Read this article to learn about the beginning of the second world war!
On 23 August 1939, the Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact was signed. The stage was now set for the invasion of Poland.
Hitler was convinced that the Western powers would acquiesce in the aggression.
He had told his commanders, “Our opponents are little worms. I saw them in Munich”. On 1 September 1939, Hitler’s armies invaded Poland.
On 3 September 1939, Britain and France declared war on Germany. Poland, completely unaided by Britain and France in spite of the declaration of war, was defeated in about three weeks’ time. Britain and France neither directly came to the aid of Poland nor launched any military operation against Germany in the West.
The Second World War had begun but it was confined to a small part of Europe in the east. For about seven months after the declaration of war, there was no active war between Britain and France, and Germany, except for a few minor naval clashes. This period in the history of the Second World War is known as the ‘phoney war’.
Soviets Occupy Eastern Poland and Baltic States:
A few days after the German invasion of Poland, the Soviet Union occupied the eastern part of Poland comprising the territories which had earlier been part of the Russian empire’s Ukraine and Byelorussia provinces.
These territories were merged with the Ukrainian and Byelorussian republics of the Soviet Union. The occupation of these territories was justified by the Soviet Union on the ground that they had been seized from her by Poland after the First World War and that the advance of Germany in Poland threatened her security.
Most historians are of the opinion that the Soviet occupation of the eastern parts of Poland was part of the German-Soviet plan to partition Poland between them. In November 1939, war broke out between the Soviet Union and Finland. It ended in March 1940 with the signing of the
Soviet-Finnish peace treaty. According to this treaty, the Soviet Union gained a naval base in the north of Finland, and the two countries decided not to join any other country hostile to either of them. During this period, the Soviet Union had established her military bases in the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, which had been part of the Russian empire and had become independent after the First World War. By August 1940, Soviet Republics had been set up in these countries and they had become part of the Soviet Union.
Conquest of Denmark and Norway:
In early April 1940, the British Prime Minister, Chamberlain, had declared that “Hitler had missed the bus” because he had failed to launch an attack on the West when the West was not prepared for it. He was to be proved wrong a few days later and to lose his Prime Minister ship after a month. Sweden was a major supplier of iron ore to Germany, and the occupation of Norway was important for Germany to protect the supplies from Sweden.
In the meantime, a fascist movement had arisen in Norway and its leader, Vidkun Quisling, was in touch with Germany to facilitate her conquest of Norway. On 9 April 1940, Germany launched an invasion of Denmark and Norway.
Denmark surrendered without any fight, and by early June, Norway was defeated, with the active support of Norwegian fascists. The British and French forces sent to the aid of Norway had left Norway even earlier. With the conquest of Denmark and Norway, Germany acquired important air and naval bases in northern Europe.
Capitulation of Belgium, the Netherlands and France:
On 10 May 1940, Germany invaded the Netherlands (Holland), Belgium, Luxemburg and France. Within a few hours Luxemburg surrendered and the Netherlands, surrendered within five days of the attach. The Belgian King ordered the surrender of his troops on 28 May, seventeen days after the invasion.
The ‘phoney war’ had come to an end. On 26 May, evacuation of about 350,000 British, French and Belgian troops (the Belgian troops being those who had refused to surrender) who had retreated to Dunkirk, began, and by 4 June they were transported to Britain.
They left behind at Dunkirk all their heavy equipment. In the meantime, there had been political changes in Britain and France. On 10 May, Chamberlain had resigned and was replaced by Winston Churchill as the prime minister of a coalition government, with the Labour Party’s Clement Attlee as the deputy prime minister.
In March 1940, the French Prime Minister Daladier had been ousted. He was replaced by Paul Reynaud. Most of the French cabinet at this time comprised ‘defeatists’, that is, those who wanted to surrender to Germany.
On 9 June, the French government left Paris which, on 14 June, was occupied by German troops. Now the head of the French government was Marshal Henri Philippe Petain, who appealed to Germany for peace. So far, Italy had kept herself aloof.
Now that the defeat of France as well as of Britain seemed imminent, she entered the war on 10 June on the side of Germany. On 22 June, Petain’s government signed an agreement according to which Alsace- Lorraine was annexed by Germany, northern France was occupied by the German troops and Petain’s government was allowed to retain control of about half of France.
Petain’s puppet government, which moved to Vichy, was also allowed to retain control of the French colonies, and collaborated with the Nazis. Charles de Gaulle, who had been a colonel in the French army at the time of the German invasion of France, had escaped to Britain after the surrender by the French government.
Under the leadership of de Gaulle (who was given the title of General de Gaulle), the Free France movement was started and a French army was organised in Britain to fight against Nazi Germany. That part of France which was ruled over by Petain’s government and collaborated with the Nazis is known as Vichy France.
The Battle of Britain:
After having conquered about the whole of Western Europe, Germany now planned the invasion of Britain. This plan was given the code name of ‘Sea-Lion’. The invasion of Britain was possible only if Germany could gain control over the English Channel which the German armies would have to cross to reach Britain.
This required the British air force and navy to be made ineffective for preventing the crossing of the Channel. German bombers and fighters started the bombing of British ports, airfields and aircraft factories. There were dogfights between the aircrafts of the two countries over the Channel and over the ports and cities of Britain. The German air force suffered heavier losses than the British air force.
Because of the stiff resistance by the British air force, Germany started raiding Britain’s big cities, particularly London, at night in the hope of destroying the morale of the people. Britain, in return, conducted air raids on Germany. This aerial battle between Britain and Germany is known as the Battle of Britain.
In order to keep the moral of the British people high, the British Prime Minister broadcast a number of speeches. Some of these speeches are among the most famous examples of oratory in the world. Offering his countrymen nothing but “blood, toil, tears and sweat”, in one of his speeches, he said,
Even though many old and famous states have fallen, or may fall, into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall go on to the end; we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing strength and confidence in the air, we shall defend our island whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.
The British were also able to save their airfields from any serious damages and increased the production of aircraft, so that the losses in the Battle of Britain were more than made up for. As a result of the British resistance, operation ‘Sea-Lion’ was indefinitely put off and, by November 1940, the German air raids on London had more or less ceased.
Other Theatres of War:
In the meantime, the war had spread to some other parts of Europe and to Africa. On 27 September 1940, Germany, Italy and Japan signed a Tripartite Pact. According to this Pact, each country pledged to give full support to the others in the event of an attack by any other power.
Germany and Italy recognised Japans claims to create what was called the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, which implied that both Germany and Italy will not object to any of the Japanese conquests of China, Manchuria and of the entire East and South- East Asia. Japan, in turn, recognised German and Italian supremacy over Europe.
In October 1940, Italy invaded Greece but she faced stiff resistance and appealed to Germany for help. Between November 1940 and March 1941, Germany got Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and Bulgaria to join the Tripartite Pact and sent her troops to these countries. These countries thus became the allies of Germany, Italy and Japan.
By this time, Hitler had decided to invade Soviet Union. The sending of German troops to these countries was part of the preparation for the invasion of the Soviet Union. In April, the German troops were sent to Yugoslavia and Greece, which had repelled the Italian invasion, and these countries were subjugated. By June 1941, Germany and Italy had conquered all of Europe, except Britain and the Soviet Union.
In the meantime, Italy had invaded British Somaliland and Sudan and had started advancing towards Egypt. However, by December 1940, the British succeeded in not only recovering all their colonies in Africa which Italy had taken, but also in driving the Italian troops out of the African, with the exception of Libya. In February 1941, German troops were sent to Libya, and Germany and Italy launched another drive against the British in Africa. The war in Africa, between these European powers continues for two years.
German Invasion of the Soviet Union:
We have already discussed Hitler’s hatred of communism and the Soviet Union, the Western countries’ appeasement of Hitler, the Soviet Union’s efforts to build a coalition to check fascist aggression, and the signing of the Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact.
Hitler had always held the view that the ‘real’ war to be waged by him would be against the Soviet Union. The conquest of the Soviet Union with her vast resources would, he believed, make Germany ‘invulnerable’ and give her the power to “wage wars against whole continents”.
The objective of the conquest of the Soviet Union was also very different from the objective of Germany’s other military campaigns. This was to be a total war of extermination, and not only of communism. Hitler dreamed of settling 100 million people of pure Aryan blood’—Germans—in the territories west of the Urals and as so many Germans did not exist, the privilege was to be extended to others—the North Europeans, the Dutch and the English—who were considered “racially approximate to Germans”. During the war, he described the new ‘civilisation’ that he planned to build up in this area in the following words:
The area must lose the character of the Asian steppe. It must be Europeanized… The ‘Reich peasant’ (the German peasant) is to live in outstandingly beautiful settlements. The German agencies and authorities are to have wonderful buildings, the governor’s palaces.
Around each city, a ring of lovely villages will be placed to within 30 or 40 kilometres … the German cities will be placed, like pearls on a string, and around the cities the settlements will lay. For we will not open Lebensraum (the term used by the Nazis for the territory of other countries which they considered necessary for Germany’s national existence) for ourselves by entering the old, godforsaken Russian holes! The German settlements must be on an altogether higher level.
The extermination of the Jews and the enslavement of the Slavs were integral parts of this plan. The planning of the invasion of the Soviet Union had started in early 1940. It was given the code name of “Operation Barbarossa”. Hitler had a low opinion of the Red Army, as the Soviet Union’s army was called, and called it “no more than a joke”.
According to the plan, the Soviet Union was to be defeated within nine weeks or, at the most, in seventeen weeks. As it turned out, the invasion led to the destruction of the Nazi regime and of Hitler himself. After the German invasion had started, the Soviet government justified the Soviet-German Pact on the ground that it had given the Soviet Union “peace for a year and a half and the opportunity of preparing our forces” to meet the Nazi aggression.
Thus, it was tactics to gain time. When the invasion took place, the Soviet Union was taken totally unaware and suffered terrible reverses and devastation. Some Soviet writers are of the opinion that the Soviet Union did not have much time to prepare against the aggression.
However, most historians blame it on Stalin and are of the view that Stalin had put too much trust in the Non-Aggression Pact and had come to believe that Germany would remain involved in a war exclusively with Western imperialist countries.
It is important to note in this context that since the outbreak of the war, Stalin had imposed a ban on the publication of anti-Nazi and anti-German views in the Soviet Union. Until the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the Second World War was presented exclusively as an inter-imperialist war—not a war launched by aggressive fascist powers.
The Non-Aggression Pact and the Soviet invasion of Poland and occupation of Baltic States had been a major setback to the popularity of the Soviet Union and the communist parties the world over. The German invasion began on 22 June 1941 without a formal declaration of war. The German tanks, supported by air attacks, rapidly advanced into the Soviet Union along a front which stretched over more than 3,000 km towards Leningrad, Moscow and Kiev.
The Soviet forces steadily retreated, and the German forces occupied Kiev, Smolensk and Odessa. Germany had hoped to end the war with the Soviet Union before the onset of winter. In early October, Moscow was besieged. By then, however, it was too late.
Soon, the Russian winter started. By the middle of November, the assault on Moscow’ had been halted. By the end of November, the temperature had fallen to – 40° C rendering much of the German heavy equipment useless.
The German soldiers were not sufficiently clothed to withstand the winter. In December the Soviet counter-attack started, and by January the German forces were driven back from Moscow. “Operation Barbarossa” had failed but the total rout was to come later. In the meantime, many other significant developments had taken place in the world.