No Peace Till Victory | Part 2 - History of World War I

We are the Dead. Short days ago We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, Loved and were loved, and now we lie, In Flanders fields.

— John McCrae, “In Flanders Fields” —

On paper, the Central and Allied Powers were evenly-matched in the summer of 1914. Yet the Germans held the advantage in the first year of the war, as they were most prepared for its coming. The General Staff had been conducting war games since the founding of Germany in 1871 with a variety of scenarios for two-front conflicts with multiple participants. For the situation in 1914, the General Staff chose to execute the “Schlieffen Plan,” named for Count Alfred von Schlieffen who had commanded the General Staff from 1891-1906. The German war plan called for a massive invasion of France and the Low Countries with seven of the eight field armies. The right wing would sweep down through Belgium toward Paris while the left wing held the Franco-German border region along the Rhine River. The single army in the east would hold the line against Russia (which would take at least six weeks to mobilize, according to Schlieffen’s calculations). France’s armies would be enveloped and destroyed in a battle south or east of the capital. Then the rest of the army would be transferred to the Eastern Front on Germany’s first-class rail system to invade and destroy the Russian Empire. Helmuth von Moltke, chief of the General Staff in 1914, made two minor alterations to Schlieffen’s plan: he refused to invade the Netherlands and instead forced the army’s right wing through Germany’s relatively-small border region with Belgium, and he transferred two corps from the left wing to bolster the Eighth Army’s strength in the east. He did not consider these changes to be significant, but in reality it may have cost Germany the war. By slowing the right wing’s advance in the Low Countries, France and Britain gained time to move up their forces to the border regions and prepare defenses, and moving troops from the left wing allowed the French to launch small raids into Germany. This violation of sovereign German soil led Kaiser Wilhelm II to order the left wing to advance as well, turning the single-envelopment operation into a double-envelopment. From a military standpoint, this is the most difficult type of field operation to execute, as it requires coordination between units that was simply impossible with the technology and infrastructure available at the time.

Despite some early stumbles around the Belgian fortress-city of Liege, the Germans were able to break through and begin their sweep across northern France by the second week of August. The French were hurled back all along the front, and the small British Expeditionary Force was nearly destroyed at the Battle of Mons on August 23rd. By the 24th the Allied armies were in retreat in the face of Germany’s onslaught, and Moltke reported to the Kaiser that victory was at hand. Paris was preparing to endure a siege, and the French Chief of the General Staff Joseph Joffre was planning a last stand in the capital. Then, on September 2nd, Moltke saw what he believed was the opportunity of a lifetime. The French armies were stretched out east- to-west on a line from Paris to the Franco-German border, but few troops were actually defending the city itself. Moltke chose to make a third change to Schlieffen’s plan. Rather than capture the French capital and hand the enemy a political defeat, he chose to have his forces bypass Paris to the east and continue the advance; he would destroy the Allied armies and then return to take Paris. As a result, on September 3rd, the First and Second armies drew level with Paris on the map and then continued to move south, exposing their flanks to the city.

Moltke had made a fatal mistake. Unbeknownst to the Germans, Joffre and the Paris garrison commander Joseph Gallieni had cobbled together enough soldiers to form another field army to the west of Paris, beyond the enemy’s field of vision. With Moltke’s flank now open, Gallieni began to move his forces through the city (using several hundred Parisian taxi cabs to deploy troops to the field) and position them to attack the German right. By the end of September 3rd, the French and German armies were parallel to each other along the east-west Aisne River, with Gallieni’s reserve force in Paris and detached from the main French army. The next morning, Moltke learned of Gallieni’s moves and ordered the First and Second armies to turn ninety degrees; they would now draw up on a line running north-to-south facing Paris and Gallieni’s small army. As the two German armies moved away from the remaining five (still moving south from the Aisne to the Marne River pursuing the retreating French), a gap opened up in the German line. The chance of bypassing Paris was gone, but he was still confident of victory.

Great Britain had not fought a major Continental war in a century, and its army had been reformed to combat small colonial enemies in Africa and India. When the Great War broke out, Britain could only deploy six infantry divisions and one cavalry division (France had 67 infantry divisions and ten calvary divisions while Germany had 78 infantry divisions and four cavalry divisions). The British Expeditionary Force, commanded by General Sir John French, was badly mauled at Mons in late August and had retreated beyond the Marne River to refit and repair. Its contribution to the war had thus far been negligible, and both French and German officers regularly mocked the British for their inability to fight a modern war. However, in the fateful days of early September 1914, what Kaiser Wilhelm II called “that contemptible little army” played the decisive role in saving the Allied cause.

By midday on September 4th, Gallieni’s forces were under fierce artillery attack from the German First and Second armies, and to the east the main body of the French army was retreating across the Marne River. Moltke had met with the Kaiser that morning at army headquarters in occupied Luxembourg and again assured his supreme warlord that the situation at the front was under control. In Paris, Joffre and the other officers at French command at Chantilly were lamenting their fate. Then, the report of the gap between the German Second and Third armies arrived, and Joffre dispatched a message to Sir John French at BEF headquarters asking him to attack. French hesitated but then agreed; the BEF would move up into the gap and engage the enemy. Joffre then issued orders to his own forces—on September 5th, the retreat would stop and all forces currently retreating along the Marne would turn and fight. It would be a battle to save European civilization.

The Battle of the Marne, fought between September 5th and 10th, was one of the largest battles in history in both numbers engaged and the size of the battlefield. Along a front of almost two hundred miles, 1.1 million French and British soldiers battled 1.5 million Germans for five days. Troops on both sides still marched in line-and-column and were devastated by machine gun and artillery fire. In the east, the French were able to stop the Germans cold along the river by setting up interlocking fields of fire and digging shallow trenches to protect themselves. To the west, near Paris, the armies maneuvered for position, but the Germans were caught in the open by the BEF and by Gallieni’s troops attacking out of Paris. On the 10th, General Alexander von Kluck of the German First Army reported to Moltke’s adjutant that his army was in jeopardy and had to pull back. When Moltke heard the news, he ordered all seven field armies to disengage from the enemy and retreat to the north. They would form a defensive line along the Aisne River and await reinforcements from home. In the field, British and French soldiers celebrated with cheers and bottles of wine as they watched the Germans pull away. At German headquarters in Luxembourg, Moltke was forced to report to the Kaiser on September 13th, “Your Majesty, we have lost the war.”

The Allied victory at the Marne was not the end of the story in 1914, nor certainly the end of the war. (Some civilians in London and Paris celebrated the news as if the war was over; they expected a quick victory in this “exciting little war.”) Over the next two months, both armies tried to outflank each other in northern France, stretching the lines out from the Aisne to the Channel Coast in what became the dreaded Western Front. New technology like the machine gun shifted the advantage to the defensive, and both sides began to entrench to hold their lines. By December, the war in the west had degenerated into a trench-bound stalemate, where it would remain for the next three-and-a-half long years. In the east, Russia’s rapid mobilization caught the Germans off guard, but quick and decisive action by Generals Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff (who would soon rise in rank to command all German armies) destroyed the first Russian invasion of East Prussia at the Battle of Tannenberg. 1914 closed with no end to the war in sight as Allied and German soldiers on the Western Front celebrated Christmas by crossing “No Man’s Land” to give each other gifts in the last chivalrous military action of the still-new 20th century.

Crisis of Civilization

The war in the West is one of bloodletting on an industrial scale. In the century which had passed since the Napoleonic Wars, warfare had changed forever as factories and mass mobilization brought millions of armed men to the front with the most devastating of weapons.

Poison gas was first used at the Battle of Artois in 1915 and would soon send thousands of gasping, choking men to their graves. Tanks and armed aircraft made their debuts in 1916 at the Somme and heralded a new type of warfare. At sea, submarines sank military and civilian ships alike, blockaded coastlines and starved tens of thousands of innocent civilians in both Britain and Germany. Major offensives at Ypres and Artois in 1915, Verdun and the Somme in 1916, and Nivelle and Passchendaele in 1917 cost millions of lives while gaining little ground. Soldiers were surrounded by death as they chewed barbed wire in Flanders, and an entire generation of Europeans perished. In the East, the czar’s armies hurled themselves on the Germans in brutal massed charges while the Austrians blundered from one offensive to another. The Ottoman Empire entered the war in late 1914, opening up a new theater in the Middle East that ultimately cost the ruling Turks their empire. (It also cost Winston Churchill his reputation, as his planned offensive at Gallipoli led to the deaths of 25,000 British, Australian and New Zealand soldiers.) And in southern Europe, the Italians and Greeks tried to aid the Allied cause but only managed to send their own brave men to their deaths. By 1917, both sides were nearing exhaustion, yet no end was in sight—victory was the goal, but the question was how to achieve it?

The Germans struck upon a plan to win the war in early 1917. They reasoned that, if they could shut down the Eastern Front and transfer their armies to the West, they could overwhelm the reeling French and British with sheer numbers. The situation in Russia was growing dire, as the people were fed up with the czar’s indifference to their suffering and crying out for reform and peace. In February 1917, a revolution broke out, deposed Nicholas II, and brought the socialist Alexander Kerensky to power—he promised democracy and victory in the war. (His second promise ultimately cost him his position.) At the same time, members of the German Social Democratic Party reached out to Russian revolutionaries in exile in Switzerland with an offer: they would guarantee these outlaws safe passage across Germany and into Russia in return for an end to the war. Of the many anti-czarist groups in Switzerland, the first to agree was the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin. After a long journey, Lenin arrived in St. Petersburg in October 1917, and with the promise of peace bringing him mass public support, his Bolsheviks overthrew Kerensky. He then signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918, withdrawing Russia from the war. The Germans exacted a heavy price from Lenin, but the Bolshevik leader was unconcerned—he had bigger plans for his country.

Had this been Germany’s only major political move of 1917, their victory in the Great War would have been possible. However, the General Staff also made a second decision that threw away whatever gains they would make in the East. In 1915, hoping to starve Britain into surrender (and believing, correctly, that France would not fight on alone), they began sinking any ship on the high seas bound for Great Britain no matter its nation of origin. After the sinking of the RMS Lusitania and the deaths of 128 Americans on board, the Germans had backed away from this policy of “unrestricted submarine warfare.” Now, two years later, they returned to it once more. Hindenburg understood that this might bring America into the war, but he had little regard for (or understanding of) for America’s military potential. But just in case America proved more dangerous than expected, the German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmerman sent a telegram to Mexico requesting their assistance in a war with the United States. Mexico immediately refused, but the British intercepted and published the telegram worldwide. Americans were outraged, and the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917.

Germany’s final offensive in 1918 very nearly won them the war, but America had already begun to exercise its massive industrial and military power in Europe. Ten thousand Americans were arriving in France every month by January, and these troops were thrown into the line when the Germans attacked in March. By June, the German offensive had failed, and the Allies attacked. In the north, the British struck at Amiens and Cambrai with armored assaults that broke the enemy lines, while in the south a combined Franco-American attack at Meuse- Argonne hurled the Germans back to their prewar borders. In just one hundred days, the Germans were defeated—though their armies still stood on foreign soil. At the same time, Britain won decisive victories in Greece and the Middle East, and the Italians (with American help) broke through the enemy lines at the Isonzo River. The Central Powers had been defeated, and an armistice was finally agreed to at 11:00 AM on November 11, 1918. After four years and three months of the most devastating war in human history to that point, Europe was again at peace.

The “War to End All Wars"

The world’s representatives gathered in Paris for the peace conference on January 18, 1919, in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles (the same calendar date in which the German Empire had been proclaimed in that very room). Over the next six months, five treaties were drafted and forced upon the defeated Central Powers: Germany, Austria and Hungary (now two independent states), Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire. As had happened in 1815 at the Congress of Vienna, the victors redrew the map of Europe, creating new nations and claiming territory from their defeated enemies. Of these five treaties, the most consequential was the Treaty of Versailles with Germany.

Within the “Big Four” Allied Powers—Britain, France, the United States and Italy—two major attitudes toward Germany emerged during the peace conference. On one side were the three European powers, led by French Premier Georges Clemenceau, who wanted to punish the German aggressors for the war which they had started (the assassination of Franz Ferdinand by a Serb having been forgotten). On the other was President Wilson, who sought a just peace to create a “world made safe for democracy.” Wilson’s idealism sounded good on paper, but it came up agains the realities of a shattered Continent whose people wanted revenge, and few of the American president’s proposals carried the day. His one victory was the creation of the League of Nations, an international organization which would provide a forum for discussion of problems between countries without resort to war. The League would be headquartered in Geneva and did its best to confront international crises during its twenty-year existence.

The Treaty of Versailles imposed three major conditions for peace upon the Germans (whose country was now in a state of revolution after Wilhelm II’s abdication on November 9th). The new Weimar Republic would be disarmed, its army limited to one hundred thousand men and forbidden an air force and deep-water navy. German territory would be appropriated by Belgium, Denmark, France (who recovered Alsace-Lorraine), and the newly-created nation of Poland. This last was particularly galling, as Poland was given the city of Danzig and the “Polish Corridor” for access to the sea, cutting off East Prussia from the rest of Germany. Lastly, Germany was blamed for starting the war and would thus pay reparations to the Allied Powers of $32 billion in gold and deliveries in kind. The Germans protested that they had not started the war, but the Allies cited the General Staff’s decision to declare war prematurely and their invasion of Belgium to justify the treaty’s war guilt clause. The German delegation was  presented with the completed treaty on May 7th and ordered to sign. Because of political disruptions in Berlin, the representatives requested time to consult with the government, which was granted. The German people were shocked and outraged when they learned of the treaty’s contents—they had not started the war, nor had they fought it any more ruthlessly than the Allies had done. (This was entirely true, and some historians have noted that Britain’s continuation of the blockade of Germany’s ports until June 1919 killed more German civilians than died during the war itself.) The Allies insisted that the treaty would not be altered and threatened a resumption of the war if it was not agreed to. This would have been a disaster for the German nation, and so the delegation returned to Versailles and signed the treaty on June 28, 1919.

Over sixteen million people died during the Great War and another 21 million were wounded. French infrastructure was devastated by four years of trench warfare, and the population only recovered in 1940 (just in time for a second catastrophe to befall the Third Republic). In many ways, the Treaty of Versailles was as great a catastrophe for the cause of world peace as the war had been. It both disarmed and enraged the German people, who grew more willing to support radical leaders promising a return to power for the Reich, but it also left the basic infrastructure of the General Staff and wartime military intact. It worried the American people, who wished to return to their prewar isolation and distance themselves from European affairs, while simultaneously inflating the sense of power of both Britain and France. It allowed Russia to descend into the terror of communism under Vladimir Lenin while failing to empower the newly-created Eastern European nations of Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia to resist its spread. Each one of these mistakes made at Versailles would soon return to haunt the victors. As the war receded into memory, the people of Britain and France went back to their normal lives. Reminders of the war persisted, of course: the monuments in every town and village to the honored dead, the empty cafes and pubs where a generation who had fallen in Flanders once drank and smoked, the wounded veterans parading through the streets of London and Paris on Armistice Day. Whenever a new crisis involving Germany arose during the 1920s and 1930s, a cry went up in the Halls of Parliament or the streets of Paris: “Never again!” Never again would the young men of the West bleed and die in trenches. Never again would nations sacrifice their greatest assets for the cause of political power or changing maps. Never again. As ruthless dictators seized power in Germany, Italy and the new Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the free peoples of Western Europe and the United States recoiled in horror but failed to act decisively. Men like Winston Churchill who warned that appeasement would bring about a new war were mocked as out of touch or as warmongers, while men of peace like Neville Chamberlain and Edouard Daladier were heralded as statesmen of the future. When confronted by evil, the free world failed to act. The Great War had sapped them of their resolve; it had bled them dry of all resolution to fight for the freedoms they enjoyed.

But of course, hindsight is easy and the view back through the lens of history is clear. In the hour of victory, few thought of another war. No one could imagine that a blinded German corporal lying in a hospital in Pomerania had thoughts of revenge against his enemies or an Italian socialist newspaper editor and veteran might seek to reestablish his country’s dominion of the Mediterranean Sea. People celebrated, dancing in the streets and thanking the Almighty that they had survived the world crisis. They mourned their dead, of course, but the war to end all wars was finally over. And yet, from the halls of Versailles came a warning. On the day the treaty was signed, General Ferdinand Foch, who had led the Allied armies in the final offensive against Germany, read the treaty and then commented, “This is not peace. It is an armistice for twenty years.” Only time would tell how right he was.

No Peace Till Victory | Part 1 - History of World War I

We are the Dead. Short days ago We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, Loved and were loved, and now we lie, In Flanders fields.

— John McCrae, “In Flanders Fields” —

“The First World War killed fewer victims than the Second World War, destroyed fewer buildings, and uprooted millions instead of tens of millions—but in many ways it left even deeper scars both on the minds and on the map of Europe. The old world never recovered from the shock.” Edmond Taylor’s book The Fossil Monarchies, published in 1967, was one of the first academic works to make this point: that even though the Second World War was far more devastating to mankind, it was the First World War (also known as the Great War) which truly reshaped the course of human history. In just four short years, two empires were destroyed, a third plunged into the darkness of a communist revolution, a fourth politically but not militarily defeated, and two more fatally weakened. The only nation which truly emerged intact from the Great War almost immediately withdrew from European affairs entirely. The victorious Allied Powers, in their eagerness for revenge against the Germans, cast away their triumph at the Versailles peace conference and instead set the world on a course for an even longer and more destructive conflict twenty years later.

The Great War’s origins lay as far back as the French Revolution, but its direct cause can be traced to the creation of the German Empire in 1871 at the hands of King Wilhelm I of Prussia and his “Iron Chancellor,” the nationalist Otto von Bismarck. Since the Middle Ages, Germany had been a collection of small, independent kingdoms and principalities dominated either by the Roman Catholic Church or by foreign powers. Upon Napoleon Bonaparte’s defeat in 1815, Germany was reorganized into the 39 states of the German Confederation, a loose alliance of nations presided over by the Austrian Emperor Francis I. Austria, although ruled by the ethnic Germans of the Hapsburg monarchy, was largely populated by other racial groups like Magyars, Czechs, Poles and Ruthenians. For German nationalists, it was unthinkable to include these outsiders within a German Reich (the word literally means “realm” but is usually translated as “empire”). Upon coming to power in the Kingdom of Prussia, the largest majority-German nation in the confederation, Otto von Bismarck embarked on a seven-year campaign to first expel the Austrians from Germany and then to unify all ethnic Germans under Prussian rule. In three wars—against Denmark in 1864, Austria in 1866, and France in 1870—Bismarck succeeded in uniting the German people by “iron and blood.” His defeat of France and the destruction of the Second Empire of Napoleon III (the great emperor’s nephew) scarred the French public psyche, and the rise of a mighty Germany who had stolen some of their sacred soil (the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine) struck fear into their hearts. Across the English Channel, the British Empire also watched the rise of Germany with trepidation. Since the dawn of the 19th century, Britain had been the Continent’s dominant economic and naval power, and yet Germany matched its industrial power within a decade of its creation and began to build a High Seas Fleet to match the power of the Royal Navy. Bismarck’s creation of a “Second Reich” had upset the entire balance of power in Europe so carefully maintained since the end of the Napoleonic Wars.

Once his goal had been achieved, Otto von Bismarck set aside his militaristic instincts and adopted a statesmanlike persona, seeking only to preserve in peace what he had created in war.

The German Kaiser, Wilhelm I of the House of Hohenzollern, had not wished to rule a united Germany and was content to allow his chancellor to run the country while he spent his time marching with his troops and doting on his grandson (and eventual successor) Willie. From 1871 until his forced retirement nineteen years later, Bismarck maintained the peace on the Continent by playing the honest broker in both colonial disputes between the other European powers and ethnic struggles in southern Europe. He insisted that no conflict in Europe— especially in the troubled Balkan region—was “worth the blood of a single Pomeranian grenadier.” When Wilhelm I died in 1888, his son took the throne as Kaiser Frederick III, but he was already dying of throat cancer. Thus, the young Willie became emperor at the age of 26 later that same year; he was young, arrogant and ill-tempered, and he resented Bismarck’s efforts to restrain his global ambitions. Two years later, Wilhelm II dismissed the old chancellor from office and chose weaker men to serve as head of government for the rest of his reign. He would govern Germany directly as its “Supreme Warlord.”

Troubles in the East and South

The vast Russian empire had been ruled by the Romanov dynasty since the 17th century, and after two centuries the country was growing restless. The czars governed with absolute authority, but with the rise of liberalism and nationalism came calls for reform. The first two czars of the 19th century, Alexander I and Nicholas I, had ruthlessly crushed all efforts to transform Russia into a democratic, European state. However, Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War and the rise of Czar Alexander II brought about a new era for the country. Alexander II was willing to tolerate some democratic and liberal reforms, and he improved the nation’s infrastructure to prepare it for a modern war. Russian culture flourished under Alexander II, but when he was assassinated by a member of the People’s Will, a revolutionary socialist organization, all toleration of dissent and anti-czarist opinions vanished. His son, Czar Alexander III, imprisoned and executed thousands of reformers, and tens of thousands more fled the country for the liberal nations of France, Britain and Switzerland. (Among those sent to Siberia on his orders was a young socialist revolutionary from Simbirsk named Vladimir Lenin.) Like Wilhelm I, Alexander III was far too indulgent of his offspring, and his son Nicholas spent his early adult years going to the theater and attending parties with Bolshoi dancers rather than learning how to govern the country. When Nicholas II became czar on his father’s death in 1894, the young ruler’s attitude was much like that of the German Kaiser Wilhelm II—he was to be obeyed immediately and without question. A year later, Nicholas granted a minor concession to liberal reformers by creating a democratic legislature, the Duma (whose acts and declarations he usually ignored), and his palace at Tsarskoye Selo remained the center of all power in Russia. While the czar and his wife Alexandra lived lives of unimaginable opulence, the people starved and began to consider how to bring about real reforms for their country.

Like the Romanovs and Hohenzollerns, the Hapsburg family had spent centuries at the center of European politics. From their seat at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna, the Hapsburgs ruled the mighty Austrian Empire, which had played a vital role in Napoleon Bonaparte’s defeat and brought art and culture to the backwater lands of Central Europe and the Danube Basin. And yet, it seemed as though time had passed the Hapsburgs by. Emperor Franz Joseph had come to power in 1848, and his temperament and policies stagnated the empire as the rest of the world embraced the Industrial Revolution and democratic reforms. More importantly, the multiethnic nature of the empire meant that Franz Joseph was forced to confront demands for equality with the ruling Germans, which was unthinkable for this proud ruler. In 1867, however, after a rebellion in Hungary, Franz Joseph granted autonomy to the Magyars and allowed them to create the Kingdom of Hungary (the throne of which was his). Austria thus became the “Dual Monarchy” of Austria-Hungary. As the century neared its end, Franz Joseph’s life was beset by tragedy. His son Rudolf committed suicide with his mistress in 1889, and his wife Elisabeth was murdered by anarchists nine years later. The new heir-apparent, his nephew Franz Ferdinand, was young and headstrong, eager to embrace new reforms and modernize the empire. These tendencies, combined with his marriage to a lesser noblewoman named Sophie Chotek, soured the relationship between the emperor and his heir. Locked in the power dynamics of dynastic politics, the two men neglected their people. Instead, Austria looked to the south for ways to maintain their status as a Great Power in Europe even as the empire slowly rotted from within.

The Balkan Peninsula of southeastern Europe has always been a source of considerable ethnic and political strife, even in the decades since the Second World War. A mass of squabbling nationalities with deep roots of hatred toward outsiders, the region had been governed by the Ottoman Empire since the 17th century. As Ottoman power waned, nationalist groups sought independence for their peoples. The Greeks had won their independence with British and French help in 1832, and two other Balkan ethnicities already possessed limited autonomy by the 1870s: the Serbs and the Romanians. War with Russia in 1878 saw these groups win independence, together with the Bulgarians, and the Austrians carved out a client state in Bosnia and Herzegovina. By the dawn of the 20th century, the Ottomans controlled a strip of Balkan lands between Albania and Constantinople, and the “Eastern Question” of who would dominate the peninsula once the empire fell apart helped set the stage for the Great War.

The Fuses are Lit

Two distinct but related series of events brought about the eruption of the Great War in 1914. The first was the ever-present contest between France and Germany (with Britain occasionally backing the former) over control of Western Europe and colonies in the Third World; the second was the ever-growing ethnic crisis in the Balkans. Each one could have probably led to a small conflict in either Western or Eastern Europe, but when combined they created a war that engulfed the entire continent.

During his years of power, Otto von Bismarck’s foreign policy had been oriented around a single goal: isolating France and preventing her from launching a war of revenge against Germany. To this end, he signed formal military alliances with Russia, Austria-Hungary and Italy as well as commercial treaties with Great Britain and Spain. In effect, France was surrounded. However, after his dismissal in 1890, Wilhelm II chose to abandon the treaty with Russia and trusted to his own personal relationship with his cousin, Nicholas II, to keep the peace. Seeing an opportunity, the French Third Republic immediately signed a defense treaty with the Russians, presenting Germany with the possibility of a two-front war. Germany’s naval building program worried the British, whose Royal Navy had dominated the world’s oceans since the start of the century. So too did Wilhelm’s desire for colonies in Africa (and specifically his meddling in France’s affairs in Morocco), and so Britain came to an understanding with France and Russia in 1894 and later entered a formal alliance in 1902 against German power. The balance had now swung against the Germans—if war broke out, they would be surrounded, not France.

Ever since the Russo-Turkish War of 1878, the three northern Balkan states of Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria had been under Russian protection against any outside threats. Of these small nations, Serbia was the closest to Russia because of their shared Slavic ancestry. This presented a problem to the Austrians, who controlled the ethnically-Serb region of Bosnia and Herzegovina which Serbia coveted. However, it was thought that an agreement might be reached between Russia and Austria. In 1907, the Russian foreign minister tried to secure Austrian backing for a move against the Dardanelles Straits which connected the Black and Mediterranean seas. Russia had long coveted these waters as an outlet to the wider world, and so a bargain was struck. The Russians would support Austria’s annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (betraying their Serb friends), and in exchange the Austrians would support Russia at an international conference of the Great Powers to give the Russians control of the Dardanelles. But then, Vienna betrayed St. Petersburg and marched into Bosnia and Herzegovina before a conference had been arranged and without prior notification. The Russians demanded that Austria fulfill her end of the bargain, but here Germany intervened. Under the post-Napoleonic Wars settlement among the Great Powers (Britain, France, Prussia, Austria and Russia), all five nations had to agree to attend a conference to discuss an international crisis. As Germany was the successor-state to Prussia, she now held an effective veto over any conference, and the Kaiser’s government refused to attend. Berlin also threatened that if Russia made trouble over Austria’s annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, war with Germany would be the result. Humiliated, Russia stood down.

The Bosnian Crisis of 1907 was, in many ways, a dress rehearsal for the Great War. As Bismarck is alleged to have commented, a European war would be set off by “some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.” The crisis had two long-term results. First, Russia’s embarrassment by Austria pushed them closer to the French and British and deepened their animosity toward the Hapsburg and Hohenzollern empires (though the czar and Kaiser continued to remain friendly). Second, and more important, the fading Austro-Hungarian Empire had found a friend who would back her in any situation: Germany. Armed with this diplomatic “blank check,” Austrian attitudes toward Serbia soon became more aggressive.

The Powder Keg Blows

In May 1912, dignitaries from over seventy countries traveled to London for the funeral of King Edward VII. Barbara Tuchman’s excellent book on the first year of the Great War The Guns of August brilliantly captures the pageantry of this largest gathering of European royalty in history. In many ways, this was the last image of the Victorian Old World, of class divisions and polite society. Just two years later, European society would be shattered forever by war. The Continent was, according to a reporter in London whose name has been lost, a “powder keg” of competing interests and alliances. That keg finally erupted with an assassin’s bullet on July 28, 1914. Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir-apparent to the Hapsburg throne of Austria-Hungary, was in Sarajevo for a state visit with his wife Sophie. While being driven through the streets of the Bosnian capital city in an open car, both the archduke and his wife were shot by Gavrillo Princip, a member of the Serb terrorist group “The Black Hand.” Austria immediately demanded compensation from the Serb government, presenting a list of demands to the government in Belgrade. In London, Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey did his best to hold the situation together, and for three weeks it seemed as though the crisis would pass. Serbia agreed to Vienna’s harsh demands, but then the situation changed. On July 23rd, the Austrian ambassador

to London informed Grey that his government viewed Serbia’s compliance as “unsatisfactory.” Grey was outraged, as the Serbs had agreed virtually to Austria taking control of the government; he could not understand what the Austrians were trying to do. It has since come to light that the Germans were pushing Austria toward war with Serbia—they intended to hold the Russians back after destroying France in a great battle near Paris, and with Austria’s victory in the Balkans the two nations would then redraw the map of Europe to their own advantage. Austria’s army was pitifully weak compared to that of Germany and the Western Allies, but Vienna was convinced that Berlin would protect them, and so they pushed forward. Meanwhile, the Russians were mobilizing their army to protect Serbia, and the French were desperately trying to convince the British to back them if Germany attacked. (Britain’s treaty with France was not a mutual defense agreement but rather a “statement of common interests.”) When Serbia rejected new demands for more concessions from Austria, Emperor Franz Joseph’s government declared war on Serbia on July 28, 1914.

Under the terms of the various alliances which existed in 1914, the following sequence of events should have taken place: Russia declared war on Austria-Hungary to protect Serbia, Germany declared war on Russia to protect Austria-Hungary, France declared war on Germany to protect Russia. In fact, none of these events took place. Russia did commence full mobilization of its armed forces on July 30th but did not declare war on Austria. Germany replied by issuing mobilization orders on August 1st and declared war on both Russia and France that same day. Thus, Germany was viewed as an aggressor in the conflict, which had terrible consequences for the entire world. The next day, Berlin demanded that the neutral nation of Belgium permit the German Army to pass through the country in accordance with Germany’s war plan against the French. When Belgium refused on August 3rd, Germany invaded; this violated the 1839 Treaty of London in which all five Great Powers agreed to respect the “eternal neutrality” of Belgium. In response, Britain declared war on Germany the following day. Finally, on August 6th, Austria-Hungary declared war on Russia. Europe was now at war.

In War and Peace | The House of Windsor

I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong. But I shall not have strength to carry out this resolution alone unless you join in it with me, as I now invite you to do: I know that your support will be unfailingly given. God help me to make good my vow, and God bless all of you who are willing to share in it.

— Elizabeth II, April 1947 —

In the midst of the First World War, as Britain and Germany were locked in a titanic struggle for the mastery of Europe, anti-German sentiment ran high on the streets of the United Kingdom. It reached its peak in March 1917 when German Gotha G.IV bombers attacked London and other cities in southern England. The name “Gotha” became a household name for all Britons, but it was already familiar to many. The royal house of Great Britain at that time was the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, taking its name from Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria. King George V, Victoria’s grandson, was advised by Prime Minister David Lloyd George that some of this anti-German sentiment might transfer to the Royal Family. The king initially dismissed these concerns, but later that year when his cousin, Czar Nicholas II of Russia, was forced to abdicate and the specter of republicanism arose in Britain, King George issued a proclamation:

Now, therefore, We, out of Our Royal Will and Authority, do hereby declare and announce that as from the date of this Our Royal Proclamation Our House and Family shall be styled and known as the House and Family of Windsor, and that all descendants in the male line of Our said Grandmother Queen Victoria who are subjects of these Realms, other than female descendants who may marry or may have married, shall bear the said Name of Windsor.

With this declaration, George V created the royal house which still today reigns in the United Kingdom under its current head, Queen Elizabeth II. The name “Windsor” has long been associated with Great Britain and the Royal Family, particularly from the castle which bears the name and has been a favorite residence of all four Windsor monarchs. The House of Windsor has reigned in Great Britain for over a century and has led the country through some of the most turbulent and transformative events in world history.

“For seventeen years, he did nothing at all but kill animals and stick in stamps” George V was the grandson of the great Queen Victoria. Born in 1865 to the future King Edward VIII, he was not expected to inherit the throne until the death of his elder brother Prince Albert Victor in 1892. George and his brother were educated together, and in his youth he showed little aptitude for academics, so he instead joined the Royal Navy and went on tours of the Empire with his parents and siblings. He married Princess Victoria Mary of Teck in 1893 and remained totally devoted to her throughout their lives together. When his father ascended the throne in 1901, George was permitted to read state papers and spent time with King Edward in preparation for the day in which he would eventually become king. Father and son were incredibly close, and when Edward died in 1910, George wrote in his diary, “I have lost my best friend and the best of fathers…I have never had a cross word with him.”

In his early years as King and Emperor, George played the role of mediator at a turbulent time in British politics. The rise of socialism in the Labour Party had upended the traditional Liberal-Conservative dynamic in the House of Commons, and George was often called upon to help the three parties find consensus on contentious issues. The Irish Question continued to plague Britain, and while personally opposed to the idea of Home Rule, the King always remained neutral in the discussions between the Cabinet and Irish nationalist group Sinn Fein. But George’s rule would forever change in August 1914 when Great Britain declared war on the German Empire, which was then ruled by the King’s older cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm II. As thousands of Britons died each month in the trenches in Flanders, the King did his best to keep up public morale by blaming the war on the Kaiser. Anti-German sentiment led to the creation of the House of Windsor in 1917, and when the King’s court was criticized by the writer H.G. Wells as “alien and uninspiring,” he famously retorted, “I may be uninspiring, but I’ll be damned if I’m alien.” When the war ended, King George returned to his mediatory role in British politics as socialism and republicanism swept across Europe and drove one monarch from his throne after another. For the British people, the King had become a symbol of stability and unity in a dangerous time.

George and Mary had six children in all: Edward, Albert, Mary, Henry, George and John (who died at the age of thirteen). Edward, the Prince of Wales and known as “David” within the family, was handsome and outgoing, and his free-wheeling lifestyle and many affairs with married women soured his relationship with the King. Albert (or “Bertie”), who was as unlike his elder brother as was possible, was a devoted family man who shied away from the spotlight due to a speech impediment and (contrary to a recent portrayal in an Academy Award-winning film) was very close to the King. David’s love life eventually thrust the Royal Family into controversy when he took up with a married American woman, and the affair forever destroyed any respect father and son had for each other; it would also have serious consequences for the family and the nation.

The Great War had destroyed King George’s health, combined with his years of heavy smoking. As he grew older, the king spent more time at his country estates collecting stamps, shooting pheasants, and doting on his eldest granddaughter Elizabeth, whom he affectionately called “Lilibet.” The King fell ill in December 1935 at Sandringham House and took to his bed, from which he never rose again. On January 20, 1936, the King’s doctor administered a fatal dose of morphine to his patient (claiming that he euthanized the monarch to preserve his dignity and to ensure that his death could be announced in the morning papers rather than the “less appropriate evening journals). The Royal Family was not consulted on this action, and the King’s death was announced to the nation and the world with the words that he was “more than a King, a father of a great family.”

“The boy will ruin himself within twelve months…” David, Prince of Wales, became king on the death of his father on January 20, 1936. Already consumed by love for the married American Wallis Simpson, King Edward VIII’s short reign nearly tore Great Britain apart. Edward wished to reign in a more modern fashion than his father had done, and he routinely broke with centuries of royal tradition in both his actions and demeanor as king. The British people loved their young, handsome king and believed him to be a symbol of a new age for the country; they knew little of what was going on behind the scenes and in the King’s bedchambers.

The Cabinet of Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin knew the truth about King Edward; that he was incautious with state papers and allowed his guests to read them freely, that his mistress was also having an affair with the Nazi German ambassador Joachim von Ribbentrop, and that the King had expressed on numerous occasions his admiration for fascism in general and for Adolf Hitler’s rule in Germany in particular. In November 1936, Edward summoned the prime minister to Buckingham Palace and informed him that he intended to marry Mrs. Simpson once her divorce from her previous husband was finalized. Baldwin told the king that the public would not accept the marriage and that, as the head of the Church of England, Edward could not marry a divorcee. The king tried to reason with the prime minister, but nothing could be done. He thus had three options: give up Mrs. Simpson, marry her against the wishes of the Government, or abdicate the throne. Edward was unwilling to break off the relationship, and he knew that to marry her against the Cabinet’s wishes would lead to a constitutional crisis, and so he chose to relinquish the throne.

On December 10, 1936, Edward met with the Privy Council and his brothers at Fort Belvedere, where he signed the instrument of abdication. He then broadcast a message to the Empire and the world announcing his abdication before leaving Great Britain for exile in France. His mistress joined him early in 1937, and they were married in June of that year. His successor named David Duke of Windsor (though his wife was not named a Duchess), and the relationship between the Duke and his family would remain turbulent until his death in 1972.

“I pray to God…that nothing will come between Bertie and Lilibet and the throne.” In many ways, Prince Albert Frederick Arthur George was the image of his father King George V. Not academically-gifted but dedicated to public service, not expected to inherit the throne until a catastrophe struck the family, a devoted husband and loving father, the new King George VI was nervous upon taking the throne but resolved to do his duty. In a letter to his mother Queen Mary, he wrote of what happened when he learned of his brother’s abdication: “I broke down and sobbed like a child.” The coronation of George VI and his wife Queen Elizabeth took place in May 1937 (the date which had been planned for Edward VIII’s), and almost immediately the new king was thrust into the perilous situation developing in Europe. German and Italian aggression in Africa and Spain brought the Continent ever-closer to war, and the governments of Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain desperately hoped to appease the fascist dictators. George VI initially supported the policy of appeasement and continued to do so even after the outbreak of war in 1939. As the Germans swept across France in May 1940 and Chamberlain’s government collapsed, the King made it known privately that he hoped Sir Edward Halifax (one of the architects of appeasement) would become prime minister and open negotiations with Hitler. However, the consensus among the people and the House of Commons was for a more aggressive man to take the center chair in Downing Street, and they bypassed Halifax for Winston Churchill. This decision, though initially opposed by the King, would ultimately define his reign.

Churchill and George VI had come into conflict in the years before the Abdication Crisis, and the politician had supported Edward VIII until he relinquished the throne. Churchill’s reputation as the man who had cost thousands of lives at Gallipoli during the Great War, combined with his aggressive tone when describing the dangers of appeasement, had made him unfit for national service in the King’s eyes. Their first meeting was quite cold and formal, but over the course of the wartime years they grew close and came to see eye-to-eye on the need to defeat Germany and win the war for the cause of world freedom. When some Britons urged the King to depart the country for Canada as the Germans prepared for an invasion, George VI received Churchill’s warm support in his resolve never to abandon his post. During the Battle of Britain, the two men toured bombed-out areas and boosted the morale of the common people, which historians have said did as much to keep Britain fighting as did the bravery of her pilots. When victory came in May 1945, the King invited Churchill onto the balcony at Buckingham Palace to receive the adulation of the crowd, and he wrote a heartfelt letter of condolence to the prime minister upon his electoral defeat later that year.

The peace which followed the fall of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan was turbulent for Great Britain, and the King’s health soon began to fade (exacerbated, like his father’s had been, by his heavy smoking of cigarettes). Britain’s strength had been sapped during the war, and she was unable to hold her colonial empire together. India was granted independence in 1947 and other colonies departed the Empire—some joining the British Commonwealth—for the rest of George’s reign. The King spent much of his time with his family or on tours of the empire until 1949, when a journey to Australia and New Zealand had to be delayed due to a serious illness. George never fully recovered, and his daughter Elizabeth took on more royal duties as heiress- presumptive. She completed her father’s tour in 1950 and was by his side when his left lung was removed a year later after a malignant tumor was found.

On January 31, 1952, George accompanied his daughter to London Airport to see her off for a second tour of Australia via Kenya. It was the last time the two would see each other. George VI died in his sleep a week later on February 6, 1952, and the princess flew home from Kenya as Queen Elizabeth II.

“It has always been easy to hate and destroy. To build and cherish is much more difficult.” Elizabeth II is today the longest-reigning monarch in British history, as well as the world’s longest-reigning female head of state. Coming to the throne at the age of 26 (the youngest of the Windsor monarchs), her reign has seen the most incredible changes in British society since the end of the Middle Ages. In 1952, Great Britain stood as one of the world’s leading powers, a victorious empire who had crushed the monstrous tyranny of Nazi Germany and whose flag flew over a quarter of the earth’s surface. Today, Britain remains a strong nation, though one with significantly-diminished influence. The postwar rise of the United States and the Soviet Union supplanted the old European imperial powers, and the strain of war led to the collapse of the British Empire. Now, thanks to the Brexit vote in 2016 and Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, the nation stands on the brink of even more change. Yet through the ups and downs of 66 years, Elizabeth’s steady hand and wise counsel has balanced the British ship of state.

More than any of the other Windsor monarchs, Queen Elizabeth has lived two lives: the public and the private. In public, she is always serene and detached from the day-to-day political and social movements of British life. Having been served by thirteen prime ministers of both the Labour and Conservative parties, she has remained independent and neutral in political matters (though the British press has often speculated about her private views). Royal commentators have observed that her attitude must have been the product of her upbringing by George VI and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, both of whom taught her from a young age that her duty was to the nation first. As queen, Elizabeth has been a model constitutional monarch, one who reigns but does not rule.

The Queen’s private life has been far more turbulent. She adored both her father and grandfather, and royal watchers believe that her toxic relationship with her uncle Edward, Duke of Windsor, stemmed from her belief that his affair and abdication contributed to both men’s early deaths. When her younger sister Margaret sought her permission to marry a divorced man, Group Captain Peter Townshend of the Royal Air Force, in 1953, the Queen forbade the marriage. She remembered how a royal scandal involving a divorcee had brought down her uncle and driven her father to the throne, and she was determined never to permit this to happen again. Sadly, divorce remained a constant menace to her family, as one royal marriage after another fell apart (most famously and publicly that of her son, Prince Charles, to Diana Spencer). For her part, Elizabeth has always remained faithful to her husband Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, and while rumors swirled in the tabloids of his infidelity, the two have always remained a rock of strong traditional family values in public.

The year 1992 was Elizabeth’s forty-year anniversary of assuming the throne, but in her speech in November to commemorate the occasion, the Queen called the year her annus horribilis. The press was speculating wildly about her private wealth (leading some to call for the monarchy’s abolition), the marriages of both her son Prince Andrew and her daughter Princess Anne ended in divorce, and a fire destroyed a large part of Windsor Castle, her favorite home. As the year ended, the Prince of Wales’ divorce of Princess Diana was finalized, and over the next five years all kinds of sordid details—some rumor, others true—soiled the Royal Family’s reputation. When Diana was killed in a car crash in Paris in 1997, public support for the monarchy reached its lowest point of her reign. Only when the Queen spoke to the nation in its hour of grief (after pressure from Prime Minister Tony Blair) did it begin to recover. Tragedy again struck the Queen in 2002 when her sister Margaret and the Queen Mother died only six weeks apart. Yet in public, Elizabeth continued to fulfill her duties as she had promised in her early years as Queen.

Elizabeth celebrated her Diamond Jubilee in 2012 and famously appeared in a video opening the 2012 Summer Olympics in London with James Bond actor Daniel Craig, a symbol of the monarchy’s renewed popularity among the people. She continues to enjoy broad public support (though that for her son Charles waxed and waned as he commented on political matters and carried on an affair with his Camilla Parker-Bowles, whom he married in 2005). She does not intend to abdicate the throne, though she has scaled back her public duties and relinquished some of her patronage of charities and mourned the death of her last Welsh corgi, Willow, in April 2018. Prince Philip has retired from public life, and it is expected that as the Queen approaches her 95th year that she will do the same.

“Find a presentable wife, father a male heir (and preferably a male “spare” as well), and keep the show on the road” The future of the House of Windsor is secure for the time being. Upon the death of Queen Elizabeth, Prince Charles will inherit the throne (after the longest time spent as heir-apparent in British history), and he will then be succeeded by Prince William, Duke of Cambridge. William and his wife Catherine Middleton have three children—George, Charlotte and Louis—and the Royal Family has continued to expand with Prince Harry’s marriage to Meghan Markle in 2018. As Great Britain journeys forward into an unknown post-Brexit future, it is believed that the House of Windsor will continue to provide the sense of order and stability which the British public crave and for which this noble and duty-minded family is famous.

Storm of War | Part 2 - History of the Second World War

We shall not fail now. Let us move forward steadfastly together into the storm and through the storm.

— Winston Churchill, February 1942 —

Eye of the Storm: 1942-43

Adolf Hitler was confident that victory would come in 1942. His armies would smash through what remained of Russia while Mussolini (with German help) would conquer Egypt and cross into the Middle East to seize Britain’s oil fields. Together, they would then march on India in the manner of Alexander the Great, help the Japanese seize the “Jewel in the British Crown.” Meanwhile, the U-boat blockade would starve the British Isles. Then the Axis Powers would confront the United States with the combined might of Europe, Asia and Africa under their sway. The reality, of course, was very different.

        The third full year of war in Europe opened with news of more Japanese victories in the Pacific as one island fortress after another fell before the might of Yamato’s children. (The Japanese defeat at Midway Island in June soon put an end to their offensive operations.) On the Eastern Front, the Soviets had reinforced the defenses around Moscow with troops from Siberian garrisons, so Hitler shifted south to capture the oil fields around the Caucasian mountains—without these resources, Stalin’s armies would wither and die. The gateway to southern Russia was the industrial city of Stalingrad, named for the Soviet dictator in recognition of his victory over the Czar’s forces during the Russian Civil War. The assault on Stalingrad began in September 1942 after early moves to expand the front eastward toward the Volga River, securing the German left flank. Again, Stalin ordered his soldiers to fight where they stood: “Not one step back!” read his order of September 30th. The city was soon ruined by bombardment and street-by-street fighting. Meanwhile, to the north, General Zhukov (recently arrived from Moscow) began to slowly push the Germans back, exposing their flank as the temperatures dropped yet again. By December, the city was surrounded, and the German Sixth Army was running out of food. Soviet snipers felled one officer after another, and the Germans’ leadership structure began to break down. By January 1943, the Sixth Army was seeking permission to surrender—which was refused—and the army was finally overrun on February 2nd. Hitler’s refusal to consider pulling back, and his hubris at believing his soldiers would fight on at all costs while the High Command abandoned them, had cost him the last chance of victory. Soon, defeat on the Eastern Front stared him in the face when his tank armies were crushed at Kursk in July 1943. For the Germans, the only way in Russia now was back toward the Fatherland.

        In North Africa, where fighting had raged back and forth along the coastal plain in Libya and Egypt for two years, the German Afrika Korps now pressed its attack under the leadership of General Erwin Rommel. A staunch patriot but not a member of the Nazi Party, Rommel was recognized as Germany’s greatest general and a favorite of the Führer. The British Eighth Army defending Egypt had gone through three commanders in as many years as Churchill sacked one general after another, desperately trying to find someone who could handle the threat from Rommel. In August 1942, the Afrika Korps suffered a minor defeat at the rail station of El Alamein, sixty miles west of Cairo, at the hands of General Sir Bernard Law Montgomery. Now running short of supplies, Rommel pulled back but remained in Egypt, bracing for a counterattack. Montgomery, however, felt he had plenty of time to prepare his troops. He finally moved only when Rommel advanced a second time. The Germans ran into a large British minefield near El Alamein, and Montgomery’s artillery destroyed what few enemy tanks remained. With his armor units destroyed, Rommel’s Afrika Korps now retreated. Days later, on November 7, 1942, an Anglo-American task force landed in French Northwest Africa under the command of US Army General Dwight Eisenhower. With Montgomery advancing from the east and Eisenhower from the west, Rommel had no choice but to fall back to Tunisia. By January 1943, his army was dwindling (yet still powerful enough to inflict heavy casualties on the Americans at Kasserine Pass), and all Axis forces surrendered to the Allies in May. One continent had been liberated.

        At sea, the German U-boats were now confronted with the vast production capacity of the United States. Germany’s surface fleet had been largely scrapped after the defeat of the Bismarck, but America put so many sub-hunting corvettes and escort destroyers into the waters of the Atlantic that the Germans were simply overrun. By the end of the year, the German Navy had been reduced to patrolling the coasts of France and Norway in search of Allied landing ships. Likewise, Germany’s efforts to control its own skies were frustrated in 1942 as American bombers appeared over German cities and rained fire and destruction unlike anything seen before. The Allied strategy of “strategic bombing”—deliberately targeting cities to destroy production facilities and demoralize the population—has been the subject of controversy and debate since the war’s end, and in hindsight its effectiveness is questionable. Nevertheless, it did bring the war home to the German people and gave them a taste of the medicine doled out by their Führer on Britons earlier in the war.

        1942 was also a “turning point” for Hitler’s war against the Jews of Europe. With Germany now largely “cleansed” of Jews by the start of the war, the Nazis now turned their attention to the problem of those living in conquered territories. Walled ghettos had been set up in most major conquered cities across the Reich to concentrate the Jews in specific areas, but the concentration camps in Germany were overflowing with political prisoners and other “undesirables” like homosexuals, the disabled, and religious dissidents. In January 1942, a group of second-level Nazi bureaucrats led by Reinhard Heydrich (head of the Reich Main Security Office) met in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee. There, they laid out plans for a “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.” The question was what to do with the six million Jews who had been absorbed into the Reich by its military conquests. Some proposals included forced sterilization and euthanasia—already in progress under the T-4 program in Munich—but these were rejected by Heydrich as taking too long to complete. In the end, SS colonel Adolf Eichmann presented Heydrich’s own ideas for the Final Solution: two short-term and one long-term. First, the existing concentration and labor camps would be augmented with mobile gas vans whose exhaust fumes would be pumped into sealed compartments at the back; Jews would be loaded into the vans, driven about town and poisoned, then their bodies would be removed and burned. Second, the Waffen-SS (military arm of the SS police) would form six task forces which would move into occupied areas once secured by the Army, where they would form death squads and shoot Jews and other undesirables by the thousands; their bodies would be dumped into mass graves. In the long run, these options would still leave Germany with millions of Jews to be dealt with, so Eichmann proposed enlarging six existing concentration camps and constructing vast gas chambers to murder thousands of Jews each hour. In a calm voice which shook some in the audience, Eichmann explained the numbers from his research at Treblinka and Auschwitz: 3,500 Jews “processed” each hour at each camp for eight hours a day meant the deaths of 168,000 Jews per day; 840,000 per five-day work week; 42 million in just one year. Of course, he conceded, that would be at maximum efficiency, and he predicted the actual figure would be only half as much on average. Witnesses to the Wannsee Conference describe the light in Heydrich’s eyes as he eagerly ordered the full apparatus of the German government to comply with Eichmann’s plans. The Final Solution had been devised, and it would now be implemented.

        The Holocaust yielded far fewer deaths than Eichmann had planned, but the toll is still almost beyond comprehension. Of the eleven million people murdered by the Nazis during their twelve-year rule of Germany and much of Europe, at least three million were gassed and burned (often after weeks or months of tortured life) in the six camps over three years, and eight million more in the smaller concentration camps or by the SS task forces in Russia. Most of the attendees at Wannsee died during or shortly after the war—Heydrich was assassinated by Czech partisans later that year—and the survivors were put on trial at Nuremberg or by the State of Israel once the war had reached its end.

Through the Storm: 1943-44

In 1941, the Soviet Red Army was the world’s largest and yet slowest modern military force. Soldiers marched on foot or rode in horse-drawn wagons across hundreds of miles of Russian soil, and this contributed to their catastrophic defeats in the early years of the war. Thanks to American aid, and particularly the 27 million Ford and General Motors trucks delivered by convoys to the Soviet Union, by 1943 the Red Army had been transformed into a motorized juggernaut. It possessed the best main battle tank of the war, the T-34/72, which could out-shoot and outmaneuver any German panzer except the “King Tiger” (few of which were built during the war). With its victories at Stalingrad and Kursk, the Red Army now rolled forward, destroying one German army corps after another in a tidal wave of battle across the thousand-mile Eastern Front. Germany’s allies (Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria) held the southern sectors of the front and were ground to pieces in the assault, and within a year all three nations had been invaded and were on the brink of surrender. Casualties on both sides were enormous—the Soviet Union would see twenty million men and women killed or wounded and another twenty million civilian losses—but once the tide began to roll it could not be stopped. By 1944, Germany’s conquests of three years past had been reabsorbed into the Motherland, and Zhukov was ready to invade occupied Poland and the rest of central Europe.

        The attack on Poland pushed the Germans back in a familiar pattern, and by June the Red Army had reached Warsaw. The people of the Polish capital, who had suffered under German occupation for five years, rose up to drive the Nazis out of their beloved city, and they sent messages to the Soviets welcoming them to Warsaw. Under orders from Zhukov, the Red Army halted on the opposite bank of the Vistula River for three months as the Germans regrouped and attacked the city. Tens of thousands of Polish patriots were butchered by the Germans in the Warsaw Uprising as the Red Army looked on. Then, once the city had been reclaimed by the Nazis, the Soviets moved in and crushed the garrison. According to his postwar memoirs, Zhukov’s rationale for his actions at Warsaw was simple: “If they would rise against the Nazis, they would certainly rise against the communists.” He was content to let the Germans destroy what remained of Polish nationalism.

        With North Africa secure, the Anglo-American armies next moved to attack what Churchill called the “soft underbelly” of Europe: Italy. Beginning with an amphibious assault on Sicily in July 1943, the attack on Italy brought down Mussolini’s government. The new government of Marshal Pietro Badoglio then surrendered Italy to the Allies, but Germany occupied the peninsula and fought bitterly for every mile of ground. Eisenhower was soon transferred to London to plan the invasion of France and the creation of the longed-for “second front” in Europe, and Montgomery soon followed him home. The Italian campaign drew thousands of German soldiers away from France and the Eastern Front, but attention soon shifted to the invasion of Normandy. Nevertheless, the sacrifices made by Allied soldiers at Cassino, Anzio and Salerno should not be forgotten, and historians have recently begun to reexamine the Italian campaign and to pay honor to these heroes.

        On June 6, 1944, the Western Allies fulfilled promises made to Stalin at the wartime conferences to open a second front in Europe. One hundred fifty thousand American, British, Canadian and other Allied soldiers landed on the shores of Normandy in northern France in what has become known as “D-Day.” The amphibious operation was the largest in history to that point (surpassed only by those at Iwo Jima and Okinawa in the closing months of the Pacific War), and the Allies soon held a secure beachhead in France. Thanks to the efforts of Montgomery and General George Patton of the US Army, the Allies liberated Paris in August and raced to the Franco-German border in a quick campaign that overwhelmed the German defenders. The attack slowed briefly in September for an ill-fated diversion northward into the Netherlands to destroy Hitler’s secret weapon launch sites, and this allowed the Germans room to recover from the Allied blitz across France. American and British bombers continued to reduce one German city after another to rubble, and by November, the Allies were moving toward Germany again. Yet amidst these signs of defeat, Hitler summoned the strength for one last, desperate offensive.

        The Ardennes Forest stretches from southern Belgium into northeastern France, and its dense foliage provided a barrier to both countries against invasion for centuries. Hitler had sent his armored units through the Ardennes in 1940 during the initial attack on France, and now, four years later, he would do so again. He planned to drive the enemy back and capture the Belgian city of Antwerp, the only open port in Allied hands; if it fell, the Allied supply lines to Britain would be cut, and they would be forced to retreat from France for a second time. The High Command had scraped together 26 divisions for the attack, and on December 16, 1944, they hit a weak point in the Allied line at the “hinge” between the British and American army groups. The Nazi attack pushed a bulge into the Allied lines, giving the operation its popular name: “The Battle of the Bulge.” An American airborne division held the vital crossroads of Bastogne at the center of the bulge against repeated German attacks in the coldest winter Europe had seen in years. At the same time, General Patton’s Third Army shifted its axis of advance northward to attack the bulge from the south, and these two forces met on the day after Christmas to drive the Germans back.

The Storm Breaks: 1945

At its height in 1942, the Greater German Reich had stretched from the Pyrenees Mountains on the borders of Spain to the Volga River in Russia and from the North Cape of Norway to the Sahara Desert. Now, three years later, Hitler ruled only his own nation of Germany, the western third of Poland, bits of Italy and the Scandinavian lands of Denmark and Norway. His fall from power was as shocking as his rise, and it was too much for him to bear. On July 20, 1944, there had been an attempt on his life at his headquarters in East Prussia when a bomb was planted at a daily conference. The blast had shattered both his eardrums, which caused severe vertigo and headaches, and he was likely suffering from the early symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease as well. Hitler gradually withdrew from his inner circle and grew increasingly unhinged in the last months of the war. The Anglo-American armies were now sweeping across the Rhine River after bridges were secured at Remagen, Koblenz and Strasbourg, and the Soviets were moving into West Prussia. A decision by General Eisenhower had divided Nazi Germany in half, and Berlin lay in the Soviet zone—Russia would deal Germany the final blow. His beautiful home in Berchtesgaden had been blown up by the SS to prevent its fall to the Allies, and he was now confined to the bunker beneath the Reich Chancellery in Berlin (which was under repeated bombardment from American planes). Here he intended to die.

        The Führer was awoken on his 56th birthday on April 20, 1945, to the sounds of Soviet artillery landing in central Berlin. The Red Army had broken through the German defenses at Seelow Heights east of the capital and were poised over the city. Now commanding paper armies which did not exist in reality, Hitler’s rage grew each day as his soldiers failed to relieve Berlin and rescue their leader. Much of his time was spent meeting with Nazi officials bidding him their farewells before flying out of the last operational airfield for Munich and then Berchtesgaden (where the SS was preparing a “National Redoubt” for a last stand). When word reached him that two of his long-time collaborators, Hermann Goering and Heinrich Himmler, had betrayed him by opening talks with the Allies, Hitler ordered their deaths. Albert Speer, Hitler’s personal architect and closest friend, confessed that he had tried to poison the Führer, and that was the end. Rather than flying into a rage, as had been common for so many years when confronted with unpleasant news, Hitler simply bid him farewell and disappeared into the apartment he shared with his mistress of fifteen years, Eva Braun. Only the ever-loyal Joseph Goebbels, who had brought his wife Magda and their six children with him into the bunker, remained true to Hitler to the end.

        On April 29th, as the Battle of Berlin raged above him, Hitler and Eva Braun were married in a macabre scene witnessed by Goebbels, a secretary, and a civil minister. Thousands of German boys and old men were being mowed down and tens of thousands of German girls and women were being assaulted and murdered by the Red Army, but their Führer showed no concern for their fate. Amidst the lies and vitriol spewed toward the Jews in his last will and testament, dictated to his secretary after the ceremony, Hitler said, “The German people have failed in this test of strength, and they deserve their fate.” True to the end, his nihilistic and Darwinist sentiments still intact, Hitler remained a fervent National Socialist. At 3:00 AM on April 30, 1945, Hitler bade his remaining staff farewell and, save for a brief interaction with Magda Goebbels who begged him to stay with Germany a little longer, he was never seen alive again. An hour later, a shot rang through the bunker, and Hitler’s SS adjutant entered the apartment. Hitler and Eva had committed suicide—he by gunshot, she by cyanide capsule. Their bodies were cremated in the Reich Chancellery garden as Berlin, and the Third Reich, burned around them.

        Berlin’s defenders surrendered to the Red Army on May 1st, the same day on which Grand Admiral Dönitz assumed the leadership of Germany after Joseph Goebbels and his wife shot themselves (they had first poisoned their children, ages four to thirteen). On May 7th, General Alfred Jodl arrived at Eisenhower’s headquarters in Reims, France, to negotiate a general surrender. The terms were accepted and the documents signed, and word was broadcast to the world that May 8, 1945, would be “Victory in Europe Day.”

        The celebrations which erupted across Europe and the world on V-E Day will never be forgotten by those who witnessed them. In Paris, hundreds of thousands of people watched a victory parade down the Champs-Elysees and Allied aircraft zoomed overhead. The Mall, Whitehall and Parliament Square in London were mobbed by over a million Britons dancing in the streets, drinking beer, laughing and cheering as they saw Winston Churchill and the Royal Family on the balcony of Buckingham Palace. (The future Queen Elizabeth II and her sister Princess Margaret later mingled with the crowd for the rest of the day.) Even in Moscow, the long-suffering yet still-oppressed Soviet people watched in awe as the mighty Red Army paraded through Red Square under the watchful eyes of Joseph Stalin and his NKVD guards. American spirits were tempered by the reality that Japan had not yet surrendered. In the hour of victory, the people of Europe put aside their grief at the loss of friends and loved ones. The storm had passed. The war was over.

Storm of War | Part 1 - History of the Second World War

We shall not fail now. Let us move forward steadfastly together into the storm and through the storm.

— Winston Churchill, February 1942 —

The Second World War, history’s greatest military conflict, began on September 1, 1939, with the German invasion of Poland. Its roots, however, stretch back at least as far as the signing of the Treaty of Versailles at the conclusion of the First World War (then known simply as “the Great War”). Germany’s defeat by the combined forces of Great Britain, France and the United States led to a Carthaginian-style peace agreement in which the defeated Germans were humiliated, their country dismantled, their economy crippled and their military neutered. A legend soon sprang up in Germany that the people had been “stabbed in the back” by their leaders—who were variously accused of being socialists, democrats, capitalists, and Jews.

      Following a turbulent birth and the suppression of two anti-government revolts, the Weimar Republic eventually stabilized the country and looked to pay war reparations and to bring the German people back into the European fold. In 1923, however, a diplomatic crisis between Germany and France led to the occupation of the Ruhr industrial district by French soldiers and the collapse of the German economy. As the people starved and burned their currency to keep warm, a new political movement in Bavaria railed against the “November criminals” who had surrendered Germany to the Allies and began to plot a rising in the south German state which would return the entire nation to greatness. This was the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, and they were led by a war veteran with a powerful voice and sinister charisma.

      Adolf Hitler was born in Linz in the Hapsburg Empire on April 20, 1889. The son of a minor civil servant, he hoped one day to be an artist, but these dreams were frustrated and he was soon unemployed on the streets of the great city of Vienna (a haven for anti-Semites from across the European Continent). He soon made his way to Munich, where he enlisted in the Bavarian Army when the Great War began. After four years in the trenches, in which he earned the Iron Cross and was wounded twice, he returned to Munich and witnessed the street violence that was sweeping the country. Now serving as an information officer, he attended a meeting of the German Workers’ Party in the Hofbräukeller. He soon joined the party and rose to lead its central committee, transforming it into a racist and nationalist movement which sought to revive German greatness and to expel or exterminate the great enemies of Germany: the Jews.

      In November 1923, five years almost to the day since the armistice had ended the Great War, Hitler and the Nazis staged a putsch, a revolution against the Bavarian government. They marched on the Burgerbräukeller, a beer hall in which the ruling People’s Party often held meetings and rallies. The Bavarian State Commissioner, Gustav Ritter von Kahr, was taken prisoner with other members of his government, and the Nazis declared that they now controlled the state and planned to march on Berlin to launch a national revolution. The putsch ultimately failed after an armed confrontation between Nazi marchers led by Hitler and the Munich police at the Odeonsplatz. Hitler and most of his supporters were arrested and sent to prison. While in Landsberg prison, he wrote the first volume of Mein Kampf or “My Struggle,” his political memoir of the putsch and a summation of his views for Germany’s future.

      When he was released in December 1924, Hitler reorganized the Nazi Party and declared that it would seek to enter government legally rather than by violent means. For the next five years, he and his collaborators worked to build up a structure within the party which mimicked that of the German government. In effect, he planned to simply replace government bureaucracies and ministries with those of the party once he had secured power. Hitler’s chance came when the Great Depression struck Germany in 1930. As the economic crisis destroyed any progress made by the Weimar Republic in the previous five years, the Nazis and communists made tremendous gains in local and state elections. By late 1932, the National Socialists were the largest party represented in the Reichstag, the national legislature, and thus had the power to create and dissolve governments. Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, who had triumphed over Hitler in the presidential election earlier that year, desperately tried to keep his nemesis out of power, but the Nazis in the Reichstag refused to cooperate with another chancellor. Out of options, on January 30, 1933, he summoned Hitler to his office and named him chancellor—Hitler now had full command of the civil government of Germany.

      Over the next two years, Hitler consolidated his power in the state and brought every aspect of German society under the Nazi Party’s control. Only one month after his assumption of the chancellor’s office, a fire broke out in the Reichstag building (probably set by a Nazi stormtrooper); Hitler used this crisis to demand “emergency powers” from the Reichstag, which immediately acceded to his wishes. He then outlawed all other political parties in Germany and arrested their leaders, sending them to the Dachau concentration camp outside Munich. The Nazis seized control of Germany’s education system, youth organizations, churches, courts—every part of German society fell under the party’s influence. The following year, Hitler conducted the first of two purges when he secured the loyalty of the Army by eliminating his stormtroopers’ leadership (whom Hitler believed were plotting to overthrow him). Only a week after the “Blood Purge,” President Hindenburg died, and Hitler assumed the presidency with the new, grandiose title of “Führer and Reich Chancellor of the Greater German Reich.”

The Gathering Storm: 1935-38

Now wielding supreme power in Germany, Hitler set out to overthrow the shackles of the Versailles Treaty. From 1935-38, he systematically dismantled every restriction placed upon Germany after the Great War—he reintroduced conscription for the Armed Forces, created a military air force, remilitarized the Rhineland, intervened in the Spanish Civil War, and annexed his home country of Austria. Every time Germany moved, the Western Allies (Great Britain and France) refused to consider military action to stop him. Domestic issues combined with fear of another Continent-wide war kept the Western Allies at bay and allowed Hitler to turn Germany into a military and economic superpower. The loudest voice against this policy of appeasement came from the halls of the British Parliament, where Winston Churchill repeatedly denounced his own government for failing to halt German aggression. But Churchill was out of favor at this point in his career and was seen as a warmonger and a danger to British public safety. As German factories hummed and workers assembled tanks, planes and submarines, the Western Allies retreated behind Hitler’s repeated assurances in speeches to the Reichstag that he wished for peace.

      It was at this point that Hitler began to implement the plans he had laid out in Mein Kampf for the removal of Jews from German society. In 1935 in the city of Nuremberg, the Nazis promulgated their race laws, which legally defined the term “Jew” and restricted Jewish citizens’ rights and freedoms under the law. Soon, local Nazi officials were organizing boycotts and pogroms against their Jewish neighbors. Some Jews tried to flee Germany for safer shores, but few nations opened their doors. (The United States, which had suspended all immigration in the 1920s, took in only two thousand Jews each year.) In 1938, the Nazis authorized a nationwide pogrom against Jewish property called Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass.” On November 9th, stormtrooper and SS vandals destroyed Jewish shops, burned synagogues, and beat Jews in the streets. No insurance claims were paid to shop owners, as the government blamed the Jews for the destruction. Kristallnacht is often seen by historians as the beginning of the Holocaust.

      The Western Allies finally saw the true nature of their enemy in September 1938 when Hitler demanded that the nation of Czechoslovakia cede its border region, the Sudetenland, to Germany. It was populated largely with ethnic Germans, and Hitler wished to bring these people into the Reich. The Czechs refused and prepared for war, but British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain traveled to Germany twice to negotiate a settlement. When he visited the Führer at his mountain home in Berchtesgaden, he was awed at the view of the Austrian Alps and distracted by Hitler’s rantings against the Czechs for their “mistreatment” of the Sudeten Germans; the prime minister insisted he would find a path to peace which addressed Hitler’s concerns. In a second meeting at the Braunhaus in Munich on September 30, 1938, Chamberlain got his wish. Hitler pledged never again to demand territorial changes in Europe, and in return the Czechs would give him the Sudetenland. This was the apex of appeasement, and for Chamberlain it was his greatest triumph. After landing at Hendon airfield in London, he disembarked his aircraft, greeted a cheering crowd, and then traveled to Whitehall in the center of the capital. From a balcony he spoke to thousands of Britons: “I believe it [this agreement] is peace in our time!” Churchill replied up the road from Whitehall in the Houses of Parliament: “You [Chamberlain] were given a choice between war and dishonor. You have chosen dishonor. And you will get a war.”

Into the Storm: 1939-41

In fact, a war was what Hitler had wanted. He fully intended to start his great conflict with the Western Allies the fall of 1938, and only the hesitation of his generals convinced him to wait. Now, he would press on. In March 1939, Germany annexed the rump of Czechoslovakia, leading Chamberlain to finally realize that Hitler would never stop. Britain and France immediately signed a guarantee with the Polish Republic, which possessed a strip of territory around the city of Danzig which had belonged to Germany before the Great War. By the summer of 1939, Hitler was demanding that the Poles surrender Danzig to him, and when they refused he resolved that the time for war had come. In late August, Germany signed a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union—to prevent Germany having to fight a two-front war—and then on September 1, 1939, Hitler unleashed his armies upon the helpless Poles. Joseph Stalin’s Red Army attacked Poland two weeks later, and the country was crushed between these two giants in less than a month. Britain and France, whose armies were ready to invade Germany on the first day of the war, did not move to assist the helpless Poles.

      The flames of war which burst out on the Continent in September 1939 then died out almost immediately. Germany had conquered Poland, and the Soviet Union invaded Finland in November (fighting a long and bloody campaign which lasted into the new year), but neither side launched any major offensives through the winter of 1939-40. Some called this conflict a “Phoney War;” only at sea did men continue to die as Churchill, now First Lord of the Admiralty, hurled Britain’s Royal Navy on the smaller but still dangerous German Navy. The Allies also dropped leaflets on German cities urging the people to rise up against their Führer, but this did little to sway the population against the man who had remade Germany in his image. Their stomachs were full, they had jobs, and their armies were marching to victory.

      Hitler’s style of warfare was called blitzkrieg, or “lightning war,” and it stemmed from the reality that Germany was not prepared for long campaigns against strong enemies. This tactic had worked against the Poles, and by the spring of 1940 Hitler was planning to strike again. Before his great campaign against the West, the Armed Forces High Command intended to secure Germany’s northern flank and its access to Swedish iron ore by seizing control of Denmark and Norway. The Danes fell after only a few hours on April 9, 1940, and the Norwegians fought valiantly but succumbed in three weeks. Then, on May 10th, German tanks burst through the Ardennes Forest—the blitz against France and the Low Countries had begun.

      Neville Chamberlain’s government in London fell just hours after the German assault began, and King George VI invited Winston Churchill to form a new government. Churchill promised the British people “blood, toil, tears and sweat” in this war but proclaimed that his war aim was “victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be.” But victory was still a long way off for the Allies. The Germans rolled up the Allied lines in northern France, crushed the Belgian Army and forced the Netherlands to surrender after reducing the city of Rotterdam to ashes. By the end of the month, it appeared that the bulk of the French Army and the British Expeditionary Force, which was trapped between the advancing Germans and the English Channel, would certainly be destroyed. Only the heroism of the Royal Navy and the defenders of Calais and Lille saved the day in a last-ditch evacuation of Allied soldiers from the port of Dunkirk. France’s fate was sealed—its government surrendered to the Nazis on June 22nd—but Great Britain would fight on.

      In the last days of the French Third Republic, a new figure stepped onto the stage of this war: Benito Mussolini. The Fascist dictator of Italy since 1922, Mussolini was Hitler’s closest ally in Europe. He had hoped to delay a war by urging a settlement at Munich in 1938, and he did not enter the conflict in 1939 because Italy’s armed forces were not ready to fight the British in the Mediterranean. On June 16, 1940, over the objections of his generals, Mussolini cast his lot with Hitler and declared war on France and Great Britain, a decision that would cost him his position and his life. Italy invaded southern France and the British colony of Egypt with enormous armies which outnumbered the enemy, but in both cases they were beaten. For the rest of the war, Mussolini would repeatedly come to Hitler asking for help with supplies, munitions, and eventually soldiers, and every time the Führer would do what he could to help his friend and ally. The war in the Mediterranean and North Africa would soon take center stage, but first the drama in Western Europe had to play out.

      Great Britain now stood alone against the German colossus. Its army, though denuded of equipment left behind at Dunkirk, was intact; the Royal Navy ruled the waves; and the newly-created Royal Air Force was small but supreme in the skies above England and Wales. To conquer Great Britain, Hitler knew he had to first destroy the Royal Air Force—only then could his small Navy cross the English Channel and land troops on England’s south coast. The Battle of Britain, which began in July 1940, was the first battle fought entirely in the air. German and British fighters traced contrails in the skies above London, and bombers rained fire on British cities each night. Despite seven weeks of relentless bombardment, in which many historic buildings were destroyed, the British people refused to break thanks to the stirring words of Winston Churchill on the radio, material aid coming to the island kingdom from the United States, and most importantly the bravery of RAF pilots who spilled their blood defending their homes and families. By the end of August, Hitler abandoned his plans for an invasion of Great Britain. Air attacks would continue, most famously the 57-day “Blitz” against London in 1941, but Hitler’s attention now turned east.

      Hitler had written in Mein Kampf during the 1920s that Germany would ultimately find “living space” for the Aryan race in the vast spaces of Russia. To this point, Stalin’s Soviet Union was a German ally, but that would now change. After a brief diversion south to conquer Yugoslavia and Greece and to bring Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria into his orbit, Hitler began planning his largest campaign: the invasion of the Soviet Union. After months of preparations (monitored by the British, who tried desperately to warn Stalin what was coming), German armies broke across the Soviet frontier with lightning speed on June 22, 1941. The Red Army was utterly unprepared for the war, its leadership having recently been purged by Stalin, and the early weeks of the campaign saw hundreds of thousands of brave Soviet soldiers slaughtered or captured. As summer turned to fall, the Germans were approaching the central cities of the Soviet Union: Leningrad and Moscow. They laid siege to Leningrad, which would endure the horrors of war for a thousand days and see over a million civilians killed or wounded, and approached Moscow by late October. However, Soviet resistance was stiffening—Stalin had ordered his armies to retreat in the early months of the war but now, under the leadership of General Georgi Zhukov, they stood their ground. The temperature was dropping, and by the first week of December the German advance had stopped. Soldiers of the German Army could see the spires of the Kremlin in the distance, but they could go no further. Hitler resigned himself to a long war in the East. He did not doubt that victory would come, but it would come in 1942.

      Events on the other side of the world were building to a climax. The Japanese Empire had been at war with China since 1937, and China’s American allies had been desperately seeking a way to weaken Japan’s military strength and force an end to the war. Embargoes on resources and other economic measures had failed, but these drove the Japanese to seek alternate supplies of oil, rubber and iron. The Dutch East Indies (modern-day Indonesia) beckoned, with the Dutch government now in exile in London and its military in tatters. But first, the Japanese had to remove the greatest threat to their empire: the American Pacific Fleet. On December 7, 1941, Japan bombed the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, bringing the United States into the Pacific War. The Japanese were Germany’s allies on paper, but they did not consult or even inform Hitler of their plans. When he learned of the attack, Hitler made perhaps the most fateful decision of his life. On December 11th, in a speech to the Reichstag, Hitler denounced the United States as Germany’s true enemy and declared war. The two wars were now linked, and Germany now faced the combined military and economic might of the world’s largest empire (Great Britain), its largest army (the Soviet Union), and its largest economy (the United States). The prospect of a global war for world dominion excited the Führer, but no nation on earth could stand against these three powers for long.