World War II was the defining disaster of the twentieth century for millions of people across the globe. It was the culmination of the vision of total war the world had first encountered in World War I, but it was generalized to vast stretches of the planet, not just parts of Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. The promise of technology was realized in its most perverse form as the energy of advanced industrialism was unleashed in weapons of mass slaughter. World War II was also the setting for the Holocaust, the first and only incidence of industrialized mass murder in world history.
The war resulted in approximately 55–60 million deaths, of which 25–27 million were Soviets and 6 million were the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. While nationalist rivalries and international tensions certainly led to the war in some ways, as they had in World War I, the primary cause of WWII was unquestionably Adolf Hitler’s personal obsession with creating a vastly expanded German empire. Europe had, in some ways, stumbled into World War I. World War II was instead a war of aggression launched by a single belligerent, Germany, supported by its allies. (Note: Germany, Italy, Japan, and their allies are referred to as “The Axis” in World War II. Britain, the US, the USSR, and their allies are referred to as “The Allies” in World War II.)
World War II
Leading up to War
The years leading up to the start of World War II (which began in September of 1939) saw a series of bold moves by Nazi leadership. Over the course of the 1930s, the Nazi government steadily broke with the provisions of the Versailles Treaty. While the (pre-Nazi) German state had already suspended reparation payments, once the Nazis were in control they simply refused to negotiate the possibility of the payments ever resuming. By 1934, in secret, Germany began the process of re-arming, and then in 1935 it openly moved toward building a military that would dwarf even its World War I equivalent.
By 1938, Hitler felt that Germany was prepared enough that it could sustain a limited war; by 1939 he felt confident that the German war machine was ready for a full-scale effort to seize the space he imagined for the new Reich. In a sense, this period consisted of Hitler “playing chicken” with the rest of Europe: he would launch a dangerous and provocative initiative, then see if the rest of Europe (meaning primarily France and Britain) would respond with the threat of force or instead back down. The political leadership of those nations did back down, repeatedly, until the invasion of Poland in September of 1939 finally proved to the world beyond a doubt that Hitler could not be stopped without war.
This is the period remembered as appeasement. The term refers to the policy adopted by the French and British governments in giving Hitler what he wanted in hopes that he would not do it again. Pieces of foreign territory, political unions with closely related German territories, and the growth of German military power were seen by desperate British and French politicians as things that Germans might have legitimate grievances about, and thus they played along with the idea that Germany, and more to the point Hitler, might be appeased once those issues were addressed.
It was a popular critique long after the war to vilify the French and British leadership for being willing to concede so much to Hitler when a strong militarized response might have cut the rug out from under the Nazi war machine before it was ready for its full-scale assault. Arguably, one should not be too quick to write off appeasement. World War I had been so awful that it was very difficult for most Europeans, even most Germans, to believe that Hitler could actually want to plunge Europe back into another world war. It is certain that the French and British wanted to avoid full-scale war at any cost; their civilian populations were totally opposed to war and, especially in France, their governments were unstable and unpopular as it was. Thus, British and French political leaders did not think of their concessions to Hitler as caving in: they thought of them as preserving peace.
In March of 1938, Germany annexed Austria, an event known as the Anschluss. Despite the German pseudo-invasion being poorly organized, most Austrians welcomed the German tanks that rolled into Austrian cities, and there was practically no resistance. Germans were at first apprehensive that this blatant violation of both the Versailles Treaty and the sovereignty of another nation would result in war, but instead it became a public relations boost for Hitler and the Nazis when there was no foreign response. In one fell swoop, Nazi laws and policies (most notably the entire edifice of anti-Semitic legislation) were imported to Austria, and there was a looting spree as Catholic Austrians attacked their Jewish countrymen.
In September of 1938, the threat of German intervention in the Sudetenland, a region of northwestern Czechoslovakia with a significant German minority, prompted an international crisis. The British and French governments hastily convened a conference in Munich to stave off war, and there, instead of defending Czech sovereignty (which the Czechs were demanding), the French and British agreed that Germany should annex the Sudetenland to “protect” its German population. Then, in early 1939, German troops simply occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia. The Czech lands were divided between Germany and a newly created protectorate, while Slovakia became a puppet state under an anti-Semitic Catholic priest, Jozef Tiso.
Even as Germany was expanding its territories against a backdrop of international vacillation, it was forming political alliances. In May of 1939 Italy and Germany pledged alliance with one another, more or less a formality given their long-standing fascist kinship. More importantly, in August of 1939 Germany and the USSR signed a mutual non-aggression pact. This pact was absolutely crucial for the Nazis, as they could not envisage a successful war against Western and Northern Europe unless the major eastern threat, the USSR, was neutralized. Whereas Hitler had absolutely no intention of honoring the pact in the long term, the Soviet Premier Josef Stalin did, believing both that Germany was not strong enough to threaten Soviet territory and that the future war (which he accepted as inevitable) would be a squabble among the capitalist nations that did not involve his own resolutely communist state. To sweeten the deal for the Soviets, the pact secretly included provisions to divide Poland between Germany and the USSR in the immediate future.
The Early War
It finally came to war in September of 1939. The Nazis claimed that Poles had been abusing and mistreating ethnic Germans in Poland, and Nazi propagandists fabricated a number of supposed atrocities that had been perpetrated against Germans. Using this excuse, the German army invaded in September. France and Britain finally had to face the hard truth that there was no appeasing Hitler, and they declared war on Germany. As part of the pre-war agreement with Germany, the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the east as German forces invaded from the west, with the Soviets occupying eastern Poland in the name of both territorial expansion for its own sake and to provide a buffer from Germany and the west.
The most important lesson German strategists had learned from World War I was how to overcome trench warfare. After years of stalemate, Germany had managed to break through the French and British lines on the western front right at the end of the war, before they were pushed back by the flood of American troops. Military technology advanced rapidly between the wars, equipping each of the major nations with fast-moving, heavily armored tanks and heavy bombers supported by fighter planes. It would be possible to strike much more quickly and much harder than had the ragged lines of charging soldiers “going over the top” twenty years earlier.
Likewise, as American intervention had proved in World War I, all of the combatants in the Second World War recognized the key role of industrial production itself. The winner in war would be not only the side that struck first and hardest, but the side that could continue to churn out weapons and equipment at the highest rates for the longest time. In that sense, industrial capacity was as important as fighting ability. German strategists had learned all of these lessons, and the German army—the Wehrmacht—struck with overwhelming force, backed by an industrial base designed to support a lengthy war.
When Germany finally attacked Poland in September of 1939, the Wehrmacht unleashed (what the Allies called) Blitzkrieg, lightning war, which consisted of fast-moving armored divisions supported by overwhelming air support. Behind those armored divisions the main body of German infantry neutralized remaining resistance and, typically, succeeded in taking thousands (sometimes hundreds of thousands) of prisoners of war. Blitzkrieg had originally been conceived by a French officer, Charles de Gaulle, in a military tactical plan regarding mobile warfare. It was rejected by the French General Staff but was acquired by the Germans and implemented by the Wehrmacht. (The irony is that De Gaulle would go on to become the leader of the anti-Nazi Free French forces in the war after France itself surrendered).
The first stage of the war resulted in complete German victory. The Polish army put up a valiant defense but was swiftly crushed. Over 1,300 planes attacked Poland at once in the early stage of the invasion, and Poland capitulated in October, with its government fleeing to exile in London. While the smaller nations in the region warily watched their own borders, most global attention shifted to the border with France, the obvious next stage in the plans for German conquest.
While France had declared war on Germany immediately in September of 1939, it did not actually attack. French plans for a future war with Germany had revolved around defense, meaning awaiting a German attack, since the end of World War I. After WWI, the French built a huge series of bunkers and fortresses along the French–German border known as the Maginot Line. There, from September of 1939 until May of 1940, the French military essentially waited for Germany to invade. This was a period the French came to refer to as the “drôle de guerre,” or “joke war” (the British called it the “phony war,” the Germans Sitzkrieg or “sitting war”). The assumption had been that Germany would be held back by the heavy fortifications and could be pushed back, and the French army simply did not have any plans, or intentions, to attack Germany in the meantime.
Instead, the Germans had the (in hindsight, not entirely surprising) idea to go around the Maginot Line. In April, German forces invaded and swiftly defeated Denmark and Norway, despite a valiant resistance by the Norwegians. Then, on the 10th of May, they attacked the Netherlands, Belgium, and France, sending the bulk of their forces through a forest on the French–Belgian border that the French had, wrongly, thought was impassable to an army. The Germans proved far more effective than the French or British at using tanks and artillery, and they immediately began driving the French and British forces back. The Maginot Line, meanwhile, went unused, with the German invasion simply bypassing it completely with the Belgian invasion.
An infamous incident occurred in late May, when over 300,000 British and French soldiers retreating from the Germans were pinned down on the coast of the English Channel near the French town of Dunkirk. There, a flotilla of navy and fishing vessels managed to evacuate them back to England while the British Royal Air Force held off the opposing German Luftwaffe (air force). This retreat was counted as a success by the standards of the Allies at the time, although the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill reminded his countrymen that successful retreats were not how wars were won.
The defeat of France and its allied British Expeditionary Force is, in hindsight, all the more disappointing in that the combined Allied forces were more numerous than their German enemies and could have, conceivably, put up a stiff fight. Instead, the French sent their armored forces toward Holland while the Germans smashed into France itself, the British and French proved inept at working together, and Allied morale collapsed completely. The French in particular did not realize the potential of tank warfare: they treated tanks more as mobile artillery platforms than as weapons in their own right, and they had no armored divisions, just tanks interspersed with infantry divisions.
In the end, France surrendered to Germany on June 22. Germany occupied the central and northern parts of France but allowed a group of right-wing French politicians and generals to create a Nazi-allied puppet state in the south. That state became known as the Vichy Regime, named after the spa town of Vichy that served as its capital. There, the Vichy government rapidly set up a distinctly French fascist state, complete with concentration camps, anti-Semitic laws, and a state of war with Britain.
Thus, as of June of 1940, no major powers remained to oppose Germany but Britain (the United States, while far more favorable to Britain than Germany, remained neutral). Hitler had initially hoped that the British would agree to surrender the continent and negotiate while he consolidated his victory (and turned against the USSR). Instead, Britain refused to back down and handed over power to an emergency government headed by the new prime minister, Winston Churchill. Starting in July of 1940, the Luftwaffe began a campaign to utterly destroy the Royal Air Force (RAF) of Britain and to terrify the British into surrendering. German plans revolved around a naval invasion of the British Isles across the English Channel, but German strategists conceded that they would have to cripple the RAF for the invasion to be possible. The resulting months of combat in the skies came to be known as The Battle of Britain. It was the “greatest” series of air battles ever fought, lasting from July through September of 1940, with thousands of planes battling in the skies every day and night.
The British were quite well prepared. They had the newly created technology of radar, which allowed them to anticipate German attacks. In addition to the RAF, the British had numerous batteries of anti-aircraft guns that inflicted significant losses on the Luftwaffe. Many British pilots survived crashes and were rescued, whereas German pilots who were shot down either died or were captured. Most importantly, British factories churned out twice as many new planes as did German ones over the course of the war. Thus, the RAF was able to counter German attacks with new, effective fighters and increasingly seasoned pilots. By the end of September, much to Hitler’s fury, Germany had to abandon the immediate goal of invading Britain.
Meanwhile, the United States stayed out of the war – “isolationism” was still a very popular stance among many Americans. In part because of the heroism of the British defense, however, the American Congress passed the Lend-Lease Act in March of 1941 which authorized unlimited support for Britain, mostly taking the form of food and military supplies provided on credit, “short of war.” Britain relied both on American supplies and complete governmental control of its own economy to survive in the coming years. With German blockades preventing the importation of anywhere near the pre-war amounts of food, every aspect of the British economy (especially agriculture and other forms of food production) was directed by emergency wartime ministries to keep the British population from starving.
The specific decision by Hitler and the Nazi leadership that resulted in the United States joining the Allies was the alliance between Germany and Japan. In September of 1941, Germany, Italy, and Japan signed the Tripartite Pact. The Pact stipulated that any of the three powers would declare war on a neutral country that declared war on one of the others. Practically speaking, Germany hoped that the Pact would make American politicians think twice about joining Britain in the war effort. In hindsight, it backfired against Germany, since the Japanese attack on the United States led Germany to honor its agreement and declare war on the US as well: Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on December 7, 1941, and Germany was obliged to declare war on the US (Hitler was urged not to by his advisors, but gleefully claimed that Japan had never lost a war and now victory was assured for the Axis).
In the meantime, a series of events shifted the focus of the war to North Africa, Greece, and the Balkans. Mussolini had ordered in the Italian army to invade British territories in Africa (most importantly Egypt) and to attack Yugoslavia and Greece in 1940. The Italians were largely ineffective, however, and all their attack did was inspire a spirited British counter-offensive and a strong anti-Italian resistance movement in the Balkans. The Germans, however, needed supplies from the Balkans and southeastern Europe, including both foodstuffs and natural resources like oil. It would be literally unable to continue the war if the Allies managed to take over these regions.
Thus, Germany sent forces to the Balkans and Africa to support their Italian allies. By the spring of 1941 the Germans held all of southeastern Europe and had pushed the British back in Africa—yet more important victories for the Nazis, but also a delay in their plans. Another setback was that Hitler’s attempt to get the Spanish to join the war fell flat, when the Spanish dictator Franco indicated that Spain was simply too poor and weak, especially after its civil war, to join the Axis, despite the obvious political affinity between fascist Spain and Nazi Germany (Hitler said that he would rather have teeth extracted than endure another meeting like the one he suffered through with Franco).
The War in the East
Despite those setbacks, to many, World War II seemed like it was over within a year: Germany controlled Poland, Norway, the Netherlands, Denmark, France, and Belgium, all within nine months of the initial attack on Poland. As noted above, its forces were soon making headway in the Balkans and North Africa as well. Hitler had first conceived of the war against the USSR as something to be accomplished after defeating the rest of Europe, and thus the planned invasion of Britain was to be the final step before the Soviet invasion. The fact that Britain was not only holding out, but holding on, however, led to a change in German plans: the Soviet invasion would have to occur before Britain was defeated.
In the overall context of the war, by far the largest and most important target for Germany was the Soviet Union. The non-aggression pact signed just before the beginning of the war between the USSR and Germany had given the Nazis the time to concentrate on subduing the rest of Europe. By the spring of 1941, Hitler felt confident that an all-out attack on the USSR was certain to succeed, now that German military resources could be concentrated mostly in the east. He was spurred on by the fact that, according to his own racial ideology, the Slavs of Eastern Europe (most obviously the Russians) were so inferior to the “Aryan” Germans that they would be unable to mount an effective resistance. Thus, Hitler anticipated the conquest of the Soviet Union taking about ten weeks.
For his part, Stalin did not think Hitler would be foolish enough to try to invade Soviet Union, especially before Germany had truly “won” in the west. In 1939, Stalin reported to his advisers that “The war will be fought between two groups of capitalist states…we have nothing against it if they batter and weaken each other. It would be no bad thing if Germany were to knock the richest capitalist countries (particularly England) off their feet.” Furthermore, every European school child learned about Napoleon’s disastrous attempted invasion of Russia in 1812, and thus the sheer size of Soviet territory seemed like a logical impediment to invasion (in fact, the German invasion was deliberately timed to coincide with the 129th anniversary of Napoleon’s invasion—in the minds of the Nazis, where the French had failed, Germany would succeed). Stalin dismissed intelligence reports of the massive military buildup that preceded the invasion, remaining convinced that, at the very least, Germany would not attack while Britain remained unconquered.
While we now know that he was completely wrong about Hitler’s intentions, Stalin had good reason for not thinking that Germany would dare attack: the USSR had one-sixth of the land surface of the earth, with a population of about 170,000,000. Its standing army as of 1941 was 5.5 million strong, with 12 million in reserve. It also had a vast superiority in quantity (albeit not quality) of equipment at the start of the war. Indeed, by the end of the war, the Soviets had mobilized 30.6 million soldiers (of whom 800,000 were women: the USSR was the only nation to rely on women in front-line combat roles, at which they equaled their male countrymen in effectiveness). Given that vast strength, Stalin was astonished when the Germans attacked, reportedly spending hours in a daze before ordering an armed response.
On June 22 of 1941, Germany invaded the USSR with over 3 million troops. This invasion was codenamed Operation Barbarossa, after a medieval German king who warred with the Slavs. The first few months were a horrendous disaster for the Soviets. The Soviet air force was utterly destroyed, as were most of its armored divisions. Hundreds of thousands of Soviet soldiers were taken prisoner. Stalin had spent the late 1930s “purging” various groups within the Soviet state and the army, and his purges had already killed almost all of the experienced commanders, leaving inexperienced and sometimes inept replacements in their wake. In many areas, the locals actually welcomed the Germans as a better controlling force than the Bolsheviks had been, putting up no resistance at all. Even though Hitler himself was frustrated to discover than his 10-week estimate of conquest was inaccurate, the first months of the invasion still amounted to an astonishing success for German forces.
Despite its early success, however, the German advance halted by winter. The initial welcome German soldiers received vanished when it was revealed that the German army and the Nazi SS were at least as bad as had been the communists, pressing people into work gangs, murdering resisters, and most importantly, shipping everything that could possibly be useful for the German war effort back to Germany, including both equipment and foodstuffs. Thus, groups of “partisans” (i.e. insurgents) mounted successful resistance movements that cost the Germans men and resources. Likewise, German forces had advanced so quickly that they were often bogged down in transit, with German supply lines stretched to the breaking point. Thus, just as had happened during Napoleon’s retreat over a hundred years earlier, guerrilla fighters were able to strand and kill the foreign invaders.
Just as it had thwarted Napoleon as well, the Russian winter played a key role in freezing the German invasion in its tracks. Mud initially slowed the German advance in autumn, then the bitter cold of winter set in. The Germans were not equipped for winter conditions, having set out in their summer uniforms. Despite the Wehrmacht’s mechanization, German forces still used horses extensively for the transportation of supplies, with many of the horses dying from the cold. Even machines could not stand up to the conditions; it got so cold that engines broke down and tanks and armored cars were rendered immobile. Thus, the German army, while still huge and powerful, was largely frozen in place in the winter of 1941–1942.
Incredibly, the Soviets were able to use this breathing room to literally dismantle their factories and transport them to the east, outside of the range of the German bombers. Whole factories, particularly in the Ukraine, were stripped of motors, turbines, and any other useful equipment that could be moved, and sent hundreds of miles away from the front lines. There, they were rebuilt and put back to work. By 1943, a year and a half after the initial invasion, the Soviets were producing more military hardware than were the Germans. Likewise, despite the relative success of the German invasion, Germany lost over 1.4 million men as casualties in the first year.
The Home Front
World War II was unprecedented in its effects on civilian populations. Many prior wars of the modern era had largely spared civilians, with most casualties limited to the men who fought or logistically supported the fighting. The range of bombers in World War II, however, ensured that civilians were at risk even when they lived hundreds of miles from the front lines. From the Battle of Britain onward, while military targets were given priority, civilian targets were also deliberately sought out by German bombers, and when the war began to turn against Germany the Allies eagerly returned the favor by raining bombs on German cities. What Nazi strategists called the “War of Annihilation” launched by Germany against the Soviet Union was specifically aimed at destroying the Soviet population, not just its government, as is so horribly illustrated by the death tolls: some 25 million Soviets died, including approximately 17 million civilians. Likewise, the Holocaust of the European Jews (described in detail in the next chapter) murdered some 6 million Jewish civilians deliberately and systematically.
Thus, the experience of the war by civilians in the countries in or near the fighting often revolved around terror and hardship. Everyone, including those spared by the bombings or foreign occupation, had to contend with shortages of food and supplies that grew worse over time. As an example, British civilians experienced rationing immediately at the outbreak of war that grew ever more stringent as the war went on: the weekly 8 oz. (about two sticks) ration of butter per person at the start of the war was down to 2 oz. (about half a stick) by 1945. Rationing ensured that only civilian populations in actual war zones were likely to face outright famine, but hunger was widespread everywhere. British farmers were considered so important to the war effort that they were excluded from conscription and were hailed as heroes in government propaganda.
In a familiar pattern from World War I, women played an enormous role on the home front during World War II. Millions of women worked in war production in all of the Allies countries, with women almost completely replacing men in Soviet agriculture by the war’s end. Both Britain and the USSR conscripted women to work in various ways and war industries were completely dependent on women’s labor for most of the war. Propaganda hailed women’s participation in the war as a patriotic necessity, with iconic characters like the American “Rosie the Riveter” created to inspire women to contribute as much as possible to the war effort. Despite this acknowledgment, women were still paid as little as half of men’s wages for the same work almost everywhere (Winston Churchill even personally defeated an effort led by women teachers, and supported by parliament, for equal pay).
In comparison to World War I, there was a major difference in how the Second World War was perceived by most civilians on the homefront: it was an existential battle for democracy and freedom for most Americans, but for most of the European nations it was a war for survival itself. One of the major factors that contributed to the loyalty of German civilians to the Nazi regime until the bitter end was the simple, pragmatic understanding that if Germany lost it would be at the mercy of the Soviet Union, a country that the German military had set out to utterly obliterate. For the Soviets, of course, only a fanatical resistance to German aggression could save their nation and their lives. Even in countries that Germany had not set out to destroy, most civilians dreaded the prospect of a German victory as being nearly equivalent. Everywhere in occupied countries civilians desperately sought out scraps of information that might indicate that the war was finally turning against the Third Reich.
For its part, Nazi Germany persisted in the war effort by relying on a simple, ancient institution: slavery. Prisoners in concentration camps (Jews and non-Jews alike) were all, by definition, slaves of the regime, put to work in factories, quarries, forests, and workshops and “paid” in meager rations. Millions of civilians from occupied countries were either conscripted to work on behalf of Germany in their own countries or were captured and sent into the Reich as slaves, with some 8 million slaves toiling within the German borders by the end of 1944. Even when German factories were crippled by Allied bombs the war machine held together thanks to its massive reliance on slavery. In short, it was not mere “slave labor” (a phrase that weakens the horror of the institution) that powered the Third Reich, it was slavery enforced through lethal violence.
The Turn of the Tide
Despite the power of Britain, the US, and the USSR, the Axis war effort continued with amazing success well into 1942. A German army under the general Erwin Rommel (“the Desert Fox”) in North Africa pushed to within a few hundred miles of the Suez Canal in Egypt, threatening to cut the Allies off from much of their oil supply. Once the winter of 1941–1942 was over, the Germans continued to advance into Soviet territory, endangering the rebuilt factories and Soviet oil fields in the Caucuses. Japan, meanwhile, took advantage of the success of the Pearl Harbor attack and occupied dozens of islands across the Pacific. A series of Allied victories in 1942 and 1943, however, turned the tide of the war.
Two major naval engagements in the Pacific spelled disaster for Japan. In May of 1942, at the Battle of the Coral Sea, American forces defeated a Japanese invasion force targeting Australia and drove the Japanese fleet back. In June of 1942, at the Battle of Midway, American forces sank four Japanese aircraft carriers. The importance of Midway was not the loss itself, which was less severe than the losses the American navy had already sustained. Instead, it was the fact that the Americans had the industrial capacity to rebuild, whereas there was no way that Japan could do so. From that point on, American forces slowly but steadily “island hopped” across the Pacific, driving Japanese forces from the islands they had occupied.
In Egypt, meanwhile, British forces managed to decisively defeat and push back the Germans in October of 1942. An American army soon landed to help them, and the Allies forced the Germans to retreat by November. By July of 1943, the Allies were poised to bring the fight to Italy itself. Vichy French territories in North Africa had fallen after an ineffectual resistance earlier, in November 1942, which led Hitler to order the complete occupation of France the same month; the fascist puppet state of the Vichy Regime thus only lasted from June of 1940 to November of 1942.
The “real” turn of the tide occurred in the Soviet Union, however. In late 1942, a huge German army was dispatched against the city of Stalingrad near the Black Sea. For months, Russian and Ukrainian civilians and soldiers alike fought the Germans in brutal street battles, with the people of Stalingrad often engaging German tanks armed only with grenades, handguns, and Molotov cocktails. The Germans were held at bay until the main Soviet army was assembled. By November, the Germans were being beaten, and the German general in charge directly disobeyed Hitler and surrendered in February of 1943. Here, the Germans were not in their element – urban warfare was not the same as Blitzkrieg, and the fanatical resistance of the Soviets (who paid with over 1.1 million casualties) stopped them.
Later that year an enormous Soviet army led by 9,000 tanks defeated a German army near the city of Kursk, 500 miles south of Moscow. Kursk is often considered to be the “real” turning point in the Soviet war, since the Germans were consistently on the retreat after it. The importance of Kursk was the fact that the Germans were beaten “at their own game” – they were able to employ Blitzkrieg tactics, but the Russians now had anti-tank military hardware and tactics that rendered it much less effective.
As an aside to the narrative of the war, it is worthwhile to consider the role of the Soviet Union in World War II. In its aftermath, Americans often looked on World War II as “the good war,” the war that was fought for the right reasons against countries whose leadership were truly villainous. There is a lot of truth to that idea; American troops fought as bravely as any, and US involvement was crucial in the ultimate victory of the Allies. It is important, however, to recognize that it was really the USSR that broke the back of the Nazi war machine. At the cost of at least 25,000,000 lives (some estimates are as high as thirty million), the Soviets first stopped, then pushed back, then ultimately destroyed the large majority of German military forces. By way of comparison between the war in the west and the war in the east, the Battle of Alamein in Egypt that turned the tide against German forces there involved about 300,000 troops, while Stalingrad saw over 2 million troops and hundreds of thousands of Soviet civilian combatants. Most German forces were always committed to the eastern front after the invasion of the USSR in June of 1941, and without the incredible sacrifice of the Soviet people, the US and Britain would have been forced to take on the full strength not just of Germany and Italy, but of the various German puppet states and allies (e.g. Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria) within the Axis.
Back in the west, with Italian forces in shambles and the Fascist government in disarray, the Italian king dismissed Mussolini in July of 1943. The new Italian government quickly made peace with the Allies, prompting a swift invasion of northern Italy by Germany as the Allies seized the south. For over a year, the Allies pushed north against the German forces occupying central and northern Italy. The fighting was brutal, but Allied forces made steady headway in driving German forces back toward the Reich itself.
By 1944, Germany was clearly on the defensive. British and American forces pushed north through Italy as the Soviets closed from the east. On June 6, 1944, known as D-Day, British, American, and Canadian forces launched a surprise invasion across the English Channel with hundreds of thousands of troops (over 150,000 on the first day alone). After securing the coastline, the Allies steadily pushed against the Germans, suffering serious casualties in the process as the Germans refused to give up ground without brutal fighting. By April of 1945, the Allies were within striking distance of Berlin. The western Allies agreed to let the Soviets carry out the actual invasion of Berlin, a conquest that took eleven days of hard fighting. On May 7, Germany surrendered, a week after Hitler had committed suicide in his bunker, and the following day was V-E Day – Victory in Europe.
Meanwhile, the fighting in the Pacific continued for months. By March of 1945, American planes could bomb Japan itself, and civilian as well as military targets were destroyed, often with incendiary bombs. One attack destroyed 40% of Tokyo in three hours; the death toll was immense. Nevertheless, Japanese forces resisted every inch taken by the Americans. It took about two months for American forces to take the island of Okinawa, resulting in about 100,000 Japanese and 65,000 American casualties. The prospect of the invasion of Japan itself was therefore extremely daunting. It seemed clear that America would ultimately prevail, but at a horrendous loss of life. This ultimately led to the deployment of the most terrible weapons ever invented by the human species: nuclear arms.
The Manhattan Project, a secret military operation housed in a former boarding school in Los Alamos, New Mexico, succeeded in creating and then detonating an atomic bomb on July 16. President Truman of the US warned Japan that it faced “prompt and utter destruction” if it did not surrender; when it did not, he authorized the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima (August 6) and Nagasaki (August 8). Hundreds of thousands, the large majority civilians, died either in the initial blasts or from radiation poisoning in the months that followed. At the behest of the Japanese emperor, negotiations began a few days later, with Japanese representatives signing an unconditional surrender on September 2.
The Aftermath of World War II
The death toll of the war was unprecedented, and most of the dead were civilians. Millions more were left homeless and displaced, especially in Central and Eastern Europe. As a whole, Europe was in shambles, with whole cities destroyed, and even the victorious Allied nations were economically crippled. In addition, much to the world’s growing horror, the true costs of Nazi rule were revealed in the closing months of the war and in the months to follow, as the details of what became known as the Holocaust were discovered. Simultaneously, the world was forced to grapple with the fact that human beings now had the ability to extinguish all life on earth through atomic weapons. These two traumas—the Holocaust and The Bomb—forced “Western Civilization” as a whole to rethink its own identity in the aftermath.
The term genocide was adopted in the immediate aftermath of World War II out of the need to designate, to name, the most horrendous crime perpetrated by the Nazi regime: the systematic, state-run murder of the European Jews. The word itself means “murder of a people,” and while the act of genocide was not invented in the twentieth century—forms of genocide have occurred since the ancient world—never before had a government carried out a genocide that was as far-reaching, as bureaucratically managed, or as focused as the Holocaust. While much of the Holocaust took the form of blood-soaked massacres, akin to the slaughter of the Armenians by the inchoate state of Turkey in the early 1920s or the various mass killings of Native Americans in the long, bloody colonization of the Americas by Europeans, the Holocaust was also distinct from other genocides in that much of it was industrialized: run on timetables, with the killing occurring in gas chambers built by Nazi agents or private firms contracted to do the work. In short, the Holocaust was a distinctly and horrifyingly modern genocide.
World War II would “just” be the story of a horrendously costly war if not for the Holocaust. The term itself refers to early Jewish rituals of sacrifice by fire, in which offerings were made to God and burned in the ancient Temple of Solomon (long since destroyed by the Romans) in Jerusalem. Today, the term is mostly used in the United States; the rest of the world largely uses the term Shoah, which means “catastrophe” in Hebrew. Its core definition is simple: the ideologically motivated, brutal murder of approximately 6 million Jews by the Nazi regime, representing two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population at the time, and one-third of the entire global Jewish population. Thus, in addition to its modern character, the Holocaust stands out among the history of genocides for its shocking “success” from the perspective of the Nazi leadership: they set out to kill every Jew, theoretically in the entire world, and were horrifyingly successful at doing so in a very short time period.
In addition to the murder of the Jews, millions more were killed by the Nazis in the name of their ideology. While estimates vary, at least 250,000 Romani (“Gypsies”) were murdered. At least 6,000 male homosexuals were murdered. Many thousands of ideological “enemies,” from Jehovah’s Witnesses to various kinds of political leftists, were murdered as well. In addition, while not normally considered part of the Holocaust per se, almost 20 million civilians in the Slavic nations—Poles and Russians especially—were murdered by the Nazis, in large part because of Nazi racial ideology. Slavs too were “racial inferiors” and “subhumans” according to the Nazi racial hierarchy, and thus civilian populations in the Slavic countries were either killed outright or subjected to treatment tantamount to murder. Thus, while the Holocaust is, and must be, defined primarily as the genocide of the European Jews by the Nazis, it is still appropriate to consider the other victims of Nazi ideology as an aspect of Nazi mass murder as a whole.
Before the Holocaust
The Nazis implemented anti-Jewish racial laws, known as the Nuremberg Laws, in 1935. Those laws defined “full” Jews as having three or four practicing Jews as grandparents, and those with two or one as being distinct categories of “mixed” (Mischlinge) Jews, the latter of whom received some exemptions from anti-Semitic laws. Jews were deprived of their citizenship and banned from various professions. For the next four years leading up to the war, the goal of the Nazi government was to force Jews to emigrate from the Reich, while extracting as much wealth from them as possible. The state imposed a “Reich Flight Tax,” meant to fleece fleeing Jews of as much of their wealth as possible, and in 1938, the Nazis forced all Jews to register their property, which was then expropriated in a campaign dubbed “Aryanization.”
In November of 1938 the Nazis initiated a nationwide pogrom known as the Night of Broken Glass (Kristallnacht) in which some 90 Jews were killed and 177 synagogues burned to the ground, after which 20,000 Jewish men were arrested for “disrupting the peace” and incarcerated in prison camps. This represented the first mass roundup of Jews simply for being Jewish. Hermann Göring, at the time the second most powerful Nazi leader after Hitler, then demanded one billion Marks from the German Jewish population for the damage caused by the riots. After Kristallnacht, many of the remaining German Jews desperately sought asylum outside of Germany, but were all too often rebuffed by countries which, in the midst of the Great Depression, allowed in only a trickle of immigrants each year (Jewish or otherwise). Approximately half of the 500,000 German Jews did manage to flee before the war despite the incredible difficulty of doing so at the time.
Simultaneously, high-ranking Nazi officials in the SS were exploring permanent options for ridding the Reich of Jews. Serious thought and research went into plans to create Jewish “reservations” in Poland as well as a plan to ship all of the Jews in German-held territory to the African island of Madagascar. Even after large-scale murder campaigns in Eastern Europe began in 1941, many Nazis were still looking for some way to transport and dump the Jews of Europe somewhere far from Germany. The stated goal of these schemes was to render the entire face of Europe, and possibly the world, Judenrein: “Jew-Free.” In the end, the “final solution to the Jewish question,” the Nazis’ euphemism for the Holocaust, was decided to consist not of deportation, but of systematic murder—but that decision does not appear to have been reached until 1941.
The irony of considering the case of German (and, as of 1938, Austrian) Jews in detail is that the large majority of the victims of the Holocaust were not from Germany. The bulk of the Jewish population of Europe was in the east, concentrated in Poland, Russia, and the Ukraine. Poland alone had a Jewish population of approximately 3,000,000, 10% of the population of Poland as a whole. Unlike the Jews of Central and Western Europe, most of the Jews of Eastern Europe were largely unassimilated, living in separate communities, speaking Yiddish as their vernacular language instead of Polish or Russian, and often facing harsh anti-Semitism from their non-Jewish neighbors (which was somewhat muted in the nominally unprejudiced Soviet Union). Thus, the Jews of the east had almost nowhere to run and few who would help them once the German war machine arrived.
When the war began, even Polish Jews were not systematically murdered right away: they were beaten, humiliated, and sometimes murdered outright, but there was not yet a campaign of focused, organized murder against them. Instead, the initial task of Nazi murder squads was the elimination of the Polish “leadership class,” which came to mean intellectuals, politicians, communists, and Catholic priests. At least 50,000 Polish social, political, and intellectual elites were murdered by SS death squads or regular German soldiers in a campaign codenamed “Operation Tannenberg.”
On encountering the enormous numbers of Jews in Poland, the Nazis opted to drive them into hastily constructed ghettos in towns and cities. Ghettos were neighborhoods of a town or city that were usually fenced off, surrounded with barbed wire, and then filled with the Jews of the surrounding areas. The ghettos were built almost immediately, from late 1939 to early 1940, and ended up housing millions of people in areas that were meant to hold perhaps a few hundred thousand at most. The largest were in the large Polish cities of Warsaw and Lodz; the Warsaw Ghetto alone housed over 400,000 Jews at its height in late 1941. Conditions were atrocious: the official food ration “paid” to Jewish workers who worked as slave laborers for the Nazi war effort consisted of about 600–800 calories a day (an adult should consume about 2,000 a day to remain healthy). Potato peels were “as precious as diamonds” to ghetto inhabitants. The ghettos alone ended up costing the lives of approximately 500,000 people from starvation and disease.
The Holocaust Begins
The Holocaust itself began with the invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. As German armies advanced into Soviet territory, they were followed by four teams of Einsatzgruppen—mobile killing squads—charged with killing “Jews, Gypsies, and the disabled.” The Einsatzgruppen’s technique for murdering their victims consisted of marching Jews into the woods or fields and systematically shooting them. The victims would be forced to dig mass graves or ditches, to strip, and to watch as their entire community was slaughtered. Mothers would be forced to strip, then undress their children, watch their children be murdered, and then join them in the mass graves. The Einsatzgruppen and the local helpers they recruited were responsible for approximately 1 million deaths over the course of the war. The Einsatzgruppen were aided by regular Wehrmacht (German army) units and by battalions of the Order Police, a hybrid of police force and national guard mobilized for the war effort. In other words, many “regular soldiers,” not just Nazi party members, were responsible for killing innocent men, women, and children, often for days at a time and at point-blank range. This aspect of the Holocaust is today referred to as the “Holocaust by bullets,” one that was largely overlooked by historians for many decades after the war.
There were various logistical problems with this technique, however. It was hard to generalize it in urban areas already under Nazi control. Many members of the Einsatzgruppen suffered from mental breakdowns from murdering innocent people day after day. There were never very many Einsatzgruppen to begin with: four teams with about 6,000 soldiers assigned to them in total. Out of necessity, they made heavy use of auxiliary troops to do much of the actual shooting, recruited from Ukrainian, Latvian, Lithuanian, or Estonian POW camps. These auxiliaries were called “Hiwis,” an abbreviation of Hilfswilligen (“helpers”), by the Nazis. Soon, both members of the SS’s army, the Waffen SS, as well as regular soldiers of the Wehrmacht were assigned to “Jewish Actions,” the euphemism for organized massacres.
At some point between the late summer and fall of 1941, the top Nazi leadership decided to abandon earlier experiments with forced deportations and to search instead for more efficient methods of murder. Almost immediately after the implementation of the Einsatzgruppen, the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, ordered experiments with better means of mass murder, which resulted in Nazi technicians devising “gas vans” that killed their victims through carbon monoxide poisoning. By late fall of 1941, killing facilities were being built in the concentration camps of Majdanek and Auschwitz, both of which had been built as slave labor camps in 1940. There, the first experiments with the infamous pesticide Zyklon B were carried out on Russian POWs.
The Peak Killing Period
Based on the experiments with gas vans and temporary gas chambers at Auschwitz, SS leaders concluded that stationary killing centers would be the most efficient and (for the killers) psychologically viable form of mass murder. Thus, as of early 1942, the Nazis embarked on the most notorious project of the Holocaust: the creation of the extermination camps. Extermination camps were not the same thing as concentration camps. Concentration camps were prison camps, some of which created during the first weeks of Nazi rule in 1933. There were literally tens of thousands of concentration camps of various kinds scattered across the entire breadth of German-controlled territory. Extermination camps, however, were designed for one purpose: to kill people. There were only six of them in total, and most were very small—often about a quarter of a square mile in size. All were located in occupied Poland, near rail lines and hidden in forests away from major population centers. They were not meant to house prisoners for slave labor; new arrivals to an extermination camp were typically dead within two hours. They were, in short, “death factories,” production facilities of murder that ran on industrial timetables.
The height of the Holocaust was thus shockingly short. It lasted from early 1942, when the extermination facilities were put into operation, until the late summer of 1943, a period of just over a year that saw 50% of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust itself murdered. The major reason for that incredible speed is that the ghettos of Poland were emptied into the extermination camps. The extermination camp Treblinka alone killed at least 800,000 people, most of whom were sent from the enormous ghetto of Warsaw. The millions of Jews who had been in Poland and the Russian territories of the west were murdered at a stunning, completely unprecedented rate.
The most infamous of the camps is unquestionably Auschwitz. Auschwitz was a great exception among the extermination camps in that it did house Jewish prisoners who were not immediately killed. Instead, about 80% of new arrivals to Auschwitz were sent immediately to their deaths in the gas chambers, while the other 20% were temporarily enslaved. More is known about day-to-day life inside of a death camp from Auschwitz because a relatively large number of its victims survived the war, although “relative” in this case still means “far less than 1%.” Likewise, the infamous tattoos issued to prisoners were only performed at Auschwitz; there was no point in tattooing victims who were to be killed within hours, after all.
Within Auschwitz, not just Jews but regular criminals, enemies of the Nazi regime, Romani, and various other groups were housed in grossly overcrowded barracks. These prisoners were treated differently by German and auxiliary guards based on who they were and where they were from, and they were actively encouraged to treat each other differently based on those distinctions as well. Non-Jewish German criminals were given important positions as kapos, team leaders, who oversaw Jewish slaves in the construction of new buildings in the vast, sprawling Auschwitz camp complex (it was over 20 kilometers across, including numerous sub-camps) or working in factories designed to support the German war effort. Of the approximately 200,000 Jews who were spared immediate murder on arrival, the large majority were either worked to death or murdered in the gas chambers after becoming too weak to work.
The five death camps besides Auschwitz operated from early 1942 until the fall or winter of 1943 (one, Chelmno, was operational until the summer of 1944). They were used primarily to murder the Jews of Poland and their total death toll was close to 2 million victims. In turn, they were never meant to be permanent: there were no large-scale slave labor facilities and only a handful of Jews were kept alive on arrival to work as slaves for the guards and to burn the bodies of their fellow victims after they were gassed (the survival rate from the three major camps besides Auschwitz was one one-thousandth of 1%, or .0001 to 1, representing the 150 people who survived and the 1.5 million who did not). Slave revolts occurred at two camps in August and October of 1943, which explains the fact that anyone survived these camps, but by then the camps had already succeeded: almost the entire Polish Jewish population was dead, starved in the ghettos or gassed in the camps. Afterwards, the SS destroyed the remains of the camps to hide the evidence of what had happened there.
Auschwitz, however, had been built to be permanent. Its gas chambers were large and made of concrete and steel (unlike the wood sheds used to murder in the other extermination camps). It was intended to be the final destination for every Jew captured by the Nazis in the years to come, and thus most Jews from the western European countries occupied by Germany were sent to die in Auschwitz. The Nazis continued to prioritize the “final solution” even as the war turned against them, shipping hundreds of thousands to Auschwitz as the Allies steadily pressed against them in the east and south.
One of the most bizarre and chilling episodes of the Holocaust was the Nazi takeover of Hungary in mid-1944. There, in what had been a staunch German ally, over 700,000 Jews had survived the war, “protected” in the sense that the Hungarian government had resisted the demands of the Germans to turn over its Jews for murder. When the Germans learned that the Hungarians were negotiating with the Soviets to switch allegiances, now that the German defeat was all but assured by early 1944, they supported a coup by Hungarian fascists under the direction of the Nazi state. That summer, at an astonishing rate, SS specialists overseeing Hungarian fascist police deported over 500,000 Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz. The vast majority were killed on arrival; in the Fall of 1944 Auschwitz was operated at its maximum capacity of killing up to 12,000 people a day. It bears emphasizing that the Holocaust was regarded by the top Nazi leadership as being a priority that was at least as high as actually fighting the war. Even after the war was evidently lost, tremendous efforts were made to kill every Jew then in German hands.
In early 1945, as the Soviet army closed from the east and the western Allies from the west, the Nazis initiated a series of death marches from the camps in Poland. Jewish prisoners that had survived up to that point, against incredible odds, were forced to march up to twenty miles through the Polish winter, then loaded into cattle cars and shipped into Germany. The western Allies—mostly Britain and the US—discovered the first evidence of the Holocaust when they liberated these German camps, discovering tens of thousands of corpses and thousands of horribly malnourished survivors. Likewise, the Soviet army liberated Auschwitz itself, discovering the gas chambers and the smattering of survivors who had been left behind when the Germans fled. Ultimately, the Holocaust ended because the war ended. The Nazis had been intent on “winning the Holocaust” even after it was self-evident that they could not win the war.
The Aftermath of the Holocaust
The liberation of the camps was horrifying to the Allied soldiers who discovered them in the closing months of the war. Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander of the forces that had carried out the D-Day invasion, ordered that British and American troops alike document what they discovered—the huge mounds of corpses, the open graves, the emaciated survivors, and the gas chambers—lest those horrors be dismissed as “propaganda” at some point in the future. Likewise, Soviet forces preserved the evidence discovered in the eastern camps, including Auschwitz itself. As the war in Europe finally ended, Allied troops and agents immediately embarked on an enormous effort to locate, catalog, and preserve the documentation having to do with the Holocaust in German army, state, and SS offices as they prepared the groundwork for war crimes trials.
The scope of the Holocaust shocked even battle-hardened troops who were already aware of German depredations against civilians. At the Nuremberg Trials, organized to legally prosecute the Nazi leadership, Nazi leaders were charged with Crimes Against Humanity, a completely new category of crime designed by the victorious Allies to try to deal with the enormity of what they still called “Nazi atrocities.” Thanks to SS documentation, the Allies correctly calculated that the death toll of Jews murdered by the Third Reich amounted to roughly six million individuals, and the basic mechanisms of deportation, slavery, and gassing were also clear.
Even though Allied authorities were able to piece together the basic characteristics of the Holocaust, various aspects remained obscure for decades. Most survivors were deeply hesitant to talk about what they had been through, and even in the newly founded Jewish state of Israel, most of the focus was on the symbolically important acts of resistance like a famous uprising of the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1944, rather than on the millions who were killed. For decades, most survivors tried to make new lives, often thousands of miles from their former homes, and most non-Jews were completely ignorant of the breadth, scope, and organized nature of the genocide.
The first systematic study of the Holocaust was carried out by an American Jewish historian, Raul Hilberg, who published his The Destruction of the European Jews in 1961, containing the first highly detailed study of the number of victims, the methods used by the Nazis, and the breadth of the genocide itself. While it took years to mature, the field of Holocaust scholarship began in earnest with Hilberg’s work, eventually burgeoning into a major subfield of history, political science, and sociology. Today, while the scholarship is always turning up new facts and presenting new interpretations, the essential narrative of the Holocaust is well established, based on mountains of hard evidence and meticulous research.
The event that brought the Holocaust to world attention was not scholarship, however, but the capture of the Nazi SS leader Adolf Eichmann in Argentina in 1960 by agents of the Israeli secret service, the Mossad. Eichmann was taken to Jerusalem and tried for his work in overseeing the logistics of the Holocaust. His major job during the war had been to make sure the trains carrying victims ran on time and efficiently delivered them to their deaths. Eichmann was the quintessential “desktop murderer,” a man who (apparently) never personally harmed anyone, but was still responsible for the deaths of millions through his actions. The trial was highly publicized and it began the process of transforming the Holocaust from being only a dark memory of its survivors, largely unknown or overlooked by historians and the general public, to being perhaps the most infamous event of the twentieth century.
In the 1970s and 1980s, a series of films and television programs brought the history of the Holocaust to audiences around the western world, and survivors of the Holocaust began speaking publicly about their experiences in large numbers. Part of the impetus behind the organizations of survivors was the emergence of Holocaust Denial in the 1970s: the hateful, disingenuous, and utterly false claim that the Holocaust never happened (Eichmann himself was irritated when asked by early deniers in Argentina to corroborate their claims; he was perversely proud of his role in running an efficient system of mass murder).
Holocaust memorialization had existed in Israel since the 1940s, but it became much more widespread by the 1980s. One of the most significant memorials to the victims of the Holocaust is the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, conceived of by a commission brought together by President Jimmy Carter in 1978 and ultimately dedicated by President Bill Clinton in 1993. Certainly, by the 1990s, the Holocaust was an integral part of history taught in schools and universities almost everywhere; while it is possible not to know many of the details, even people with only a cursory understanding of modern history are usually aware that the Nazis carried out the genocide of the Jews of Europe during World War II.
The Holocaust was one of the great traumas associated with World War II. It forced the Western World to confront the fact that a highly advanced, “civilized” nation at the heart of Europe—Germany—had been responsible not just for a initiating a horrendously bloody war, but for carrying out the systematic murder of millions of completely innocent people. The conceit that “Western Civilization” was the most just and desirable matrix of law, politics, and culture was permanently undermined in the process. Since the ancient Greeks, the proud distinction between civilization and barbarism had been upheld in the minds of the social and political elites of the “West,” and yet it was some of those very elites who perpetrated the ultimate act of barbarism in the twentieth century.
Further Reading: Smarthistory.org