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The Outbreak of World War II

On September 1, 1939, German troops invaded Poland. Britain and France declared war on Germany two days later. By the end of the month, Hitler's armies had overrun western Poland. Soviet armies occupied eastern Poland, and the two countries subsequently formally divided Poland between them. In April 1940, German forces conquered Denmark and Norway, and in May they struck at the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and France. French and British troops offered ineffective resistance against the lightning-like strikes, or blitzkrieg, of German tanks and airplanes. A large part of the French army surrendered, and some 300,000 British and French soldiers were trapped at Dunkirk on the coast of northern France. However, because Hitler, for a combination of political and military reasons, had halted the advance of his armored divisions, the British were able to rescue the men at Dunkirk. France, however, surrendered in June.

For Hitler the war in the west was a sideshow, a prelude to the building of an empire in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Hitler had hoped that Britain would stay out of the war. In his vision of the near future, he foresaw the two countries sharing the world between them--Britain would keep its overseas empire, and Germany would construct a new one to its east. When approached with the suggestion of a separate peace, British prime minister Winston Churchill rejected the offer and rallied his people to fight on.The Third Reich experienced its first military defeat in the Battle of Britain, in which the Royal Air Force, during the summer and fall of 1940, prevented the German air force from gaining the air superiority necessary for an invasion of Britain. Consequently, Hitler postponed the invasion.

Hitler concluded by June 1941 that Britain's continuing resistance was not a serious impediment to his main geopolitical goal of creating an empire extending east from Germany deep into the Soviet Union. On June 22, 1941, negating their 1939 nonaggression pact, Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Eagerness to realize his long-held dream caused Hitler to gamble everything on a quick military campaign. He had anticipated victory within three months, but effective Soviet resistance and the early onset of winter stopped German advances. A counteroffensive, launched in early 1942, drove the Germans back from Moscow. In the summer of 1942, Hitler shifted the attack to the south of the Soviet Union and began a large offensive to secure the Caucasian oil fields. By September 1942, the Axis controlled an area extending from northern Norway to North Africa and from France to Stalingrad.

Japan's attack on the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, brought the United States into the war. In support of Germany's fellow Axis power, Hitler immediately declared war on the United States. But with the United States involvement, a coalition now existed that, with its vast human and material resources, was almost certain to defeat the Third Reich. To ensure that the alliance not break apart as had happened in 1918 when Russia signed a truce with Germany, the Allies swore to fight Germany until an unconditional surrender was secured. Another reason the Allies wanted the complete military defeat of Germany was that they wished to preclude any possibility of German politicians claiming that "a stab in the back" had caused Germany's undoing, as they had done after World War I.

The military turning point of the war in Europe came with the Soviet victory at Stalingrad in the winter of 1942-43; some 300,000 of Germany's finest troops were either killed or captured. By May 1943, Allied armies had driven the Axis forces out of Africa and had landed in Italy. Also of great importance, by 1943 the United States and British navies had succeeded in substantially reducing the German submarine threat to shipping. This cleared the way for the movement of arms and troops to Britain in preparation for a cross-channel invasion of France.

Total Mobilization, Resistance, and the Holocaust

Once it became clear that the war would not be a short one, Germany's industry was reorganized for a total mobilization. Between February 1942 and July 1944, armaments production increased threefold despite intense Allied bombing raids. Much of the labor for this increase came from the employment of some 7 million foreigners, taken from their homelands and forced to work under terrible conditions. Also contributing to the Nazi war effort was the systematic requisitioning of raw materials and food from occupied territories. As a result, Germans remained fairly well fed for most of the war, in contrast to the hunger endured during World War I.

Despite their comparative physical well-being until late in the war, it gradually became clear to many Germans that the regime's series of military triumphs had come to an end. Even the most intense, mendacious propaganda could not conceal that Germany's forces were being beaten back. Sharing this growing awareness that defeat was likely, a group of military officers decided to assassinate Hitler. Although elements of the military had long opposed him, no one had acted to this point. During 1943 and 1944, the conspirators, who included many high-ranking officers and numerous prominent civilians, worked out elaborate plans for seizing power after the dictator's death. On June 20, 1944, the conspirators ignited a bomb that would probably have killed Hitler except for a stroke of bad luck--the misplacement of the device under a conference room table. The regime struck back and after months of reprisals had killed several thousand people, among them one field marshal and twenty-two generals. Several earlier attempts on Hitler's life had also failed. Because of these failures, it would be up to the Allies to remove Hitler and his regime from power.

Anti-Semitism was one of the Third Reich's most faithfully executed policies. Hitler saw the Jews' existence as inimical to the well-being of the German race. In his youth in Vienna, he had come to believe in a social Darwinist, life-or-death struggle of the races, with that between the German race and the Jews being the most savage. Because of his adherence to these racist notions, he dreamed of creating a German empire completely free of Jews, believing that if the Jewish "bacillus" were permitted to remain within the Teutonic empire, the empire would become corrupted and fail.

Upon taking power, the Nazis began immediately to rid Germany of its Jewish citizens. In the Aryan Paragraph of 1933, the regime decreed that Jews could not hold civil service positions. The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 deprived Jews of the right to citizenship and restricted relationships between "Aryans" (racially pure Germans) and Jews. After the Kristallnacht (Crystal Night) of November 9, 1938, an organized act of violence perpetrated by Nazis against Jews in all parts of Germany, the persecution of Jews entered a new phase. Random acts of violence, by then commonplace, were replaced by the systematic isolation of the Jewish population in Germany, which had numbered about 600,000 in the early 1930s.

Until 1941 there had been plans to "cleanse" Germany of Jews by gathering them together and expelling them from the Reich. One plan had as its goal the transfer of Germany's Jews to Madagascar. A contingent of Jews had even been moved to southern France in preparation. However, wartime conditions and the presence of millions of Jews in Poland, the Soviet Union, and other occupied areas in Eastern Europe gradually led to the adoption of another plan: the systematic extermination of all Jews who came under German control. Techniques that had been developed for the regime's euthanasia program came to be used against Jews. Discussions in January 1942 at the Wannsee Conference on the outskirts of Berlin led to the improved organization and coordination of the program of genocide.

Killing came to be done in an efficient, factorylike fashion in large extermination camps run by Himmler's Special Duty Section (Sonderdienst--SD). The tempo of the mass murder of Jewish men, women, and children was accelerated toward the end of the war. Hitler's preoccupation with the "final solution" was so great that the transport of Jews was at times given preference over the transport of war matériel. Authorities generally agree that about 6 million European Jews died in the Holocaust. A large number (about 4.5 million) of those killed came from Poland and the Soviet Union; about 125,000 German Jews were murdered.

Data as of August 1995

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