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The Rhineland (German: Rheinland) has become the name for several areas of Western Germany along the Middle and Lower Rhine between Bingen and the Dutch border, or very rarely between the confluence with the Neckar and Cologne.
Historically, the Rhinelands refers (physically speaking) to a loosely defined region embracing the land on either bank of the River Rhine in Central Europe, settled by Ripuarian and Salian Franks. In the Middle Ages, numerous Imperial estates along the river emerged from the former stem duchy of Lotharingia, like the electorates of Cologne and Trier or the duchies of Jülich, Cleves and Berg, without developing any common political or cultural identity.
A "Rhineland" conceptualization did not evolve until the 19th century after the War of the First Coalition, when a short-lived Cisrhenian Republic was established on territory conquered by French troops. The term covered the whole occupied zone left of the Rhine (German: Linkes Rheinufer) including the bridge-heads on the eastern banks. After the collapse of the French dominated West Bank in the early 19th century, the German and Dutch speaking regions of Lower Rhine and Jülich-Cleves-Berg were annexed to the Kingdom of Prussia. In 1822 the Prussian administration reorganized the territory as the Rhine Province (also known as Rhenish Prussia), a term continuing in the names of the German states of Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia.
Following the First World War, the western part of Rhineland was occupied by Entente forces, then demilitarized under the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. German forces remilitarized the territory in 1936, as part of a diplomatic test of will, three years before the outbreak of the Second World War.
To the west the area stretches to the borders with Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands; on the eastern side it encompasses the towns and cities along the river and the Bergisches Land area up to the Westphalian (Siegerland) and Hessian regions. Stretching down to the North Palatine Uplands in the south, this area, except for the Saarland, more or less corresponds with the modern use of the term.
The southern and eastern parts are mainly hill country (Westerwald, Hunsrück, Siebengebirge, Taunus and Eifel), cut by river valleys, principally the Rhine and its Ahr, Mosel and Nahe tributaries. The border of the North German plain is marked by the lower Ruhr River. In the south, the river cuts the Rhenish Massif.
The area encompasses the western part of the Ruhr industrial region and the Cologne Lowland. Some of the larger cities in the Rhineland include Aachen, Bonn, Cologne, Duisburg, Düsseldorf, Essen, Koblenz, Krefeld, Leverkusen, Mönchengladbach, Mülheim an der Ruhr, Oberhausen, Remscheid, Solingen, Trier and Wuppertal.
Toponyms as well as local family names often trace back to the Frankish heritage. The lands on the western shore of the Rhine are strongly characteriseded by Roman influence, including viticulture. In the core territories, large parts of the population are members of the Catholic Church.
At the earliest historical period, the territories between the Ardennes and the Rhine were occupied by the Treveri, the Eburones and other Celtic tribes, who, however, were all more or less modified and influenced by their Germanic neighbours. On the right bank of the Rhine, between the Main and the Lahn, were the settlements of the Mattiaci, a branch of the Germanic Chatti, while farther to the north were the Usipetes and Tencteri.
Julius Caesar conquered the tribes on the left bank, and Augustus established numerous fortified posts on the Rhine, but the Romans never succeeded in gaining a firm footing on the right bank. As the power of the Roman empire declined the Franks pushed forward along both banks of the Rhine, and by the end of the 5th century had conquered all the lands that had formerly been under Roman influence. The Germanic conquerors of the Rhenish districts were singularly little affected by the culture of the Roman provincials they subdued, and all traces of Roman civilization were submerged. By the 8th century the Frankish dominion was firmly established in western Germany and northern Gaul.
On the division of the Carolingian Empire at the Treaty of Verdun the part of the province to the east of the river fell to East Francia, while that to the west remained with the kingdom of Lotharingia.
By the time of Emperor Otto I (d. 973) both banks of the Rhine had become part of the Holy Roman Empire, and in 959 the Rhenish territory was divided between the duchies of Upper Lorraine, on the Mosel, and Lower Lorraine on the Meuse.
As the central power of the Holy Roman Emperor weakened, the Rhineland split up into numerous small independent principalities, each with its separate vicissitudes and special chronicles. The old Lotharingian divisions became obsolete, and the name of Lorraine became restricted to the district that still bears it.
In spite of its dismembered condition, and the sufferings it underwent at the hands of its French neighbours in various periods of warfare, the Rhenish territory prospered greatly and stood in the foremost rank of German culture and progress. Aachen was the place of coronation of the German emperors, and the ecclesiastical principalities of the Rhine bulked largely in German history.
A Prussian king first set foot on the Rhine in 1609 by the occupation of the Duchy of Cleves and about a century later Upper Guelders and Moers also became Prussian. At the peace of Basel in 1795 the whole of the left bank of the Rhine was resigned to France which occupied the area before and established its government in the region. In 1806 the Rhenish princes all joined the Confederation of the Rhine. The Congress of Vienna assigned the whole of the lower Rhenish districts to Prussia, which had the tact to leave them in undisturbed possession of the liberal institutions they had become accustomed to under the republican rule of the French. The Rhine Province remained part of Prussia after Germany was unified in 1871.
The occupation of the Rhineland took place following the Armistice with Germany of 11 November 1918. The occupying armies consisted of American, Belgian, British and French forces. Under the Treaty of Versailles, German troops were banned from all territory west of the Rhine and within 50 kilometres east of the Rhine.
In 1920, under massive French pressure, the Saar was separated from the Rhine Province and administered by the League of Nations until a plebiscite in 1935, when the region was returned to the German Reich. At the same time, in 1920, the districts of Eupen and Malmedy were transferred to Belgium (see German-Speaking Community of Belgium). Shortly after, France completely occupied the Rhineland, strictly controlling all important industrial areas. French troops did not leave the Rhineland until 1925.
On 7 March 1936, in violation of the Treaty of Versailles, German troops marched into the Rhineland and other regions along the Rhine. German territory west of the Rhine had been offlimits to the German military. This was the first of the aggressive military actions of Nazi Germany that contributed to the outbreak of World War II.
In 1946, the Rhineland was divided into the newly founded states of Hesse, North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate. North Rhine-Westphalia is one of the prime German industrial areas, containing significant mineral deposits, (coal, lead, lignite, magnesium, oil and uranium) and water transport. In Rhineland-Palatinate agriculture is more important, including the vineyards in the Ahr, Mittelrhein and Mosel regions.