World War II – Part 1

Contents for World War II

  1. World War II – Part 1
  2. World War II – Part 2
  3. World War II – Part 3

Adolf Hitler

World War II started in 1939. To help me understand the scope of it, I watched French mini tv series Apocalypse, La 2ème Guerre Mondiale, composed of six episodes. The first episode centers on how and why a worldwide war actually started. The true beginning of the war can be considered as 1933, when Hitler and his armies slowly take over Germany using intimidation, demagogy and the bitter feelings many war veterans still held over the loss of the first World War. On the 30th of January 1933, Hitler's rise to power was made obvious when he was elected as Chancellor. Nazism had become so powerful that those against it could no longer oppose it, or unify themselves against it, and thus a dictatorship was installed. Keep in mind that this dictatorship was not fully forced on Germany, many people looked up to Hitler, who had an uncanny ability of appealing and talking to audiences.

This symbol represents Nazism, although the cross, known as a swastika, has existed in Asia and Eastern cultures since Ancient times.

Germans who turned into Nazis wanted a better Germany, and from there a better world, for themselves, of course. Hitler's goals were all written in his book, Mein Kampf, and in it, we can clearly see that more than dominating the world, he wanted to destroy France, mainly because of the humiliation he felt after the first world war, a war in which he had fought. However, equally as important to him, he wanted to preserve the perfect German race, especially favouring blonds with blue eyes. He believed that Jews, who were slowly integrating themselves, were going to 'polute' German genes, and also considering that he was a pathological anti-semite, he started placing Jews in the Dachau concentration camp. The Dachau concentration camp, the first to be created in Germany, was made to harbour all real and potential (socialists, democrats, communists etc.) dangers that opposed to the Nazi Party. The Nazis weren't the firsts to make camps to store unwanted people, similar things can be seen by the Americans for Native Indians, and by the British during the Boer Wars. Once it was realised how useful and efficient the Dachau camp was, more started to pop up everywhere, only this time, especially for Jews.

American troops guarding the entrance to the Dachau Concentration Camp just after the end of war.

Hitler wanted to expand his Reich (trans. kingdom, domain) to all German speaking countries, and so he first turned to his country of birth, Austria. His attention was then placed on Czechoslovakia, modern day Czech Republic and Slovakia, and the Nazi regime was forced onto the country, creating a division. However, Czechoslovakia was protected by England and France, and so, in order to keep the peace, English prime minister Neville Chamberlain and French prime minister Édouard Daladier took it upon themselves to solve the problem with a treaty. They met with Hitler and a controversial agreement took place. The prime ministers agreed to surrender the Sudetenland regions of Czechoslovakia, which were inhabited by Sudeten Germans in exchange for Hitler's solemn word that he would not try to take over any other areas. I think we all know that Hitler did not keep his word.
Six months after the treaty was made, the Nazi army invaded what was left of Czechoslovakia and in doing so gained a lot of power. No longer working under the pretext of reuniting German speaking countries, now with a substantial army behind him, Hitler saw no more need to hold back. England and France, desperate to avoid another war, called on the Soviet Union to help them, regardless of their fears of the communists. The Soviets agreed to help because of a mutual assistance treaty with France.

A screenshot of the first episode of the Apocalypse series depicting the separation of Germany by Poland using Dantzig.

Anticipating such a movement, Hitler moved first and proposed a treaty with the U.S.S.R. in the summer of 1939. Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Foreign Minister of Germany, was sent to Moscow to formally negotiate the treaty. Vyacheslav Molotov, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, a formal non-aggression treaty. Although named as such, Hitler and Joseph Stalin were the two negotiating. Both the Nazis and the Soviets, and the rest of the world were shocked by the agreement. Hitler, who vowed to destroy communism, signed a pact with the communist Soviet Union. Hitler discreetly told a few of his close collaborators that this 'temporary' peace was only to buy time, and to allow him to further expand his Reich, this time into Poland.
Fearing no interference from the U.S.S.R. or the United States, which declared itself neutral to avoid being caught up in more European wars, Hitler's first objective was to destroy and take over Dantzig, modern day Gdansk. In 1919, as a consequence of losing the first war, Germany was cut through to allow Poland to have an access to the sea, resulting in the seaside Polish town of Dantzig.
On the 1st of September 1939, the first canon to be shot in World War II is aimed at Dantzig. Although Hitler had expected England and France to stay put, the two reunited to discuss what should be done about the situation. Eventually, they threaten Hitler to stop or else. Hitler's reply was to ask them whether a world-wide war was worth a stupid country and town like Poland and Dantzig (paraphrasing). On the 3rd of September 1939, Britain and France declared war on Germany. Thus began World War II. However, the episode I watched goes on further than that, so let's continue.

The Panther Tank was used by the Nazis during the war.

Hitler was shocked when war was declared, as his instincts were wrong, and he was also now faced with very daunting enemies who had vanquished Germany not so long before. Regardless, Hitler adjusted his plans, and continued to invade Poland. On their side, both the English and the French had by no means the necessary equipment and budget to go to war. In France, many of the soldiers who went to war were farmers, and there weren't enough guns to go around, the same with vehicles. Even celebrities had to go to war, most notable among them, Fernandel (survived the war, died of lung cancer in 1971). Neither countries had gotten over World War I. No one, not even the governments who had declared war in the first place, wanted to go to war.

The Maginot Line placed on a map. The Maginot Line is the 'strong fortifications' part of the red line.

France carried out the first offensive three days after declaring war when it attacked Saarland, a small state in the south of Germany. The attack had little more success than driving a few towns and villages away, even if the French had more numbers than the British or Germans, as they had the most outdated military equipment, especially when compared to the motorized tanks and various machinery the Nazi army possessed. The Allies (France, Britain and Commonwealth) were still so desperate to avoid a war that they mostly concentrated on the defensive. The Maginot Line, interconnected cement fortifications armed with tank obstacles, artillery casemates, machine guns, etc., running in France along the borders of Germany and Italy, created in retrospect to World War I, was manned. The Line had not been extended to the sea as when it was created, Belgium was a French ally, before declaring itself neutral. To guard the remaining gaps along the french border, French troops were positioned at the end of the Maginot Line, and English troops were used to protect borders all the way to the sea. The English had called upon their Canadian army to supply men.

Rusty remnants of fortifications of the Maginot Line today.

Hitler, to counter the Maginot Line, had the Siegfried Line built exactly opposite the French fortifications. Despite these defensive precautions, the Nazis do not attack France, and rather fear the idea of fighting from two sides of their country. Instead, they concentrated on Poland, which they had been rapidly taking over. On the 20th of September, Hitler gave the order to bomb Warsaw, which had continued resisting, despite being surrounded. This move was intended to be a message to opposing powers rather than to really capture Warsaw. The message brought the appropriate fear among the Allies, and at the same time, it horrified the Americans, although they continued to be neutral. The bombardment of Warsaw also made the French realise how fragile their cities were, and many precautions were taken to protect national monuments from a possible attack. Many pieces of artwork were also scattered around in the countryside for protection.
Meanwhile, Poland was completely captured, and the east side went to the Germans, while the west side went to the Soviets, who helped invade the country. On his side, Stalin ordered for many war prisoners he had obtained to be killed. A confirmed 21,768 Polish soldiers were shot in the head in the Katyn forrest, in Smolensk, Russia. However, an estimated 22,000 is believed to be closer to the actual number. This mass elimination is referred to as the Katyn Massacre.

Part of the Ghetto in Warsaw.

On his side of Poland, before turning his full attention to the Jews, Hitler first 'takes care' of the Gypsies, initially by forcefully sterilising Gypsy women, believing them to not be worthy enough to reproduce, and finally by throwing them into concentration camps, which were by then available everywhere. Now came the hardest decision. Just what would Hitler do with 3 million Polish Jews? Many claim the thought of deporting them somewhere west had struck his mind, as well as the thought of sending them to Madagascar. In the meantime however, before a conclusive decision could be made, a law was passed that all Jews were to wear a yellow star of David, in order to clearly identify them. But, as the outcome of the war became uncertain, actions to restrict Jews as much as possible were taken. It wasn't enough to restrict certain things to the Jews, and so they were placed in the Ghettos, one in every major city of Poland, some Ghettos even with walls dividing the Jewish quarters from the 'normal' ones.

Johann Georg Elser

Hitler travelled himself to Warsaw, and it was there that field marshal Walther von Brauchitsch brought to his attention the problems with the Nazi army. Despite a successful invasion of Poland, the army had been unprepared, and not entirely willing to fight, as well as cases of defiance of authority. Hitler was infuriated with the lack of competence of his army, but still did not doubt its capabilities. He started to plan an attack on the Netherlands, Belgium and France. This plan to attack was criticised by many generals, and it was from that moment on that plans to overthrow Hitler began to formulate.
On the 8th of November 1939, Johann Georg Elser planted a bomb in the Bürgerbräukeller, a large beer hall, in an attempt to assasinate Hitler. Elser was a German anti-Nazi, and had been planning to kill Hitler for almost a year, waiting for his annual speech at the Bürgerbräukeller in Munich. He managed to stay in the hall after closing and over time he had hollowed out a pillar behind where Hitler would speak. The bomb detonated as planned, but Hitler finished his speech early to catch a train to Berlin when his flight was delayed due to fog. The bomb exploded thirteen minutes after the departure of Hitler, and killed eight Nazis, while injuring many more.

The Bürgerbräukeller before the bombing on the bottom, and after on top.

Elser was apprehended trying to cross the Swiss border, but it was only once the Gestapo, equivalent of Nazi police, found a postcard of the Bürgerbräukeller and a few bits and pieces that would be used to make bomb that they made the connection between Elser and the assasination. Elser was put in the Dachau concentration camp and died there on the 9th of April 1945 by a gunshot wound to the head when Hitler, clearly seeing the end of the war for him, gave a secret order to eliminate the "special security prisoner Eller", as he was known in the camp.
The only real effect the attempted assassination had on Hitler was to increase his resolution to attack France or die trying. However, he still took back his orders to attack the Netherlands and Belgium and retreated to his house, Berghof, in Obersalzberg, Bavaria, Germany. He stayed there a while, surrounded by his inner circle, among them, a mistress, Eva Braun (explaining how and when they met is another post altogether...), and an architect Albert Speer. Hitler and Speer took long walks in the house's surrounding countryside, and it was also during this time that Hitler developed plans for Berlin. He wanted to call it Germania, and had a large model of the improved city, complete with Hitler Square.
While the Allies were prepared for defense and the Germans were debating their next move, the war was nicknamed the Sitzkrieg (the sitting war) by the Germans, the Phoney War by the British, and La Drôle de Guerre (the funny war) by the French.

Maginot Line on map from here.
Maginot Line today from here.

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