Occupation of the Rhineland

November 1918. The war was over, but not for the people here on the Rhine, and not for the occupation soldiers from far away either. The Allied occupation of the Rhine began. That was some 100 years ago.

For most people defeat had come as a complete surprise, because until the very last moment the war propaganda had promised victory. Although the armistice was signed, martial law was still in force and most people suffered hunger, because the sea blockade was not lifted. After the sailors’ revolt in Kiel, the revolution spread throughout the country. Uncertainty about the future shaped the mood in the Rhineland.

The Kaiser flees

By the evening of 9 November, Kaiser Wilhelm II was already history, although he had not yet formally abdicated. On November 10, at dawn, he fled from headquarters in Spa, Belgium, to the neutral Netherlands. Queen Wilhelmina granted him asylum and did not extradite him even at the insistence of the Allies. However, he was not allowed to leave his property in the Netherlands.

Retreat

According to the armistice, the left bank of the Rhine had to be evacuated by December 4, 6 am. Still German troops were in France and Belgium, there had been no fighting on German soil .. now Allied troops would soon occupy the left bank and bridgeheads at Cologne, Coblenz and Mayence. A 50 km wide strip along the Rhine on the right bank had been declared demilitarized zone. The German troops hurried back and many people stood at the edge of the roads and bridges, hoping to hear news about their relatives from the soldiers.

The villages Königswinter and Dollendorf on the Rhine seemed to be army camps in these days. Countless troop units marched through the streets on foot, on horseback or in trucks and other carts. The ferry took day and night shifts to transport people and material from the left to the right bank of the Rhine, as well as the ships of the Kölne-Düsseldorf Rhine steamers and other companies. Pioneer battalions had built pontoon bridges across the Rhine. Officers and crews had to be accommodated. Despite the defeat, the loals did their best to give the troops a friendly welcome.

Allied troops on the Rhine

The Allied occupation of the Rhineland began. Allied troops occupied the left bank of the Rhine and “bridgeheads” near Cologne, Koblenz and Mainz; a 50 km wide strip along the right bank of the Rhine was demilitarized territory.

After the withdrawal of the German troops stationed in Bonn, some 10,000 British and Canadian soldiers entered the area. On December 6th, the first British soldiers arrived in Cologne, by December 15 the whole Cologne area was under British occupation. It was switched to British time, so in Cologne it was an hour earlier than in the rest of Germany. Freedom of press and assembly were restricted, nightly curfews imposed, and carnival was forbidden. Many families had to provide accommodation for English soldiers. Soon Mayor Konrad Adenauer established good working relationships with the British military authorities, and both sides got along quite well.

The frontier of the Cologne bridgehead on the left side passed right through our county, the Siegkreis. Some villages belonged to the Cologne bridgehead, others were disputed and no one was sure.

Rhineland Agreement

After the conclusion of peace, the occupation was to be regulated by the Rhineland Agreement, signed at Versailles the same days as the Peace Treaty.

The left and right banks of the Rhine River would be permanently demilitarized, and allied troops would occupy the left bank of the Rhine and bridge heads in Cologne (British sector), Coblenz (American sector)and Mayence (French sector) for a period of 5-15 years. A 50 km wide strip along the Rhine would be demilitarized. Moreover, the Allies had to right to occupy the right bank, too, if they found that Germany violated the treaty. A civil commission representing the governments instead of a military commission representing the armies was embodied, it was headed by Paul Tirard from France.

The war was over, but not for the people here on the Rhine, and not for the occupation soldiers from far away either.

Separatists in the Rhineland

Rumor had it that the French government was planning to annex the Rhineland. To many Rhinelanders this was a real danger, and as early as November 10, 1918, one day before the armistice, the „Kölner Volkszeitung,“ an organ of he Catholic Center Party, launched a campaign for a Rhineland republic within the framework of the German Reich.

But could a neutral Rhenish buffer state alone could solve all the problems? Belgium’s neutrality had not protected it from being invaded and devastated. With its close geographic and cultural proximity to Western Europe, a strong Rhenish state within the German Reich could bring together France and Belgium and the eastern parts of Germany – but only if the former enemies would find a way to cooperate again.

Adenauer’s “West German Republic”

Already on November 10, 1918, the day after the proclamation of the republic, some Center Party Politicians suggested seceding the Rhineland from Berlin. Back then, many people feared that the Rhineland would be annexed by France, and that the revolution in Berlin and other big cities would lead to a Socialist overthrow as in Russia. Moreover, many Catholic Rhinelanders resented the dominance of Protestant Prussia and her Junkers, the Kulturkampf of the Bismarck era was not forgotten, and finally they insisted on the Rhinelanders’ right to self-determination within a federate state.

Many of these thoughts were expressed by Konrad Adenauer (1876-1967), since 1917 mayor of Cologne. On February 1, 1919, he spoke on an assembly of Rhenish delegates to the National Assembly in Weimar, to the Prussian State Assembly and mayors from the occupied territories. If Prussia was broken up and her Western provinces were joined into a “West German Republic”, he said, the might of the old, “belligerent cast” (in German: “kriegslüsterne Kaste”) that had dominated Prussia would be broken. Since then, Adenauer has been a highly controversial man. Yet, we have to listen carefully. Adenauer spoke of seceding the Rhineland from Prussia, not from Germany – what he wanted was a West German federate state within Germany, as we have today the federal states Northrhine-Westphalia, Rhineland-Palatinate, Hesse, Brandenbug and Berlin. Separating the Rhineland from Germany against the law or even making it a part of France was not option for him.

Dorten’s “Rhenisch Republic”

Others did not think the same way. A group around the former attorney Dr. Hans Adam Dorten (1880-1963) in Wiesbaden, Hesse, did not shy away from unlawful actions. On June 1, 1919, Dorten and his followers occupied the Government building in Wiesbaden, supported by the French occupation troops. Dorten proclaimed the Rhenish Republik within the German Empire. Yet, strikes and mass demonstrations against him forced them to withdraw already four days later, under French protection again.

After at first British and Canadian troops had been stationed in Cologne and Bonn, in February 1920 French troops marched into Bonn.

20th century
The short 20th century | The Great War | German Revolution 1918/19 | Occupation of the Rhineland | Weimar Republic – Years of Crisis | Weimar Republic – Golden Era | Weimar Republic – Depression and Decline | Nazi Germany | World War II | Federal Republic of Germany

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