World War II

Hitler’s blitzkrieg tactics, spearheaded by columns of speeding tanks and supported by relentless air attacks, quickly overran Poland. Blitzkrieg, a German word meaning “lightning war,” is the tactic of rapid attack with massive numbers of mechanized infantry and tank divisions covered by close air support. The strategy was designed to overawe defenders with a fast, violent, and highly mobile attack while special units interrupted their communication and supply, furthering confusion.

Blitzkrieg tac-tics robbed Poland of time to mobilize its forces and resources. The rapid German victory was not purely the result of these startling new blitzkrieg tactics, however. The cynical collusion of Hitler and Stalin, the Soviet dictator, also worked against the unfortunate Poles. On September 1, 1939, 50 divisions of the German army—almost 2 million troops—poured over the Polish border and raced toward Warsaw.

With the Polish army diverted to its western border to deal with the German onslaught, Soviet troops invaded eastern Poland on September 17. Caught between two powerful enemies, the Poles could not hold out for long. After the fall of Warsaw, on September 27, 1939, the German and Russian dictators divided defeated Poland between themselves.

As France and Britain, caught unprepared for fi ghting a modern war, struggled to mobilize, the Nazis set to work remaking Poland as an east-ern outpost of an Aryan empire. In the wake of the Wehrmacht—the name applied to all of Germany’s armed forces, including the army (Heer), navy (Kriegsmarine), and air force (Luftwaffe) from 1935 to 1945—Nazi offi cials carried out a sort of grim dress rehearsal for what Hitler termed “the fi nal solution of the Jewish question,” the extermi-nation of Europe’s Jews.

This Final Solution began with German troops rounding up Poland’s large Jewish population and herding them into overcrowded ghettos in the country’s major cities. Polish Jews were registered, forced to wear a yellow Star of David, and stripped of their property and belongings. In the squalid conditions of the Jewish ghet-tos, Poland’s Jewish community, which numbered some 3 million before the war, slowly succumbed to starvation and disease. Meanwhile, the Western Allies stood by, seemingly powerless to stop Hitler.

After consolidating his gains in Poland, Hitler set his sights on Scandinavia, as the Soviets invaded the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania and struggled to bring Finland to heel. In March 1940, the Germans quickly overran Denmark and also conquered Norway, overwhelming the Norwegian military, despite the presence of a British and French expeditionary force. In the aftermath of their victory, the Germans installed a Nazi puppet government.

By the spring of 1940, the Wehrmacht had also conquered the Low Countries—the low-lying region of Northwest Europe occupied by Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg—paving the way for an invasion of France. The blitzkrieg unleashed on France proved unstoppable, and the Germans easily advanced on Paris. The rapidly advancing German columns drove a wedge between the French forces and the British Expeditionary Force, trapping the latter on the coast of the North Sea at Dunkirk in late May 1940. The British troops, stranded on the beaches, were at the mercy of German aerial attacks as a fl otilla of small English vessels, includ-ing fi shing boats and pleasure yachts, struggled to rescue them from the slaughter.

While more than 300,000 British and French soldiers escaped to England, tens of thousands perished in the humiliating defeat. By June, the Germans, seemingly invincible, were marching along the boulevards of a conquered Paris, as the French government collapsed. After the French surrender, on June 22, 1940, the Germans occupied northern France, turning the south over to a compliant puppet regime, the Vichy government led by the collaborator Henri-Philippe Pétain (1856–1951).

Having conquered France in just two weeks, Hitler began prepar-ing for an amphibious invasion of England. Before the Germans could land on British soil, however, they had to destroy the Royal Air Force and establish air superiority over the English Channel. Hitler turned to his trusted follower, the Luftwaffe’s fl amboyant commander, Hermann Göring, to crush the British air force.

The ensuing air war, known as the Battle of Britain, proved to be one of the key turning points of the war. The campaign also provided a bitter taste of the suffering that civilian populations would endure during the world’s fi rst true total war, as German and British bomber fl eets pounded their enemy’s airfi elds, industrial cities, and transportation networks.

In addition to the air war, the German submarine force blockaded Britain, attempting to cut the island nation off from its colonies and allies, including the United States, which, although it remained neutral, supplied crucial aid to the British. While the German Luftwaffe devastated London, Hitler proved incapable of knocking out the Royal Air Force or stop-ping the fl ow of American supplies into British ports.

By the early sum-mer of 1941, Hitler had called off the fruitless air war, abandoning his plan to invade England. Instead, he began preparations for a massive invasion of the Soviet Union, a betrayal of Stalin, his former partner in the Polish campaign.

Relations between Hitler and Stalin had deteriorated the year before, amid rising diplomatic tension and ideological animosity. In addi-tion, the two dictators both laid claim to the strategic oil fi elds of the Balkans. While Germany had been attacking England, Stalin had annexed the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. He then seized Bessarabia, which had been under Romanian control. As the Soviets pressured Romania, coveting its strategic Ploesti oil fi elds, the Germans and Italians sent troops that brought the oil-rich country, as well as Hungary, Yugoslavia, and Greece, into the Axis fold by April 1941.

By positioning troops in the Balkans and southeastern Europe, as well as by concluding secret agreements with neutral Sweden and Finland to facilitate the transit of German troops stationed in occupied Norway eastward to the Russian border, Hitler was setting the stage for an invasion of the Soviet Union.

Hitler’s desire to conquer the USSR was driven by his racist ideology, as the Nazi leader had long proclaimed his intention to seize land and resources in the east to provide “living space” for the Aryan master race by conquering the “inferior” Slavic peoples of Russia and dismantling the “Jewish Bolshevik” government that ruled them. Accordingly, Hitler ordered his generals to begin plan-ning a surprise attack on the USSR.

The German invasion of Russia, code-named Operation Barbarossa, began on June 22, 1941. Attacking without warning, the massive inva-sion force of more than 3 million soldiers advanced across the Soviet border from Finland in the north, from occupied Poland in the center, and from Romania in the south, driving deep into Russia. Unleashing the sort of blitzkrieg attack that had overwhelmed France the previous year, the Germans and their allies pounded Stalin’s Red Army, capturing almost 2.5 million Soviet troops by December 1941.

By early December, the Germans had advanced to within 15 miles of Moscow and seemed poised to conquer the Soviet Union. However, the savage Russian win-ter did something Stalin’s Red Army could not: It stopped the German advance just outside Moscow. Despite its early success, the largest mili-tary campaign in human history had ground to a halt. As Hitler’s troops, ill-equipped for the deadly Russian winter, froze in their fi eld positions, the battered Red Army regrouped, preparing for a counterattack that would drive the Germans from Russia.

The stalemate on the eastern front was compounded by reverses elsewhere. After the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the United States, heretofore reluctant to enter the fray, had declared war on Japan. In turn, Hitler and Mussolini backed their Japanese ally by declaring war on the United States. While the United States was not yet prepared for war, its ability to mobilize unmatched resources in manpower and matériel would soon prove decisive. In the spring of 1941, German forces under the command of the “Desert Fox,” Erwin Rommel (1891–1944), landed in North Africa, ordered to reinforce the hapless Italians who were reeling from a failed invasion of British-held Egypt.

After a series of daring German victories engineered by Rommel, a brilliant tank commander, the tide of war changed in October 1942, when combined British and American attacks drove the Germans from North Africa. Despite these setbacks, in the autumn of 1942, Germany still held sway over Europe from the English Channel to the gates of Moscow. Meanwhile, Japan, Germany’s Axis ally, had suffered its own reversal at the hands of the Americans at the Battle of Midway in June 1942, but it still dominated the Pacifi c. The nightmare of World War II had only begun.