The events in the Saar were not an example of Hitler breaking the Treaty of Versailles, or even of him confronting the international community, but they were a major step in his build up to World War Two.
The Treaty of Versailles had put the Saar under the control of the League of Nations for 15 years. During these years, the region was administered by the League – run, first, by a Frenchman, then by a Canadian and thirdly by a Briton. In 1935, as preparations began to hold the plebiscite (vote) then the inhabitants would decide whether they returned to Germany, or retained their separate identity, it was being administered by a second Briton, Sir Geoffrey Knox.
The vote was by no means a certainty. Many anti-Nazis had fled to the Saar after 1933. Seeing what Hitler was doing in Germany, Communists and Social Democrats formed a 'united front' campaign to try to retain League of Nations status.
On the other hand, Saar Nazis were equally determined that the Saar should return to Germany. They formed a 'German Front' with the Catholics. Helped by the Saar police and the German Gestapo, they boycotted and beat up their opponents. The League knew what was going on, but it was afraid to stop the plebsicite for fear of causing Nazi riots.
The Nazis turned up the pressure. Led by a Nazi called Spaniol, 17,000 Nazi Saarlanders (who had gone to Germany to join the SA) threatened to invade the Saar and impose Nazi rule (although this was nipped in the bud in December 1935 when Britain's Anthony Eden offered to send soldiers to keep the peace).
On 13 January 1935, the plebiscite was held, overseen by two judges from Italy and Holland, and a US History Professor, Sarah Wambaugh – they declared that the election had been fair, and that the result was genuine. The result was overwhelming: 90.3% of the voters voted to return to Germany.
Although the Saar returned to Germany entirely in accordance with the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, many historians regard it as an essential ‘first step’ on Hitler’s Road to War:
1. The result validated the Nazi regime. The result was, says one historian, 'the greatest triumph of the Nazis in a free election'. It demonstrated that Germans were NOT just being browbeaten into supporting the terror by Nazi Brownshirts – Germans who lived outside Germany had shown the world that they hated the Treaty of Versailles and loved Germany more than they feared Hitler's regime. It made it very hard for Hitler’s opponents to argue that the German people were not wholly behind him.
2. The result gave a massive boost to Hitler's prestige, and were in the future to provide him with the moral authority to advance his demands for unity with Austrian and the Sudeten Germans. The Saar plebiscite confirmed Hitler’s expansionist agenda for the rest of the 1930s, and made it ve difficult for democratic regimes to oppose his claims to Austria and the Sudentenland.
3. Events had also, as early as 1935, showed the League was scared to confront violence. And even more importantly, appeasers such as Daladier and Chamberlain failed to notice that the Nazis had immediately backed down when Eden had threatened to send soldiers.