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.