1933-1945

1933-1945

THE WHEEL COMES FULL CIRCLE: SAVAGES VERSUS CIVILISATION

The German people accepted its new rulers with mixed feelings. The masses of destitute, unemployed working men and women, ruined shopkeepers, dismissed professional soldiers, stranded politicians and all the more sinister elements in a nation whose moral character had been seriously affected by two decades of war, inflation, dismemberment and loose of colonies and foreign property, furiously acclaimed a new leadership and new principles that seemed to promise them revenge and the upper hand. The weakness and defeats (often undeserved) of the Republic added to these a great number who had neither time nor political training enough to hold any genuine democratic convictions but were mere political driftwood always ready to throw in their lot with the winner. The Monarchists saw in this ‘national’ movement the forerunner of a restoration, and good Christians and liberals took its furiously anti-Bolshevik and pro-religious assertions at their face value. The Jews and ‘non-Aryans’ – a new classification for the offspring of gentile-Jewish marriages- were filled with misgivings, while  the Socialists and Communiists grown more numerous with the progressive radicalisation of the whole people by the propaganda and the cudgels of the Nazis, were openly antagonistic.

But Hitler, after having sworn the oath upon the Constitution, made short work of adversaries and allies alike. Engineering, or at least taking advantage of, an attempt to burn down the Reichstag, the German Parliament-house, he set at nought the verdict of a general election, abolished the Communist Party and put Communists, Socialists and other potential adversaries into his concentration camps, whence many of them never escaped alive, or if they did, emerged as mental and physical wrecks who could tell no tales.

Having thus assumed full power, Hitler sprang one surprise after the other upon the world. In October 1933 he announced at Geneva Germany’s withdrawal from a disarmament Conference that had dragged on, with no sincerity or driving force behind it, for years without any practical results, and he simultaneously served notice on the League of Nations. When Poland, ready to intervene, was snubbed by France, he concluded a non-aggression pact with her in spring 1934 and started his campaign for Danzig, the Free City at the mouth of the Vistula, set up by the Treaty of Versailles to supplement the small ‘corridor’ that had been ceded to Poland. Fortified by these successes against the Allies, who were unwilling to take risks in checking an obviously and deliberately aggressive, militarist nationalism which stood self-revealed in Hitler’s book Mein Kampf, with one fell swoop he annihilated whatever opposition he felt or foresaw at home, within and without his own all-powerful Party, by the blood-bath of 30th June 1934. Many of his most faithful comrades and lieutenants perished in front of his firing squads, amongst them the founder and leader of his Black- and Brownshirt armies, Captain Rohm, together with his predecessor, General von Schleicher with his wife, and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of victims who had incurred the suspicion or personal hostility of the Fuhrer, or of Goering, Himmler, Goebbels or others of his inner circle. no legal procedure was gone through, no judgment delivered, and no public account was ever given of that mass-murder or of the many that were to follow in a less spectacular form; Hitler himself only confessed, before his docile appointed – not elected – Reichstag, to some seventy ‘executions’ for which he took personal responsibility.

In spite of this easily won the Saar plebiscite, provided for by the Peace Treaty , in January 1935, and in March he repudiated the military clauses of that treaty by re-establishing general conscription. The policy of toleration that France had started by practically preventing anti-Nazi activity in the Saar basin was carried a step further by Britain’s conclusion of a Naval Treaty with Hitler which abolished the naval clauses of Versailles and empowered him to build a navy with a strength of 35 per cent. of that of the British fleet.

In the meantime he had gone some way towards overcoming the antipathy shown by Mussolini for his ‘cheap imitator’ and improved his relations with Italian Fascism by materially backing its invasion of Abysinia. In March 1936 he tore up the Locarno Pact, of which Italy had been a signatory and guarantor, by moving German troops into the demilitarised zone in the Rhineland, and shortly afterwards associated himself with Mussolini in activity supporting the facist revolution of General Franco in Spain; German tanks and aeroplanes fought side by side with Italian against republican Spaniards and international or Russian supporters. In his mountain retreat near Berchtesgaden Hitler concluded an agreement with Italy providing for a common policy – what was later termed the ‘Axis.’ The claim to colonies – although criticised by Hitler himself as senseless for a country that needed Lebensraum, ‘living space,’ along its own borders – began to be exploited for this nuisance value, and Czech ‘oppression’ of the three million Sudeten Germans (who had never belonged to the German Empire) was systematically denounced as an intolerable outrage and a breach of the peace treaties which Hitler had otherwise so cynically disregarded.

National Socialism, at first declared to be a matter of strictly domestic import, soon began to display remarkable activity abroad, not only bringing the numerous  German organisations all over  the world into line with the party doctrine and technique, but starting, financing and pushing. kindred or affiliated organisations in such countries as Holland, Belgium, Hungary, Roumania, Brazil, the Scandinavian countries and finally even planting Fascist groups in brown, black, blue, yellow, silver and other shirts in the body politic of most of the Great Powers. In this way, and by a necessarily increasing restriction of individual enterprise within Germany, whose whole life was devoted to rearmament, National Socialism lost such features as had seemingly distinguished it at first from Bolshevism of the Moscow brand. By wiping out hundreds of thousands of ‘superfluous’ artisans and small traders and forcing them into factories, more and more of which were owned by the government or its uncontrolled equivalent, the Party, and by militarising the people, beginning with the children in their earliest years, going on through their school period and their enforced Labour Service, and ending  with their enlistment in the Army, Navy and Air Force, to which they belonged until the age of fifty-five, the Nazis turned a nation of sixty-seven millions into one huge war machine.

Among Hitler’s lieutenants, Hermann Goering, a dismissed Captain of the 1918 Air Force, whom he made a General and later Field-Marshal, seemed the outstanding figure. He directed the Air Force and was dictator of the whole industrial and economic life of the country. Dr. Joseph Goebbels tried as  Minister of Propaganda to out do Machiavelli in unscrupulously exploiting everybody and everything, true or false, for the benefit of the Nazi cause. Joachim von Ribbentrop, a former wine merchant and a good linguist, advised the Fuhrer on foreign politics and was responsible for some of his worst blunders, including the breach with Britain which Hitler, according to his Gospel, wanted to avoid at all costs. Heinrich Himmler was chief of the dreaded ‘Gestapo,’ the secret police that ruled over the life and death of every German and, without trial or appeal, inflicted penalties which ranged from rough handling, beat-up and torture in concentration camps to the firing squad and confiscation of property. Rudolf Hess was the personal A.D.C. of the Dictator, his lieutenant in all Party matters and potential successor. There was a host of other leading figures among the camerilla around Hitler, for the whole Nazi system was built upon the ‘leadership principle,’ giving supreme power over a larger or smaller body of menor sphere of activity to a single nominated, never elected, person. While apparently fixing responsibility, that system made it impossible to hold anybody in particular accountable for what happened: every appointed ‘leader’ had a superior, all of them depended on the supreme head of the State, the source of all legislation and initiative, the Dictator responsible only to himself.

Even responsibility before God was no more. For National Socialism had eliminated the spiritual influence of all the Churches together with most of the rights and privileges of the clergy. While the practice of religion was still tolerated to a greater or less extent, according to the degree of subservience shown by the denomination in question, the racial creed of Hitlerism was essentially a tribal superstition mixed with remnants of the old Teutonic heathen cult. Christianity was branded as oriental non-Aryan, unheroic – as an essentially Jewish ethical system. All science – in so far as there were any qualified teachers left after the expulsion of all non-Nazi, ‘tainted’ scholars and teachers – was directed towards proving or stengthening the German claim to world-domination in virtue of innate Nordic, Teutonic superiority. With that mentality ruling in the largest central-European country; with the Prussian military tradition. and the old Teutonic brutality deliberately reawakened; with the mysticism of a maniac who revelled in the adulation, sincere or simulated of a nation and consented to be addressed as the ‘Jesus Christ of the Germans,’ with the Western Powers, misguided by his anti-Bolshevist slogans and his freely given and as readily broken pledges of peace and friendship, looking impotently on – small wonder that Hitler only waited until his rearmament had reached a certain point to start on his career of conquest.

His first victim, on 12th March, 1938, was Austria. This Germanic republic, forbidden to join with Weimar Germany, had had a checkered career marked by ever-renewed financial difficulties, temporarily relieved by the League of Nations, and political strife between Socialists and equally strong Catholics. On 25th July, 1934, the shadow of National Socialism had fallen heavily upon Austria for the first time when her clerico-Facist Chancellor, Dr. Dollfusss, was assassinated by Hitlerites and a Putsch engineered from Germany was prevented at the last minute by Mussolini’s menacing attitude. Now Dollfuss’s successor, Kurt von Schuschnigg, who dared to reject an ultimatum by Hitler, was imprisoned without trial, pogroms were held and Socialists, Monarchists, Catholics and Jews were manhandled, killed, driven to suicide, interned in concentration camps or expatriated with the utmost ruthlessness after German troops had overwhelmed an unresisting country, seat of the oldest and most refined culture in the German-speaking world. But this was only a prelude to a whole series of military operations following each other with clockwork precision according to plans which had mapped out the conquest of Europe and the world long before and which had been treated abroad as a chimera emanating from the brain of the Nazi high priest Alfred Rosenberg, a Balt who, like Hitler, Hess, the agricultural leader Darre and many others, could not even claim to be a German in the proper sense of the word.

The next victim was Czechoslovakia, the prosperous, sincerely democratic republic protected by the Sudetan mountain range. Revolts by the Sudetan Germans, led by Hitler’s deputy Konrad Henlein, were followed by sham negotiations about civil rights to be granted to them within the republic; then at Munich, on 30th September, 1938, by threats of war and after negotiations with the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, and later with him, his French colleague Daladier and Mussolini together, Hitler obtained the cession of the whole German-speaking area. Finally, breaking up the now defenceless country and tearing up the Munich agreement, he marched into the Slavonic parts, took Prague without a shot on March, 1939, and turned the country into a German Protectorate plus a small dependent Slovakian Republic, large parts of whose territory were ceded as a bribe to Hungary

Poland was to follow in spite of the treaty of 1934. But this time the Western Powers were awake to the danger and when, on 1st September, 1939, Hitler’s motorised armies and air force, on a flimsy pretext, invaded Poland, they declared was in a belated attempt to fulfil the pledges they had given to the countries menaced by German aggression. Danzig, in practice long a Nazi domain, was one of the pretexts; the reason was that Germany wanted Poland’s vital artery, the Corridor. An agreement with Soviet Russia, Hitler’s ‘arch-enemy,’ concluded between Ribbentrop and his Russian counterpart Molotov on 26th August, 1939, and sprung as a surprise upon the world, had made Germany safe from an attack in the east. The price she had to pay was enormous, for it included the abandonment of all plans for a ‘living space’ in the fertile Ukraine, the withdrawal from the Baltic countries of everything the Germans had built up there since the days of the Teutonic Order and the Hansa, and the admission of Russian rights of interference in the Balkans. It included a new partition of Poland, completely routed when, after a fortnight’s fierce fighting, Russian armies suddenly invaded her from the east. It included the occupation by Stalin of strategic positions in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and his subsequent annexation of those countries, and the faithless abandonment of Finland, the Nordic State which German armies had helped to create and to liberate from Russian domination, to a ruthless armed attack and a subsequent mutilation.

Like the tribal chiefs of two thousand years ago, Hitler had but one interest: self-interest; but one faith: in human stupidity and in the efficacy of lying, treachery and bluff, supplemented where necessary by brute force. As the new Great War showed, he had successfully trained the youth of his country for that task, efficiently set its whole gigantic industrial machinery to the same work, and astutely relied upon the unbelievable nature of his original claims to over-reach the old fashioned statesmen of the surrounding world who clung to some sort of rules of the game.When, during Easter week in March 1940, he suddenly seized Denmark and invaded Norway with the help of traitors and spies, he had already given up all pretence. He had, if possible, still less of an excuse when he crashed through neutral Holland and Belgium two months later in order to defeat the defensive strategy of the French, which relied on the strength of the Maginot Line. He was successful, by dint of using methods of warfare of a ruthlessness without parallel in history: mowing down civilian fugitives, destroying whole towns and villages by aerial attacks on a vast scale, and using his tanks as well as parachutists and soldiers in every sort of disguise to destroy the morale of the hinterland, to play havoc with the system of communications and to cut off supplies.

After breaking through at the crucial point, the end of the Maginot Line proper near Sedan, his armies overcame French resistance within a few weeks; on 14th June Paris surrendered. There are heroic pages even in the history of that disaster, one of the most brilliant being the British retreat from the bombed and shelled beach of Dunkirk on 4th June. Then a furious onslaught on Britain by air was frustrated; Italy’s participation in Hitler’s gigantic marauding raid was punished by the destruction of her East African Empire where forces of the British Dominions and contingents of Free French, Belgian and other peoples fighting for their freedom covered themselves with glory. But the spring of 1941 brought a Nazi drive in a new direction. After swallowing Roumania, Hungary and Bulgaria by stealth and bribery, Hitler felled Yugoslavia and Greece in a well-prepared ‘blitz’ campaign against which, too late, these countries had called for British help. Heroic resistance was made against Germany, both in Greece and in Crete; and a revolt fostered by Nazi in treaty-bound Irak was quashed; the menace to a main artery of the British commonwealth, the Suez Canal and the road to India, developed from two sides. America’s taking sides with Britain began to madden Hitler’s pace; 22nd June he turned against Russia in an all-out effort to win that ‘living space’ of which he had dreamed. He thereby sealed Germany’s doom, welding together, irrespective of their ideological differences, the greatest land power, russia, the greatest sea power, Britain, and finally, when on 7th December Japan struck, without warning, at Pearl Harbour, the United States of America.

All that followed was, from an historical angle, merely incidental: the ups and downs of a furious U-boat war; a German comeback in Africa, after a brilliant campaign by Wavell had driven the German-Italan forces far back from the Egyptian border; the initial heavy losses in land and fighting power suffered by the United Nations in the Far East; the dearly bought Nazi advance to the very doors of Moscow and Leningrad and, after a terrible winter campaign ordered by Hitler against the advice of his generals, to the lower Volga and the Caucasus oilfields in 1942, across Russia’s ‘scorched earth.’ neither the mobilisation of men, women and children, nor new or scientifically perfected weapons, nor the most ruthless exploitation of conquered countries could prevail against the man-power resources and the ever-increasing stream of aircraft, ships, and other armament of the Allies; and when, on 8th November, 1942, a huge Anglo-American fleet landed in North Africa, when Montgomery’s army drove Hitler’s favourite general, Rommel, from El Alamein back to Tunisia, when, finally, two huge German armies – more than the total of Napoleon’s ‘Grande Armee’ of 1812 – were lost nearly simultaneously at Stalingrad and at Tunis, any but a maniac would have seen, and taken to heart, the writing on the wall.

The dreaded second front, nightmare of all German strategists from Clausewitz to Ludendorff, matured with the landings in Sicily and, subsequently, on the Italian mainland; while the submarine war turned against its originators, by an ever more perfect system of sea and air escort, combined British and American bomber forces started a devastating air assault on Germany and her war industries themselves. Confident of their ultimate victory, the allies, at meetings, first at Casablanca between Churchill and Roosevelt, then between both and Stalin at Teheran in December 1943, were justified in laying down the terms under which alone Hitler’s frivolous assault upon the world could be ended: unconditional surrender, complete abolition of all possibility of Germany’s resurrection as a military power. Russian armies in the East, General Alexander’s Allied forces in Italy drove on, all through the spring of 1944, and on 6th June Hitler’s famous ‘unbreachable’ Atlantic Wall was assaulted, and pierced, on the Normandy beaches, when the creation of a third front sounded the death-knell for the German Wehrmacht and the Nazi regime. Within eight weeksthe Allied Supreme Commander, U.S.A. General Eisenhower – of German descent – had more than 1,600,000 American, British, Candian, Free French, Polish and other brilliantly trained and equipped soldiers on continental soil, landed by way of special craft, men-of-war, merchant vessels in a huge, ingeniously contrived artificial harbour, or by air from planes, parachutes and gliders. The last fearful chapter of the Second World War had begun.

In vain Hitler ‘retaliated’ with his new terror weapons, V-bombs and long-range rockets indiscriminately dropped on London and south-eastern England. As under the fearful incendiary and high-explosive raids he had carried out night after night through nine months during 1940 to 1941 and, with interruptions, all through the war, a hardy population stood up to this last ordeal with undaunted courage and resolution, paralleled only by the persistent heroism of the underground fighters against Nazi oppression which everywhere in France, Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, Poland, and Greece, ultimately proved one of the most powerful weapons against Hitler’s (belated) claim to having unified, and to having represented Europe. His allies and puppets, under the hammer-blows of the Allies, deserted him one after the other: Italy first, though, after a dramatic coup by which he snatched Mussolini from Allied captivity, a fake republic under the disgraced Duce was staged by the Nazis in the north of the country. Then, 20th July, 1944, an abortive attempt on Hitler’s life, the result of a widespread plot organized by high German officers and officials bent upon ending the war before the utter destruction of the country’s economic and organised life, tore wide open the rift between fanatical Nazis and a misguided German population which had for centuries been miseducated. Only a reign of naked terror created by Heinrich Himmler, Hitler’s minister of the Interior, head of the Gestapo and the concentration camps, of the S.S. forces and, finally, practically chief of all the German armed forces, could extract the last ounce of strength, the last fearful sacrifices from an exhausted nation, driven back, after having conquered the better part of the Continent and having roamed the seas and the air into its own frontiers.

With huge Russian armies sweeping on through Poland, Roumania, and Hungary, and with British and American armies, after liberating Rome, Paris, and Brussels, assaulting the famous ‘Siegefried ‘line’ in the second half of 1944, the end was inevitable. A last counter-offensive by Field Marshal von Rundstedt, senior commander of the German armies, in the Ardennes, Christmas 1944, ended with irretrievable German losses; and while American, British, Canadian, and French armies penetrated deep into the battered towns, industrial areas and fertile plains of western Germany, Russian forces under Marshals Zhukov and Koniev encircled, and, in the first week of May 1945, finally conquered Berlin.

Under the ruins of his boastful buildings, allegedly gone raving mad, Hitler himself vanished and his henchmen, one after another, committed suicide to avoid the fate of war criminals, torturers, and mass muderers. In an anticlimax unparalleled in history they left the German people, poisoned by their techings as to its role and rights as a ‘Master Race,’ to foot the bill; while Britain, who for over a year had withstood alone Hitler’s terrible onslaught, scarred and grim, and backed by the hope and the prayers of all downtrodden peoples, stands with her Allies victorious upon the desecrated soil of the Fatherland. She, as against the perversion of the Nazi gospel, stood as champion of those ideals which the best man through the ages have upheld even at the cost of their lives, but for which the Nazis and their followers, having shed the thin veneer of civilisation given to their nation by their Goethes and Kants, their Beethovens and Mozarts, their Durers and Holbeins, had nothing but contempt.