On the 7th March 1936, the German Army under control of Adolf Hitler violated international agreements by remilitarising the Rhineland. Although Germany had retained political control over the area following the Treaty of Versailles, it had been banned from stationing armed forces there. France reacted with horror, but they didn’t take any action.
The Rhineland area of Germany, which lay on the border with France, had been banned under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles from containing armed forces within a 50km-wide strip. This had later been confirmed by Foreign Minister Gustav Stresemann in the Locarno Treaties of 1925. However, by 1936 Hitler had come to power and had begun to break the terms of Versailles by increasing the number of German weapons beyond the agreed limits and reintroducing conscription.
The Western powers had failed to respond to these moves with anything more than diplomatic grumbling, so Hitler felt emboldened to further test the limits of the Versailles settlement. After France and Russia signed the 1935 Franco-Soviet Pact, Hitler chose to send three battalions, or approximately 22,000 German troops, into the Rhineland on the morning of the Saturday 7th March in what he claimed was a defensive move against ‘encirclement’. His own generals were expecting retaliation from France, and Hitler had even ordered an immediate withdrawal if the French army made a move. But it didn’t – France refused to act without the support of Britain, which had been severely weakened by the impact of the Great Depression, distracted by the unfolding Abyssinia Crisis, and sympathised – to an extent – with the German desire to defend its own border.