world war 2

World War Two in Europe - Hitler's War

The most destructive and widespread war in history resulting in over 70 million deaths and cultural devastation on a scale never seen before would not have happened but for the Austrian born vegetarian non-smoking teetotaller, Adolf Hitler.

Causes of War

Germany’s defeat in WWI and the resulting harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles caused great bitterness and economic hardship in the liberal Weimar Republic that supplanted Imperial Germany in 1918. With soaring joblessness, political confusion and ineffectual government, the voters of Germany democratically elected Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers Party (Nazi Party) and their political allies in 1933. They moved quickly to transform the country into an economic powerhouse where unemployment rapidly disappeared. His party was both nationalist and socialist appealing to traditional German values while simultaneously promoting a radical and exciting set of social policies that dramatically improved the lot of the common man. However not everyone benefitted and Hitler’s regime decisively targeted communists, Jews, political dissidents, the mentally infirm, pacifists, homosexuals and the incurably lazy. A series of Concentration Camps were constructed throughout their territory where inmates were at first reformed through work and from 1942 were murdered or worked to death.

For six years Germany energetically transformed itself and even inspired other countries while it also built up a modern and innovative military force. Germany’s celebrated hosting of the 1936 Olympics was a showcase for National Socialist Germany. Hitler first set his sights on uniting ethnic Germans into one state, recovering the Rhineland in 1936, Austria in 1938 and Czechoslovakia’s ethnically German Sudetenland in 1938. The momentum for war seemed unstoppable and when he marched into Prague in March 1939 the rest of Europe knew war was unavoidable. Britain pledged to defend Poland if attacked which it was on 31st August 1939. Poland’s initial claims to have ‘hurled the invaders back’ were farcical with the Polish air force destroyed on the first day and her armies crushed in a week. Britain and France kept their word and declared war but provided no meaningful help to Poland with Warsaw falling on 27th September.

Soviet Union and Nazi Germany

One week before Germany’s blitzkrieg attack on Poland the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed between the two ideological adversaries Germany and the USSR. Europe was divided into two spheres with the Soviets gaining the Baltic States, eastern Poland, Bessarabia in Romania and parts of Finland. The Soviets joined the attack on Poland on 17th September and Britain and France even considered declaring war on the USSR which would have rewritten history entirely had that occurred. Following the defeat of Poland a ‘border of peace’ was established between German and Soviet Poland and for the next two years it was criss-crossed with freight trains conducting vigorous trade.

While Blitzkrieg blazed in the east, Sitskreig reigned in the west. The British and French appear to have had no real strategy to conduct the war but planned to blockade Germany as per WWI.  They prepared to attack Norway on 9th April 1940 but a German invasion of Denmark and Norway pre-empted the Allies by a matter of hours. The Allied arrival in Norway after the German invasion therefore had the appearance of help. Once Hitler controlled his north he targeted the Low Countries which were quickly overran before he attacked France which crumbled within six weeks. The British evacuation from Dunkirk is now the stuff of legend. French WWI hero Marshall Philippe Pétain ended French resistance, the 1940 Armistice being signed in the same railway carriage as Germany’s 1918 humiliating surrender. His Vichy regime collaborated with the occupying Germans for the next four years however Free French forces gathered round General Charles De Gaulle and continued resisting. The USA was officially neutral until Japan’s surprise attack at Pearl Harbor but provided considerable support to Britain, especially during the losing U-boat war. Meanwhile Germany’s ally Italy had joined the war and attempted to attack Egypt from their Libyan territory while their Ethiopian and east African colonies were quickly lost. Mussolini attacked Greece receiving a bloody nose.

Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria all sided with Germany and Yugoslavia also joined the Axis on 25th March 1941 precipitating an anti German coup d'état two days later. Hitler’s sights were firmly fixed on attacking the USSR, but he wanted to secure the Balkans first so attacked and crushed Yugoslavia in 11 days before moving on Greece which also fell easily. British aid sent to Greece proved indecisive with the Germans capturing Crete in the world’s first airborne assault.

Hitler wanted to avoid a two front war but his diplomatic offers to the British came to nothing and the Luftwaffe was driven from the skies by Britain’s superior RAF. German forces massing on the ‘border of peace’ could not be hidden and British intelligence reports together with the Red Army’s own detailed information were rejected by Stalin who refused to believe or prepare for the invasion which began on 22nd June 1941. Germany supported by its allies attacked in three directions. Army Group North aided by Finland reached and surrounded Leningrad by winter, Army Group Centre captured the outer tram stops of suburban Moscow before halting and Army Group South captured most of Ukraine supported by Romania and Hungary. The Germans were not prepared for the early winter which saved the Soviets who launched a surprise attack along the entire front which largely failed. In the spring of 1942 Army Group South struck towards the oil fields of the Caucasus reaching Stalingrad and planting the swastika on the USSR’s tallest peak. As winter set in the Soviets struck a deadly blow to the Germans who were encircled and suffered their first defeat in Stalingrad. At the same time the Allies captured north Africa and pushed the Axis from Egypt and Libya. In summer 1943 the Germans launched the biggest tank battle in history at Kursk but Soviet intelligence anticipated the offensive. The Allies landing in Italy give Hitler an excuse to call off the offensive. The Allies bombed Rome causing terrible damage to priceless historic structures and the Italian Fascist Party promptly voted Mussolini out and negotiated a peace with the Allies. The Germans intervened and put Mussolini back on a pedestal heading a puppet regime. The Germans retreated in the east and in 1944 the Allied landing in Normandy was followed by the most decisive offensive of the war, Operation Bagration, the Soviet attack that effectively pushed Germany to its borders and out of the Balkans. In November 1944 the Red Army crossed the German border murdering and raping at will in reprisal for the horrors perpetrated upon their homes.