Bordering France, the Saar is a 741-square mile German mining region just south of Luxembourg. During the 1919 peace conference, France sought to annex the Saar. Clemenceau falsely claimed that the province’s ethnic French colony numbered 150,000. He protested that a post-war German administration of the Saar would rob the inhabitants of the opportunity “to enjoy the freedom the French government wants to give them."28 Wilson and Lloyd George, however, arranged for the region to come under League of Nations jurisdiction for 15 years. The population could then vote whether the Saar should return to Germany, join France, or maintain status quo.

From 1920 to 1935, the five-member Saar Commission governed the region. French became the official language in public schools. The German miners opted for their own ethnic schools. German societies supported their children’s education through traveling libraries, delivering German language study books to even remote villages. The French arrested Hermann Röchling, a publisher and sponsor of the program.29 Violating the Versailles treaty, Paris transferred 5,000 soldiers to the Saar. They expelled most of the German civil servants and replaced them with French officials. The French assumed control of the coal industry.

Political analysts - German and French alike - predicted that the overwhelming majority of voters would cast for reunion with Germany in the 1935 plebiscite. Paris encouraged the population to vote for status quo. This would deprive Hitler of a strategic buffer dividing the two powers. France recruited German Communists, former trade union officials, and other opponents of the Hitler administration who had migrated to the Saar in 1933 to campaign for status quo; their propaganda vehemently criticized National Socialism.

The media campaign marred Franco-German relations. Hitler expressed his concern in a well-publicized interview on November 24, 1934, with the chairman of the Union of French Front Fighters, Jean Goy: “The French press draws the conclusion that we Germans are preparing a coup. It’s pure insanity to think that Germany would want to disrupt the coming plebiscite by resorting to force. We will accept the results of the plebiscite no matter how it turns out.” Hitler added that he had once suggested to Barthou that the pair draft a joint protocol to regulate “eventual difficulties” that might surface, “but never received an answer."30

Hitler proposed cancelling the plebiscite in favor of a more cordial settlement: The Saar would return to Germany, and French industry would retain control of its coal-rich natural resources. This was a magnanimous gesture, considering that Hitler expected to carry the vote: Hundreds of thousands of Saar residents had crossed into Germany in special trains and motor columns to attend his campaign speech in Koblenz the previous August. Paris rejected the proposal. Supervised by the League of Nations, the plebiscite took place on January 13, 1935. The result was a landslide, with 90.8 percent of the voters casting for union with Germany, 8.8 percent favoring status quo, and just 2,124 out of 526,857 eligible voters opting for France.

With the plebiscite settled, Hitler hoped for better relations with France. He had already renounced any future claim to Alsace-Lorraine. This was a large frontier region of mixed heritage which Germany had annexed from France in 1871. Clemenceau reclaimed the territory after 1918. Hitler explained to Jean Goy in 1934, “It would be no solution to wage war every 20 or 30 years to take back provinces that always cause France problems when they're French, and Germany when they're German."31 In his official proclamation announcing the recovery of the Saar, he described it as a “decisive step on the road to reconciliation” with France.

On March 6, the French reacted to the Saar plebiscite by extending military enlistments to two years. Soldiers scheduled for discharge remained on active duty, gradually expanding the size of the armed forces. Paris then announced a proposed mutual assistance pact with the Soviet Union. This would pledge military support in case a signatory “is exposed to the threat or danger of attack from a European state."32 With 45 French army divisions already stationed near Germany’s frontier, Hitler announced on March 16 that his government would no longer comply with the Versailles armament restrictions. He introduced compulsory military service with one-year enlistments.

Hitler summoned Dr. Friedrich Grimm, an authority on international law, to the chancery. The Führer was preparing his Reichstag speech to justify instituting the draft. He asked his guest, “Were you in my place, how would you explain the legal issue?” Grimm replied, “We're in the right. According to the Versailles treaty, the obligation to disarm is a mutual legal obligation. We've already done so. We've disarmed. This the opponents officially acknowledge. But they have not followed with their own disarmament. They're in arrears. Germany therefore demands freedom of action. It’s amazing that the Reich’s Government was so patient and accepted this circumstance for over 15 years."33

In his Reichstag speech on March 21, 1935, Hitler announced his intention to build an armed force that was “not an instrument of belligerent attack, but exclusively for defense and in this way to maintain peace."34 He included a renewed, fruitless proposal for all industrial nations to outlaw aerial bombardment and limit naval armaments, heavy artillery and armor. The German diplomat Joachim von Ribbentrop met with Grimm at the Kaiserhqf'Hotel in Berlin. Hitler wished to promote better relations through the German-French Society, founded in 1934, with its sister association in France, the Comité France-Allemagne. Ribbentrop asked that Grimm become president of the Berlin-based society, a post he accepted. The German government sponsored the activities with financial aid, while the French counterpart had to rely on private contributions in its own country.

The Franco-Soviet agreement tarnished relations between Paris and Berlin. On May 25, the Germans protested that it violated the 1925 Locarno Pact. In this compact, France, Belgium, and Germany pledged “under no circumstances to attack, fall upon, or wage war against one another."35The German government argued that the Franco-Soviet understanding was directed against the Reich.

In January 1936, Hitler attempted again to persuade France to change course by offering a non-aggression pact. Paris refused. The French described their arrangement with the USSR as purely political and not a military alliance, hence not repugnant to the spirit of Locarno. In February however, Soviet Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky met in Paris with General Maurice Gamelin, commander-in-chief of the French army. The German intelligence service, the Abwehr, learned that the French general staff was preparing a plan to coordinate operations with the Red Army. The blueprint envisioned a French advance into the demilitarized Rhineland, together with a thrust further south to link up with Soviet forces invading Germany from the east.36

Hitler granted a cordial interview to the French journalist Bertrand de Jouvenel in mid-February at Berchtesgaden. German newspapers published the interview on the front page, including Hitler’s retractions of anti-French statements he previously wrote in Mein Kampf. The German diplomat Otto Abetz, who had arranged the Jouvenel interview, delivered a copy of it to Paris. The French press delayed publication until after the chamber of deputies ratified the Franco-Soviet pact on February 27. The following morning, the Jouvenel interview appeared in the Paris Midi.

Had the French public read Hitler’s placatory comments sooner, this might have cast doubt on France’s need for a security pact with the USSR. Publishing the interview after its ratification gave the appearance that fear, not good will, had prompted Hitler’s offer of friendship. The French newspaper Oeuvre even wrote that the Führer gave the interview after the Soviet treaty’s ratification. The affair left Hitler mortified and angry.

Informed of Franco-Soviet general staff talks, the Führer became concerned that the demilitarized Rhineland represented an open door for France to invade. He responded by transferring 19 infantry battalions to garrison Aachen, Saarbriicken and Trier, and then other Rhineland cities. He publicly withdrew Germany from the Locarno pact, by which the Reich had agreed to keep the province free of troops.

The Reich’s Foreign Office pointed out that France already maintained military alliances with Belgium, Poland and Czechoslovakia. She had constructed a formidable line of frontier fortifications bordering Germany, concentrating an “enormous mass of troops” there. “France nonetheless still feels it necessary to have to rely on the support of the huge Soviet empire. And Germany has never provided the remotest grounds for France to feel threatened.” . . . Paris “describes the 19 battalions entering (the Rhineland) as a threat to French security, which is guaranteed by practically half the world."37

Hitler proposed that both France and Germany withdraw military units from borderline areas and that Belgium, Germany and France conclude a 25-year non-aggression pact and establish an international court of arbitration to enforce compacts “whose decisions shall be binding on all parties.” The Reich offered to return to the League of Nations for a new multilateral disarmament conference. The proposal stated, “Germany and France...pledge to take steps to see that regarding the education of the young, as well as in the press and publications of both nations, everything shall be avoided which might be calculated to poison the relationship between the two peoples."38

The French government responded by placing the army on alert. It transferred North African divisions from southern France to the German frontier. It unsuccessfully petitioned Britain to mobilize her army. The English delegate to the League of Nations concluded, “The reoccupation of the no sense diminishes (French) security."39 In Paris, Grimm summarized the public attitude among his hosts: “The French people think that Hitler wants to attack France."40 Complaining to the French statesman, Camille Chautemps, about war scares in the French news media, Grimm warned, “If this keeps up, it will surely be the press that one day drives the nations back to war.” Chautemps shrugged in response, “We're a democracy. We have freedom of the press."41

From 1932 to 1936, the German government introduced seven proposals to limit or reduce world armaments. In none of these did the Reich demand parity: Hitler offered to maintain an air force half the size of France’s and was prepared to accept a national defense force vastly inferior to the combined strength of surrounding countries allied to one another. He appealed to the Great Powers to abolish offensive weapons and outlaw aerial bombardment. He was the only European leader willing to entrust the security of his nation to the good faith of neighboring states—an astonishing concession for an industrial power. None of Germany’s proposals kindled interest among the former enemy coalition. It pursued an escalating arms race, and denounced Hitler as a warmonger.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!