Tag Archives: Nazi Germany

Remembering History: France Surrenders to Germany (21 June 1940)

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

On 21 June 1940 near Compiegne 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 Phony 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 armored 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.

German Troops in Paris, 14 June 1940
Photo: Heinz Fremde (1907-1987)
German Federal Archives:Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-126-0350-26A / Fremke, Heinz / CC-BY-SA 3.0

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 labor 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.

Map of Vichy France
Rostislav Botev

The treaty was formally concluded on 22 June 1940 and went into effect on 25 June 1940. A separate treaty between France and Italy was signed as well. Italy initially only wanted a small portion of France (about 832 square miles with the largest town being Menton). In November 1942, after Germany seized a large portion of Vichy, Italy got control over Toulon and the eastern part of Provence up to the Rhone river. Corsica and Nice were also to become Italian occupied but that did not occur. During the period of Italian occupation, Jews were relatively safe as Italian authorities declined German requests to turn over Jews to them. Once Italy deposed Mussolini and later signed an armistice with the Allies in 1943, Germans quickly moved in and rounded up all Jews they could locate. Over 3,000 would be deported.

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 Museum (in Compiegne) 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.

The fall of France to Germany in 1940 demonstrated that the leaders in many European capitols had misjudged Hitler. Hitler understood early on neither the British or French would go to war over Czechoslovakia nor Austria as they wanted to avoid a general war. In this way, he understood them better than they did knowing that while many would oppose what he would do, in the end they would cave in and agree to terms. In both Britain and France, the desire to avoid total war at any cost was quite strong. The policy of appeasement flowed from this. That is why both the British and French, despite having signed peace treaties with Czechoslovakia, would betray and then force them to give into German demands. And why France, when it had the upper hand to go into Germany to stop it when it was invading Poland, made a quick march in and then left Germany. With most of the German army to the east, they could have really put Hitler into a bind.

Hitler, for his part, did misjudge their reactions to invading Poland. He assumed they would denounce it but do nothing more. Things had changed in Britain with Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement now judged a failure resulting in Churchill being brought into the government. Churchill had warned for years about Hitler. France had been a supporter of appeasement as well but wanted more British support before fully committing to war. There was also an arrogance which assumed that the British and French were better militarily than the Germans. To some degree, that is true since Germany was defeated in World War I and prior to that had been checked by the European powers. Both Britain and France, which had excellent intelligence gathering abilities, were not streamlined so a lot of important information about Germany’s intentions didn’t get up to the top right away. And France thought Germany would be deterred by the Maginot Line, which turned out not to be the case. They would use the Belgium invasion as a decoy to swing into France.

Some argue that Germany was simply lucky, but I disagree. Hitler played both the British and French knowing they would give in to avoid total war. He knew that the political left in France would never allow them to strike Germany without Britain committing to it as well. Britain was also unprepared for war having not enough planes, ships, or infantry to take them on directly. They were trying to get second-hand equipment from the United States, which so far was staying out of the conflict. And Hitler knew the British would try operations to keep Germany from controlling sea access and control resources (which was true by the way). And by the end of 1940, Hitler had achieved what the Kaiser failed to do in World War. He had conquered nearly all of Europe: Belgium, France, The Netherlands, Denmark, Norway and swallowed up the small principalities in-between. Only Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, and Sweden were untouched but neutral. And fascist Italy was on their side as well, unlike the last war. He also had made peace with Stalin, so he did not have to worry about the Soviet Union.

The lesson, aside from the military ones, is that when a leader of another nation says that without reservation he will invade and take your country, you should take it seriously. And prepare for it. Because if you don’t, you might very well live just long enough to see his troops marching down your capitol’s streets as they celebrate their victory.

Sources

Byron, H. (2024, January 20). The French Riviera under Italian Rule during WW2 — HANNAH BYRON. HANNAH BYRON. https://www.hannahbyron.com/blog/the-french-riviera-under-italian-rule-during-ww2

Hart, B. L. (2024, June 17). Battle of France | History, summary, maps, & Combatants. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/event/Battle-of-France-World-War-II/The-fall-of-France-June-5-25-1940

Hughes, T. A., & Royde-Smith, J. G. (2024, June 17). World War II | Facts, summary, history, dates, combatants, & Causes. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/event/World-War-II/Italys-entry-into-the-war-and-the-French-Armistice

Sullivan, M. (2024, June 13). France signals intention to surrender to the Nazis. HISTORY. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/france-to-surrender

Videos

Smithsonian Channel. (2017, June 15). The moment France surrendered to German soldiers [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eLrZi5udyIc

British Pathé. (2014, April 13). French Surrender to Hitler (1940) [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ADUcjRc5p3k

Suggested Reading

Bloch, M. (1999). Strange defeat: A Statement Of Evidence Written In 1940. W. W. Norton & Company.

Churchill, W. (1948). Their finest hour. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Keegan, J. (2005). The Second World War. Penguin Books.

Lord, W. (2017). The Miracle of Dunkirk: The True Story of Operation Dynamo. Open Road Media.

Shirer, W. L. (2022). The collapse of the Third Republic: An Inquiry Into the Fall of France in 1940. Rosetta Books

Historical Movies or Television

Wouk, H. (2018, December). Winds of War [Special Collector’s Edition]. Paramount. This excellent six-part miniseries is based on the Herman Wouk novel of the same name. And he wrote the script for this, so it hues close to the book (but does compress or eliminate some characters or situations). Through the Henry family, we get to see the scope of the looming war approaching and their involvement in it. The acting is superb, though the actress Ali MacGraw is miscast as Natalie Jastrow. Aside from that, this is a riveting depiction of the events leading up to World War II. It is one of the best miniseries ever made, and it shows with the high production quality and attention to detail.

Titanic News Channel  is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.

Remembering History: German & Italy Sign Pact of Steel (22 May 1939)

The signing of the Pact of Steel on 22 May 1939 in Berlin
Photographer unknown
Public Domain/WIkimedia Commons

On 22 May 1939, Germany and Italy signed the Pact of Friendship and Alliance that became known later as the Pact of Steel. This began the formal military and political alliance between the two countries. Initially Japan was to be part of the agreement but there was disagreement on the focus of the pact. Germany and Italy wanted it aimed at the British Empire and France, while Japan wanted the Soviet Union to be the focus. The agreement was signed without Japan but would later join in September 1940.

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The agreement brought together two countries that opposed each other in World War I. It also required each country to come to the aid of the other if it were in armed conflict with another nation. Neither party could make peace without the agreement of the other. One of the assumptions of the agreement was that war would start in three years at the latest. Italy needed the time to get its war production into high gear. The agreement was for ten years but there was some concern within the Italian government the agreement would suppress Italian autonomy. The agreement was still signed despite these objections, which also came from Mussolini’s son-in-law, Galeazzo Ciano, who was the Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Read Count Ciano’s War Diaries

Hitler, however, would soon declare his intentions of invading Poland. Mussolini was not happy he was not consulted on this, nor about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Agreement. Italian forces did not commit fully to war until June 1940 when German forces had defeated British and French forces with lightning speed. Italy seized Nice as its prize. Other countries it tried to invade proved more difficult. Greek partisans brought the Italian force to a halt. Germany would intervene to help there and in Yugoslavia where Italian troops also pushed back by partisans. A disastrous attack on British Egypt from Italian Libya required German assistance as well. The economic consequences of the war were bad for most Italians generating widespread resentment that would lead one day to Mussolini’s fall from power in 1943.

Sources:

—. “The Pact of Steel Is Signed; the Axis Is Formed.” HISTORY, 19 May 2021, www.history.com/this-day-in-history/the-pact-of-steel-is-signed-the-axis-is-formed.

—. germanhistorydocs.org/en/nazi-germany-1933-1945/the-pact-of-steel-the-signing-of-the-german-italian-military-alliance-in-the-new-reich-chancellery-may-22-1939.

Axis Alliance in World War II. encyclopedia.ushmm.org/index.php/content/en/article/axis-powers-in-world-war-ii.

—. “Pact of Steel.” Wikipedia, 17 May 2024, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pact_of_Steel.

Remembering History: Siege of Leningrad Broken (12 Jan 1943)

 

The fire of anti-aircraft guns deployed in the neighborhood of St. Isaac’s cathedral during the defense of Leningrad (now called St. Petersburg, its pre-Soviet name) in 1941.
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

After German troops invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, one of their top cities to take control of was Leningrad (former St. Petersburg, then Petrograd). As the second largest city in the Soviet Union (and its capital under the Tsar’s), it held significant importance. In August 1941, German troops surrounded the city so nothing could get in or out. This also cut off the Leningrad-Moscow railway. The residents built anti-tank fortifications and defended the city with the resources they had. Hitler decided to wait them out in a siege hoping to break down the will of the residents. Some limited supplies were able to get in but not enough for all its residents. Starvation, disease, and injuries mounted up. They did manage to evacuate about a million elderly and young people out of the city but that left 2 million to deal with the dire situation.

Food was rationed and any open space was used to plant food.  On 12 January 1943, Soviet troops punched a hole rupturing the German siege allowing supplies to come in one Lake Ledoga. A Soviet counteroffensive on 27 Jan 1944 brought the siege to a complete end after 872 days. The Russian army lost, captured or missing 1,017,881 and 2,418,185 wounded or sick. 642,000 civilians died during the siege and, 400,000 during evacuations.

Sources:

Soviet forces penetrate the siege of Leningrad. (2009, November 16). HISTORY. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/soviet-forces-penetrate-the-siege-of-leningrad

Dean, M. (2020, October 21). Siege of Leningrad | World War 2 Facts. World War 2 Facts. http://www.worldwar2facts.org/siege-of-leningrad.html#siege-of-leningrad-losses

Check out books on Siege of Leningrad

 

 

 

 

Remembering the Winter War of 1939

Fire at the corner of Lönnrot and Abraham Streets after the first bombing of Helsinki during the Winter War
30 Nov 1939
Source:Military Museum,Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture

On 30 November 1939, in what later be called the Winter War, the Soviet Union invaded neighboring Finland. The objectives were both strategic and territorial. Under the (secret)terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signed in August, Finland was placed into their sphere of influence. Prior to the invasion, the Soviet Union wanted Finland to cede land that would provide more security for Leningrad (formerly known as St. Petersburg, changed to Petrograd during World War I, and renamed Leningrad in 1924 after Lenin’s death).

Everyone, including the Russians, believed it would be easy. The Soviet Union had more troops and aircraft. It was expected the Finns would easily surrender. It did not turn out that way at all. After the initial attack and bombing of Helsinki where 61 would die, the Finns instead showed remarkable resistance. The Finnish government used pictures of the raid showing women with dead babies and those crippled by the bombings to engender sympathy from the outside world and to generate the Finnish resistance to the Russians. The Soviet Army, dressed in summer clothing as winter started to set in, quickly realized they were facing stiff opposition. President Roosevelt extended $10 million in credit to Finland (they paid it back after the war). The League of Nations expelled the Soviet Union for its invasion.

The Soviet Union though reorganized and came with different tactics in February 1940. Finnish defenses were overcome and resistance, though still strong, was up against a better organized Soviet Army this time. In March 1940 the Moscow Peace Treaty was signed. The Soviet Union got what it initially demanded and more as well. Finland’s sovereignty was preserved but it came at a cost for the Soviet Union. Most Western governments considered the Soviet Red Army as poorly led.

Aftermath

Hitler and his generals viewed the Red Army as weak and that an attack on it would be successful. They would invade Russia in June 1941. Finland though would go to war with the Soviet Union. as well. There are different views as to why but generally it was to get back the land lost in the peace treaty of 1940. Unfortunately, a faction of Finnish military and political leaders decided to work closely with the German Wehrmacht for a joint attack. While never signing formally the Tripartite Pact that made them an ally of Nazi Germany, the did sign the Anti-Comintern Pact. This pact signed by Germany, Japan and other countries created an alliance against the Soviet Union.

Finland would retake the territories given to Russia but continued on. They participated in the siege of Leningrad by cutting its northern supply. The Soviet Army would eventually push them back and a ceasefire was called on 5 September 1944. The resulting agreement would require the expulsion or disarming of German troops in their territory. Under pressure from the Soviets to expel German forces, Finnish troops fired on German soldiers resulting in exchanges between the two. By November 1944 nearly all German troops had withdrawn. With the end of the war in 1945, the borders were restored to the 1940 treaty. Finland had to pay war reparations to the Soviet Union. Since they fought with Germany, they had to accept responsibility for their part in the war and acknowledge they had been a German ally.

Sources:
Russo-Finnish War (Britannica.com)
Winter War (History.com)
Winter War, Continuation War & Lapland War (Wikipedia.com)

Nuremberg Trials Begin (20 November 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.

Sources:

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Remembering History: Kristallnacht (9-10 Nov 1938)

Kristallnacht, 1938, Magdeburg
German Federal Archives

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, sent 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.

Aftermath

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.

Sources:

“German Nazis Launch Kristallnacht.” HISTORY, 24 Nov. 2009, www.history.com/this-day-in-history/nazis-launch-kristallnacht.

Berenbaum, Michael. “Kristallnacht | Definition, Date, Facts, and Significance.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 4 Nov. 2023, www.britannica.com/event/Kristallnacht.

Kristallnacht.encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/kristallnacht.

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Nazi Germany Prepares For Final Solution (31 July 1941)

Portrait Reinhard Heydrich in Uniform of SS-Gruppenführers ca. 1940/1941
German Federal Archives via Wikimedia Commons

On 31 July 1941 Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering, following instructions by Hitler, sent a letter to SS General Reinhard Heydrich directing him to “to submit to me as soon as possible a general plan of the administrative material and financial measures necessary for carrying out the desired final solution of the Jewish question.” In the instruction, Goering recalled a general outline that had been drafted on 24 January 1939 that called for the emigration and deportation of Jews in the best possible way. The program to be implemented by Nazi Germany was the mass and systemic extermination of Jews in al countries under German control.

Heydrich had already started implementing the strategy by bringing back the medieval ghetto in Poland. Jews were forced to live in cramped walled areas and held as prisoners. Their property was confiscated and given to Germans or local non-Jewish people. The instructions from Goering would lead to the Wannsee Conference on 20 January 1942 where details on implementing this mass murder scheme would be decided upon.

Sources:

,,

Himmler Orders Medical Experiments on Auschwitz Prisoners (7 Jul 1942)

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

On 7 July 1942, Heinrich Himmler orders that experimentation on women at the Auschwitz concentration camp begin and also to investigate extending this to males. How and why did this happen? Let’s find out.

Himmler, as head of the Schutzstaffel (SS), believed in exterminating all European Jews. As head of the SS and the assistant chief of the Gestapo, he controlled all the police forces in Germany. This allowed him the power to carry out Hitler’s Final Solution and why he was the one who called for a conference that would devise how these experiments would be conducted. The conference attendees included SS General Richard Glueks (hospital chief), SS Major-General Karl Gebhardt, and Professor Karl Clauberg (a leading German gynecologist) and members of the Concentration Camp Protectorate.

Gate to Auschwitz I with its Arbeit macht frei sign (“work sets you free”), 2010
Image credit: xiquinhosilva
Flickr via Wikimedia Commons

The conference decided that medical experimentations would take place but also done in a way that the women would not know what was being done to them. The experiments would be to devise methods of sterilizing Jewish women using massive doses of radiation and uterine injections. It was also decided to examine if X rays could be used to castrate men and use it on male Jewish prisoners. Adolf Hitler agreed to this, but it was kept top secret as they were concerned many would object (it had happened before when they tried exterminating disabled and those in hospitals with severe mental conditions). This program would further the Nazi’s aims to rid the world of Jews outside of their extermination camps. They knew that in time they would get control of countries where setting up extermination camps would not be practical, so developing means to sterilize Jewish men and women (and others they didn’t like as well) would allow them to continue eliminating Jews but under the guise of using medicine to eliminate them.

Sources:

Himmler decides to begin medical experiments on Auschwitz prisoners.
History.com
https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/himmler-decides-to-begin-medical-experiments-on-auschwitz-prisoners
Original Published Date: November 16, 2009
Last Accessed on: July 7, 2023

Nazi Medical Experiments
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/nazi-medical-experiments
Last Accessed on July 7, 2023

The Holocaust: Nazi Medical Experiments
JewishVirtualLibrary.org
https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/nazi-medical-experiments

France Surrenders to Germany (21 June 1940)

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

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 committed. 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 Phony 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 labor 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 History: Germany and Italy Sign Pact of Steel (22 May 1939)

The signing of the Pact of Steel on 22 May 1939 in Berlin
Photographer unknown
Public Domain/WIkimedia Commons

On 22 May 1939, Germany and Italy signed the Pact of Friendship and Alliance that became known later as the Pact of Steel. This began the formal military and political alliance between the two countries. Initially Japan was to be part of the agreement but there was disagreement on the focus of the pact. Germany and Italy wanted it aimed at the British Empire and France, while Japan wanted the Soviet Union to be the focus. The agreement was signed without Japan but would later join in September 1940.

The agreement brought together two countries that opposed each other in World War I. It also required each country to come to the aid of the other if it were in armed conflict with another nation. Neither party could make peace without the agreement of the other. One of the assumptions of the agreement was that war would start in three years at the latest. Italy needed the time to get its war production into high gear. The agreement was for ten years but there was some concern within the Italian government the agreement would suppress Italian autonomy. The agreement was still signed despite these objections, which also came from Mussolini’s son-in-law, Galeazzo Ciano, who was the Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Hitler, however, would soon declare his intentions of invading Poland. Mussolini was not happy he was not consulted on this, nor about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Agreement. Italian forces did not commit fully to war until June 1940 when German forces had defeated British and French forces with lightning speed. Italy seized Nice as its prize. Other countries it tried to invade proved more difficult. Greek partisans brought the Italian force to a halt. Germany would intervene to help there and in Yugoslavia where Italian troops also pushed back by partisans. A disastrous attack on British Egypt from Italian Libya required German assistance as well. The economic consequences of the war were bad for most Italians generating widespread resentment that would lead one day to Mussolini’s fall from power in 1943.

Sources:

—. “The Pact of Steel Is Signed; the Axis Is Formed.” HISTORY, 19 May 2021, www.history.com/this-day-in-history/the-pact-of-steel-is-signed-the-axis-is-formed.

—. germanhistorydocs.org/en/nazi-germany-1933-1945/the-pact-of-steel-the-signing-of-the-german-italian-military-alliance-in-the-new-reich-chancellery-may-22-1939.

Axis Alliance in World War II. encyclopedia.ushmm.org/index.php/content/en/article/axis-powers-in-world-war-ii.

—. “Pact of Steel.” Wikipedia, 17 May 2024, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pact_of_Steel.