German occupation of the Rhineland

Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 3, Key stage 4

Time period: Interwar 1918-1939

Suggested inquiry questions: How significant are these documents in revealing the British reaction to the German re-occupation of the Rhineland?

Potential activities: Create your own map to show how Hitler acted against terms of the Treaty of Versailles in the period 1935-1938.

Download: Lesson pack

What should Britain do about it?

On 7 March 1936 German troops re-occupied the Rhineland, a de-militarised zone according to the Treaty of Versailles. This action was directly against the terms which Germany had accepted after the First World War. This move, in terms of foreign relations, threw the European allies, especially France and Britain, into confusion. What should they do about it?

Anthony Eden was the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and Stanley Baldwin the Prime Minister at the time.

Use the Foreign Office documents in this lesson from March 11th 1936 to find out about the motives and attitudes of the British government as they discuss their options.


1. This is a document where the Foreign Secretary describes a meeting he has had with the French, Belgian and Italian governments.

  • What clues are there that the British Cabinet thought the situation was serious?
  • What was British policy for dealing with the crisis?
  • How did this policy go down with our allies?
  • Why do you think they reacted in this way?
  • What did Anthony Eden expect the allies to do next?
  • Why would this put Britain ‘in an impossible position’?

2. This is another section from the document seen in Source 1. What does this tell us about Baldwin’s attitude to:

  • war?
  • communism?

How might each of these worries affect how Britain would deal with the crisis?

3. According to this document, why was Britain unready to go to war with Germany over the Rhineland?

  • How would this affect our readiness to go along with what France wanted?

4. Look at Source 4. What arguments are put here for and against economic sanctions against Germany?

5. The Foreign Secretary puts forward his suggestion for dealing with the situation:

  • What deal does Anthony Eden want to offer Germany?
  • What do you think were Eden’s motives in making this offer to Germany?
  • Did this deal abide by the terms of the Treaties of Versailles and Locarno?
  • Why do you think he didn’t consult the League of Nations?

6. British policy towards Germany at this time is called appeasement.

  • Use your answers to questions 2(a), 3(a), 4 and 5(a) to describe what appeasement was and why Britain took this line
  • Do you think Eden could have handled the situation differently?


According to the Treaty of Versailles, the Rhineland, a strip of land inside Germany bordering on France, Belgium and the Netherlands, was to be de-militarised. That is, no German troops were to be stationed inside that area or any fortifications built. The aim was to increase French security by making it impossible for Germany to invade France unawares. Other terms restricted the German army to 100,000 men and the navy to just 36 ships. Germany objected to the terms of the treaty but were told to sign it or the war would begin again.

The Treaty of Versailles also set up the League of Nations, an international peace-keeping organisation. It was based on the idea of collective security, that is, the nations of the world would act together (collectively) to preserve peace. Unfortunately, one of the most powerful, the USA, did not join the League.

Germany in the 1920s was keen to get back on normal terms with other nations and signed the Treaty of Locarno. By this treaty Germany agreed to accept the terms of the Versailles Treaty, at least on her western borders. France continued to worry about their safety against Germany particularly after Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933. He had always declared his firm intention of overthrowing the Treaty of Versailles and uniting all Germans in one country, even if it led to war. Germany began to re-arm. Could France trust collective security, or should they find military allies?

In May 1935 France signed a treaty of friendship and mutual support with the USSR. Germany claimed the treaty was hostile to them and Hitler used this as an excuse to send German troops into the Rhineland in March 1936, contrary to the terms of the treaties of Versailles and Locarno. It was a gamble on his part and his generals were nervous about it. German re-armament had not yet reached a point where they felt ready to take on a well-armed nation like France.

Following the discussions described in the documents, the British Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, did indeed meet the German ambassador and make his proposals. Hitler refused to withdraw his troops, and put pressure on the League of Nations to act. France was on the verge of a general election and would not act without Britain’s support. However the British people felt that the Treaty of Versailles was unfair on Germany and was over-restrictive, and so partly because of this, the British government decided to do nothing. Hitler moved on from the occupation of the Rhineland in 1936, to the annexation of Austria and the seizure of the Sudetenland in 1938, to the take-over of the rest of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 and then Poland in September 1939.

Teachers' notes

In this lesson students explore a series of extracts from Foreign Office meetings over the German re-occupation of the Rhineland. They reveal the crisis it produced for Britain and her some of her allies. The key concerns can be inferred within the documents, including:

  • Horror of war and sense of growth of peace movements
  • Unpreparedness for war
  • Belief that communism was an evil to be avoided an any cost
  • Mistrust of our key allies
  • Weakness of the League of Nations
  • Recognition that the Treaty of Versailles may have been wrong in parts and readiness to revise it
  • Assumption that it was possible to negotiate with Hitler and his demands could be seen as reasonable

The events of the Rhineland crisis are important for those studying the history of appeasement in international relations prior to the outbreak of war in 1939. With this is mind, some teachers may wish to use this lesson with our three other lessons on Chamberlain and Hitler, Eden’s last stand, and the leadership of Adolf Hitler shown in Related Resources.

All sources are provided with transcripts and simplified transcripts. Students could work on the sources individually or pairs and report back to the group with their findings.


Illustration image: The reoccupation of the demilitarised zone of the Rhineland, 7 March 1936, German official photographer © IWM NYP 68058Y

Sources 1-5 FO 371/19892: Minutes from the Foreign Office meeting on the Treaty of Locarno in 1936

External links

Video on the German re-occupation and militarization of the Rhineland

A blog on the Locarno Treaties which gives further context for sources

Connections to curriculum

Key stage 3
Challenges for Britain, Europe and the wider world 1901 to the present day: the inter-war years: the Great Depression and the rise of dictators

Key stage 4
AQA GCSE History: Germany, 1890–1945: Democracy and dictatorship
Edexcel GCSE History: c1900–present: Warfare and British society in modern era
OCR GCSE History: War and British Society c.790 to c.2010; attitudes and responses to war

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Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 3, Key stage 4

Time period: Interwar 1918-1939

Suggested inquiry questions: How significant are these documents in revealing the British reaction to the German re-occupation of the Rhineland?

Potential activities: Create your own map to show how Hitler acted against terms of the Treaty of Versailles in the period 1935-1938.

Download: Lesson pack

Related resources

Adolf Hitler

Was Hitler a 'passionate lunatic'?

Chamberlain and Hitler 1938

What was Chamberlain trying to do?

Eden’s last stand

Why did Anthony Eden resign in 1938?