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The Rhineland Gambit: How Hitler‘s Bold Move Paved the Way for World War II

Hitler and his generals in the Rhineland, 1936


The remilitarization of the Rhineland in 1936 was a pivotal moment in the lead-up to World War II, one that exposed the weaknesses of the European powers and emboldened Adolf Hitler to pursue his expansionist ambitions. In this article, we‘ll explore the historical context of this event, analyze its strategic significance, and examine how it contributed to the outbreak of the most devastating conflict in human history.

The Aftermath of World War I

To understand the significance of the Rhineland remilitarization, we must first delve into the political and economic landscape of Europe following World War I. The war, which lasted from 1914 to 1918, had a profound impact on the continent, leaving millions dead and many more wounded or displaced. The Treaty of Versailles, signed in 1919, sought to establish a new order in Europe, but its harsh terms left Germany feeling humiliated and resentful.

As historian Richard J. Evans notes in his book "The Coming of the Third Reich," the treaty "imposed a crushing burden of reparations on Germany, deprived it of vital industrial resources, and subjected it to a punitive occupation regime in the Rhineland" (Evans, 2003, p. 65). The demilitarization of the Rhineland, a strategic region along the Franco-German border, was a key provision of the treaty, designed to prevent Germany from threatening its neighbors again.

Hitler‘s Rise and Ideology

The resentment and economic turmoil that followed the Treaty of Versailles created fertile ground for the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. Hitler, a veteran of World War I, harbored a deep hatred for the treaty and the Allied powers that had imposed it on Germany. In his autobiographical manifesto "Mein Kampf," he outlined his vision for a resurgent Germany that would reclaim its lost territories and assert its dominance over Europe.

Hitler‘s ideology was rooted in extreme nationalism, racism, and a belief in the superiority of the German people. As historian Ian Kershaw notes in his book "Hitler: 1889-1936 Hubris," Hitler saw the German nation as "a racial entity, the highest form of human existence, whose destiny was to rule the world" (Kershaw, 1998, p. 253). This ideology would drive Hitler‘s foreign policy decisions and ultimately lead to the outbreak of World War II.

The Strategic Importance of the Rhineland

For Hitler, the Rhineland was a crucial piece of his expansionist puzzle. The region, which bordered France and Belgium, held immense strategic value. By remilitarizing the Rhineland, Hitler could strengthen Germany‘s western defenses and gain a valuable bargaining chip in future negotiations with the Allied powers.

As military historian Basil Liddell Hart notes in his book "The German Generals Talk," the Rhineland was "the key to the whole German position in the west" (Liddell Hart, 1948, p. 54). Its remilitarization would allow Germany to establish a strong defensive line along the Rhine River, making it much more difficult for France or other Allied powers to launch an attack on German soil.

Moreover, the Rhineland was an important industrial region, home to valuable coal and steel resources. By reclaiming the region, Germany could boost its economy and strengthen its military-industrial complex, further enhancing its power and influence on the European stage.

The Rhineland Remilitarization

On March 7, 1936, Hitler made his move. In a carefully choreographed operation, German troops marched into the Rhineland and began fortifying the region. The move was a clear violation of the Treaty of Versailles, but Hitler gambled that the other European powers, still weary from the devastation of World War I, would be unwilling to challenge him.

As historian William L. Shirer writes in "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich," Hitler‘s gamble paid off:

"The French, who had the most to lose by Hitler‘s reoccupation of the Rhineland, did nothing. The British, who had somewhat less to lose, also did nothing. The rest of the world, which had nothing to lose, raised a great clamor, but also did nothing" (Shirer, 1960, p. 293).

The reasons for the Allied powers‘ inaction were complex. France, still traumatized by the losses of World War I, was reluctant to take military action without the support of Britain. Britain, meanwhile, was more concerned with preserving the balance of power in Europe and avoiding another costly war. As Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin famously remarked, "The bomber will always get through" (Baldwin, 1932), reflecting the widespread fear of aerial warfare and the belief that a new war would be even more devastating than the last.

The Psychological Impact

The Rhineland remilitarization was not only a strategic victory for Hitler but also a psychological one. As historian Richard J. Evans notes, the lack of response from the Allied powers "convinced Hitler that he could get away with almost anything" (Evans, 2005, p. 618). The German people, too, were emboldened by Hitler‘s success, seeing it as a sign of their nation‘s resurgence and a vindication of Nazi ideology.

In the months and years that followed, Hitler would continue to test the limits of Allied resolve, annexing Austria in 1938 and demanding the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia later that same year. The policy of appeasement, which sought to avoid war by making concessions to Hitler, would ultimately prove disastrous, as each concession only fueled Hitler‘s ambitions and made war more likely.

The Failure of the League of Nations

The Rhineland remilitarization also exposed the weakness of the League of Nations, the international organization created after World War I to promote peace and prevent future conflicts. As historian Susan Pedersen notes in her book "The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire," the League "proved unable to respond effectively to the remilitarization of the Rhineland" (Pedersen, 2015, p. 332), revealing its limitations as a mechanism for collective security.

The League‘s failure to act in the face of German aggression would have far-reaching consequences, undermining its credibility and emboldening other aggressors, such as Italy‘s Benito Mussolini and Japan‘s military leaders, to pursue their own expansionist ambitions.

The Road to War

The Rhineland remilitarization was a key step on the road to World War II. By demonstrating the unwillingness of the Allied powers to challenge German aggression, it opened the door for further expansionist moves by Hitler and the Nazi regime. The annexation of Austria and the Munich Agreement, which ceded the Sudetenland to Germany, followed in quick succession, as Hitler‘s appetite for conquest grew.

As historian Gerhard L. Weinberg notes in his book "A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II," the Rhineland remilitarization "marked the beginning of the end of the interwar period and the start of the process that would lead directly to the outbreak of World War II" (Weinberg, 1994, p. 37). By the time the Allied powers realized the full extent of Hitler‘s ambitions, it was too late to avoid war.


The remilitarization of the Rhineland in 1936 was a pivotal moment in the lead-up to World War II, one that exposed the weaknesses of the European powers and emboldened Hitler to pursue his expansionist dreams. By understanding the historical context and the lessons of this critical event, we can better appreciate the complex factors that contributed to the outbreak of the most devastating conflict in human history.

As historian Margaret MacMillan argues in her book "Paris 1919," the failure of the Allied powers to stand up to Hitler in the 1930s was a tragic missed opportunity:

"The tragedy of the 1930s was that the democracies were slow to recognize the threat that Hitler posed and to take action against him. By the time they did, it was too late to avoid war" (MacMillan, 2001, p. 492).

Today, as we face new challenges and threats to global peace and security, it is crucial that we learn from the mistakes of the past and remain vigilant in defense of our shared values and ideals. The story of Hitler‘s Rhineland gambit reminds us that appeasement is rarely a viable strategy in the face of aggression and that the price of inaction can be devastating.

Soldiers during World War II

By studying this critical period in history, we can gain valuable insights into the complex interplay of ideology, strategy, and diplomacy that shapes the course of world events. As we navigate the challenges of the 21st century, let us draw on the lessons of the past to build a more peaceful, just, and stable world for all.


  • Baldwin, S. (1932). Speech to the House of Commons. Retrieved from
  • Evans, R. J. (2003). The Coming of the Third Reich. New York: Penguin Press.
  • Evans, R. J. (2005). The Third Reich in Power. New York: Penguin Press.
  • Kershaw, I. (1998). Hitler: 1889-1936 Hubris. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
  • Liddell Hart, B. H. (1948). The German Generals Talk. New York: William Morrow and Company.
  • MacMillan, M. (2001). Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World. New York: Random House.
  • Pedersen, S. (2015). The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Shirer, W. L. (1960). The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  • Weinberg, G. L. (1994). A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.