17. Hitler’s territorial ambitions begin in the Rhineland
The Versailles Treaty had established that German military forces and fortifications would not be allowed in the area known as the Rhineland, and that Allied forces would not withdraw from the region until 1935. In fact the Allies withdrew their occupation troops in 1929 (British) and 1930 (French) as part of the negotiations over the German payment of war reparations. The year before the French withdrew they began construction of the series of forts along the French frontier which became known as the Maginot Line. For the first half of the 1930s French, Italian, British, and Soviet diplomats maneuvered over various means of containing Germany within its borders, and in 1935 France and the Soviet Union signed a treaty of alliance, which the Germans declared was a violation of the Versailles Treaty.
By 1935 the German economy was again faltering, with inflation and food shortages driving up prices and German support of the Nazi regime falling, especially in the larger cities. Hitler, desirous of a prestige building foreign policy victory, decided to remilitarize the Rhineland in January 1936. Although Goering counseled against the decision and even attempted to persuade Mussolini to dissuade the Fuhrer, the German army marched into the Rhineland beginning in March, 1936, supported by Luftwaffe aircraft. Hitler followed his coup by offering to return Germany to the League of Nations and offered a treaty of non-aggression to the French. France, which was most threatened by the German move, did nothing to oppose it militarily, and Hitler knew from that point that his other territorial desires in Europe were feasible.
When Hitler wrote Mein Kampf he stated within it his intention to unite Germany and Austria, despite several formerly Austrian territories being occupied by the Italians. As he moved towards annexing Austria Mussolini at first opposed him, until he was personally reassured by the German Chancellor that there would be no demands for the cession of territory by Italy. Hitler’s desire to annex Austria into the Reich has long been explained as being motivated by the desire to unite all of the Germanic people but in fact he had more mercenary reasons for absorbing the Austrian state. Austria was wealthy in many of the materials needed by the ever-increasing German military buildup, including iron and textiles, magnesium, and other products required of the German economy and growing war machine. The primary means by which Hitler convinced the Austrians to support him was through propaganda.
The slogan, Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Fuhrer was displayed prominently in Germany and Austria, and the Austrian Nazi Party used tactics similar to those it had used successfully in Germany to terrorize opponents and shape public opinion. The Austrian government responded by rounding up Nazis and imprisoning them, leading to a German boycott of Austria. In the mid-1930s Hermann Goering was the loudest voice in Germany calling for Austrian annexation. By 1937 both Austria and Czechoslovakia were targets for German military takeover, to be plundered for their raw materials and industrial bases. Hitler eventually seized Austria though the threat of military invasion and conquest, which was covered by a referendum which established the desire of the Austrian people to join the Reich. Opposition was rapidly suppressed by the SS. The plebiscite vote to ratify annexation was held throughout Germany and Austria and was claimed by the Nazis to represent over 99% approval.
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