• Email
  • Print

Rhineland

In response to:

Falling Dominoes from the October 27, 1983 issue

To the Editors:

Space limitations preclude further exploration of Theodore Draper’s misreadings of Thucydides, or dissection of his indefensible version of the Munich crisis and of the events of 1939 [NYR, October 15, 1983; March 15]. But his discussion of Hitler’s Rhineland coup of March 7, 1936 is worth brief comment, since it well illustrates Draper’s historical method.

He has proclaimed the comforting illusion that in 1936 “Hitler was even prepared to retreat if the French had shown any inclination to use force to make him back down,” and has asserted that “the German Army had no intention of defending the Rhineland.” What Draper does not realize is that the “Rhineland” at issue in 1936 was that basic fact of interwar geography, the demilitarized Rhineland zone (articles 42 and 43 of the Versailles Treaty) that included a fifty-kilometer-deep demilitarized strip on the east bank of the Rhine. German plans to withdraw to and defend at the river if the French attacked thus in no way involved a “retreat” from “the Rhineland,” from the demilitarized zone Hitler’s coup flagrantly violated. The numerous sources that Draper cites suggesting a planned German withdrawal to the Rhine are indeed plausible. But they directly and decisively contradict Draper’s claim of German willingness to “back down” without fighting.

On Hitler’s intentions, Draper is even shakier. He quotes, in support of his own argument, a Speer account of later Hitler remarks that makes clear that Hitler planned to meet force with force, regardless of consequences: “…we would have been easily defeated. Our resistance would have been over in few days.” How, even for Draper, can resistance be the same as “backing down”? Draper also cites as a major prop for his interpretation of Hitler’s February 1938 diatribe to Schuschnigg. But curiously enough he quotes only the first part of the operative sentence: “If France had marched then, we should have been forced to withdraw.” Unfortunately the sentence continues: “; perhaps by 60 kilometers; but even then we would have held them.”* Where now is the willingness to feebly disgorge his booty that Draper has read into Hitler’s policy?

Instead of seeking to drown criticism in a torrent of abuse (“peculiar academic effrontery,” “outright misrepresentation,” “defamatory nonsense,” “violates the permissible bounds of historical disagreement”), Draper should read the source he cites—beginning with Thucydides.

MacGregor Knox

University of Rochester

Rochester, New York

Theodore Draper replies:

Professor Knox’s first letter was rude and insolent; he got what he deserved. His second letter is merely a nuisance. I doubt whether many readers are passionately interested in this dispute over the remilitarization of the Rhineland, but since he seems to think it is his best shot at me, he apparently needs another lesson.

Knox now agrees that Hitler had no intention of fighting in the entire territory west of the Rhine, which is by far most of the Rhineland. If Hitler planned to defend at the river, as Knox argues, he still intended to “retreat” from “the Rhineland” or at least most of it. The 50 kilometer (about 31 miles) strip east of the Rhine, which had been demilitarized in 1919, was no “basic fact of interwar geography.” It was merely a concession to the French who had wanted much more. The great cities of Düsseldorf, Cologne, and Mannheim straddle the Rhine and could not be defended by waiting for the French to move into them unopposed. Part XIV, Section I, Article 428 of the Versailles Treaty had provided for Allied occupation of the whole territory west of the Rhine together with bridgeheads at Cologne, Coblenz, Mainz, and Kehl. The 31-mile strip was intended to keep German troops away from the bridgeheads. A French rush to the Rhine would have entailed at the very least recapture of those bridgeheads, opening up the industrial region of the Ruhr east of the Rhine. The idea that the German army seriously intended to defend the Rhineland by permitting the French to take over most of it without a struggle and put up inferior resistance east of the Rhine as a way of defending the Rhineland is a pipe dream.

Knox has also argued that Germany was far inferior in armed force to France in 1938. If so, Germany was vastly more inferior in 1936. Yet we are expected to believe that a German army that could not take on the French west of the Rhine could do so east of the Rhine.

Knox’s reference to Speer is a case of flagrante delicto. As cited by me, Speer quoted Hitler as having said: “We had no army worth mentioning”—for fighting west or east of the Rhine. Knox strategically ignores this part of Speer’s testimony. Speer went on to quote Hitler to the effect that “our resistance would have been over in a few days.” In context, this meant that resistance would have been futile and senseless, not that Hitler had intended to resist. It is as if one said: “If I cross the street, I will be hit by a truck”—as a token of determination to cross the street.

There was nothing curious about the sentence I cited about Hitler’s statement to Schuschnigg; it was the one sentence cited by Knox’s authority, D.C. Watt. I repeated it only to draw attention to the far more authoritative testimonials of Hitler’s intention in subsequent years, one of which was Speer’s. What Hitler told Schuschnigg in 1938, when the former was doing his best—as Watt himself put it—“to overawe and impress Schuschnigg,” is hardly in the same class as Hossbach and Speer.

In short, Hitler gambled that the French would not act; he did not gamble on resisting the French east of the Rhine, if they had acted. That is the heart of the matter.

  1. *

    Kurt Schuschnigg, Ein Requiem in Rot-Weiss-Rot (Vienna, 1978), p. 43: “Wenn Frankreich damals marschiert wäre, hätten wir uns zurückziehen müssen; vielleicht um 60 km; dann hätten wir sie auch damals gehalten. Aber jetzt ist es für Frankreich zu spät!”

  • Email
  • Print