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The approach of war
Hitler's Europe
     German-occupied Europe
     The Holocaust 1941-2
     The Holocaust 1942-5
     Resistance and partisans
     Second Fronts

After the war

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German-occupied Europe: 1943

By the autumn of 1943, the year in which Hitler takes direct control of southern France and northern Italy, the area of Europe occupied by Germany or under puppet rulers is greater than ever before. It includes the entire continental coastline from the Pyrenees to Norway; the Baltic nations from Poland to Estonia; Russia west of the Urals (a line approximately from the Baltic coast near Leningrad to the Black Sea); Czecholsovakia and Hungary (from 1944); and the Balkans.

This is the broad canvas on which Hitler is free to put into practice his vision of a new order. In his ideal world Germans will rule as a master race, inferior groups such as Slavs will be made use of as slave labour, and undesirables (Jews, Gypsies, Communists) will be exterminated.


These principles underlie the gradual development of the Nazis' murderous schemes. The appalling story unfolds in three separate stages.

Before the outbreak of war, with Germany and Austria exposed to the eyes of the world, persecution of Hitler's hated groups is limited to intimidation and violence. His underlying aim is to rid German territory of Jews by terrifying them into moving elsewhere. Visas to leave Germany are freely available, and the willingness to do so can even bring release from a concentration camp. By 1939 more than half the Jews in Germany and Austria have moved to other countries.


With the outbreak of war and the closing of borders, escape by emigration becomes difficult (though not at first absolutely impossible). And the German authorities are now free to carry out atrocities unobserved by the wider international community.

At first they largely refrain from doing so, at any rate on a systematic basis (the exception is Poland in 1939-40). After Germany's first conquests in the west, in the summer of 1940, the newly occupied countries (Luxembourg, Netherlands, Belgium, northern France) experience the horrors of an alien police state and the anti-Semitic measures long familiar within Germany. But German rule here is less brutally repressive than in the east. And the explanation lies in Hitler's theories.


Germans are to rule the united Europe of Hitler's dreams, but they will need assistance. This can only be provided, he believes, by 'Aryans' in the countries to the west of Germany, in those regions settled in the distant past by Germanic peoples such as Franks, Goths, Angles, Saxons and Vikings. He expects, ultimately, cooperation from the west. And he likes to emphasize that the future belongs not to a dominant nation, but a dominant race.

By contrast the regions to the east of Germany, inhabited by the Slavs whom he categorizes as Untermenschen ('subhumans'), are suitable only for subjugation. This explains the treatment of the Poles in 1939, and the sudden gear-change in German brutality with the invasion of Russia in 1941.


German treatment of Russian prisoners of war symbolizes the change. On June 27, five days after the invasion, the town of Minsk is surrounded. More than 100,000 Russian soldiers are captured and are herded into open fields, surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. They are given no food, and so over the next few weeks they starve to death. When winter comes, hundreds of thousands of Russian prisoners captured elsewhere on the front are even more easily got rid of. They freeze.

Subsequently the Germans realize that this policy is losing them a valuable reserve of slave labour. It is better that such people should die working for the Reich. In a speech to SS leaders Himmler emphasizes that there is no need to be concerned about 'What happens to a Russian'.


The invasion of Russia provides the same turning point in the German treatment of the Jews. In planning the campaign, Hitler and Himmler set up four Einsatzkommando (Special Task Commandos) to follow in the wake of the army. The special task for these SS men is to exterminate two groups of people, the most potent figures in Hitler's demonology, Communist officials and Jews.

The work is carried out with ruthless efficiency. Victims are rounded up in villages and towns, are herded into the countryside, are forced to dig long trenches and then are machine-gunned to fall into the ready-made graves. Within the first few weeks of the German presence in Russia tens of thousands of Jews are murdered in this systematic way. It is the beginning of the Holocaust.


The Holocaust: 1941-1942

The term holocaust, originally meaning a sacrifice consumed by fire in a Greek temple, has been used since the early 19th century for the murder of a large number of people. In recent decades it has acquired a much more specific significance. It now defines, almost exclusively, the systematic attempt by Hitler and the Nazis to exterminate the Jewish people. In the 20th century, which far outstripped all others in the horrors perpetrated by humans on their own kind, the Holocaust has come to stand as the defining atrocity.

It is also the atrocity, in the whole of world history, most deliberately planned as the fulfilment of a theory. A flawed and fanatic theory, but one of fatal potency.


The theory, articulated by Hitler in Mein Kampf and in frequent ranting speeches, taps into a deep-rooted European tradition of anti-Semitism, blends in some 19th-century fantasies about ethnic identity and racial purity, and finally adds a dash of 20th-century neurosis about socialism. The troubles of Germany and Austria are thereby blamed on a conspiracy of Jews , working like a virus in all spheres of national life to take over the economy and even, through sexual intermingling, to degrade the pure Aryan stock.

The misfortune underlying the tragedy of the Holocaust is that someone with these views succeeds in becoming the leader of a powerful nation and then, for a brief while, the conqueror of Europe.


From achieving power in 1933 until the outbreak of war in 1939 (an event for which he holds the Jews responsible), Hitler's ambition is to rid Germany and Austria of the nations' long-resident Jews by making them move elsewhere. But with his invasion of Russia in 1941 he begins to conceive a more drastic outcome. The 'final solution of the Jewish problem' (a phrase used in Nazi documents from early in 1942) will be death.

Within the first few days of the Russian campaign Hitler's Special Task forces round up and shoot large numbers of Jews. In two weeks of continual executions in early July, in the city of Kishinev alone, one such task force kills 10,000 people.


On June 27, in Bialystok, German soldiers chase Jews through the narrow streets around a blazing synagogue, like devils in a medieval scene of the Last Judgement. Hundreds of Jews have been locked into the synagogue before it is set on fire. Once it is blazing, the doors are broken down and others are shoved into the cauldron.

But the Nazis are already working on a less visible and more efficient method of achieving their purpose. It is first employed at Chelmno, in Poland, during 1941. Three vans are specially adapted for the killing of people through exposure to lethal gas. During the first six months 97,000 Jews die in these vans. The scheme is considered highly successful. So steps are taken to provide larger-scale death camps with permanent buildings.


These death camps are built on Polish or Russian soil. One of the first and largest is Treblinka (in Poland) where more than 750,000 Jews are killed during 1942, most of them brought there from the Warsaw ghetto.

The placing of the concentration camps in the east, relatively out of sight, is a practical measure of discretion by the Nazi high command. On 20 January 1942 a meeting is convened at Wannsee, a lakeside villa near Berlin, by Himmler's second-in-command in the SS, Reinhard Heydrich. Heydrich has been put in charge of the 'final solution'. The purpose of the meeting is to discuss the practical arrangements.


It is taken for granted by now in these high Nazi circles that the solution must apply to Jews in all the nations occupied by the Germans. But death camps in France or the Netherlands will be more exposed to view. So it is decided that Jews from such countries must be brought to the Polish camps.

Thus begins one of the abiding images of the holocaust - trains of cattle trucks into which Jews are crowded, heading for an unknown destination. The programme is described as 'transportation of the Jews towards the Russian East'. Early in 1942 the prospect facing these people is immediate death. But later there are two possibilities - immediate death by gas, or slow death by hard labour and deprivation.


The Holocaust: 1942-1945

During 1942 it occurs to the Nazis that, as with the Soviet prisoners of war, they are wasting valuable slave labour in their policy of automatic murder of the Jews. So a new form of camp is planned in which those on the trains will be classified, on arrival, as 'fit' or 'unfit' to work. The fit go one way, to the prison huts where they will live for a while as unpaid and underfed labourers. The unfit go the other way, to the gas chambers.

The first camp of this kind, ready for use in March 1942, is built at Auschwitz in Poland. An unknown number of people (certainly well in excess of a million) die in this camp in the next three years. More than half of them - the unfit, the elderly, the children - are killed in the four gas chambers within a day or two of their arrival.


Those judged fit 'to be worked to death' (a phrase used by Himmler) are put to the service of Germany's war production. Factories are moved from the vulnerable Ruhr, in the west, to the neighbourhood of Auschwitz - beyond the range of Allied bombers. Several of Germany's great industrial enterprises tarnish their reputation by benefiting during these years from Jewish slave labour.

By the end of 1942 knowledge of what is going on is not limited to those actively involved on the German side. On December 17 Anthony Eden tells the House of Commons in London that reliable reports have been received 'regarding the barbarous and inhuman treatment to which Jews are being subjected in German-occupied Europe'.


Eden is putting before the House an international declaration, published on that day, which is more direct in its account of what is actually going on. Issued jointly by the USA, the USSR, Great Britain and the governments in exile of nine occupied European countries, the declaration condemns in the strongest possible terms Germany's 'bestial policy of cold-blooded extermination'.

This is straightforward language, in stark contrast to the terms used in Nazi documents about a solution to the Jewish question and journeys to the east. But it is this veil of German euphemism which has enabled a few extreme right-wing historians to argue the preposterous theory that Hitler did not know what the terms meant and so was perhaps personally unaware of the Holocaust.


Although by far the largest group of victims to die because of Hitler's theories (about 6 million), the Jews are not alone. Gypsies too are considered a polluting threat to an Aryan society. Rounded up and sent to the camps, most of them are marked down for Sonderhandlung ('special treatment' - another Nazi euphemism, meaning murder). It is calculated that in all some 400,000 Gypsies are killed.

Even 'Aryans' are not immune from the obsession with purity and perfection. In 1939 Hitler signs an ultra-secret decree authorising the death of any German judged 'incurably ill'. This covers mental illness, and the victims (probably about 100,000 in the next two years) are later described as 'useless defectives'. They too should be considered victims of the Holocaust.


Resistance and partisans: 1940-1945

For Jews in towns or ghettos, as for any civilians living in a modern police state, resistance to the authorities is almost impossible (though the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto in April 1943 demonstrates how much can be achieved by desperate people fighting in extreme circumstances). The only effective form of resistance in an occupied country is to vanish into a hidden underworld of secret cells, building up a network of like-minded partisans who will undertake any task to frustrate the occupying regime - from securing safe havens for hunted men to acts of sabotage and guerrilla warfare.

Each of the German-occupied countries has a resistance movement of this kind, helped as far as possible by secret agents and weapons parachuted in by the Allies.


For several reasons the Communists are the most widely represented group within the various resistance movements. They are themselves targets for extermination by their hated rivals, the Fascists. They have a ready-made political structure in place, from their peacetime activities of subversion and disruption. And they hope to build up a wartime presence in each country which will enable them to seize power when the Nazis are finally pushed out.

These international aims place the Communist partisans in direct opposition to the other main group of resistance fighters, those whose devotion is to a nationalist cause and who usually owe allegiance to a government or royal family in exile.


The Balkans is the region in which the rivalry between Communist and nationalist guerrillas reaches its most extreme level, to the point of seriously reducing the benefit to the Allies.

Yugoslavia has by far the largest resistance movement in wartime Europe. It is so successful that by early 1942 two rival groups are in control of areas large enough to be adminstered as separate independent territories. The rivals are the Communists, led by Tito, and the Serbian nationalists. Competing with each other as much as against the Germans, they are already struggling for the future control of Yugoslavia. So are two similar groups in Greece, whose enmity is transformed into open civil war once the Germans have been driven out.


One of the tasks in which partisan movements can greatly help the Allied cause is in preparing for a future invasion. This element gives particular significance to the resistance movement in France, with a long Atlantic coastline suitable for a surprise landing.

There are many separate French resistance movements, among whom the Communists are one of the strongest. But here an umbrella organization, promoted by de Gaulle from London, does succeed in making the rivals cooperate. The French Résistance becomes famous under the general name of the maquis (a word meaning shrubby vegetation or undergrowth, suggestive both of a hiding place and of the nature of an underground movement).


On 1 February 1944 the various groups of the maquis are formally merged into a single administrative unit, to be known as the Forces Françaises de l'Intérieur. This grand title (French Forces of the Interior) fits well a new role being prepared for them.

When the Allied invasion of occupied France finally comes, in June of this same year, the maquis play a significant role in the interior. In the early stage they carry out acts of sabotage behind the German lines. And then they adjust to the role of conventional troops, helping to drive the Germans further and further back from the liberated areas.


Second Fronts: 1941-1943

From the time of the first German onslaught against Russia, in 1941, Stalin has been demanding that Churchill launch a second front across the Channel to divert German troops from the east. Churchill argues in telegrams that such a move would fail because Britain has as yet neither the landing craft nor the divisions to attempt an amphibious assault on a strongly protected coast. Stalin merely reiterates his demand, with the added implication that the British are afraid of confronting the Germans head-on and should derive courage from the Russian example.

By August 1942 Churchill becomes convinced that he must meet Stalin in person to persuade him that a landing in France is not possible until 1943 at the earliest - and to bring him news of another landing soon to take place.


Churchill flies to Moscow by the only safe route, skirting round the European theatre of war - first to Cairo, then to Teheran and thus, east of the fierce battle developing at Stalingrad, northwest to the Russian capital. In talks lasting five days Stalin still refuses to accept that an immediate invasion of France is not possible, but he responds warmly to news of Operation Torch - the codename for the imminent invasion of northwest Africa by US and British troops.

In the event Stalin's expectation of an invasion of France is frustrated even during 1943, a year in which the western Allies decide to make Italy their next target - and in which U-boat activity in the Atlantic is seriously reducing the flow of supplies from the USA to Britain.


The German production of bigger and faster U-boats, and the increase of the fleet to 240 under Karl Dönitz (a World War I submarine officer recently given command of the German navy), results in a massive increase in the number of merchant ships sunk in the early months of 1943. The crucial battle of the Atlantic is reaching its climax, and Germany seems poised to win it.

But the Allies also have new weapons in the pipeline, including longer-range bombers and short-wave radar (which can detect U-boats without them being aware of it). In April and May 1943 fifty-six U-boats are sunk, with the result that from now on the convoys suffer greatly reduced losses. Just in time, victory in the Atlantic goes to the Allies.


There is yet another front on which the advantage swings during 1943. During 1940 the civilian victims of night-time bombing raids have mainly been the inhabitants of British towns. But in 1942-3 the strategy which the Germans first used to such effect is turned upon them with a new intensity.

During 1943, from March to July, Britain's Bomber Command mounts an almost nightly campaign against the industrial targets in the Ruhr. And with heavier bombs the technique of carpet bombing, pioneered at Coventry, leads to a devastating new phenomenon, the fire storm. The one that rages through the narrow streets of Wuppertal, during the night of May 29, kills some 3400 people - compared to about 550 in Coventry.


The assault on the Ruhr is followed by equally intense attacks on Hamburg (July to November 1943, causing a million people to flee the city) and on Berlin (November 1943 to March 1944). The destruction is devastating, but there is also a huge loss of bombers and their crews. And as with Britain in 1940, the Blitz fails to break the morale of the German people. More effective, at minimal cost, is the brilliantly daring and ingenious raid in which two hydroelectric schemes in the Ruhr valley are destroyed in May 1943 by the bouncing bombs of the Dam Busters.

Thus in Italy, in the Atlantic and in the air over Germany there are second fronts of various kinds during 1943. But the one which Stalin most wants, in France, has still not materialized.


Churchill accepts reluctantly the need to postpone by a year the planned invasion of Normandy (codenamed Overlord), which cannot happen with any reasonable chance of success before the summer of 1944. Meanwhile Russian advances early in 1944 suggest that Stalin can perhaps succeed without the controversial second front. In January the Russians finally push back the German army besieging Leningrad. On fronts further south they press ahead into Poland, cross the borders of Romania and almost reach Hungary. In April they recapture the Crimea.

It is another two months before the western Allies will be ready to cross the Channel. There are alarming signs of a race developing. Which of Stalin's forces or the western Allies will penetrate furthest into central Europe and Germany?


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