In the aftermath of World War II, there was debate about how to hold accountable those responsible for war crimes and especially the Holocaust. Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler and Joseph Goebbels were already dead by suicide. Churchill had the simplest approach of wanting to simply execute them but it was decided that tribunal would be a better method. The tribunal would reveal to the world the extent of the crimes upon humanity the persons were responsible for.
The concept of an international tribunal was novel and had never been done before. Then again, no nation had before committed to full scale extermination of whole peoples as the Nazi’s had tried to do. An international tribunal composed of representatives from Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States was formed. Defendants faced charges that varied from war crimes to crimes against humanity. Twenty- four were indicted along with six Nazi organizations such as the Gestapo that were also determined to be criminal. One was declared medically unfit to stand trial and another committed suicide before the trial began.
Each defendant was allowed to choose their own lawyers. They all pled not guilty and either argued that the crimes they committed were declared crimes after the London Charter (meaning ex post facto) or that they were applying harsh standards as they were the victors. The trials would last under October 1946 when verdicts were handed down. Twelve were sentenced to death and others got prison terms. Hermann Goering committed suicide the night before he was to be executed.
On 15 November 1943, Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler made public an order that Roma (also called Romani) people were to be treated the same as Jews and sent to concentration camps. When the Nazi’s came to power in 1933, they focused on German Jews. The Nuremberg Laws of 14 November 1935 did not mention Roma. At the time there were an estimated 26,000 Roma in Germany.
A month later though they were defined as aliens and enemies of the people. The result of this was to put Roma into special camps starting in 1936 and to classify them under Nazi racial policies. Roma fell into two broad categories: inferior and asocial. Some Roma had Aryan blood while others had mixed blood under these doctrines.
Like Jews they were stripped of their citizenship. Until the deportation to concentration camps, they were kept in municipal internment camps usually outside of cities. Disagreement within the Nazi’s on how to deal with Roma was an issue. Some wanted deportation of all Roma to concentration camps. Himmler wanted to keep those with Aryan blood. However he decided in 1943 to begin deportations of Roma to concentration camps like Dachau and Auschwitz where they would be killed.
There are differing numbers on how many Roma were killed by Nazi Germany (and its puppet states or allies). It is believed to be between 220,000-277,000 of the approximate 700,000 Roman in Europe. The US Holocaust Memorial Center believes it between 220,000-500,000. Like the Jews, Roma were subjected to medical experimentation such as by the notorious Dr. Josef Mengele of Auschwitz. Those experiments included putting people in pressure chambers, freezing them, changing eye color, and other brutal surgeries.
Sadly the persecution of the Roma was not recognized after the war ended. However as it became more widely known, recognition has started being made and comparing the Roma Genocide to the Shoah experienced by the Jews. In 1982 West Germany officially recognized it but prior to that memorial had been erected in the Polish village Szczurowa to commemorating the massacre that took place there. A Gypsy Caravan Memorial also travels between the main remembrance sights in Poland as well. In 2007 Romanian President Traian Basescu publicly apologized for his nations role in the Roma Genocide. He also ordered it be taught in schools as well. Other commemorations have taken place as well.
On November 9-10 1938, a violent wave of anti-Jewish pograms broke out in Germany, Austria and Sudetanland. Called Kristallnacht (means literally Night of Crystal but commonly called Night of Broken Glass) violent mobs destroyed synagogues, looted Jewish owned businesses, homes and schools, and arrested 30,000 Jewish men who were sent to concentration camps. Police and fire were ordered to stand down and only act to prevent damage to German buildings. Nearly all the Jewish synagogues were torched, except those close to historical sites or buildings.
Thanks to the presence of foreign reporters in Germany at the time, this event became known to the world changing perceptions about the Nazi regime.
Nazi officials depicted the event as a genuine response of the people to the assassination of German diplomat Ernst vom Rath in Paris by Herschel Grynszpan on 7 Nov 1938, Grynszpan, a 17-year old boy, was distraught over his family’s deportation from Germany to Poland. Vom Rath’s death two days later coincided with the anniversary of the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch. The Nazi Party leadership assembled in Munich used the occasion to push for demonstrations against the Jews arguing that “World Jewry” had conspired to commit the assassination. However, Hitler ordered that the demonstrations should not look they were prepared or organized by the Nazis’. They had to look spontaneous. Propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels was the chief instigator following Hitler’s orders in his speech to the assembled party officials.
The regional Nazi party leaders issued instructions to their local offices about how to proceed. Reinhard Heydrich, as head of the Security Police, send instructions to headquarters and stations of the State Police and SA leaders about the upcoming riots. The SA, Hitler Youth and others were ordered to wear civilian clothes so it would like genuine public reaction. Heydrich ordered the rioters to not endanger non-Jewish German life or property. The rioters were also ordered to remove all synagogue archives prior to vandalizing and destroying them. Police were ordered to arrest as many young Jewish men their jails would hold.
Violence began to erupt in the late evening of 9 November and in the early morning hours of 10 November. The two largest Jewish communities, Berlin and Vienna, would see massive destruction. Mobs of SA and Hitler Youth shattered store windows. They attacked Jews in their homes and looted. They publicly humiliated Jews in the streets. Many Jews were killed as well though numbers vary but likely in the hundreds. Jewish cemeteries were desecrated. Those who were arrested by the SS and Gestapo ended up in Buchenwald, Dachau and Sachsenhausen and other camps as well. Many would die in the camps and many who were released had promised to leave Germany. Kristallnacht would spur Jews to emigrate from Germany.
German leaders blamed Jews for the riots and fined the Jewish community one billion Reich Marks. To pay the fine, Germany seized property and insurance money. This left Jewish owners personally responsible for repair costs. Kristallnacht accelerated more laws and decrees to deprive Jews of the property and their ability to make a living. The Aryanization of businesses required many Jewish owned businesses and property to be transferred to non-Jews. Usually they got paid a fraction of the true value of the business or property. By this time, Jews could not be government workers or in any aspect of the public sector. Now many professions in the private sector were unavailable as well (doctors, lawyers, accountants etc.). Jews were no longer allowed to have a driver’s license, expelled from any German school they were still attending, be admitted to German theaters (movies and stage) or concert halls.
Kristallnacht was covered by newspapers in the United State and elsewhere. It was front page news in the United States in large banner headlines and perhaps the largest story of Jewish persecution to be reported during the Nazi years. Despite attempts by German censors to prevent images from getting to newspapers in the United States, pictures got out and got printed in the 28 November 1938 issue of Life magazine. A telling heading published on the front page of the Los Angeles Examiner says it all:
Nazis Warn World Jews Will Be Wiped Out Unless Evacuated By Democracies (23 Nov 1938)
President Roosevelt denounced the attack on Jews at a press conference on 15 November 1938 and recalled the US ambassador to Germany (the US was the only one to do this) and not replaced till 1945. A chargé d’affaires would handle diplomatic relations with Germany until war was declared in 1941. The US and other countries had restrictive immigration quotas in place at the time. However, 12,000 German Jews already in the United States were allowed to stay and not be sent back to Germany. Attempts to allow refuge for children under 14 were introduced in Congress but despite widespread support did not get voted into law.
Kristallnacht is rightly seen as the turning point in Nazi policy and world-wide opinion of the regime. The Nazi’s began concentrating their pogroms into the hands of the SS and more restrictive policies on the Jews. They radicalized and expanded the measures to remove Jews from the economic and social life of Germany. It would lead to policies of forced emigration and deportations to the East and the goal of Judenrein-a Germany free of Jews.
Totalitarian regimes are known for many things but one of the first things they will do is control or limit access to information. The Soviet Union did this by taking total control of the media in Russia. All newspapers and publications had to conform to state guidelines and could only report what they were authorized to print. When the Nazi Party got control of Germany in 1933, they quickly instituted sweeping changes. Eliminating political opposition was a top priority as was controlling the information German citizens received on a daily or weekly basis.
The Reich Ministry of Propaganda began using print, radio, and newsreels to convince people about a Communist uprising. They had won seats in the last general election in 1932 (and the Nazi’s lost seats). It was this fear that Hitler used to create the votes needed for a majority to bring the Nazi’s to power in 1933. Thus, it would justify what would happen next. Having both legislative and executive powers thanks to the Enabling Act, Hitler could quickly create and implement new laws and regulations. Also having both the SA (Brown Shirts) and the SS on their side meant they had a ready-made method of dealing with opponents and dissidents.
Opponents such as Communists, trade unionists and others found their stores, offices, and homes targeted. With the police having been nullified due to mass firings and replaced by Nazi Party members, the former street thugs were now the law in Germany. Opposition press were specifically targeted with their printing presses destroyed. Independent newspapers found they were also targeted. The faced competition from the Nazi publishing house Franz Eher or a front for them that undercut with their own newspapers driving the independent into bankruptcy.
Franz Eher then would buy them up for almost nothing. Jewish owned media would be targeted as well. Its owners would be forced out and replaced by non-Jews. Ultimately, they would sell out at a very low price. The Mosse family, whose company was a world-wide advertising company that owned many liberal newspapers, fled Germany when Hitler came to power as did many of its journalists.
The only independent newspapers that would survive were ones owned by conservatives and non-political weeklies. They simply self-censored and complied with directives issued by the Propaganda Ministry. Nazi Germany tightened the screws with Editors Law of 4 Oct 1933. The Reich Association of German Press was put under the Reich Press Chamber, a part of the Propaganda Ministry. Members which were both journalists and editors, not only had to be racially pure but also abide by all mandates issued by the ministry.
They were required by law to not report anything that would weaken the Reich at home or abroad. Detailed guidelines were issued and failure to follow them meant, at the very least, you would be fired. If they believed you were acting contrary to Germany, you would be arrested and may end up in a concentration camp. Even listening to a foreign radio broadcasting classical music would get a visit from the Gestapo.
Under these conditions, there was no way for independent journalism to exist under Nazi rule.
Foreign Press in Nazi Party
The Nazi regime tolerated the foreign press but had conditions. If you wanted access to events and government officials, you had to be careful not to write news critical of Hitler and Third Reich. Otherwise you would be denied access, or expelled. So many journalists learned to live with this and allowed others back home to write pieces criticizing the regime. Generally, though they did not impose a lot of restrictions before war started in 1939 The Associated Press has been accused of going much further and collaborated with the regime by allowing them to select what pictures were to be used, and they used photographers acceptable to the Propaganda Ministry.
William Shirer was one the best-known correspondents from Germany during the 1930’s. He started in print and then later CBS radio. He witnessed and reported on many of the key events during this period. Once war began though, restrictions were placed on reporters on what they could report on (such as the British bombing of German cities). They were guidelines issued as what words to avoid when describing Germany, and you had to avoid news critical of the regime. To be fair, nearly all countries imposed media censorship during this time so Germany was not alone.
Shirer and other reporters usually submitted their written or recorded pieces to the Propaganda Ministry for approval. They would edit out anything that did not conform with policy before it could be sent out or broadcast from Germany. Which is what made what happened at the French surrender at Compiègne in 1940 so remarkable. William Shirer called up CBS in New York hoping the broadcast would go through. Now in Berlin the German engineers heard the call and assumed he had permission from the Propaganda Ministry and put it on shortwave. It was a coup for both Shirer and CBS. For six hours he was the sole reporter on the scene reporting to the world about the French surrender. Normally it would be recorded and then checked for errors by the Propaganda Ministry, where they could edit out anything they did not want to go out. Then it would be broadcast via shortwave to the world.
Germany during wartime wanted foreign journalists to often report official accounts they knew were incomplete or false. Shirer got wind he was under investigation for espionage and left Germany in December 1940. Most news organizations would leave as well except for the Associated Press which stayed until all foreign news organizations were expelled in 1941. That left the Propaganda Ministry in total control of reporting to the world news from Germany and countries they occupied.
Nazi Germany showed how a free press could be destroyed and turned into a vehicle for government policies. In many ways, they mimicked what the Soviet Union did. The free press was shut down and could only report what the government permitted. Both Communists and Fascists followed the same path towards controlling information when they are in charge. Neither believes in freedom, a free press, or individual liberties. They crush opponents ruthlessly, destroy all personal liberties, and attempt to control all aspects of their lives. We see that today with certain countries that restrict access to the Internet. And sadly, some Internet companies, in order to do business, agree to controls over the information access. We have yet to learn that aiding regimes in this manner only helps and emboldens them.
On 2 October 1944 the Warsaw Uprising came to an end with the surrender of surviving Polish rebels to German forces. The uprising began two months earlier when the Red Army was approaching Warsaw. The rebels supported the Polish government-in-exile and hoped to gain control of the city before the Soviets arrived. They did not want the Russians to gain the city and establish a communist regime in Poland.
While the rebels had initial gains, they were poorly supplied. Hitler sent reinforcements and the rebels and German soldiers engaged in brutal street fights. The Red Army did take a suburb of Warsaw but proceeded no further. Stalin ordered the Red Army not to assist the rebels and denied a request to use their airbases to supply the rebels. This would be remembered down the road by the Polish people. Both Churchill and Roosevelt asked for his assistance. Churchill, without Soviet approval, had supplies dropped by the RAF, the South African Air Force, and the Polish Air Force. Stalin finally relented and gave air clearance for the U.S. Army Air Force to make supply drops. However, it was too late by the time the supplies came.
Out of arms, supplies and food, there was no choice. After 63 days, they had no choice but to surrender. In retaliation for this uprising, the remaining population of Warsaw was deported. The Polish people were always meant to be eradicated as were the Jews. Plans had been drawn up before the war to turn Poland into a German colony. Warsaw was to be Germanized. Once the remaining population was deported, German destruction of Warsaw was sped up. They had started after the earlier Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Using flamethrowers and explosives, special teams went to work destroying whole neighborhoods, historical monuments, archives, and any place of interest.
By January 1945, 85% of the buildings in Warsaw were gone. Approximately 25% was done during the Warsaw Uprising. The losses are staggering to consider:
923 historical buildings (94% of these were destroyed)
14 libraries which includes the National Library
64 high schools
The University of Warsaw and Warsaw University of Technology
Of course, prior to this all Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues were seized, looted and destroyed as well.
The Soviets took the position that the rebels did not coordinate their plans with them. Of course, the chief reason they did not aid them is that they supported the democratic Polish government-in-exile in London. And Stalin was not interested in supporting them. His goal had been before the war to allow the west to fight themselves to exhaustion allowing for the Soviet Union to expand in their direction. Those that led the uprising and members of the Home Army were persecuted by the Soviets after the war. They were arrested, tried, and deported to Soviet gulags. They had a show trial, not unlike ones during the Great Purge, where confessions were introduced to show they were actually in league with the Germans!
Fortunately, those captured by the Germans and freed by American-British forces were spared this. Stalin and his propaganda machine twisted the facts to show the failings of the Home Army and the Polish government-in-exile. All criticism of the Red Army and Soviet Union by Polish people were forbidden. All references to the Home Army were censored, all books and movies on the Warsaw Uprising were either banned or edited out the Home Army. When that did not work, they made the Home Army soldiers into heroes that were betrayed by their corrupt officers. This would remain in effect until the 1980’s with the rise of Solidarity that challenged the Soviet backed regime. It was not until 1989 that a monument was built in Poland.
In the West, stories of the heroism of the Home Army were told. They were valiant heroes fighting against the Germans. The Soviets were criticized for their non-involvement and that it helped them get rid of partisans that would have opposed them. Despite all the official censorship that existed, many Poles knew what happened and led to growing anti-Soviet sentiment that manifested into the Polish labor movement Solidarity. This peaceful movement in the 1980’s would effect change in Poland and later, as the days of the Soviet Union waned, Poland would gain back the freedom it had lost in 1939.
When World War II came to an end, it was decided to hold accountable officials and others responsible for crimes of war and the Holocaust. Some like Martin Bormann were tried in absentia. It was the first time in history this ever had been done. Usually when wars ended, treaties were signed, and prisoners of war released. In this case an international tribunal comprising representatives from France, Great Britain, United States, and the Soviet Union (USSR), held trials for defendants who faced a wide range of charges.
The defendants were both high ranking officials of the Nazi government as well as military and SS leaders. 199 defendants were tried in Nuremberg. 161 were convicted and 37 were sentenced to death (there were some tried by the US outside of the tribunal, namely those involved with the Einsatzgruppen). Unfortunately, Hitler and some of his closest aides (like Joseph Goebbels) committed suicide so they were never brought to trial.
Many Nazi’s fled Germany and were never held accountable for their crimes. Trials of Nazi’s would continue after the tribunal ended in many countries as they were brought to justice. Adolf Eichmann, who helped plan and carry out the deportations of Jews, was found in Argentina. Israeli agents captured him and brought him to Israel in 1960 where he stood trial. He was found guilty and executed in 1962.
Earlier this week was an anniversary, and not a happy one, for France. On 21 June 1940 near Compiègne and in the same railway car Germany surrendered in 1918, France officially surrendered to Nazi Germany. For Adolf Hitler and his fellow Nazi leaders, this erased the shame of 1918 and the imposition of the Versailles Treaty. Hitler sat in the same chair that Marshal Ferdinand Foch had sat in 1918 to accept the German surrender in World War I.
France at the outset of the war was considered to have the best professional army in continental Europe. Aside from trained soldiers, they had tanks and heavy artillery. And, of course, the famous Maginot Line. This was a series of fortifications near the German border meant to deter an invasion force. The hills and woods of the Ardennes were considered impenetrable in the north but there was a caveat as General Philippe Petain noted. You had to destroy the invasion force before it exited that area. France and Germany had officially been at war since 3 Sep 1939 when France, allied with England, offered support to the Polish government.
French forces briefly entered the Saar on 7 September but withdrew after meeting a very thin line of German defense on the undermanned Siegfried line. With most of its forces concentrated in Poland at the time, Germany did not have the capacity to stand up to France’s 98 divisions and tanks that were being c0mmitted. However French hesitation and wanting to avoid total war had them withdraw forces starting on 17 September and done a month later. It began a time called the Phoney War where both Germany and France were armed and ready but nothing was happening. Hitler had hoped he could make peace with England and France but that was not to be.
On 10 May 1940, Germany attacked France. German armoured units made a push through the Ardennes, and then through the Somme valley to surround the allied units in Belgium. British, Belgian and French forces were pushed to the sea. British forces were evacuated at Dunkirk, which is an exciting tale of its own. During the six-week campaign Germany conquered France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and The Netherlands. German troops marched unopposed into Paris on 14 June. By 18 June with the collapse of both the French government (which had fled) and the military, negotiations began between French and German military officers.
At the meeting on 21 June, Hitler read the preamble and like Marshal Foch left to leave Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, commander-in-chief of the Wehrmacht to handle the details. There were several objectives that the Germans wanted and got. They wanted French North Africa and the French Navy out of the war. Also, they wanted to deny the British use of French territories since they could not possibly defend them. Occupied France was 3/5ths of the country which included the key ports on the French Channel and Atlantic and to the Spanish border. The Free Zone was administered by a newly formed French government in Vichy with Marshal Petain as its president.
Vichy France, as it became known, was authoritarian and reversed the policies of previous administrations. The media became tightly controlled, anti-Semitism was propagated, and labour unions put under strict controls. Vichy France kept French territories and the navy under French rather than German control. With the German army elsewhere, unoccupied France was generally free from military control. However due to its neutrality forbidden to assist nations at war with Germany. Despite it being unoccupied, Vichy had to conform to German policies including identifying foreign nationals, deporting stateless persons, and of course assisting Germans in locating and ultimately deporting French Jews to murdered in the death camps.
Three days after the signing of the treaty, the armistice site was destroyed on Hitler’s orders. The railway car was sent to Germany as a trophy of war. A monument depicting the French victory over the Germans was destroyed. The only thing left standing was the large statue of Marshal Foch. Hitler ordered it left there to stare out over a wasteland. The railway carriage would later be destroyed by the SS in 1945.
An exact copy of the original railway car was made. French manufacturer Wagons-Lits donated a car from the same series to the Armistice Musuem (in Compiègne) in 1950. Identical and was part of Foch’s private train during the 1918 signing. Remains of the original car were dug up using German POW’s. The railway car is parked beside the display of those remains.