Having covered the diplomatic collapse that led to war, as well as the course of the war in the west, we now turn our attention to the war in the east. The most important thing to understand about this war is that it was truly a war of extermination. When the Wehrmacht’s armies attacked the Soviet Union, it started a battle not only between economic systems but also races. The resulting brutality of the conflict is an important contextual factor in understanding the two armies’ conduct, as well as the horrors that Germans perpetrated in seeking to exterminate the world’s Jews. In the east, barbarity begat barbarity, and the human cost of this cycle is not easy to contemplate.
In spite of the treaty Germany and the Soviet Union had signed, both Hitler and Stalin saw it as a mere truce that put off the final battle to another day. Adolf Hitler had always intended to deal with the Communists, and the Soviets long believed that a final reckoning between Fascism and Communism was inevitable. Hitler’s original (secret) timetable had called for Germany to invade the Soviet Union during spring of 1941. The Wehrmacht’s generals thought Hitler was insane for taking on the Soviets before the British were undefeated. Soldiers to the core, however, they planned the campaign thoroughly, in spite of their private misgivings. The resulting war plan was delayed crucially, however, by problems in the Mediterranean, where Benito Mussolini had gotten himself into trouble, and in Yugoslavia, where a coup had ousted a pro-German government. Mussolini had been watching with growing jealousy, while Germany advanced almost unimpeded through northern Europe. In search of glory for himself and Fascist Italy, Mussolini sent troops to invade Greece in the spring of 1941. As usual, the invasion was a disaster, and the Germans had to bail out the Italians against stiff British resistance. Moreover, the Yugoslavian coup drew German troops into the Balkans, where they installed a pro-German government. By the time all this was done, however, Hitler had lost three months on his original timetable. This delay would prove fateful.
The invasion of the Soviet Union, codenamed Operation Barbarossa, waited until June 22, 1941. On that day began the eastern half of the Second World War. And here we need to keep two things in mind. First, as I have already mentioned: this war of extermination. Adolf Hitler had long talked of the German need for living space (Lebensraum) in the east. In fact, Hitler’s ambitions had been published in Mein Kampf for all to see. And there was also a long tradition in Germany of seeing Slavs as an inferior race. With these two factors at work, the end result could only be that the Slavs would die and the Germans live. Second, however, we must also understand that the Soviet Union won the Second World War. However great both the aid and the sacrifices of the western powers were, only the Soviet Union confronted the Wehrmacht in all its fury. Until the allied landing in Normandy in June of 1944, the Germans sent 80% of their forces against the Soviets. It took the Soviet Union four years and the loss of 20 million people to achieve victory.
Now let us consider the conduct of this eastern war. From the German side, racism pushed the Germans into making a strategic error: they dismissed Ukrainian help. When the Wehrmacht arrived in the Ukraine, it was greeted as a liberator. You must understand here that the Ukrainians had long aspired to have an independent state. They were not ethnically Russian and would never consider themselves to be such. Moreover, the Ukrainians had suffered deeply under Josef Stalin, who in the 1920s had systematically starved the entire region, killing seven million Ukrainians died—a number still not forgotten. Other Slavic peoples also welcomed liberation, and there were Slavic soldiers in the German invasion force. Nonetheless, Nazi racism turned many potential allies into determined enemies.
The German assault caught the Soviets off guard, and Soviet losses in men and material were staggering. Although Stalin believed that Germany and the Soviet Union would go to war one day, he had never actually prepared the Soviet armed forces for the coming conflict. In fact, the Soviet army got worse between 1939 and 1941, and when the conflict began it was completely outclassed in tanks and aircraft, though this would change. Its skills honed by training in Spain and Poland, the German army struck so swiftly and deeply that Stalin suffered a nervous breakdown and went into seclusion for 10 days, before reemerging in public life through a radio address. Stalin’s collapse only made things worse, as now there was no one to organize an effective defense. The Nazi attack was so hard and the Soviet collapse so complete, in fact, that Soviet trains filled with raw materials sent to Germany under the terms of the Hitler-Stalin pact kept heading westward, because no one told them stop. Luckily for the Soviets, they had a big country and simply retreated before the German advance, as had their ancestors did in the war against Napoleon. This had two important effects: it lengthened the German supply lines, and staved off defeat until the arrival of the notoriously harsh Russian winter. (When winter came it was a complete disaster for Germany, since the Wehrmacht had arrogantly and inexcusably failed to plan for a longer campaign. Thus, when it got cold, the Germans had no proper cold weather gear.)
As I noted earlier, the war took four years, and without going too deeply into the details, I note a few key moments in the conflict. The first was the battle of Leningrad. The Germans surrounded the city very quickly but it refused to surrender, keeping the Wehrmacht at bay until almost every last citizen starved to death. This battle signaled Soviet resolve to fight against the invaders and presented Germany with a strategic problem: it needed to capture Moscow, but it was bogged down in Leningrad. German generals told Adolf Hitler that it was better to leave Leningrad as it was and concentrate German forces against Moscow. This was the second key moment, as Hitler decided against his generals’ advice to split German forces and go after both Moscow and Leningrad. This assured that neither goal could be achieved, and the German offensive made it to Moscow only to find that city was empty. Hitler had not learned Napoleon’s bitter lessons, and now German forces had to confront cold, snow and ice without adequate supplies.
The next key moment came in early 1942 with the Battle of Stalingrad. Fought for most of 1942 and into 1943, this battle became a personal contest of wills between the two dictators, with Germans and Soviets killing each other over every last room in every last house on every last street. Strategically, the Germans should have fallen back and dug in for the winter. Once the weather cleared it would have been possible to take the city. Hitler’s zeal for total victory, however, doomed German troops to defeat and capture. More than anything else, this battle determined the course of the Second World War. Hitler’s stubbornness, even when it was clear that the battle was lost, allowed the Soviets to launch a counterattack that cut off the entire Sixth Army. Under the command of General Friedrich Paulus, the army surrendered in February 1943, costing Germany 300,000 trained soldiers. This loss could never be made good, and it was now clear that the tide had turned.
The Soviets’ long march to Berlin began with the victory at Stalingrad, and they pushed back the German army back relentlessly over the next two years. The most important battle in the Soviet offensive came in July 1943, when the largest tank battle ever fought in history occurred outside the city of Kursk. 6000 tanks, 4000 planes, and 2 million soldiers took part. Led by General Georgii Zhukov, the Soviets smashed the German army with a powerful pincer movement, hitting German forces from two sides with massive firepower. The was no coming back from this defeat, and at this point, even Nazi fanatics such as Heinrich Himmler and Josef Goebbels saw that the war was lost. Nothing could stop the Soviets from getting to Berlin, which they finally did by May of 1945.
Now we turn briefly to the end of the war in the west. The trend was already clear after the Battle of Kursk in 1943. Germany could never rebuild its army, and a long march to Berlin ensued, though the Wehrmacht miraculously managed to recover from repeated hammer blows to mount a defense until the very end. The war’s final end was hastened, however, with Operation Overlord, the allied landing in Normandy on June 6, 1944, which was also called D-Day. Although the western allies had sent large quantities of material aid from 1941 on, this was the first time that the Soviet Union received direct military help from the allies, and it was a huge effort. The allied armada included 1,200 ships, 10,000 planes, 4,126 landing craft, 804 transport ships, and hundreds of amphibious and other special purpose tanks. 156,000 troops were landed in Normandy, 132,500 came by ship across the English Channel, and 23,500 were dropped by air. By comparison, the British fight in Africa and the allied invasions of Italy at the end of 1943 had been hard-fought, but they were not essential. After the landing, allied troops broke out and advanced steadily on Berlin, with one exception. From Dec. 16, 1944 to Jan. 28, 1945 Germany waged a counterattack in Belgium called the Battle of the Bulge. Hitler had marshaled his reserves and then sprang them on allied troops. The German advance put a good scare into everybody, and there is some evidence that the Soviet Union briefly considered suing for peace. If Germany still had such reserves after fighting for so long, what else did the Wehrmacht have in store? This attack ultimately failed thanks to some steady leadership on the American side and a lack of fuel and ammunition on the German side. More importantly, Germany now lacked any material or human reserves. Although the fighting continued, with both sides advancing on the German capital city, the war clearly over. Germany’s surrender came on May 5, 1945, so-called V-E Day.
Now that we have reached the end of the war in Europe, we can consider some of the horrors that the Germans perpetrated between 1939 and 1945. Suffice it to say that combatants and non-combatants alike suffered under this regime, being subjected to things such as systematic rape, mass slaughter, physical torture, cruel medical experiments, slave labor, and for Europe’s Jews genocide. Genocide was not new to the world at the time, and the Holocaust certainly was not the last time that one people would try to exterminate another on the basis of race. It was, however, the first and only time that an industrialized, civilized, nation-state had tried to exterminate an entire group of people. At the war’s end six million Jews had been murdered in Nazi concentration camps. Now we must bring together this awful fact with some of themes I have discussed during the last few lectures.
Nazi Germany’s war on the Jews must be considered from two perspectives. The first was Germany’s vicious anti-Semitic politics. As we have already discussed, anti-Semitism had deep roots in Germany, but the political and racial anti-Semitism that motivated the Holocaust began in the Imperial area and was intensified by defeat in WWI. The other factor was Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, for with it, Hitler’s government now had control over most of the world’s Jews. With that we will now trace the fate Europe’s Jews from the rise of the Nazi party through the end of the war.
As we have already discussed, the Nazis were an anti-Semitic party and they used anti-Semitism as a political weapon in the Weimar era. The Nazis seized power in January 1933 and by March of 1933 the first concentration camp opened in Dachau, though it originally housed primarily the regime’s political opponents. Also in March 1933 the Nazis organized boycotts of Jewish businesses. By 1935, with the passage of the Nuremberg Laws, Jews lost all civil rights in Germany. (Jews were defined as anyone who had one Jewish grandparent.) In 1938, these laws were extended to Austria. On Nov. 9, 1938 the Nazis organized an attack on all Jewish property in Germany in a pogrom called Kristallnacht, which means crystal night, in reference to the broken shards of Jewish store windows. At this point, prominent Jews were being sent to Germany’s growing network of concentration camps as both political and racial enemies.
Nazi Germany’s anti-Semitism became even more horrible, however, after the invasion of Poland. Confronted with large Jewish populations the Nazis ordered mass executions of Jews by the military and began experimenting with new ways to kill people that were deemed more efficient than bullets to the head. The key moment in the Holocaust’s evolution was, however, the invasion of the Soviet Union. By the end of 1941, Germany had control of all of Eastern Europe, and Hermann Goering, one of Hitler’s more prominent henchman, was already calling for a “final solution of the Jewish question.” In that year, the gassing of Jews with the chemical Zyklon-B began at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the infamous concentration camp in southern Poland. However horrible these killings were, they were still not reflective of a full-blown policy of genocide; that would come later. On January 20, 1942, a conference was held outside of Berlin at a lake called the Wannsee. At this conference the Nazis made the fateful decision to exterminate all the Jews in Europe, whom they estimated to number around 10 million. After this meeting an entire network not merely of concentration camps but also of death camps appeared throughout Europe, bearing names such as Auschwitz-Birkenau, Sobibor, Majdanek, and Treblinka. The distinction is significant, since most of the Holocaust’s victims (probably 80%) were killed within the relatively short period of 18 months. The Holocaust was also a process--one that became more intense and deadly at the war progressed. By the time Nazi Germany was finally defeated, 6 million people had been systematically murdered for being Jewish.
The world began to hear about the horrors of these camps as the Soviets liberated them one by one, during their long march to Berlin. To this day, there is still no complete explanation for the camps themselves, nor has there been any way to derive any meaning from them, nor from the war in general. In the context of previous lectures, one thing we can say is that the Holocaust destroyed the last bit of optimism that was left in Europe. As the German-Jewish refugee and member of the Frankfurt School Theodor Adorno put it, “writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.”
As for the war in general, it completely shattered the remnants of Europe’s power. The colonialism and imperialism that had marked Europe’s rise from the sixteenth century on was now definitely over, as France, Britain, and Belgium in particular could no longer afford their empires. (For example, it is no accident that British colonial rule in India ended just a few years after the war’s end in 1947.) These empires had been valuable resources for the west, providing men and material for the war effort. Many subject peoples recognized this and began to see independence as something they had earned through their efforts. We will talk more about de-colonization and the third world in another lecture. Nonetheless, to return to the big picture, Europe had put the world at its disposal for the last time. Overall, 61 countries fought in the war and 1.7 billion people, three-fourths of the world’s population at the time, took part in it in some way. 110 million people were mobilized for military service. A rough consensus has emerged about the war’s costs. In terms of money spent, the cost came to $1 trillion dollars, which made it more expensive than all previous wars combined. The human cost, not including the 6 million Jews killed in Nazi death camps, is estimated at 55 million dead, roughly 25 million military and 30 million civil. Much of this war was fought in Europe, so the direct economic costs could not but have fatally weakened the Continent. In another of history’s ironies, it was Europe that made the United States and the Soviet Union into superpowers. As the only two powers with almost inexhaustible reserves, they were the only ones left standing when the war ended, and it was the competition between the two behemoths that dominated world politics until only 15 years ago.
And then there were the cultural costs of the war’s horrors. Germany, which had developed one of the world’s most admired cultures in the nineteenth century, had sunk into barbarism for which there was neither explanation nor excuse. In addition, many other societies were implicated in Nazi Germany’s crimes through their collaboration in rounding up and killing Jews. After this horrible conflict Europe lost whatever moral authority it had once possessed. Ellie Wiesel’s Night will give you some sense of both the horror that the victims confronted and the difficulties that Europeans later had to process them. Contemplating the war and the Holocaust meant that nineteenth-century optimism was officially dead for good. European civilization seemed to have little left to offer. The only true feeling that was left to anyone was, as Jean-Paul Sartre put it, la nausée. Next time we will complete our discussion of the Second World War by considering the war in the Pacific and the birth of the nuclear world.