Tag Archives: World War II

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.

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Il Duce Gets The Boot-Mussolini Dismissed From Office (25 July 1943)

Benito Mussolini
Public Domain

On 25 Jul 1943 the Fascist Grand Council formerly voted Mussolini from power and was arrested later after meeting with King Victor Emmanuel III. So what happened to the once all powerful Duce? Let’s find out.

Italy had entered into the Pact of Steel with Germany in 1939 which committed Italy to fighting along with Germany if it declared war or was attacked. Mussolini entered the agreement knowing full well Italy did have the resources or industrial capability for a sustained military conflict. Mussolini had grand ambitions about expanding the Italian sphere of influence in the region and even into central Europe. Mussolini believed that Fascism was on the march and aligning with Hitler seemed a good choice at the time. Italy had successfully invaded Ethiopia (1935-1937) though not without them putting up a strong fight. Using mustard gas against troops and civilians had gotten Mussolini severely criticized and international sanctions.

The war in Ethiopia and his intervention on the side of Franco in the Spanish Civil War had brought Italy closer to Germany with a treaty of mutual interest in 1936.  And he needed coal from Germany since international sanctions over Ethiopia had made acquiring it more difficult. Mussolini believed a German-Rome Axis would be how Europe would turn but relying on Germany to supply items like coal meant Italy was more dependent on Germany rather than a true partnership. Mussolini tried to get all kinds of concessions from the British and French after the Munich Agreement in 1938; none were given. He made it clear in speeches (and those by others) that they wanted territory in France, Tunisia, a small part of Switzerland, and Albania. He upped his demands to demand free access to the world’s oceans by breaking British control of key places such as Gibraltar.

From the viewpoint in London, Paris, and elsewhere, his bellicose talk signaled major territorial ambitions. The Fascists mostly supported this though some, like his foreign minister Count Galeazzo Ciano, were concerned about aligning with Germany. Taking on both Britain and France became accepted since they were the major colonial powers that Italy saw as blocking them from achieving their rightful position in the world. On 7 April 1938, Italy invaded Albania and took control in three days. The formal military alliance with Germany (the Pact of Steel) was signed on 2 May 1939 cementing further the military ambitions of both countries together. The Italians thought war with Britain and France would not occur for years but dreadfully miscalculated Hitler’s ambitions.

Italy was not ready for major war operations until 1942 according to his own advisors. The Pact of Steel had said neither side was to enter war until 1943. Italy desperately needed this time in order to get its industry running and lacked critical military industrial production. Both Britain and France had highly developed military industrial production, but Italy was woefully behind in key areas such as automobile production (key to making tanks and other mobile artillery). Additionally Italy needed to acquire all the needed raw resources needed for war production. Italy was primarily an agriculturally based economy with small pockets of industrial sectors. They needed to setup a supply chain to bring in all the raw materials like coal and import steel. Italy’s merchant marine was not managed in preparation for war and would lose those ships as they were in foreign ports when war was declared by Italy in 1940.

Prior to that, raw materials being sent from European ports to Italy were subject to seizure. Coal, for instance, was shipped out of Rotterdam. The British declared it contraband and seized it, infuriating Mussolini. The Germans offered to ship by train over the Alps while the British countered saying they would supply all of his country’s needs if Italy supplied them armaments. The British hoped to lure Italy away from its alliance with Germany. And it appeared to work as Mussolini had approved a draft contract to provide military equipment. It was suddenly scrapped under intense pressure from Germany caused Mussolini to fold. This decision would come back to haunt him much later down the road.

Italian debt, already large when Mussolini, came to power, had increased thanks to his generous support of General Franco in Spain that increased it. The blockade of coal was strengthened and deeper reliance on German imports of raw materials occurred. The economy was bolstered by the important of goods from Germany, but inflation was occurring causing basic goods and service to become more expensive. When Italy entered the war in 1940, its merchant marine in foreign ports were seized leaving the country without hardly any means of getting needed supplies by cargo vessels.

Adding more to the woes, the warnings of his advisors were accurate. Italy’s army was huge making it a major land force on paper but in reality lacked modern transport and weapons. The army, because of the weak economy, did not have the needed armaments or supplies for war, and was the major reason it failed. Lightly armored infantry is no match for a fully equipped company of troops with full battle-ready equipment like the British had. Along with both a navy and air force that did not work together well, Italy was ill-prepared for general warfare except for a country that had a worse military than it had. There was poor leadership as well at the top that never had clearly defined military objectives and seemed to go at the whim of whatever Duce wanted them to do. They easily took the lower portions of Vichy France and Corsica. About the only good thing they did in taking that was providing a refuge for fleeing Jews. The Italians did not follow the German lead much regarding the Jews, which caused the Germans frustration over the Italian non-compliance in this area.

The succeeding campaigns in North Africa and Greece ended badly. In North Africa the British pulled up a good fight and had routed the Italians. Then the Germans arrived with Rommel in charge making it a much tougher campaign for the British and later the Americans, Greece was a total debacle. They invaded from Albania, but the Greeks pushed them back into Albania ending up in a stalemate that cost both sides. Once again, the Germans invaded (the British were using Greece to fly bombing raids into Romania) and successfully took Greece and Crete. Only Yugoslavia was a success but that was because the Germans were part of the campaign and once the country was divided up, Italy got the coastal area.

By 1943 though, things had gotten worse for most Italians. Food and other items were rationed, wartime inflation made everything more expensive, and the war itself was unpopular with most Italians. Mussolini was no longer seen as the great leader and the recent bombing of Rome showed how his boasts were hollow. The invasion of Sicily and later the south by Allied forces showed the proverbial “writing was on the wall.” Mussolini knew that his military could not successfully fight the Allies but stuck to the war because he saw no other option but to fight it out. The Fascist Grand Council knew the war was lost and that Mussolini had lost his stature with the people.

On the night of 24 July and in the early morning of 25 July, the Grand Council met with Mussolini. Accounts of the meeting indicate he was sick, tired, and felt the burden of the military reverses suffered by the Italian military. To some, it seemed he was looking for a way out and it was given to him. The Grand Council voted to remove him from power and transfer some of his duties to the King. While some opposed it, the vote was carried by the majority. Even his son-in-law Count Galeazzo Ciano voted for his ouster. Mussolini seemed dazed by the vote and while his supporters tried to get him to act, he seemed unable to do anything. He would go to his meeting with the King (unshaven and groggy) where he would be arrested. The King told him that General Pietro Badoglio would be taking over as Prime Minister and that the war was lost. He and his family were assured of their safety, and he was whisked away.

When it was declared Mussolini was out, the general response was one of relief. His fellow Fascists did not stage marches or protests over his dismissal and did nothing to release him from his incarceration on La Maddalena (he would be moved elsewhere). Hitler was furious and knew that the Italians would seek an armistice with the Allies (which was true but in public said otherwise to keep the Germans at bay). For the Allies his dismissal was good news as they hoped it might bring an end to the Italian campaign. And many Italians thought it would as well, Unfortunately the Germans had other plans and that would drag out the war in Italy until June 1944, but that is a story for another time.

 

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The Failed Plot to Kill Hitler (20 July 1944)

Martin Bormann, Hermann Göring, and Bruno Loerzer surveying the damaged conference room
20 Jul 1944
Source: German Federal Archives via Wikimedia Commons

On 20 July 1944 a bomb placed in the briefing room of  Wolf’s Lair would explode in an attempt to kill Hitler. It failed and many of the conspirators, including Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, would either be executed or commit suicide. So, who were the conspirators and why did it fail? Let’s find out.

The conspirators were a combination of both civilians and military and had varying reasons for coming together. Some opposed the anti-Jewish policies and were shocked by Kristallnacht, others were upset with how Hitler had mismanaged the war. Many wanted to save Germany from a catastrophic defeat they saw coming. Some of them no doubt would have faced a military tribunal had they survived for war crimes for working or assisting with the elimination of Jews. An earlier plot to kill Hitler on his airplane had failed, so the plan was changed. Called Operation Valkyrie, the plan was to take control of cities, disarming the SS, and arresting Nazi leaders.

Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg was to place a bomb under a table at the East Prussian headquarters called Wolf’s Lair. Then once Hitler was confirmed dead, a radio announcement would go out saying that the Nazi Party had murdered Hitler and ordering the Reserve Army to take control of key installations in Berlin, arresting Nazi leaders. Carl Friedrich Goerdeler, former mayor of Leipzig would become chancellor with former army chief of staff Ludwig Beck becoming president. Then the new government would begin negotiating for an armistice.

Stauffenberg arrived with two bombs on 20 Jul 1944 but was unable to arm one of them. In the briefing room where military aides were briefing Hitler, he placed the briefcase with the bomb under the table and near Hitler. He excused himself and left the room. Unfortunately, the briefcase was moved to under a thick leg of the table. When it detonated at 12:42 PM, Stauffenberg believed Hitler had been killed and put Operation Valkyrie into action. Hitler was wounded but not killed but the stenographer and three officers died. However instead of acting right away, many of the conspirators waited until Stauffenberg arrived in Berlin three hours later. By that time rumors of Hitler’s survival sapped the courage of many to go through with their plans. Precious time was lost, and it was too late now.

General Friedrich Fromm, who knew of the plot and condoned it, quickly saved himself by arresting the key conspirators and executing them. Hitler would go on the radio on 21 July 1944 to announce his survival to the nation and that those who had done this would be taken care of. The Gestapo swung into action arresting and torturing the remaining conspirators. Some were hauled before the infamous Volksgericht (People’s Court). There the infamous Nazi judge Roland Freisler handed out death sentences. Some were hanged, shot, and a few were strangled with piano wire. Fromm did not escape eventually being arrested, tried, and executed. General Beck was allowed to commit suicide but only wounded himself and had to be shot. The surprising revelation that Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was involved (he knew of the plot but took no active role in its planning or execution) shocked Hitler. Due to his popularity-and to avoid a trial-he was told if he committed suicide his family would be spared. Upon his death from an “illness”, he was given a full military funeral.

The assassination attempt did not weaken Hitler but strengthened it. His grip was tightened, and they went after not just those involved but other enemies, they could get rid of at the same time by claiming they were part of the plot as well. Over 7,000 were arrested and 4,980 were executed. The barbaric deaths of some by piano wire was specifically ordered by Hitler

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Remembering History: Rome Bombed by United States (19 Jul 1943)

Daily News, Los Angeles- Headline on Bombing of Rome
Source: RareEarlyNewspapers.com (All Rights Reserved)

By 1943, Italians had seen shortages in basic goods and supplies requiring rationing as their merchant marine had been decimated by the war. This led to a lot of grumbling about the war and its effects on Italy. Mussolini’s popularity had begun to wane. He had convinced Italians that the Allies would never bomb the eternal city of Rome. Then on 19 July 1943, the U.S. bombed the Rome railway yards.

Both President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had made a public appeal for Italians to reject Mussolini and save their country. The Allies by this time had invaded Sicily, and thanks to a clever deception, Hitler thought it initially a diversion. The Axis had been furthered weakened by its defeat in North Africa which had seen losses by both German and Italian forces. The advance of the Allied troops shook the Italian government. The bombing of Rome really caused panic in Rome as people went out into the streets.

It was much worse though as panic gave way to anger at Mussolini. People started destroying effigies of the dictator. And oddly, there was actually celebration of the attack as it was seen as leading to Mussolini’s demise. Hitler met with Mussolini to shore up his confidence after the attack. The attack had shaken him as well. Mussolini appeared unusually quiet in the meeting (he spoke poor German) and relied on the transcript later. Hitler tried to restore his confidence worried he might cave in and seek an armistice with the Allies. In the end, Mussolini agreed to continue the war though by this time he knew the truth. The Italian army was beaten and there was no way they could win the war. He could not tell that to Hitler fearing what he might do in response.

Hitler for his part was concerned that either Mussolini would surrender, or his own people might remove him. He quietly ordered Rommel to take control of the Greek islands in case something went wrong in Rome. The Germans would be ready to pounce when it did. And events happened faster than expected. Within a week the Fascist Grand Council would relieve Mussolini and he was put under arrest by the King.

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Book Review: The Assisi Underground:he Priests Who Rescued Jews

The Assisi Underground: The Priests Who Rescued Jews
Ramati, Alexander Stein and Day, New York 1978

Alexander Ramati’s The Assisi Underground: The Priests Who Rescued Jews recounts how in Assisi that Jews were saved by Catholic priests, nuns, and locals. And remarkably none of the Jews sheltered by them were captured by the Nazis.

The fall of Mussolini in August 1943 brought the German occupation of northern Italy, which meant that Jews faced arrest and deportation to concentration camps. In the Vatican, Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty ran an operation to help conceal Jews and later escaped allied prisoners of war. Through a network of priests and others, Jews were also transited to outlying cities and towns like Assisi, where this story takes place. Assisi is a unique city owing to its religious significance. St. Francis and St. Clare both came from here and the city has a rich and deep spiritual history with famous churches (Basilica of San Francesco, Basilica of Santa Chiara, Cathedral of San Rufino, and Church of San Damiano). The city is also a major Christian pilgrimage site.

Father Rufino Niccacci, a Franciscan, and Bishop Giuseppe Placido Nicolini would lead the efforts to conceal in Assisi. Father Rufino would be summoned to meet with Bishop Nicolini after the Germans occupied Rome to help Jews that had fled get to safety. Father Rufino was stunned and asked why he was being asked to do this. Bishop Nicolini responded he wanted someone who would not lose his head in dealing with the Germans and OVRA (the Italian secret police). The group of Jews was being disguised as Catholic pilgrims heading home. Father Rufino’s task was to make sure they got to Florence. One of the group, a Rabbi, asked the Bishop to safeguard the Torah until he returned, which the Bishop was happy to do so.

The trip itself by train was uneventful until the Germans at one point boarded to check identification papers. Fortunately, an allied bombing cut that short and the train had to quickly move on. Rufino thanked God and the British for their intervention. So began Father Rufino’s involvement in the Assisi Underground. At first the task was simply to try to move Jews out of the country (by land to Switzerland, to a port where they could get on a ship, or across a river in the south to get into Allied controlled Italy). Those options became impossible as the Germans began cracking down and the Swiss were refusing entry to but the very old or pregnant. This meant Jews had to be concealed for the long haul requiring the use of convents, monasteries, and private homes to hold them.

It also meant having to come up with skillful counterfeit identification documents, which was done by a local printer (Luigi and Trento Brizi). Their birthplaces were all in areas under Allied control, so there was no way to verify them. For those who could easily move about (many were native born Italians so spoke Italian well), they taught them various Catholic customs and traditions so they would pass easily and not stand out. Some men were disguised as monks and learned how to look like they were in deep prayer in church should anyone notice them. Those who had stronger accents generally had to stay concealed as that would raise suspicions. Concealing was not enough since raids were not uncommon, so they set up a system that in case a raid was spotted coming to Assisi, bells would ring 5 times and Jews would go into a more secure place to avoid being caught. Many who lived in private homes showed their counterfeit identification and were never arrested.

Assisi under German occupation meant the city faced the possibility of being bombed, so effort was made to change that by having it declared an open city. While the city, the Bishop, and the Vatican sought this, help would come from an unlikely source: Colonel Valentin Müller. Müller as a doctor was in charge of treating wounded German soldiers in Assisi. As a devout Catholic, he appreciated the spiritual side of the city. He wrote to Field Marshal Kesselring asking Assisi to be declared a hospital city. This was agreed to, and German troops and military police departed leaving only the hospital staff and its patients in Assisi. Colonel Müller became a familiar site through his walks, drinking wine in the public area, attending church, and seeing the holy sites with Father Rufio as his guide. He also met with Bishop Nicolini and had extra food rations sent to them during Christmas. Father Rufio believed he had been sent by God to help Assisi.

Despite it being a hospital town, the regional SS along with the OVRA were hard at work to find antifascists, partisans, and of course Jews being hidden. The local SS captain ordered raids of convents, monasteries and churches and had no scruples about violating areas deemed off limits by the religious order. Rufio fell under suspicion from this SS captain after returning from a expedition south near the Allied demarcation line (he went there to test out it being used to smuggle Jews across the river) where smuggling was going on. He would be arrested at one point by this SS captain, forced to endure three days without food and water, and then taken to an execution site to see what happens to those who oppose them. Rufino did not give him anything and faced execution but was reprieved and released from custody thanks to some high-level intercession.

During this time, the Jewish children still attended school but not in public. Thanks to people such as Don Aldo Brunacci, lessons would continue so they would not lose time in getting educated. Brunacci also working with Bishop Nicolini, found housing for over 300 Jewish refugees. For Father Rufino, working with Jews opened his eyes about who they were. Since Jews were mostly in the large cities like Rome, he never encountered them and thus had no experience in their customs and practices of Jews. He learned much during this time which opened his eyes and appreciated more deeply the Jews he was helping.

When the Allies defeated the Germans at Monte Cassino, it was the end of the German occupation. Sappers were sent to Assisi to mine the city, but Müller received orders (counterfeit it turns out) from Kesselring that Assisi was an open city. Müller ordered the German army and the SS out and started the evacuation of the German wounded that were scattered over the city. Before he left, Müller left all the medical supplies to Assisi. When the British arrived, they were greeted with joy by the people of Assisi. All of those who had been hidden during the occupation came out of hiding in joy. For Father Rufino and Bishop Nicolini, it was a great moment in time. Most of the Jews that were hidden would return home though one family did choose to stay. The wife of one of those who had died while being hid now had her name changed to Weiss with a Star of David above it. As Jews recorded their stories of survival in Assisi, others outside became aware of the remarkable effort to conceal and save Jews from being deported and killed in the Nazi death camps.

This remarkable story shows how Catholic priests, nuns, and bishops took the risk of helping Jews from being caught by the Nazis. They did not for any fame or glory but because it was the right thing to do. They certainly knew the risk. Many religious in other places under German occupation had been arrested and sent to concentration camps (often to die there from infections or execution). The Vatican could not publicly support this for obvious reasons that it would result in the Germans occupying the Vatican. So, the public posture was to appear neutral but behind the scenes to do anything they could to assist (such as Monsignor O’Flaherty). Both Rufio and Nicolini, along with Don Aldo Brunacci would be recognized by Yad Vashem, which would award them Righteous Among the Nations. This is a very special honor given to non-Jews who helped Jews during the Holocaust. Oskar Schindler was given the same honor as well as were others who risked their lives to help Jews during this time. Colonel Müller would return in 1950 with his family and be warmly welcomed. At the time the book was published, there was no official recognition of his role in helping Assisi during this time. There is now with the road to the hospital bearing his name and a plaque.

The book is well written and really gives you a good look at how they concealed Jews (and others as well) during the German occupation. The fact it was a simple Franciscan priest who spearheaded the effort speaks as well to the simple faith that guided his and others to do it. There was never any question of doing it, just the logistics. The Jews that were saved were grateful and let it be known. Ramati had learned of the story when he was there after the liberation and said that one day, he would write a book to chronicle this remarkable story. And it is a book worth reading to see how the accomplished it under German control. Whether Müller knew what Rufino was doing is not clear, but as Ramati reveals from interviewing his son, he probably did and why him being there made a difference.

The book was made into a 1985 movie The Assisi Underground starring Ben Cross as Father Rufino and James Mason as Bishop Nicolini (it was his last movie). It is okay but takes liberties with the source material and adds an unneeded search for a scientist. Maximilian Schell plays Colonel Müller pretty close to the original (there were a few deviations from the book but not too many). Read the book and then watch the movie is my humble suggestion.

Stars: 4
Genre: History/non-fiction
Audience: 15+

The book is out of print though checking your local library would be a good place to start. Libraries are part of a shared network so even if they do not have it, you can retrieve the book to be checked out. Amazon does have it available for purchase as a used book, so you can also try there. The movie can also be found in many libraries and as of the date of this posting, available for free viewing by Amazon Prime members.

The Assisi Underground and Related Books

Remembering History: Anne Frank’s Family Takes Refuge (6 Jul 1942)

May 1942 photo for passport
Anne Frank House, Amsterdam.
Public Domain via Wikipedia Commons

After receiving word that they would be deported to a Nazi work camp, Ann Frank and her family take refuge in A Secret Annex of an Amsterdam warehouse. Her family was from Germany and fled in 1933 to Holland to escape Nazi persecution. The Netherlands declared its neutrality but that did not stop the Germans from invading on 10 May 1940. After the bombing of Rotterdam, its military forces surrendered, and its government and royal family fled to London Germany would occupy the country until the German surrender in May 1945.

The initial phase of the occupation was mild and often called the “velvet glove” where Germans under Arthur Seyss-Inquart did not impose the harsher rules of occupation found in other countries. The economy was doing well, and repression of the Jewish population was light. Starting in June 1941, that changed as Germany started demanding more from the occupied territories which lowered the standard of living. Repression of Jews began now in earnest as many were now deported to extermination camps.

Otto Frank had come to Amsterdam from Germany in 1933 with his wife Edith and their two daughters Margot and Anne. He worked for Opetka, which sold pectin and spices for jam production. A second company he started, Pectacon, sold wholesale spices, pickling salts, and herbs for sausage production. As things got more tense with Germany, he tried, unsuccessfully to move his business to Britain. When the occupation came and German laws about making businesses Aryan, he transferred ownership to his employees to keep it out of German hands. He unsuccessfully sought to emigrate to the United States.

Otto approached his bookkeeper, Miep Gies, to see if she could help hide his family. He also asked other employees to assist as well in bringing food to them in the secret annex hidden behind on a movable bookshelf. Another family, Van Pels would join them later as would Fritz Pfeffer making 8 people in total hiding in the Secret Annex.

For the next two years Ann would record in her diary her thoughts, humor, insight, and what was going on inside the annex. There were a lot of disagreements between the various people living together and Anne records how her father acted as a peacemaker. For two years they kept quiet during the day as people worked below and Nazi patrols were out on the streets. It all came to an end on 4 August 1944 when Dutch police officers with a member of the SS in charge raided the Secret Annex and arrested them all. Two employees were also arrested. They were all sent to Auschwitz, including the two men who had helped them. When Otto got off the train in Auschwitz, it was the last time he saw his wife and children. He would learn after the war his wife died in Auschwitz. Both Margo and Ann were moved to the Bergen-Belson concentration camp in Germany, where they both perished of typhus.

Otto would be the only one to survive and returning to Amsterdam he was given Anne’s diary by Miep Gies. After reading it, he was advised by others who had read it to have it published. It took a while, but it was first published in 1947 and into English in 1952. It has since then been translated into 70 languages and became a best seller and acclaimed movie. The diary stands as a testament to the six million Jews whose lives were taken by the Holocaust.

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Remembering History: Battle of Kursk (4-13 Jul 1943)

On 13 July 1943, the largest tank battle in history came to an end when the Russian Army repulsed the German offensive. Both Germany and Russia had concentrated their forces near the city of Kursk in western Russia. The Soviet Union held a 150-mile-wide pocket into German lines. The German attack began on 5 Jul with 38 divisions of which half were tanks moving from south and the north. The Soviets had better tanks and air support by this time, unlike previous battles. The fighting was bitter and intense, but the Soviet antitank artillery managed to damage or destroy nearly 40 percent of the German armor. Some of the tanks destroyed were the newer class Mark VI Tiger tanks. After six days of warfare, German General Field Marshal Gunther von Kluge called off the offensive. The Germans retreated to their original positions by 23 Jul making it a decisive victory for the Russians, though a very costly one.

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Remembering History: Night of the Long Knives (30 June 1934)

On 30 June 1934 Hitler purged his own party of members he feared would become his enemies. Why did this happen? Let’s dive in and find out.

The National Socialist German Workers Party (Nationalsozialistische deutsche Arbeiterpartei Or NSDAP) was formed in the early 1920’s by Adolf Hitler hoping to draw people away from Marxist groups that were attracting many followers. The NSDAP (later to be called simply Nazi) fused elements of Socialism with nationalism creating something similar to what Benito Mussolini did in Italy with Fascism. Both Fascists and Nazis believed in a strong central state, a single party and a strong leader, and that citizens serve the national will in all that they do. They both reject democracy as weak, disdain for civil liberties, and capitalism that seeks profit over that of the state. The agree with Communists and Socialists about the political structure of the state but disagree over nationalism, worker’s rights, and its private ownership. Fascists and Nazis both believe in nationalism as a cornerstone of their ideology, unlike Communists and Socialists who believe they have to be torn down.

Hitler’s party targeted those who felt betrayed by the stinging defeat of World War I. It meant the end of both the German Empire and Austria-Hungary. Austria would be reduced down to its present size of what Austria is today and no longer a major power in the world. On top of that, the hated Versailles Treaty of 1919 levied huge reparations on Germany and stripped her of land and its overseas territories. His party absorbed other parties, some more extreme, as well. Antisemitism would also be a major draw for this party. Many in Germany believed, or were convinced, that Jews had conspired to bring down what happened. Jews owned banks, newspaper and other key businesses were profiteers and grifters who betrayed the German people. It would become a major feature of the party in the years to come.

1932 Berlin
SA-Propagandamarsch in Spandau
Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-P049500 / CC-BY-SA 3.0
German Federal Archives via Wikimedia Commons

Inspired by Mussolini’s Black Shirts, Hitler created his own paramilitary called Sturmabteilung (Storm Troops) or SA or simply called Brown Shirts to be used to threaten and intimidate enemies of the party and Germany. It was composed in the early days with war veterans and those that had been members of the Free Corps (Freikorps) which had been formed to counter left wing groups. In 1923 under the leadership of General Erich Ludendorff there was the famous Beer Hall Putsch to seize control of the Bavarian State. It failed and Hitler was imprisoned. While in jail, he composed his seminal book that told the world what his beliefs were and what the Nazi Party would do. Mein Kampf would, when published, become popular reading. It still is today in many parts of the world influenced by elements of Fascism and antisemitism.

The Nazi Party would continue to grow through the 1920’s and as economic conditions got worse, found many willing to hear about rebuilding Germany and tossing out the current ruling elites that had made a mess of things. Mussolini made the same type of appeal much earlier and was swept into power after his march on Rome where the king appointed him prime minister even though there had not been a vote to put his party into full power. The Nazi Party, though it used the SA to bully and intimidate, used the ballot box to gain seats in the Reichstag. By 1928, it had gained lots of members but only held 12 seats. Its support came primarily from those who had served in the war, the disillusioned, and many who felt Germany was on the wrong path. Despite its name of being a worker’s party, most industrial workers were not drawn to Nazis. Hitler was not worried about this as he was building a national movement that would draw people into counter those who feared Communism and Socialism. Nazis used posters, slogans, parades, and other things to convey their message to the masses, which was we are to hear to fix Germany and toss out the weak Weimar government.

By the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, both the Nazis and Communists were popular. Both sought to fix the problems but in strikingly different ways. The SA got more active and soon fights were breaking out in the streets, assassinations were occurring. All of this convinced many that a strong central figure was needed to end the chaos, which was what Hitler sought to achieve. The antisemitic leanings were downplayed in general elections but anyone who attended their meetings knew that hatred of Jews was deeply ingrained in its leadership. In the July 1932 elections they got 37% of the vote and 230 seats in the Reichstag. It was a great victory for Hitler, but the November elections saw their fortunes had dissipated. The Nazi Party lost seats (down to 196) while the Communists gained. The other conservative and moderate political parties did well but no one had a clear majority to govern leaving it without a government for a time. President Hindenburg had defeated Hitler who had run for the same position.

The reasons that the Nazis lost votes has been debated, but by this time the Germany economy seemed better, and the Weimar government looked better as a result. This stung the Nazi leadership because the last thing they wanted was Weimar to stay in power. Hitler and those that supported him worked hard to negotiate with the other conservative parties to gain their support. They appealed to the old military aristocracy, the industrialists, and other leaders they needed to get support from. They played up the fear that the Communists would gain power. Most of the other conservative parties were wary of Hitler and his Nazis but ultimately decided to join with him to create a majority so that government could be formed.

And on 30 January 1933, President Hindenburg appointed Hitler as chancellor. Hindenburg and the others who had allied with him though they could control him. That would prove to be a disastrous miscalculation on their part. Hitler moved quickly to solidify the power of the Nazi party. While technically a coalition government, they quickly began suppressing and abridging press freedoms and individual liberties. All those who opposed the Nazis now had the SA, now part of the government, being given police powers. Jews would be dismissed from government posts. Hitler convinced Hindenburg to dissolve the Reichstag, a clever move so that when elections would be held only his party would be seated. They quickly worked to suppress all other parties except the ones that had supported them.

By 1934 the Nazi’s had swept away the old order and through elections (which in many cases were fraudulent) got all the seats they needed to fill the Reichstag. Things looked good but there were some problems. Internal corruption was an issue but so was the issue of continued violence the SA was doing. The SA, like the Black Shirts, served a vital role but also tended to be more purist about their doctrines than most in the party were. The SA had swelled in size to 4.5 million making it a very large paramilitary organization. As revolutionaries know, the greatest threat is not from outsiders but from those inside who build powerful groups internally that might topple you. Stalin had purged most of the early revolutionaries because they wanted more radical ideas and threatened his power. Mussolini had issues. Now Hitler was facing it as well.

The German army also was worried. There was a fully armed paramilitary organization that ran parallel to it. That would inevitably cause friction, especially in times of war when you needed clear operational structures. The SS, by contrast, was both a bodyguard for Hitler and oversaw the administration of specific areas designated to them by Hitler. They did not act as a paramilitary organization. Also, the public began to complain as well. That seems odd in a dictatorship they would care about public opinion, but the Nazis knew if they lost support of the populace, it would be an even bigger issue to contend with. The violence of the SA was getting loud feedback from the local Nazi leaders. In short, it had to be curtailed. Some saw its leader Ernst Rohm as the German equivalent of the Roman Sejanus who had become very powerful under Emperor Tiberius and threatened his reign. Both Himmler and Goering played on this fear when trying to convince Hitler that its leader, Ernst Roehm, was planning a coup.

And so, on the night of 30 June 1934, called the Night of the Long Knives came about. Rohm and all the leaders of the SA were arrested and ultimately executed (often brutally). Nazis took advantage of this event to also to eliminate other political opponents including former chancellor Kurt von Schleicher.

Aftermath
The SA was downsized and a new leader, Viktor Lutze, was appointed as Stabschef (the equivalent of chief of staff) to the SA. The SA would continue to be used to go after those opposing Hitler and later the Jews. The SA was used in Kristallnacht in November 1938 to destroy over 7,500 glass storefronts on Jewish shops and businesses along with ransacking Jewish homes. The also helped destroy nearly all the Jewish synagogues (the only ones that were spared were ones next to important buildings-they could be ransacked but not burned). The SA also carried out mass beatings of Jews and arrested many who were taken to concentration camps. They became overshadowed by the SS that now handled policing and security.

By 1939 it had lost significance in the Nazi Party. It was converted into a training school for the armed forces. Once war began, it lost its members to the Wehrmacht (German armed forces). It continued to exist though and when the SS and the Foreign Office had major issues, he appointed SA members to diplomatic posts to counter the SS. When Lutze died in a car accident in 1943, the new leader tried to smooth out the tensions between the SS and the SA. The SA would formally cease to exist when the war ended in 1945.

Sources:

To view books about the  SA on Amazon, please click here.

Remembering History: Napoleon Invades Russia (24 June 1812)

Remembering History:
Napoleon Invades Russia (24 June 1812)

The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries, 1812
Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825)
Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Russia on 24 June 1812 in retaliation for Czar Alexander I not accepting Bonaparte’s Continental System. Napoleon assembled the largest fighting force up to that time called the Grand Armee. With over 500,000 soldiers and staff, it marched into Russia seeking a quick victory. It was not to be. The Russian Army under General Mikhail Kutuzov was in retreat refusing a full-scale engagement against the powerful French. As Russia troops retreated, they burned everything leaving nothing for the French to find.

By September, Napoleon had engaged the Russians at Battle of Borodino. The battle was indecisive but resulted in large losses on both sides. On 14 September he arrived in Moscow to find it empty as the people had evacuated. The Russian Army too had left leaving the city to Napoleon. With winter approaching, Napoleon decided to rest and use it for his winter quarters. Russian partisans though set fires in the city the next day resulting in the quarters he had selected destroyed. He waited for a month hoping for a surrender which never came. Now with winter closing in, Napoleon decided to leave. The retreat though was more difficult than they could have imagined.

Napoleon’s withdrawal from Russia by Adolph Northen (1828-1876)
Public Domain (via Wikimedia Commons)

An early winter set in making it harder on his troops and food was rationed. The Russians, it seems, had not fully retreated, and began attacking the troops in the rear. Cossacks with very sharp lances attacked ruthlessly. They made it to the Berezina River in November but found Russians waiting for them. Using makeshift bridges, Napoleon and his troops started crossing but the Russians attacked. Napoleon burned the bridges stranding over 10,000 on the other side to be captured or killed by the Russians. Napoleon, in a hurry to return to Paris, would eventually leave his troops behind. The remaining force would eventually return home but fewer than a 100,000 made it back home. The loss of over 400,000 was staggering and called into question his leadership of the French Empire.

Aftermath

The disastrous invasion of Russia has long been studied by historians and military strategists. His basic idea of invading was sound, but he underestimated how long it would take and the will of the Russians to make him pay dearly for every inch he gained. Napoleon thought it would be a quick victory, but it turned into a long painful retreat with an early winter, few food supplies, and his army being attacked by Russians. If you read accounts of those who survived, it is truly horrific the conditions they had to retreat under. Dead animals used for fuel; bodies stacked in windows for insulation. If you recall Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back scene where Han Solo rips open his now dead ride so they can crawl inside it for warmth, this happened for real here.

His defeat in Russia strengthened his enemies. Austria, Britain, Prussia, and Sweden would now ally with Russia against Napoleon. British forces under Wellington were slowly but steadily pushing the French out of Spain. While Napoleon would have some victories, two defeats hurt his reign enormously. The Battle of Vittoria in Spain on 21 June 1813 would end French domination of Spain. His brother Joseph that he had put on the throne, was forced to flee for his life. Sadly, the royal crown worn by Spanish kings was lost in the melee of the retreat and never to be found again. And in October 1813, he suffered a crushing defeat in the Battle of Leipzig. Paris would fall the following March forcing him into exile. He would briefly return in 1815 but be defeated again in the Battle of Waterloo

Invading Russia has not proven successful for any conquering general. You might get initial successes, as Hitler did, but it seems to always turn around against the invader. Hitler, like Napoleon, thought the campaign would be quick. Instead after their initial victories, Operation Barbarossa ran into real problems. General Franz Halder realized he had sorely underestimated how many divisions the Russians could field. And because of the long distances involved, it became very hard for Germans to hold their lines. Moscow was in at sight at one point, but they never got there due to the long expanse of territory, supply issues, and underestimating the strength of Russia. Like Napoleon, the German forces were stalled. Halder believed without a powerful lightning strike, there was little chance for success. Owing to policy and strategy differences with Hitler, he was dismissed. The damage was done and the losses substantial. The Russians would push eventually the Germans out of their country and follow them all the way back to Berlin.

Sources:


Historical Movie Review: The King’s Choice

 

The King’s Choice
Nordisk Film A/S, 2016
133 Minutes

Summary: In April 1940 the Germans decided to invade Norway to preclude the British from blockading the area and cutting off supplies off raw materials. As Norway was a sovereign nation and a declared neutral, Germany tried to convince Norway its action was merely defensive and to allow access to defend it from Britain. King Haakon VII, the constitutional monarch of Norway, was forced to make a decision that would shape its outcome.

Plot

The film begins on 8 April 1940 with King Haakon being informed by his son, Crown Prince Olav, that a German transport ship had been sunk by the British in Norwegian territorial waters. He is concerned with the government neutrality position in the face of ongoing German aggression. The German envoy in Oslo is instructed to contact the Norwegian government and seek their permission to allow German troops on their soil to protect Norway from a British invasion. Curt Bräuer, the envoy, goes to meet with the Norwegian Foreign Minister Halvdan Koht. Koht, after consulting with the Cabinet, declines.

As tensions start to increase, Colonel Birger Eriksen in command of the Oscarborg Fortress prepares his garrison, both undermanned and with inexperienced personnel, for combat. He receives reports for other fortresses of German ships. The German cruiser Blucher is spotted on the morning of 9 April in Drobak Sound. Eriksen considers it hostile and orders his guns and torpedo battery to fire sinking the Bucher. The King is notified by the Prime Minister of the sinking and impending invasion. He is advised to flee Oslo and the entire royal family boards a train to Hamar. The Norwegian Parliament convenes to discuss negotiations while Brauer meets with with the Oslo police chief who his acting as intermediary with the Cabinet. Lieutenant-Colonel Hartwig Pohlman, the military attaché in Norway, receives orders to use paratroopers to capture the royal family and Cabinet in Hamar.

Adding more fuel to the fire, the leader of a fascist group tied to Nazi Germany (Nasjonal Samling) Vidkun Quisling takes to the airwaves and proclaims himself Prime Minister calling on people to accept the German forces. Meanwhile the German envoy receives orders directly from Hitler to negotiate with King Haakon. Brauer does not believe the people, nor the King will accept Quisling, but sets off to meet him. Meanwhile as German troops advance towards Hamar, most of the royal family are sent off to Sweden while the King and his son remain. German forces meet resistance from Norwegian soldiers in trying to get to where the King is.

A meeting of the Cabinet takes place about the German envoy wanting to meet with the King alone. His son opposes it, and the Cabinet is uneasy about it. The King decides to meet with the envoy. Brauer tries to convince Haakon to follow what his brother, King Christian of Denmark did, and agree to capitulate. Haakon gets angry when the envoy tries to use his brother in this manner and tells the envoy he will relay the message to the Cabinet.

At the Cabinet meeting, King Haakon states that Quisling would never be accepted by the people, and he would not appoint him as Prime Minister. He offers to abdicate if the Cabinet decides otherwise. The Cabinet is moved by the king’s statement and Brauer is sent back to Oslo empty handed. With Norway officially turning down the German request, it now becomes war with Germany. German planes start bombing the area they are in forcing the King and those with him to flee into the woods. Both the Cabinet and King Haakon along with Crown Prince leave Norway and end up in Britain for the rest of the war. He would lead the government-in-exile and resistance to the German occupation.

At the end of the movie, King Haakon is reunited with his grandson who has been in America during the war. Then the entre royal family returns to Norway. King Haakon would continue to rule as monarch until his death in September 1957 at the age of 85 after a 52-year reign.

Review
This is really excellent movie and thoroughly enjoyable for those who like movies set in World War II. This deals not with the big actors, but one of the small countries that had declared itself neutral. Norway had strategic importance for both sides, which is why both were planning military action to control its ports, raw materials, and access to the North Atlantic. The film excellently portrays the dilemma that countries that were in the same spot. They did not want to be invaded and tried to thread a needle that would keep them safe. The Norwegian King, though avowedly non-partisan, was drawn into having to provide guidance to the government during this historic crisis for Norway.

The film does not delve deeply into the history of King Haakon, though in the opening credits it outlays how Norway had split (peacefully) from Sweden and selected its new monarch. Haakon was well respected for being above politics and getting to know the country well. His leadership during the crisis really helped the government stay focused despite the German invasion of their land. The easy thing would have been to simply surrender, as Denmark (ruled by his brother) did. When the Germans tried to impose the disliked Quisling, he opposed it saying he could never appoint him as Prime Minister knowing how he was widely disliked. In the famous scene where he would prefer to abdicate rather than do that, the Cabinet looks at him with awe and affection. They all knew exactly what it meant, that the German would end up taking their country. The Norwegian military would put up a fight, but they did not have the means to defeat the very powerful German war machine.

Seeing the movie also from the German envoy’s side was interesting. He understood Norway and was a supporter of invading. He tried to explain to Ribbentrop that Quisling had no support amongst the people but was Hitler who made the call. The envoy hoped to convince King Haakon to spare his country from the invasion and to accept Quisling. When the cabinet informed him later that they turned down the German request to accede, the German military then went into full gear. It is telling when her returns to the embassy that the military are now in complete charge and his role was essentially over.

They do not show it in the movie (and they should have) of the King’s return at the end of the war. During the exile, both he and the government in exile would organize the resistance and provide hope to their people. Film I have seen of how he was greeted with great joy by Norwegians tells much about how they loved him. The same could not be said for those who had collaborated like Quisling, whose name would become synonymous with traitor.

An excellent movie to watch. The version I watched was subtitled (it was filmed in Norwegian) on Amazon, so it was easy to follow.

A few historical notes
There is quite a lot of information out there about the German occupation of Norway, so I will not go deep into it here. Norway became a heavily fortified country during the war, with more German soldiers there then Norwegians. Quisling, as the German envoy noted, was not liked by the people, and was replaced by a German appointed governor. He would be brought back into the government but not hold executive power (but still did a lot of nasty things). His last name became an adjective, coined by the British press, and picked by Churchill. To be called a Quisling meant you were a traitor.

The Norwegians lost all of their trade after the invasion and totally dependent on Germany. Food was rationed and people took to growing vegetables, fruits, keeping chickens, pigs, and even cows if they could. It was not a happy time for Norway and there were opposition activities that took place though nothing as dramatic as elsewhere. The Germans imposed their usual controls over the local populace and of course rounded up and deported any Jews they found to concentration camps.

According to various reports, nearly 2/3 of the Jewish population fled to Sweden or Britain with the assistance by the resistance movement. Those that remained who could not flee faced deportation. 765 died in German hands and only between 28-34 of those deported survived. Norwegian police assisted the Germans in arresting Jews in Norway.

Vidkun Quisling was tried and executed for betraying his country. Others who had assisted or collaborated with the Germans were dealt harshly with as well.

King Haakon VII continued to serve as the monarch until his death in 1957 at the age of 85. He would be succeeded by his son who became King Olav V who reigned until his death in 1991.

To thank Britain for having the King and government-in-exile stay there during the war, each year Norway sends a Christmas tree (Norwegian Spruce of course!) to be put up in Trafalgar Square.