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The French Occupation of the Rhineland, 1918-1930

Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Lee, Joo Hyung
Term Paper, AP European History Class, April 2008

Table of Contents

I. Introduction
II. The Rhine Province (1822-1946)
III. The End of World War II
III.1 The Treaty of Versailles 1919
III.2 The Locarno Treaty 1925
IV. Post-Treaty Germany 1920-1930
IV.1 The French Rhineland Policy - "les limites naturelles
IV.2 Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929)
IV.3 The French Occupation of the Rhineland
IV.3.1 The Post-War Situation
IV.3.2 The Rhenish Republic (1923 - 1924)
V. The French occupation of the Ruhr 1923 - 1924
VI. The Remilitarization of the Rhineland 1936
VII. Conclusion and Analysis
VI. Notes
VII. Bibliography

I. Introduction
            Following World War I and the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was forced to make numerous concessions - Most notably, the loss of Alsace-Lorraine, the demilitarization of Rhineland. According to the treaty, the Rhineland (situated between France and Germany) was to be placed under the authority of the League of Nations; it was to serve as a "buffer" in case of a future German invasion of France. It was explicitly stated that Allied troops were to completely evacuate the area after fifteen years, eventually returning the area back to Germany. Yet France overtly attempted to permanently separate the Rhineland from Germany by supporting separatist movements and taking advantage of religious tensions in the area
            The term 'Rhineland' used in this paper (unless indicated otherwise) would in modern days designate the ensemble of two federal states in Western Germany, Rhineland-Palatinate (Rheinland-Pfalz) and North Rhine-Westphalia (Nordrhein-Westfalen). This paper will briefly narrate the history of Rhineland and then concentrate on events leading from the Treaty of Versailles, to the French occupation of the Rhineland after World War I in 1920 and its remilitarization under Nazi Germany in 1936.

II. The Rhine Province (1822-1946)
            The Rhine Province was originally a vast territory established in 1822 as part of the Kingdom of Prussia. It encompassed much of modern Rhineland-Palatinate, North Rhine-Westphalia, the Saarland, and several smaller lands (which were later transferred into Belgium after WWI). Going back even further, the province was created from Jülich-Kleve-Berg to the North and the Grand Duchy of the Lower Rhine (Grossherzogtum Niederrhein) to the South. In 1920, following the end of World War I, the Saar would be put under the administration of the League of Nations. The Saar would be returned to Germany in 1935 after a plebiscite, but no longer as part of the Rhine Province. The province itself would be subdivided into two (Rhineland Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia) in 1946 by the British and French military administration.

III. The End of World War I

III.1 The Treaty of Versailles
            World War I had been propagated by two major factions: the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary and associated empires) and the Entente Powers (Initially consisting of France, the United Kingdom, and Russia). The war lasted from 1914 to 1918, with the latter alliance emerging victorious. The War ended with several treaties, including the important Treaty of Versailles, signed on June 28, 1919. Signed between Germany and the Allies, this treaty called for a massive re-structuring of European frontiers. Following this treaty, Germany lost a substantial amount of territory and its military powers became severely restricted. The terms of the Treaty were considered more penalizing measures than restrictions by the German populace, and contributed to increased antagonism within Germany. The treaty also specified the Allies' right to reoccupy the Rhineland at will.

III.2 The Locarno Treaties
            Another one of the post-WW I treaties, the Locarno Treaties were signed on October 16, 1925 at Locarno, Switzerland. The accords were made between the delegates of Germany, Belgium, France, the United Kingdom, Italy and Poland. There were seven agreements in all, most of which were aimed at settling territorial matters. The Locarno Treaties could be viewed as a counterpart of the Treaty of Versailles; while the latter was particularly harsh towards Germany, the Locarno Pact was mainly construed to repair hostile relationships with Germany, guaranteeing the re-establishment of its frontiers to both the East and West. The Locarno Treaties sought to grant Germany with the means for diplomatic and economic rehabilitation in Europe.
            It should be noted that the Treaties were made in an atmosphere of hope for renewed peace with Germany. Hence the term "the Spirit of Locarno," designating the short period during which Germany, under the leadership of Gustav Stresemann, benefited with the opportunity to greatly ameliorate its political standings. Consequently, Germany was granted admission into the League of Nations, and Allied forces decided to withdraw ahead of schedule from the occupied Rhineland, as a show of goodwill. (The withdrawal was completed in June 1930, compared to the original plan of 1935).
            Yet the Treaties were not completely the signal-fire of international peace as its advocates proposed. As the League of Nations was intent only on restoring relationships with Germany, it went as far as to affirm that the territories East of Germany were 'free for revision'. These were lands that had been taken from Germany and distributed to other nations, mainly Poland. Therefore to Poland, this clause was open humiliation. Citing the words of Polish statesman Jozef Beck: "Germany was officially asked to attack the east, in return for peace in the west" (1).The treaties virtually designated Poland's sovereignty of the area to be officially questionable, and thus contributed to severely damaging French-Polish relations. The Locarno Treaties¡¯ limits were also evident in the revival of German nationalism during the 1930s, as an increasingly bitter Germany started demanding further concessions from the East and eventually nullified the Pact by marching into demilitarized Rhineland on 7 March 1936.

IV. Post-Treaty Germany: 1920-1930
            The Rhineland was already occupied by Allied forces since the Armistice of 1918. The Treaty of Versailles divided the area into three separate regions which were to be evacuated after five, ten and fifteen years respectively. While the region was not completely annexed by France as Alsace-Lorraine was, it was practically placed under French and Belgian military authority. As Germany had already ceded great amounts of territory to the East and Alsace-Lorraine to the West, (which was extremely valuable for its natural resources) surrendering control of more territory was considered too demanding, even by other European nations. Yet the French justified the demilitarization (and the subsequent occupation) of Rhineland by their claims to a need for protection, in case of another German attack. In the end, this decision failed to provide France with any such protection at all, only serving to aggravate diplomatic and public relations with Germany.

IV.1 The French Rhineland Policy - "les limites naturelles."
            After the Allied victory of 1918, the French were faced with an opportunity to establish a secure frontier on the Rhine River. Right-wing French intellectuals, politicians and generals were determined to seize this opportunity to establish France's "natural frontier," or its "limites naturelles" towards the east. This concept had been present in France even during the 17th century. Its modern rebirth was the work of historians such as A. Sorel, who advocated an aggressive French policy of steady advance towards the Rhine, the Alps, and the Pyrenees in his L'Europe et la revolution française in 1897: "La politique française a ete dessinee par la geographie" - or roughly translated, "French policy has been [pre-] designed by geographical [boundaries].". Such doctrines justified an inevitable geographically controlled expansion of France, which had so ardently been supported by (or rather, created by) the Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642) in the 17th century on the basis of sanctified terms such as "natural law" or "living space". This led to the 'justification' of belligerent acts in the name of the country. Such ideologies were widespread within the French intellectual society, and later on it was clearly demonstrated that the demilitarization of the Rhineland was not simply a defensive measure (as they claimed) but more of an active attempt to separate the region from Germany.

IV.2 Georges Clemenceau (1841 - 1929)
            The French had several major incentives in demilitarizing the Rhineland: First, It would diminish German sovereignty, as the inhabitants of the Rhineland would be placed under French control. Second, the area would serve as a buffer zone between France and Germany. Third and most of all, it would render impossible a German establishment of troops west of the Rhine River. And while the Treaty of Versailles achieved this goal, it was more of a compromise on the behalf of the French prime minister, Georges Clemenceau (served 1906 - 1909 and 1917 - 1920). Right-wing French politicians and generals at the time had strongly advocated a complete French annexation or separation of the Rhineland from Germany. While Clemenceau at first supported their point of view, he had to cede to other nations' demands and simply contended with a temporary Allied occupation of the region. Conflicts ensued within France between Marshal Foch and the prime minister, right after the Marshal learned about the change of plans. In the French public opinion, Clemenceau had failed them; hence his nickname change from "Pere-la-Victoire" (father of victory) to a similar sounding yet mocking "Perd-la-Victoire" (lost the victory). Such an attitude shown by the general public demonstrates how the majority of the French wanted to see Rhineland removed from Germany. From a New York Times article of the period:

            "PARIS, June 24 -- French troops, from high officers to privates, find it hard to conceal their disappointment at the fading of prospects of invading Germany."
                                   June 26, 1919, Thursday

IV.3 The French Occupation of the Rhineland

IV.3.1 The Post-War Situation
            The 1920s were a time of severe economic hardships for Germany, following its defeat in the First World War. At first, most the blame was aimed at the French. The fact that the German army was still far advanced in enemy territory to the West, and that they had actually won the war on the Eastern Front, made it hard to accept defeat. Yet as time passed the public opinion started to turn against the German government itself, especially in peripheral areas that were farther from the capital (and were the most affected by the war.) In these areas, distrust and anger started to rise against faraway Berlin. Further aggravating the situation, the German currency collapsed in 1923. Such a situation helped the French gain headway in encouraging anti-Berlin separatism in the region. (2)

IV.3.2 The Rhenish Republic (1923 - 1924)
            It was clear that the French wished the Rhineland to be separated from Germany. As Clemenceau¡¯s initial attempts failed, the French proceeded by encouraging separatist movements in the area, openly supporting the creation of an independent Rhenish state. This was a clear breach of the Treaty of Versailles which, while demilitarizing the zone, did not intend a permanent separation. Such aggressive tactics employed by the French caused alarm, even from France¡¯s allies. French high Commissioner Paul Tirard went as far as officially legitimizing the Rhenish government, and did not take any measures against the separatist movement. In fact, French troops were sent to take part in the "Rhineland protection Force," against Germany's own army. The German government, yet unable to start a major confrontation against the French army, could not cope with the insurrection or take action against the resident occupation troops. Aside from the French, the "Protection Force" was mainly comprised of young men who were homeless and unemployed, usually thrown out of the Ruhr valley (Which was also occupied by the French at the time). These men continued to arm themselves and pillage nearby towns. As the government could not make an effective intervention, their advance was only halted by a local resistance in Aegidienberg. Spreading news of the separatists¡¯ violent demeanor crippled any remaining public support. Separatists found themselves outvoted or decommissioned from their offices, and the Republic was disestablished in November 1924.
            As was previously mentioned, the French were also intent on the cultural and social separation of the Rhineland. Efforts were made to establish French culture in the region, but failed. This was mainly because the local anti-nationalistic movements of the 20s were simply anti-governmental, not pro-French. Another consequence of the French occupation was the offspring of (coloured) French troops with local residents called 'Rhineland Bastards,' these mixed-race Germans were a target for racial sterilization programs under the Nazi regime. Nor were they able to seek refuge in France, who did not refused any responsibility for these people.

V. The French Occupation of the Ruhr (1923 - 1924)
            The Occupation of the Ruhr can be interpreted as a retaliation action taken out by France and Belgium at Germany failing to pay its due reparations on schedule. The Treaty of Versailles had originally imposed 20 billion Marks of indemnities on Germany, to be paid to the Allies until 1921. Yet In a conference held in London in April on 1921, the amount of indemnities was greatly increased once more. This was a measure imposed by the Allies, who needed more money to repay its war debts towards the United States. Yet this clearly ignored Germany's financial capabilities, and Germany requested a moratorium.
            The British, who originally supported France¡¯s rigid stance concerning the payment schedule, decided to change its policies and grant an extension, and possibly a cut on the amount to be paid. As Germany was its second largest economic partners, and a crisis in Germany would no doubt affect Britain. Yet contrary to a more lenient British or American government, France was unwilling to accept any further delays and took direct action by invading the Ruhr area valley on January 11, 1923. This area was the center of German coal, steel and iron industry - the French expected the occupation would fully pay off the debts, as well as cripple Germany's industry. It is worth noting that while the occupation was met with some resistance at first, by further aggravating the economic crisis in Germany, it actually contributed to turning public opinion against the Weimar Republic. Increasing hyperinflation and unemployment led to a series of strikes and mounting antagonism, one example being the (failed) Beer Hall Putsch, an attempt made by Adolf Hitler and General Erich Ludendorff to seize power on November 8, 1923.
            Internationally, the occupation served to increase sympathy towards Germany. Yet the occupation was considered a legal measure under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, so no official measure could be taken against it. However, the occupation only served to further set back Germany's economy, severely damaging its ability to repay the indemnities. The French eventually evacuated their troops, and adopted the Dawes Plan. The plan imposed a reparation payment of one billion marks during the first year, which would rise steadily during the course of more years. Initially successful, it was replaced by a complementary Young Plan in 1929. (3)

VI. The Remilitarization of the Rhineland: 1936
            If the local population had been hostile to Berlin during the 1920s, nationalism started to rise again during the next decade with the rise of the Nazis. In February 1936, Hitler took a daring step and sent armed troops to the Rhineland. But France was nearing a general election, and no politician wanted to lose face by instigating another conflict with the Rhinelanders. But most of all, France was unsure whether it would be capable of withstanding another prolonged war with Germany. The French military leadership and Ministry of Foreign affairs counseled against any forceful action, fearful of a defeat. This turned out to be a grave error, (4) as not only did France possess superior armed forces, but Hitler had actually ordered his generals to directly retreat should France show the slightest possibility of military action. Hitler's own military advisor, General Ludwig Beck had warned him that the German army would be unable to stop a French attack. Heinz Guderian, a German general interviewed by French officials after the War, told them: "If you French had intervened in the Rhineland in 1936 we should have been sunk and Hitler would have fallen" (5)
            Hitler's famous comments on the period: "If France had then marched into the Rhineland, we would have had to withdraw with our tails between our legs, for the military resources at our disposal would have been wholly inadequate for even a moderate resistance." (6)
            It was this leniency which gave Hitler the confidence to plan increasingly aggressive actions, and it showed him that Europe was too sensitive about the prospect of another war that they were unlikely to move directly against him. Such a chain of events are what would unfortunately lead the continent - and the rest of the world - into another World War.

VII. Conclusion and Analysis
            The French had made two major mistakes. First of all, their overly hostile policies towards Germany had only contributed to the rise of an extreme-right movement. The occupation of the Ruhr had not only enflamed German nationalism and public outrage by itself, but the severe economic crisis it entailed was the main cause of unrest and turmoil in Germany. This only led to increased antagonism against the Allied countries, along with a strong sense of purpose and justification for the Nazi party. The French occupation of the Rhineland too was a failure. In the end, the French did not achieve any of its outwardly proclaimed - or inwardly conceived - objectives, as the Rhineland would once again fall back into the hands of Germany, and France would be unable to stop it from doing so. Unable to fully take or leave the Rhineland, a decade and a half would pass with little earned.
            Secondly, even after the Nazis had gained power in Germany, the French had the opportunity to halt their advance - and failed. When Hitler attempted to remilitarize the Rhineland, he was taking a great risk. Germany's military force was unable to cope with a direct confrontation with France (whose army at the time would have easily overwhelmed them). Added to that, had Hitler failed in his attempt, he would not have gained the political and public support he received after his success. His political peers had been wary of his ambitions, and would have been keen enough to remove him from power had the remilitarization failed, and had provoked a French retaliation. Yet his success was greeted with great enthusiasm by the public, and they had no choice but to lend him their power and approval. In the end, what the French intended as a measure to permanently weaken Germany only led to France's own destruction.
            The Rhineland could be considered as the true place of beginning for Hitler¡¯s policies. His success at remilitarizing the area was what drastically shifted the public opinion towards him, and which also led the other people with power to support him.


(1)      Following World War I and the Treaty of Versailles, large portions of Eastern German territory were taken from Germany and redistributed to other nations. Namely Poland, which received most of the province of West Prussia, which granted it access to the Baltic Sea. This consequently cut off East Prussia from the rest of Germany, which caused great antagonism within Germany. During the Locarno Treaties, other Allied nations, eager to appease Germany, had officially declared Poland's rights of these territories questionable, and quite liable to be returned to Germany.
(2)      In fact, the French could receive most of the blame for the drastic hyperinflation and the fall of the Mark. On one hand, France demanded great sums of reparations (of which 53 % were to be received by France) while on the other hand the French had invaded the Ruhr. The Ruhr was called the "heart of German industry". Its production of coal, steel and other heavy industries were truly significant, and its loss could only serve to cripple Germany's failing economy. Such a turn of events led to an overall dissatisfaction within Germany against the Weimar Republic. It must be noted, that in the long run, this only served to provide the opportunity for the Nazis (for a while, the communist party also) to gain power.
(3)      While the Dawes plan was intended to relieve some of Germany's burdens, it became clear that even these terms could not be met. The Young Plan was presented as a solution in 1929-1930. According to the term, countries agreed not to pressure Germany for immediate payments, and German indebtedness would be reduced up to 90 %. As these terms would render in difficult for European Allied nations to repay their debts toward the United States, this Plan was agreed on the basis that the United States would also cancel all their war debts too.
(4)      At the time, France possessed far superior armed forces, including a possible mobilization of 100 infantry army divisions. Yet the French administration showed great reluctance and lack of confidence in facing another conflict. Immediately after hearing news of the remilitarization, French Foreign Secretary Pierre Flandin went to the United Kingdom asking for help, for the government had determined that they would not be able to win another war without British help. Yet as British sentiments were mixed concerning the remilitarization - some regarded it a hostile action, others thought nothing of it, and even considered it a German right to reclaim the Rhineland - their support was not guaranteed. Winston Churchill was among the very few from the British Parliament who advocated a joint Anglo-French effort to challenge the remilitarization. As this was the situation, the French government decided against its own mobilization of the French army, and decided to let Hitler proceed with his plans. Gilbert & Gott. 2000; Medlicott pp.84-9, 110; Tournoux 1964
(5)      Matthews 2003 p.115
(6)      Tournoux 1964 p.159


Note : websites quoted below were visited in April 2008.
1.      Walter Duranty. "French Fostering Rhineland Spirit". New York Times June 26, 1919.
2.      J. Sperber. Rhineland Radicals. Princeton UP 1992
3.      Article : Rhenanie-Palatinat, from Wikipedia French edition
4.      Article : Rhenanie-du-Nord-Westphalie, from Wikipedia French edition
5.      Article : Accords de Locarno, from Wikipedia French edition
6.      Article : Treaties of Locarno, from Wikipedia.
7.      Article : Traite de Versailles, from Wikipedia French edition
8.      Rhineland 1936. from History Learning Site
9.      Baud. Histoire Geographie 2e, edition 2001. Hatier, 2001
10.      A. Girod. La Premiere Guerre mondiale : 1914 - 1918. Autrement, 13 January 2001.
11.      Stanislas Jeanesson. Poincare, la France et la Ruhr, 1922-1924: Histoire d'une occupation. Presses universitaires de Strasbourg, 1998
12.      Article : Ruhr from Wikipedia French edition,
13.      The occupation of the Ruhr (Germany, 1923 - 1925), from ICRC
14.      Article : Ruhr Occupation, from Britannica Online Encyclpedia
15.      Jean-Claude Favez. Le Reich Devant L'Occupation Franco-Belge de la Ruhr en 1923. The American Historical Review, Vol. 75, No. 6 (Oct., 1970), p. 1741
16.      Rupert Matthews, Hitler: Military Commander (Arcturus, 2003)
17.      J. R. Tournoux, Petain et de Gaulle (Paris: Plon, 1964),
18.      Martin Gilbert and Richard Gott. The Appeasers. Phoenix Press, 2000
19.      W.N. Medlicott et al., Documents on British Foreign Policy, 1919- 1939

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