A couple of years ago, I wrote a post that I had intended to become a three- or four-part series. I got busy and forgot about it. Click here to read the original post. Here begins the second.
People who decry the comparison of Iraq to Nazi Germany frequently point out that Saddam was not a major superpower like Hitler was. The problem with that statement is that Hitler wasn’t, either, when he started out.
Simplistically speaking, most Americans are taught that the assassination Archduke Franz Ferdinand (then the heir to the throne of what was then Austria-Hungary) by a Serbian separatist named Gavrilo Princip was what sparked WWI. That was merely one of the many causes. Several of the countries in mainland Europe, Northern Africa and parts of the Middle East had been losing stability in their own regions for quite some time. Both Germany and Austria-Hungary vied for more territory, as did Russia, and the Ottoman Empire bristled at the thought of being divvied up by larger powers to the North.
An arms race between Germany and Britain, along with the beginning of “trench warfare” made the Great War the bloodiest in world history. When Germany refused to stop attacking non-military ships on the naval front, they knew that America would get into the war, so they made a bid to Mexico to join the war; they promised to give Mexico the Southeastern states, from Texas to California, in exchange for going to war with the United States. Despite public knowledge of the Zimmerman Telegram that made this widely known, Americans were still against our involvement. Had we not gotten involved Germany would have handily overrun Europe. Once America got involved, Austria-Hungary knew they were all but finished and quietly started seeking a truce. Germany responded by taking them over.
In just over a year of American involvement, the War finally ended. The Ottoman Empire was completely dissolved, resulting in a large swath of Mideast territories that were governed by Britain. The Treaty of Versailles split Austria and Hungary and placed sole responsibility for the war’s effects on Imperial Germany. Kaiser Wilhelm II was supposed to be tried for war crimes, although the trial never began. There was to be no rebuilding of Germany. She would not maintain her dignity; the extreme reparations to be collected from the newly-formed Weimar Republic effectively stripped the German people of dignity and the German Mark became almost worthless (those reparations included more than just money – Germany paid in quite a few ways, including handing over the trademark for Aspirin).
The Germans had quite a lot to be pissed off at by the time Hitler the war hero got involved in politics. While government officials and the ruling class, who held most of the power, viewed Hitler as a rabble-rousing thug, the middle class and the poor saw him as their savior. It didn’t help that Paul von Hindenburg publicly claimed that Germany didn’t lose the Great War to actual defeat, but to so-called “right-wingers” – among them Bolsheviks and Jews – who effectively stabbed Mother Germany in the back.
Hitler rode that sentiment to power. Once Nazism took hold, it exploded in popularity. There were millions of good Germans, but none of them stood up to the Nazis. The Treaty of Versailles gutted Germany’s military; the army was to have no more than 100,000 troops, they were banned from developing new weaponry, and the navy was reduced to a handful of ships and absolutely no submarines. Territory on both the East and West ends of Germany was taken by the Allies as buffer zones. If Germany tried to enter those areas – the Rhineland (defended by France) and Upper Silesia (defended by Poland) – the Allies were to immediately crush the German forces. Keeping all of this in mind it was hard even for good Germans to argue with Nazi propaganda.
While Nazism was on the rise in Germany, Hitler dreamed of finishing the Kaiser’s job and making Germany a massive superpower that ruled all of Europe. He wanted to annex Austria (a concept known as Anschluss), but his propaganda was first aimed at regaining territory that the Germans viewed as having been stolen from them. In 1936, Hitler sent German troops to re-militarize the Rhineland. German troops didn’t have tanks – most of them were either on foot or on bicycles, and most of them weren’t armed, but he wanted a dramatic show of power so the world would know that Germany was back. The French simply watched and did nothing with twelve whole battalions parked on the other side of the Rhine.
This emboldened Hitler. Two years later, Anschluss was carried out. The Allies were worried, but not worried enough to use force. Hitler started stomping his feet over the Sudetenland, a small patch of land that had been given to Czechoslovakia; the Allies secretly met and agreed (without consulting the Czechs, mind you) to give the Sudetenland back to Germany. Hitler smiled and then attacked the rest of Czechoslovakia, taking it over very quickly.
The Allies still didn’t want to go to war. Hitler was not making his aims a state secret, but nobody wanted to fight. They kept thinking that if they just talked enough, Hitler would agree to peace. Neville Chamberlain returned from the Munich talks, held the signed Munich Agreement aloft, and proclaimed, “peace in our time!” Winston Churchill was trying to warn everyone in British parliament that Hitler would never stop and war was inevitable; for that crime, he was expelled from parliament.
The Allies promised Poland that they would fight at all costs to protect Poland from Nazi Germany. Then, just after being named TIME Magazine’s “Man of the Year”, Adolf Hitler ordered the takeover of Poland. France and Britain discovered then that Germany, which they thought had been all but de-fanged and unable to carry on a war, had been secretly building its arms and troop numbers.
All of a sudden, beliefs that peace was possible dissolved into the reality that war was upon them.