For this series, I don't plan to cover every aspect of World War II from beginning to end. That would take more than a blog series to complete. For some people, that's their life's work. No, I won't do it the injustice of trying to tackle it in a blog. Rather, I want to use this series to tackle misunderstood, underreported, or little-known aspects of the war.
It seems popular in our current political climate to draw parallels to World War II, Nazi Germany, and Adolf Hitler. And why not? When self-proclaimed Nazis and Anti-Fascists are breaking into violent riots. But, as a historian, I see history being shredded to fit the narrative of today. History does not repeat itself. Each moment in time is absolutely unique and history will never be exactly the same.
What has been interesting to note in my research is the difference in people telling the history of WWII back in the ‘80s and ‘90s and now. Certain parts are emphasized and other parts are glossed over in order to fit the square peg of history into the round hole of today. In this blog post, I am not looking to make political statements of today’s world. Rather, I wish to offer the history without drawing parallels or trying to force it to fit my bias. I will leave that to my readers.
Germany After the War: The Weimar Republic
People had never seen a war like that of World War I. Out of the Industrial Revolution, people were able to wage a new type of warfare. No more were the days of mounted cavalries and one minute loading times for guns. Now we had tanks, poison gas, grenades, trench warfare, and machine guns. This enabled death on a massive scale. The tenuous peace with the defeat of Germany and the other Central Powers was only further destabilized by the crushing demands of the Treaty of Versailles.
Germany lost territory. They were disarmed and their military, the Wehrmacht, shrunk to just 100,000 soldiers. They were forced to pay reparations that the country could not afford. Their monarchy was abolished and a democratic system was forced on a people who neither wanted it nor understood it. Most Germans couldn’t comprehend their loss.
Just as Germany began to recover, the Great Depression hit worldwide. 3 million were unemployed in Britain. One-third of the American workforce was unemployed. In Germany, unemployment was at 22%. Images come to mind of stockbrokers committing suicide, of homeless shantytowns in Central Park, of people taking wheelbarrows of useless Deutschemarks to the market.
The Ingredients for a Dictatorship
Splintered political parties and a people resistant to democratic ideology crippled the German fledgling democratic government, the Weimar Republic. Germany was drowning in political parties, which held violent political demonstrations. Many of these political parties had their own paramilitary units. Democracy and parliamentary government had been the norm in the United States and Britain. But for Germany, it was brand new. They used to have an empire and an emperor. They were used to authoritarian regimes. Chancellor after chancellor failed to enact any changes or make any progress.
From a failed artist to a WWI veteran, Adolf Hitler decided to pursue a career in politics. First, he worked for the police spying on political parties. However, he became enamored with a tiny splinter group called the National Socialist Party. “Nazi” for short. He was able to make a name for himself in a party that had not much more than a board of directors with his charisma and vibrant speech delivery. He quit his job as a spy and became the head of the Nazi party in all but name.
As party leader, Hitler blamed the loss of World War I on the Jews. He claimed they had betrayed Germany. He attracted people to the Nazi party through a narrative of German victimhood. Hitler identified three threats that had to be battled by Germany: democracy, Marxists (Communists), and Jews. In Mein Kampf, he identified Communists as being the number one enemy of Germany.
In Hitler, people found a narrative they could understand. There was someone other than themselves to blame for their failure to win World War I. Specific, tangible enemies were identified. They were given their power and their pride back. They could better swallow a story of Germany as the victims than Germany as the villains.
Even so, the Nazi Party never won majority in elections. 55% of people did NOT vote for the Nazis. In fact, They never won more than 38% in the national elections. Adolf Hitler had to be appointed, not elected by popular vote, by President Hindenberg. President Hindenberg felt pressured to offer the position of Chancellor to Adolf Hitler to appease Hitler's followers and his personal army of 2 million storm troopers (which dwarfed the German army of 100,000).
Adolf Hitler had the benefit of rich backers. He also had the benefit of propaganda in his propaganda minister, Josef Goebbels. When he came to power, the conservatives hated him. However, they hated their left-wing counterparts more. They believed they could control him and kept him in power for fear of losing to the left-wing parties. Hitler began to consolidate power through intimidation. In one act, he burned the German seat of government, the Reichstag, and blamed it on the communists. In order to offer order and security to the German people, he seized more power. He dissolved rival political parties, labor unions, and the powers of the German states to self-govern. He eliminated basic civil rights of the people in the name of safety.
Why didn’t anyone stop it?
Some tried. According to Peter Hayes, many ambassadors considered resigning when the Nazis came to power. However, only one person – the ambassador to Washington D.C. actually followed through. When asked, one other ambassador said, “one does not abandon one’s country because it has a bad government.” Much of the Nazi practices were hand-waved away with excuses. Some called it “the inevitable excesses that come with Revolution” and allowed discrimination, violence, and persecution to happen at the hands of the Nazis because the Nazi party had been able to bring about an economic resurgence. Others refused to resign, claiming they would fight the system from within. However, the biggest rationalizations given for allowing the Nazis to continue was that everyone had “bigger problems.” The Jewish community was not united as a whole, and everyone else was unwilling to step in because there were “more important” matters that needed their attention.
It was true that Hitler did bring about economic change through massive public works projects, such as the Autobahn. Just as Franklin Delano Roosevelt was doing in the United States. 7 million people got jobs over a period of two years in Germany. Every household in Germany received a simple radio, so that Hitler could reach the entirety of the country and spread his propaganda.
But as the economy improved, there were riots in the streets. Political opponents of Hitler were beaten, terrorized, and held indefinitely by an abusive police force enabled by the suspension of civil rights. Left-wing members of the German government were among the first sent to concentration camps. Jews were attacked on the streets by Hitler’s personal army. Their shops were boycotted. They were stripped of their rights as German citizens piece by piece. (Please visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website for more information on the path to the Holocaust.)
Why the Jews?
I think one of the most pressing questions on everyone’s minds is: why the Jews? Professor Peter Hayes of Northwestern University has been contemplating this question for three decades. To the average U.S. citizen, it doesn’t make sense. The average person doesn’t harbor Anti-Semitism. Americans are allies with Israel. We are unfamiliar with the Anti-Semitism that has existed in the west for 2,000. The Jews have been considered “contaminants” since the introduction of Christianity. It was believed that the Jews would corrupt Christians.
Fast forward to the 1700s and this narrative began to change. The Enlightenment represented Jews as a hindrance to progress. They were seen as backwards and traditional in the face of progress of society. Then came the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s-1900s. This Anti-Semitism changed to make the Jews out to being a threat to the health of others. As being a moral and political threat that must be combated. A large part of this had to due with the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, which was linked with Jews. Communism, coups, and power grabs were associated with the Jews.
Germany rearmed against the Treaty of Versailles. And as Hitler began to grow increasingly paranoid, he ordered what is now known as the Night of the Long Knives on June 20, 1934. The S.A., Hitler’s personal army, was gutted of its leaders. The total, according to Hitler, was 61 deaths. Post-war reports estimate the death toll between 1,000-7,000 people associated with the S.A.
By this time, President Hindenberg was in ailing health. Hitler pressured the government to also award him the powers of the president. When Hindenberg died in August of 1934, Hitler eliminated the position and declared himself the leader of Germany – the Fuehrer. Finally Germany had the autocrat it had sought.
Lebensraum: "Living Space"
Hitler began to retake territories Germany had lost in World War I. He was met with empty threats and weak protests from other Western European countries who desperately wished to keep the world out of another war. After regaining lost territories, he went after the German-speaking Austria. This, despite the fact that Austria had never been part of Germany. His takeover, like the others, was peaceful. His gaze next sought out the Sudetenland, a predominantly German segment of Czechoslovakia. When he invaded Czechoslovakia to retake the Sudetenland, he claimed this would be his last takeover. The Allies were once again soft in their responses, negotiating a treaty that would give Hitler the Sudetenland.
Peace in Our Time
After coming back from a peace agreement signed by Hitler, Prime Minister of Britain Neville Chamberlain declared, “This is the second time in our history that there has come back from Germany to Downing Street peace with honour. I believe it is peace in our time.”
Hitler’s next move was to form an alliance with his worst enemy, the Soviet Union, to expand further east. He promised Stalin the Baltic States and east Poland to the USSR. This provided he would not make an enemy of Russia if he took west Poland. Hitler’s minister of Foreign Affairs, von Ribbentrop, told him that the invasion of Poland would draw no ire from the west. Emboldened by reassurances from von Ribbentrop and the alliance with Russia, Hitler invaded Poland. This invasion caused both France and Britain to finally declare war on Germany.
I apologize for the lack of links in this blog post. Most of my sources for this were print or documentaries.
Here are some resources I used: