THE SECOND WORLD WAR
Hitlerís economic policies in Germany had won him tremendous support from the German people; but they were only byproducts of his real aim: race and space. He intended to obtain lebensraum for the German people whom he proclaimed to be racially superior to their neighbors. This effort ultimately led to a war, and Nazi aggression was only stopped by a coalition of the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union, which Winston Churchill called the Grand Alliance.
1933 -1939: Aggression and Appeasement:Hitlerís foreign policy bore a strange resemblance to his domestic policy. In those areas in which he was weak, he loudly proclaimed his intention to overturn the "unjust" system imposed by the Treaties of Versailles and Locarno; but he intended to do so only by legal means. When he grew stronger and other leaders indicated a desire to compromise, he increased his demands. Finally, when strong enough, he attacked neighboring countries in his crusade for lebensraum.
Under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was limited to an army of 100,000 men. If Hitler were to be successful, he had to carefully camouflage his intentions. He told a group of army commanders in 1933 that the early stages of his policy of "conquest of new living space in the East and its ruthless Germanization" was threatened by France, which, if its leaders had the guts, would "not give us time but attack us, presumably with its eastern satellites." To avoid a confrontation with the French, Hitler loudly proclaimed his peaceful intentions to the world; yet at the same time he walked out of a disarmament conference and withdrew Germany from the League of Nations in October, 1933. His action met with widespread approval by the German public, and he felt strong enough to incorporate Austria, his homeland, into the greater German empire.
In July, 1934, Austrian Nazis murdered the Austrian Chancellor in an attempt to overthrow the government, but were unable to take power because Mussolini, who had initially considered Hitler as a fascist little brother of sort, became worried and sent troops to the Brenner Pass. In March, 1935, Hitler declared a general military draft and declared the "unequal" disarmament clauses of the Versailles Treaty null and void. France, Britain, and Italy took the hint and protested. This alliance might have stopped Hitler in his tracks, but it quickly fell apart. Britain adopted a policy of appeasement, granting Hitler everything he wanted and then some to avoid war. First, Britain signed an Anglo-German naval agreement with Hitler that ended Germanyís isolation. Then, in March 1936, Hitler marched troops into the Rhineland, a brazen violation of the Treaties of Versailles and Locarno. Again, the European forces allied against Hitler might have stopped him, as Hitler had ordered his troops to retreat if they met resistance. France, however, was reluctant to move without British support, and it was not forthcoming. The British position was that German occupation of German soil was only fair. France had suffered an embarrassing psychological defeat.
British appeasement had several causes:
There was feeling of guilt toward the treatment of Germany by the terms of the Versailles Treaty.
The British populace had not forgotten the horrors of World War I and were unwilling to enter war again so soon.
British conservatives believed that communism, not the Nazis, was the real danger facing Europe, and that Hitler could be used to stop its spread. A leading member of the British government told Hitler in November 1937 that he "not only had accomplished great things in Germany itself, but that through the total destruction of communism in his own countryÖGermany rightly had to be considered as a Western Bulwark against communism.
In the meantime, Hitler found allies. In 1935, Mussolini determined that Italy needed expansion of its territory and attacked independent Ethiopia from Italian colonies on the east coast of Africa. The Ethiopians, who still fought with bows and arrows, were no match for Italian tanks and machine guns. When Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie addressed the League of Nations and asked for help, he was hooted down by Italian delegates. When the League passed a motion condemning Italyís actions, Mussolini took Italy out of the League. Hitler energetically supported Mussoliniís efforts, and thus removed any doubts the latter may have had about him. In 1936, Italy and Germany signed the Rome-Berlin Axis Agreement. Japan, which had been expanding into Manchuria, soon joined the Axis.
Germany and Italy soon intervened in the Spanish Civil War, thereby guaranteeing victory to General Francisco Franco, a fascist. Hitler continued to protest that his aims were peaceful to the British and their gullible Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, but told his generals of his "unshakeable decision" to take Austria and Czechoslovakia. By threatening invasion, Hitler forced the Austrian chancellor to accept Nazi control of his government in March, 1939. German troops marched in unopposed the next day, and Austria was annexed to Germany. This was the so-called Anschluss, or "reunion."
Hitler next demanded the Sudetenland, the German speaking portion of western Czechoslovakia. The Czechs were prepared to resist, and France had been an ally of Czechoslovakia, and if France fought, the Soviet Union was also pledged to help. In a further act of appeasement, British Prime Minister Chamberlain flew to Munich to meet with Hitler three times in fourteen days. The Soviets were deliberately not invited to the meeting, and the Czechs, whose fate was to be determined by the meeting, were made to wait in the halls. At the Munich Conference, France and Britain agreed that the Sudetenland must be immediately returned to Germany, relying at least partially on Hitlerís promise that he planned to make no more territorial claims in Eastern Europe. Chamberlain returned to Britain with the famous "peace of paper" signed by Hitler, and told cheering crowds that he had secured "peace with honor...peace for our time." He was sadly mistaken.
Convinced that the Western powers were weak and indecisive, Hitler moved quickly to seize all of Czechoslovakia, not just the Sudetenland. This action electrified opinion in the West and when Hitler again used the issue of German minorities in Danzig (present day Gdansk) in Poland as an excuse to confront the Poles, Chamberlain warned him that France and Britain would attack if he invaded Poland. Hitler was convinced that this was a smoke screen and ignored it.
Hitler had carefully staged a scenario in which it appeared that the German minority in Poland were being abused by the Poles. Films showed German women attacked by Polish brutes. The crowning moment was a broadcast from a German radio station in which the announcer pretended that armed men had entered the station as he continued to faithfully broadcast. A loud altercation was heard, after which a voice came on the speaker in Polish demanding the Germans withdraw. The attack was a fake intended to secure the support of the German people.
In the meantime, Hitler signed a ten year non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union in 1939 in which each party agreed to remain neutral if the other became involved in war. A secret protocol was attached which divided eastern Europe into German and Soviet zones of occupation "in the event of a political territorial reorganization." This alone should have been enough to make the Western powers suspicious; but Stalin had not trusted Western intentions, and Hitler had offered him immediate territorial gains. Everything was now set. Hitler told his generals on the day the pact was signed, "My only fear is that at the last moment, some dirty dog will come up with a mediation plan."
1939-1942: Hitlerís Empire:The attack on Poland, "Operation Yellow," was launched on September 1, 1939. The German army used planes, tanks, and trucks to prosecute a blitzkrieg, or "lightning war." Much of the Polish army was still on horseback, and could offer only feeble resistance. Poland was crushed in four weeks. In the meantime, the Soviets marched in from the east and took Eastern Poland as well as the independent Baltic States of Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia. Two days after Hitlerís invasion, however, Britain and France issued an ultimatum that he immediately withdraw from Poland. When the ultimatum was ignored, Britain and France declared war on Germany. World War II had begun.
British and French troops dug in, expecting another war of attrition and an economic blockade. To their surprise, in Spring, 1940, the Germans occupied Norway, Denmark and Holland, then broke through southern Belgium and split Franco-German forces, leaving he entire British army trapped on the Beach at Dunkirk. The German army might have easily destroyed the British army, but the British in a monumental effort, channeled troops (but not their equipment) across the English Channel. The British used anything that would float and hold two or more people, even small fishing boats, to ferry soldiers across. Not a single British soldier was abandoned to the Naziís.
The French had long anticipated a war with Germany and had constructed a series of fortifications along the border known as the Maginot Line, named for the French foreign minister who envisioned it, Andre Maginot. It proved to be a useless liability. The German army went through the black forest and outflanked the line, while troops who might have stopped the Germans were preoccupied defending the line. France was overrun by German forces and General Philippe Pťtain, the hero of World War I, formed a new government, the Vichy Government, which surrendered. France was occupied by German troops and by July, 1940, German armies occupied all of Western Europe with the exception of Great Britain. In the east, the Soviets and Italians were German allies.
Hitler then turned his attention to the invasion of Britain, Operation Sea Lion. The plan was to gain air superiority and then lead an amphibious invasion. In the Battle of Britain, up to one thousand German planes attacked British factories and airfields in a single day. The British fought back, and losses were heavy on both sides. Either by accident or on purpose, however, the focus and scope of the war changed when a civilian neighborhood was bombed. Britain returned the favor by bombing German cities indiscriminately, and a furious air battle erupted in which British and German planes flattened each others cities in an attempt to break the morale of the other. The British people were rallied by the bulldog tenacity of Sir Winston Churchill, who declared, "we shall fight them on the beaches, we shall fight them on the landing fields, we shall fight them in the streets and in the fieldsÖwe will never surrender." British aircraft factories increased production, and anti-aircraft defenses were improved with the help of radar. Even though mercilessly bombed, London dug in. By fall, 1940, Britain was beating Germany three to one in the air war. A German invasion of the British Isles was impossible.
Hitler suddenly changed course, and attacked the Soviet Union in violation of his agreement with Stalin. When told of the plan, Hitlerís generals immediately protested, warning him of the dangers of a war fought on two fronts, and that the same plan had caused Napoleonís downfall. Hitler calmly replied that he knew the mistakes Napoleon had made, and would not make them himself. Thus on June 1, 1941, Operation Barbarossa was launched. By October, 1941, Stalingrad was surrounded and Moscow was under siege; but contrary to what Hitler had expected, the Soviet government did not collapse. In the face of the German advance, entire factories and populations were evacuated to eastern Russia and Siberia. War production was reorganized and the Red Army well supplied. Stalin also called upon the nationalism of the Russian people, as opposed to the international appeal of Communism.
The German advance on Leningrad stalled on December 6, 1941. On that date, one day before U.S. entry into the war, the German war machine stalled. German soldiers were forced to retreat as fall rains set in, which caused their equipment and heavy guns to bog down. Later, when the winter came, the Germans, equipped only in Summer uniforms, froze wholesale. The cold was so bitter that fuel in the German tanks congealed, making it impossible to start them. Thus the truth is borne out of the expression that Russiaís best soldier is "General Winter."
Hitler had thus far established a "New Order" over much of Europe. He and his thug colleagues soon demonstrated what a Nazi Europe would have been like. "Nordic" people, Dutch, Norwegians, Danes, received preferential treatment as they were racially related to the master race. The French were considered an inferior "Latin" people, and were heavily taxed, but were tolerated as a race. Slavs were treated as untermention, ("sub-humans.) Hitler envisioned a vast eastern Colonial empire in which Poles, Russians and Ukrainians would be enslaved and forced to die out while German peasants settled the abandoned lands. To bring this dream into reality, he turned to the SS and Heinrich Himmler. In Western Poland, Polish workers and Soviet prisoners of war were transported to Germany where working conditions were so harsh that four out of five did not survive. Next came the Jews and Gypsies, Jehovahís Witnesses, homosexuals, and captured communists. Himmlerís killing squads and regular army units forced Soviet Jews to dig giant pits which became mass graves where victims were cut down by machine gun fire. In late 1941, Hitler and the leadership ordered all Jewish emigration from Europe stopped and planned the "final solution of the Jewish question," the mass extermination of all the Jews of Europe. Jews were arrested and transported by cattle car to various extermination camps in Poland where they were forced or deceived to enter "shower rooms" where they were gassed with Xyklon gas, an insecticide. The gas chambers had been perfected in Germany to execute seventy thousand mentally ill Germans between 1938 and 1941, and permitted rapid, efficient murder en masses. After victims died, special units of young Jewish men went into the chamber to remove gold from the teeth of the victims and bodies were either cremated or boiled for oil to make soap. At Auschwitz-Birkenau (where Gateís friend Ernie Lion was incarcerated) as many as twelve thousand people were murdered each day. By 1945, six million European Jews had been systematically exterminated.
There has been much debate as to where responsibility for the holocaust ultimately lies. Earlier historians had placed the blame solely on Hitler and the Nazi leaders, believing that ordinary Germans were unaware of the camps or were unable to oppose them. Later historians have concluded that there was at least passive compliance on the part of the German populace as well as the non-Jewish populace of other areas of Europe. Many scholars believe that latent anti-Semitism caused many to either look the other way, or to participate at least passively. There was (and is) sufficient guilt to implicate thousands.
The Grand Alliance:Hitlerís very actions forced the alliance of the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union. There was little love lost and no trust between the U.S. and the Soviets, and Stalinís unabated cooperation with Hitler until the Operation Barbarossa hardly made him appear a reliable ally; however, circumstances thrust the three together. Britain and the Soviets had been brutally attacked by the Germans and the United States was brutally thrust from isolationism to World War by the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The U.S. had declared war on Japan the following day, December 8, 1941. On December 11, Germany and Italy, in furtherance of the tri-partite pact signed with Japan, declared war on the United States. The battle was joined; but before the three powers could fight together, they had to overcome their distrust of each other. They managed to do so by three interrelated policies:
President Franklin Roosevelt accepted the contention of Winston Churchill that the allies should concentrate first on defeating Germany after which an all-out attack on Japan could be launched. Japan was considered the lesser of the two threats. The U.S. made promises of substantial military aid under its policy of "Europe first." This helped solidify the coalition.
The British and Americans put military needs first, postponing any political questions until peace was achieved. The intent was to deprive Hitler of the possibility of dividing the Allies, which might have been fatal. The price paid for that decision was quite problematical in the post-war world.
The allies adopted a policy of "unconditional surrender" towards both Germany and Japan. The intent was again to deny Hitler the possibility of dividing the allies by making peace with one of them, and to encourage mutual trust. It also served to discourage the German and Japanese people who otherwise might have overthrown their governments in order to make a compromise peace. Such a peace might have been desirable, but again might be fatal to the alliance if peace was made with only one ally. The end result of this policy was the division of Germany between the United States and the Soviets for almost fifty years after the war.
A significant factor was the prodigious resources of the United States which were now available to the allies. In addition to arming its own army and navy, the U.S. furnished the allies with over $50 billion in arms and equipment. Britain received the lionís share of this settlement, but roughly one fifth went to the Soviets in the form of trucks, planes and munitions.
Britain mobilized its entire economy to fight the war and by early 1943 American and British forces combined small aircraft carriers with radar guided bombers. Together they were able to sweep German submarines from the Atlantic. Britain also became the staging area for Operation Overlord, the campaign to invade the European mainland and reclaim it.
The Soviet Union had such strength that it might well have defeated Germany without the aid of the U.S. and Britain. The Red Army was well supplied and well commanded by talented military leaders who replaced those lost when Stalin purged the army. Stalin also called on the determination of the Russian people, and Russian nationalism, not communist internationalism united the Russian people in what became known as the Great Patriotic War of the Fatherland."
Further, the allies were not alone. They had the benefit of resources of other nations around the world to stop the threat of the Nazis; and also benefited to some extent from resistance movements which erupted behind German lines. The Ukrainian people, who had at first welcomed the Germans as liberators soon joined guerrilla forces to oppose them after they were exposed to brutal Nazi occupation policies. The invasion of the U.S.S.R united communists throughout Europe, even in Germany, to join underground resistance movements. They were frequently joined by patriots and Christians, thus proving the wisdom of Shakespeareís remark that "Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows." Anti-Nazi leaders from occupied countries established governments-in-exile, such as the "free French" under General Charles de Gaulle, later President of France.
The Tide of Battle:After being stalled at Leningrad and Moscow, the Germans renewed their attacks on the Soviets in June, 1942 by aiming for Stalingrad to the South. They occupied most of the city after intense, often savage, house to house fighting. But, in November, 1942, the Soviets counterattacked from the North and South and surrounded the entire German sixth army, which consisted of 300,000 men. Although the cause was lost, Hitler steadfastly refused to allow his Generals to surrender. As a result, the Sixth Army was destroyed. All but 123,000 men were killed; the survivors surrendered and were shipped to Soviet prison camps where they were treated with horrific brutality. Many starved or were worked to death while others were shot. Summer of 1943, the Soviet Army began an offensive moving toward Germany. Armed with the T-34 tank, which could handle the sludge and snow and had the capacity to deflect artillery fire, the German Panzers were not match.
By late 1942, the war in the Pacific and in North Africa had also turned in favor of the allies. The Japanese had built a substantial empire in East Asia and had appealed to local nationals who hated the Imperialist Europeans and preferred Japanís "Greater Asian Co-prosperity sphere." However, at the Battle of the Coral Sea in May, 1942, allied naval and air power stopped the Japanese advance on Australia. At the Battle of Midway Island, all but four of the attacking Japanese aircraft carriers were sunk and American naval superiority of the Pacific was firmly set. The Pacific forces received only 15 per cent of allied resources because of the "Europe first" policy, but pursued a policy of "island hoping" which kept the Japanese on the defensive.
The Battle of Coral Sea is noteworthy as it was the first naval battle fought exclusively by carrier based aircraft. The two fleets never caught sight of each other. Coral Sea and Midway were successful at least in part because American code breakers had broken the Japanese Code and knew the war plans of Admiral Isokuru Yamamoto.
In North Africa, the combined forces of Germany and Italy were defeated in May, 1942 by British forces at the Battle of El Alamein, seventy miles from Alexandria. Combined American and British forces landed in Morocco and Algeria, French possessions defended by the Vichy government of General Petain; however the soldiers quickly broke ranks and joined the allies.
The Allies then invaded Sicily and mainland Italy. Mussolini was deposed by his own people and the new Italian government publicly accepted unconditional surrender. But German forces rescued Mussolini by glider, and set him up as head of a puppet government. German armies seized Rome and all of northern Italy, and bitter fighting continued in Europe for two more years. By 1942, Germany, which had not been as fully mobilized as Great Britain, threw all its resources into total war. Women, prisoners of war and slave labor from concentration camps were put into the effort, and German war production tripled. American planes bombed German cities by night and British planes by day, and killed hundreds of German civilians, but militarily were ineffective. After the failed attempt to assassinate Hitler, the SS brutally murdered thousands of Germans. The German people had no choice and fought on with suicidal stoicism.
On June 6, 1944, Operation Overlord was launched. Allied forces under General Dwight Eisenhower landed at Normandy in historyís greatest naval invasion. Over two million soldiers took part in the ensuing push toward Germany. An attempt to launch a counteroffensive created a bulge in the line, (hence the "battle of the bulge,") but was inconsequential, as allied forces continued to press forward and broke through German lines. General Eisenhower rejected proposals to strike Berlin, suggesting that it was not strategically important, and left it to the Soviets. Instead, Eisenhower moved cautiously across a broad front, and allied forces finally crossed the Rhine River in March, 1945. The Soviets had been advancing steadily since July, 1943, and were at the outskirts of Warsaw, Poland by August, 1944. They moved on through Romania, Hungary, and Yugoslavia and met American forces on April 25 at the Elbe River. The allies had closed a vise on Germany and overrun Europe. Hitler had retreated to a specially built bunker, the FŁhrerbunker, where he watched his empire collapse with increasing anxiety. Repeatedly drugged by his doctors and at the point of a nervous breakdown, he married his mistress, Eva Braun and the following day committed suicide by shooting himself in the temple. The following month, General Ernst Jodl surrendered all German forces to the Allies.
Because the Soviets had reached Berlin first, it was they who discovered Hitlerís body, which they autopsied several times, buried and reburied before finally cremating it. However, they hid this knowledge from the West, leading to speculation for many years afterward that Hitler had escaped as had other Naziís and fled the country.
Three months after the collapse of Germany the Allies, after a meeting at Yalta, issued an ultimatum to the Japanese to surrender of face "dire consequences." Japanese overtures at surrender were rejected as there was some doubt as to their sincerity. Ultimately, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan and invaded Manchuria. At the same time, the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasakióthe final nightmare of a war against civilians. The Japanese surrendered on board the USS Missouri on August 14, 1945 and the war which had claimed the lives of over fifty million people was finally over.