Today in History: Hitler unilaterally canceled the Treaty of Versailles
The process of Hitler’s rise to power was in fact a process of constantly tearing up international treaties and challenging the civilized order.
As one of the most notorious figures of the 20th century, Hitler was able to hold Germany hostage and launched WWII just a dozen years after Germany’s defeat in WWI, causing the most catastrophic disaster of mankind. There were many inevitable and accidental factors that contributed to it. By looking at the external factors alone, the German people who brought Hitler to power and allowed him to deceive and enslave them certainly need to rethink why Hitler could succeed, but the European countries and the United States that have adopted appeasement policies at the early stage are by no means innocent. The process of Hitler’s rise to power was in fact a process of constantly tearing up international treaties and challenging the civilized order. There is no exaggeration to say that it was the civilized world’s policy of appeasement with illusions and concessions that nurtured Hitler’s inflated ambitions and strength step by step.
I.Restrictions under the Treaty of Versailles
The Treaty of Versailles, signed in 1919 after WWI is not unknown to many Chinese people, as it is closely related to the May 4th Movement. A large part of this treaty was aimed at Germany. Since Germany remained strong after WWI and the roots of Prussian militarism were still strong, therefore in order to prevent Germany from launching any further military actions, the Treaty stipulated that the German army shall not exceed 100,000 military service men, and that Germany shall not station any troops within 50 kilometers east of the Rhine River on the Franco-German border, the so-called “Rhine Demilitarized Zone”.
To ensure that the essence of the Demilitarized Zone would not be empty – just talking, this Treaty also stipulated that the bridgeheads east of the Rhine shall be occupied by the Allied military forces for a period of 15 years (i.e., until 1935). Germany, which was temporarily unable to confront the Allies at that time, not only acknowledged this practice, but also signed another “Pact of Locarno” with the Allies in 1925 to show its sincerity in keeping the Treaty. Germany once again explicitly guaranteed that it would comply with the terms with respect to the Rhine Demilitarized Zone.
One of the important reasons for the rapid rise of Hitler’s Nazi Party in a short period of time was the use of the fake patriotism to incite the nationalsozialismus, blaming Germany’s hardship on the bondage of unfair treaties and calling desperately for the overthrow of the restrictions under the Treaty of Versailles. Therefore, before Hitler came to power, he actually demonstrated his intention to break the Treaty in his own 1925 autobiography, Mein Kampf.
But Hitler, though mad, was not stupid. When he came to power in 1933, Germany’s military forces were still under the restrictions of the Treaty of Versailles and did not have the strength to fight against the League of Nations. Therefore, he decided to ostensibly “keep a low profile” and repeatedly stated that Germany would abide by all the previously signed treaties and agreements.
Hitler himself at that time probably did not believe that the world he had to face was so weak.
II. The villain’s test
In 1935, the Allies kept their agreement and officially withdrew their troops from the east bank of the Rhine, and control of the entire region fell back into the German hands. However, due to the restrictions of the demilitarized zone, Germany could not station troops in the area, which was a must for Hitler’s invasion of Western Europe and France, and if the pact was kept, then Hitler’s dream of occupying Europe was an empty talk.
Hitler immediately moved to break the pact. In fact, as early as 1934, Hitler called to the world that “Germany’s current problems could not be solved by wars” while restarting the production of armaments. Britain and France, bewildered by Hitler’s peace slogan, actually agreed to use “equality of arms”, a way to self-destroy the Versailles Treaty, to draw Germany in.
Sensing the mindset of Britain and France, Hitler opened the adventure of treaty-breaking in March 1935 to further test the world’s reaction. He declared that the Treaty of Versailles was a historical document, and Germany reintroduced universal compulsory military service, rebuilt the Luftwaffe, and prepared to expand its standing army to 500,000 men.
How did Britain, France, Italy, and the United States, the major signatories to the Treaty of Versailles, react to such a serious breach of the treaty? Britain, France, and Italy only passed a resolution to express their “regret” over Germany’s breach of the treaty and its expansion, and were prepared to study “possible” economic sanctions against Germany. The United States, on the other shore of the Atlantic Ocean, simply regarded it as irrelevant.
In fact, Germany only had a standing army of 100,000, and the allied powers could have interfered with Germany’s military expansion given their strength. However, both Britain and France, each with its own agenda, all believed that the war will not take place at their own doorstep, and even hoped that the resurgence of Germany could “help” with their own economy or ally with themselves. Thus, facing Hitler’s pretentious aggressiveness, the world was filled with cowardness like a miracle.
Hitler, who had been apprehensive and anxious, was overjoyed and immediately set out to take further risks and break the limits of the Treaty of Versailles once and for all.
III. The adventure of breaching the Treaty
In March 1936, Hitler embarked on one of the wildest adventures of his life – the march into the Rhine Demilitarized Zone.
As mentioned earlier, the existence of the Rhine DMZ, the biggest obstacle to the start of the war, had been a thorn for Hitler, and he wanted to pull it out as soon as he could. Hitler’s calculation was that by tearing up the Treaty of Versailles in this way, his popularity could be enhanced at home and he could further test the bottom lines of various countries at the international stage.
In March 1936, Hitler ordered 30,000 German troops to move into the Rhine Demilitarized Zone. This action, however, caused panicS among the senior Wehrmacht generals. The German generals advised Hitler to give up taking the risk because the expaEdward Woodnsion of German military had not yet materialized with a weak foundation consisting of 100,000 enlisted men, whereas France and its two allies (Czechoslovakia and Poland) could immediately mobilize 90 divisions, with 100 divisions of reserve army. In addition, France and the Soviet Union had a Treaty of Mutual Assistance such that the Soviet Union would be obliged to support France if the latter impose sanctions on Germany.
Seeing that Hitler was determined to go his own way, Feldmarschall von Blomberg, who was in charge, ordered his troops to “retreat from across the Rhine” in case of the French military intervention. Although Hitler seemed to be stubborn, he was also extremely frightened. He later stated, “The 24 hours after the march into the Rhineland were the most stressful time of my life. It turned out that my prayers were answered.”
Yes. France, with hundreds of thousands of troops being deployed, Britain and the United States, the bystanders, as well as the anxious Czechoslovakia and Poland, all made a shocking choice of doing nothing when facing Hitler’s blatant pact-breaking actions that were actually taken without very much confidence. When British Prime Minister Anthony Eden and Foreign Secretary Sir John Simon visited Germany on March 25, they had to listen passively to Hitler’s reports of rearmament, not daring to say “no”. They could have scared off the Germans at that time without even a single bullet if they had only chosen to send troops in response. But the fact is, they were scared off by the Germans.
Hitler addressed his speech in Reichstag after his successful adventure: “we swear we won’t kneel down to any power while restoring our nation’s glory”.
It was so easy to break the Treaty of Versailles. Hitler felt like the order of the entire world civilization was so fragile that as long as you dare to break it, eventually they will all kneel down. Breaking the treaty, he not only improved his capacity and ambition, but he also acquired the support from crazy German nationalists. His leadership was unshakable. We all know the following history: unsatisfied Hitler annexed Austria in March 1938, occupied Sutetenland in September 1938, invaded Poland in September 1939 causing WWII…
IV. How to learn a lesson in pain
History can never be rewritten. We can never change the tragic history written by blood using any counterfactual arguments. But we can look back and learn the lessons. When we curse the demon, is it also true the entire world committed the sin to help raise the demon?
For the Germans, their excitement was transitory, but they paid years of heavy price for it. Having enjoyed the climax brought by nationalism and militarism in the first few years of the Nazi regime, this so-called reasonable nation was taken into an unprecedented abyss by the paranoid Führer originally from a village in Austria. That is, the German state was completely broken into pieces, millions of people were killed in action, and tens of thousands of women were raped by Soviet soldiers. Since the Germans chose to praise the demon, they deserve to pay for it with their own lives and soul, and they were not innocent.
Although the rest of Europe and the US eventually achieved victory, they paid a heavy price as well. France as a traditional European power, experienced the extreme humiliation resulted from Hitler’s Paris parade and the whole country’s surrender; The British Empire as a whole also collapsed, forcing it to defense its own British mainland; Poland and Czechoslovakia were subjugated at the early stage and were ravaged since then; The United States rose to the hegemon, but it was hard to say it won the war easily – Soviet Union ended up being a threat, it was fairly to say which was the outcome of a series of the butterfly effect.
It was foreseeable beforehand before Hitler breaking the treaty in craziness and the outcome was predictable after that. The beneficiary countries were strong enough to stop the behavior if they sanction or suppress Germany at seeing the initial signs. There was only one way for the Nazi Germany to take the risk but there were many ways to stop it. But the so-called civilized countries of the world, counting on other countries for some minor benefits, watching Nazi Germany do whatever they wanted, let the disaster happen, it should not have happened. Something should have stopped with a low price, but the whole world paid an expensive price. They thought it was nothing to do with them, eventually every single one of them suffered
Today, we call this policy in which always surrendering, backwards when coping with brutality, appeasement. The mistakes which the civilized countries always make, that is judge a bad person with a good person’s thoughts. They mistakenly think civilization could teach brutality, even be friends with brutality, or survive with it. They never realized, the civilization indeed tolerated brutality, but the brutality could never tolerate civilization.
The lesson from which the world learned from the Nazi Germany, I think there are two points most important: the nature of Fascism determined they could not get along with the world peacefully, they would expose their teeth soon or later. Fist is the only Language they could understand. The second, if we must fight, we must fight early, fight hard, it is the mission of civilization to kill the Fascism before they start to grow.