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The approach of war
     Lend-lease, Atlantic Charter
     Germany and the Balkans
     A turning point

Hitler's Europe
After the war

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Lend-lease and the Atlantic Charter: 1941

In March 1941 the US Congress, after much pressure from President Roosevelt, passes the Lend-lease Act enabling the president to provide aid to any nation whose defence he believes to be vital to US interests. The first recipient is Britain, but by the end of the war thirty-eight nations have received aid and materials amounting in value to some $50 billion. Some of this is given, some of it is in the form of long-term loans (not until 1972 do repayments finally come to an end).

This support is gratefully received. But the more urgent aim of the British leader, Winston Churchill, is to involve the USA as a combatant. The obstacle is the strong streak of isolationism among US voters. Though not shared by President Roosevelt himself, it is a major factor.


In July 1941 Roosevelt invites Churchill to cross the Atlantic for a secret conference. The two men have established a warm personal relationship in correspondence over the past year, but they have not as yet met. Churchill eagerly accepts and travels in Britain's most modern battleship, the Prince of Wales, to the rendezvous - in Placentia Bay, off Newfoundland.

Churchill's aim is to extract the strongest possible public commitment of the president to the Allied cause. Roosevelt, on the other hand, has to tread a cautious line. He has been re-elected for a third term, in November 1940, on the platform of keeping the USA out of Europe's war. Nevertheless he is profoundly committed to an Allied victory.


As a result of these conflicting requirements the document emerging from the talks, published on 14 August 1941 as the Atlantic Charter, is a very general statement of the basic principles of democracy, free trade and international law. Indeed its clauses are subsequently made part of the Declaration of the United Nations.

But there is one phrase, strikingly different in tone, which serves Churchill's purpose admirably. The two leaders state that they will together seek a peace which will 'for ever cast down the Nazi tyranny'. With this made known to the world, there is no doubting where the USA stands. Churchill can press no further at this stage. And in the event it is something entirely beyond his control which achieves his purpose - in December 1941 at Pearl Harbor.


Germany and the Balkans: 1939-1941

In the late 1930s the countries of the Balkans still harbour many resentments from the past, casting acquistive glances at patches of their neighbours' territories. The Balkan Entente of 1934 reveals that they also share a wish to coexist in harmony. But from 1938, after the Anschluss, the growing power and aggression of their German neighbour is a factor overriding all others in the region.

Most of the Balkan countries are ruled at this time as right-wing dictatorships inclined to anti-Semitism, so there is considerable sympathy for Hitler's politics. Nevertheless the main concern in each nation is to preserve recent and hard-won independence. But by the outbreak of World War II this already seems impossible to achieve.


By the autumn of 1939 Czechoslovakia has already been overrun by Hitler. Poland is even now being divided between Germany and the USSR. Moreover there is an unexpected unanimity between the USSR, Germany and Italy. These three nations surround the Balkan countries and Hungary - now isolated by the German occupation of Czechoslovakia to the north.

Late in 1940 the familiar Balkan chaos returns to the area, as the nations desperately try to adjust to new pressures. A few months later, by May 1941, the entire region is under German occupation.


The jostling for position begins in October 1940 when Italian troops cross the Albanian border to invade Greece - a neutral country, but one which has a guarantee of protection from Britain (granted in April 1939 when Italy seized Albania).

Mussolini hopes for a swift success in Greece, but his plans go drastically wrong. The Greeks not only drive back the invaders. They advance into Albania and soon occupy about a quarter of its territory. The initial Greek peril triggers a response from Britain, in fulfilment of the guarantee. And the subsequent Greek success makes Hitler realize that he will have to intervene to rescue his Italian ally.


Hitler can only reach Greece through Yugoslavia, which in early 1941 is still trying to preserve a degree of independence. But further north he has secured his position by a mixture of alliances and force.

The first German alliance is with Hungary which in February 1939 has signed Hitler's Anti-Comintern Pact, though with considerable subsequent misgivings. In 1940 German forces, allied with local Fascists, bring Romania to heel (Hitler needs the rich Romanian oilfields). Outlying sections of Romanian territory are assigned to Hungary and Bulgaria. In March 1941 an enthusiastic Bulgaria signs the Anti-Commintern Pact. So by the spring of 1941 the regions north of Yugoslavia are all under German control.


On 6 April 1941 German troops invade Yugoslavia from Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania. Within a few days the country is overrun, after the government and king make their escape. Germany, Italy, Hungary and Bulgaria divide up the conquered territory between them. The German army then presses on into Greece, where a small British force has arrived during the previous month. The country is occupied almost as rapidly as Yugoslavia. The British are driven from the mainland by the end of April, and from Crete a month later.

The Balkans immediately become the scene of courageous and persistent resistance from partisans, in Greece, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria. But the region remains in German hands until 1944.


A turning point: June-December 1941

By May 1941, after twenty months of war, almost everything has gone Hitler's way.The nations of continental Europe are now either neutral (Switzerland, Sweden), neutral but Fascist (Spain, Portugal), merged with Germany (Austria), occupied by Germany (Czechoslovakia, Poland, Luxembourg, Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, most of France, most of the Balkans), forcibly neutralized (Vichy France) or allied to Germany (Italy, Hungary, USSR).

For a dictator who found himself at war with the world a year or two earlier than he would have wished, it is a most satisfactory achievement. The only failure has been the Battle of Britain, frustrating his plans to cross the Channel - but these were anyway somewhat half-hearted.


Admittedly in the very month when this situation is achieved, May 1941, there is one major setback. Germany's newest and most magnificent battleship, the Bismarck, has been launched earlier this year at Kiel. On her first sortie out of the Baltic she is spotted by the British navy. After doing much damage to the pack pursuing her, the vast ship is sunk on May 27 with the loss of nearly all her crew of 2222 sailors.

The state of the navy is a sore point between Hitler and his naval commander in chief, Erich Raeder. In the mid-1930s Hitler has assured Raeder, responsible for building up the fleet, that the coming war will not begin until 1944. Raeder therefore regards Germany's strength at sea as inadequate. After the loss of the Bismarck, his naval campaign focuses largely on U-boats.


If this is one of the significant turning points of 1941, two more are to follow before the end of the year. The first is Hitler's own doing. The second he has regarded as inevitable sooner or later. But together they will have a decisive effect on the outcome of the war.

The first involves Hitler's eastern policy. The USSR, the proselytizing force of world communism, has always been seen by Hitler as his main enemy. And it is to the east, through Poland and into the Ukraine, that his policy of Lebensraum and German expansion has been directed. An attack into these regions is part of his grand strategy. Hitler's skill has been to create the lull, with the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, which enables him to secure his western flank before turning his attention eastwards.


In this strategy he is, in effect, carrying out the Schlieffen Plan which his predecessors in World War I had been unable to achieve. They failed in the first part of the plan, the conquest of France. With that behind him, Hitler is now ready to move on to stage two - the attack on Russia. His mistake, failing to learn the lesson of Napoleon's campaign, is to believe that this can be a quick affair (though he might reasonably expect the speed of motorized transport to make the difference).

When the first Russian winter is bringing home the harsh reality, the other great turning point of 1941 takes place without Hitler even being forewarned. His Japanese allies tell him nothing of their plan for a secret attack on the US fleet in Pearl Harbor on December 7.


The events of the second half of 1941 add four major powers to the cast list of the world war. Hitler has dragged in the USSR, just as Japan's action forces the full involvement of the USA. Japan herself, until now engaged only in a regional conflict with China, also becomes a new player on the global scene. And China, as Japan's enemy, is automatically now an ally of the western powers.

Thus by the end of 1941 the final alignment of the war is established, in terms of the major powers involved. The Allies are Britain and the Commonwealth, France, the USA, the USSR and China; the Axis powers are Germany, Italy and Japan. (In fact even this alignment is not yet quite final - in 1943 Italy changes sides.)


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