If the German army had been opposed when Hitler ordered 20,000 troops into the demilitarized Rhineland in 1936, members of the German General Staff, in interrogations by U.S. military officers and intelligence agents, said they would have moved to overthrow Hitler.
In an interview last week, Peter M. F. Sichel said this was what both U.S. Army and intelligence agents were told by members of the German General Staff.
Sichel was an officer during World War II in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), rising to captain, and after the Central Intelligence Agency was established became chief of the CIA base in Berlin.
He said many of the German General Staff “hated Hitler.” They looked down at his status as a corporal in World War I. Moreover, “the General Staff told him that they could not face the French. They did not have the means—the troops and the armaments—to do this.”
Sending the German army into the Rhineland became a “gamble of Hitler’s and he was successful.” That was because France and Great Britain didn’t mount a challenge, said Sichel. This was even though the move was in contravention of the Treaty of Versailles and the Locarno Treaties. And it was even though the “the French had a very professional army and then they had universal conscription.” The British, meanwhile, “had enormous problems” notably involving unemployment. “It was the middle of the Depression.”
There was also a British government policy of appeasement.
A variety of historians have also said that strong military action by the French and British to oppose the German move was a moment in time when Hitler could have ended up removed.
William L. Shirer in his comprehensive 1960 book The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, A History of Nazi Germany, quotes the testimony at the Nuremberg Tribunal of Alfred Jodl, chief of the Operations Staff of the Wehrmacht, the German armed forces, through World War II, that: “Considering the situation we were in, the French covering army could have blown us to pieces.”
Shirer writes that the French army “could have” done this, and “had it, that almost certainly would have been the end of Hitler, after which history might have taken quite a different and brighter turn than it did, for the dictator could never have survived such a fiasco.”
Shirer also cites Hitler himself saying, “The forty-eight hours after the march into the Rhineland were the most nerve-racking in my life. If the French had marched into the Rhineland, we would have had to withdraw with our tails between our legs, for the military resources at our disposal would have been wholly inadequate for even a moderate resistance.” Hitler also said: “A retreat on our part would have spelled collapse.”
Wrote Shirer: “In retrospect, it is easy to see that Hitler’s successful gamble in the Rhineland brought him a victory more staggering and more fatal in its immense consequences than could be comprehended at the time.” It “opened the way as only Hitler (and Churchill, alone in England) seemed to realize, to vast new opportunities in a Europe which was not only shaken but whose strategic situation was irrevocably changed by the parading of three German battalions across the Rhine bridges.”
Declared Shirer: “In March 1936 the two Western democracies were given their last chance to halt, without the risk of a serious war, the rise of a militarized, aggressive, totalitarian Germany and, in fact—as we have seen Hitler admitting—bring the Nazi dictator and his regime tumbling down. They let the chance slip by.”
After World War I, the Rhineland, a portion of Germany that borders on France, Belgium and the Netherlands, was to be permanently demilitarized to increase the security of those countries against future German aggression. Under the Treaty of Versailles, the German military was to be barred from this area west of the Rhine River or within 50 kilometers east of it. Reaffirming this were the Locarno Treaties, seven treaties negotiated in Locarno, Switzerland in 1925.
In 1936, said Sichel, the German army consisted of a small fraction of the millions of soldiers it would have during World War II. Hitler took over in Germany three years earlier.
Sichel also spoke in our interview of how in other ways members of the German General Staff looked down at Hitler. “Many of the officers were aristocrats,” part of a “landed gentry.”
Sichel knows Germany well—he was born in Mainz where his great-grandfather founded the original Sichel wine company in 1857.
The family was Jewish and with the ascent of Hitler, his mother, notably, feared for the future. “Mama started worrying about the Nazis,” he writes in his autobiography, published in 2016, The Secrets of My Life, Vintner, Prisoner, Soldier, Spy.
She read “Voelkischer Beobachter, the organ of the Nazi Party, and Mein Kampf, Hitler’s book outlining his worldview and plans. She was convinced that their propaganda outlined what they planned for Germany and that they would triumph, not shirking from murder and intimidation.”
His father, however, was in “denial of the darkening social, political and religious situation within Germany through the 1930s.” He said his “mother’s more realistic assessments of the threats we all faced as Jews, certainly had an important bearing on my feelings while being raised in a German-Jewish household.”
His mother “urged my father and his partners to prepare their emigration from Germany,” but they “took little note, convinced that the Nazi government was but of short duration and would ultimately fall, like so many governments before it. This, however, was not the case. The Nazis consolidated power and soon remilitarized the left bank of the Rhine, which had been specifically prohibited in the Versailles treaty.”
Amid Nazi horrors, the family escaped to New York. The day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Sichel enlisted in the U.S. Army. With his fluency in German and French and background in Europe, he was recruited into the OSS in 1943. A main job was “visiting POW camps to recruit German prisoners of war to spy for us.”
“We furnished these agents with false papers (and new identities, when needed), permitting them to go on home leave, where their routes would enable them to identify troop dispositions and specific targets,” he related. “Though none of our agents were believers in the Nazi Party or especially enamored of Hitler, most of them were patriotic Germans who wanted to end the war, end the killing, and end the destruction of their fatherland.”
After the end of the war, “OSS was split up” and “went through a number of name changes during 1945 and early 1947—being first called the Strategic Service Unit and then the Central Intelligence Group,” and then a “centralized intelligence organization,” the CIA, which was formed in mid-1947.
He was chief of the CIA base in Berlin until 1952 when he was appointed CIA station chief in Hong Kong. But the CIA was changing its focus in the 1950s to covert actions which often had disastrous results. So, he resigned from the CIA in 1959. “I spent over sixteen years in OSS and its successor organizations: sixteen continuous years, in war and peace,” writes Sichel. “I left in the middle of the Cold War, realizing that my ideas of what was necessary for the United States to prevail in that war did not coincide with the then-prevailing U.S. government policy. I thought that we were too proactive and that many of our political action operations were unnecessary and counterproductive. Having become convinced over the years of the necessity of strong intelligence-collection effort, I was disillusioned that the ‘action side’ of the CIA did not heed the intelligence collected by the intelligence side.”
He returned to Manhattan to follow the family tradition of being in the wine business and was a key figure behind the great success of the Blue Nun label.
Sichel is well-familiar with Russia from his years of intelligence work.
Is there a parallel between Germany’s invasion into the Rhineland and Russia’s invasion into Ukraine—and the response to both?
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once a Putin oligarch—who became the richest man in Russia but split with Putin and ended up in jail for a decade—says: “I believe that actually what we are seeing now is that western leaders are repeating the same mistake that their predecessors committed years ago with Hitler, when Hitler was very vulnerable back then, when he tried to invade Europe and that’s what his accomplices did admit during the Nuremberg tribunal.”
“Western leaders kept saying they that were afraid to aggravate Hitler and they thought, well, if they are not showing any resistance then eventually he’ll stop,” Khodorkovsky said on CNN. “However, that mistake cost hundreds of millions of human lives, hundreds of millions of human lives were lost, and the same mistake is being committed now.”
Sichel says of the savage, bloody invasion of Ukraine by Russia: “Terrible! Terrible!”
A comparison with the invasion of the Rhineland as to the response is “very complicated,” he said, mainly because of the nuclear weaponry possessed by Russia. “Armaments of today have moved further than the human mind.”
However, the rising Russian military death toll will, he anticipates, have an impact on the Russian people. When the “body bags came back from Afghanistan, it was the Russian mothers who forced” an end to that Russian war.
Further, with “the public involved” in protesting in Russia, if the number of people “willing to face up to the brutality of the police” grows, that will matter.
And the Russian army “is not very strong,” says Sichel.
Also, “If the war goes on and changes into an occupation, there will be a well-organized resistance,” he says.
Meanwhile, the sanctions are taking a great economic toll on Russia.
As with the case of Nazi Germany, there is a “tyrant” at the center, says Sichel, now 99 years old, to be 100 in September, who has been described as the oldest living former CIA agent.
As various steps are taken against Russia, and the failure of the invasion, so far, there is conjecture about Putin being overthrown. “Ukraine: How might the war end? Five scenarios,” was the headline of a BBC News piece. One of the ways, it says is with Putin pursuing “a disastrous war” and “thousands of Russian soldiers” dying, and as the “economic sanctions bite,” he loses “popular support….There is a bloody palace coup and Putin is out.”
“Russia after Putin” was the headline of an essay last week in the Washington, D.C. publication The Hill by Alexander J. Motyl, a professor of political science at Rutgers University and a specialist on Ukraine and Russia. His books include Dilemmas of Independence: Ukraine after Totalitarianism. He maintains “Putin is likely to fall, because of his disastrous handling of the war in Ukraine and its ruinous consequences for Russia.” He projects “two possibilities: the Khrushchev variant, named after the Soviet Party leader who was ousted in 1964 in a coup organized by his political cronies, and the Yanukovych variant, named after the Ukrainian president who fled abroad in the aftermath of the 2014 Maidan Revolution. In the Khrushchev variant, Putin’s closest advisors would, together with influential oligarchs, end Russia’s descent into oblivion by arresting Putin.”