to do with Hitler. On March 9, Austrian Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg announced a plebiscite to allow voters to state their preference about integration with Germany.
The Nazi propaganda machine went into full swing, announcing riots in Austria and unfair rules for the vote to sway the decision against integration. It claimed the uproar was a plea by Austrians for Germany to enter Austria and restore order. On March 12, Wehrmacht troops crossed the border, meeting no opposition. Hitler himself entered Austria that evening. Within days the union of Germany and Austria, known as the Anschluss, was announced. Hitler had once again increased German power without a war.
The second Nazi move of 1938 was the annexation of the Sudetenland. This event, the result of an agreement meant to maintain peace, was a major step toward the conflict to come. After obtaining Austria with such relative ease, Hitler turned his gaze toward the north-northwestern area of Czechoslovakia, a region known as the Sudetenland. Many ethnic Germans lived in this area, making it a good target for expansion. The usual propaganda claims were made, stating the Czech government was abusing ethnic Germans within its borders.
The Czechs prepared for war, but no one else did. Hitler met with representatives of Britain, France, and Italy in Munich during late September. There, he obtained an agreement from those powers to give the Sudetenland to Germany. Without support, Czechoslovakia had little choice but to acquiesce. German troops entered the Sudetenland to the applause of its Germanic populace.
Supposedly this was Germany’s last territorial demand; returning from Munich, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain made his now infamous statement of having achieved “peace with honour” and “peace in our time.” That peace lasted less than six months; on March 15, 1939, the Wehrmacht marched into the rest of Czechoslovakia. Appeasement had failed, and Hitler had Poland in his sights. With Czech territory in German hands, a Nazi invasion of Poland could proceed from both the west and south, making that nation’s defense more difficult.
Planning the Nazi Invasion of Poland
The Polish Crisis began 10 days after the Nazis took Czechoslovakia. Hitler ordered the Wehrmacht High Command (Oberkommando Der Wehrmacht, OKW) to prepare a military campaign against Poland. He tried obtaining concessions from the Poles regarding Danzig and the Polish Corridor, including threats of military action. The efforts proved futile as the Poles refused to give in. Both sides began aggressive propaganda campaigns, with the Nazis claiming Polish atrocities against Germans in the corridor area.
Given his string of successes, Hitler was willing to gamble on Poland, although the situation in 1939 was worse than in earlier years. Unlike at Munich, there was no agreement with France and Great Britain for a resolution, and previous German actions had destroyed trust in Hitler’s word. The Third Reich’s racist policies and actions were also turning world opinion against it. Other members of Hitler’s civilian and military hierarchy were unwilling to express resistance to his plans. The Nazi leader had decided on another risky gamble, and with his absolute control there was no one to stop him.
With the decision made, a plan had to be created. During April 1939, OKW issued its annual directive to the armed forces. Within it was Fall Weiss (Case White). The plan was introduced with a statement from Hitler himself describing current relations with Poland. It required the German military to be prepared to attack by September 1. The plan stressed surprise. Mobilization would not take place until just before the actual invasion. Only regular Army units would be used at first, since calling up reserves would alert the Poles.
These active units would be secretly moved into assembly areas along the frontier before being ordered into their jumping-off points. The Army could also attack from Czech territory. There were also arrangements for defending the border with France, the Baltic Sea area, and German airspace. All this would effectively isolate Poland from her Western supporters until it was too late.
On April 28, Hitler nullified the German non-aggression treaty with Poland and demanded resolution on the Danzig issue. German operatives were sent into Danzig, where they attacked a customs house and tore down Polish flags. Polish actions against ethnic Germans were given wide press coverage. There was a Nazi faction in Danzig, and it clamored for return to Germany. This was the beginning of a months-long campaign to pave the way for German goals, with or without war.
Diplomatic Machinations and Nazi Propaganda
Over the following months further diplomatic machinations took place. On May 22, a pact was signed with Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, taking pressure off Germany’s southern flank. However, Hitler assured Mussolini there would be no war, and the Italians made no promise of military support. This kept Italy from the Allied camp and threatened France’s and Britain’s Mediterranean holdings. Hitler also received visits from the leaders of Yugoslavia, Hungary, and Bulgaria. These affairs were accompanied by extravagant displays of German military power, with scores of aircraft roaring overhead or hundreds of tanks clanking past.
A major victory for the Nazis was the rapprochement with the Soviet Union. The British and French were seeking a tacit alliance with the Soviets as a counterbalance to Germany, but this new development quashed that hope. Russia and Germany secretly negotiated an agreement for respective spheres of influence. The Soviets would have a free hand in Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia along with eastern Poland. In exchange, Germany would regain Danzig, the Polish Corridor, and western Poland.
Openly, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was a non-aggression treaty between the nations. This was a surprise development as the Nazis were staunchly anti-communist. Both Hitler and Stalin still expected eventual war; the Soviets expected conflict as early as 1944. While war would come much sooner with the German invasion on June 22, 1941, in August 1939 the issue seemed settled.