In January 1923, French and Belgian troops marched into and occupied Germany’s industrial Ruhr region. The Ruhr occupation would last more than two and a half years. There is considerable debate about why the Ruhr occupation occurred, whether it was justified or pre-meditated. The conventional view is that Paris ordered troops into the Ruhr reluctantly, because the Weimar government had deliberately failed to honour the terms of the Versailles treaty and the Reparations Commission. But some evidence also suggests the Poincare government had been plotting to occupy the Ruhr since 1919. France had its own sizeable war debts to meet and were beginning to feel short-changed by the terms of Versailles. And there was much to be gained by occupying the Ruhr, which housed three quarters of Germany’s steel and coal production.
Whatever the French motives, the Ruhr occupation was achieved swiftly and methodically. Once French and Belgian troops had crossed the border, they sealed off the Ruhr from the rest of Germany and began frog-marching 150,000 civilians and non-essential workers out of the area. German industrial workers remained in the Ruhr and in some cases were prevented from leaving. By July, the French had set up an exclusion zone, restricting traffic in and out of the Ruhr. Across Germany there were press reports, most of them exaggerated if not entirely fictional, of French soldiers executing or beating German workers and civilians in the Ruhr. The occupiers also began confiscating raw materials and manufactured goods, which were loaded onto railway carts to be shipped back to France and Belgium – payment in kind for the missed reparations instalments.
The French occupation of the Ruhr sparked outrage across Germany. Several Weimar ministers declared it to be a deliberate act of French aggression, committed against a people who had been denied the means to defend themselves. The nationalist newspaper Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung warned:
France herself has smashed the dictates of Versailles. But Paris must not think that the German fury is an apparition that belongs to the past so completely as the French imagine, or that it needs guns or bayonets to appear once more on the scene. Any great nation that has been driven to despair has always found the ways and means for its revenge.
Adam Fergusson, historian
The Zeitung’s ominous prediction was soon put into practice. A small band of German nationalists began preparing to infiltrate the Ruhr, where they planned to sabotage or destroy French equipment. They derailed trains carrying supplies to French regiments, contaminated food stocks and other petty sabotage. The best-known of these saboteurs was Albert Schlageter, a 29-year-old who had fought in World War I then served with the Freikorps. French soldiers caught Schlageter red-handed, interfering with a railway line, after one of his associates betrayed him for a reward. Schlageter was arrested, court-martialed and sentenced to death. The Nazis later feted Schlageter as a national hero, a patriot and a martyr to French aggression. The man who betrayed Schlageter to the French was tracked down and murdered by gang led by Rudolf Hoess (the future commandant of the notorious death camp at Auschwitz).
The Weimar regime’s official position was one of ‘passive resistance’. Behind the scenes, government agents encouraged trade unions to organise a general strike in the Ruhr, to freeze industrial production and hinder French confiscation of resources. But this policy not only sabotaged the French occupation, it also sabotaged the national economy (see quote, right). On top of this, the Weimar government told striking unions that it would continue to pay the salaries of Ruhr workers and civil servants. It was a generous promise but an unfulfillable one. The German national treasury was very nearly empty; the government had no cash reserves to pay two million striking industrial workers for a period of months, perhaps more than a year. The government’s last resort was to pay these salaries by ordering the printing of extra banknotes, a policy that fuelled the rampant hyperinflation of 1923.
1. The Ruhr region was Germany’s industrial heartland, home of most of its coal and steel production.
2. After the government failed to meet reparations payments, French troops occupied the Ruhr in 1923.
3. Once there they seized goods and raw materials, as well as expelling non-essential German citizens from the area.
4. The German response was one of ‘passive resistance’, mainly strikes, along with some sabotage and disruption.
5. The Weimar government promised to stand by the Ruhr by continuing to pay the salaries of striking workers.