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.
Professor Carl Clauberg (1898-1957) after serving in World War I studied medicine and became the doctor-in-chief to the gynaecological clinic at Kiel University. In 1933 he joined the Nazi party and was a supporter of its ideology. He would also become professor for gynaecology at Koenigsberg University that same year. At Koenigsberg he did research on female fertility hormones and the use for infertility treatments. This got him recognition in 1937 and Himmler was made aware of his work. He also received the rank of SS-Gruppenführer (equivalent of a 2 -star general) in the Reserve.
In 1942 Clauberg asked Heinrich Himmler about doing research on mass sterilization of women. Himmler sent him to Auschwitz in December 1942 where he was given part of Block 10 in the camp to do his experiments. Clauberg was looking at cheap and effective ways to this. He used both Jewish and Romani (Gypsy) women who were often injected without anesthetics in their uterus. Some of the women died from the experiments and others were killed so they could do autopsies. By 1943 he reported to Himmler that he had perfected the procedure. It would require 10 people and well stocked office that could sterilize hundreds up to a 1,000 women per day.
The procedure he used required the injection of a chemical irritant that caused from the resulting inflammation, the growing of the fallopian tubes together causing obstruction. The experiments were brutal and often had complications for the women. Peritonitis and hemorrhages often resulted in high fever and sepsis. Organs failed as well resulting in death. It is believed 700 women were sterilized in these experiments.
He had to flee Auschwitz as the Russian army closed in and ended up in Ravensbruck where he continued his experiments. He was captured by the Russians, put on trial, and sentenced to 25 years in jail. He was released to Germany as part of the 1955 Adenauer-Bulganin prisoner exchange agreement. He ended up back at his old clinic but his bizarre behavior where he bragged about what he did at Auschwitz got him noticed. He was arrested in 1955 after a public outcry but died in 1957 before he stood trial.
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.
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.
The end of World War I had left Germany in dire economic straits. The allies demanded reparations through the Versailles Treaty resulting in staggering inflation as Germany tried to pay. By 1923 the German mark was valued at four billion marks per dollar causing many who disliked the new democratic government to join the nationalist Nazi Party. Others were drawn the Nazi’s as well for their strong anti-communist views and their vocal dislike of Jews.
Adolf Hitler planned a coup in Bavaria that he hoped would spread and bring down the central government. On 8 November 1923, Hermann Goering surrounded the Munich beer hall where Bavarian officials were meeting with local business leaders. Hitler, with the aid of Nazi stormtroopers, charged into the hall with Hitler firing off a gun proclaiming the revolution has begun. The Bavarian officials decided to reluctantly support Hitler. However, the following day they would rescind that support and ordered troops to surround the Nazi forces that had taken control of the War Ministry building. Hitler decided to lead a March to the center of Munich. He had 3,000 marchers with him to 100 or more policemen blocking them. Shots were fired and 16 Nazis and 3 policemen were killed. Goering was wounded the groin and Hitler had a dislocated shoulder and managed to escape.
The Beer Hall Putsch collapsed, and Hitler was arrested. He was charged with treason and sentenced to 5 years in jail. During his time in the Landsberg fortress, he wrote his autobiography Mein Kampf. Political pressure on the Bavarian government got his sentence commutated and he ended up serving only nine months in jail. The Nazi movement would continue to grow in strength in the 1920’s gaining more support against the Weimar government, Communism and Jews. The Beer Hall Putsch would be remembered by the Nazi Party. Although they lost, they used it for propaganda purposes and celebrated the heroes of that day.
On 8 Sep 1941, German forces began their siege of Leningrad that would last 872 days making it one of the most grueling sieges in modern warfare. Let’s find out more about it.’
Leningrad (formerly known as St. Petersburg and capital of Russia before the Communist takeover in 1918), was a major industrial center and the Soviet Union’s second largest city. When Germany in June 1941, many of the city’s industrial plants and inhabitants were relocated far to the east to prevent capture. Two million were left behind though to face the rapidly moving German army. Everyone who could lift a shovel (men, women, and children) were conscripted to build anti-tank fortifications around the city’s edge. The railway to Moscow was cut off at the end of July by German forces and they were starting to penetrate the outer fortifications of the city. On 8 September, German forces began besieging the city but were held back by the fortifications and the tenacity of the defenders, some 200,000 Red Army soldiers. German bombers destroyed a warehouse containing food making life more difficult for the defenders.
Germans next moved to seal off the remaining highways and rail lines south of the city. Finnish forces joined the Germans by coming down the Karelian Isthmus in the north so that by November the entire city was encircled. German bombings intensified with raids several times a day. Most people were reduced to eating one slice of bread per day and starvation was rampant. One of the coldest winters on record would set in as well adding to the misery of the inhabitants. Many continued to work to produce arms to help defeat the Germans despite the lack of food and warmth as well. Just about anything that could be burned for heat was used from books to furniture. Pets (dogs and cats) were eaten along with animals from the city zoo. Wallpaper paste was used for food and leather boiled to make an edible jelly. Plants, grasses and weeds were put to use to produce vitamin supplements. Cannabilizing the dead was a major issue resulting in the Leningrad police department having a special unit to handle it.
Some supplies were able to be brought in over Lake Ladoga, but it was very small and not enough to alleviate the conditions in the city. Some were evacuated-mostly elderly and children-but many were unable to leave and starved and or froze to death. In June 1943 the Soviet Army was able break through the German blockade and establish a better supply line along the shores of Lake Ladoga. The city was kept alive through this and later an oil pipeline and electric cables were connected to the city despite the ongoing siege. When spring came in 1943, land was put to use so that by summer produce could be grown. The siege would end when the Soviet Army forced the German army to retreat in January 1944. The siege ended but the human toll was enormous. Over a million died. Survivors got the Order of Lenin in 1945. The population of Leningrad (now renamed to St. Petersburg) did not regain its former population of three million until the 1960’s.
St. Petersburg, Petrograd, Leningrad?
St. Petersburg was found in 1703 by Tsar Peter the Great and named after the apostle St. Peter. Until 1918, it served as capital of the Russian Empire when it was moved by the Bolsheviks to Moscow. The city was both a cultural center as well as the capital in old Russia. At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the city was renamed Petrograd because of the strong anti-German sentiment and the fact its name contained two German words. In 1924 after Lenin’s death, the city was renamed for him, Leningrad. In 1991 a public referendum approved the renaming of the city back to St. Petersburg. The city is a major tourist destination owing to its cultural and historical significance. And old guidebook reminds the city is spread out, so be prepared to spend time going to and from the various historical sites. Summers can be warm and sometimes rainy (bring waterproof jackets and something to wear if it gets chilly as well). Winters are cold, so bring cold gear. Surprisingly St. Petersburg is not as cold as Moscow during the winter.
On 1 September 1939, German forces using the pretext they were acting in self-defense against Poland, invaded. The German infantry was not fully mechanized but had Panzers and fast-moving artillery that included truck mounted artillery. The German strategy was to quickly concentrate forces and encircle an enemy quickly. Thanks to the relatively flat terrain of Poland, it made it easy to move mobile infantry about. The invasion came one week after the signing of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact on 23 August. This non-aggression pact meant neither side could assist the enemy of the other. A secret protocol to the agreement defined German and Soviet spheres in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland. This protocol would not be proved until the Nuremberg Trials. So, when Germany invaded, Poland was already split with defined borders between the two countries. With this pact, Poland signed defense agreements with Britain and France. Talks between those powers and Germany did take place and the invasion was held up until they were concluded. Hitler did not believe they would declare war, and if they did would be willing to compromise after the invasion of Poland. Germany wanted the restoration of Danzig (in Polish Gdansk) as a free city (it had a large German population), the Polish Corridor, and the safeguarding of Germans in Poland. Germany demanded that a Polish representative with the power to sign such an agreement be present. The British, remembering what happened before when Czechoslovakia was forced to capitulate to the Germans, did not like that demand. When the Polish representative met with Ribbentrop on 31 Aug, he was dismissed when he had no power to sign. The Germans then claimed that Poland had rejected their demands and Hitler ordered the invasion for 1 September. The Germans were better prepared for war than the Polish. They had higher numbers of troops and had air superiority. Poland had older fighters while the bombers were more modern. They waited too late to upgrade so newer fighters and bombers would not be there when the Germany invaded. Poland had two armor brigades and its 7TP light tank was better armed than the German Panzer. But they only had 140 of those and 88 tanks they imported from Britain and France. The Polish Navy was a small fleet with destroyers, submarines and support vessels. Most of the surface vessels escaped and joined the British Royal Navy. Submarines did engage German shipping in the Baltic Sea but it was not successful. Polish merchant ships that did escape or elsewhere would join the allies and take part in wartime convoys. By 3 October both German and Soviet forces had secured their spheres ending the Second Polish Republic. Both German and Soviet governments quickly took control of their territories, organizing and annexing, and setting up regional controls. Government and military leaders who did escape would form a military force in support of the Polish government-in-exile. In response to the invasion of Poland, Britain and France formally declared war on Germany on 3 September but little else (France did invade the Saar but quickly withdrew). ==
On the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay, the Japanese formally surrendered ending World War II. By this time Japan was no longer the military power it once was. The Battle of Midway in June 1942 had been the turning point when four Japanese aircraft carriers were sunk. Since then Japanese control over its captured territories were pushed back under massive effort of U.S. and Allied forces. By the summer of 1945, and with the capture of Okinawa, Japan was being blockaded and being bombed often. Plans for the invasion of Japan had been drawn up. After the bloody experience of capturing territory such as on Iwa Jima, it was expected to be a difficult invasion that would cost a lot of allied lives. However, the dropping of two atomic weapons on Japan in August on Hiroshima and Nagasaki changed things dramatically. Members of the Japanese War Council and Emperor Hirohito favored accepting the peace terms; some objected and acted to stop a surrender. On 15 Aug a coup was attempted against Prime Minister Suzuki, but it was crushed. At noon that day, and for the first time in Japanese history, Emperor Hirohito addressed the nation by radio. “We have resolved to pave the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is insufferable.” The US and the allies accepted the surrender.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Napoleon Invades Russia (24 June 1812)
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.
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.
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.