For a “virtual” archive of World War II sources (though only partly relating to Germany), see World War II Archives. The Yale University Avalon Project also offers a good collection of documents relating to World War II.

The start of World War II:
Whatever Hitler could have achieved peacefully did not interest him any more in 1939. His determination to go to war and his disdain even for advantageous treaties soon revealed beyond doubt that Chamberlain’s hope to trade territorial concessions for peace was spurious. In March 1939 the German government bullied the aged Czech president into signing an invitation to Germany to invade the remainder of Czechoslovakia, whose independence Hitler had pledged to respect only six months earlier. This was more than revising Versailles, and even the most benevolent foreign observer could not justify this act. Cynically, Hitler invited Poland and Hungary, which both had territorial disputes with Czechoslovakia, to share in the booty. Both countries, to their miscredit, annexed border strips. Hitler divided former Czechoslovakia into a province “Bohemia and Moravia” administered by Germany and a semi-autonomous Slovakia under the dictatorship of a Catholic clergyman (who made Slovakia a reliable German satellite during World War II).

The invasion of Czechoslovakia alarmed Britain and France. Both countries intensified rearmament (too late) but still refused to give up hopes for appeasement. Hitler, however, destroyed all illusions by attacking Poland on 1 September 1939. Intense diplomatic maneuvers preceded the attack. Britain and France made half-hearted attempts to commit the Soviet Union to a defensive alliance, but Poland did not accept Stalin’s demand that Soviet armies be given the right to occupy some Polish territory in case of war. Given the well-known Russian claims on Polish territory, the Polish government had reason to expect that the Russians, once admitted, would never leave again. British and French attempts to appease Hitler through territorial concessions failed because of Hitler’s uncooperative attitude and because of the Polish rejection to consider a redrawing of the border.

In a stunning move, Hitler’s foreign minister, Ribbentrop, contacted Stalin in August 1939 and produced a non-aggression pact between Germany and the Soviet Union (Hitler-Stalin Pact). Ribbentrop had always hoped that Germany might form a continental bloc together with the Soviet Union and possibly France against Britain, which he considered Germany’s main enemy. His agreement with Stalin seemed a first step toward the realization of his project, but Hitler accepted it only because he hoped it would let him attack Poland without foreign interference. His ultimate goal remained the destruction of the Soviet Union and the realization of his racial utopia in eastern Europe. A secret additional protocol to the pact divided Poland and the rest of eastern Europe into a German and Soviet zone of interest (Soviet Russia denied the existence of this additional protocol until the Gorbachev years and claimed that the surviving copies from German archives were a forgery).

Hitler, of course, had no intention to respect the Soviet zone of interest, but he was jubilant nevertheless because he expected that Soviet neutrality would dissuade the western powers from declaring war on Germany if it attacked Poland. After several delays the German army crossed the border in the dusk of 1 September 1939 without declaration of war. In the night before the SS had forced concentration camp inmates to dress up as Polish soldiers and feign an attack on a German broadcasting station near the border. Hitler’s press communiqué therefore announced that German troops were “returning the fire.” (For documents, see History of Germany: Statements regarding Poland, 1939.)

Hitler had made one miscalculation. Contrary to his expectations, Britain and France reacted by declaring war. A few days before the German assault on Poland, Chamberlain had made it clear to Hitler that unlike in 1914 nobody could doubt the British determination to intervene. Hitler, having lost all belief in western declarations, had dismissed this note. Still, being at war with Germany did not at first mean much for the western powers. The French army moved into the Maginot Line, and the British started organizing a small expeditionary force – nothing comparable to the swift reaction in August 1914.

Rather than march into poorly defended West Germany, the French troops played cards and waited. After three weeks the German army had defeated Poland. Meanwhile, Russian troops overwhelmed the withdrawing Poles and annexed the eastern part of their country. Germany annexed large areas and in the west and north and put central Poland around Warsaw under separate administration (Generalgouvernement). Poland’s short history as an independent state was thus terminated.

Europe was at war, but in the months following Poland’s defeat not much seemed to go on. Italy rejected Hitler’s invitation to join in the war. Finland withstood a Soviet attack in a fierce but limited winter war. By declaring war, France and Britain had for the first time stood up to Nazi Germany’s aggression, but their earlier ambivalence carried over into the hesitant way they conducted this war in the winter of 1939-40. No wonder the French termed this phase “drôle de guerre” (“phoney war“). War was unpopular in most of Europe – even in Germany. Rarely was Hitler as nervous as when he made the public announcement of the attack on Poland on the morning of 1 September 1939. The reaction in Germany and elsewhere was — in stark contrast to August 1914 — depressed. No cheering crowds of women and older men threw flowers at the departing troops, no spontaneous demonstrations of patriotism and optimism took place. People all over Europe feared a dreadful trench war as during 1914-1918, and the British and the French seemed unable to decide whether this war was even serious at all.

A war guilt question?
Whereas the outbreak of the First World War triggered a massive debate over war guilt, the same question has rarely caused controversy with respect to the Second World War. No doubt, Hitler and the leading Nazis had planned a war for many years, and they started it at the first opportune moment. To be sure, the non-aggression pact Stalin signed with Hitler made it much easier for the German army to attack Poland, and there has also been much criticism of the French and British appeasement policy.

In the 1960s, however, the British historian A. J. P. Taylor shook the almost universal agreement on German war guilt in 1939 with a series of provocative theses. He argued that the Second World War was caused by the first. According to Taylor, Germany fought in 1939 to reverse the settlement of Versailles, while the Allies fought to reimpose it. In Taylor’s view, Hitler was no more than a German nationalist who fostered revisionist aims, just like Stresemann did (though with different methods). Appeasement was probably wrong, Taylor claims, but worst of all was the mixture of denial and compliance toward German wishes that Britain pursued from 1919 to 1939. According to Taylor, Hitler did not plan the war from the start and did not cause it. Taylor denied that Hitler carefully planned his road to world dominion and then tried to follow it step by step. According to Taylor, Hitler was a statesman like most others, seeking to expand the power of his state.

Taylor’s interpretation is traditionalist, insofar as he sees the diplomacy of the 1930s in terms of nineteenth-century cabinet politics, which gave more importance to national interest than to ideology. He sees Hitler and Mussolini rather as responding to the moves of others than as implementing their own policy. But Taylor is profoundly wrong. His theses do only deserve to be mentioned because they show how seriously a traditionalist view of foreign politics can mislead us with respect to the Second World War. The Nazi leadership had a revolutionary vision of a racially “pure” empire that ultimately would strive for world dominion. They were not eager to make this vision public, and whenever they did publicize it nobody took them seriously. Hitler indeed acted like a revisionist politician until about 1939, but he did so only because he needed to build the foundation for his more far-reaching goals. His ultimate vision was infused with his sick ideology and had nothing to do with traditional foreign politics.

Sure, one can argue that the other countries committed mistakes before 1939. The British and French underestimated the danger arising from Nazi Germany and failed to do enough to contain Germany. Stalin’s pact with Hitler was a fatal mistake that gave Hitler free hands toward Poland and, later on, France. But these were all mistakes or miscalculations made by people facing an unprecedented threat. That war guilt lies primarily with those who deliberately start the fire and not with those who commit blunders while trying to keep the aggressors from doing so seems beyond doubt to me.

Blitzkrieg:
The ghosts of the lost First World War haunted the German government throughout the second. As mentioned before, war was not popular in Germany, at least not until the spectacular victory over France in May and June 1940. Hitler’s popularity rested largely on the fact that he had achieved so much without war until 1939. Hitler knew this and was terribly afraid that the Germans would again loose patience with the war effort, as in 1918, and “stab” the army in the back. To avoid this, he went a long way to ensure a decent food supply in Germany almost throughout the war. The consumer sector was significantly trimmed only after the war had turned into a struggle of attrition (at the end of 1941), which was exactly what Hitler had sought to avoid.

To make war possible without letting the German civilian population suffer as much as in 1916-1918, Hitler put much emphasis on fast campaigns. With his military and economic experts, he designed a strategy for Blitzkrieg (lightning war): Highly mechanized, quickly moving forces should knock out the enemy in a matter of weeks. With a series of short campaigns, Hitler hoped to avoid having to put the German economy on war footing, which would have been impossible without imposing serious restrictions on German consumption. Civilian life should continue without too much change while a highly specialized, well-coordinated, and effective fighting force won campaigns against isolated opponents.

The Blitzkrieg initially proved enormously successful. With a combination of fast tanks and precise dive-bombers the German army overwhelmed Poland. Next, Hitler concentrated the German forces on the western border, where they waited through the winter. Military action next occurred in northern Europe: the Russians attacked Finland in late 1939 (suffering a series of humiliating defeats), and Germany occupied Denmark and Norway in April 1940 to make it harder for the British to tighten the naval blockade they had imposed as in 1914. In May 1940 the Germans started a massive offensive in the west. They overran the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg, all neutral countries, and attacked France from the north. But instead of surrounding the French army, as the Schlieffen Plan had demanded in 1914, the German army now broke through the hilly and wooded area in the southeast of Belgium (the Ardennesforest) – just west of the northern end of the Maginot Line. The new tanks made fast movement in this terrain possible.

The strategy worked and surprised the French and British, who were slowly moving into Belgium (expecting a German advance according to a renewed Schlieffen Plan). The German move through the Ardennes cut the French forces in two and caused widespread panic. Although the French army was numerically superior to its enemy in most sectors, it had spread its mobile forces too far apart to give them any efficient role. Six weeks after the German invasion of the Netherlands had started, France was defeated and sued for peace. The British forces were encircled by the Germans in the port town Dunkirk on the Franco-Belgian border, but the Germans let the British evacuate almost their whole army. It is not clear whether this happened because of German blunders or whether it was part of Hitler’s continuing strategy to woo the British into an alliance with Germany.

In any case, the victory over France was a total sensation. What had failed in four-and-a-half years of bitter struggle in 1914-1918 now had happened in six weeks. This was a tremendous success for Hitler, who had helped to draft the successful war plan. Wilhelm II, still in his Dutch exile, sent Hitler an enthusiastic telegram, and it is no exaggeration to say that Hitler had reached the zenith of his popularity. The seemingly easy victory over France even made the war more popular. That the SS had meanwhile followed in the footsteps of the victorious German army in Poland and started murdering the Polish elites and confining the Jews was not widely publicized and acknowledged. That the “splendid” victory in the west had again involved the invasion of neutral countries and that the German air force had tested the destructive potential of city bombing by destroying much of the Dutch city Rotterdam seemed negligible to most Germans compared to the victory over France.

But defeating France did not end the war. While Hitler hoped to conclude peace with the British for the sake of his most important project, the attack on the Soviet Union, the British became more committed to fighting than before. When the British remained deaf to German peace advances Hitler decided to bring them around to an alliance by military threat. Blitzkrieg, of course, could not affect the British Isles, particularly as the German fleet was still too weak to secure an invasion. Instead, Hitler ordered a German air offensive. In the summer and fall of 1940 the Germans launched bombing raids on Britain, first against air fields and strategic installations, then against British cities, which Hitler promised to “erase” from the maps if the British kept resisting. But instead of weakening British morale the bombings increased their resolve to stay in the war. The bombing raids became increasingly inefficient, as the British air force, aided by radar, inflicted heavy losses on the German bomber fleet.

In any case, the Germans were ill-prepared for a massive bombing campaign. Their bombers were small and slow. Focusing all war preparation on a short Blitzkrieg on land, the Germans had failed to develop heavy long-range bombers. The German air force ruined itself in 1940-41, when it channelled all its badly fitted resources on the fight with Britain; it never again became a decisive fighting force. It is ironic that the initial German bombing of airfields and strategic installations, had it continued, would have offered Germany a much better chance for invasion than the brutal and stupid raiding of cities. Some military historians believe Germany could thus have defeated Britain. But after some relatively harmless British bombings of German cities, Hitler gave in to the popular cry for revenge and ordered the attack of British cities.

Although many in Hitler’s entourage did not want war with the Soviet Union before Britain was either defeated or reconciled (or not at all, like Ribbentrop or Goebbels), Hitler became increasingly impatient and decided in late 1940 to attack the Soviet Union in the following spring. From now on the ideological aspect of his foreign policy became dominant and stifled the diplomatic cunning with which he had reached so much before 1939. From a pragmatic point of view nothing spoke for attacking Russia, which behaved like a benevolent neutral or, as some historians argue, an ally. The Russians delivered oil, food, and huge quantities of raw materials to Germany. Their supplies eased the German military successes until June 1941 and took the sting out of the British blockade.

Although Russian plans for an attack on Germany existed and although Stalin, like Hitler, saw the non-aggression pact of 1939 as no more than a tactical move that would not preempt an ultimately unavoidable military conflict, the German attack on the Soviet Union was dictated by ideology, not by practical politics. Hitler was determined to realize his grisly racial utopia of resettlement and extermination in Eastern Europe. Hitler saw himself as a uniquely ingeneous leader of the sort that, as he said, is given to the Germans by God only once every millennium. He felt that time was running out for his plans (a feeling that had prodded him to action already in 1939) and became obsessed with the fear that he might die before achieving his mission.

The campaign in Russia:
German plans for the attack on the Soviet Union were delayed for several weeks because Mussolini, who had joined Germany in war in June 1940 (after there could be no doubt about the French defeat), engaged Italy in disastrous military adventures. After occupying Albania, the Italians attacked Greece but were badly beaten. Hitler feared that his ally would resign and that the British might use the Balkan Peninsula as a base to threaten the southern flank of the German armies attacking the Soviet Union. In April and May 1941 the German army therefore overran Yugoslavia and Greece. Rumania and Hungary concluded alliances with Hitler. The threat of a British intervention on the Balkans seemed removed. Blitzkrieg had worked once again. But the Balkan campaign was maybe fatal for German war plans against Russia because it put the German troops, which had to decide the campaign before the winter, on a tighter schedule. The German armies had to regroup, and the date for the attack on Russia was postponed to June 22.

The initial phase of the Russian campaign seemed to confirm the Blitzkrieg strategy. A German force, helped by small Italian, Spanish, Belgian, Rumanian, and Hungarian divisions, overwhelmed the Russian defenses and wrought havoc over the ill-prepared Red Army. Stalin had ignored all warnings of an attack, and the Russians — fearing uprisings in their western border territories settled by resentful national minorities — had only plans for an offensive, not for a defense. Within a few months the German army inflicted enormous losses on the Russians, taking whole armies prisoners, destroying most of the Soviet air force, and conquering huge territories. The Russians faced an unprecedented disaster. Stalin seems to have suffered some sort of nervous breakdown in late June but soon became committed to organizing resistance as well as possible. Russia made huge efforts to rebuild its defense, moving whole plants behind the Urals and concentrating all resources on mass production of tanks and guns.

The German campaign did not lead to victory, however. In the fall of 1941 the Germans were still advancing, but Soviet resistance was unbroken. When the seasonal rains started in October, the German army faced trouble, as its tanks and trucks could no longer move through the mud into which many Russian roads turned. It became clear that the campaign would continue throughout the winter, which caught the Germans unprepared. Having expected the Blitzkrieg to destroy the Soviet Union within a few months, the German generals had neglected preparations for a winter campaign. Their soldiers had no winter clothing. The situation got dramatically worse when the Red Army, after having withdrawn into the depths of the Russian land mass, started a counterattack in December 1941. Parts of the German army panicked; only drastic disciplinary measures induced it to hold out. Nevertheless, the Germans lost ground, huge numbers of men, and a lot of materiel. Blitzkrieg had failed to defeat the Soviet Union. Why so?

Whether the delay of the German attack proved decisive is hard to determine. It seems that Hitler, like everybody else, underestimated the capability of the Red Army and the Soviet industrial machine to recover from seemingly deadly blows. Even British and American observers did not rate the fighting capacity of the Red Army as very high; the army had been purged of almost all its leading officers in 1938-39 and performed poorly in the war with Finland in the winter of 1939-40. But Blitzkrieg had had limited objectives in Poland, France, and the Balkans. The enormous distances in Russia, the difficulties of the terrain, and the tenacious commitment of the Russians to fight made a big difference.

According to Hitler’s ideology, which defined the Soviet Union as a degenerate, corrupt, “Jewish” state, the Soviet Union should have crumbled after the first blow. That this did not happen was to no small degree the outcome of Hitler’s own policies and prejudices: the communist regime was unpopular in many areas of the Soviet Union. The people in its western part (Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic states, occupied eastern Poland), in particular, resented Stalin’s dictatorship not only as an authoritatian regime but also as oppressive foreign rule. Under German protection, Ukraine had become independent toward the end of the First World War and resented being conquered by the Red Army in 1920-21. Similar hostility against the rule of the Moscow communists existed in other areas as well. The Baltic states were freshly incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1940, totally against their will (but in accordance with the secret protocot of the Hitler-Stalin Pact).

If the German army had declared itself a liberator of these minorities within the Soviet Empire, it would have received massive support from the local population. When the Germans moved into Ukraine, for example, women in the fields took out crosses and blessed them. A Ukrainian general even formed an army fighting alongside the Germans against the Red Army. But anti-Soviet sentiment rapidly turned into desperate hatred of Germans. To many people in the Soviet Union the German occupation brought mass murder instead of liberty. They soon came to learn that the Soviet yoke was mild compared to the German. Instead of winning allies against Stalin, the German army and the SS, following in the army’s footsteps, created a hostile environment. This must be counted as one important cause for the failure of Germany’s initial onslaught. That the Germans insisted on making enemies rather than friends had to do with Nazi ideology.

The ideological underpinnings of the Russian campaign:
The war against the Soviet Union mirrored a radically new kind of warfare: it was heavily ideologized by Hitler and the SS elite; even the army — despite initial resistance and lasting misgivings — let itself be drawn into this track. (For a document on the ideological mission of the German army in the Soviet Union, see H-German: Walter von Reichenau.) Hitler had always hoped to conquer “living space” in Eastern Europe and to destroy what he saw as the demon of Judaism-Bolshevism (a unity in his mind). His war did not simply aim at destroying an enemy army and not even merely at conquering huge territories. Hitler wanted to make Eastern Europe the ground for a totally new racial utopia. He envisioned — and partly realized — the extermination of whole peoples and the enslavement or resettlement of others. Ultimately, Eastern Europe should become the living space of a racially “pure” and “superior” agrarian elite of Aryans. (For the ideological background see Jäckel, Hitler’s World View.)

The racial “elite” of the Germans, a kind of heroic soldier-farmer, should settle there, perfect his race, and provide the rest of Greater Germany with the necessary agrarian products, drawing (initially, at least) from large-scale slave labor by those Eastern European peoples who were not exterminated or resettled right away. Hitler and the SS were dead serious about this most gruesome racial utopia and determined to start implementing it immediately. In the footsteps of the German army followed the so-called Einsatzgruppen, firing squads of the SS.

These troops had orders to round up and shoot political commissars of the Red Army, communist officials, and Jews in every town the army conquered and in every surrendered Soviet unit. The Russians who became prisoners of war were considered members of a vastly inferior race, and many of them got killed as well. Some officers and soldiers in the army resented the SS Einsatzgruppen cowardly killing innocent people after they, the soldiers, had conquered territory at the risk of their lives. But the regime made sure that the army understood the ideological implications of this war; Nazi propaganda made the German soldiers believe they were fighting the most cruel subhumans, and the brutal dynamic of the war, which also prepared a horrible fate to German prisoners in Russia, seemed to lend increasing credibility to the official ideology. Soldiers who still protested against the shootings behind their lines were shot themselves.

Gradually, however, even the Einsatzgruppen got demoralized by their bloody role. Far behind the frontlines the SS therefore started to look for less conspicuous ways to kill masses of people. The “Final Solution” took shape, while the war on the eastern front assumed ever new proportions of horror and barbarism.

Total and global war, 1941 -1945:
The attack on the Soviet Union with all its racial underpinnings represented the ideological core of Hitler’s plans. But Hitler also had found a more practical reason to launch this attack: in 1940 he came to the conclusion that the United States — however reluctantly — was preparing for war with Japan and Germany. As Britain held out with massive support from the United States, Hitler anticipated that a united American-British assault on the European Continent would soon threaten Germany and its area of domination. Conquering the desired “living space” in Eastern Europe to Hitler was an attempt to create a huge power bloc that would make Germany self-sufficient and prepare it for the expected attack from the west.

Believing a German-American war to be inevitable, Hitler declared war to the United States a few days after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on 6 December 1941 (without informing their German and Italian allies). The German-Japanese Treaty obliged the German government to go to war with the enemies of Japan, but the way Japan had set up the attack on the United States did not make a German declaration of war necessary. Hitler, anyway, did not usually respect the treaties he signed. His act against the United States appears puzzling and can probably only be explained as a cynical mood of somebody who started to suspect the possibility that his cause might be lost. Although Hitler, who took over the supreme command of the German army after the first setbacks in December 1941, continued to try to win the war with the Soviet Union, from now on his highest priority was the extermination of the Jews. He began looking extremely cynically even at the Germans, claiming that they would prove to be racially inferior and not worth his leadership if they failed to win the war.

Meanwhile, the German army held out against the Russian offensive, though at the price of unprecedented losses. In May 1942 the Germans even resumed the offensive, which for a while seemed to bear out the promise of the German generals that they would be able to destroy the Soviet Union in a new summer campaign. The Germans advanced mostly into the South of Russia, aiming to get hold of the vast oil fields near the Caspian Sea and to sever the American supply line to the Soviet Union through Iran. Although they did not reach these goals, the German armies conquered the larger part of Stalingrad on the Wolga River and moved into the Caucasus region in the fall.

German troops also appeared successful during the summer of 1942 in North Africa, where they had rescued the Italians after another disastrous military adventure of Mussolini in 1941. The German Africa Corps under General Rommel beat the British back in early 1942, won some encounters with arriving American units, and advanced toward the heartland of British Egypt. In a pincer attack through Southern Russia and the Middle East, the German army seemed on the way to conquering the Persian Gulf region. A massive German submarine campaign in the North Atlantic meanwhile put a heavy strain on British supplies. Most importantly, the Japanese conquered much of the Pacific region in 1942 and seemed to pose a challenge to the United States for many years to come.

But the Axis successes were misleading. Germany had strained its resources and was, as in the First World War, fighting against a vastly superior enemy alliance. In terms of economic strength, manpower, and resources, it was only a question of time when the Germans and Japanese would succumb to the powers they had attacked. Allied air superiority was the first bad omen. British and American bomber units started attacking targets in all of Germany already in 1942, and it became clear that the German air force hardly had the resources to protect the mainland. A very valuable first jet fighter, which might have given defense an edge, was developed in 1942, but Hitler put priorities on a missile program that he hoped to be his last card to decide the war against all odds.

Above all, the German war machine had notorious fuel supply problems. Stunning progress in Germany’s synthetic oil production could not make up for its lacking natural oil supplies. Allied Rumania provided most of the natural oil consumed by the German forces, but the supply was not sufficient. To get a sense of the seriousness of the German fuel problem we need only remember that the German army started the Russian campaign with 600,000 horses to pull materiel it could not transport by trucks for lack of fuel. The Japanese, by the way, were plagued by the same problem.

The war thus started to turn in the fall of 1942. In October the British attacked the notoriously undersupplied Africa Corps in Egypt. With the help of American units landed in Algeria they defeated the German and Italian troops in North Africa within seven months. Lack of fuel paralyzed Rommel’s planes and tanks, making them easy targets for the enemy air force.

Much worse was the Russian counterattack in November 1942. With new armies and an enormous amout of new war machinery, the Red Army cut off the sixth German army (with over 300,000 men) in Stalingrad. The German troops in the Caucasus withdrew quickly to avoid being cut off as well. Other German forces tried to rescue the sixth army but were stopped forty miles west of Stalingrad in December. Hitler ordered the sixth army not to surrender and not to break the Stalingrad siege. The sixth army should vanish heroically to serve as an example (what kind of example??) for the rest of Germany. It defended itself under horrendous conditions (no food, extreme cold, little ammunition) but was destroyed by the Russians by the end of January 1943. 200,000 Germans were killed, about 95,000 were taken prisoners, less than 10,000 survived the prisoner camps. The letters of the soldiers from encircled Stalingrad displayed such a bitter hatred of the Nazi regime that Goebbels, who wanted to publish them as a document to the heroism of the soldiers, classified them as top secret and never released them. A few mail bags survived the war and were published in the 1950s.

After Stalingrad the German army never became able to resume a major offensive again. The Russians pushed the Germans back in early 1943, and a last German attempt to turn the tide of war in Eastern Europe failed in July 1943 (in a huge tank battle near Kursk). The Allied bomber offensive became increasingly effective, and the submarine war in the North Atlantic turned against the Germans. The losses of submarines skyrocketed and made service on submarines nearly suicidal (see the film “Das Boot”). The British and American troops from North Africa landed in Sicily, provoking the overthrow of Mussolini by a circle of dissident generals and fascists. The new Italian government sued for peace with the Allies, but the German army unseated it and occupied Northern Italy. The Allies slowly moved north, conquering Rome in January 1944. The Italian campaign, advocated primarily by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, offered little military benefit to the Allies, who were fighting a very small German force that used the advantages of the terrain and held out in Northern Italy until April 1945.

The change of fortunes in the war gave new momentum to the resistance movements in German-occupied Europe. Until 1941, it had looked to Europeans as if German predominence over much of the Continent was there to stay. Businessmen and politicians, whether they liked Nazi Germany or not, tended to settle with Germany, and outside Russia resistance was initially weak. But in 1943 Partisan groups, often armed by the Allies, became more active and threatened some German supply lines. The SS and the army often punished local resistance with utmost brutality. Meanwhile, Japan too was on the defensive after having lost major naval battles already in 1942. In the course of 1943 the Allies sustained offensives on most of the Pacific war theater.

Still, the road to the final defeat of Germany and Japan was long and terribly painful. A compromise peace appeared impossible, particularly in the light of the horrendous German war crimes in Eastern Europe. Japan encouraged Hitler to seek an understanding with the Soviet Union in order to concentrate all resources on fighting the democratic powers, but Hitler’s ideological fanaticism by now had completely superseded his pragmatic skills. He might have agreed to a peace with the United States and Britain, but a truce with the Soviet Union, which he had stigmatized as a sub-human, deadly enemy, would have contradicted what he saw as the central mission of his life and of the German people. Stalin — in spite of the bitterness of the war — seems to have been inclined to consider some deal with Germany, but it would have been very difficult for him to make plausible to his country a truce with an enemy who had brought devastation and mass murder upon Russia. With about twenty million war dead (including the civilian population), the Soviet Union eventually suffered the heaviest losses in the war.

A compromise peace was shunned by the Allies at a conference in Casablanca in January 1943. They committed themselves to fighting until Germany would surrender unconditionally. This was both a declaration of will to preclude an incomplete victory as in 1918 and an attempt to avoid Stalin’s making a separate deal with Germany. The anti-German war coalition was artificial and fragile, but only a pragmatic leadership not committed to outrageous crimes and blind ideological goals could have exploited its weaknesses. Hitler, on the contrary, did all he could to stabilize it. While the German troops waged a desperate defensive battle on all fronts and while the German cities were destroyed one after the other by Allied bombing raids, the holocaust reached its most intensive phase.

In the course of 1944 the Red Army conquered most of Poland, which forced the SS to close and destroy the death camps toward the end of the year, and broke through into the Balkan peninsula. The Russian occupation of the Rumanian oil fields in August 1944 cut the German army off from its last supplies of natural oil and made it almost entirely dependent on synthetic fuel. Although the Germans managed to increase their general war production to the highest level in 1944 despite the massive bombings and the scarcity of resources, the relative balance of forces made their efforts futile, particularly with regard to the unfolding enormous and combined potential of the United States and the Soviet Union.

In the West the Allied landing in the Normandie on 6 June 1944 (see F. D. Roosevelt’s D-Day prayer) opened a new front for the Germans (Stalin had demanded that landing since 1942 and had gotten extremely frustrated with the Allied reluctance to take on the well-prepared German defenses in France. Partly, the Allied landing in Italy was meant to soothe Stalin, who never lost his mistrust that the capitalist powers would one day all ally against the Soviet Union). By the end of 1944 American, British, and French troops (under the leadership of the chief of the self-constituted French government in exile, General Charles de Gaulle) had liberated almost all of France, while the Russians gathered their forces for the final attack on Berlin and Vienna. That the Red Army in front of Warsaw remained passive when Polish underground fighters launched an abortive uprising against the Germans in the city revealed that the Soviet leadership planned to redesign Eastern Europe without independent input by the non-Russian peoples. A German counterattack in the Ardennes forest in December 1944 surprised the Americans and has since been the subject of innumerable war documentaries (Battle of the Bulge), but it broke down promptly because the German tanks ran out of fuel. In any case, Germany had long ago lost the war.

The last one-and-a-half years of the war brought the horrors of war directly to the German civilian population, which so far had been spared the worst – partly due to Hitler’s fear of a new German revolution. In 1944-45 the Allied bombing campaign against German cities reached its climax. In 1944, 650,000 tons of explosives fell on Germany (up from 120,000 in the previous year), and in the few months of fighting in 1945 the bombing reached 500,000 tons (more than twice the intensity of 1944). The most famous bombing attack happened in Dresden in February 1945. It is still unclear how many people were killed in that one night because the city was filled with many thousands of refugees from the east of Germany. The lowest figures estimate 20,000 dead, the highest up to ten times that number. Berlin was a field of ruins, as were Hamburg (destroyed by a British fire-bombing attack already in 1943) and Köln (Cologne) and most other large cities.

The bombing campaign at this stage of the war targeted civilians, not primarily industrial goals, and it culminated when the war had long been decided. It thus appears to me as nothing but a bloody revenge against the German civilian population. That the German army and the SS had brought immense suffering to the rest of Europe, of course, is indisputable, as is the fact that many Germans would have cheered if their own air force had been capable of the same destruction before. But bombs did not distinguish between the guilty and the innocent. They rained on ardent Nazis, mothers, children, and even resisters. (The claim of pilots that they had difficulties distinguishing between industrial and residential areas is window-dressing. Apart from a few accidents, they were able to make this distinction while bombing France.)

The other major threat to German civilians came from the east. The Russians took their own bloody revenge for German war crimes when they occupied German territories in late 1944 and in 1945. Masses of civilians were killed, and rape by Russian soldiers became a common experience of many German women. The fear of the Russians triggered a wave of German refugees from the east – millions of desperate people crowding the destroyed cities and falling prey to bombings, as in Dresden, or being attacked by the many low-flying American and British fighter planes, which shot at individual civilians on the roads and fields.

Meanwhile, the last act of the war started with new Allied offensives in early 1945. Hitler, clinging to the illusion that his secret missiles (the V-1 and V-2) would decide the war at the last minute, ordered fanatic resistance and the mobilization of boys and men up to age sixty-five. Hitler Youth, meaning school boys, were trained for last-ditch resistance and for an underground struggle in areas of Germany occupied by the Allies. Germans who questioned the “final victory” of their country were executed. Even listening to foreign news became a deadly crime. In March of 1945, Hitler gave orders for a destruction of all that was left of Germany (the so-called “Nero order”). He wanted his people to vanish with him, after it had failed to live up to his mission.

Open uprisings and mutinies happened rarely, but many Germans at this point hindered the execution of Hitler’s orders. There were instances of passive resistance both among troops and civilians, but there were also dedicated Nazis fighting to the last. SS guards still murdered many Jews on their march from the death camps in Poland to other camps in unoccupied Germany. In the defense of Berlin, thousands of Hitler Youth died while defending bridges in the center of town. When President Roosevelt died in April 1945, Hitler believed in a flight of frenzy that the United States would pull out of the war and thus save Germany. Only a few days later, however, Hitler realized that all was lost. While the Red Army tightened its siege of Berlin and started to conquer the inner city, Hitler committed suicide in his bunker on 30 April. A new government under Admiral Dönitz was appointed, but it could do no more than surrender. On 7 and 9 May 1945 the German army and leadership capitulated unconditionally. The Germans lived in a field of ruins, threatened by starvation, loaded with an atrocious collective guilt, and totally uncertain about the future.

Go on to E.4.