It took the largest war in human history to bring about the downfall of Nazism. The invasion of Poland in September 1939 was not intended to provoke a major war. In Hitler’s mind, it was another act of expansion, much like the Anschluss with Austria and the Nazi incursion into Czechoslovakia. Hitler believed the British were unwilling to initiate another war and that London would instead seek a second agreement. But within a fortnight of the Polish invasion, France, Britain and several British Empire countries had all declared war on Germany. Since neither Germany or the Allies were prepared for a major conflict, the first months of World War II produced little major fighting outside Poland. Instead, combatant nations prepared themselves by recruiting and mobilising troops, ramping up military production and organising the home front.
This ‘phoney war’, as it became known, ended in April and May 1940, when the Nazis launched a series of invasions across western Europe. More than a million Wehrmacht and SS troops marched into Denmark, Norway, France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. The military forces in these countries defended gallantly but were overrun by the Nazi blitzkrieg, or ‘lightning war’, a form of mechanised warfare that emphasised speed and penetration. By the end of 1940, German forces controlled most of western Europe. They would occupy these countries for four years, installing puppet governments, pillaging their economies, forcing populations to labour, and arresting and deporting Jews and other racial targets.
In mid-1941 Hitler initiated Operation Barbarossa and ordered the invasion of Soviet Russia, less than two years after the signing of the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact. Hitler’s decision to strike at Russia was no surprising: it was both the home of his ideological foe, Stalin, and the critical prize in his quest for lebensraum. The timing of Barbarossa, however, proved disastrous. A great number of German troops were still tied up in western Europe and as far afield as Greece and northern Africa. The Soviet invasion not only committed more than a million troops to the Eastern Front, as it became known, it also placed added strains on the German wartime economy. Hitler’s generals had urged him not to order the Soviet invasion until 1943, or 1942 at the earliest, but they were overruled.
Despite these strains in the east, the Nazi war machine remained firmly entrenched in western Europe. Local resistance and partisan groups carried out covert operations against the Nazis, but could not displace them. Pushing the Germans out of western Europe was only achieved by a massive British, French, American and Soviet counter-offensive, launched on June 6th 1944 (‘D-Day’). After one of the largest military build-ups in history, Allied troops were ferried across the English Channel, where they stormed the heavily-fortified beaches of Nazi-occupied France. Despite heavy losses, the Allies breached the German defences and began to pour into Europe. In the east, two years of Operation Barbarossa had proved an unmitigated disaster, costing Germany more than a million men. By the end of 1944, German forces were depleted, divided and in retreat across Europe. The defeat of Nazi Germany was not only inevitable, it was also imminent.
Hitler shared the doomed fate of his war machine. His disastrous decision to invade Russia before schedule made him deeply unpopular with many of his generals. In July 1944 a group of Wehrmacht officers attempted to assassinate Hitler by planting a bomb at his feet during an army briefing. Hitler was wounded but survived, however, he retreated from public view and was rarely seen or heard thereafter. By the dawn of 1945, Hitler and his inner circle were cowering in a fortified bunker beneath the Chancellery building in Berlin. As the Soviet Red Army advanced towards the capital, the now-delusional Hitler issued futile battle plans to armies that were incapable of carrying them out. He also handed down a ‘scorched earth’ command, ordering the utter destruction of Germany so that nothing would be left to the Soviet invaders. Mercifully, this order was never carried out.
On April 30th, as Russian troops entered the outskirts of Berlin, Adolf Hitler committed suicide. The leadership of Germany passed to Joseph Goebbels, but within 24 hours he too took his own life. Elsewhere, other Nazi leaders were either in Allied custody or running like fugitives. The German surrender came on May 7th, a week after Hitler’s death. Nazism, the proud and boastful movement of the 1930s, was drawing its final breaths. The Nazis had promised the German people dignity, respect and prosperity – and for a time seemed to deliver on these promises. But their ultimate legacy was a war that had claimed the lives of more than 48 million people, a racial genocide unlike any other in history, and a Germany that was devastated, occupied and torn apart for more than 40 years.
1. Hitler’s invasion of Poland triggered declarations of war from Britain, France and several other nations.
2. In May 1940 the Nazis began the invasion of western Europe, invading and occupying France, Belgium, and others.
3. The conquest of western Europe was followed by an ambitious invasion of Soviet Russia in June 1941.
4. An Allied counter-offensive, beginning June 1944, pushed the Nazis out of western Europe and into retreat.
5. In early 1945 Germany was itself invaded, while Hitler and his inner circle took refuge in Berlin. Hitler committed suicide in April 1945 and the German surrender followed a week after.