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The Dates That Shaped History Essay

On June 28 1919, Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles, concluding five long years of warfare. Approximately 16 million people were killed and millions more wounded. European society was in ruin and the political landscape had changed considerably. Yet out of this crucible, Germany emerged stronger than ever and nearly conquered the world. World War I took a tremendous toll on all of its participants, particularly Germany. Stripped of land, money and its once powerful army, Germany was crippled. The German Armed Forces were restricted in size, recruiting, and weaponry; embarrassing a country with a proud military history.

Far worse, the country was vulnerable to attack with its debilitated army. Yet, in this context Adolf Hitler emerged as a dominant political leader. Relying on political supremacy, competent military leadership, and a regional political environment where pacifism prevailed; Hitler was able to conquer virtually all of Europe within two decades of the Treaty of Versailles. In 1932, Paul von Hindenburg, the second President of the German Reich, moved the government in a decidedly authoritarian and right wing direction.

Newly appointed Chancellor, Franz von Papen, shared Hindenburg’s desire to establish authoritarian rule and called for new elections in July. However, the President and Chancellor’s push for authoritarian rule was not strongly supported. As a result of the July and November elections, the National Socialist German Worker’s Party {Nazi Party} became the largest party in the Reichstag. Unable to form a stable government with out Nazi support, Hindenburg offered Hitler the office of Vice- Chancellor. (Wall 60) Hitler remained steadfast, arguing that as the leader of the strongest party he had the right to be Chancellor.

On the morning of January 30, 1933, Hindenburg, persuaded by German high-ranking officials, decided it was safe to appoint Hitler as Chancellor of the Reich. Adolf Hitler did not waste time in his conquest for absolute control of Germany. On the day he took the oath of office, Hitler persuaded his cabinet to dissolve the Reichstag, and scheduled the elections for early March. The burning of the Reichstag building, an alleged communist plot, resulted in the creation of the Reichstag Fire Decree, which suspended basic rights, including habeas corpus.

(Wall 67) Under the provisions of this decree, the German Communist Party and other groups were suppressed and communist functionaries were arrested. The institution of the Enabling Act was the second major step, after the Reichstag Fire Decree, through which Hitler legally obtained plenary powers and transformed the German government into a legal dictatorship. The combination of legislative and executive power, allowed Hitler to suppress remaining political opposition. Hitler furthered his rise to political dominance on July 14, 1934, when the Nazi Party declared itself the only legal party in Germany.

Hitler effectively used the Sturmabteilung, widely known as the SA, to push various high-ranking officials into resigning. Yet when the SA’s demands for political and military power caused anxiety among military leaders, there was the emergence of the Schutzstaffel. Widely referred to as the SS, the Schutzstaffel became Hitler’s new personal bodyguard and instrument of terror. Hitler used allegations of a plot by the SA leader, Ernst Rohm, to purge the SA’s leadership during the “Night of the Long Knives.

” (Wall 72) Opponents unconnected with the SA, most notably Gregor Strasser, Nazi political rival, and former Chancellor Kurt von Schleicher, were also murdered. The inevitable death of President Hindenburg on August 2, 1934, eliminated the final obstacle that stood in the way of Hitler’s quest for supreme political power. Rather than holding new presidential elections, Hitler’s cabinet passed a law proclaiming the presidency dormant and transferred the role and powers of the head of state to Hitler as Fuhrer und Reichskanzler.

Hitler gained public support by convincing the majority of the German population that he was their savior from the economic Depression, the Treaty of Versailles, communism, the “Judeo- Bolsheviks”, and other undesirable minorities. Hitler began to round up his enemies and brought them to early concentration camps. More crude than violent, the guards bullied the prisoners more than they murdered. (World At War) Boycotts of Jewish businesses were also put into effect as Hitler worked to spread his anti-Semitic beliefs.

Many Germans believed that Hitler would stop the oppression of Jews after he felt comfortable and secure in power. However, famous German poet Bertolt Brecht thought otherwise, stating that, “where one burns books, there one eventually burns people. ” (World At War) As anti-German ideas went up in smoke, so did many of Germany’s intellectuals as they took to flight. Backed by the support of his people, Hitler began to restore Germany’s military. Hitler renounced the restrictions instituted through the Treaty of Versailles and initiated the rearmament process.

Hitler did not immediately break all of the restrictions established by the treaty, as he found ways around them. For example, the German League for Air Sports taught men how to fly with the use of gliders for the future Luftwaffe. (World At War) In another situation, Hitler proposed a plan in which armament was limited; England supported this plan in “an ill-calculated act of appeasement” (Keegan 37) in which the British Admiralty had agreed that the German navy should be partially liberated form the provisions of the Treaty.

The German army, which had been limited to 100,000 men, rapidly expanded in March of 1935 with the reinstatement of conscription. Hitler promptly declared the Treaty extinct, as Germany’s new tanks were put on display and the first Luftwaffe squadrons flew. Hitler possessed a peacetime army numbering around a half million men. Germany’s defense spending rose to 4. 1 billion Reichmarks as factories began turning out weapons and military vehicles while shipyards started to reconstruct the German Navy. Hitler’s armed forces became significantly stronger; however, “Germany was still diplomatically vulnerable.

” (Wall 123) Hitler benefited from a number of bilateral agreements that were generally more favorable to Germany than to the other participant. The non-aggression pact with Poland temporarily eased tensions and provided the Poles with a false sense of security. In addition, the two countries agreement weakened France’s effort to create a system of anti- German alliances in Eastern Europe. (Wall 124) Furthermore, the Saar, a coal- rich German province that had been under French occupation since the Treaty of Versailles, voted overwhelmingly to rejoin the Reich in a previously scheduled plebiscite.

Hitler “was optimistic about the success of his next and most audacious challenge the Treaty of Versailles, the militarization of the Rhineland. ” (Wall 125) Despite confidence that the French would not block the passage of German troops, Adolf Hitler proceeded cautiously. Hitler justified his operation, claiming that the demilitarization of the Rhineland was invalidated with the formation of the new Franco- Soviet alliance. German forces crossed the Rhine River where they were greeted with cheers in the place of resistance.

Hitler and Nazi Germany remained quiet for two years, as they did not break any more rules established by the Versailles Treaty. Yet, Hitler’s army did not lay dormant. In fact, the German army was gaining valuable war experience as they were actively participating in the Spanish Civil War. In addition to the training of ground troops, the conflict in Spain allowed Hitler to test new equipment and provided the Luftwaffe with valuable bombing practice. Debatably the most important consequence of Germany’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War was Hitler’s newly formed friendships with Italy, Spain, and Japan.

Each nation’s respective leader eventually signed the Anti- Comintern Pact, uniting them as allies. In 1938, Hitler forced the resignation of his War Minister, Werner von Blomberg, after evidence surfaced that Blomberg’s new wife had a criminal past. Hitler replaced the Ministry of War with the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW), headed by General Wilhelm Keitel. Exactly two years and five days after Germany entered the Rhineland, Hitler ordered his army into Austria. The majority of Hitler’s former compatriots approved when Austria was formally annexed to the “Greater German Reich”.

(Wall 132) The successful seizure of his homeland did not satisfy Hitler, the Sudetenland, revoked from Germany in the Treaty of Versailles, became Hitler’s next target. Sudeten Nazis protested and rioted, as they demanded independence from Czechoslovakia. (Wall 133) Hitler was willing to risk war with Britain and France in order to gain control of the Sudetenland. However, he was relying on Britain and France to back down as they had done previously. Hitler immediately changed his mind when Chamberlain, British Prime Minister, and French premier Daladier ordered immediate mobilization.

In order to save Hitler from public humiliation, Mussolini proposed a four-power conference to discuss the details of the Reich’s takeover of Czech territory. The conference in Munich “marked the culmination of British and French appeasement, as the western leaders’ sanctioned German occupation and annexation of the Sudetenland on October 1. ” (Wall 134) Hitler reassured the British and French that the Reich only intended to incorporate neighboring German- speaking regions. In actuality, Hitler was furious that he had to settle with the negotiations in which he publicly claimed, rather than what he actually wanted.

Hitler had intended to gain all of Czechoslovakia, instead of merely taking back the Sudetenland. Czechoslovakia was left even more vulnerable to a Nazi takeover when Slovakia claimed its independence. Czech president, Emil Hacha, knew that Hitler never intended to abide by the terms of the Munich Agreement, and thus arranged his own meeting with Hitler. As predicted, Hitler demanded complete capitulation of Czechoslovakia and threatened that any resistance shown by the Czechs would result in the destruction of Praque.

On March 15, 1939, German troops peacefully occupied the Czech capital city. “The Western powers did not protest the Reich’s conquests, but the apparent victory was not without cost. ” (Wall 136) As Hitler blatantly broke the agreements discussed in Munich, the British and French understood they could no longer trust Hitler and recognized the threat he posed to their security. Britain and France promptly abandoned their attempts toward diplomatic intervention. The return of Danzig and unlimited access to East Prussia through the Polish Corridor had become the Reich’s next target.

With strong support from the British and French, the Poles felt as if they could stop a German invasion, and refused to extend the 1934 German- Polish nonaggression pact. Hitler not only faced the threat of possible French and British intervention, but also their powerful eastern neighbor, the Soviet Union. Yet, in return for Soviet occupation of eastern Poland, Stalin promised nonintervention and massive shipments of raw materials. Hitler and Stalin had overcome their ideological inhibitions and created the Nazi- Soviet Nonaggression Pact.

With the Soviet Union as a temporary ally, Hitler positioned the Wehrmacht in attack positions on the Polish boarder. In order to gain support for the invasion of Poland, the Nazi’s staged a fake Polish attack on the Reich. Members of the SS were order to dress “German prisoners in Polish uniforms, [take] them to the radio station, [kill] them with lethal injections, and machine-gun the corpses. ” (Wall 139) The bodies were then photographed and portrayed in the German press as an attempted Polish invasion. On September 3, 1939, Britain and France declared war on Nazi Germany.

The Wehrmacht divided its forces into five armies and attacked the Polish- German frontier at specifically selected points. The German army encountered immediate success and broke through Polish defenses as early as September 4. As the Wehrmacht headed for Warsaw, the Luftwaffe delivered devastating blows to the polish capital city. The fate of Poland was sealed and on October 6, all resistance had ended. In order to gain recognition of the division of Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union, Hitler attempted to make peace with France and Britain.

Both countries rebuffed the Reich’s offer, and each side prepared for an invasion of Western Europe. However, from October 1939 to April 1940 Hitler’s army remained stagnant. In this near eight-month break in conflict, Hitler carefully observed the war between the Soviet Union and Finland. Already harboring doubts about the Soviet military strength, Hitler’s skepticism was strengthened as the Finns beat back several Soviet offenses. Despite winning a few small battles, Finland was simply outnumbered and was forced to surrender to the Soviet Union on March 12, 1940.

The Sitzkrieg (sitting war), coined by contemporary journalists, ended when German intelligence intercepted British plans to mine the Norwegian coastal waters to block the iron ore shipments, and to land British and French troops along the coast to prevent German access. (Wall 149) In response, Hitler ordered the Wehrmacht to invade during the first week of April. The invasion was considered perilous because of the Royal Navy overwhelming strength. Fortunately, the British encountered bad weather and they were unable to intercept the German fleet.

The Wehrmacht’s first amphibious mission was executed to perfection; Denmark put up little resistance and surrendered shortly after German troops crossed the boarder. On the same day, 10,000 German troops landed at various sites in Norway. With the support of slower moving transports, Norwegian forces quickly dissolved. The Reich acquired control of southern and central Norway by the 14 of April. Hitler had successfully secured his northern flank and reaped the benefits of Sweden’s precarious neutrality as they supplied iron ore to Germany throughout the war.

(Wall 152) For several months, Hitler and his generals toggled with plans to invade the Netherlands, Belgium, and most importantly France. The Reich’s high command had reached a verdict, and Operation Yellow was put into effect. Hitler had finally agreed upon the division of the Wehrmacht into three Army Groups: A, B, and C. Army Group A was assigned to ambush the French by breaking through the Ardennes. The French believed passage through the Ardennes would be impossible and consequently did not fortify their forces.

Army Group C would engage the enemy opposite the Maginot Line causing the Allies two main armies to be divided. With the use of the Luftwaffe, Hitler was able to weaken the Allied forces with constant bombing, known as the Blitzkrieg. The excessive bombing of Rotterdam killed thousands of civilians and reduced the majority of the city’s center to rubble. Although the Nazi bombing of Rotterdam forced the Netherlands to surrender, the deliberate attacks on civilians became a symbol of Nazi brutality and removed all restraints to bombing civilian targets by the Allies.

As the Netherlands fell to the Reich, French and British reinforcements were in route to aid Belgium. However, German troops had secured fortresses behind Belgian lines and successfully cut off passage to the main French army. Allied forces numbering over 300,000 were now trapped in Dunkirk. With their support blocked, the Belgian army was forced to surrender. “Meanwhile, Army Group A in the Ardennes was executing Sickle Stroke to perfection. ” (Wall 153) Storming through the Ardennes, they reached France in four days.

Fourteen miles outside of Dunkirk, Hitler ordered Army Group A to stop for repairs and to re-supply. Luftwaffe commander, Hermann Goring, argued that the Luftwaffe could prevent troops and armor from being wasted in the invasion of Dunkirk. Hitler made his first major mistake when he accepted Goring’s plan. The Royal Air Force dominated the Luftwaffe and provided enough time for the 300,000 Allied soldiers to evacuate. Germany eventually captured Dunkirk on June 4, 1940. Weeks later, all German forces breached the Maginot Line and proceeded to converge on Paris.

Two days before the Germans captured Paris, the French government fled to Bordeaux. Filling the void was Marshal Petain who established his cabinet in the city of Vichy. As leader of France, Petain’s first action was to request an armistice with Hitler. On June 21 Hitler gleefully accepted. “Hitler’s greatest victory was one of France’s most devastating losses. ” (Wall 157) The occupation of France presented Hitler and the Reich with opportunity to invade the British Isles. Yet “Hitler, who admitted he was “a coward on the sea,” had no taste for an invasion of the United Kingdom with its powerful navy.

” (Wall 157) At the same time Hitler could not leave the British uncontested. Goring argued that the Luftwaffe would bring Britain to its knees, yet other Reich officials remained skeptical because of his previous failure over the skies of Dunkirk. Hitler’s indecision left him receptive to Goring’s persuasion. On August 8, 1940 the decision was made to unleash the full might of the Luftwaffe in order to clear the skies for Operation Sea Lion, code name for the invasion of Britain. As the first aerial raids began, immediate advantages for the Royal Air Force (RAF) were exhibited.

Despite having significantly less pilots than the Luftwaffe, when British pilots were shot down they landed in friendly territory and were able to return to combat while the Luftwaffe pilots either drowned or were taken prisoner. In addition, the German pilots had to fly up to 100 miles before encountering enemy fire. British pilots had significant more time in the air and did not have to worry about the flight home. Technological advances in British radar added yet another advantage to the RAF.

Along with ground observer crews, radar stations provided warning of an impending Luftwaffe air strike and allowed the British to prepare for conflict. The British were further aided by Polish intelligence officers who had broken the German military cipher. Under the code name Ultra, British and Polish cryptographers worked to decoded information about Operation Sea Lion. As fighting intensified both sides had significant losses, but during the first week of September, Germany gained an edge as the Luftwaffe disabled more planes than the British could replace.

Unaware of their current advantage, Hitler abandoned raids on British air bases due to the Luftwaffe’s significant losses. Instead he decided to focus strictly of massive attacks on London in order to break civilian morale. The Luftwaffe relentlessly assaulted Britain, yet it remained clear that German bombs were neither clearing the skies nor breaking the citizens morale. On September 17, Hitler cancelled Operation Sea Lion and ordered the Luftwaffe to shift to night raids. London and other British cities faced sporadic raids until May 1941, but “for all practical purposes the Battle of Britain was over by the end of October 1940.

” (Wall 162) The British stood strong and successfully repelled the Reich’s drive to eliminate Britain from the war. As the Battle of Britain came to its conclusion, Hitler and the Reich were on the move yet again. On March 25, 1941, Germany was forced to re-establish rule in Yugoslavia after anti- German army officers seized power in Belgrade and refused the use of Yugoslavian railroads by the Germans. (Wall 165) With the use of the Luftwaffe, Germany was able to drastically weaken the opposition and Yugoslavia fell in eleven days. As German forces moved into southern Europe they encountered battered Greek resistance.

Successfully capturing Greece, the German forces embarked on their final campaign in the south on May 20 as they invaded Crete. After a month of heavy fighting the opposition surrendered. Germany had struck a devastating blow to the British, capturing or killing around 14,000 men. The victories in southern Europe proved to Hitler that “Wehrmacht’s manpower and firepower had increased quantitatively and qualitatively, making [it] one of the most formidable in European history. ” (Keegan 173) The idea of fighting a two- front war no longer fazed Hitler; he was ready to declare war on the Soviet Union.

Victories over France and smaller European nations led Hitler to believe that he would encounter the same success in the conquest of the Soviet Union, formally known as Operation Barbarossa. The attack on the Soviet Union began in the early hours of June 22 and continued throughout the day. Just as Germany had done in previous invasions, the initial attacks on the Soviet Union were by air and concentrated on Russian airbases. Approximately one quarter of the Soviet’s entire air force was lost in the first day. Over the first weeks of conflict, the Red Army lost an additional 2,000 to 3,000 aircrafts in battle.

The German forces proceeded to roll through the Soviet Union delivering devastating blows one after another. After encircling the city of Leningrad, in an attempt to slowly starve it to death, Hitler shifted several tank divisions to capture the Ukrainian capital. Seven days after the orders to cease the advance on Leningrad, Germany captured Kiev and captured nearly half a million Soviet troops. As the German advance approached Moscow, their progress was impeded by man made trenches less than twenty miles from the Kremlin.

Overwhelmed by strong defenses, frigid temperatures, and harassment by Russian partisans behind their lines, the Germans advance was finally stopped. On December 8, 1941, Hitler ordered German forces in Russia to shift from offensive, to defensive operations. For the second time in the war, a German advance was prevented. The Soviet stand shifted the tide of the war and lead to Germany’s eventual defeat. Having drained resources, hurt morale, and diverted military force from Western Europe, the ill-advised invasion ultimately made it possible for the Allies to invade France in 1944.


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