Hitler and World War Two
Because of his experiences in Vienna, World War One, the Münich putsch and in prison, Adolf Hitler dreamed of building a vast German Empire sprawling across Central and Eastern Europe. Lebensraum could only be obtained and sustained by waging a war of conquest against the Soviet Union: German security demanded it and Hitler's racial ideology required it. War, then, was essential. It was essential to Hitler the man as well as essential to Hitler's dream of a new Germany. In the end, most historians have reached the consensus that World War Two was Hitler's war (for more on Hitler, see Lecture 9 and Lecture 10). Unfortunately, although most western statesmen had sufficient warning that Hitler was a threat to a general European peace, they failed to rally their people and take a stand until it was too late. In this respect, you could argue that the responsibility for World War Two ought to remain on the shoulders of Britain, France and the United States.
Following 1933 -- the year when Hitler consolidated his power as Chancellor through the Enabling Act -- Hitler implemented his foreign policy objectives. These objectives clearly violated the provisions of the Versailles Treaty. Hitler's foreign policy aims accorded with the goals of Germany's traditional rulers in that the aim was to make Germany the most powerful state in all of Europe. For example, during World War One, German generals tried to conquer extensive regions in Eastern Europe. And with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (1918) between Germany and Russia, Germany took Poland, the Ukraine and the Baltic States from Russia. However, where Hitler departed from this traditional scenario was his obsession with racial supremacy. His desire to annihilate whole races of inferior peoples marked a break from the outlook of the old order. This old order never contemplated the restriction of the civil rights of the Jews. They wanted to Germanize German Poles, not enslave them.
But Hitler was an opportunist -- he was a man possessed and driven by a fanaticism that saw his destiny as identical to Germany's. The propaganda machine that Hitler adopted, however, was perhaps the most important device at his disposal. With it he was able to successfully undermine his opponent's will to resist. And propaganda, after winning the minds of the German people, now became a most crucial instrument of German foreign policy as a whole. There were upwards of 27 million German people living outside the borders of the Reich. To force those 27 million into support for Hitler, the Nazis utilized their propaganda machine. For example, they made every effort to export anti-Semitism internationally, thus feeding off prejudices of other nations. Hitler also began to promote himself as Europe's best defense against Stalin, the Bolsheviks and the Soviet Union (on Stalin see Lecture 10). In fact, the Nazi anti-Bolshevik propaganda convinced thousands of Europeans that Hitler was also Europe's best defense against all Communists.
Hitler was a shrewd statesman. He anticipated, for instance, that the British and French would back down the moment they were faced with his direct and willful violations of Versailles. He knew that any threat of war would drive the Anglo-French into a defensive posture. The reason for this should be pretty clear -- Britain and France would have done anything to avoid another conflict and this defensive position managed to win a vote of confidence from public opinion.
The British believed that Germany had been treated too harshly by the provisions of Versailles and because of this, they were willing to make concessions to the Germans. The French, with the largest army on the Continent, refused to contemplate an offensive war, as was their position in World War One, and decided instead to protect their borders at all costs. The United States, meanwhile, stood aloof from any European conflict because they had their own problems to deal with, namely, the Great Depression. To top it all off, the British and French no longer trusted Russia, so the hopes of establishing an alliance along the lines which developed during the Great War was just not possible. So the British introduced their policy of appeasement. They hoped that by making concessions to Hitler, war would be avoided. They also held on to the illusion that Hitler was, once again, Europe's best defense against Soviet Russia. The British appeasers certainly missed the boat -- even with Mein Kampf in their hands, they failed to understand Hitler's foreign policy aims. Hitler could be reasoned with, they argued. Meanwhile, Germany grew stronger and the German people began to look to Hitler as their messiah.
Hitler needed a strong army to realize his war aims. According to the provisions of the Versailles Treaty, the Germany army was to be limited to 100,000 soldiers. The size of the navy was limited as well. Germany was also forbidden to produce military aircraft, tanks and heavy artillery. The General Staff was dissolved. These were harsh provisions. How did Germany get by these conditions? Well, actually it was quite easy. In March 1935, Hitler declared that Germany was no longer bound by the provisions of the Versailles Treaty. He began conscription and built up the air force. France protested, weakly, and Britain negotiated a naval agreement with the Germans. One year later, on March 7, 1936, Hitler marched his troops into the Rhineland, a clear violation of Versailles. His generals cautioned Hitler that such a move would provoke an attack. Again, Hitler judged the Anglo-French response correctly. The British and French took no action. The British sat back. The French saw the remilitarization of the Rhineland as a grave threat to their security. With 22,000 German soldiers standing along the French border, why didn't the French act? The first reason was that France would not act alone and Britain offered no help at this point. Second, the French over-estimated German forces who marched into the Rhineland. Again, their posture was decidedly defensive. And lastly, French public opinion was strongly opposed to any confrontation with Hitler.
Meanwhile, European fascism was winning another war in Spain between 1936 and 1937. Mussolini and Hitler both supported Franco's right-wing dictatorship and as to be expected, the French refused to intervene. The Spanish Civil War was decisive for Hitler for it was here that he was able to test new weapons and new aircraft which would eventually make their appearance when World War Two finally broke out in 1939. And then in 1938, Hitler ordered his troops to march into Austria, which then became a province of Germany. The Austrians celebrated by ringing church bells, waving swastikas and attacking Jews. The Anschluss was yet another violation of Versailles. Why had so many people missed the boat? In Mein Kampf, Hitler had made it quite clear that Austria must be annexed to Germany, Did anyone listen? Did anyone make any effort to prevent Anschluss? No! Britain and France both informed the Chancellor of Austria that they would not help if invaded by Germany. Once again, non-intervention paved the way for Hitler's foreign policy aims.
Hitler used the threat of force to obtain Austria and a similar threat would give him the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia. More than three-quarters of the population of the Sudetenland were ethnic Germans. The area also contained key industries and was vital to the protection of Czechoslovakia. Without this area heavily fortified Czechoslovakia could not hope to withstand German aggression. Sudentenland Germans, encouraged by the Nazis, began to denounce the Czech government. Meanwhile, Hitler's propaganda machine accused the Czech government of hideous crimes and warned of retribution. He ordered his generals to plan an invasion of Czechoslovakia. At this point, the British Prime Minister NEVILLE CHAMBERLAIN decided to intervene and Hitler agreed to a conference with him. The opinion of British statesmen was that the Sudetenland Germans were being deprived of their right to self-determination. The Sudetenland, like Austria, was not worth another war, they reasoned. Once the Germans were living under the German flag, the British argued, Hitler would be satisfied. And so the fate of Czechoslovakia was sealed in September 1938.
Chamberlain, Hitler, Mussolini and Daladier, the Prime Minister of France, signed the M�NICH PACT and agreed that all Czech troops in the Sudetenland would be replaced by German troops. The British hailed Chamberlain -- the French hailed Daladier. While Chamberlain returned to England with a piece of paper in his hand, Hitler was laughing. What Britain and France had shown was their own weakness and this weakness increased Hitler's appetite for even more territory. With the Sudetenland annexed, Hitler plotted to annihilate the independent existence of Czechoslovakia. And so, in March 1939, Czechoslovak independence came to an end. After Czechoslovakia, Germany turned to Poland. Hitler demanded that the Polish port town of Danzig be returned to Germany. Poland refused to hand over Danzig since it was vital to their economy. Meanwhile, France and Britain warned Hitler that they would come to the assistance of Poland. On May 22, 1939, Hitler and Mussolini signed the Pact of Steel and promised one another mutual aid. One month later, the German army presented Hitler with battle plans for the invasion of Poland.
While all this was going on, negotiations were under way between Britain, France and Russia. The Soviets wanted mutual aid -- but they also demanded military bases in Poland and Romania. Britain would not give in to their demands. And of course, while all this is going on, Russia was conducting secret talks with Germany. The result of all this was that on August 23, 1939, Ribbentrop and Molotov signed the NAZI-SOVIET PACT of non-aggression. One section of this Pact -- even more secret than the Nazi-Soviet Pact itself -- called for the partition of Poland between Germany and Russia. The Nazi-Soviet pact served as the green light for the invasion of Poland and on September 1, 1939, German troops marched into Poland. Britain and France demanded that Hitler stop his forces but Hitler ignored them and so Britain and France declared war on Germany. Using the Blitzkrieg or lightening war, Poland succumbed to Germany on September 27, 1939.
The period of six months following the fall of Poland has been called "the phony war." Fighting was limited to minor skirmishes along the French and German borders. But in April 1940, Hitler struck at Denmark and Norway. Hitler needed to establish naval bases in these countries from which his submarines could attack England. Denmark surrendered in only one day and Norway soon followed. The following month, Hitler attacked Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg. Surrenders followed quickly. Meanwhile, French troops rushed to Belgium to prevent a German breakthrough. The German forces converged on the French port of Dunkirk, the last point of escape for the Allies. But Hitler called off his tanks and planned to use airstrikes to annihilate the Allies. As it turned out, fog and rain prevented Hitler from using the full force of his airplanes. 340,000 British and French forces were ferried across the English Channel to England while Germany bombed the beaches.
By late Spring 1940, there was every indication that France was about to fall to the Nazis. Numerous French divisions were cut off and in retreat. Millions of French refugees were making their way south and on June 10, 1940, Mussolini declared war on France. The French government sent out an appeal for armistice and so on June 22, 1940, French and German officials met in a railway car and signed the agreement. In a odd twist of fate, it was the same railway car used to sign the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles back in 1918.
With France fallen, Hitler assumed that Britain would make peace. The British rejected any overtures on the part of the Germans and so in August 1940, Hitler ordered his Luftwaffe to conduct massive airstrikes against Britain and the Battle of Britain had begun. The battle raged for almost five months. On September 15, the British RAF shot down sixty German aircraft and Hitler was forced to postpone his invasion of Britain. The Germans, however, continued their night time attacks on English cities and towns but British morale never broke during the Blitz. By the end of 1941, Hitler had also invaded Russia but Russia would not yield.
By early 1942, Nazi Germany ruled virtually all of Europe. Territories were annexed, some were under German military authority while still others, such as France, collaborated with the Nazis. It was over this vast empire that Hitler intended to superimpose a New Order. The Germans expropriated and exploited every country which they conquered. They took gold, art, machinery and food supplies back to Germany. Some foreign factories were confiscated -- others produced what the Germans demanded. The bottom line is quite simple -- the Germans took whatever it was they wanted.
Seven million people from all over occupied Europe were enslaved and transported to Germany where they lived and worked in forced labor camps. The Nazis rules by terror and fear. The New Order meant torture, prison, firing squads and concentration camps. For example, in Poland, priests and intellectuals were jailed and killed and most schools and churches were ordered closed. In Russia, political officials were immediately executed and prisoners of war were herded into camps and worked to death. Germany ended up taking 5.5 million Russian POWs, 3.5 million of which were killed or died in captivity.
The task of imposing what came to be known as "the final solution of the Jewish Problem," was outlined at a conference held on January 20, 1942. One result of the WANNSEE PROTOCOL, was that a portion of the responsibility for the extermination of European Jewry was given to HIMMLER'S SS. The SS responded with fanaticism and bureaucratic efficiency. The Jews were identified with Reason, Equality, Tolerance, Freedom and individualism. The Jews had no Kultur. Though perhaps German born, they were not a people of the Volk. The SS enjoyed their work a great deal. They regarded themselves as idealists who were writing the most glorious of chapters in the history of Germany. In Russia, special squads of the SS -- the Einsatzgruppen, trained for genocide -- entered captured towns and cities and rounded up Jewish men, women and children who were herded into groups and then shot en masse. About two million Russian Jews perished as a result. In Poland, Hitler established ghettoes where some 3.5 million Jews were forced to live, sealed off from the rest of the population.
To expedite the Final Solution, the Nazis began to use concentration camps. These camps were already in existence for the use of political prisoners. Jews from all over Europe were rounded up under the notion that they were about to be resettled. Although the Jews knew something about plans for their eventual extermination, they just could not believe that any 20th century nation would resort to such a crime against humanity. Of course, the Holocaust was a reality. Cattle cars full of Jews and other inferior races traveled days without food or water. When the doors opened, they found themselves in the unreal world of the concentration camp. SS doctors then inspected the "freight." Rudolf Hoess (1900-1947), commandant at Auschwitz described the procedure in the following way:
Auschwitz was more than a death factory. It also provided I. G. Farben with slave laborers, both Jew and non-Jew. Workers worked at a pace at which even the healthiest of workers would have found intolerable. And because Germany now had somewhat of an unlimited labor supply, working prisoners as fast as possible would solve two problems at the same time: increased production and the extermination of inmates. Auschwitz also allowed the SS, the elite members of the master race, to shape themselves according to Nazi ideology. The SS, for instance, amused themselves with pregnant women, women who were beaten with clubs, attacked by dogs, dragged by the hair and then thrown into the crematory, still alive. The SS systematically overworked, starved and beat their inmates. They made them live in filth and sleep in over-crowded rooms. The purpose of such inhuman behavior was to rob the individual of any shred of human dignity. In this way, the SS and the Nazis could demonstrate -- to themselves, of course -- that the Jew was clearly an inferior race of people. After hours or weeks, exhausted, starving, diseased and beaten, these men and women were sent to the gas chamber.
Over the course of the last 3000 years or so, the Jews have been the focus of hostility, hatred and intolerance. The Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and medieval Christians all looked upon the Jew as an outsider, as a person who did not truly belong to or in the community in which they were living. What was unique about the HOLOCAUST was the Nazi's intention to murder, without exception, every single Jew they found. Also unique was the fanaticism and cruelty with which they pursued this goal. The Holocaust was the culmination of Nazi racial ideology. Using modern technology and bureaucratic machinery, the Nazis systematically killed at least six million Jews. This figure represents nearly 65% of Europe's Jewish population. 1.5 million of these were children. Another 6-7 million non-Jews were also exterminated meaning that the Holocaust resulted in the deaths of at least 13 million innocent souls. Could man ever return to the felicific idea of progress as advocated by the 18th or 19th centuries?
Across occupied territories of the Third Reich there were Nazi collaborators who welcomed the fall of democracy and who still saw Hitler as the best defense against communism. But each country also produced a resistance movement that grew stronger as Nazi atrocities increased. The resistance movement rescued downed pilots, radioed military movements to London, and sabotaged German railway depots. The Danish underground managed to smuggle 8000 Jews into Sweden while the Polish resistance, estimated to number 300,000, reported on German positions and interfered with the movement of supplies. Russian partisans sabotaged railways, destroyed trucks and killed hundreds of Germans in ambush. The Yugoslav resistance army, led by Marshall Tito, was a disciplined fighting force which ultimately liberated the country from the Germans.
European Jews were specifically active in the French resistance movement. But in eastern Europe, the Jewish resisters received little or no support and were usually denounced to the Nazis. The Germans responded harshly to the Jewish resistance. For example, 200 Jews were killed for every one Nazi. However, in the Spring of 1943, the surviving Jews of the Warsaw ghetto managed to fight the Germans for several weeks. Also, in 1943, and after the Allies had landed in Italy, Italian resisters managed to liberate the country from the fascists and German occupation. And on July 20, 1944, Colonel Stauffenberg planted a bomb under Hitler's table at staff conference meeting -- the bomb exploded but Hitler escaped serious injury. The Nazis responded by torturing and executing 5000 suspected anti-Nazis.
Although the European resistance was proof that some people refused to accept Hitler and the Nazis, their efforts did not bring an end to the war. Japan's imperialist endeavors from the early 1930s on and including the attack on PEARL HARBOR on December 7, 1941, forced the United States to end its isolationist position and enter the war. Meanwhile, Hitler had made the same blunder as had Napoleon, by attacking Russia in winter. In February 1943, almost 300,000 soldiers died in the battle of Stalingrad and another 130,000 were taken prisoner. And in the fall of 1943, Allied forces liberated Italy. Mussolini was dismissed, and eventually shot and hung by his ankles in April 1945. Finally, on June 6, 1944 -- D-Day -- the Allies landed 2 million men on to the beach head at Normandy. By August, the Allies liberated Paris and then Brussels and Antwerp. Meanwhile, the Allies were conducting massive bombing raids on German industrial cities. The Russians drove across the Baltic states, Poland and Hungary and by February 1945, they were 100 miles from Berlin. By April, American, British and Russian troops were moving toward Berlin from all sides. On April 30, 1945, Hitler and Eva Braun committed suicide and one week later, May 7, a demoralized and near destroyed Germany surrendered unconditionally. Finally, on August 6, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima -- 78,000 perished within fifteen minutes of the blast. Three days later, another bomb fell on Nagasaki and on August 14, Japan surrendered.
The legacy of World War Two was dramatic. 50 million lost their lives, 20 million Russians alone. The war also meant a vast number of people left Europe for either England or the United States in an exodus which has come to be known as the Great Sea Change. Hundreds of cities were destroyed, some of them centuries-old. Only 5% of Berlin remained intact, 70% of Dresden, Hamburg, Munich and Frankfurt were destroyed. The war also revealed the existence of two superpowers -- the United States and the Soviet Union, countries which would determine the fate of Europe and the world for the next four decades. The world now had to atomic bomb. The world also had its Satan: Hitler. Vast imperialist empires were destroyed and then there was the Holocaust. In the intellectual realm and in the world of art, the European war created a Second Lost Generation with its own philosophy: existentialism.
| The History Guide | |
copyright � 2000 Steven Kreis