CHAPTER EIGHTEEN: THE SECOND WORLD WAR AND THE HOLOCAUST
Royal Air Force
Marshal Henri Philippe Petain
Battle of Britain
Unrestricted Submarine Warfare
war of attrition
“guns and butter”
“Holocaust by bullets.”
“working toward the Führer”
Marshal Pietro Badoglio
Battle of Stalingrad
Battle of the Bulge
What are some ways in which the Second World War was a more intensively “total” war than the First World War?
What are some of the major battles and campaigns of the early years of the war (1939-1941)?
In what way(s) did the tide turn against the Axis power circa 1941-1942?
What is the connection between the military campaigns on the Eastern Front and the Holocaust?
What factor(s) caused the Axis powers in Europe to collapse in the later years of the war (1944-1945)?
The Nature of War
True World War.
Before it was finished, the conflict that began when Hitler’s columns sliced into Poland made even the Great War of 1914-1918 look like a small-time affair. In its scope, it truly was much more of a world war than the First World War had been. Although Europe was still the main theater of operations, the importance of other areas of the world and the battles fought around the world were much greater than in World War I – and the fate of Europe depended much more on the battles fought at places like El Alamein in North Africa and Midway Island in the Pacific – than it had in World War I, when the fighting was almost all consigned to Europe.
World War II also dwarfed World War I in another regard: the total effort and risk required of its participants. The Second World War involved not only the men fighting at the front lines, but it involved the whole population in the war industry, as well as in the casualty figures. It was another example of total war, in which the participants mobilized their whole populations for the war effort. All industry was turned into producing war materials. For example, in the USA the Singer Sewing Machine Company was mass producing rifles. Of course, we saw this phenomenon in World War I but that conflict did not also see the saturation bombing of cities and the systematic extermination of whole populations, both of which came about in World War II (in the form of the Holocaust and the dropping of the Atomic Bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki). None of this was even dreamt of in World War I.
War of Technology.
Just as World War I had seen the advent of new weaponry, World War II was also a war of technology:
Naval warfare was revolutionized by the appearance of the aircraft carrier- which was decisive in the war in the Pacific.
Radar & Sonar.
Two new technological advances that came into use during the Second World War and made a major contribution was radar, which could detect incoming planes, and sonar, which was used on board ships to detect submarines beneath the surface.
The Second World War was also a war of information and intelligence, with all the participants engaged in the breaking of each other’s secret codes, so that their secret objectives were no longer secrets. The US and Britain broke the German and Japanese codes during the war.
Jets, Rockets & Atomic Bombs.
There were several innovations that came about late in the War, which pointed to the grim future of war: The jet aircraft, liquid fuel rockets, and the atomic bomb.
Most Destructive Conflict in Human History.
Partly because of all the new technology that came about in World War II, it was the most destructive conflict in human history in terms of lives lost and property destroyed. At least 17 million men died on the battlefields, while 18 million noncombatants lost their lives.
Russia suffered most heavily with 6,115,000 military deaths and over 14 million wounded- while the civilian deaths were around 10 million.
The Germans also suffered tremendously losing 6 million soldiers, over 7 million wounded, 1,300,000 missing and very heavy civilian losses.
Military expenditures in the war was over a trillion dollars and the damage to property was incalculable.
PAUSE for 60-second Quiz Question #1: What are some ways in which the Second World War was a more intensively “total” war than the First World War? Which of the following examples is NOT true?
WWII saw aircraft carriers used for the first time.
WWII saw atomic bombs dropped on civilians.
WWII saw conventional bombs dropped on civilians.
WWII saw genocide used as a weapon to achieve war-related goals.
The Years of Axis Victories (Germany, Italy, and Japan): 1939-1942.
The Second World War was a war of great mobility and this was shown definitively in the Polish Campaign in which it took Hitler’s tanks and air force only a month to conquer Poland. The Luftwaffe (Germany’s air force) destroyed the Polish air force on the ground and disrupted transportation and communication facilities. The German armored columns poured across the Polish border using the tactics of Blitzkrieg which the famed German General Erwin Rommel later defined as “the art of concentrating strength at one point, forcing a breakthrough, rolling up and securing the flanks on either side, and then penetrating like lightning, before the enemy has time to react, deep into his rear.” Although the Poles fought valiantly, sending Cavalry forces out to attack the German Tanks, they vastly outnumbered and outgunned by the Germans.
On September 17th Soviet troops invaded and occupied eastern Poland. By early October, the war in Poland was over.
The British and French had remained true to their pledge to Poland and had declared war on Germany on September 3rd, 1939. The British sent all available combat troops to France, but there was no real action on the Western Front during the fall and winter of 1939 into the spring of 1940. This time was known as the “Phony War” (or Sitzrkrieg, which means “sitting war” in German), in which both sides were posturing and getting ready for the coming conflict.
Germany invaded Denmark and Norway next, in April of 1940. On April 9th, Nazi tanks rolled across the undefended frontier of Denmark and seized the capital without resistance from the Danes. German planes also dropped paratroopers into Norway the German navy landed infantry troops in the most important Norwegian coastal towns. Britain fought back by landing troops on the Norwegian coast, but these forces had no artillery and no antiaircraft defense, so that they were cut to ribbons and after a month of fighting, had to be withdrawn.
The main result of the failed British campaign in Norway was that it brought down the government of Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister who had championed the appeasement of Hitler. His place was filled by a man who, after years in the political wilderness, brought his great talents to the weighty task of defeating Germany and became the indomitable voice of Britain’s defiance of Hitler and the inspirer of victory: Winston Churchill.
Churchill had been a government minister during World War I and held office in Britain through the 1920’s. However, in the 1930’s everyone in Britain felt that Churchill’s political career was over. (He was in his late 50’s by this time.) Churchill foresaw the danger for Britain and the rest of Europe that Hitler posed after his capture of power in Germany. At a time when Britain was obsessed with maintaining peace at any costs and with carrying out the policy of appeasement, Churchill alone was calling out for Britain to rearm and to try and stop Hitler. Unfortunately, no one listened to him until it was too late.
Fall of France.
German Invasion of the Low Countries- Holland & Belgium.
Churchill certainly had his work cut out for him- for on the very day that he took office as prime minister, the German blitzkrieg rolled into Holland and later Belgium. The blitzkrieg was even more spectacular in Holland than it was in Poland and, by May 14th, the Dutch army had capitulated, and Queen Wilhelmina had fled to England.
By May 27th, Belgium was also overrun, and King Leopold II sued for peace. The collapse of Belgian resistance created a wide gap on the northeastern flank of the French and British armies who had been supporting the Belgians and they were forced back to the beaches of Dunkirk, where the British Royal Navy and a host of private vessels evacuated 338,000 troops back to England. These included almost all the British troops fighting in France as well as 139,000 French and Belgian troops.
The “miracle of Dunkirk,” as it was called, was in itself a kind of success, although Churchill in a speech to the House of Commons stated that ,“we must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.”
Deterioration of the Situation in France.
After Dunkirk, the military situation in France deteriorated rapidly. The French still had enough troops to equal the Germans and as many tanks and a superior number of artillery. However, the French had two weaknesses: they had fewer, and inferior, aircraft; and they had no real battle plan. The French asked for Churchill to ship to France all of his fighter planes to use against the Germans but Churchill sensed that the war in France was all but over and he knew that he would need the fighters to defend Britain if Hitler attacked. Churchill’s retention of the RAF (Royal Air Force) fighters in England proved to be a key factor in why Britain was able to hold out during the Battle of Britain, and may have won the war. On June 14th, the Germans entered Paris unopposed (the French surrendered it rather than try and hold it and have it destroyed by German armor and artillery).
In mid-June, Marshal Henri Philippe Petain, hero of the Battle of Verdun in World War I (1916), became the French premier and on June 17th, he asked the Germans for armistice terms. On June 22, the Petain government surrendered in the same railroad car in which the Germans had signed the armistice on November 11, 1918. Northern France and the entire Atlantic coastline were occupied by Germans. Petain established his government at Vichy in unoccupied southern France.
PAUSE for 60-second Quiz Question #2: What are some of the major battles and campaigns of the early years of the war (1939-1941)? Which statement is true?
Poland was conquered by both Germany and the Soviet Union in September 1939.
Denmark successfully defeated an attempted German invasion in April 1940.
France successfully defeated an attempted German invasion in May 1940.
The Netherlands provided important military assistance to protect France from German invasion in May 1940.
Turning the Tide?
Battle of Britain.
Now standing on the English Channel, Hitler began planning to take the war to the British Isles. “Operation Sea Lion” is still debated among military historians – did Hitler really want to invade? But he went ahead and ordered the Luftwaffe to begin bombing Britain in the summer of 1940.
The new Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, famously worked to reassure and instill confidence in the British people via radio addresses. While Hitler was trying to bomb airfields and factories to disable British war-time production capability and establish air superiority, Churchill cheered on the British people in their endurance, to survive and fight on in the name of liberty.
The Battle of Britain, as it is called, was the first battle fought entirely with airplanes, but the battle took a turn from a military contest to an example of “total war” when the Luftwaffe began to target non-military targets, such as government or public buildings and cultural landmarks. These and other such civilian targets were less directly related to wartime production than weapons storehouses and munitions factories. Yet slowing military production was not Hitler’s only goal. Rather he wanted to target public morale and try to break it.
The British in turn directed all their resources and energies into surviving and defeating the aerial bombing, building more anti-aircraft artillery, developing radar technology to better track and intercept enemy bombers, and detailing analysts to serve on a secretive but successful code-breaking team, to try to read German coded messages and then redirect British forces to counter them. Great Britain survived the Blitz and even out-produced aircraft over Germany by 50% by the end of 1940.
So, the Royal Air Force had a chance to recuperate and Luftwaffe losses forced Hitler to turn his attention elsewhere. It was now that Hitler got Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria to become part of the Axis alliance, which gave Hitler the immediate benefits of greater access to food and oil production capabilities.
Battle of the Atlantic.
Much like the situation in 1914, by 1940 Europe was at war but the United States was officially neutral. However, the US was selling arms and equipment to Great Britain as early as 1939. (The US would eventually supply the Soviet Union, also). Military equipment, as well as food and other supplies, was loaded into transport ships (called “victory ships”) and sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, but these ships were large, slow, and not armed like actual naval vessels.
The Germans declared Unrestricted Submarine Warfare and proceeded to intercept and sink these ships, saying that they considered resupplying their (Germany’s) enemies as an act of war against Germany. Thus, the German navy attacked merchant vessels, often with U-Boots (“Untersee Boot,” the German word for “submarine”) and sank them, to prevent Allied nations from gaining the benefit of their cargoes. To combat this threat, merchant ships grouped together into convoys and sailed with the guard of naval warships to escort them across the ocean. Eventually, the Americans were able to simply manufacture more ships than the Germans could sink, which is a good example of “war of attrition,” but that would not happen until the US was formally a belligerent (see below).
Once the Americans and British gained the ability to decipher these coded messages, they could more effectively combat (or just avoid) German ships. What is key to remember here is that, because of the “total” nature of the Second World War, the high seas (much like the factory floors) were just as important as the actual battlefield.
While Hitler was carrying out the blitz (“lightening,” in German) of Great Britain – the nearly nightly bombing sorties that reigned destruction down on Great Britain, with little effort to distinguish between military and civilian targets – Mussolini saw an opportunity to strike the British in North Africa on his own. Mussolini desired to enlarge his African empire (he already held Libya and Ethiopia), part of his quest to re-create the Roman Empire of the ancient world. This campaign did not go well for Italy, and Germany had to send in reinforcements, led chiefly by German General Erwin Rommel (“The Desert Fox”), who confounded a number of British commanders until autumn of 1942, when the British got the upper hand. Soon afterwards, Americans began landing forces in Morocco (see below).
Mussolini invaded Greece from Albania in October 1940. Although Greece was allied with Great Britain, this move proved a mistake for Italian forces, who were unable to completely dislodge the Greeks. Hitler then ordered German reinforcements to support the Italians. The Germans invaded Yugoslavia and therefore faced both Yugoslavian and Greek forces, who received assistance from the British (in this case, also Canadian, New Zealand, and Australian forces from the wider British Empire). Eventually, the Germans took both Yugoslavia and Greece, forcing all British forces off the mainland to Crete, where they were eventually surrounded and defeated.
PAUSE for 60-second Quiz Question #3: In what way(s) did the tide turn against the Axis power circa 1941-1942? Which example is NOT correct?
Germany was not able to successfully destroy Britain’s royal Air Force in the summer of 1940.
Germany was not able to successfully invade Britain during the summer of 1940.
Italy was not able to successfully invade Egypt in 1940.
Germany was not able to successfully invade Greece in 1940.
Invasion of the Soviet Union.
Next, Hitler made his biggest strategic mistake: he decided to launch “Operation Barbarossa,” a plan to attack the Soviet Union – what he saw as “the center of judeo-bolshevism” – and ordered his generals to break the Nazi-Soviet Pact and attack Stalin on June 22, 1941.
Why did he do this? Hitler wanted Lebensraum in the East, and he did not like Communism (or Stalin, for that matter).
The German word, Lebensraum, can be translated into English as “living space” but that literal translation is too banal to convey the racialized meaning in this term. “Lebensraum” meant open territory into which members of the “national community” (Volksgemeinschaft) – that is, people whom the Nazis deemed to be racially “pure” enough to qualify to full citizenship in their German Reich – would settle, expand, and rule as the “master race” they were (in Hitler’s eyes). Thus, the Nazi-Soviet Pact was really a ruse, and in 1941 Hitler believed he needed to launch this campaign, to grab the territory and control of resources he wanted, before he lost the momentum. Of course, there were people already living in the Soviet Union, so they had to be either killed, removed, or subjugated, for this plan to work.
Hitler believed that his military advantages over France and Britain were temporary, because eventually they (and probably the United States) would mobilize their economies and militaries to strike back at him. But if he could take enough territory and make it look challenging to best him on the battlefield, maybe that would dissuade the Allies. And yet, we should not be content to say that invading the Soviet Union was simply a rational move, to achieve his strategic goals.
That is because Hitler’s hostility to communism (which he often conflated with Jews) spilled over into his overt racism towards the rest of non-German Europe. Hitler essentially believed that, because of their (in his eyes) racial superiority, Germans could conquer and rule over various “sub-humans” (Untermenschen). Some of these “inferior” people would simply be liquidated, others enslaved to work, still allowed to collaborate with the Germans, who would outrank everyone else. Ironically (given the eventual US entrance into the war), Hitler talked about the Soviet Union as analogous to the western half of the United States of America, with the Germans treating the Russians as the white Americans had treated the Native Americans.
The Invasion of the Soviet Union began on June 22, 1941. Three million men, in three wings of attack, advanced: one to the north, one eastward, one to the south. They quickly progressed deep into Soviet territory, and captured, killed, or wounded close to half of the 4.5 million Red Army soldiers in their way. For the Soviets, this was called the Great Patriotic War, as they (rightly) saw it as a war for the very survival of the Soviet Union. Despite his early successes against the Russians, military historians roundly consider “Operation Barbarossa” a mistake that ultimately cost Germany the war.
Hitler made several strategic miscalculations. For one, he really believed his racist pronouncements against the Slavic peoples (that they were “inferior”) and at the same time believed himself to be a “military genius.” So, he believed that the Germans would just naturally fight better on the battlefield, and he also believe that Germany should launch a complicated three-pronged-attack, instead of simply targeting Moscow (which is what his generals suggested).
So, the ambitious attack plan tried to do too much at the same time and was not able to achieve its strategic goals, even though it was consuming enormous numbers men and material. Complicating Hitler’s plans further, the Soviets did fight back. Once the Russian winter set in, it was only a matter of time before the Wehrmacht surrendered to the weather, as they did not carry along enough winter supplies – uniforms, tents, even equipment to allow vehicles and weapons function. Such preparations for a long-term campaign were expressly forbidden by Hitler himself.
War of attrition
The other major miscalculation that Hitler made was that in December 1941, the United States entered the war after the attack on Pearl Harbor (see below). That is, what military advantage he had over Britain (and now Russia) in summer 1941 would shortly be depleted as the Americans mobilized for war. Up to this point, Germany’s blitzkrieg approach of short, intense military operations that overwhelmed an enemy but also delivered land, resources, booty, people, and other means of offsetting the costs of such campaigns (to Germany) had meant that German civilians were not really feeling the impact of the war on their economy.
Once the US entered the conflict it was clear that Germany had to reallocate resources into its war industry and that this would become a war of attrition. This means neither side in a conflict can achieve a military victory on its own, therefore the winner will simply be the one who outlasts the other side. Whereas Hitler had previously tried to shield the German people from shortages and other effects of the war, now that there was less new territory to conquer and spoils to steal, and now that the German economy would have to ramp up military production to match the Americans, German civilians would not be able to ignore it.
The concept of war of attrition is important also because the Nazis hoped to avoid it. Military planners (and military historians) often talk about “guns and butter” when they are discussing wartime economies. That is, a nation’s industrial economy can either devote all of its resources to producing “guns” (shorthand for all war material) or “butter” (a reference to civilian goods, broadly conceived) but it is hard to do both. Civilians enjoy the “butter” in peacetime and will only tolerate shortages of “butter” when they see the benefit of having the “guns” to win the war effort. But if the war looks hopeless or worthless, civilians will usually revolt and demand an end to the conflict. This actually happened in Germany in 1917-1918, and the Nazis therefore believe that the only way to keep German civilians happy and with plenty of “butter” to go along with the “guns” in 1939 was to continuously conquer new territory and extract sufficient resources out of the peoples Germany had conquered and occupied, so as to fuel the German war machine and let German civilians continue enjoying the fruits of conquest without suffering the privations of war.
In practice this meant charging high levels of taxation (for example, 58% of French taxes went to Germany), stealing and melting down scrap metal from statues, or requisitioning food, agricultural products, natural resources and raw materials, and even people from conquered areas, and sending these spoils back to Germany. One of the best, most notorious examples of this phenomenon was Polish forced labor. All Polish men and women from 18 to 60 years of age were ordered to work in compulsory public labor for Germany after October 1939. More than 1 million Poles were transported to Germany in this fashion, where they had to wear a purple “P” on their clothing (like the Star of David for Jews), and were essentially slave laborers. After the invasion of the Soviet Union, Russian POWs replaced Pols as Germany’s chief source of slave labor. Once the Germans had starved most of these to death, they pulled compulsory labor from Western European nations (whom they viewed as racially “superior” to Slavs and Jews, but still inferior to Germans).
Hitler’s War Aims: A Closer Look.
There are several specific characteristics that make World War II different from World War I. But one of the most important (or depressing) to recognize is that many more civilians died in the Second World War, in addition to the larger numbers of soldiers dying on the actual battlefields.
One reason this was the case was because aerial bombing played such a larger role in this war – both for the Axis powers and the Allies, though the Axis powers were the larger offenders in this respect. Another reason so many civilians died is because ethnic cleansing and genocide were part of Hitler’s war plan. Remember that Lebensraum was the thing Hitler had been seeking since the very start of his territorial aggression.
Part of Germany taking over and controlling these new areas would include resettling ethnic Germans from the pre-1939 borders (and elsewhere) into non-German areas. But of course, there were already people living in those non-German areas, so this is why the Holocaust was very much a part of the Second World War, indeed the reason that explains why Germany did what it did across the Eastern Front. Of course, this type of activity – rounding up and deporting and/or executing peoples whose very existence stood in the war of German war goals – began in Poland, two years before the Soviet Union campaign. In particular, the Nazis would target intellectuals and nationalist leaders in these newly conquered Polish areas, because these were community leaders or cultural figures who represented the local people’s own nation and might be source for resistance. In the Soviet Union, Communist Party officials were especially targeted.
Jews in particular.
Of course, probably the most infamous element of this quest for “race and space” (as historian Doris Bergan summarizes it) is the one you all are probably already familiar with: The Holocaust against the Jews. The number of dead victims that historians usually agree on is 6 million – this many Jews were murdered by the Nazi regime over the course of the Holocaust. We should, however, point out that 5 million other (that is, non-Jewish) people were also murdered. These were members of other ethnic minorities and other people who were imprisoned and murdered because they were disabled, homosexual, or politically opposed to the Nazi Party, or even simply prisoners of war. So, the Holocaust encompassed the murder of 11 million people but, of that total, Jews comprised the single largest group of victims.
Thus, it is correct to conclude that Nazi regime acted with a special energy against Jews, relocating them into crowded ghettos in the occupied countries, to open up room for the ethnic Germans to be resettled into their Lebensraum. This was happening soon after the invasion and fall of Poland in 1939 (although Jews had endured legal discrimination, second-class citizenship, and violence in Germany since the mid-1930s). Once the German army began the invasion of the Soviet Union, however, the Nazis soon found that they had too many Jews on their hands and not enough space to house them or employ them all in the ghettos – which is why the Nazi leadership turned away from the idea of forced migration of all Jews to the idea of extermination of all Jews.
From ethnic cleansing to genocide.
Even before the construction of mass killing centers like Auschwitz-Birkenau, Nazi SS mobile killing units (Einsatzgruppen) were fanning out into occupied areas, rounding up local Jewish populations, and executing them en masse, either via mobile gas vans or mass firing squads.
In small towns and villages, German authorities would announce that Jews must assemble in the town square, where they would be rounded up and marched (or sometimes transported on trucks) outside of town. There they would be told to remove their clothing and stack it neatly in piles, before lining up on the edge of a mass grave, to be shot by firing squads. This phase of the Holocaust is often referred to by historians as the “Holocaust by bullets.”
Importantly, the Germans did not and could not complete such large-scale destruction on their own. Rather, the Germans regularly had the help of local antisemitic villagers who were only too eager to help get rid of their Jewish neighbors. So, it is important to note that it was not just the Germans who were carrying out these terrible actions. But, as I said, the “Final Solution” of exterminating all European Jews was not the original plan – instead this was an improvised solution that the Germans came to in January or so of 1942, once the Germans were in control of much more of Eastern Europe and thus in control of a much larger Jewish population.
Finding an explanation.
Scholars have spent enormous amounts of energy over the past six decades or so, trying to understand how the Nazi regime was able to carry out this large-scale murder, with no large-scale, organized, mass movement of resistance to try to stop it. In the immediate aftermath of the war, historians were most concerned with understanding how the Weimar Republic failed and how the Nazis consequently came to power, and then furthermore how the regime functioned. It was not until the 1960s that historian Raul Hillberg wrote the first major study of the Nazi persecution and destruction of the Jews, thereby establishing the field of Holocaust studies. (Hilberg’s family had actually fled the Nazis before the war.) Since then we have learned much about the role of propaganda, antisemitic and racist ideology, conformity, and resistance under the regime.
When it comes to the carrying out of executions like the ones described above, historian Christopher Browning has argued that the firing squads functioned so effectively due to factors such as peer pressure, spontaneity of the ordeal, and rationalizations on the part of the soldiers that their resistance was futile. That is, the Nazi’s genocidal project was carried out in many circumstances by “ordinary Germans,” who were not dyed-in-the-wool Nazis. This troubling conclusion is mirrored by other findings by Browning and Hans Mommsen that, for his part as dictator, Hitler never issued a singular, comprehensive order outlining the plan to exterminate the Jews. Instead, even though Hitler made clear that this was a goal he wanted to see achieved, the process of the Holocaust unfolded in stages that were, at least partly, designed and implemented as the Nazis reacted to the circumstances of the war.
So even as we know from his speeches and writings that this genocide was clearly Hitler’s plan, he did not always have to spell things out step-by-step, because his closest subordinates often made decisions to act and carry out projects and orders in such a way as to anticipate what Hitler wanted. That is, these lieutenants would discern what goal Hitler wanted to have accomplished and then go out and do it, sometimes before Hitler even told them to. Historian Ian Kershaw calls this process the principle of “working toward the Führer.”
Pre-war roots of genocide.
In occupied Poland, the Nazis established six concentration camps (“KZ” or Konzentrationslager, in German) specifically for the purpose of mass murder. The most infamous was Auschwitz-Birkenau, which was actually several camps, some of which were labor camps (i.e. not just extermination). Although we have already examined the “Final Solution” being carried out via mass shootings, eventually the SS expanded the use of gas to murder prisoners. Such gassings had their roots in the T4 program, which was a program of the Nazi party to locate and exterminate physically and intellectually handicapped Germans. This was a program based in eugenics, or “racial hygiene,” with the goal of removing individuals from the population who had disabilities. When the Nazis began gassing non-Germans during the war, non-Jewish Poles (i.e. Catholics) and Soviet POWs were the first victims of these tactics, used at the Chelmno concentration camp.
As they expanded this program further and further, the Nazis eventually built crematoria to burn the massive numbers of bodies, beginning in 1943. By that time, Auschwitz could gas and burn 1.7 million people per year. What usually happened was that, as Jews were rounded up in Nazi-occupied areas of Eastern and Western Europe, they were trucked in by train to Auschwitz and other killing centers. Once they arrived, the SS would initiate Selektion (selection of victims for immediate execution) on the ramps of the train platforms. Most often, women, children, and older men (approximately 60% of the victims arriving) were sent immediately to the gas chambers. The other 40% (young men and adult men) were sent to labor details, where they survived only as long as the Nazis viewed their manual labor as useful. Once their bodies were used up, they were gassed, also.
As It was pointed out above, while the number often heard in relation to the Holocaust is 6 million Jews murdered (which is correct), the Nazis also killed about 5 million Slavic peoples, too. Thus while it is correct to understand the Holocaust as an even involving primarily Jewish victims, thanks to Hitler’s especially violent rhetoric and especially poisonous hatred of Jews, the Nazis were carrying out a project to racially remake Europe had harmful effects on many more people (especially also Russian and other Slavic peoples). That is, if we just look for antisemitism as a motivating factor, we will miss other elements of the Nazis’ genocidal actions.
It should also be noted that it was not just the SS (an element of the Nazi party) who carried out the genocide, but also elements of the Wehrmacht (the regular German army, technically separate from the Nazi party). Thus, soldiers who were not Nazi Party members were not entirely innocent of helping to bring about the genocide.
For the prisoners inside the camps who were not immediately murdered, life was extremely difficult, as they were already deprived of adequate food, water, and shelter, and they were facing the ever-present threat of being shot by the guards. In this context, prisoners often did not cooperate or find solidarity with one another in their condition – all wanted to survive, and this goal sometimes meant that helping a fellow prisoner and putting oneself at greater risk for punishment or discipline was therefore disincentivized.
In the labor camps, prisoners were often really slave laborers for German industry – people forcibly sent to work in German factories that were attached to or located nearby the camps. The idea here was to replace German men fighting at the front, because Nazi gender policies held that women should be at home having babies, not working in factories. Yet, again, these prisoners were deprived of adequate food, water, and medical care, so it is unsurprising that they were extremely vulnerable to infectious diseases that plagued the camps.
We should also keep in mind that the SS guards always held the guns, meaning that the Nazis always had the power of life and death over the prisoners, so resistance (whether helping a fellow prisoner or rising up against the guards) really was just a guarantee that one would be shot or otherwise put to death more quickly. That is, prisoners existed in what survivor Primo Levi called a “grey zone,” where normal moral calculations of society (i.e. helping one’s neighbor, sacrificing for the greater good, etc…) had no place, as the norms of a peaceful, just society were absent. Having said that, there were some instances of prisoners sharing food, doing favors, and otherwise forming relationships to help maintain some sense of humanity to help them cope. But we should not let the scattered moments of humanity overshadow the reality of an enormous program designed and carried out to kill.
PAUSE for 60-second Quiz Question #4. What is the connection between the military campaigns on the Eastern Front and the Holocaust? Which statement is true?
Hitler needed to defeat the Red Army in order to seize the Lebensraum he desired in Western Europe.
Hitler needed to defeat the Red Army in order to seize the Lebensraum he desired in Eastern Europe.
Non-Germans living in Eastern Europe would be left alone by the conquering Germans, as long as those local non-Germans were also not Jewish.
Non-Germans living in Western Europe would be left alone by the conquering Germans, as long as those local non-Germans were also not Jewish.
US Entry in the War and Allied Offensives from the West (Fall 1942-May 1945)
Most of our focus throughout this chapter (and the course) has been on Europe but we cannot completely understand the Second World War as a European phenomenon since it was a world-wide conflict. The Japanese navy’s attack on the US military installations as Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, was the catalyst to bring the US into the war a belligerent on the side of the Allies. The Japanese were pursuing their own program of expansion, conquest, and resource extraction in China and other parts of East Asia already, before the Germans launched the war against Poland. The attack on Pearl Harbor was launched on December 7, 1941, because the Japanese believed that American intervention against them was inevitable, so they wanted to maximize their military advantages over the US for as long as they could. In the aftermath of the attack, the US declared war on Japan, Germany, and Italy.
Campaign in North Africa.
Battle of El Alamein.
As related above, the British had been involved in trying to defend North Africa from the German Afrika Korps. After a series of command changes, British General Sir Bernard Law Montgomery took command of the British 8th Army in North Africa and won a major victory over Rommel, at El Alamein (in Egypt) on October 23rd, 1942. This turned the momentum in North Africa against the Germans (who had come to reinforce the Italians, originally) and, importantly, saved the Suez Canal from falling into German hands. British forces, with Australian and New Zealand contingents, and also aided by Free French forces (who had fled before Petain’s surrender and continued to fight on behalf of France, even though the Germans had conquered France) forced the Germans to withdraw from Egypt, head westward, setting the stage for Operation Torch (see below) to threaten the Germans with encirclement.
Aside from the momentum shifting in North Africa, by early 1942, the Soviets had been fighting the Germans for almost six months with no outside forces to support them. The Russians, therefore, were demanding that the British and Americans do something in Western Europe to force the Germans to redeploy some of their units away from the Eastern Front and thereby take some weight off of the Red Army. There was talk already by the Americans of an invasion across the English Channel, but the British believed the time was not yet right for such a move.
As a result, the Americans and British planned Operation Torch, the landing in North Africa (specifically, Morocco) of Anglo-American forces in November 1942. Once ashore, their forces proceeded to battle the German Afrika Korps in the Sahara, who were still regrouping from their defeat in Egypt. Eventually the Afrika Korps had to surrender in May 1943 and the Americans and British now had open access to the Mediterranean Sea.
Invasion of Sicily.
The next phase for the British and Americans was to invade Sicily (what Churchill called the “soft underbelly” of the European continent) in July 1943, then the Italian peninsula itself. However, the rocky terrain proved more difficult for the Americans and British to take, and easier for the Italians to defend. Even so, on July 25, 1943 Mussolini was overthrown by the former Italian army chief of staff, Marshal Pietro Badoglio, with the support of the Italian king and even some of Mussolini’s close supporters. The reason was that Badoglio and the king preferred to see Italy surrender instead of being destroyed in a prolonged campaign.
This might have been an important breakthrough, but the Germans quickly sent in reinforcements to hold Italy, before the Allies could capitalize on this decapitation of the Fascist regime. The Germans even rescued Mussolini and re-installed him in power. Anglo-American invasion forces landed in September 1943 but could only make progress in inches, thanks to the difficult mountainous terrain and the dogged German defense. As a result, Rome was not liberated until June 1944 and it was not until April 1945 that all of Italy was finally liberated. One strategic benefit to this prolonged campaign was that it did help tie down German troops, thereby helping the Russians out, but it also raised Stalin’s suspicions of the Anglo-American commitment to their partnership with him.
Battle of Stalingrad.
Stalin’s suspicions were, in some ways, well-founded. This is because the Eastern Front was where the largest and costliest battles of the war were fought. The Soviets were essentially in the same position in 1941 that the French had been in 1914: the Germans were positioned on their (Soviet) territory, and the Soviets had to hold on and eventually repel the invaders to survive the war. The Soviets lost perhaps as many as 26 million soldiers and civilians in the war, although these are estimates and we may never know the exact figures.
The tide turned for the Russians with the Battle of Stalingrad (August 1942-February 1943). The Germans were interested in attacking this area of South-West Russia for its rich oil deposits in the Caucuses, as well as its wheat supply. What ended up taking place was the city streets became an urban battlefield, with each side fighting block by block against the other. While the Germans were installed in the city, but had not gained complete control over it, the Soviets sent forces to counterattack by encircling the Germans. Once the Germans were surrounded, Hitler refused to permit his forces to retreat. Thus, the German Sixth Army (comprised of twenty-two divisions of 500,000 men but reduced to 80,000) was captured in toto when its commander, Field Marshall Friedrich Paulus, surrendered on February 2, 1943. Paulus was the highest-ranking German officer to ever be captured in battle, and Stalingrad marked the Wehrmacht’s largest defeat to that point. From February 1943 onward, the Germans would only be on the retreat.
Operation Overlord (D-Day).
Now we turn back to the part of the story that American students are likely more familiar with the invasion of France. D-Day (June 6, 1944) was the day when 2.8 million Anglo-American forces (UK, Canada, US) invaded France at Normandy, to establish a beachhead and begin driving the Germans back towards the Rhine river. The is a moment etched in American collective memory of the war, as it was a bloody but important development.
D-Day was the largest amphibious landing in history, with 150,000 soldiers, 1,500 tanks, 5,000 ships, 12,000 aircraft involved. Although we know in hindsight that it was a success, it was quite a risky plan and the American general in charge of the operation, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, had written both a public address in the event it was a success and also a statement accepting fault in the event it failed. Ultimately, the Germans did not react quickly enough to the sight of the huge amphibious assault fleet, counterattacking too late to drive the Allies back to the sea.
The result was that the Allies finally had opened the “second front” so long demanded by Stalin. Some sources suggest that Stalin skeptically thought that the Americans and British were taking their time to bleed the Soviets down a bit, before launching the invasion. In fact, Stalin would make this allegation when Soviet-American relations got ugly during the Cold War.
Liberation of Paris.
An important element in the D-Day invasions was that the Allies were able to establish air superiority over the Luftwaffe, meaning the Americans and British air forces could protect their ground troops and establish a foothold, then drive inland. Without the ability to provide aerial cover for ground forces, while simultaneously continuing the strategic bombing of Germany day and night, the D-Day landings would have made less of a difference, militarily. Yet because the Allies were now able to force the Germans into two two-front war they dreaded, it was afterward easier to measure progress in terms of territory liberated from German control. For example, Paris was liberated by the Allies on August 25, 1944, which was a major defeat for the Germans.
Battle of the Bulge (Ardennes Offensive).
The Allies kept driving eastward, reaching the Western Wall (German defensive border fortifications) in September, before running out of supplies because they advanced so quickly. But German resistance was getting stronger the closer the Allies got to the border. The Allies did suffer a setback with Operation Market-Garden in late 1944 in the Netherlands (trying to capture bridges over the Rhine, which was unsuccessful). Then they got stuck at Rhine River for several months.
The Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 was the last big push Hitler made to try to win the war. This counterattack through the Ardennes forest found the Germans successfully force open a 50-70 mile salient westward in the American lines, trapping the 101st Airborne Division in Bastogne. Poor weather conditions had given the Germans help, as Allied aircraft were unable to fly and offer reconnaissance and air support but, once the weather conditions improved, Allied air power was restored. Additionally, US General George S. Patton’s Third Army successfully swung northward and relieve the stranded 101st Airborne. After the Battle of Bulge ended in January 1945, the Germans would be on the retreat on the Western Front. They were already falling back rapidly on the Eastern Front.
By the spring of 1945, the Germans were fighting the rapidly approaching Soviets from the East and the Allies from the West. The Soviets got to Berlin on April 19, 1945, laying siege to the German capital. At this point, the once-mighty German war machine could not resist, only retreat. In the end, Wehrmacht made a series of last stands against the Soviets (who were hungry for blood and doing all sorts of nasty things to German civilians as they got closer to Berlin), while also negotiating with the Allies for a separate peace (which Eisenhower rejected.) Ultimately Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945 because he did not want to face defeat and surrender. He designated Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz as next-in-command, and Dönitz surrendered the Third Reich on May 7-8, 1945 (to both Anglo-American and Soviet forces, simultaneously). The Second World War in Europe was over.
End of the war.
Victory over Japan.
After Pearl Harbor, the war in the Pacific had turned against Japan at the Battle of Midway. In May 1942, American aircraft carriers dueled with Japanese carriers, in an engagement that ultimately rendered irreparable harm to the Japanese navy. With the Japanese on the retreat, the Americans adopted a policy of “island hopping,” seizing islands strategically located across the Pacific, on which to station troops, harbor ships, and build airfields, before continuing the drive against Japan.
American military planners were concerned, once they were within striking distance of Japan, that an amphibious invasion would be incredibly costly. Meanwhile, the American government had been developing a new atomic bomb in the secret Manhattan Project. Originally driven by fear that the Germans would get The Bomb first, the weapon was not successfully tested until July 1945, after Germany had surrendered. President Harry S. Truman made the controversial decision to use the weapon against Japan, and the US Army Air Force bombed Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 and Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. (President Franklin Roosevelt had died on April 12, 1945 in Warm Springs, GA.) Although the bombs wreaked incredible damage to Japan, the Soviet Union also issued a declaration of war on Japan days after the bombings, leaving historians to debate the relative impact of both sets of events on the Japanese government’s decision to surrender. Ultimately, the Japanese surrendered on August 14, 1945, ending the Second World War in the Pacific.
End of an era.
The Second World War left Europe and Japan (but also large expanses of the wider world) in a situation of destruction that was several orders of magnitude greater than in 1918. Fifty million people are estimated to have died but these estimates are imprecise at best. In addition to human lives lost, governments were faced with the seemingly impossible task of clearing the rubble and rebuilding, while somehow feeding their peoples, treating their injured, burying their dead, and finding a way to coax their economies back to life. The Europe that had been on top of the world only fifty years earlier, the Europe that had birthed the Industrial Revolution, the Enlightenment, that had been the laboratory of discovery and science, scholarly inquiry and technological progress, the Europe that had seen creative ideas for shaping the future and uneven efforts to realize those ideas – often privileging some over others, rather than acting to deliver improvement to all, equally – that Europe had come to an end of its era of global influence and control. Over the following decades, Europeans would become spectators to wars, independence movements, scientific discovery, and more. The future would still be contested but no longer would Europeans alone be raising their voices.
PAUSE for 60-second Quiz Question #5. What factor(s) caused the Axis powers in Europe to collapse in the later years of the war (1944-1945)? Which statement is NOT true?
The American entry into the war made it a war of attrition.
The Germans lost the most casualties of the entire war at D-Day.
The Russian victory at Stalingrad turned to the tide against the Germans in the East.
After D-Day, the Germans were facing a two-front war.
Key to 60-secon Quiz Questions:
A. While WWI did not feature aircraft carriers, aircraft carriers alone are not an example of "total war," whereas violence against non-combatant civilians is a classic example of "total war."
A. Denmark, the Netherlands, and France all fell to Germany in 1940.
D. Italy failed in its invasion of Greece, but the Germans reinforced the Italians and took Greece. The Germans were unable to take Great Britain or establish command of the air. Italy was unable to take Egypt, but the Germans did.
B. Hitler wanted land in Eastern Europe, and that land already had people living on it. Hence the Holocaust was an effort to get rid of the people Hitler did not want to live there, so that the Germans could live on it. Jews were certainly the chief target of German violence, but non-Jews were also subject to forced labor, imprisonment, even death.
B. The Eastern Front was more costly for the Germans in terms of casualties.
Primary Source Exercise
After you have read the primary source listed above (as well as Chapter 18), answer the following questions, based on what you have learned so far:
What do you think is important to know about the authors of these texts? What can you learn from the words each one wrote on the page? What can you infer or piece together from the background information in the textbook chapter? Why is this important?
What are the authors’ goal in writing these texts? To whom did each address their work? What purpose did it serve? Can you point to one or more examples to support this analysis?
What, if any, hidden assumptions can you detect in the text? That is, can you find word choices, phrasing, innuendo, or other examples of the authors (explicit or implicit) bias with regard to the subject matter? Does this bias (or these assumptions) affect how you understand and react to the author’s words? Why or why not?