Saturday, August 16, 2008

French could have Preempted Hitler in 1936

Some time ago I was in a discussion about the possibility of stopping Hitler before he got his war machine in gear. I believe George Kennan dwelt upon that in one of his books. If I recall correctly, the date he had in mind was 1933. If Britain, France and the U.S. had opposed Hitler in 1933, there never would have been World War Two. Later I read Ian Kershaw’s Hitler, 1889-1936, Hubris. He doesn’t make Kennan’s argument about 1933; however, there seems to be little doubt that Hitler could have been stopped by the French in March of 1936.

The Treaty of Locarno in 1925 established the western boundary of Germany, denying Germany the Rhineland. Hitler determined that he could get away with reoccupying the Rhineland while the League of Nations was preoccupied with Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia.

Hitler was taking a huge gamble. He had but a small force at his disposal: “The force to be sent into the demilitarized zone numbered no more than 30,000 regulars, augmented by units of Landespolizei. A mere 3,000 men were to penetrate deep into the zone. The remainder had taken up positions for the most part behind the eastern bank of the Rhine. The forward troops were to be prepared to withdraw within an hour in the event of likely military confrontation with the French. . . French intelligence – counting SA, SS, and other Nazi formations as soldiers – had come up with an extraordinary figure of 295,000 for the German military force in the Rhineland. In reality, one French division would have sufficed to terminate Hitler’s adventure. ‘Had the French then marched into the Rhineland,’ Hitler was reported to have commented more than once at a later date, ‘we would have had to withdraw again with our tails between our legs . . . The military force at our disposal would not have sufficed even for limited resistance.’ The forty-eight hours following the entry of the German troops into the Rhineland were, he claimed, the most tense of his life. . . ‘If the French had really been serious, it would have become the greatest political defeat for me,’ he recalled Hitler declaring. But as the Dictator had correctly predicted, in fact, neither the French nor the British had the will to fight. Already by the early evening of 7 March, it was plain that the coup had been a complete success.”

Goebbels in his diary commented, “With the Fuhrer. Comments from abroad excellent. France wants to involve (befassen) the League of Nations. That’s fine. So it [France] won’t take action. That’s the main thing. Nothing else matters . . . The reaction in the world was predicted. The Fuhrer is immensely happy . . . The entry has gone according to plan . . . The Fuhrer beams. England remains passive. France won’t act alone. Italy is disappointed and America uninterested. We have sovereignty again over our own land.”

Several matters occur to me. 1) The first is that France’s attitude in 1936 was very like their attitude in 2003. They didn’t want to act without the approval of the League of Nations in 1936 and the UN in 2003. In neither case did they want to use French forces.

2) The French intelligence failure about the number of troops in the Rhineland dwarfs any mistakes our CIA made about Iraq. And what is the French assessment of Iran now?

3) The United States was well back into its isolationist shell during 1936 – Let those Europeans solve their own problems.

4) I have never read that the French wished that they had opposed Hitler in the Rhineland in 1936. I wonder if any of their historians have written about that period or if any in France have compared the potential opposition to Hitler in 1936 to the actual confrontation of Saddam in 2003. And are the French seriously considering preempting Ahmadinejad now?

5) There are plenty who say that Saddam was but a paper tiger when we invaded Iraq. He was all talk and bluff. But according to Kershaw that is precisely what Hitler was in 1936. Had the French opposed Hitler in 1936 he would have suffered disastrously at home. He needed something spectacular to get the German populace to quit thinking about their empty bellies. There was even talk of a military coup. Had the French opposed Hitler in 1936 and he had been removed in a military coup later that year, would the History books being written today be critical of France’s militarism?

6) The big difference between 1936 and 2003 is that in 2003, the US was interested. Would Britain have opposed Saddam on its own? I rather doubt it. Had the US been uninterested in 2003, I see no reason why Saddam couldn’t have kept the inspectors out and resumed his pet projects, including the development of nuclear weapons. At some point someone was going to have to deal with Saddam militarily. He had his heart set on getting rid of the inspectors. The sanctions weren’t working (as the UN Oil for Food scandal showed). He would eventually get his own way – if the US was uninterested. Is anyone interested in preempting Iran’s ambitions now?

7) I have heard the suggestion that by 2002 Saddam was no longer interested in his WMDs or for Arab Unity with Iraq at its head. They cite Saddam’s palaces. He was now interested in enjoying the good life, not in military ambition. However, the same thing could have been said about Hitler in 1935. He and his closest advisors built themselves the equivalent of palaces. Why do they have palaces and we have barely enough to eat, the German people had begun to grumble. But they quit grumbling when Hitler entered the Rhineland. Look, he is always right. He is always lucky. What do our empty bellies matter? He is a god! I haven’t heard anyone calling Ahmadinejad the Mahdi, but he did build a road we would call a pork barrel road to nowhere. But his road is from where the Mahdi is supposed to appear to the nearest city. He may not be the Mahdi, but maybe he knows him.

Lawrence Helm

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