I think it’s fitting that I post the fourth installment of my series on Nazism on Yom HaShoah – the day of remembrance and mourning for those lost in Shoah (the Holocaust).
By the time war broke out, life for Germans in Germany had become relatively nice – at least in comparison to what it had been like in the years following the Treaty of Versailles. The war effort required work from all who were able. All Germans were promised a home, a car, and an annual vacation. Those deemed a threat to the Aryan race, however, suffered horrors that the rest of the world only heard whispers of for many years. In 1941, the wearing of a yellow Star of David with “Jude” embroidered on it became compulsory for all Jews in German-held territories. Ghettos were being emptied, the Jews inhabiting them sent to concentration camps. Those capable of working were led through gates topped with the now-infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work Makes You Free”) sign. They would live a miserable existence where they would have their heads shaved, their possessions stolen, an inmate number tattooed on their forearm, and starvation coupled with brutal manual labor.
The rest would be stripped and marched into what they were told would be a shower. Instead they were gassed to death. Still others would be forced to dig their own mass grave before being lined up and shot. The wholesale extermination of the Jews, along with Romani (Gypsies), homosexuals and other “undesirables”, was in full swing by 1942. An extremely anti-Jewish museum exhibit was displayed in Paris in 1941.
On the war front, Hitler had sent the Luftwaffe to bomb England in preparation for an invasion. He was intent on taking England. At the same time, Adolf Hitler had signed a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union, but he had no intention of keeping it. He hinted long before the pact was signed that he wanted to take the Soviet homeland, in part because he believed they were ruled by Jews (never mind the widespread pogroms in the Soviet Union). When Hungary, Slovakia, and Romania joined Hitler’s Tripartate Pact, he finally felt ready to mount a major assault on the frigid Soviet nation. He sent five and a half million troops, half a million heavy armored vehicles and three-quarter million horses.
Hitler had no intention of making Napoleon’s mistake – being defeated by the horrid Russian winter. He ordered his mass offensive to begin in May 1941 (it was pushed back a month when his greed for land led to Nazi invasions in Greece and Yugoslavia). While the Wehrmacht’s first strike was devastating to the Soviets, Nazi generals began fighting over which target was more important. The Nazis advanced 600 miles into Soviet territory and took over three million prisoners by November 1941. They were looking into Moscow when the infighting reached a fever pitch. German supply lines were nearly broken and winter was setting in – their troops were not prepared for the extreme cold. After the first major blizzard, on December 5, Soviet forces mounted a counterattack. German heavy equipment was useless in the sub-zero temperatures. The counterattack was devastating to the Germans.
Two days later, the Japanese bombed the US Navy at Pearl Harbor. President Franklin Roosevelt declared war on Japan as a result, and four days after the bombing Hitler declared war on the United States. He was still living in denial that Germany could win with her military stretched so thin; fighter planes that could have turned the tide against the Soviets had already been shot down over England. After the defeat at Moscow, fighting ground nearly to a halt. Hitler was able to re-supply his troops and send reinforcements.
While he was trying to hold up the offensive in Russia, he had given up on invading England. He had a new threat: the United States. His declaration of war was all America needed to finally join British forces in helping occupied Allied territories to beat back the Nazis.
Hitler began to get frustrated with how slow his victories were beginning to go, and after the Germans were defeated by the allies at El Alamein, Hitler took complete command over his armies. His astounding overconfidence in his own military “expertise” became the beginning of his downfall – as his decisions became more erratic and losses became more common, he started to panic. The Battle of Stalingrad in January 1943 became such a breathtaking loss that Hitler nearly lost his mind. He all but became a recluse. He still had absolute faith in his own genius, and he refused to give up despite searing losses continuing in Russia.
He began to realize the end was more than mere rumor when Allied forces invaded Sicily in July 1943. The Germans realized another crushing defeat at Kursk and went into perpetual retreat from the Eastern front. Then, intel reported a huge buildup of British and American forces in England and word that Allied forces were planning an invasion somewhere on the coast reached Hitler. Germans were still living in denial thanks to the press only reporting what Hitler’s propaganda minister, Josef Goebbels, allowed them to report. They had no idea that the Nazis were genuinely afraid for the first time.
The Nazis refused to give up. While average German citizens were busy supporting the war effort through recycling and working in industrial plants to produce U-boats, jet fighters, Panzers and small arms, Nazi commanders were still confident that they would win the day. They still refused to send women to work in the plants; their place was in the home, giving birth to and raising good Aryans. Citizens in occupied countries were forced to dig defensive Earthworks (massive trenches, concrete and steel barriers to stop troop carriers and tanks). The desire to exterminate the Jews saw Nazis continuing to work them to death deliberately, the need for laborers be damned.
The first bombing runs on Germany had begun in 1940, although they weren’t as effective as they would later become. The Allies realized that bombing just a factory or a base was little more than a minor setback – they needed to take out the workers, too, and in 1942 RAF and USAAF squadrons began carpet-bombing entire German cities. Kiel was bombed in May 1943. Hamburg was bombed in July 1943; 30,000 died in the bombing raid and subsequent firestorm. Every German city that hosted anything resembling a war supply factory or warehouse was bombed regularly. The raids first inspired action and organization, but within a year they had begun to falter under the psychological strain.
On the ground, the Americans, knowing full well the legend of General George S. Patton, sent him to Northern England as a distraction. They were gambling that Hitler would find out about Patton’s location and concentrate his forces away from Normandy, and the ruse worked. On June 6, 1944, after days of bombing from the air, landing forces poured ashore at Normandy while newly-formed parachute infantry regiments dropped troops behind Nazi lines in occupied France. The sheer numbers of American troops that survived the assault and the mass amounts of heavy armored equipment left German troops in awe, wondering what possessed Hitler to declare war on a nation that could muster this kind of response.
The Allies gained a crucial foothold in France. The German war effort was nearly irreversibly damaged. The Soviets were pushing back from the East, and Allied troops had begun to press in from the South, taking oil fields in Iran. A pall was cast over the Nazis.