Friday, 27 September 2013

Could decisive action by Britain and France in 1936 have prevented WW2?

This isn't directly relevant to the Dawlish Chronicles period but to that which followed and it's worth noting nonetheless.

Inspired by the excellent The Alternative History Discussion Group on Facebook I was thinking yesterday while driving about what was the single moment in the 20th Century when a single action which was not taken had the power to change the course of history to the greatest extent.

My conclusion was that this was if Britain and France has reacted differently to Hitler’s re-occupation if the Rhineland in March 1936, contrary to the terms of the Treaties of Versailles and Locarno. This represented Hitler’s first flexing of muscles on the international stage but it occurred when German re-armament, and expansion of the armed forces, was still at a very preliminary stage. Hitler was almost alone in Germany in believing that the trick could be pulled off.

The German high command, including the Chief of the General Staff, Ludwig Beck, was opposed to any such move, regarding it as a reckless blunder which would precipitate a war which Germany was not prepared for. In the event the “remilitarisation” was only token, with just three battalions crossing the Rhine into the demilitarised territory. Had Hitler’s bluff been called by Britain and France then Germany would have had no option but to retreat. The historian Alan Bullock quoted Hitler as saying “The forty-eight hours after the march into the Rhineland were the most nerve-racking in my life. If the French 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.”

There also appears that had Germany been pushed into a humiliating retreat senior officers in the Army high command would have been prepared to stage a coup to remove Hitler – and to do so in circumstances much more likely to offer success than at the time of the 20th July plot in 1944.
In the event the British and French governments lost their nerve and accepted the remilitarisation. The Nazi Party’s popularity soared to unprecedented levels as wild celebrations spread across the country. When German troops marched into Cologne, a vast cheering crowd formed spontaneously threw flowers before them and Cardinal Karl Joseph Schulte of Cologne held a Mass at Cologne Cathedral to celebrate and thank Hitler for "sending back our army.

Hitler’s bluff had succeeded and he was encouraged to embark on new adventures, on the outright repudiation of treaty terms, on the Anchluss with Austria, on the intimidation of Czechoslovakia and its subsequent seizure of the Sudetenland, on the inexorable march to war. A failure of nerve by Britain and France in 1936 made all that followed inevitable.

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