World War II: 70 Years Ago Today
A Brief History of World War II
by Larry Rogak
At 4:00 AM on 01 September 1939, Nazi Germany sent 1.5 million troops, including six armored and four motorized divisions with the most modern equipment available, into Poland. Poland had more men mobilized -- 1.8 million -- but it was still fighting with mostly World War I equipment and tactics.
It was tanks and armored vehicles against mostly cavalrymen on horses. And the most modern airplanes against half the number of Polish antique biplanes.
To justify the attack, Hitler arranges a bit of deception: the SS (the "elite" Nazi security service, mostly responsible for the mass murder of civilians) collects a group of concentration camp prisoners and dresses them in Polish army uniforms and takes them to the German-Polish border town of Gleiwitz. In an operation dubbed "canned goods," the SS seizes the Gleiwitz radio station and makes an announcement in Polish that Poland is invading Germany. The concentration camp prisoners are then shot to death and left lying on the ground for photographers to document the failed "invasion." Germany's invasion is then dubbed a "counter-attack."
On 07 September, the New York Times referred to the conflict for the first time as the "Second World War."
By 17 September, it was almost all over, when the Soviet Union, which had cynically signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler the month before, attacked Poland from the East. By 20 September all of Poland was in either German or Soviet hands.
What started World War II? Hitler had laid out his plans in his book, Mein Kampf, which he wrote in 1923. His vision was to gain "living space" for the crowded German people by stealing the lands of other people, primarily the Slavic peoples of Eastern Europe. Hitler envisioned the Germans as masters of the world, with most other peoples -- principally the Slavs -- reduced to the level of slaves, and the Jews banished to remote reservations where they would die out through lack of ability to sustain themselves (extermination did not develop as a plan until after the war began).
At first, Hitler gained territory for Germany without bloodshed, through threats and bluffs. In 1936, he sent his troops in the Rheinland, which by the Treaty of Versailles was supposed to be demilitarized. France and England criticized the move, but took no action. This emboldened Hitler. Had the French Army moved in to enforce the Treaty, they could have kicked out the then-weak German army, and Hitler would have been finished.
In 1937, Hitler convened all his top generals for a meeting in which he told them to prepare the Army and the national economy for war. Germany then began to increase the size of its army and to re-arm as fast as it could, all in violation of the Versailles treaty.
In March 1938, Hitler annexed Austria, again through threats of invasion. Then in September 1938, he threatens Europe with war unless Czechoslovakia cedes its western region, known as the Sudetenland, on the premise that most of the population of that area are ethnic Germans who "yearn" to "return" to the German Reich. England and France take Hitler's word that the Sudetenland is his "last territorial demand" and that the cession will preserve "peace for our time." At the "Munich conference," the deal is signed.
By March 1939, Hitler sends the German Army to occupy the remainder of Czechoslovkia, breaking the vow he made at Munich. Germany now surrounds Poland on three sides. A few days later, Germany demands, and receives, the cession of the port of Memel from Lithuania, under threat of naval bombardment. This is Hitler's last "bloodless" conquests.
As the spring and summer of 1939 pass, Hitler turns his demands on Poland, seeking the return of territory taken from Germany and given to Poland by the Treaty of Versailles, including the city of Danzig and the "Polish Corridor," a strip of land cut right through Germany, giving Poland access to the Baltic Sea.
But unlike the spineless British and French politicians, the Polish leadership (which at the time was a junta of army colonels) was resistant and determined -- recklessly so, considering their vulnerable military position. Hitler's demands for the return of Danzig and the Corridor were insincere anyway -- had Poland relented, Hitler would have followed up with further incursions as he did with Czechoslovakia anyway.
So on 01 September, Hitler began his blitzkrieg ("lightning war") which overwhelmed the Poles. Three days later, England and France declared war on Germany, but made no moves.
In April 1940, Germany invaded neutral Denmark and Norway. On 10 May 1940, German armies invaded neutral Holland and Belgium, despite many solemn vows by Hitler to respect their neutrality. On 13 May, while Dutch negotiators talked with German officials about the terms for the surrender of Rotterdam, German bombers wiped out the heart of the city, killing about 1,000 civilians. The German Armies proceed into France. By 15 May the French Premier announces, "We have been defeated." The French keep fighting, however, until 17 June, when they requested an armistice. Formal surrender comes on 22 June 1940.
With invasions of Yugoslavia and Greece as well, and Italy in the hands of Hitler's friend Mussolini, a long dark night settled over Europe. The British held out desperately, and, aided in part by Hitler's lack of understanding of naval warfare and Hermann Goering's ineptitude as commander of the Luftwaffe (he was also a narcotics addict and transvestite), England fended off a planned German invasion, and Hitler made the fatal mistake of attacking Russia on 22 June 1941 as a means of eliminating Britain's "hope" that the Soviet Union would come to its rescue.
While German armies initially surprised and surrounded many Soviet armies in the initial months of the attack, the sheer size of Russia, the existence of millions more Soviet soldiers than Germany had counted on, and the desperate fighting will of the Red Army -- aided by the inability of German soldiers to cope with the harsh Russian winters -- eventually ground down the Germans and allowed Russia to take the offensive.
On 6 June 1944, England, France, Canada and the U.S. invaded France via the Normandy coast and began to roll back the German armies, which were attempting to hold on desperately against the Russian armies on the Eastern front. Most German generals understood by the summer of 1944 that Germany's defeat was inevitable, but Hitler and Goebbels, knowing that if Germany was defeated, their own personal fates were sealed, insisted on fighting to the death. In fact Goebbels, the propaganda minister, had been advising the German public since late 1941 that the outcome of the war would determine the "existence or non-existence" of Germany.
Part of the reason Hitler and Goebbels knew that Germany had to win in order to survive, was that Germany had, in Goebbels words, "burned its bridges behind it" with its massive exterminations of civilians -- Jews in particular but also millions of Poles and Russians -- which, as much as they justified these actions as part of Germany's "new order," they also understood would be viewed as horrific crimes by the rest of the world in the event of Germany's defeat.
At the end of April 1945, with most of Germany occupied by invading Russian, American and British troops, Hitler and Goebbles committed suicide (but not before Goebbels murdered his six children with cyanide). Hitler used not only the German army but also civilians as human sacrifices to keep himself alive a little longer; when one of his generals complained that 50,000 of the best young officers of the German Army had been killed defending Berlin, Hitler replied, "That's what young people are for." Germany surrendered on 07 May 1945. Fifty-one million people, half of them civilians, died violently as a result of Germany's lust for world conquest.
Why did Germany lose the war? Ironically, it was because of Hitler's lack of understanding of military strategy and his refusal to take the advice of his top generals, who were all career military men. Hitler's rise to power and his early conquests were mostly due to his shrewd and cynical political skills: bluffing, lying, threatening, and promising. But in the war against Russia, when German armies found themselves outnumbered and outmatched by Soviet armies, Hitler outright rejected strategic withdrawals and other standard military tactics that to him would harm his "prestige." And so he commanded his armies to stand their ground and die rather than retreat, regroup, and fight another day. Hitler's generals knew by the beginning of 1943 that he was leading them to defeat, but their exaggerated sense of loyalty to a temporal leader (backed up by savage executions of those who disobeyed orders) kept most of them in line.
The subject of the complicity of the German people in the conduct of the war is poorly understood and very controversial. It has been said that the German people loved the Third Reich -- because it restored the German peoples' sense of unity and pride after the disastrous defeat of World War I -- but did not like the Nazis (because of their heavy-handed enforcement of conformity). And most Germans were not happy when the war started because they had been enjoying increasing prosperity during the 1930s. But Nazi propaganda did convince most Germans that Germany's very existence depended on wiping out its deadly enemies -- mostly Jews and "Bolsheviks." And while most Germans knew of specific instances of the mass murder of Jews because so many German soldiers returned from Russia with stories and photos of individual massacres, most Germans did not know of the extent of the killing in places like Auschwitz until after the war. Auschwitz profoundly disturbed many Germans because of what it did to their sense of their own indentity as Germans; and ironically, many blamed not the perpetrators, but the victims. It has been said, "The Germans will never forgive the Jews for Auschwitz."
For the sheer scale of death and destruction, no war can match World War II. And while other wars have had multiple and conflicting aims (the Thirty Years War being a good example), Nazi Germany was actually fighting two wars from 1939 - 1945: a military war and a racial war. Fortunately, they lost both, but not before laying waste to much of Europe and Russia.
It bears mentioning that Josef Stalin was as much of a mass murderer as Hitler, and probably killed as many people. The principle difference between them was that Stalin mainly killed those he perceived as political enemies (whether it was true or just one of his paranoid delusions); in a sense, anybody had the option of being loyal to Stalin and thereby at least theoretically avoiding persecution. In Hitler's eyes, however, friends and enemies were determined strictly by bloodlines, and those "not of good race" faced either slavery or outright extermination -- even children. And not even "pure" Germans were safe from the Nazis -- between 1937 and 1939, over 100,000 Germans were put to death by the Nazis (using properly indoctrinated doctors and nurses) because of incurable mental or physical illness or deformities. Such was the Nazi commitment to the racial ideal.
If you can read this in English, thank a veteran.