Rhineland Occupation

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Since the wars of Louis XIV (r. 1643–1715) and the French Revolution, control of the river Rhine had been a matter of dispute between France and the German states. The strategic, geopolitical, and economic importance of the Rhineland became even more important as it developed into the greatest industrial concentration in Europe with its coal mines and heavy industry.


When the German government sued for an armistice in October 1918, the French marshal Ferdinand Foch expressed the French view that security and hegemony were synonymous. He not only wanted the bridgeheads over the Rhine but also wanted to secure the Rhine as France's new eastern border. Article V of the armistice treaty of 11 November 1918 stipulated that the Allied armies should occupy the left bank of the Rhine, and this was completed five weeks later. The German authorities anticipated their arrival with anxiety, as revolutionary activity spread across the country. The British occupied the bridgehead at Cologne and surroundings with the Belgians on their northwest flank, and the Americans occupied Koblenz. The French occupied Mainz and controlled by far the largest part of the Rhineland with a huge occupation army of 250,000 men at its peak in March 1920.

Before the opening of the peace conference on 18 January 1919, the French press and influential writers such as Maurice Barrès had stressed Franco-Rhenish affinity. The Rhenish population, because of its ethnic origins, culture, and religion, was in their view antagonistic to Germanic, Protestant, and authoritarian Prussia. Also the military and the industrialists pleaded for annexation or at least the creation of an independent Rhineland nation. These ambitions encountered insurmountable objections from the British and Americans, who saw it as an expression of French imperialism. Only after long negotiations was a compromise finally signed in Versailles on 28 June. As head of the French delegation, Georges Clemenceau had obtained a double guarantee of French security: military measures included demilitarization and a fifteen-year occupation of the Rhineland with its bridgeheads, as well as a formal extension of the wartime alliance.

A pregnant example of the "Black horror on the Rhine" campaign against the French employment of African troops on the Rhine can be found in one of the many brochures edited by the Deutsche Notbund gegen die Schwarze Schmach in Munich. The author, Bruno Stehle, quotes the Italian states man Francesco Nitti, who gave an interview to the American United Press, organized by the Notbund:

An extract from Nitti's interview follows: "Assume, he says, that America had lost the war, and that Germany had brought its regiments to New York and Boston, and intended to keep them there for say fifteen to twenty years, until it had collected a contribution of 100 or 150 billion dollars, such a proceeding might have seemed unbearable to Americans. But if the Germans, to put the brand of contempt on all white Americans, had stacked regiments of negroes in the cities along the Atlantic coast, what a howl of impotent rage would then have gone forth. And remember," says Nitti, "that these African regiments are composed of savages for the most part untouched by any contact with civilization, and if the victorious Germans had then demanded after all this formal humiliation, that American women and American girls must in one form or the other be supplied to the carnal lust of these Africans, Africans barely removed from the practices of voodoo and cannibalism, all America would have resounded with horror at this barbarity and pollution."

Source: Dr. Bruno Stehle, The Shame of France (Munich, 1923), p. 14.


The purpose of the Rhineland occupation was to ensure that the Germans paid reparations. All political, military, economic, social, and racial issues affecting postwar Europe interacted in a complex way in the Rhineland. During the peace negotiations there was increasing separatist agitation. All subsequent French governments supported this separatism through what they called "peaceful penetration" or cultural propaganda. The Rhineland Republic proclaimed by Dr. Hans Dorten on 1 June 1919 evaporated immediately because of a lack of real popular support, but in the latter months of 1919, Dorten altered his professed goal to one of Rhenish autonomy within a federal Reich. However, the greatest political force in the Rhineland was the Catholic Zentrumspartei (Center Party), which kept its distance from central government but did not support separatism, and its stance limited the appeal of such ideas. However, the mayor of Cologne, Konrad Adenauer, harbored private notions about a grand West German/Rhineland state taking its place beside Prussia and Bavaria within the Reich, but this was only likely if the Weimar Republic collapsed through inflation and internal crises. Attempts in 1923 to set up separatist governments in the Rhineland and the Palatinate under the protection of the French garrison, which to Germany seemed to threaten the very integrity of the state, also failed through a lack of support and suspicion of French motives. After February 1924 no more was heard of the separatist movement in the Rhineland.

The authority of the commander-in-chief of the occupying armies was considerably restricted by the inauguration of the Inter Allied Rhineland High Commission (IARHC) in January 1920. Based in Koblenz, it was composed of three high commissioners (British, French, and Belgian) under a president, the French commissioner Paul Tirard (1879–1945). (There was also a German co-opted member and an American representative who had observer status.) Against the tradition of military occupations and at the instigation of the British and Americans, who feared the influence of the French military, the IARHC was a civil administration and acted independently from the governments it represented, although the Germans never stopped accusing the commission of being under strong French influence.

The ambiguities and complexities of French policy together with the Anglo-American unwillingness to continue wartime economic cooperation goes a long way in explaining the political crises of the 1920s. The rigor of French reparations policy depended in large part on an American willingness to subsidize the French recovery. The postponement of a world financial and economic peace settlement served only to weaken the new German Republic politically. On two occasions the occupation authorities intervened when Germany did not fulfill its reparations obligations. In March 1921 the big harbors of the Ruhr (Ruhrort, Düsseldorf, Duisburg) were occupied, and in January 1923 French and Belgian troops occupied the Ruhr after the reparations commission declared that Germany had not met its set quota of timber deliveries. Another recurring theme in the negotiations between the IARHC and the German government was the decommissioning of secret arms depots and the disbanding of the various paramilitary forces created after 1918. The activities of the German security police as a quasi-military formation also continued to irritate the Allied powers.


From the beginning of the occupation, Berlin had decided that the occupying French army should be hindered as much as possible, while there should be full cooperation in the American and British areas. This policy was specifically designed to divide the English speaking contingents from their French ally. When the peace conditions became known in the spring of 1919, the animosity of the Rhenish population grew. It was fueled by the harsh measures of the French occupying forces: curfews, the proclamation of martial law, the hindering of communication with the unoccupied territories, postal censorship, and the duty of all German officials to salute French officers. The many French troops and the billeting of their officers in private houses led to shortages of food and of housing. French aims of ensuring military security and economic reparations were at odds with the idea of winning over the hearts and minds of the population in order to create a buffer state between France and Prussia. The German government successfully launched a policy of passive resistance during the Ruhr occupation of 1923. Apart from 188,000 people evicted from their houses, the 132 Germans killed, and the deaths of some French and Belgian soldiers, the oppressive measures left a legacy of bitterness that eventually became a further factor in the weakening of the Weimar Republic. Measures taken by the high commission against protests by right-wing extremist groups provoked fierce protests from Berlin, despite the fact that similar measures were taken elsewhere by the German authorities themselves.

Tirard's attempts at "peaceful penetration" were countered by the German government with a vehement propaganda campaign with which Berlin hoped to rally world opinion against France. In more than five hundred publications and pamphlets, French occupation policy was vilified, for example, by using powerful images of starving German children. Already humiliated by the occupation itself, the Germans felt even more humiliated by the use of French colonial troops. Tens of thousands of "coal black savages from Africa" were accused of roaming out of control across the Rhineland, raping German women at will, infecting the population and "polluting" German blood. In reality, there were never more than five thousand black West African troops stationed in Germany, and all of them had been withdrawn by June 1920. The accusations of rape rarely proved to be true, and in general, the Rhenish population seems to have been less antagonistic to the French colonial troops than to their white counterparts. The overtly racist "Black horror on the Rhine" campaign that emanated primarily from Hamburg, Berlin, and Munich, and was intended to raise antipathy against France, nonetheless had a major international impact between 1920 and 1922.

The end of 1923 saw a stabilization of the German currency that paved the way for financial reform and the rescheduling of reparations through the Dawes Plan. French problems with the continued occupation of the Ruhr led to the withdrawal of their forces by August 1925, and this paved the way for a more comprehensive security treaty for the states of western Europe. The Locarno Treaty of October 1925 included the Rhineland Pact, in which France, Britain, Belgium, and Italy contracted to maintain the inviolability of both German and French borders, and the demilitarized zone in the Rhineland was accepted and guaranteed. American troops had already been withdrawn in February 1923. British troops were then transferred to the Koblenz bridgehead and had their headquarters at Wiesbaden. France, while linking evacuation closely with reparations payments in order to extract the greatest possible economic and political compensation, nevertheless became more interested in speeding up the process. Pressure from the German foreign minister Gustav Stresemann coupled with Anglo-French difficulties in maintaining the occupation, and the further rescheduling of reparations agreed to in the Young Plan ultimately led to a partial military withdrawal in 1929 and a complete evacuation in June 1930, some five years before the originally agreed-upon date. Ultimately, Allied Rhineland policy did little to serve the interests of German democracy or the security aspirations of the major western European powers.

See alsoGermany; Imperial Troops; Nazism; Occupation, Military; Racism.


Primary Sources

Allen, Henry T. The Rhineland Occupation. Indianapolis, Ind., 1927.

Reismüller, Georg, and Josef Hofmann. Zehn Jahre Rheinlandbesetzung. Breslau, Poland, 1929.

Tirard, Paul. La France sur le Rhin: Douze années d'occupation rhénane (1919–1930). Paris, 1930.

Secondary Sources

Bariéty, Jacques. Les relations franco-allemandes après la première guerre mondiale, 10 novembre 1918–10 jan-vier 1925. Paris, 1977.

Edgerton, Robert. Hidden Heroism: Black Soldiers in America's Wars. Boulder, Co., 2002.

Edmonds, James Edward. The Occupation of the Rhineland, 1918–1929. London, 1944 (1987).

Hüttenberger, Peter, and Hansgeorg Molitor, eds. Franzosen und Deutsche am Rhein, 1789, 1918, 1945. Essen, Germany, 1989.

Wein, Franziska. Deutschlands Strom—Frankreichs Grenze: Geschichte und Propaganda am Rhein, 1919–1930. Essen, Germany, 1992.

Williamson, David G. The British in Germany, 1918–1930: The Reluctant Occupiers. New York, 1991.

Dick van Galen Last