An even more significant demonstration of this fact came before the ItaloEthiopian War was liquidated. Seeing the split within the Stresa front, Hitler decided to act in the Rhineland-to repudiate the articles of the Treaty of Versailles that declared that region permanently demilitarized. When he communicated this decision to his generals, they were appalled. In their view the German Army was still comparatively weak, and the air force had relatively little offensive capability. They warned the furer that the French had the power singlehandedly to drive a German force from the region and impose humiliating terms. Hitler’s response was a simple assertion that the French would not move. He ordered the requisite preparations made.
The legal pretext he found in the FrancoSoviet Pact of 1935. By committing France to act against Germany in the event of German aggression against the USSR, Hitler could argue, this pact constituted a repudiation of the Locarno treaties, in which France had promised never to make war on Germany except in obedience to resolutions by the League of Nations. It also constituted a threat to Germany, he could say, and therefore, despite the Treaty of Versailles, gave warrant for action in self-defense. On March 7, 1936, shortly after the French Assembly’s ratification of the Franco-Soviet Pact, he exposed this reasoning in diplomatic notes and in a speech to the Reichstag. He announced that German troops were moving into the demilitarized zone. At the same time, he offered as measures of reassurance to sign nonaggression pacts with France and all Germany’s neighbors, east as well as west; to concert with the French a new demilitarization agreement, applying to both sides of the frontier; and to reenter the League of Nations.
The French government was shocked. Premier Sarraut responded with a forceful radio address, declaring, “We shall not leave Strasbourg under the German cannon.” As he later testified, however, he and his colleagues were uncertain as to what they would in fact do. Reports by military men on France’s capacity to repel the German force were generally pessimistic. The army, they said, was inadequate. It would be necessary to call up reservists in order to fill its ranks. Overestimating the German bomber force, they warned that Paris and other centers lacked the air defenses to prevent devastating raids. Their judgments thus reinforced the feeling that had been instinctive among the principal members of the cabinet that France dare not act alone, and that perhaps she should not act even if she received support from abroad.
One capital with which they were particularly concerned was Warsaw. On the day of Hitler’s announcement the Polish government gave them reassurance that in the event of a clash it would stand by the alliance of 1921 and proposed immediate conversations. Two days later, on March 9, however, it declared that it accepted the German thesis and regarded the reoccupation of the Rhineland as a legitimate response to the Franco-Soviet Pact. Their objective may have been merely to emphasize that Polish support of France would constitute action above and beyond the 1921 treaty, but the impression given the French government was that the Poles were playing a double game, and that France could not rely on them. The other nation whose support would be crucial to the French in a clash with Germany was Great Britain, and while the British government was more forthright than the Polish, it gave France even less encouragement to stand fast. Eden declared the German action to be inexcusable but not threatening, especially in view of Hitler’s offer of nonaggression pacts. Calling for a meeting of the League Council, he said that no decision should be taken beforehand by any government. The only promise he made was that Britain would support France if she were attacked by Germany in the period before the League acted.
The French government was thus informed by its two most important allies that it could not expect backing if it replied to the Germans with force. Some members of the Sarraut cabinet found this news not unwelcome. Perhaps most did, for they faced a general election in May; they felt that a call-up of reservists would cost them votes; and, in view of the identification of their Popular Front opponents with antifascism, they feared that any crisis with Germany might have the same effect. The French press, also preoccupied with domestic affairs, raised little clamor for action. Consequently, on March 11, Sarraut backed away from his earlier position, announcing that the cabinet had decided to seek a solution within the framework of the League of Nations, working in conjunction with the other signers of the Locarno Pact. The League did in fact discuss a resolution condemning the German action. Nothing came of this discussion, however, and the Rhineland question was lost to sight in the pell-mell rush of other events. Hitler’s coup had succeeded. Not only the machinery of the League but also the French system of alliances lay in ruins. There were no longer any collective guarantees of the peace, and the end of the truce of 1918-1919 was in sight.