Germany from 1933 to 1945 while under control of the Nazi Party
"Drittes Reich" redirects here. For the 1923 book, see Das Dritte Reich.
Coordinates: 52°31′N13°24′E / 52.517°N 13.400°E / 52.517; 13.400
Nazi Germany,[f] officially known as the German Reich[g] from 1933 until 1943, and the Greater German Reich[h] from 1943 to 1945, was the German state between 1933 and 1945, when Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party controlled the country, transforming it into a dictatorship. Under Hitler's rule, Germany quickly became a totalitarian state where nearly all aspects of life were controlled by the government. The Third Reich,[i] meaning "Third Realm" or "Third Empire", alluded to the Nazis' conceit that Nazi Germany was the successor to the earlier Holy Roman Empire (800–1806) and German Empire (1871–1918). The Third Reich, which Hitler and the Nazis referred to as the Thousand Year Reich,[j] ended in May 1945 after just 12 years, when the Allies defeated Germany, ending World War II in Europe.
On 30 January 1933, Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany, the head of government, by the president of the Weimar Republic, Paul von Hindenburg, the head of state. The Nazi Party then began to eliminate all political opposition and consolidate its power. Hindenburg died on 2 August 1934 and Hitler became dictator of Germany by merging the offices and powers of the chancellery and presidency. A national referendum held 19 August 1934 confirmed Hitler as sole Führer (leader) of Germany. All power was centralised in Hitler's person and his word became the highest law. The government was not a coordinated, co-operating body, but a collection of factions struggling for power and Hitler's favour. In the midst of the Great Depression, the Nazis restored economic stability and ended mass unemployment using heavy military spending and a mixed economy. Using deficit spending, the regime undertook a massive secret rearmament program, forming the Wehrmacht (armed forces), and constructed extensive public works projects, including the Autobahnen (motorways). The return to economic stability boosted the regime's popularity.
Racism, Nazi eugenics, and especially antisemitism, were central ideological features of the regime. The Germanic peoples were considered by the Nazis to be the master race, the purest branch of the Aryan race. Discrimination and the persecution of Jews and Romani people began in earnest after the seizure of power. The first concentration camps were established in March 1933. Jews and others deemed undesirable were imprisoned, and liberals, socialists, and communists were killed, imprisoned, or exiled. Christian churches and citizens that opposed Hitler's rule were oppressed and many leaders imprisoned. Education focused on racial biology, population policy, and fitness for military service. Career and educational opportunities for women were curtailed. Recreation and tourism were organised via the Strength Through Joy program, and the 1936 Summer Olympics showcased Germany on the international stage. Propaganda MinisterJoseph Goebbels made effective use of film, mass rallies, and Hitler's hypnotic oratory to influence public opinion. The government controlled artistic expression, promoting specific art forms and banning or discouraging others.
From the latter half of the 1930s, Nazi Germany made increasingly aggressive territorial demands, threatening war if these were not met. The Saarland voted by plebiscite to rejoin Germany in 1935, and in 1936 Hitler sent troops into the Rhineland, which had been de-militarized after World War I. Germany seized Austria in the Anschluss of 1938, and demanded and received the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia in that same year. In March 1939, the Slovak state was proclaimed and became a client state of Germany, and the German Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia was established on the remainder of the occupied Czech Lands. Shortly after, Germany pressured Lithuania into ceding the Memel Territory. Germany signed a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union and invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, launching World War II in Europe. By early 1941, Germany and its European allies in the Axis powers controlled much of Europe. Extended offices of the Reichskommissariat took control of Nazi-conquered areas and a German administration was established in the remainder of Poland. Germany exploited the raw materials and labour of both its occupied territories and its allies.
Genocide, mass murder, and large-scale forced labour became hallmarks of the regime. Starting in 1939, hundreds of thousands of German citizens with mental or physical disabilities were murdered in hospitals and asylums. Einsatzgruppen paramilitary death squads accompanied the German armed forces inside the occupied territories and conducted the mass killings of millions of Jews and other Holocaust victims. After 1941, millions of others were imprisoned, worked to death, or murdered in Nazi concentration camps and extermination camps. This genocide is known as the Holocaust.
While the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 was initially successful, the Soviet resurgence and entry of the United States into the war meant that the Wehrmacht lost the initiative on the Eastern Front in 1943 and by late 1944 had been pushed back to the pre-1939 border. Large-scale aerial bombing of Germany escalated in 1944 and the Axis powers were driven back in Eastern and Southern Europe. After the Allied invasion of France, Germany was conquered by the Soviet Union from the east and the other Allies from the west, and capitulated in May 1945. Hitler's refusal to admit defeat led to massive destruction of German infrastructure and additional war-related deaths in the closing months of the war. The victorious Allies initiated a policy of denazification and put many of the surviving Nazi leadership on trial for war crimes at the Nuremberg trials.
Common English terms for the German state in the Nazi era are "Nazi Germany" and "Third Reich". The latter, a translation of the Nazi propaganda term Drittes Reich, was first used in Das Dritte Reich, a 1923 book by Arthur Moeller van den Bruck. The book counted the Holy Roman Empire (962–1806) as the first Reich and the German Empire (1871–1918) as the second.
Further information: Adolf Hitler's rise to power
Germany was known as the Weimar Republic during the years 1919 to 1933. It was a republic with a semi-presidential system. The Weimar Republic faced numerous problems, including hyperinflation, political extremism (including violence from left- and right-wing paramilitaries), contentious relationships with the Allied victors of World War I, and a series of failed attempts at coalition government by divided political parties. Severe setbacks to the German economy began after World War I ended, partly because of reparations payments required under the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. The government printed money to make the payments and to repay the country's war debt, but the resulting hyperinflation led to inflated prices for consumer goods, economic chaos, and food riots. When the government defaulted on their reparations payments in January 1923, French troops occupied German industrial areas along the Ruhr and widespread civil unrest followed.
The National Socialist German Workers' Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei), commonly known as the Nazi Party, was founded in 1920. It was the renamed successor of the German Workers' Party (DAP) formed one year earlier, and one of several far-right political parties then active in Germany. The Nazi Party platform included destruction of the Weimar Republic, rejection of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, radical antisemitism, and anti-Bolshevism. They promised a strong central government, increased Lebensraum ("living space") for Germanic peoples, formation of a national community based on race, and racial cleansing via the active suppression of Jews, who would be stripped of their citizenship and civil rights. The Nazis proposed national and cultural renewal based upon the Völkisch movement. The party, especially its paramilitary organisation Sturmabteilung (SA; Storm Detachment), or Brownshirts, used physical violence to advance their political position, disrupting the meetings of rival organisations and attacking their members as well as Jewish people on the streets. Such far-right armed groups were common in Bavaria, and were tolerated by the sympathetic far-right state government of Gustav Ritter von Kahr.
When the stock market in the United States crashed on 24 October 1929, the effect in Germany was dire. Millions were thrown out of work and several major banks collapsed. Hitler and the Nazis prepared to take advantage of the emergency to gain support for their party. They promised to strengthen the economy and provide jobs. Many voters decided the Nazi Party was capable of restoring order, quelling civil unrest, and improving Germany's international reputation. After the federal election of 1932, the party was the largest in the Reichstag, holding 230 seats with 37.4 percent of the popular vote.
Further information: History of Germany
Nazi seizure of power
Main article: Adolf Hitler's rise to power § Seizure of control (1931–1933)
Although the Nazis won the greatest share of the popular vote in the two Reichstag general elections of 1932, they did not have a majority. Hitler therefore led a short-lived coalition government formed with the German National People's Party. Under pressure from politicians, industrialists, and the business community, President Paul von Hindenburg appointed Hitler as Chancellor of Germany on 30 January 1933. This event is known as the Machtergreifung ("seizure of power").
On the night of 27 February 1933, the Reichstag building was set afire. Marinus van der Lubbe, a Dutch communist, was found guilty of starting the blaze. Hitler proclaimed that the arson marked the start of a communist uprising. The Reichstag Fire Decree, imposed on 28 February 1933, rescinded most civil liberties, including rights of assembly and freedom of the press. The decree also allowed the police to detain people indefinitely without charges. The legislation was accompanied by a propaganda campaign that led to public support for the measure. Violent suppression of communists by the SA was undertaken nationwide and 4,000 members of the Communist Party of Germany were arrested.
In March 1933, the Enabling Act, an amendment to the Weimar Constitution, passed in the Reichstag by a vote of 444 to 94. This amendment allowed Hitler and his cabinet to pass laws—even laws that violated the constitution—without the consent of the president or the Reichstag. As the bill required a two-thirds majority to pass, the Nazis used intimidation tactics as well as the provisions of the Reichstag Fire Decree to keep several Social Democratic deputies from attending, and the Communists had already been banned. On 10 May, the government seized the assets of the Social Democrats, and they were banned on 22 June. On 21 June, the SA raided the offices of the German National People's Party – their former coalition partners – which then disbanded on 29 June. The remaining major political parties followed suit. On 14 July 1933 Germany became a one-party state with the passage of a law decreeing the Nazi Party to be the sole legal party in Germany. The founding of new parties was also made illegal, and all remaining political parties which had not already been dissolved were banned. The Enabling Act would subsequently serve as the legal foundation for the dictatorship the Nazis established. Further elections in November 1933, 1936, and 1938 were Nazi-controlled, with only members of the Party and a small number of independents elected.
Nazification of Germany
Main article: Gleichschaltung
The Hitler cabinet used the terms of the Reichstag Fire Decree and later the Enabling Act to initiate the process of Gleichschaltung ("co-ordination"), which brought all aspects of life under party control. Individual states not controlled by elected Nazi governments or Nazi-led coalitions were forced to agree to the appointment of Reich Commissars to bring the states in line with the policies of the central government. These Commissars had the power to appoint and remove local governments, state parliaments, officials, and judges. In this way Germany became a de factounitary state, with all state governments controlled by the central government under the Nazis. The state parliaments and the Reichsrat (federal upper house) were abolished in January 1934, with all state powers being transferred to the central government.
All civilian organisations, including agricultural groups, volunteer organisations, and sports clubs, had their leadership replaced with Nazi sympathisers or party members; these civic organisations either merged with the Nazi Party or faced dissolution. The Nazi government declared a "Day of National Labor" for May Day 1933, and invited many trade union delegates to Berlin for celebrations. The day after, SA stormtroopers demolished union offices around the country; all trade unions were forced to dissolve and their leaders were arrested. The Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service, passed in April, removed from their jobs all teachers, professors, judges, magistrates, and government officials who were Jewish or whose commitment to the party was suspect. This meant the only non-political institutions not under control of the Nazis were the churches.
The Nazi regime abolished the symbols of the Weimar Republic—including the black, red, and gold tricolour flag—and adopted reworked symbolism. The previous imperial black, white, and red tricolour was restored as one of Germany's two official flags; the second was the swastika flag of the Nazi Party, which became the sole national flag in 1935. The Party anthem "Horst-Wessel-Lied" ("Horst Wessel Song") became a second national anthem.
Germany was still in a dire economic situation, as six million people were unemployed and the balance of trade deficit was daunting. Using deficit spending, public works projects were undertaken beginning in 1934, creating 1.7 million new jobs by the end of that year alone. Average wages began to rise.
Consolidation of power
The SA leadership continued to apply pressure for greater political and military power. In response, Hitler used the Schutzstaffel (SS) and Gestapo to purge the entire SA leadership. Hitler targeted SA Stabschef (Chief of Staff) Ernst Röhm and other SA leaders who—along with a number of Hitler's political adversaries (such as Gregor Strasser and former chancellor Kurt von Schleicher)—were arrested and shot. Up to 200 people were killed from 30 June to 2 July 1934 in an event that became known as the Night of the Long Knives.
On 2 August 1934, Hindenburg died. The previous day, the cabinet had enacted the "Law Concerning the Highest State Office of the Reich", which stated that upon Hindenburg's death the office of president would be abolished and its powers merged with those of the chancellor. Hitler thus became head of state as well as head of government and was formally named as Führer und Reichskanzler ("Leader and Chancellor"), although eventually Reichskanzler was dropped. Germany was now a totalitarian state with Hitler at its head. As head of state, Hitler became Supreme Commander of the armed forces. The new law provided an altered loyalty oath for servicemen so that they affirmed loyalty to Hitler personally rather than the office of supreme commander or the state. On 19 August, the merger of the presidency with the chancellorship was approved by 90 percent of the electorate in a plebiscite.
Most Germans were relieved that the conflicts and street fighting of the Weimar era had ended. They were deluged with propaganda orchestrated by Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, who promised peace and plenty for all in a united, Marxist-free country without the constraints of the Versailles Treaty. The Nazi Party obtained and legitimised power through its initial revolutionary activities, then through manipulation of legal mechanisms, the use of police powers, and by taking control of the state and federal institutions. The first major Nazi concentration camp, initially for political prisoners, was opened at Dachau in 1933. Hundreds of camps of varying size and function were created by the end of the war.
Beginning in April 1933, scores of measures defining the status of Jews and their rights were instituted. These measures culminated in the establishment of the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which stripped them of their basic rights. The Nazis would take from the Jews their wealth, their right to intermarry with non-Jews, and their right to occupy many fields of labour (such as law, medicine, or education). Eventually the Nazis declared the Jews as undesirable to remain among German citizens and society.
See also: International relations (1919–1939), Remilitarization of the Rhineland, and German involvement in the Spanish Civil War
In the early years of the regime, Germany was without allies, and its military was drastically weakened by the Versailles Treaty. France, Poland, Italy, and the Soviet Union each had reasons to object to Hitler's rise to power. Poland suggested to France that the two nations engage in a preventive war against Germany in March 1933. Fascist Italy objected to German claims in the Balkans and on Austria, which Benito Mussolini considered to be in Italy's sphere of influence.
As early as February 1933, Hitler announced that rearmament must begin, albeit clandestinely at first, as to do so was in violation of the Versailles Treaty. On 17 May 1933, Hitler gave a speech before the Reichstag outlining his desire for world peace and accepted an offer from American President Franklin D. Roosevelt for military disarmament, provided the other nations of Europe did the same. When the other European powers failed to accept this offer, Hitler pulled Germany out of the World Disarmament Conference and the League of Nations in October, claiming its disarmament clauses were unfair if they applied only to Germany. In a referendum held in November, 95 percent of voters supported Germany's withdrawal.
In 1934, Hitler told his military leaders that a war in the east should begin in 1942. The Saarland, which had been placed under League of Nations supervision for 15 years at the end of World War I, voted in January 1935 to become part of Germany. In March 1935, Hitler announced the creation of an air force, and that the Reichswehr would be increased to 550,000 men. Britain agreed to Germany building a naval fleet with the signing of the Anglo-German Naval Agreement on 18 June 1935.
When the Italian invasion of Ethiopia led to only mild protests by the British and French governments, on 7 March 1936 Hitler used the Franco-Soviet Treaty of Mutual Assistance as a pretext to order the army to march 3,000 troops into the demilitarised zone in the Rhineland in violation of the Versailles Treaty. As the territory was part of Germany, the British and French governments did not feel that attempting to enforce the treaty was worth the risk of war. In the one-party election held on 29 March, the Nazis received 98.9 percent support. In 1936, Hitler signed an Anti-Comintern Pact with Japan and a non-aggression agreement with Mussolini, who was soon referring to a "Rome-Berlin Axis".
Hitler sent military supplies and assistance to the Nationalist forces of General Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War, which began in July 1936. The German Condor Legion included a range of aircraft and their crews, as well as a tank contingent. The aircraft of the Legion destroyed the city of Guernica in 1937. The Nationalists were victorious in 1939 and became an informal ally of Nazi Germany.
Austria and Czechoslovakia
Main articles: Anschluss and German occupation of Czechoslovakia
Further information: Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia
(Top) Hitler proclaims the Anschluss on the Heldenplatz, Vienna, 15 March 1938
(Bottom) Ethnic Germans use the Nazi salute to greet German soldiers as they enter Saaz, 1938
In February 1938, Hitler emphasised to Austrian Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg the need for Germany to secure its frontiers. Schuschnigg scheduled a plebiscite regarding Austrian independence for 13 March, but Hitler sent an ultimatum to Schuschnigg on 11 March demanding that he hand over all power to the Austrian Nazi Party or face an invasion. German troops entered Austria the next day, to be greeted with enthusiasm by the populace.
The Republic of Czechoslovakia was home to a substantial minority of Germans, who lived mostly in the Sudetenland. Under pressure from separatist groups within the Sudeten German Party, the Czechoslovak government offered economic concessions to the region. Hitler decided not just to incorporate the Sudetenland into the Reich, but to destroy the country of Czechoslovakia entirely. The Nazis undertook a propaganda campaign to try to generate support for an invasion. Top German military leaders opposed the plan, as Germany was not yet ready for war.
The crisis led to war preparations by Britain, Czechoslovakia, and France (Czechoslovakia's ally). Attempting to avoid war, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain arranged a series of meetings, the result of which was the Munich Agreement, signed on 29 September 1938. The Czechoslovak government was forced to accept the Sudetenland's annexation into Germany. Chamberlain was greeted with cheers when he landed in London, saying the agreement brought "peace for our time". In addition to the German annexation, Poland seized a narrow strip of land near Cieszyn on 2 October, while as a consequence of the Munich Agreement, Hungary demanded and received 12,000 square kilometres (4,600 sq mi) along their northern border in the First Vienna Award on 2 November. Following negotiations with President Emil Hácha, Hitler seized the rest of the Czech half of the country on 15 March 1939 and created the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, one day after the proclamation of the Slovak Republic in the Slovak half. Also on 15 March, Hungary occupied and annexed the recently proclaimed and unrecognized Carpatho-Ukraine and an additional sliver of land disputed with Slovakia.
Austrian and Czech foreign exchange reserves were seized by the Nazis, as were stockpiles of raw materials such as metals and completed goods such as weaponry and aircraft, which were shipped to Germany. The Reichswerke Hermann Göring industrial conglomerate took control of steel and coal production facilities in both countries.
In January 1934, Germany signed a non-aggression pact with Poland. In March 1939, Hitler demanded the return of the Free City of Danzig and the Polish Corridor, a strip of land that separated East Prussia from the rest of Germany. The British announced they would come to the aid of Poland if it was attacked. Hitler, believing the British would not actually take action, ordered an invasion plan should be readied for September 1939. On 23 May, Hitler described to his generals his overall plan of not only seizing the Polish Corridor but greatly expanding German territory eastward at the expense of Poland. He expected this time they would be met by force.
The Germans reaffirmed their alliance with Italy and signed non-aggression pacts with Denmark, Estonia, and Latvia whilst trade links were formalised with Romania, Norway, and Sweden. Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop arranged in negotiations with the Soviet Union a non-aggression pact, the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, signed in August 1939. The treaty also contained secret protocols dividing Poland and the Baltic states into German and Soviet spheres of influence.
World War II
(Top) Animated map showing the sequence of events in Europe throughout World War II
(Bottom) Germany and its allies at the height of Axis success, 1942
Further information: Diplomatic history of World War II § Germany
Germany's wartime foreign policy involved the creation of allied governments controlled directly or indirectly from Berlin. They intended to obtain soldiers from allies such as Italy and Hungary and workers and food supplies from allies such as Vichy France. Hungary was the fourth nation to join the Axis, signing the Tripartite Pact on 27 September 1940. Bulgaria signed the pact on 17 November. German efforts to secure oil included negotiating a supply from their new ally, Romania, who signed the Pact on 23 November, alongside the Slovak Republic. By late 1942, there were 24 divisions from Romania on the Eastern Front, 10 from Italy, and 10 from Hungary. Germany assumed full control in France in 1942, Italy in 1943, and Hungary in 1944. Although Japan was a powerful ally, the relationship was distant, with little co-ordination or co-operation. For example, Germany refused to share their formula for synthetic oil from coal until late in the war.
Outbreak of war
Germany invaded Poland and captured the Free City of Danzig on 1 September 1939, beginning World War II in Europe. Honouring their treaty obligations, Britain and France declared war on Germany two days later. Poland fell quickly, as the Soviet Union attacked from the east on 17 September.Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the Sicherheitspolizei (SiPo; Security Police) and Sicherheitsdienst (SD; Security Service), ordered on 21 September that Polish Jews should be rounded up and concentrated into cities with good rail links. Initially the intention was to deport them further east, or possibly to Madagascar. Using lists prepared in advance, some 65,000 Polish intelligentsia, noblemen, clergy, and teachers were killed by the end of 1939 in an attempt to destroy Poland's identity as a nation. Soviet forces advanced into Finland in the Winter War, and German forces saw action at sea. But little other activity occurred until May, so the period became known as the "Phoney War".
From the start of the war, a British blockade on shipments to Germany affected its economy. Germany was particularly dependent on foreign supplies of oil, coal, and grain. Thanks to trade embargoes and the blockade, imports into Germany declined by 80 per cent. To safeguard Swedish iron ore shipments to Germany, Hitler ordered the invasion of Denmark and Norway, which began on 9 April. Denmark fell after less than a day, while most of Norway followed by the end of the month. By early June, Germany occupied all of Norway.
Conquest of Europe
Against the advice of many of his senior military officers, in May 1940 Hitler ordered an attack on France and the Low Countries. They quickly conquered Luxembourg and the Netherlands and outmanoeuvred the Allies in Belgium, forcing the evacuation of many British and French troops at Dunkirk. France fell as well, surrendering to Germany on 22 June. The victory in France resulted in an upswing in Hitler's popularity and an upsurge in war fever in Germany.
In violation of the provisions of the Hague Convention, industrial firms in the Netherlands, France, and Belgium were put to work producing war materiel for Germany.
The Nazis seized from the French thousands of locomotives and rolling stock, stockpiles of weapons, and raw materials such as copper, tin, oil, and nickel. Payments for occupation costs were levied upon France, Belgium, and Norway. Barriers to trade led to hoarding, black markets, and uncertainty about the future. Food supplies were precarious; production dropped in most of Europe. Famine was experienced in many occupied countries.
Hitler's peace overtures to the new British Prime Minister Winston Churchill were rejected in July 1940. Grand Admiral Erich Raeder had advised Hitler in June that air superiority was a pre-condition for a successful invasion of Britain, so Hitler ordered a series of aerial attacks on Royal Air Force (RAF) airbases and radar stations, as well as nightly air raids on British cities, including London, Plymouth, and Coventry. The German Luftwaffe failed to defeat the RAF in what became known as the Battle of Britain, and by the end of October, Hitler realised that air superiority would not be achieved. He permanently postponed the invasion, a plan which the commanders of the German army had never taken entirely seriously.[k] Several historians, including Andrew Gordon, believe the primary reason for the failure of the invasion plan was the superiority of the Royal Navy, not the actions of the RAF.
In February 1941, the German Afrika Korps arrived in Libya to aid the Italians in the North African Campaign. On 6 April, Germany launched an invasion of Yugoslavia and Greece. All of Yugoslavia and parts of Greece were subsequently divided between Germany, Hungary, Italy, and Bulgaria.
Invasion of the Soviet Union
Main article: Operation Barbarossa
On 22 June 1941, contravening the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, about 3.8 million Axis troops attacked the Soviet Union. In addition to Hitler's stated purpose of acquiring Lebensraum, this large-scale offensive—codenamed Operation Barbarossa—was intended to destroy the Soviet Union and seize its natural resources for subsequent aggression against the Western powers. The reaction among Germans was one of surprise and trepidation as many were concerned about how much longer the war would continue or suspected that Germany could not win a war fought on two fronts.
The invasion conquered a huge area, including the Baltic states, Belarus, and west Ukraine. After the successful Battle of Smolensk in September 1941, Hitler ordered Army Group Centre to halt its advance to Moscow and temporarily divert its Panzer groups to aid in the encirclement of Leningrad and Kyiv. This pause provided the Red Army with an opportunity to mobilise fresh reserves. The Moscow offensive, which resumed in October 1941, ended disastrously in December. On 7 December 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Four days later, Germany declared war on the United States.
Food was in short supply in the conquered areas of the Soviet Union and Poland, as the retreating armies had burned the crops in some areas, and much of the remainder was sent back to the Reich. In Germany, rations were cut in 1942. In his role as Plenipotentiary of the Four Year Plan, Hermann Göring demanded increased shipments of grain from France and fish from Norway. The 1942 harvest was good, and food supplies remained adequate in Western Europe.
Germany and Europe as a whole were almost totally dependent on foreign oil imports. In an attempt to resolve the shortage, in June 1942 Germany launched Fall Blau ("Case Blue"), an offensive against the Caucasian oilfields. The Red Army launched a counter-offensive on 19 November and encircled the Axis forces, who were trapped in Stalingrad on 23 November. Göring assured Hitler that the 6th Army could be supplied by air, but this turned out to be infeasible. Hitler's refusal to allow a retreat led to the deaths of 200,000 German and Romanian soldiers; of the 91,000 men who surrendered in the city on 31 January 1943, only 6,000 survivors returned to Germany after the war.
Turning point and collapse
See also: Mass suicides in 1945 Nazi Germany, Flensburg Government, and German Instrument of Surrender
Losses continued to mount after Stalingrad, leading to a sharp reduction in the popularity of the Nazi Party and deteriorating morale. Soviet forces continued to push westward after the failed German offensive at the Battle of Kursk in the summer of 1943. By the end of 1943, the Germans had lost most of their eastern territorial gains. In Egypt, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps were defeated by British forces under Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery in October 1942. The Allies landed in Sicily in July 1943 and in Italy in September. Meanwhile, American and British bomber fleets based in Britain began operations against Germany. Many sorties were intentionally given civilian targets in an effort to destroy German morale. The bombing of aircraft factories as well as Peenemünde Army Research Center, where V-1 and V-2 rockets were being developed and produced, were also deemed particularly important. German aircraft production could not keep pace with losses, and without air cover the Allied bombing campaign became even more devastating. By targeting oil refineries and factories, they crippled the German war effort by late 1944.
On 6 June 1944, American, British, and Canadian forces established a front in France with the D-Day landings in Normandy. On 20 July 1944, Hitler survived an assassination attempt. He ordered brutal reprisals, resulting in 7,000 arrests and the execution of more than 4,900 people. The failed Ardennes Offensive (16 December 1944 – 25 January 1945) was the last major German offensive on the western front, and Soviet forces entered Germany on 27 January. Hitler's refusal to admit defeat and his insistence that the war be fought to the last man led to unnecessary death and destruction in the war's closing months. Through his Justice Minister Otto Georg Thierack, Hitler ordered that anyone who was not prepared to fight should be court-martialed, and thousands of people were put to death. In many areas, people surrendered to the approaching Allies in spite of exhortations of local leaders to continue to fight. Hitler ordered the destruction of transport, bridges, industries, and other infrastructure—a scorched earth decree—but Armaments Minister Albert Speer prevented this order from being fully carried out.
During the Battle of Berlin (16 April 1945 – 2 May 1945), Hitler and his staff lived in the underground Führerbunker while the Red Army approached. On 30 April, when Soviet troops were within two blocks of the Reich Chancellery, Hitler, along with his girlfriend and by then wife Eva Brauncommitted suicide. On 2 May, General Helmuth Weidling unconditionally surrendered Berlin to Soviet General Vasily Chuikov. Hitler was succeeded by Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz as Reich President and Goebbels as Reich Chancellor. Goebbels and his wife Magda committed suicide the next day after murdering their six children. Between 4 and 8 May 1945, most of the remaining German armed forces unconditionally surrendered. The German Instrument of Surrender was signed 8 May, marking the end of the Nazi regime and the end of World War II in Europe.
Popular support for Hitler almost completely disappeared as the war drew to a close. Suicide rates in Germany increased, particularly in areas where the Red Army was advancing. Among soldiers and party personnel, suicide was often deemed an honourable and heroic alternative to surrender. First-hand accounts and propaganda about the uncivilised behaviour of the advancing Soviet troops caused panic among civilians on the Eastern Front, especially women, who feared being raped. More than a thousand people (out of a population of around 16,000) committed suicide in Demmin on and around 1 May 1945 as the 65th Army of 2nd Belorussian Front first broke into a distillery and then rampaged through the town, committing mass rapes, arbitrarily executing civilians, and setting fire to buildings. High numbers of suicides took place in many other locations, including Neubrandenburg (600 dead), Stolp in Pommern (1,000 dead), and Berlin, where at least 7,057 people committed suicide in 1945.
Main article: German casualties in World War II
Further information: World War II casualties
Estimates of the total German war dead range from 5.5 to 6.9 million persons. A study by German historian Rüdiger Overmans puts the number of German military dead and missing at 5.3 million, including 900,000 men conscripted from outside of Germany's 1937 borders.Richard Overy estimated in 2014 that about 353,000 civilians were killed in Allied air raids. Other civilian deaths include 300,000 Germans (including Jews) who were victims of Nazi political, racial, and religious persecution and 200,000 who were murdered in the Nazi euthanasia program. Political courts called Sondergerichte sentenced some 12,000 members of the German resistance to death, and civil courts sentenced an additional 40,000 Germans.Mass rapes of German women also took place.
Main article: Territorial evolution of Germany
As a result of their defeat in World War I and the resulting Treaty of Versailles, Germany lost Alsace-Lorraine, Northern Schleswig, and Memel. The Saarland became a protectorate of France under the condition that its residents would later decide by referendum which country to join, and Poland became a separate nation and was given access to the sea by the creation of the Polish Corridor, which separated Prussia from the rest of Germany, while Danzig was made a free city.
Germany regained control of the Saarland through a referendum held in 1935 and annexed Austria in the Anschluss of 1938. The Munich Agreement of 1938 gave Germany control of the Sudetenland, and they seized the remainder of Czechoslovakia six months later.Under threat of invasion by sea, Lithuania surrendered the Memel district in March 1939.
Between 1939 and 1941, German forces invaded Poland, Denmark, Norway, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Belgium, Yugoslavia, Greece, and the Soviet Union. Germany annexed parts of northern Yugoslavia in April 1941, while Mussolini ceded Trieste, South Tyrol, and Istria to Germany in 1943.
Some of the conquered territories were incorporated into Germany as part of Hitler's long-term goal of creating a Greater Germanic Reich. Several areas, such as Alsace-Lorraine, were placed under the authority of an adjacent Gau (regional district). The Reichskommissariate (Reich Commissariats), quasi-colonial regimes, were established in some occupied countries. Areas placed under German administration included the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, Reichskommissariat Ostland (encompassing the Baltic states and Belarus), and Reichskommissariat Ukraine. Conquered areas of Belgium and France were placed under control of the Military Administration in Belgium and Northern France. Belgian Eupen-Malmedy, which had been part of Germany until 1919, was annexed. Part of Poland was incorporated into the Reich, and the General Government was established in occupied central Poland. The governments of Denmark, Norway (Reichskommissariat Norwegen), and the Netherlands (Reichskommissariat Niederlande) were placed under civilian administrations staffed largely by natives.[l] Hitler intended to eventually incorporate many of these areas into the Reich. Germany occupied the Italian protectorate of Albania and the Italian governorate of Montenegro in 1943 and installed a puppet government in occupied Serbia in 1941.
Main article: Nazism
The Nazis were a far-right fascist political party which arose during the social and financial upheavals that occurred following the end of World War I. The Party remained small and marginalised, receiving 2.6% of the federal vote in 1928, prior to the onset of the Great Depression in 1929. By 1930 the Party won 18.3% of the federal vote, making it the Reichstag's second largest political party. While in prison after the failed Beer Hall Putsch of 1923, Hitler wrote Mein Kampf, which laid out his plan for transforming German society into one based on race. Nazi ideology brought together elements of antisemitism, racial hygiene, and eugenics, and combined them with pan-Germanism and territorial expansionism with the goal of obtaining more Lebensraum for the Germanic people. The regime attempted to obtain this new territory by attacking Poland and the Soviet Union, intending to deport or kill the Jews and Slavs living there, who were viewed as being inferior to the Aryan master race and part of a Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy. The Nazi regime believed that only Germany could defeat the forces of Bolshevism and save humanity from world domination by International Jewry. Other people deemed life unworthy of life by the Nazis included the mentally and physically disabled, Romani people, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, and social misfits.
Influenced by the Völkisch movement, the regime was against cultural modernism and supported the development of an extensive military at the expense of intellectualism. Creativity and art were stifled, except where they could serve as propaganda media. The party used symbols such as the Blood Flag and rituals such as the Nazi Party rallies to foster unity and bolster the regime's popularity.
Main article: Government of Nazi Germany
Hitler ruled Germany autocratically by asserting the Führerprinzip ("leader principle"), which called for absolute obedience by all subordinates. He viewed the government structure as a pyramid, with himself—the infallible leader—at the apex. Party rank was not determined by elections, and positions were filled through appointment by those of higher rank. The party used propaganda to develop a cult of personality around Hitler. Historians such as Kershaw emphasise the psychological impact of Hitler's skill as an orator. Roger Gill states: "His moving speeches captured the minds and hearts of a vast number of the German people: he virtually hypnotized his audiences".
While top officials reported to Hitler and followed his policies, they had considerable autonomy. He expected officials to "work towards the Führer" – to take the initiative in promoting policies and actions in line with party goals and Hitler's wishes, without his involvement in day-to-day decision-making. The government was a disorganised collection of factions led by the party elite, who struggled to amass power and gain the Führer's favour. Hitler's leadership style was to give contradictory orders to his subordinates and to place them in positions where their duties and responsibilities overlapped. In this way he fostered distrust, competition, and infighting among his subordinates to consolidate and maximise his own power.
Successive Reichsstatthalter decrees between 1933 and 1935 abolished the existing Länder (constituent states) of Germany and replaced them with new administrative divisions, the Gaue, governed by Nazi leaders (Gauleiters). The change was never fully implemented, as the Länder were still used as administrative divisions for some government departments such as education. This led to a bureaucratic tangle of overlapping jurisdictions and responsibilities typical of the administrative style of the Nazi regime.
Jewish civil servants lost their jobs in 1933, except for those who had seen military service in World War I. Members of the Party or party supporters were appointed in their place. As part of the process of Gleichschaltung, the Reich Local Government Law of 1935 abolished local elections, and mayors were appointed by the Ministry of the Interior.
Main article: Law in Nazi Germany
In August 1934, civil servants and members of the military were required to swear an oath of unconditional obedience to Hitler. These laws became the basis of the Führerprinzip, the concept that Hitler's word overrode all existing laws. Any acts that were sanctioned by Hitler—even murder—thus became legal. All legislation proposed by cabinet ministers had to be approved by the office of Deputy FührerRudolf Hess, who could also veto top civil service appointments.
Most of the judicial system and legal codes of the Weimar Republic remained in place to deal with non-political crimes. The courts issued and carried out far more death sentences than before the Nazis took power. People who were convicted of three or more offences—even petty ones—could be deemed habitual offenders and jailed indefinitely. People such as prostitutes and pickpockets were judged to be inherently criminal and a threat to the community. Thousands were arrested and confined indefinitely without trial.
A new type of court, the Volksgerichtshof ("People's Court"), was established in 1934 to deal with political cases. This court handed out over 5,000 death sentences until its dissolution in 1945. The death penalty could be issued for offences such as being a communist, printing seditious leaflets, or even making jokes about Hitler or other officials. The Gestapo was in charge of investigative policing to enforce Nazi ideology as they located and confined political offenders, Jews, and others deemed undesirable. Political offenders who were released from prison were often immediately re-arrested by the Gestapo and confined in a concentration camp.
The Nazis used propaganda to promulgate the concept of Rassenschande ("race defilement") to justify the need for racial laws. In September 1935, the Nuremberg Laws were enacted. These laws initially prohibited sexual relations and marriages between Aryans and Jews and were later extended to include "Gypsies, Negroes or their bastard offspring". The law also forbade the employment of German women under the age of 45 as domestic servants in Jewish households. The Reich Citizenship Law stated that only those of "German or related blood" could be citizens. Thus Jews and other non-Aryans were stripped of their German citizenship. The law also permitted the Nazis to deny citizenship to anyone who was not supportive enough of the regime. A supplementary decree issued in November defined as Jewish anyone with three Jewish grandparents, or two grandparents if the Jewish faith was followed.
Military and paramilitary
Main article: Wehrmacht
See also: Myth of the clean Wehrmacht
The unified armed forces of Germany from 1935 to 1945 were called the Wehrmacht (defence force). This included the Heer (army), Kriegsmarine (navy), and the Luftwaffe (air force). From 2 August 1934, members of the armed forces were required to pledge an oath of unconditional obedience to Hitler personally. In contrast to the previous oath, which required allegiance to the constitution of the country and its lawful establishments, this new oath required members of the military to obey Hitler even if they were being ordered to do something illegal. Hitler decreed that the army would have to tolerate and even offer logistical support to the Einsatzgruppen—the mobile death squads responsible for millions of deaths in Eastern Europe—when it was tactically possible to do so.Wehrmacht troops also participated directly in the Holocaust by shooting civilians or committing genocide under the guise of anti-partisan operations. The party line was that the Jews were the instigators of the partisan struggle and therefore needed to be eliminated. On 8 July 1941, Heydrich announced that all Jews in the eastern conquered territories were to be regarded as partisans and gave the order for all male Jews between the ages of 15 and 45 to be shot. By August, this was extended to include the entire Jewish population.
In spite of efforts to prepare the country militarily, the economy could not sustain a lengthy war of attrition. A strategy was developed based on the tactic of Blitzkrieg ("lightning war"), which involved using quick coordinated assaults that avoided enemy strong points. Attacks began with artillery bombardment, followed by bombing and strafing runs. Next the tanks would attack and finally the infantry would move in to secure the captured area. Victories continued through mid-1940, but the failure to defeat Britain was the first major turning point in the war. The decision to attack the Soviet Union and the decisive defeat at Stalingrad led to the retreat of the German armies and the eventual loss of the war. The total number of soldiers who served in the Wehrmacht from 1935 to 1945 was around 18.2 million, of whom 5.3 million died.
The SA and SS
Main articles: Sturmabteilung and Schutzstaffel
The Sturmabteilung (SA; Storm Detachment), or Brownshirts, founded in 1921, was the first paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party; their initial assignment was to protect Nazi leaders at rallies and assemblies. They also took part in street battles against the forces of rival political parties and violent actions against Jews and others. Under Ernst Röhm's leadership the SA grew by 1934 to over half a million members—4.5 million including reserves—at a time when the regular army was still limited to 100,000 men by the Versailles Treaty.
Röhm hoped to assume command of the army and absorb it into the ranks of the SA. Hindenburg and Defence Minister Werner von Blomberg threatened to impose martial law if the activities of the SA were not curtailed. Therefore, less than a year and a half after seizing power, Hitler ordered the deaths of the SA leadership, including Rohm. After the purge of 1934, the SA was no longer a major force.
Initially a small bodyguard unit under the auspices of the SA, the Schutzstaffel (SS; Protection Squadron) grew to become one of the largest and most powerful groups in Nazi Germany. Led by Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler from 1929, the SS had over a quarter million members by 1938. Himmler initially envisioned the SS as being an elite group of guards, Hitler's last line of defence. The Waffen-SS, the military branch of the SS, evolved into a second army. It was dependent on the regular army for heavy weaponry and equipment, and most units were under tactical control of the High Command of the Armed Forces (OKW). By the end of 1942, the stringent selection and racial requirements that had initially been in place were no longer followed. With recruitment and conscription based only on expansion, by 1943 the Waffen-SS could not longer claim to be an elite fighting force.
SS formations committed many war crimes against civilians and allied servicemen. From 1935 onward, the SS spearheaded the persecution of Jews, who were rounded up into ghettos and concentration camps. With the outbreak of World War II, the SS Einsatzgruppen units followed the army into Poland and the Soviet Union, where from 1941 to 1945 they killed more than two million people, including 1.3 million Jews. A third of the Einsatzgruppen members were recruited from Waffen-SS personnel. The SS-Totenkopfverbände (death's head units) ran the concentration camps and extermination camps, where millions more were killed. Up to 60,000 Waffen-SS men served in the camps.
In 1931, Himmler organised an SS intelligence service which became known as the Sicherheitsdienst (SD; Security Service) under his deputy, Heydrich. This organisation was tasked with locating and arresting communists and other political opponents.
Europe at the Beginning of December 1941
This map shows the territorial and political situation of Europe in December 1941, more than two years after the beginning of the Second World War. At that point in time, the territory occupied by Germany and its allies stretched from the western coast of France to the Black Sea. In the north, Denmark and Norway had been occupied; in the south, Germany and the Axis Powers had managed to advance as far as Crete. After a series of “Blitzkriege,” Hitler had succeeded in extending his power to virtually the entire European continent. After the invasion of Poland in 1939, German armed forces conquered Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France, in quick succession. After the signing of Franco-German Armistice on June 22, 1940, France was divided in two: the northern portion of the country was under German occupation, while the southern portion of the country was governed by the collaborationist Vichy Regime. In early March/April 1941, Yugoslavia and Greece were also occupied, and German troops cooperated with Italian forces in the Mediterranean area, above all in Northern Africa. The state of Yugoslavia was dissolved; the state of Croatia was founded. Success eluded Hitler only in the air war against England. On June 22, 1941, the Wehrmacht invaded the Soviet Union, registering initial successes there. That same month, Romania joined the war on the side of the Axis Powers. In the southern part of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was occupied; in the northern part, the Baltic states. On December 5, 1941, Estonia became the last Baltic state to be incorporated into the "Reich Commissariat Ostland". It remained an operational area for the army, however, which is why it is marked both as an occupied territory and an operational area in this map. After Japan launched a surprise attack on the U.S. at Pearl Harbor, Hitler kept a promise he had made to the Japanese government and declared war on the U.S. in December 1941. Germany and its allies were now fighting in Russia, the Balkans, Africa, and on the oceans against the Allied forces of America, England, the Soviet Union, and the French government in exile.
Please click on print version (below) for a larger version with enhanced resolution.
Cartography by Mapping Solutions, Alaska.
Source: "Europe at the Beginning of December 1941," in Germany and the Second World War, edited by the Research Institute for Military History, Potsdam, Germany. Volume IV, The Attack on the Soviet Union, by Horst Boog, Jürgen Förster, Joachim Hoffmann, Ernst Klink, Rolf-Dieter Müller, and Gerd R. Ueberschär. Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1998.
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30 June 1940 – 9 May 1945 (Rest)
German Zone of Protection in Slovakia
Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia
Main article: Anschluss § End of an independent AustriaNone. Although there was substantial popular support in Austria for some type of (re)unification with Germany, Chancellors Engelbert Dollfuss and his successor Kurt Schuschnigg wanted to maintain at least some type of independence. Dollfuss had implemented an authoritarian regime now termed Austrofascism, continued by Schussnigg, which imprisoned many members of the Austrian Nazi Party and the Social Democratic Party which both favored unification. Violence by Austrian Nazi Party members including the assassination of Dollfuss, along with German propaganda and ultimately threats of invasion by Adolf Hitler, eventually led Schuschnigg to capitulate and resign. Hitler, however, did not wait for his hand-picked successor, Austrian Nazi Arthur Seyss-Inquart, to be sworn in and ordered German troops to invade Austria at dawn on 12 March 1938, where they were met with cheering crowds and an Austrian army previously ordered not to resist.
Provisional Government of the French Republic
Military Administration in Belgium and Northern France
Military Administration in France
Realm Commissariat of Belgium and Northern France
Civil Administration Area of Luxembourg
Realm Commissariat of Belgium and Northern France
German occupied territory of Montenegro
Independent State of Croatia
Independent State of Macedonia
Territory of the Military Commander in Serbia
Provisional Government of Lithuania
23 June 1941 – 5 August 1941
General Government administration
Reich Commissariat East
Reich Commissariat Ukraine
Gau East Prussia
Reichsgau Danzig-West Prussia
Government of National Salvation
Military Administration in the Soviet Union
Reich Commissariat East
Reich Commissariat Ukraine
42 maps that explain World War II
World War II was a great tragedy, claiming 60 million lives and throwing millions more into turmoil. Yet the war also spurred rapid technological development, hastened the end of colonialism, and laid the foundation for institutions like the United Nations and the European Union. Here are 42 maps that explain the conflict — how it started, why the Allies won, and how it has shaped the modern world.
1) World War II, animated
World War II was the biggest conflict in world history, with major battles on three continents and some of the largest naval engagements in history. This amazingly detailed animated map, by YouTube user Emperor Tigerstar, provides a global view of the conflict. It shows Japanese conquests in the Pacific, German gains in Europe, and then the slow but inexorable Allied effort to recapture the lost territory. The full YouTube animation, available here is even more detailed, with a frame for each day of the war.
2) The Allied countries had larger economies, a crucial factor in their triumph
A lot of factors contributed to the ultimate victory of the Allies over the Axis powers. But the most important factor was economics. Once the United States and the Soviet Union entered on the Allied side of the war in 1941, the combined economic output of the Allies was approximately twice that of the Axis powers. And that was crucial because World War II was the most mechanized war in history up to that point. Troops needed a constant supply of new tanks, guns, airplanes, ships, bombs, and other manufactured goods. It was only a matter of time before the gap in economic output provided a decisive advantage on the battlefield.
3) After World War I, the allies took territory away from Germany
Meeting in Paris in 1919, at the end of World War I, the victorious Allies redrew the map of Europe. They dismembered the former Austro-Hungarian Empire and shrank the borders of Germany, creating several new countries in Central Europe. Adolf Hitler exploited German resentment of the war’s outcome to aid his rise to power. When Hitler began forcefully annexing territory to his east in 1938, it provoked a political crisis and, a year later, the start of World War II.
The Axis (and the Soviet Union) attacks
4) Japan and China were already at war in 1937
People often describe World War II as beginning in September 1939 when Germany invaded Poland. But Japan and China had already been at war for several years at that point. China was politically chaotic in the early 1930s, and Japan saw opportunities for territorial expansion. Japan established a puppet state called Manchukuo in Manchuria in 1932 and dispatched troops to the area. Tensions escalated into full-scale war by 1937. This map shows the situation in 1940; the areas in pink were under Japanese control. Japan never gained full control of China, but neither could Chinese forces under Chiang Kai-shek expel the Japanese from Chinese territory without help from the United States.
5) Hitler demands the Sudetenland, the German-speaking parts of Czechoslovakia
Hitler annexed neighboring Austria in 1938, an event that was welcomed by many of the country’s inhabitants. Next, he set his sights on the Sudetenland, a region of Czechoslovakia with large German-speaking populations. This map shows the fraction of German speakers in each of the judicial districts in the modern-day Czech Republic (which was then the western half of Czechoslovakia) in the 1930s. As you can see, areas near the borders with Germany (to the Northwest) and Austria (to the Southwest) were predominantly German-speaking. Hitler claimed that these regions should be part of Germany, and his threats to take them by force sparked a political crisis. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain met with Hitler in Munich, in September 1938 to discuss the crisis. The Czechoslovakian government wasn’t invited the the negotiations. Chamberlain agreed to let Hitler annex these portions of Czechoslovakia in exchange for a promise from Hitler not to seek further territorial gains. Chamberlain declared that the agreement represented “peace for our time,” which of course it didn’t.
6) Germany and the Soviet Union shock the world with a non-aggression pact
People were used to thinking of Nazis and Communists as occupying opposite ends of the political spectrum, so the world was stunned in August 1939 when Hitler and Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin made a non-aggression pact. While the existence of the pact was made public, the world didn’t know about a secret addendum detailing Hitler and Stalin’s joint plan to dismember the countries that lay between them. So when Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, the British and French responded by declaring war on the Nazis. In contrast, Stalin merely made plans to invade Poland from the other direction. By the end of 1940, the Soviet Union had not only annexed part of Poland, but the nations of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia as well.
7) Russia invades Finland in the “winter war”
Americans mostly remember World War II as a conflict to stop aggression by Germany and Japan. But it’s important to remember that America’s ally, the Soviet Union, was also guilty of unprovoked aggression. Not only did Soviet troops annex the Eastern half of Poland shortly after Hitler invaded the country, but the Russians launched the little-remembered “Winter War” against Finland in November 1939. The vastly outnumbered Finnish troops put up a surprisingly stiff resistance, imposing heavy losses on a Russian army that wasn’t well prepared for combat in the bitterly cold environment of a Finnish winter. Finland fought the Soviets to a standstill, losing about 10 percent of their territory but maintaining their sovereignty. Finland’s hostility toward the Soviets forced the relatively liberal democracy into an awkward de facto alliance with Nazi Germany. As a result, Finland was diplomatically isolated after the war and wasn’t invited to join the anti-Soviet NATO alliance.
8) France’s Maginot Line helped more than you think
The trench warfare of World War I convinced the French that a strong defense would be crucial to stopping a future German invasion. So France constructed a series of fortifications known as the Maginot Line (the heavy blue line in the lower-right of the map here) that stretched along the common border between France and Germany. Hitler realized that a frontal assault on the Line would be counterproductive. Instead, in a repeat of German strategy from World War I, Germany attacked through Belgium and Holland, two small countries that lay north of France. The Germans soon reached the portion of the French border not protected by the Maginot Line. The pink region in this map shows German gains between May 10 and May 16, 1940. The Maginot Line has become a symbol for backwards-looking bureaucracies that waste resources “fighting the last war.” But this criticism is somewhat unfair. It’s true that the fixed defenses of the Line were less useful against highly mobile Nazi tanks than they would have been against German troops circa 1914. But the Maginot Line still played an important role in the defense of France. It forced early fighting to occur on Belgian rather than French soil, giving the French army time to mobilize before German troops arrived. And it allowed the French — whose army was smaller than Germany’s — to concentrate their forces along the portions of the border not protected by the Maginot Line. The Line didn’t stop the Germans from overrunning French defenses, but it probably helped.
The Allies besieged
9) Tens of thousands of British troops escape from Dunkirk
The war in France didn’t go well for the Allies. French and British troops were forced to retreat rapidly as German troops advanced. By May 21, German troops had encircled the British forces, effectively trapping them with their backs to the sea. As the Germans closed in from three sides (gaining the territory highlighted in pink here), the British troops were ordered to evacuate, which they did between May 27 and June 4. In all, 338,000 British and French troops escaped. While the circumstances that necessitated the evacuation weren’t good news for the Allies, the successful evacuation was a minor triumph. It saved hundreds of thousands of British troops who would go on to fight the Nazis later in the war.
10) The amphibious invasion of the United Kingdom that never happened
Germany knocked France out of the war by the end of June 1940, leaving the United Kingdom to face the Nazis alone. This map shows Hitler’s planned next step: an amphibious invasion of the British Isles. But first, Germany needed to gain control of the skies over Britain. The British were determined to prevent that. The conflict British Prime Minister Winston Churchill dubbed the “Battle of Britain” was the first large-scale conflict to be fought primarily in the air. It didn’t go well for the Nazis. Between July and October, they lost dramatically more airplanes than the British. British industry was able to build planes more quickly than their enemies could destroy them, something that wasn’t true for the Germans. As the British advantage in the air grew, Hitler was forced to shelve his invasion plans.
11) Hitler begins targeting British cities
As it became clear he wasn’t going to be able to destroy the Royal Air Force, Hitler switched strategies and began bombing British cities, an event that became known as the Blitz. Thanks to the Bomb Sight project, you can see an interactive map of bombs dropped on London between October 7, 1940, and June 6, 1941. These attacks took a heavy toll, with as many as 43,000 British civilians killed and 139,000 injured. And those Londoners not directly touched by tragedy were profoundly affected by having to spend many long, uncomfortable nights in bomb shelters. Hitler hoped that attacking civilian populations could break the spirit of the British people, but he underestimated his foes. Brits emerged from months of bombings as determined as ever. The British and Americans bombers would subject German cities to even more intensive bombings later in the war. A three-day bombing campaign against Dresden in February 1945 took more than 20,000 German lives.
12) A Nazi-friendly French government takes power in Vichy
Officially, Germany didn’t complete its conquest of France in 1940. Instead, France signed an armistice that preserved a degree of French sovereignty in the southern parts of France that had not yet been overrun by German troops. In a July 10 vote, the French Parliament voted to give power to a new, Nazi-friendly regime under former general Philippe Pétain. What sovereignty the Vichy government had was ended in November 1942, when the Nazis occupied the rest of France. While the Vichy government maintained nominal control after 1942, it was a puppet regime for the remainder of the war. The degree to which the Vichy regime collaborated with the Nazis — including participation in the persecution of Jews — has been a source of controversy and recrimination in French society ever since.
The USA and USSR are drawn into the conflict
13) Hitler betrays Stalin and invades Russia
In 1939, Hitler had signed a pact vowing not to attack the Soviet Union. But in June 1941 Hitler broke his promise and invaded his eastern neighbor. In the first few months, the campaign was stunningly successful. The Nazis were able to drive hundreds of miles east and reach the outskirts of Moscow by October. But then Stalin was saved by the bitterly cold winter. The Soviets had more experience operating in cold weather and were better prepared than the Nazis. German equipment was not designed for below-zero temperatures, German soldiers were under-dressed, and they lacked essentials such as antifreeze. Germany never took Moscow, and that failure proved to be a crucial turning point in the war. Germany simply didn’t have the manpower or industrial base to fight a prolonged two-front war against the Soviet Union and the British Empire.
14) The Nazis begin a gruesome siege of Leningrad
One of the worst places to be during World War II was in Leningrad (modern-day St. Petersburg), which is located at a strategic location on the Gulf of Finland. When the Germans reached Leningrad in September 1941, they decided to simply encircle the city and starve its inhabitants into submission. They received some assistance from the nearby Finns, who took territory north of Leningrad. Hundreds of thousands of Leningrad residents died in the winter of 1941-42. The worst month of the famine, February 1942, had days when more than 20,000 people died. The city’s suffering would have been even worse if the Soviets had not succeeded in building the “Road of Life,” a route across the frozen Lake Ladoga that allowed some provisions to be brought into the city and some civilians to be sent out. The city remained under siege for more than two years before the Red Army finally drove the Nazis out of the area.
15) The Japanese stage a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor
As war raged in Europe and Asia, Americans remained ambivalent about the conflict. Many took a dim view of America’s involvement in World War I, and they didn’t want to send their sons to die on distant battlefields again. But everything changed on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese launched a surprise attack on the US Pacific Fleet in Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor. This map shows which ships were in the harbor that morning and how much damage the Japanese attack did. Japan regarded US entry into the war as inevitable (America had already imposed trade restrictions over Japanese attacks in China), and they hoped that a surprise attack would destroy enough of the American Navy to ensure Japanese dominance of the sea. This proved to be a miscalculation. For one thing, the most powerful ships in the American fleet, its aircraft carriers, were not in the area on that fateful day. But more important, the American economy was more than five times as large as Japan’s — the US quickly replaced the ships that had been destroyed, and would eventually build many more.
16) The Japanese empire expands in the Pacific
Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor was intended to knock the US Navy out of commission, clearing the way for an ambitious military campaign in the Pacific. It is illustrated by this map prepared by Douglas MacArthur, one of the top American commanders in the Pacific. (Solid lines show actual Japanese attacks, dotted lines show attacks the Americans feared could come next.) In the months after the Hawaii attack, the Japanese attacked the Philippines, Burma, New Guinea, and the Dutch East Indies. The Japanese took the British colonies of Hong Kong in December and Singapore in February. By the summer of 1942, the Japanese had conquered a broad swath of Southeast Asia, shattering the aura of European and American invincibility that had allowed Western nations to dominate the region for so long.
17) Japanese kill thousands in the Bataan Death March
When the Japanese invaded the Philippines, a US colony at the time, the American and Filipino troops stationed there were outgunned, and they soon got cornered on the Bataan Peninsula. They surrendered after a 3-month siege. The victorious Japanese took around 75,000 prisoners, including around 10,000 American troops. The prisoners were then forced to march 65 miles up the peninsula to San Fernando, where they boarded railcars bound for a prisoner-of-war camp further north. Japanese troops beat the prisoners, denied them food and water, and coldly executed stragglers. Precise casualty counts are disputed, but it is believed that the march cost hundreds of American lives along with several thousand Filipinos. The Bataan Death March, as it became known to Americans, was hardly the worst atrocity of the war — the Japanese atrocities in Nanking killed many more non-combatants, for example. But Bataan was one of the biggest atrocities to take American lives, and so became widely known in the United States. A Japanese general who oversaw the Philippines campaign was tried for war crimes and executed in 1946.
18) Hitler suffers a crucial defeat in the Battle of Stalingrad
After a 1941 campaign that tried and failed to take the northerly cities of Moscow and Leningrad, Hitler turned his attention to the south in 1942. The plan was to capture the Caucasus and its rich oil fields. But in what historian Max Hastings calls “the decisive blunder of the war in the east,” Hitler decided in July to divert a large part of his forces to capture the city of Stalingrad, which is on the right-hand side of the map here. Stalingrad didn’t have any great strategic importance, but the city’s name gave the fight symbolic significance for both Hitler and Stalin. Weeks of brutal urban warfare followed, as the German’s sought to take the city one building at a time. In November, the Russians launched a counteroffensive to relieve the city, encircling the German attackers and taking tens of thousands of prisoners. The Stalingrad conflict cost the Germans as many as 800,000 casualties, while Soviet casualties numbered more than a million. Many historians consider the Battle of Stalingrad to be a decisive turning point in the European war.
The Allies retake Europe and Africa
19) Britain goes to war in North Africa
After the fall of France, Britain didn’t have the military strength required to mount an amphibious invasion of the Axis-held European continent. But British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was anxious to demonstrate to his people that Britain could continue making a contribution in the fight against fascism. So he dispatched troops to North Africa, where he hoped to dislodge the Italians — a German ally — from their colony in Libya. The British routed the Italians, taking tens of thousands of prisoners. But an exasperated Hitler dispatched a contingent of German troops commanded by the brilliant Erwin Rommel, who was able to reverse some of the British gains and extend the war in North Africa for another two years.
20) De Gaulle’s conquests in Africa
Of the French troops evacuated to Dunkirk, three quarters asked to be sent home to France, where they would be under the authority of the Nazi-friendly Vichy regime. But a minority of French troops opted to join the Free French, a government-in-exile led by Charles de Gaulle. Over the next few years, de Gaulle and his troops fought alongside the Allies. This map shows one of de Gaulle’s most important contributions to the Allied cause: wresting control of many of France’s colonial possessions away from the Vichy government. These military victories deprived Hitler of much-needed resources while building up de Gaulle’s own legitimacy in the eyes of the French people.
21) The Allies invade Italy
In 1943, the Western Allies still doubted they were strong enough for a direct assault on the Germans in France. So they attacked the Italian Peninsula instead. They hoped to knock the Italians out of the war, leaving Germany to fight the Allies alone. An amphibious assault on Italy began in September 1943. While the Allies did make progress up the Italian peninsula, it was too slow to play a decisive role in the outcome of the war. The British and Americans were still working their way north nine months later when they opened up another front with an amphibious landing in France.
22) A massive invasion on the beaches of Normandy
Since 1941, Stalin had been urging his British and American allies to open a second front in France. The stakes of such an invasion couldn’t have been higher. A failed amphibious landing could have not only cost tens of thousands of lives, it would have handed the Nazis a valuable propaganda victory as well and shaken the world’s confidence in the Allies. The Western Allies finally felt ready to retake France in June 1944. This map shows the invasion plan, which was dubbed Operation Overlord. It involved the amphibious landing of 150,000 British, American, French, and Canadian troops to beaches in Normandy, across the English Channel from Great Britain.
23) The Allies advance in Europe
Operation Overlord succeeded. The summer and fall of 1944 saw the Axis powers in Europe retreating along all fronts. In the West, British, American, and French troops recaptured France. In the East, the Soviets took parts of Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and the Balkan nations. The Allies also advanced somewhat on the Italian front. This progress set the stage for the final advance on Germany’s homeland in 1945.
24) The Soviet Union’s sacrifice dwarfed that of the Western allies
For obvious reasons, American memories of World War II focus on episodes where the United States or our English-speaking allies played an important role. But it’s important to remember that the people of the Soviet Union bore a disproportionate share of the burden in fighting the German war machine. The Americans and British each suffered around 400,000 deaths of military personnel. France suffered 200,000. The number of Soviet deaths is disputed, but the Soviets lost at least 8.6 million soldiers and possibly as many as 13.8 million. In other words, around 90 percent of the Allies who died fighting the Nazis were Soviet.
25) The aircraft carrier
The aircraft carrier came of age during World War II. In previous wars, ships shot at each other with increasingly powerful and long-range guns. Aircraft carriers rendered these older ships practically obsolete. Ships became floating platforms for aircraft that could fly much further than any gun could shoot, dropping bombs or torpedoes on enemy ships. The major naval battles of World War II revolved around each side’s efforts to sink the other’s carriers. This aerial photographs shows the first three American aircraft carriers, Lexington (top), Saratoga (middle), Langley (bottom) moored at Bremerton, WA, in 1929.
When Germany tried to bomb Great Britain into submission in 1940, the Brits had a secret weapon: a new technology called radar that allowed them to “see” incoming aircraft while they were still crossing the English channel. That allowed the defenders to send up their own pilots to intercept the attackers. The Germans had developed their own radar technology, but the British developed much better techniques for integrating the intelligence obtained from radar to guide tactical decisions.
27) The Manhattan Project
The Manhattan Project, the top-secret project to develop the first atomic bombs, was one of the most ambitious and expensive military research projects in history. The project employed as many as 130,000 people and cost more than $2 billion (about $25 billion in modern-day dollars). This map shows the sites where the most important Manhattan Project work was conducted. A key site was in Oak Ridge, TN, where the military constructed facilities for separating uranium. The scientific research needed to develop the bomb was centered at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. The Hanford Engineer Works facility near Richland, WA, was the site of plutonium enrichment efforts. Scientists detonated the first nuclear explosion in history at the Trinity Test Site in New Mexico on July 16, 1945.
28) The Allied code-breaking advantage
The British and Americans enjoyed a huge strategic advantage: for much of the war, they could decipher their enemies’ coded messages. The center for British code-breaking was Bletchley Park, an estate about 50 miles northwest of London. Here, a team of brilliant mathematicians and code-breakers, backed by as many as 9,000 support staff (predominantly women), analyzed coded enemy messages that had been transmitted by radio. To help them break the sophisticated German codes, the Bletchley Park team constructed some of the world’s most elaborate computing devices, which became the forerunners of modern computers. American code-breakers enjoyed similar success in cracking Japanese codes. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, US commander Dwight Eisenhower, and other observers all gave these code-breaking efforts a major share of the credit for winning the war. This map shows the modern-day Bletchley Park, which has been turned into a museum.
29) Germany’s V-2 rocket
While American and British scientists were inventing the atomic bomb, German scientists were creating a super-weapon of their own: the long-range V-2 rocket. Between September 1944 and April 1945, the Germans fired around 3,000 V-2 rockets at Allied targets, killing at least 7,000 people. While the V-2 was a technological marvel, it wasn’t a terribly practical weapon. It was expensive, and unlike bombers it could only be used once. V-2 rockets were not accurate enough to reliably hit high-value military targets. The V-2 was the forerunner of the Intercontinental ballistic missiles the US and the USSR both developed in the 1950s to deliver nuclear warheads. Many of the German scientists who had built the V-2 went on to build rockets for the American space program.
30) The Battle of Midway was a turning point in the Pacific War
The turning point in the Pacific war came in June 1942, when American and Japanese naval forces met near the American-held Midway Islands. The Japanese attacked the islands, hoping to provoke a battle with what they expected to be an inferior American fleet. But the Americans had cracked the Japanese codes, so they knew exactly what they were up to. On June 4, four Japanese aircraft carriers (on the left in this map) engaged three American ones (at right). The Japanese made the mistake of launching an initial strike against land-based forces on Midway rather than against the American carriers. That allowed the US to launch the first carrier-to-carrier attack of the battle. The results were devastating: all four Japanese carriers suffered fatal blows. The single remaining Japanese carrier managed to cripple the American carrier Yorktown, which sank the next day. Still, the battle marked a turning point in the Pacific War. The Japanese, whose navy had previously dominated the Pacific, struggled to replace the carriers it lost at Midway. A growing fleet of American aircraft carriers soon had the Japanese on the defensive.
31) A desperate Japanese gambit at Leyte Gulf
In October 1944, American and Japanese forces fought one of the biggest and most dramatic naval battles of the war. The Americans were trying to retake the Philippines, and they decided to begin by taking the island of Leyte. By this point, the Japanese were severely outgunned, but they staged a last, desperate effort to ward off defeat. The Japanese divided their forces up into three groups. One group of Japanese ships approached from the west and were attacked by American aircraft carriers (#1 on the map). The second group of Japanese ships — a group of four under-supplied aircraft carriers the Japanese hoped to sacrifice as decoys — appeared to the north, drawing America’s aircraft carriers away from the invasion site. (Toward #3 on the map.) Meanwhile, the final group of Japanese ships attacked from the south, drawing additional American ships away (#2 on the map). That left the American invasion force in the Leyte Gulf vulnerable. The middle Japanese group steamed east and caught the few remaining ships by surprise. The Americans were desperately outgunned and lost several ships. The Japanese could have inflicted more damage, but their commander lost his nerve. Fearing that more powerful American ships were about to return from the south, he broke off his own attack and retreated after a little more than 2 hours of fighting. The Japanese not only failed to stop the invasion in the Philippines, they lost so many ships that they would never again be able to launch an attack of this scale.
32) American bombs devastate Japanese cities
Germany map 1940
Then lie down on the desk and lift your legs. - Vasya commanded and let me go. I lowered my back on the desk.German News 1944
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