Tag Archives: World War II

Nuremberg Trials Started Today in 1945

Nuremberg Trials. Defendants in their dock, circa 1945-1946.
(in front row, from left to right): Hermann Göring, Rudolf Heß, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Wilhelm Keitel
(in second row, from left to right): Karl Dönitz, Erich Raeder, Baldur von Schirach, Fritz Sauckel)
Public Domain (Wikipedia)

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.

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Remembering History: Himmler Orders Roma To Concentration Camps

Heinrich Himmler, 1942
German Federal Archives (via Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Aftermath

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.

Sources:
The Persecution of the Romani by the Nazis (Jstor Daily)
Persecution of Roma (Gypsies) in Prewar Germany, 1933–1939 (Holocaust Encyclopedia)
Romani Genocide (Wikipedia)

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REMEMBERING OSKAR SCHINDLER

Oskar Schindler 1945
Oskar Schindler 1945
Yad Vashem
Public Domain (Wikimedia)

Oskar Schindler (immortalized in the movie Schindler’s List), was a German industrialist and Nazi Party member who saved 1,200 Jews from the Holocaust. He employed them in his enamelware and munitions factories in Poland and in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. His connections to the Abwehr and Wehrmacht helped him protect his Jewish workers from being sent to an extermination camp. He also used bribes to Nazi officials (and also luxury items he procured on the black market) as well. Initially he was more interested in making money and thought the Jews were cheaper to use for labor than the Poles.

With his factories deemed essential to the war effort, he was able to help his Jewish workers. He not only sought exemptions for them but also their wives and children. He was also able to claim Jewish workers with disabilities for exemptions as well. He expanded the Krakow facility to include a kitchen, dining room for workers, and an outpatient clinic. When he learned of the planned deportation of Jews from his Wehrmacht contacts, he had the workers stay at the factory to prevent them from coming to harm. He witnessed the Nazi’s doing this, changing his view forever about them. From that point on, he decided to save as many Jews as he could

Amon Goth mug shot 1945
Amon Göth mug shot, 29 August 1945
Executed 13 Sep 1946, Krakow, Poland
Public Domain (Wikimedia)

With the establishment of the Plaszow concentration camp in 1943, the camp commandant SS-Hauptsturmführer* Amon Göth wanted to move all factories inside his camp. Göth, a sadist and feared by everyone, was convinced by Schindler not to do this. And he allowed Schindler to build a subcamp to house his workers keeping them safe and fed from random executions. With the Red Army approaching in July 1944, Schindler learned of plans to close all factories not related to the war effort. He switched the enamelware factory to making anti-tank grenades and moved it to Brunnlitz. However there were two harrowing episodes for his workers. 700 on his list were initially sent to a concentration camp before being re-routed back to the factory in Brunnlitz. 300 hundred women on his list were sent to Auschwitz and were in danger of being killed. Schindler, since his regular connections did not work this time, had to send his secretary with bribes of luxury items and food so that they could be freed. Schindler would continue to pay bribes and help Jews he found until the end of the war.

Schindler was broke by the end of the war and accepted assistance from Jewish organizations. He emigrated to Argentina in 1949 but his business ventures were unsuccessful. Back in Germany in 1958, he did not have much luck either and went bankrupt in 1963. He also suffered a heart attack as well. He remained in contact with many Jews he had met during the war and received support from them as well. He died on 9 October 1974 and is buried in Jerusalem on Mount Zion. He is the only member of the Nazi Party to be honored in this way.

A tree was planted in his honor in 1962 on the Avenue of the Righteous. In 1993 he and his wife Emelie were named Righteous Among the Nations. This award, bestowed by the State of Israel, is reserved for non-Jews who took active role in saving Jews from the Holocaust. The book Schindler’s Ark (Schindler’s List in US) by Thomas Keneally is a historical novel based on Oskar Schindler. The book was adapted into the 1993 movie Schindler’s List by Steven Spielberg.

*The SS rank and rate structure was different from regular Wehrmacht owing to their origins as a separate unit initially as personal bodyguards to Hitler. The Hauptsturmführer was equivalent of a captain in most armies. In the SS, it meant he was the head storm leader of a company sized unit.

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REMEMBERING HISTORY: END OF WARSAW UPRISING

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.

Warsaw, the capital of Poland, destroyed by German Nazis, January 1945.
Public Domain (Wikipedia)

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:

  • 10,455 buildings
  • 923 historical buildings (94% of these were destroyed)
  • 25 churches
  • 14 libraries which includes the National Library
  • 81 schools
  • 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.

Aftermath

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!

Warsaw Uprising Monument
Source: Dhirad 2004

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.

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REMEMBERING HISTORY: NUREMBERG TRIALS END IN 1946

Nuremberg Trials. Defendants in their dock, circa 1945-1946.
(in front row, from left to right): Hermann Göring, Rudolf Hess, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Wilhelm Keitel
(in second row, from left to right): Karl Dönitz, Erich Raeder, Baldur von Schirach, Fritz Sauckel)
Public Domain (Wikipedia)

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.

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TODAY IN HISTORY: THE INFAMOUS MUNICH PACT

Nevile Chamberlain, Édouard Daladier, Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Count Ciano
29 Sep 1938 (German Federal Archives)

By 1938 there was no doubt anymore about the intentions of Germany’s Third Reich and Adolf Hitler. European nations were generally worried about a major war and to that end the two biggest powers in Europe: France and Great Britain, sought to avert it. It was based on the experience of the First World War in which millions had died. The aftermath of that war was a sentiment that total war must be averted at all costs. So far all of Hitler’s violations of treaties, such as occupying the Rhineland in 1936, had caused no major retribution even if it was a major violation of the Treaty of Versailles that Germany had agreed to in 1918.

In spring 1938, Hitler claimed that German-speaking people living in Sudeten region of Czechoslovakia wanted closer ties with Germany and began agitating that unless this was done it would be taken by force. Hitler claimed that this region was part of a Greater Germany. Needless to say, the Czechoslovakian government was concerned. Hitler had annexed Austria in 1938 and he might just do the same to Sudeten. Czechoslovakia had a pact with both France and Great Britain to come to its defense. Neither power was interested in having to defend Czechoslovakia on the battlefield. Both Britain and France sought to avoid a war and both agreed, without bothering to consult with the Czechoslovakians, they would give Hitler what he wanted. The deal was that in areas of fifty percent or more German Sudetens would go to Germany.

Hitler though, sensing he could get a lot more, wanted to put German soldiers in Sudeten and that Czechoslovakian army had to leave by 28 Sept 1938. This caused a crisis resulting in the Munich Conference of 29 Sep 1938. In attendance were British prime minister Neville Chamberlain, French premier Édouard Daladier, and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Mussolini presented a plan (that imitated a German proposal) which allowed German military occupation and an international commission to resolve disputes. It was formally agreed to on 30 Sep 1938. Czechoslovakia was presented with this agreement and had no choice but to accept or face immediate invasion. Chamberlain would get Hitler to sign a treaty and proclaim later, upon arrival in Britain, that he delivered “peace for our time.”

Aftermath
Germany acquired not only territory but the industrial resources that it needed (raw ore, steel and iron production, electrical plants). Czechoslovakia was diminished as a result. While many in public in Britain and France heralded the agreement as avoiding war, there were warnings it was wrong. Winston Churchill was critical of the deal and how they had abandoned Czechoslovakia to Hitler. The British Labor Party opposed the deal as well. A view began to emerge and would continue long after, that Britain and France wanted to get out of the military pact as they were not ready for war. Was Hitler bluffing or not also is discussed as well. The evidence is that Germany could have invaded but got what it wanted without firing a shot. And it was handed to Hitler on a platter by two powers that in the last war had been Germany’s enemies. It could not have been a greater present for Hitler.

Czechoslovakia was doomed by the pact. In October 1938, it was forced to hand over under the Vienna Award territory in its south to Hungary and a small concession to Poland. In March 1939, after Slovakia seceded to become a pro-German state, Hitler demanded Czechoslovakia accede to German occupation, which it did. Czechoslovakia then became a protectorate of the Third Reich. Churchill’s warning had come true. With his policy of appeasement now deemed a total failure, Neville Chamberlain realized that it was time to mobilize for war. The French would likewise make preparations (but so entrenched was the avoidance of total war doctrine failed to act when it had the option to do so when most of the German army was invading Poland). In September 1939, World War II would officially begin with the invasion of Poland and declaration of war by Britain and France on Germany.

The lesson of the Munich Pact is that making short term deals with dictators to gain a moment of peace comes at a high cost. The Czechs were abandoned by Britain and France to their fate because neither one wanted to stand up to Hitler. Both Chamberlain and his French counterpart would live to see how badly it would turn out. After war broke out,  Chamberlain’s popularity fell and would resign on 10 May 1940 and replaced by Winston Churchill though remained in the Cabinet. He would die in November 1940. Édouard Daladier, who was under no illusions as to Hitler’s goals (but knew support for standing up to Hitler was thin),had resigned his position in March 1940 but was still minister of defense when Germany invaded. He would be arrested and charged with treason by the German supported Vichy government and imprisoned. He would be imprisoned in several places, including the Buchenwald concentration camp and ended up in Itter Castle in Tyrol with other French dignitaries until liberated on 5 May 1945 after the Battle of Itter . He would return to the Chamber of Deputies after the war, served as mayor of Avignon, and died in Paris in 1970.

REMEMBERING HISTORY: BABI YAR BEGAN Today in 1941

Handout dated September 28, 1941 in Russian, Ukrainian with German translation ordering all Kievan Jews to assemble for the supposed resettlement.
Public Domain

With German control over their portion of Poland now complete, the elimination of Jews and others began in earnest. To facilitate this, special task forces called Einsatgruppen were charged with carrying out the liquidation in occupied countries. They oversaw the implementation of the Final Solution (Die Endlosung). At the ravine near Kiev called Babi Yar would take place one one of the most documented massacres of Jews during World War 2. Between 29-30 September 1941, 33,741 Jews were exterminated by Nazi’s and their collaborators. One of the reasons for the exterminations is retaliation for Soviet explosives that caused damage to the city and to the army headquarters in that area.

Orders were issued and posted in numerous languages on 26 September 1941:

All Yids  of the city of Kiev and its vicinity must appear on Monday, September 29, by 8 o’clock in the morning at the corner of Mel’nikova and Dokterivskaya streets (near the Viis’kove cemetery). Bring documents, money and valuables, and also warm clothing, linen, etc. Any Yids who do not follow this order and are found elsewhere will be shot. Any civilians who enter the dwellings left by Yids and appropriate the things in them will be shot.

Jews were led to believe they were being resettled and believed it right up to the end. They were driven to a designated area where they passed through several stages before arriving at Babi Yar itself. At each stage they had to surrender luggage, valuables, and later their clothing. A special pile was kept for everything collected. Men, women and children were led to Babi Yar and then gunned down by machine gun fire. Most did not know at first what was happening since the crowd was so large. And it happened quickly. Ukrainian nationals would force anyone who attempted to linger to move on with swift kicks and threats of more violence. There was no chance to escape. They were driven down into a corridor of soldiers where they were killed 10 at a time.

“Once undressed, they were led into the ravine which was about 150 metres long and 30 metres wide and a good 15 metres deep … When they reached the bottom of the ravine they were seized by members of the Schutzpolizei and made to lie down on top of Jews who had already been shot … The corpses were literally in layers. A police marksman came along and shot each Jew in the neck with a submachine gun … I saw these marksmen stand on layers of corpses and shoot one after the other … The marksman would walk across the bodies of the executed Jews to the next Jew, who had meanwhile lain down, and shoot him.” (quote from Wikipedia. Source:  Berenbaum, Michael. The World Must Know, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, this edition 2006, pp. 97–98.)

Money and valuables taken from Jews were handed over to local ethnic Germans or to local German authorities. Those that were wounded or still alive were shot. One notable survivor, Dina Pronicheva, played dead and was spared to escape later. There are 29 known survivors. The identities of those killed at Babi Yar is still ongoing. The SS would cover the area with earth to cover up the bodies. Mass executions would continue until the day the Germans were forced to withdraw in 1943.

Sources:

Books

Gilbert, Martin  The Holocaust: A History of the Jews of Europe During the Second World War. Holt, Rinehart and Winston 1985

Snyder, Louis Dr. Encyclopedia of the Third Reich, Marlowe & Company, New York 1976

Internet

REMEMBERING HISTORY: September 1 and 2: Germany Invades Poland; Titanic Found; Japan Formally Surrenders Ending WW II

Hitler attends a Wehrmacht victory parade in Warsaw on 5 October 1939
Public Domain

On 1 September 1939, German forces using the pretext they were acting in self-defense against Poland, invaded. The German infantry was not fully mechanized but had Panzers and fast-moving artillery that included truck mounted artillery. The German strategy was to quickly concentrate forces and encircle an enemy quickly. Thanks to the relatively flat terrain of Poland, it made it easy to move mobile infantry about.

The invasion came one week after the signing of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact on 23 August. This non-aggression pact meant neither side could assist the enemy of the other. A secret protocol to the agreement defined German and Soviet spheres in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland. This protocol would not be proved until the Nuremberg Trials. So, when Germany invaded, Poland was already split with defined borders between the two countries.

With this pact, Poland signed defense agreements with Britain and France. Talks between those powers and Germany did take place and the invasion was held up until they were concluded. Hitler did not believe they would declare war, and if they did would be willing to compromise after the invasion of Poland. Germany wanted the restoration of Danzig (in Polish Gdansk) as a free city (it had a large German population), the Polish Corridor, and the safeguarding of Germans in Poland. Germany demanded that a Polish representative with the power to sign such an agreement be present. The British, remembering what happened before when Czechoslovakia was forced to capitulate to the Germans, did not like that demand. When the Polish representative met with Ribbentrop on 31 Aug, he was dismissed when he had no power to sign. The Germans then claimed that Poland had rejected their demands and Hitler ordered the invasion for 1 September.

The Germans were better prepared for war than the Polish. They had higher numbers of troops and had air superiority. Poland had older fighters while the bombers were more modern. They waited too late to upgrade so newer fighters and bombers would not be there when the Germany invaded. Poland had two armor brigades and its 7TP light tank was better armed than the German Panzer. But they only had 140 of those and 88 tanks they imported from Britain and France. The Polish Navy was a small fleet with destroyers, submarines and support vessels. Most of the surface vessels escaped and joined the British Royal Navy. Submarines did engage German shipping in the Baltic Sea but it was not successful. Polish merchant ships that did escape or elsewhere would join the allies and take part in wartime convoys.

By 3 October both German and Soviet forces had secured their spheres ending the Second Polish Republic. Both German and Soviet governments quickly took control of their territories, organizing and annexing, and setting up regional controls. Government and military leaders who did escape would form a military force in support of the Polish government-in-exile. In response to the invasion of Poland, Britain and France formally declared war on Germany on 3 September but little else (France did invade the Saar but quickly withdrew).

Titanic Found

Titanic Wreck Bow
Image: Public Domain (NOAA-http://www.gc.noaa.gov/images/gcil/ATT00561.jpg)

On 1 September 1985 history was made in the early morning hours. A combined expedition of Woods Hole Institute and the French national oceanographic agency IFREMER would locate the wreck of Titanic lying approximately 12,500 feet south-southeast off the coast of Newfoundland. Using a remote controlled deep-sea vehicle Argo equipped with sonar and cameras, it was towed by Knorr over the area. Robert Ballard of Woods Hole Institute had used this system to locate the sunken submarines Scorpion and Thresher. An earlier attempt by the French ship to locate by sonar had failed. So now he was focusing on finding a debris field, similar to how he found those submarines. Finally after a week of searching, at 12:48 am on Sunday, 1 September 1985 pieces of debris began to appear on Knorr’s screens. It brought both cheers and a somber moment of remembering Titanic’s sinking. The boiler found was identical to pictures from 1911. The next day the main part of the wreck was found showing Titanic had split in two.

Japan Surrenders

Surrender of Japan, Tokyo Bay, 2 September 1945: Representatives of the Empire of Japan on board USS Missouri (BB-63) during the surrender ceremonies.
Army Signal Corps, Public Domain

On the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay, the Japanese formally surrendered ending World War II. By this time Japan was no longer the military power it once was. The Battle of Midway in June 1942 had been the turning point when four Japanese aircraft carriers were sunk. Since then Japanese control over its captured territories were pushed back under massive effort of U.S. and Allied forces. By the summer of 1945, and with the capture of Okinawa, Japan was being blockaded and being bombed often. Plans for the invasion of Japan had been drawn up. After the bloody experience of capturing territory such as on Iwa Jima, it was expected to be a difficult invasion that would cost a lot of allied lives. However, the dropping of two atomic weapons on Japan in August on Hiroshima and Nagasaki changed things dramatically.

Members of the Japanese War Council and Emperor Hirohito favored accepting the peace terms; some objected and acted to stop a surrender. On 15 Aug a coup was attempted against Prime Minister Suzuki, but it was crushed. At noon that day, and for the first time in Japanese history, Emperor Hirohito addressed the nation by radio. “We have resolved to pave the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is insufferable.” The US and the allies accepted the surrender.

Remembering History: France Surrenders to Germany

Hitler (hand on side) and German high-ranked nazis and officers staring at WWI French marshall Maréchal Foch’s memorial statue before entering the railway carriage in order to start the negotiations for the 1940 armistice at Rethondes in the Compiègne forest, France. The armistice will only be signed the next day (June 22), Hitler being absent, by General Keitel on the German side and by General Huntziger on the French side. Screenshot taken from the 1943 United States Army propaganda film Divide and Conquer (Why We Fight #3) directed by Frank Capra and partially based on news archives, animations, restaged scenes and captured propaganda material from both sides.
Public Domain

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.

Map of Vichy France
Rostislav Botev

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.

Aftermath

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.

Remembering D-Day, 6 June 1944

"Into The Jaws of Death" U.S. troops from Company E, 16th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division disembarking landing craft on 6 June 1944. Photo:Chief Photographer's Mate Robert F. Sargent Public Domain (National Archives and Records Administration)
“Into The Jaws of Death”
U.S. troops from Company E, 16th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division disembarking landing craft on 6 June 1944.
Photo:Chief Photographer’s Mate Robert F. Sargent
Public Domain (National Archives and Records Administration)

Today we cannot imagine or fathom the resources and manpower needed for this highly complex operation. It took years of planning, putting together needed resources, and training the men needed. Even then things went wrong right away but despite the terrible odds and the high casualty rate, the Allied forces prevailed. With many junior officers wounded or killed right away, it was the ordinary soldier that won the day.

The world of 6 June 1944 was this: Nazi Germany held total control over Western Europe except for Spain, Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland who remained neutral. However its invasion of Russia had collapsed at this point with the German army now forced to retreat. It had already been forced out of North Africa and Allied troops had landed in Sicily in 1943 and by 1944 were in Italy. Mussolini had been deposed in 1943, rescued by German paratroopers, and put in charge of a German supported puppet state in Northern Italy. The Germans knew the allies were planning a major invasion along the coast of France.

Crossing the English Channel was going to be an enormous challenge. Despite what some want to believe, it was easier in concept that actual implementation. While cries of a second front had been going on for years, it required a vast amount of resources to pull off. You not only needed the men, but they all had to be trained, fed, and properly outfitted. Not just the foot soldiers but also the special units. Then you needed ships not only to bring them over to England, but camps to house them and continue their training. The Army Air Corp needed runways and facilities. The list goes on and on. Imagine a list of needed items that stretches, when laid out flat, from San Francisco to Los Angeles and you get an idea of how enormous an operation this was going to be. And that is just on the planning and supply side.

Then the problem of getting men over to France was a major hurdle. Landing craft at the start of the war were not very good and unreliable. New ones would have to be devised (they were, the Higgins boats) that would allow troops to be dropped off as close to shore as possible. Then you needed accurate intelligence to tell you what the troops were going to face. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel had put up every possible fortification on the beaches and the area around. From mines in the water to barbed wire to turrets filled with guns and German troops. Hitler wanted an Atlantic wall and Rommel was pretty darn close in getting it done.

National D-Day Memorial at Bedford, Virginia Photo:Public Domain
National D-Day Memorial at Bedford, Virginia
Photo:Public Domain

That is why D-Day is important. This was a massive operation unlike anything in history. A full fledged invasion of Europe on a tricky North Atlantic where weather was hardly ever your friend. It did not go to plan, some parts went hideously wrong (landing at wrong places etc). Yet the Allied forces prevailed because of the determination of the soldiers, mostly noncoms and enlisted, to get it done. It came at great cost in lives yet when it was over began the march to push Germany out of many conquered lands. Today some talk down this military success out of some desire to lessen having to celebrate in any way war or military accomplishment. Yet had this invasion not happened or been unsuccessful, the Third Reich likely would have lasted a lot longer or worse perhaps not fallen at all.

Further Information & Suggested Reading
1)Books
Ambrose, Stephen (1994) [1993]. D-Day June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Gilbert, Martin (1989). The Second World War: A Complete History. New York: H. Holt.
Keegan, John (1994). Six Armies in Normandy: From D-Day to the Liberation of Paris. New York: Penguin Books.
Ryan, Cornelius (1959). The Longest Day. New York: Simon & Schuster.

2)Websites
The Normandy Invasion (US Army Center of Military History)
NORMANDY LANDINGS, Operation “OVERLORD” (NavalHistory.net)
D-Day Documents (Eisenhower Presidential Library)
Veteran Memories of D-Day(normandy.secondworldwar.nl)