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This week in history: The Saarland votes to rejoin Germany

On Jan. 13, 1935, the Saarland residents voted overwhelmingly to return to Germany. The region had been detached from Germany since the end of World War I, and its inhabitants seized the chance to return to the mother country under a League of Nations plebiscite.

The Saarland is a region of Germany located in a small western corner of the Rhineland, bordered by France to the west and south. Its largest city is Saarbrücken, along the Saar River. Because of its proximity to France and Luxembourg, the region was of mixed ethnicity and language, though German was always predominant.

After the German empire's loss in World War I and subsequent implosion, the Allied nations met at Versailles, France, to prepare a formal peace treaty in 1918-1919. Initially, the plan was for the various Allied nations to meet amongst themselves first for about two to three weeks to discuss what each wanted from the settlement before the Germans were allowed to attend and begin negotiations. That preliminary peace conference ended up lasting six months, however, and when the Germans were finally invited to take part it was not to negotiate.

Rather, the Germans were told to sign the document that had been prepared or the Allies would resume the war. With their military smashed and facing civil unrest and starvation at home, the Germans grudgingly signed the treaty.

One of the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles dealt with the Saarland. Article 45 read: “As compensation for the destruction of the coal mines in the north of France and as part payment towards the total reparation due from Germany for the damage resulting from the war, Germany cedes to France in full and absolute possession, with exclusive rights of exploitation, unencumbered and free from all debts and charges of any kind, the coal mines situated in the Saar Basin. …” The treaty then went on to stipulate the exact dimensions of this new territory.

In theory, the Saarland was overseen by a League of Nations mandate, supposedly a disinterested international commission. In fact, however, the French administered the territory as practically a French “state” government.

There really were two reasons the French insisted upon detachment of the Saarland from Germany. First, they did indeed covet the area's vast coal deposits. Germany had occupied much of France's coal-rich northwest territories during the war and pilfered and destroyed many of the mines. Therefore, the French felt justified in taking the German region as a form of reparation. Second, the French wanted to humiliate and humble their hated enemies. The French mood at Versailles had been one of revenge.

The French believed they were giving the Germans some of their own medicine by detaching the Saarland. After the German victory in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, the Germans had taken the French territories of Alsace and Lorraine and incorporated them into the Reich. After the territories were returned to France, the French authorities worked to stamp out all traces of the German language and culture. In the newly acquired Saarland, too, they began a program to introduce the French language and culture at the expense of German, an act viewed as a form of imperialism by the roughly half a million German inhabitants.

The good news for the Germans, however, was that the split was not necessarily permanent. Article 49 of the treaty stated, “At the end of 15 years from the coming into force of the present treaty, the inhabitants of the said territory shall be called upon to indicate the sovereignty under which they desire to be placed.” As the treaty went into full effect in late 1919, a plebiscite was scheduled for January 1935.

In January 1933 — two years before the vote was to take place — Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party came to power in Germany, transforming the nation almost overnight into a radical fascist totalitarian state. The propaganda value of the Saarland's situation could not have been more significant to the new regime. In part, Hitler had gotten into power by promising he would bring all German speakers together politically, and the Saarland was an important first step. Here was a tiny portion of Germany proper, overwhelmingly ethnically and culturally German, that was being occupied by a foreign power.

The election asked whether the people of the Saarland wished to formally join France, be reunited with Germany, or maintain the League of Nations mandate. For years, Hitler had ranted and raved about the Treaty of Versailles, and now here was a chance to correct one of its most hated provisions. As the time for the election approached, the Nazis stepped up their tactics to ensure the outcome they wanted.

In the book, “The Third Reich in Power,” historian Richard J. Evans wrote, “In many parts of the Saarland, the local Nazi Party exerted massive intimidation and violence behind the scenes to deter the opposition from voting against reunification with Germany. … People distributing propaganda against reunification were beaten up with rubber truncheons or even shot. Anti-fascist pubs were attacked and their windows shattered in a hail of bullets. Opposition meetings were turned into riots. The atmosphere resembled that of a civil war, as one local inhabitant remarked.”

The Nazis need hardly have bothered with such violent tricks, however. The people of the Saarland wholeheartedly wanted reunification. On Jan. 13, 1935, a Swedish commission ran the elections in order to prevent fraud on behalf of either Germany and France, and the vote was unmistakable. It showed that 90.8 percent of the Saarlanders wanted to rejoin Germany. Even communists and social democrats voted for the return, their sense of nationalism trumping their political ideology.

The date for formal reunification with Germany was set for March 1, and most Germans in Germany proper rejoiced that their lost cousins would soon rejoin the national family. Not all were as thrilled with the propaganda coup the Nazis had achieved, however.

The Dresden diarist and Jew Victor Klemperer (whose nephew Werner went on to play “Col. Klink” on TV's “Hogan's Heroes”), wrote in his Jan. 16 journal entry, “Deepest depression, even deeper than in August at (German President Paul von) Hindenburg's death. The 90 percent vote in the Saar is really not only a vote for Germany, but literally for Hitler's Germany. (Propaganda minister Joseph) Goebbels is surely right in that. After all, there was no lack of information, counterpropaganda, free ballot. Presumably, when we talk about disaffection, we take our pipe dreams for truth and utterly overestimate the actual opposition.”

In a shrewd move, Hitler soon after announced that he had no more irredentist claims against France. Essentially, he was telling the French that he would not attempt to reclaim the territories of Alsace and Lorraine once again, (though he would do just that during World War II). This allowed the French a small silver lining to losing the Saarland; they were allowed to believe that their two provinces would not be a point of contention with Germany in the future.

In an interview with American journalist Pierre Huss writing for the Hearst Press, Hitler stated, “The results of the plebiscite fill me — and every single one of my staff — with infinite pride in the German Volk. At the same time, this is a subsequent condemnation of the Peace Treaty of Versailles of truly historic dimensions.”

After World War II, the Saarland once again found itself occupied by the French. In 1957, it was finally allowed to join West Germany.

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's in history from the University of Utah and teaches at Salt Lake Community College. An avid player of board games, he blogs at Email: