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IB DP History Study Notes

3.2.4 German Challenges to Post-War Settlements

After the First World War, Germany found itself subjugated by the Treaty of Versailles, a treaty many Germans perceived as deeply unjust. As the Nazi Party rose to prominence, it sought to challenge and dismantle the constraints of this treaty and other post-war settlements.

Challenges to the Treaty of Versailles and Other Post-War Agreements

The Treaty of Versailles was especially reviled in Germany for several reasons:

  • Territorial Losses: Germany lost about 13% of its European territory. Key regions such as the Saar Basin were put under international control, and the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine went back to France. This not only bruised German pride but also had significant economic implications.
  • Disarmament: The treaty imposed strict limitations on the size and capacity of the German military. The army was capped at 100,000 men, and the country was prohibited from having submarines, aircraft, and tanks.
  • Reparations: Germany was saddled with vast reparations, amounting to 132 billion gold marks. The Dawes Plan of 1924 and the Young Plan of 1929 aimed to make these payments more manageable, but they remained a source of resentment.
  • War Guilt Clause: This infamous clause forced Germany to accept full responsibility for causing the war. For a proud nation, this was a significant humiliation.

Given these impositions, it's not surprising that once the Nazis came to power, they actively sought ways to oppose and overturn the treaty's stipulations.

Remilitarisation of the Rhineland (1936)

The Rhineland's remilitarisation was one of the first bold moves by Hitler to reclaim German sovereignty.

  • Background: As part of the Versailles Treaty, the Rhineland was demilitarised to serve as a buffer between Germany and France, ensuring the French security against any future German aggression.
  • Actions: Hitler sent German troops into the Rhineland in March 1936. This was a direct violation of both the Treaty of Versailles and the Locarno Pact of 1925.
  • Rationale: Beyond asserting German sovereignty, Hitler argued this action was in response to the Franco-Soviet Treaty of Mutual Assistance, viewing it as a potential encirclement of Germany.
  • Outcome: France, despite having the means, did not intervene due to political indecision and the absence of British support. Hitler's gamble not only succeeded but also boosted his prestige at home.

Anschluss with Austria (1938)

The integration of Austria into the German Reich was a core aspiration for many German nationalists.

  • Background: The Treaty of Versailles and the Treaty of St. Germain-en-Laye (1919) both prohibited the unification of Austria and Germany.
  • Actions: Hitler pressured the Austrian Chancellor, leading to a crisis in March 1938. German troops were sent into Austria, asserting a de facto unification.
  • Rationale: Beyond the Pan-German sentiment, annexing Austria would also provide Germany with strategic depth and economic resources, especially the gold reserves of the Austrian National Bank.
  • Outcome: While there was international condemnation, major powers did not intervene. The swift incorporation of Austria was yet another assertion of Germany's disregard for post-war treaties.

Sudetenland Crisis (1938)

The Sudetenland crisis was pivotal in the run-up to World War II.

  • Background: Post-Versailles, the state of Czechoslovakia was created, encompassing various ethnic groups, including Germans in the Sudetenland region.
  • Actions: Encouraged by Germany, the Sudeten German Party escalated demands for autonomy. Hitler later demanded the Sudetenland's annexation to Germany.
  • Rationale: While Hitler portrayed this as a mission to protect ethnic Germans, he was keen on weakening Czechoslovakia, a potential French ally.
  • Outcome: The Munich Agreement was concluded, allowing Germany to annex the Sudetenland. While it was initially celebrated as a victory for peace, it only emboldened Hitler further.

International Reactions to German Actions

The reactions from the global community were a mix of apprehension, appeasement, and at times, tacit approval.

  • Britain: Britain, under Chamberlain, felt that appeasement would prevent another devastating war. The Munich Agreement is a testament to this strategy, even though it's now widely criticised as a failed policy.
  • France: Torn between confronting and appeasing Germany, France largely leaned towards the latter, especially in the Rhineland crisis. The nation's own political troubles and the trauma of WWI made them wary of another conflict.
  • Soviet Union: Stalin's USSR was becoming progressively alarmed by Germany's assertiveness. However, the Western powers' exclusionary diplomacy pushed the USSR to eventually sign the Nazi-Soviet Pact in 1939.
  • United States: Engrossed in its own economic challenges due to the Great Depression, the US largely followed an isolationist policy and remained disengaged from the European theatre.

In retrospect, the international community's failure to confront German violations of post-war treaties emboldened Nazi ambitions, setting the stage for the Second World War.


Pan-Germanism, the idea of unifying all German-speaking peoples under one nation, long predates the Nazi party. This idea gained prominence in the 19th century, particularly during the unification of Germany under Otto von Bismarck in 1871. While the Nazis adopted and intensified this ideology, their version was more racially charged. For the Nazis, it was not just about linguistic and cultural unity but also racial purity. Hitler's vision of Lebensraum, or "living space", in the east was tied to this ideology, which combined territorial expansion with racial superiority.

The Saar Basin, rich in coal, was placed under the administration of the League of Nations for 15 years following the Treaty of Versailles. During this period, its coal mines were to be given to France as compensation for the damage German forces inflicted on French coal mines. This was seen by many Germans as an unjust exploitation of German resources. After 15 years, a plebiscite was held in 1935 to determine Saar's future. Over 90% of its residents voted for reunification with Germany. This overwhelming result not only boosted German morale but also provided the Nazi regime with propaganda, portraying it as a rectification of the Treaty's injustices.

The League of Nations, conceptualised as a global body to maintain peace after WWI, faced numerous challenges. Primarily, key global powers like the USA were not members, undermining its authority. Moreover, the League lacked its own armed forces and relied on member states for sanctions or interventions. During the 1930s, many countries were more concerned with domestic issues, like the Great Depression, than international commitments. The mood in Europe, especially in Britain and France, leaned towards appeasement, driven by the trauma of WWI and a desire to prevent another large-scale conflict. This made them more tolerant of treaty violations, diminishing the League's effectiveness.

The Locarno Pact, signed in 1925, was an attempt to improve relations between Germany and its neighbours, primarily France and Belgium. It guaranteed Germany's western borders as stipulated in the Treaty of Versailles, but deliberately left the eastern borders open to revision. The pact was seen as a symbol of reconciliation and hope for lasting peace. However, its ambiguity about the eastern borders was its undoing. When Germany began revising these borders, particularly with actions like the remilitarisation of the Rhineland, the pact's limitations became evident. The selective enforcement of its provisions rendered it ineffective in preventing further German aggression.

The Treaty of Versailles was perceived as a "Diktat" by many Germans, meaning an imposed settlement. The treaty inflicted harsh penalties, from territorial losses to enormous reparations and military restrictions. The most humiliating aspect was the 'War Guilt Clause', forcing Germany to accept full responsibility for starting the war. This collective humiliation and economic strain played into the narrative of betrayal and the 'stab in the back' myth, which suggested that Germany was betrayed by its own leaders in 1918. This environment was fertile ground for extremist parties, like the Nazis, who promised to restore Germany's honour and overturn the "shameful" treaty.

Practice Questions

Evaluate the impact of the remilitarisation of the Rhineland on the subsequent foreign policies of Germany and France.

The remilitarisation of the Rhineland in 1936 was a pivotal moment in interwar European history. For Germany, it marked a significant deviation from the Treaty of Versailles and set a precedent for further territorial ambitions, reinforcing Hitler's conviction in his expansionist strategies. Moreover, the lack of response bolstered the Nazi regime's confidence, demonstrating that the international community might be hesitant to respond to further treaty violations. On the French side, the non-intervention showcased their inability or unwillingness to confront German aggression alone, emphasising their reliance on British support. As a result, France increasingly leaned towards appeasement, viewing it as the most pragmatic approach in a complex European political landscape.

How did the international community's response to the Anschluss with Austria influence Hitler's subsequent actions in Europe?

The Anschluss in 1938 and the tepid response from the major powers sent clear signals to Hitler about the prevailing mood in Europe. The lack of tangible intervention, despite blatant treaty violations, emboldened Hitler and affirmed his belief that European powers, particularly Britain and France, were more inclined towards appeasement than confrontation. This perception significantly influenced his approach towards the Sudetenland crisis later in the same year, leading to the Munich Agreement. The international community's appeasement, aimed at maintaining peace, inadvertently encouraged further German expansionism, pushing Europe closer to the brink of war.

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Written by: Maddie
Oxford University - BA History

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