The Epic of World War II – First seeds until Poland invasion by Hitler’s Germany

Hitler maker of wordwar II

The Second World War was the largest and costliest war in human history. Its scale was genuinely global, leaving almost no part of the world unaffected. At its end the political geography of the world was transformed and the stage set for the emergence of the modern states’ system. It is possible to exaggerate the break represented by victory in 1945, but the change between the pre-war world of economic crisis, European imperialism and militant nationalism and the post-war world of economic boom, decolonisation and the ideological confrontation of the Cold War was a fundamental one.

It is worth remembering that no-one at the start could be certain what direction the war might take or could anticipate the degree of destruction and violence that it would draw in its wake. A number of different areas of conflict coalesced, like separate fires growing into a single inferno: the European conflict over German efforts to break the restrictions imposed after her defeat in the First World War; the conflicts generated by an expansionist and ambitious Fascist Italy whose leader, Benito Mussolini, dreamed of re-creating the Roman Empire; and the war for Asia fought in the east by Imperial Japan, determined to assert the right of non-white peoples to a share of empire; and in western Asia by an alliance of anti-Communist states grouped around Hitler’s Germany which launched a crusade against the new Soviet system in 1941.

As the war grew in scope all the major powers were drawn in. It is often asserted that the entry of the United States in December 1941 made victory certain for the Allied powers through sheer economic weight, but the outcome was not pre-ordained. Germany and her allies had large resources and captured yet more. German and Japanese forces fought with high skill. To win the war the Allies needed to improve fighting power, to co-ordinate their activities and to keep their populations, even in times of tribulation, committed to the cause. The idea that the Axis powers, and Germany in particular, lost the war through their own ineptitude distorts the extent to which the Allies had to learn to fight with greater effectiveness and to exploit their own scientific, technical and intelligence resources to the full. It is a measure of the significance they all gave to the war, not simply as the means to their own survival, but as a way to impose one world order or another, that they made the sacrifices they did. There was a powerful sense that this really was a war that would shape the way history would be made.

The Second World War: The Complete Illustrated History is the story of that conflict from its roots in the post-war settlement of 1919 to the final victory of the Allies and the re-establishment of a more stable world order. It starts with the early years of more limited war, when German armies conquered much of Europe with relatively low casualties and with lightning speed. In just 19 months Germany had conquered an area from Norway to Crete, the French Atlantic coast to Warsaw. It is little wonder that Hitler and the German leadership felt confident that they could now build a New Order on the ruins of the old.

It follows the war’s progress as the Axis states pushed out into the Soviet Union, South-east Asia and the Pacific and almost to the Suez Canal. In the Soviet Union only exceptional efforts staved off defeat, but with losses on an extraordinary scale, any other state would have sued for peace. Stalin’s ability to keep his people fighting was a vital element in 1941 and 1942 when the Western Allies were struggling to avoid defeat in the Pacific and Atlantic, and could do little to hinder the German advance. For the Allies these years turned into a holding operation in which they tried to avoid anything worse happening. For their Axis enemies the tantalising prize of a new world order seemed still within their grasp – German soldiers were in the Caucasus, Japanese soldiers a short step from Australia and German and Italian forces deep inside Egypt.

However this was not to be. Slowly but surely on land and sea and in the air, the tide of war began to flow the Allies’ way. It became clear that Axis forces, which had once seemed all but unstoppable, could be defeated in open battle. Victory in the desert war paved the way for the reconquest of the Mediterranean; victory in the Solomons opened a small doorway into the defensive frontier of the Japanese Empire through which the Allies poured overwhelming naval, air and military strength; victory at Stalingrad demonstrated to the world that the Red Army had come of age and the period of easy German victories was over.

The Struggles of the end of the war were the costliest of the entire conflict. Most Western, German and Japanese casualties date from the final 18 months of combat. The sight of distant victory did not make the war easier to wage but called for the most supreme of efforts. The prospect of catastrophic defeat called for desperate measures of defence from the Axis forces. When the war was finally over in August 1945 the world had to take stock of the wreckage left behind. The changes provoked by the war were this time more permanent than in 1918. Nothing to compare with the Second World War has occurred in the sixtythree years since it ended, but its long shadow has extended down to the present.

On World War II:
The rise and fall of Nazi Germany- key events
Living under Nazism

German statesman Gustav Stresemann who, as German Foreign Minister between 1924 and 1929
German statesman Gustav Stresemann who, as German Foreign Minister between 1924 and 1929, tried to pursue a policy of “fulilment” of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles.

Forging the peace: 1919-1929

The formal end of hostilities in the First World War on 11 November 1918 left Europe shattered by four years of the bloodiest conflict in history: more than 8,000,000 had been killed; twice as many maimed; millions more the victims of starvation or disease brought on by wartime conditions. There existed at its conclusion a widespread popular desire that this really would be “the war to end war”.

The settlement arranged by the victorious Allies at Versailles between 1919 and 1920 was supposed to build the foundations of a durable peace. The principles behind the settlement were first declared by the American President Woodrow Wilson in January 1918 in the form of Fourteen Points. The most important of them committed the Allies to allowing those nationalities of Europe previously dominated by the pre-war dynastic empires of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia to establish independent nation states. Wilson hoped that all Europe’s states would adopt a democratic form of rule. There was also a commitment to international collaboration through what became known as the League of Nations, whose members were to pledge themselves to the principle that all future conflicts between them should be resolved by negotiation rather than through war.

Lloyd George, Georges Clemenceau and Woodrow Wilson at the Versailles Conference, 1919.
A brigade of the new Red Army parades through Kharkov in 1920 during the Russian Civil War, which ended with Communist victory a year later.

For all the idealism of the victor powers, the settlement was far from ideal. Self-determination was difficult to organize in practice because of the extensive ethnic mixing in central and eastern Europe. Many Europeans ended up living under the rule of a quite different ethnic majority: Germans in Czechoslovakia and Poland; Hungarians in Romania; Ukrainians in Poland. Britain, France and Italy refused to extend “selfdetermination” to their colonial empires. Britain and France took over control of former German and Turkish territory as mandates from the League, but then treated them as simple additions to their empires. The defeated powers, Germany, Austria, Hungary and Bulgaria, all lost territory as a result of the settlement and remained embittered and resentful at their treatment. Germany was treated with extreme severity: areas of East Prussia and Silesia were handed over to Poland; the Saar industrial region was internationalized; the Rhineland provinces were demilitarized; Germany was allowed only a tiny 100,000-man armed force for internal security; and a bill of reparations, finally settled at 132 billion gold marks, would have required Germany to pay out to the Allies until 1980. Disarmed, impoverished and shorn of territory, Germany had more reason than any other power to overturn the Versailles Settlement at the first opportunity.

Above: The veteran British paciist George Lansbury pictured in 1929. He helped to lead the widespread anti-war movement in Britain in the 1920s and 1930s
Below: Turkish troops camped near Smyrna in September 1922 at the height of the Graeco-Turkish war over control of western Turkey, eventually won by the Turks. Turkey’s independence was established by the Treaty of Lausanne in August 1923

The League of Nations was also flawed from the start. The American Senate rejected the Versailles Treaty in 1920, and the League opened its sessions in 1920 without the world’s richest and potentially most powerful state, while Russia and Germany were excluded from the League. The organization was dominated by Britain and France, but it was never clear how the cluster of small states represented in the League could really prevent future conflicts, and general war-weariness meant that it was never really tested in the 1920s. In 1926, Germany was finally admitted, but remained resentful of the failure of other states to disarm as they had promised under the terms of the covenant of the League. These resentments were exacerbated by the problems of economic revival after the war; a brief American-led boom in the mid-1920s masked a deeper economic malaise. Hyper-inflation in Germany, Austria and the states of eastern Europe peaked in 1923–24, leaving an embittered and impoverished middle class whose savings were wiped out. Trade failed to reach pre-war levels and even victor countries in Europe were saddled with high war debts. Economic crisis provoked social unrest and political polarization which made it difficult to maintain democracy. In Italy, Benito Mussolini, leader of a new radical nationalist Fascist Party, was made premier in 1922 and had created a one-party dictatorship by 1926. In 1923, a coup brought a military dictator in Spain, General Primo de Rivera; three years later the Polish Marshal Pilsudski led an army coup in Poland. The newly-created Soviet Union was a one-party state almost from the start.

Anxious shareholders stand outside the New York Stock Exchange on 24 October 1929
Anxious shareholders stand outside the New York Stock Exchange on 24 October 1929, a few days before the disastrous Wall Street Crash which precipitated the world slump.

The shift to authoritarian rule was accelerated by the economic slump that followed the Wall Street Crash in October 1929. The crisis of the capitalist system was the worst the world had seen, throwing more than 40 million out of work worldwide. Within four years, a mass nationalist movement in Germany led by Adolf Hitler had become the largest party in the German parliament, arguing for an end to reparations and the overturning of the Versailles settlement. In Japan the slump provoked another nationalist backlash and, in 1931, army leaders launched a campaign in northern China to seize economic resources to aid the Japanese economy. The League did nothing to halt the economic slide or the emergence of a violent nationalism, and by the 1930s war was once again a strong possibility.

Japan’s War in China


Between 1931 and the end of the Second World War in 1945, the Japanese army fought a vicious and intermittent war on the Chinese mainland. The whole 14-year war cost China more than 15 million civilian deaths. Japan’s war for Asia was the last act of an epoch of violent imperialism and among the most savage. Hidden away from the glare of world publicity, the Japanese occupiers indulged in continuous and systematic atrocities against the populations under their control.

Japan had been an imperial power since the nineteenth century, annexing present-day Taiwan in 1895 and Korea in 1910. In May 1915, Japan began to encroach on Chinese sovereignty as China collapsed into political chaos, its territory fought over by competing warlords. In the 1920s a Japanese army – the Kwantung – was stationed in the northern Chinese province of Manchuria to safeguard Japanese economic interests. The military leadership was keen to increase Japan’s imperial influence in China, and the rise of Chinese nationalism – directed at the Japanese presence – and the catastrophic effects of the 1929 world slump on Japan’s economic prospects were used as excuses for the Japanese army, largely independent of the government in Tokyo, to embark on a programme of military expansion in Asia.

In September 1931, the Kwantung Army staged a clumsy fake attack on a Japanese-controlled railway near Mukden in Manchuria, and the incident was then used to justify the rapid Japanese occupation of much of the province. The incumbent Chinese warlord, Chang Hsuehliang, was driven out and a new puppet state of Manchukuo created in 1932, nominally ruled by the “last emperor” Pu Yi, while Manchuria’s rich mineral and food supplies were brought under Japanese control. Although they were a member of the League, Japan’s aggression was not reversed by the other powers, and in 1933 Japan left the organization.

Over the next three years, Japan’s army pushed into northern China, taking control of the provinces of Jehol, Chahar and Hopeh, and stationing one of their garrisons in the old imperial capital city of Beijing.

Growing Chinese resistance sucked the Japanese army into further aggression: a small incident at the Marco Polo Bridge near Beijing on 7 July rapidly escalated. On 27 July, the Japanese prime minister, Prince Konoye, declared that Japan was now going to create a “New Order” in Asia. Within weeks, a full-scale war began between Chinese Nationalist and Communist forces and the Japanese army of occupation, which ended only with Japan’s surrender eight years later. Using the railways and river valleys, Japanese forces spread rapidly into central China, capturing Shanghai in October 1937, the Chinese Nationalist capital Nanjing in December – after which Chiang Kaishek retreated to a new capital at Chungking – and Canton on the south China coast in October 1938. Communist guerrillas under Mao Zedong dominated the remoter regions of northwest China, but posed little serious threat to the Japanese invaders. By 1939, Japan dominated most major cities and arteries of communication, from the southern Yangtze River to the northern province of Inner Mongolia.

The sudden expansion of Japanese imperial power destroyed the unified Chinese state Chiang Kaishek had tried to create. It brought Japan into conflict with Western powers, which tolerated Japanese aggression only because there was no effective way of expelling Japan’s army except at the cost of a major war that they had neither the will nor resources to begin. When Japanese expansion did pose a direct threat to Soviet interests in Mongolia, two short campaigns resulted, at Changkufen in 1938 and at Nomonhan in 1939, both won by the Soviet Red Army. Japan’s government and armed forces preferred to look south to the oilfields and minerals of old European empires for the next stage of the construction of the Asian New Order.

Italy’s wars


Italy was the second League state in the 1930s to violate the organization’s commitment to peace and “collective security”. The Italian Fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, dreamed of creating a new Roman Empire in the Mediterranean and Africa as an expression of the dynamism of the revolutionary Fascist movement. Once the Fascist regime had been consolidated by the early 1930s, Mussolini tried to turn these aspirations into reality. Italy was in his view one of the “have-not” powers denied economic resources and colonies by what Mussolini called the richer “plutocratic” powers of the West.

In 1934 he began to plan for an Italian invasion of the independent East African state of Abyssinia (Ethiopia). After he had, as he believed, won tacit approval from Britain and France – the main African imperial powers – Mussolini launched an attack on 3 October 1935 with three army corps of almost half a million men under the command of General Emilio De Bono. The campaign against poorly armed Ethiopian troops was slow and in November De Bono was replaced with Marshal Pietro Badoglio, after which the pace quickened. To clear resistance, Italian aircraft dropped mustard-gas bombs on Ethiopian villages and soldiers. The decisive battle took place on 31 March 1936 at Mai Ceu on the road to the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, where some 30–35,000 Ethiopian soldiers faced a mixed Italian and colonial force of 40,000. Heavy artillery and machine-gun fire left 8,000 Ethiopians dead against total Italian casualties of 1,273.

After Mai Ceu, the road to the capital was open. On 5 May 1936, the Italian army under Badoglio entered Addis Ababa. Four days later, Mussolini announced to an ecstatic crowd in Rome the creation of the new Italian empire in Africa. The result was Italy’s international isolation: the League voted for trade and oil sanctions against Italy; but oil was still supplied by the United States, which was not a League member, and by Romania, which defied the ban. Mussolini now moved closer to Hitler’s Germany, and in October 1936 the two states signed an informal agreement usually known as the “Rome–Berlin Axis”.

In November 1937, Italy also joined the German– Japanese Anti-Comintern Pact, so creating the trio of expansionist states that was to fight the Second World War under the general title of the “Axis”. In July 1936, army rebels in Spain launched an attempted coup against the republican regime in Madrid. At first Mussolini, who was sympathetic to the rebel leader, Colonel Francisco Franco, sent some limited assistance, but from December 1936 a full military force was sent to Spain, complete with tanks, artillery and aircraft, to help the nationalist cause. Italian propaganda made a great deal of Italian victories in Spain, but the conquest of Malaga in February 1937 was achieved against a weak and disorganized republican force.

The next month, at Guadalajara, Italian forces suffered a humiliating defeat. With 36,000 men, 81 tanks and 160 artillery pieces against a weak republican defensive line, the Italian commander Roatta attacked on 8 March. The Italian line broke and by 18 March retreated, a catastrophic blow to their prestige from which the Italian forces didn’t recover. Mussolini continued to aid Franco – over 75,000 Italians served in Spain – but the nationalist victory by March 1939 owed more to Franco’s new Spanish army than it did to their Italian assistance.

Mussolini saw a victory for Franco in Spain as essential for his own ambitions. In February 1939, he told Fascist leaders that Italy had to control the Mediterranean, which meant defeating or expelling the British and French. The first step was taken on 7 April, when Italian forces invaded and occupied the Balkan state of Albania.

A few weeks later, Mussolini asked Hitler for a more solid agreement between them. The “Pact of Steel”, which was signed on 22 May 1939, irrevocably tied Italy to standing side by side with Germany in any future showdown with the Western powers.

Germany destroys Versailles


When Hitler was appointed German Chancellor on 30 January 1933 at the head of a Nationalist coalition government, it was by no means evident that he would survive in that post very long. Within a year, he had brought about a national revolution under his personal dictatorship: a one-party state was created; civil rights suspended; a secret police (the Gestapo) created; and the first concentration camps inaugurated. Any opponents of the regime were imprisoned or forced abroad. The first race laws were passed in 1933–35, driving German Jews from office and prohibiting marriage or sexual relations from occurring between Jews and socalled “Aryan” Germans.

One of Hitler’s first ambitions was to rearm Germany in defiance of the Versailles settlement. He had no definite plans for war or conquest in 1933, but he wanted to tear up the Treaty, absorb the German minorities in neighboring countries into the new German state, and at some point to create what was called “living space” (Lebensraum) in eastern Europe on which to settle German colonists and to exploit the region’s natural resources. Like Japan and Italy, Germany regarded itself as a victim of the international economic and political system. Hitler was dedicated to the idea that the “master race”, in other words the Aryan Germans, should win its rightful place through conquest. “Empires are made by the sword,” wrote Hitler in 1928.

Hitler was too shrewd a politician to act too quickly and so rearmament was carefully concealed while he consolidated his domestic position. Only in 1935 did Hitler feel confident enough to declare Germany’s formal rejection of Versailles: on 16 March 1935 conscription was re-introduced in Germany, and the new German Air Force officially created. The following March, at the height of the crisis over the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, Hitler decided to remilitarize the Rhineland provinces along the French frontier, an action proscribed under the 1919 Treaty. On 7 March 1936, German troops re-entering the prohibited zone faced no international obstruction. Buoyed up by this success, Hitler began to look outside the borders of the German state or “Reich”. In July 1936, he offered his help to the Spanish rebel leader Franco, who needed the use of planes to move his forces from Morocco to the mainland.

A small number of aircraft and pilots, the Condor Legion, fought alongside the Spanish nationalists. On 26 April 1937, German planes bombed and destroyed the Basque city of Guernica, an act which came to symbolize the horrors of what was now called “total war”, a conflict waged against civilians as well as soldiers.

On 5 November 1937, Hitler called his military commanders together to tell them of his plans to unite his Austrian homeland with Germany in the near future, and to take action against Czechoslovakia, the only remaining democratic state in eastern Europe, and home to exiled opponents of the Hitler regime. In March 1938, after months of agitation by Austrian National Socialists, the Austrian Chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg was compelled under the circumstances to accept the entry of German forces or risk bloodshed. On 13 March, the Anschluss, or union, of Austria with Germany was completed, and the enlarged state was now called “Greater Germany”. Austrian opponents of Anschluss were murdered or imprisoned and Austrian Jews driven from their professions.

Throughout the period in which Hitler destroyed Versailles, the other major states did very little. Hitler took Germany out of the League in October 1933. Over the next four years Germany’s growing economic and military strength was viewed with mounting alarm by democratic Europe, but although efforts were made to find some way of blunting the German threat by recognizing her grievances, no real concessions were made that could satisfy Hitler.

By 1938 his run of “bloodless victories” produced a wide popular consensus at home. What Hitler wanted now was a small successful war to bloody his troops and prepare for the struggle for “living space”.

Arming for war in the 1930s


If the 1920s were years of disarmament and cuts in military budgets, the 1930s saw rearmament on a scale that dwarfed the arms race before the First World War. This process took place across the developed world, and it began even before the threat from Japan, Italy and Germany became a serious one. World military spending was, by 1934, almost twice what it had been in the mid-1920s and the trade in arms also almost doubled between 1932 and 1937. The build-up of new military forces was a consequence of the breakdown of the world economy and the collapse of the League of Nations as an instrument of collective security, leading to the possession of military power once again being seen as the key to political survival.

At the heart of this arms race lay the massive military build-up in Germany and the Soviet Union. By the end of the 1930s, both countries were close to becoming the world’s military superpowers. Germany in 1938 devoted 17 per cent of its national income to military spending, while Britain and France spent only 8 per cent. In 1939, the Soviet Union had the largest number of aircraft and tanks of any major power. German rearmament began even before Hitler came to power, with the so-called “black rearmament” carried out in secret by the German army, but real expansion was possible only after 1933. After three years of careful preparation and reconstruction, in 1936 Hitler ordered a rapid acceleration of military preparations. In October 1936, a Four-Year Plan was established with the air-force commander Hermann Göring in charge. The plan was to build up the material resources needed for war inside Germany to avoid the threat of blockade. By 1939, two-thirds of industrial investment in Germany went on war-related projects; one-quarter of the industrial workforce was working for the military.

Stalin launched the rearmament of the Soviet Union in 1932, before Hitler came to power, since the Soviet leadership was convinced that, according to Marxist theory, the economic crisis would usher in a new age of capitalist wars. Like Germany, the Soviet Union focused on building up the raw material and machinery base needed to produce finished armaments. The Third Five-Year Plan – started in 1938 – projected an increase in military spending of 40 per cent a year; two-thirds of industrial investment went to fuel the new military machine. Both Hitler and Stalin thought in terms of large-scale and longdistance war, and in January 1939 Hitler approved a “Z-Plan” for a new ocean-going battle fleet; four years before this, Stalin had approved work on a similar Soviet flotilla, which by 1939 involved plans for 15 battleships against the six projected by the German Navy.

The military build-up in Britain and France was more modest, though both countries already possessed a large military establishment even before the onset of rearmament. Britain began expanding its armed forces in 1934, and accelerated the programme in 1936. Emphasis was put on creating a large new modern air force, and the RAF received around 40 per cent of expenditure, so that by 1939 Britain was producing almost as many aircraft as Germany. In France, emphasis was put in the 1930s on the construction of a solid defensive wall – the Maginot Line – to face the German threat and provide France with real security against attack. In 1936, the French government authorized a large three-year rearmament programme, and began to build some of the best tanks and aircraft of the time. Political problems and disputes with labour held up progress, but France, like Britain, was better armed for conflict in 1939 than the myth of “too little, too late” suggests. Only the United States remained aloof from the arms build-up. Geographically secure and with a powerful pacifist lobby, there was no pressure to arm in the 1930s and its soldiers went on manoeuvres with dummy tanks.

The Munich Crisis

28-30 September 1938

After Hitler had taken over his Austrian homeland in March 1938, he began to make preparations to seize Czechoslovakia on the pretence that he was helping fellow Germans oppressed by Czech rule in the Sudeten areas of northern Czechoslovakia. On 28 May, following the “Weekend Crisis” of 20/21 May, when the Czech government, fearing an imminent German invasion, ordered the mobilization of its forces, Hitler told his military commanders to plan a short, sharp war against the Czechs for the autumn of 1938. “I am utterly determined,” he said, “that Czechoslovakia should disappear from the map.”

Hitler thought he could isolate the Czechs and reach a quick military solution before the other powers intervened. The military planning went ahead, reflecting Hitler’s anxiety to wage a small, victorious war. In February, he had scrapped the War Ministry and taken over supreme command of the armed forces himself. The fight against the Czechs was a way of making his mark as a military leader, and an opportunity to improve Germany’s economic and strategic position in central Europe.

The crisis could not be isolated: as pressure built up on the Czech government to make concessions to the Sudeten German minority, Britain and France both acted to try to find a negotiated political solution. France had treaty obligations to help the Czech state, and the Soviet Union was also committed to intervening, as long as France did so too.

In neither state was there much enthusiasm for the prospect of war. Britain, meanwhile, had no treaty obligations, but the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, hoped to use his influence to bring about a negotiated settlement as part of his strategy of “appeasement” of Germany. In August 1938, the British politician Lord Runciman was sent on a League of Nations mission to the Sudetenland and returned arguing that major concessions should be made by the Czech government to the German community.

Hitler stuck to his guns. German leaders attacked the Czechs in the press and on the platform. By the beginning of September, it seemed likely that Hitler would launch the military campaign in the near future. To avert this, on 15 September Chamberlain took the dramatic step of flying to meet Hitler at his mountain retreat at Berchtesgaden. Chamberlain conceded the need for self-determination, while Hitler promised not to make war on the Czechs, but he had no intention of honoring his word. Chamberlain flew again to meet the German leader on 22 September at Bad Godesberg, and this time the atmosphere was quite different, with Hitler insisting that he would occupy the Sudeten areas no later than 1 October. Chamberlain returned home to a cabinet now determined not to concede. France and Britain both prepared for war and on 26 September, Chamberlain sent his personal envoy, Sir Horace Wilson, to see Hitler and on the following day he made it absolutely clear that German violation of Czech sovereignty would mean war.

On 28 September, Hitler, with great reluctance, gave in. Under pressure from his party leaders and aware that German public opinion was strongly against a European war, he accepted Mussolini’s suggestion of a summit conference in Munich, to which the Soviet Union was not invited. Hitler was sulky and ill at ease throughout the Munich discussions, which ended on 30 September with an agreement for the cession of the Sudeten areas to Germany and a timetable for German occupation. Unlike Japan in Manchuria and Italy in Abyssinia, Hitler’s plan for a short war of conquest was frustrated. Munich is usually seen as a humiliating defeat for the British and French, but in reality it was a defeat for Hitler’s plan for war. His frustration was to make it impossible to negotiate away the next crisis in 1939 over the City of Danzig.

The Occupation and Break-up Czechoslovakia

15 Mark 1939

Almost as soon as the ink was dry on the Munich agreement, Hitler told his foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop that he would march on Prague and smash the “Czech remnants” when the opportunity came. The Czech state was put under pressure to reach advantageous trade agreements to help German rearmament, and to concede the right to build a motorway across Czech land. In the Slovak areas, the Germans collaborated with the Slovak separatist movement, putting pressure on the Prague government to grant independence. Bit by bit, the Czech lands were being drawn into the German orbit.

The isolation of Czechoslovakia after Munich also encouraged its other neighbors to join in the search for spoils. On 30 October, Poland demanded the cession of the Teschen region and the Czech government complied; on 2 November, territorial concessions were made to Hungary in southern Slovakia. Germany then demanded that the Prague government turn Czechoslovakia into a virtual German dependency. It was only a matter of time before the remaining Czechoslovak area was broken up. On 12 January 1939, orders were issued to German army units to prepare to occupy the Czech lands, though no final decision had yet been taken. The immediate trigger for the actual invasion was the breakdown in relations between the Czechs and the Slovaks: in March, the Slovak government in Bratislava refused to abandon its claim for independence, thereby provoking the Prague government to declare martial law and send troops into Slovakia. The leader of the Slovak separatists, Jozef Tiso, fled to Vienna and then to Berlin, where Hitler encouraged him to call the Slovak assembly together, which then declared independence on 14 March.

The Czech president, Emil Hácha, took the train to Berlin to seek Hitler’s advice, and in the early hours of 15 March, after Hermann Göring had painted a vision for him of German bombers over Prague, he invited Germany to occupy and “protect” Czechoslovakia. At six o’clock in the morning, German forces occupied the Czech provinces of Bohemia and Moravia, while the Hungarian army seized control of some Slovak provinces. The following day, the Czech areas were declared a German protectorate and the former German foreign minister, Constantin von Neurath, was appointed first “Reich Protector”. Major Czech businesses, including the famous Skoda armaments complex, were brought under direct German control, and Czech military supplies helped to equip 15 German infantry divisions and four armored divisions for the coming conflict. Slovakia was made an independent pro-German state under Tiso and remained a close ally down to 1944.

The occupation of the rest of Czechoslovakia tore up the short-lived Munich agreement. The British and French governments could do nothing to save Czechoslovakia, which had not actually been invaded but forced to “invite” German occupation, but the decision to incorporate non-German peoples in the new German empire prompted Neville Chamberlain on 17 March to make a powerful speech condemning German action. The Prague occupation had finally convinced him that there was no room for a negotiated settlement and he warned that if any nation tried to dominate Europe, Britain would resist “to the utmost of its power”. A few days later, prompted by warnings from the security services of an imminent German occupation of Poland, Chamberlain offered the historic guarantee of Polish sovereignty in the House of Commons on 31 March. The Czech crisis had paved the way for the final countdown to war.

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact

23 August 1939

In 1939 both the Western democracies and Germany began to look to the Soviet Union as a source of support in the unstable international situation, and the British and French began to explore the possibility of using the Soviet Union to pressurize Hitler into good behavior. On 17 April, the Soviet Union proposed a Triple Alliance which would guarantee the remaining states of eastern Europe and give the promise of military assistance if any of the three states were to be attacked by Germany. The West dithered, but on 25 May Chamberlain did at last agree to begin negotiations.

Unknown to the West, Hitler had also decided to open up links to the Soviet Union, despite his regime’s strident anti-Marxism. After exploring the possibility of a trade agreement, the German Ambassador in Moscow was authorized on 30 May to begin negotiations for a political alliance. In these concurrent sets of negotiations, the Soviets trusted neither side. When the Western powers finally sent a delegation to the Soviet Union in August, there was little prospect of agreement. Between 12 and 21 August, the two sides discussed military co-operation, but the failure of Britain and France to secure Polish co-operation to allow the Red Army to cross Polish soil could not be overcome. By then, Stalin had decided that the Soviet Union could avoid war more easily by reaching an agreement with his rival dictator and bitter ideological enemy, Adolf Hitler.

The two dictators had a common desire to avoid conflict with each other: Hitler needed Soviet neutrality to be sure of isolating Poland, his next intended victim, whose conquest was planned for late August 1939; Stalin wanted a guarantee that the Soviet Union would not be dragged into a European war. Early in August, the German Foreign Minister, von Ribbentrop, signalled the possibility of agreement. By 11 August, his counterpart Molotov had indicated a similar willingness, and on 17 August a draft non-aggression treaty was ready. With the planned Polish invasion only a week away, Hitler appealed to Stalin in a personal letter asking him to allow Ribbentrop to travel to Moscow and sign the treaty. Stalin agreed. Ribbentrop flew to Moscow and found the capital decked with swastika banners. It was, he said, just like being among “old party comrades”.

After a few hours of heated discussion, the treaty was ready and late at night on 23 August, it was signed in the presence of a smiling Stalin. A secret protocol divided eastern Europe into spheres of influence: Finland, Estonia, Latvia and parts of Poland and Romania for the Soviet Union; Lithuania and a share of Poland for Germany.

Hitler was delighted by the pact because he believed that Britain and France would not dare to defend Poland without Soviet help. A separate trade agreement also secured generous supplies of oil, food and raw materials for Germany. Hitler now dismissed any danger of Western intervention. “My enemies are little worms,” he had told his commanders on 22 August, “I saw them at Munich.” Stalin was pleased as well, for the Soviet Union had avoided war and might, he hoped, be able to pick up the pieces after a European conflict and then impose communism on Europe in its aftermath. To Stalin the pact was a necessary piece of diplomatic realism; for Hitler it was a piece of cynical calculation. A few weeks later, he told his party leaders that he would turn against the East when it suited him. Communism, as he later told his propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels, was “enemy number one”.

Germany invades Poland

1 September 1939

The German invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939 was the culmination of a plan codenamed “Case White” which had first been drawn up by the German armed forces on Hitler’s orders in April. The war against Poland was not a conflict Hitler had initially expected. After Munich, he assumed that the Poles would be drawn into the German sphere of influence. He wanted them to readjust the status of Danzig, a city supervized by the League of Nations to allow Poland access to the sea, to become a German city as it had been before 1919, and to hand back the rich industrial areas of Silesia, which had been given to Poland after a plebiscite in 1919.

The Poles refused any concessions and Hitler, frustrated at not getting his small war in 1938 against the Czechs, decided to punish the Poles by seizing the areas by force. He argued to the doubters in Berlin that Britain and France would protest but would not intervene. After signing the pact with the Soviet Union, Hitler was certain that the risk was much reduced. A pretence at last-minute negotiation in the final days of August was designed to make it seem as if Germany had a legitimate cause for war, though in fact the SS – the elite National Socialist security force – planned to stage a frontier incident to make it look as if the Poles were the aggressors. An attack by Germans wearing Polish uniforms on the frontier station at Gleiwitz on the night of 31 August/1 September was the signal. The order went out for the 1.5-million-strong German army, supported by more than 1,500 aircraft, to move forward in the first test of what came to be known as blitzkrieg or lightning war.

The German plan was for a two-pronged assault from East Prussia in the north and German Silesia in the south aimed towards the Polish capital, Warsaw. In the vanguard were five Panzer divisions of fast-moving mobile troops grouped around 300 tanks, supported by dive-bombers and fighters. It was the first time this new form of swift battlefield attack, using modern weaponry, had been tried out. The Polish army, almost one million strong, resisted bravely, but was overwhelmed by the Germans’ striking power. The small Polish air force of around 400 planes was eliminated, though the German air force suffered 564 aircraft destroyed or damaged. Within a week of the start of the campaign German forces were 40–65km (25–40 miles) from Warsaw, tightening a noose around the encircled Polish armies. A final Polish stand was made at Warsaw and the fortress of Modlin to the north, but following the heavy bombing of the capital, Polish forces there surrendered on 27 September. Around 100,000 Polish soldiers escaped across neighboring borders but 694,000 went into captivity. The German forces had lost some 13,000 men, the Poles 70,000: the first test of the rearmed German forces was a complete success.

The following day, 28 September, German and Soviet commanders met to decide the demarcation line between them. A new agreement was reached, the German–Soviet Treaty of Friendship, which sealed the partition of Poland, granting Warsaw to the area occupied by the Germans. Jews were victimized from the start and in November 1940 they were forced into a sealed ghetto in the city. Behind the German armies, Hitler had sent special “action squads” (Einsatzgruppen) manned by security agents and SS men, who began the systematic killing of all Polish intellectuals, nationalist politicians and government elite in a pattern that was to be repeated across Europe in the grim years of German occupation. By the end of the war, more than six million Poles, including three million Polish Jews, had been killed.

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