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Maastricht University

New Research Perspectives on the Allied Occupation of the Rhineland after the First World War

Benedikt Neuwöhner, University of Duisburg-Essen

In the aftermath of the First World War the victorious armies of the Allies marched into the German Reich and occupied the left bank of the Rhine including four bridgeheads on the right bank around Cologne, Mainz, Koblenz and Kehl. Hence the Rhineland was divided into an American, Belgian, British and French zone of occupation. During the armistice period, the occupation served for the Allies as leverage against the Reich to negotiate favourable peace terms. After the signing of the Versailles Treaty, the Rhineland Occupation was intended to fulfil two purposes: first, to give the Allies, especially France and Belgium, security against a renewed German attack, and second, to ensure the payment of extensive reparations. However, the security and reparation questions were fiercely contested between the Allies and the German government. In consequence, further territories on the right bank of the Rhine and the Ruhr valley were occupied. The remaining French and British armies of occupation finally evacuated the Rhineland in 1930 after the security and the reparation issue had been apparently solved with the adoption of the Locarno Treaty and the Young Plan.

However, only six years later the Nazi regime openly violated these agreements by remilitarising the Rhineland. This was the beginning of a series of violations of international law by the Nazis, which ultimately led to the outbreak of the Second World War. Not least due to this chain of events, the occupation of the Rhineland is today largely absent from the collective memory of Germany, Belgium, France, Britain, and the USA and the Nazi occupation of Europe and the Allied Occupation of Germany after the Second World War, which was more eventful and in the long term more influential, overshadows any memories of the Rhineland Occupation. Therefore, the presence of Allied armies in the Rhineland after the First World War is often understood merely as a prelude to Hitler and the Second World War, and thus regarded as a minor episode in European history.


The current state of research

Picture 1: Map showing the duration of the occupation in each region. Red hachure: Area occupied until 1926. Green hachure: Occupied until 1929. Yellow hachure: Occupied until 1930. Dotted areas: additionally occupied territories by French and Belgian troops between 1920-25.

The existing historiography primarily looks at the occupation through the lens of international politics during the interbellum period. In this perspective, the Rhineland Occupation is perceived as an arena in which both differences between the Allies and the German government as well as inter-Allied differences on the interpretation of the Versailles Treaty were fought out. Furthermore, most scholars describe the occupation of the Rhineland as a story of Franco-German conflict. This perspective is quite valid since the French occupiers in many respects pursued their unaccomplished war objective of establishing ‘the Rhine as a natural border of France’ during the occupation. They supported Rhenish separatists and implemented a pro-French cultural policy (pénétration pacifique) in the occupied territory with the aim of partitioning the Rhineland from the rest of Germany. In 1923 French troops occupied the entire Ruhr valley to destabilise the government and economy. In the same year, they also took over the American occupation zone around Koblenz when the US-government decided to withdraw their troops due to internal pressures at home and in protest against the French policy. On the German side, the conduct of the French occupiers nurtured radical nationalist movements and triggered passive, and in some cases violent resistance among the local population, which in turn led to a tightening of French occupation practices. Racism against African soldiers serving in the French Army during the Rhineland Occupation spurred further conflict. German nationalists, supported by the government, launched a racist propaganda campaign (Schwarze Schmach), which effectively depicted the white Rhenish population, especially the women, as victims of the black colonial troops of the French army. In light of these political, economic and cultural conflicts, most existing studies argue that the Allied occupation of the Rhineland after the First World War can be best described as the continuation of war by other means, which destabilised the Weimar Republic and paved the way for the outbreak of the Second World War.


New perspectives on the Rhineland Occupation

Picture 2: Formal group photograph of officers from the British and French army of occupation and two civilian representatives of the Inter-Allied Rhineland High Commission. Cologne, 27 April 1920.

However, there are still many neglected research perspectives, which may give a more nuanced view on the Rhineland occupation. First, three million of the six million Rhinelanders lived under Belgian, British, or American occupation administration after the end of the First World War. British and American policy towards Germany during the interbellum was, however, more lenient and thus differed considerably from the French approach, which is often mistakenly seen as representative of broader occupation dynamics at the time. One might therefore expect considerable differences in the quotidian ruling practices of the occupying powers and the daily experience of occupation by the population. Little is known, however, about the ruling techniques of the different occupiers and the daily interactions and mutual perceptions of occupiers and occupied in the Belgian, British and American zones. Furthermore, the fact that the Rhineland Occupation was a melange of military and civil occupation has so far hardly been taken into account. The occupation started in December 1918 as a purely military one. American and British diplomats, however, demanded the introduction of inter-allied civil government structures in order to weaken the political influence of the French army in the Rhineland. Hence, the Inter-Allied Rhineland High Commission (IARC) was established as supreme civil administrative authority after the signing of the Versailles Treaty. The personnel of the IARC consisted of Allied diplomats and civil servants, who were responsible for legislation, administration, and jurisdiction. However, the commanders of the Allied occupation armies still had the authority to enact ordinances regarding questions of daily life, such as issuing instructions on billeting, requisition, traffic, and the containment of prostitution. The military also kept its influence on jurisdiction, since officers served as judges in occupation courts. However, so far there has been little research on the relations between the civil and military authorities. Hence, it is not generally known to what extent these multiple government structures influenced the decision making of the Allied occupiers and their interactions with local authorities.

Furthermore, and perhaps surprisingly, no attempt has so far been made to consider the Rhineland occupation in the broad perspective of imperial regimes, although the occupation took place during the height of European colonialism and imperial expansion. The thinking and acting of many of the Allied officers and officials was influenced by imperial service ideologies and their previous experiences in colonial service. For example, the French president of the IARC, Paul Tirard, had set up the colonial administration of the French Protectorate of Morocco in 1912 and advocated the above-mentioned strategy of pénétration pacifique in the African state. However, systematic research on the biographies of Allied occupation personnel, their socialisation, mind-set, and service ideologies, is still to be desired – this is especially true for the lower ranking officials of the occupation administration.

Picture 3: British soldiers guard the harbour in Cologne. Armed civilians, who were policing the town (probably members of the local workers’ and soldiers’ council), are standing nearby. 6 December 1918.

Moreover, it is important to remember that the Allied armies marched into Germany during the course of the German Revolution 1918/19. The first years of the newly founded Weimar Republic were overshadowed by undersupply, inflation, political extremism, and mass violence, while at the same time accompanied by democratisation and the breakthrough of mass politics. Demands for workers participation were paralleled by mass strikes and caused fear of a ‘German October Revolution’ among the bourgeoisie. Due to the loss of the war and the French ambitions on the Rhine, a complete reorganisation of the state structures in the Rhineland was also within the realms of possibility. However, very little is hitherto known about how the occupiers on the ground were coping with this political and socially contingent situation, without being able to directly control the entire country. Research on the conflict management of the occupiers, with regard to attempted coups, strikes, and public protest may give some indication of how occupation as a system of rule functions in areas that are undergoing socio-political crisis, democratisation, and modernisation.

Furthermore, the position of German women changed as they gained more power in both society and government after the First World War but the development of the gender order in the occupied territories has not been explored (except for some studies on the Schwarze Schmach). Research on the various forms of encounters between the occupiers and German women, their regulation by the occupation authorities, and the broader public discourse on romantic and sexual relationships between occupiers and occupiers may offer greater insights into social and cultural change under the peculiar conditions of occupation.

Finally, no attempt has so far been made to place the Rhineland Occupation in a broader framework of the history of occupation by questioning connections between previous and subsequent military occupations. To what extent, for example, did the military occupations that took place during the First World War or the German occupation of France 1870-73 in the course of the German-Franco War influence the form, legal framework, and ruling practices of the Rhineland Occupation? Furthermore, one might explore to what extent the experience of the Rhineland Occupation influenced the Allied Occupation of Germany after the Second World War.

In conclusion, further research on the Allied Rhineland Occupation can expand the state of research on the history of European occupations and also provide new insights into the dilemma between post-war reconciliation/stabilisation on the one hand and retribution/reparation on the other hand, while shedding light on the peculiar dynamics of occupation as a system of rule. If such research is undertaken, the notion that the Allied Rhineland Occupation was a minor episode in European history might undergo radical change amongst both historians and the broader public.



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Photo credits:

Cover picture: German women at the barrier on the Dusseldorf Road near the Reisholz entering a house to be searched by British WAAC Officers for contraband, 1 June 1919; © Imperial War Museum, Q 7676.  

Picture No 1: © Ziegelbrenner 

Picture No 2: © Imperial War Museum, HU 87988

Picture No 3: © Imperial War Museum, Q 7208


Benedikt Neuwöhner is Research Associate in the History of the Rhine-Maas Region at the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany