December 25th in German History: The Christmas Truce

What Happened When WWI Paused for Christmas - HISTORY

In 1914, the world entered what was at the time the deadliest war in its history. In the months following the outbreak of hostilities, thousands from every great power died on the field of battle, killed in a war they were told would be over by Christmas. It is surprising then, that for a few days in December of 1914, from the 24th to the 26th, soldiers along the Western Front ceased fighting and congregated in no man’s land. Soldiers shouted greetings at each other from opposite sides, established informal truces, and for a short time left the trenches that were their homes. Together, they disobeyed orders from superiors and joined in celebration. Soldiers talked about the war. One, British Captain Robert Miles, said of the Germans: “They are distinctly bored with the war…. In fact, one of them wanted to know what on earth we were doing here fighting them.” Sadly, the truce did not outlast Christmas. Fighting resumed by the end of the month. In the ensuing years the conflict would only grow more brutal, and the frequency of truces decreased as soldiers came to hate the other side more and more. It is heartening that soldiers from different countries who has so recently wanted only to kill each other were able to establish a peace that, briefly, brought some measure of peace to a world on fire.

November 25th in German History: The Anti-Comintern Pact

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The Japanese Ambassador and the German Foreign Minister sign the Anti-Comintern Pact.

In the mid 1930s, most of the international community did not think Adolf Hitler’s Germany would start the next great war. Indeed, many thought that it could be a bulwark against communism. Although fears of communist invasion had abated somewhat following the ascension of Joseph Stalin who helped to normalize the nation in international relations through trade with capitalist countries, the Soviet Union was still a specter hanging over Europe and the world. Thus, Fascist leaders throughout the world used anti-communist rhetoric to increase their public image. The culmination of this effort was the Anti-Comintern pact, signed first in 1936 by Germany and Japan.

The impetus for the negotiations between Japan and Germany that led to the pact was the Soviet rapprochement with moderate and liberal parties in Western nations. In the 1920s and into the early 1930s the Soviet policy was that social democrats, liberals, and fascists were all aligned and used the term “social fascists” to attack moderates. In Germany, the Communist party’s refusal to work with non-communist anti-fascist parties allowed Hitler to rise to power. Stalin believed that the continuation of the hostile-to-all policy could allow Fascists to gain power in other countries and so at the Seventh World Congress of the Comintern he ordered Communist parties to work with moderates against Fascists. Seeing the union of the center and the left against their ideology, Nazi leaders looked to form a united Fascist front and so began negotiations with Imperial Japan to form an anti-Communist alliance which they could use to rally international support. While the negotiations were disordered and the USSR did learn of them through subterfuge, Germany and Japan were able to agree to a defensive pact. Further, a secret portion of the agreement called for a united anti-Soviet foreign policy. The pact would expand in 1937 with Italy signing on followed by Spain, Hungary, and Japan’s Manchurian puppet in 1939. However, the relevance of the pact decreased following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that resulted in improved German-Soviet relations. Japan became more anti-American after it and the USSR signed a non-aggression pact following a border conflict. Nevertheless, the two nations would renew it in 1941 and in that year a number of Axis-occupied and allied nations would join. Because the German invasion of the USSR was offensive Japan was not obligated to join and so it remained at peace with the Soviet Union until 1945. The fall of Nazi Germany and the defeat of Imperial Japan formally ended the pact; any relevance it had ever had ceased to exist years earlier.

The Anti-Comintern Pact is an example of pure diplomatic posturing. There was never any real ideological unit between Germany and Japan, and both nations would betray its word or its principle when it suited them. Fascism is an ideology that is nationalistic to an extreme degree, and fascist dictators tend to only make decisions that they think will benefit their nation even at the expense of their nominal allies. The lack of cooperation between the Axis powers contrasts with the cooperation between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union, and was a major factor in the Allied victory.

November 15th: Volkstrauertag

Germany has a terrible history of aggressive warfare and its armies have committed innumerable crimes against humanity. Thus, the nation is less comfortable with celebrating its soldiers in a manner similar to the US or the UK. Instead of a Veterans’ Day, Germany has Volkstrauertag, a day to commemorate the soldiers and civilians of all nations who died in war and as a result of violent oppression. On this day, Germany remembers all victims of war, and in doing so rises above national boundaries.

The history of German veteran’s celebrations follows the nature of German governments. In 1893, Prussia consolidated the many days of remembrance into Buß- und Bettag, to be celebrated on November 23rd. In 1919, the German War Graves Commission proposed that a Volkstrauertag remembering German WWI dead be established and the holiday was held first in 1922. In 1934, the Nazi government introduced Heldengedenktag, a day of hero worship not remembrance. Heldengedenktag was celebrated until 1945 when following the defeat of Nazi Germany the population lost any desire to hold the celebration. In 1948 Volkstrauertag was first celebrated and in 1952 it was changed to honor civilians who died under oppressive governments. Since then the holiday has been celebrated on the end of the liturgical year. The holiday stands as an example of Germany’s efforts to cope with its horrific past and move forward as part of the global community.

Wunderwaffe and the Myth of German Technological Supremacy

Tiger II - Wikipedia
A Tiger II tank.

Since the end of the Second World War, much has been made of German weapons and their purported superiority over their Allied counterparts. German planes are supposed to have been faster and better armed, German small arms possessed a higher rate of fire, German missiles revolutionized long-range warfare, and German tanks ruled the battlefield. Propaganda during the war has affected popular history and scholarship and only recently has the myth of German dominance begun to weaken in the general consciousness.

During the 1930s, German propagandists under Joseph Goebbels began creating the image of a mechanized and advanced German Army. While not an outright lie, some units were mechanized, it was an exaggeration. Most units used horses and wagons for transport and possessed relatively few trucks and half-tracks. The army only had a handful of Panzer divisions, and these were equipped mostly with Panzer I and II tanks which were inferior to their French and British counterparts. German small arms did generally have superior rates of fire, but this came with less durability and a far higher manufacturing cost. In the area of artillery, the vaunted German 88 mm gun was little suited to either anti-aircraft or anti-tank combat than the British 3.7-inch gun. The Luftwaffe under Hermann Goering continued the Weimar Republic’s development of advanced fighter planes, producing the famous BF-109 fighter and the Stuka dive bomber. While these planes were ahead of their time in 1939, by 1940 they were no better than their British counterparts. The BF-109 was difficult to fly and during the Battle of Britain, the Supermarine Spitfire matched it in overall combat performance. Of course, Germany was the first to field a jet fighter in larger numbers, the ME 262, but this lead in jet technology was more than made up for by America’s and Britain’s superior long-range bombers. Towards the end of the war, Germany developed several heavy tanks, the so-called “big cats,” which receive a great deal of attention. Broadly speaking, however, they were unreliable and fuel-intensive. Further, from a technological perspective, they were not more advanced than the American Patton tank or the British Centurion. However, those tanks were rightly viewed as too experimental and too expensive to produce in large numbers and ship over to the European theater. The Germans chose to use expensive and unreliable tanks and paid the price every time a Tiger was too heavy to cross a bridge or a Panther broke down and there were no spare parts to repair it. Finally, we often forget the many areas in which the Allies were ahead of the Germans. By the end of the war, the Allies had superior encryption and radar technology, and throughout the conflict, their industrial technology was far superior. And of course, the Allies developed the Atomic Bomb first, an achievement which outweighs any marginal German advantages in tank armor.

In the end, the Allies’ superiority in bomber aircraft, industrial technology, and communications at the very least matched what advantages Germany had in tanks and jet fighters. The popular consensus that Germany possessed superior technology and the Allies only beat them because of their far superior numbers is a result not of reality but of German propaganda and its influence on popular history. The belief in German superiority is harmful not only in that it is wrong but more importantly in that it serves to validate both the idea of German superiority and the effectiveness of the Nazi government. 

German Industrial Development

Ruhr Valley, Germany - WorldAtlas
The Ruhr Valley, historically the industrial heartland of Germany.

As I said on Monday, I have decided to stop posting daily as school has started and I now have less time. I intend instead to write longer posts on more general topics. Each week, I plan to pick a topic and write a summary of it and and provide analysis and historical context. The one I have chosen for this first post is German industrial development from the 18th to the 20th century.

While Germany is today the industrial heart of Europe, that was not always the case. The industrial revolution began in Britain in the late 18th century with the invention and practical use of the steam engine. Britain was the first nation to have railroads and build steamships, and initially held a monopoly over large-scale manufacturing. France, however, soon followed Britain and with extensive government involvement began to industrialize. The different German states were controlled mostly by conservative leaders who opposed economic change as it threatened their political control. Further, political disunity and internecine conflicts prevented region-wide industrialization until the 18th century. However, Germany did have certain advantages. It had a well-educated populace. The Prussian education system and systems like it in other German states ensured a literate and skilled populace. Further, Germany had a great deal of coal and some iron, allowing it to build and fuel machines. Germany also had a shortage of high quality land for farming, which forced it to turn to other methods to gain wealth.

In 1834 Prussia and the other non-Austrian German states formed the Zollverein, a customs union which facilitated intra-German trade and established tariffs on non-German goods. This union ensured a market for German goods and protected nascent industries from foreign competition. Further, the introduction of potatoes and other crops led to higher yields which created a surplus population that could move to cities. This combination of cheap labor and ready markets led to a boom in industry which was concentrated along the Rhine River. Similarly to Britain and the US, Germany experienced a railroad boom which connected the disparate states and allowed for the transportation of goods and, in times of war, soldiers. Following unification this first German economic miracle only expanded. German industry was organised into a series of cartels which determined output and prices in order to protect industry for international competition. By the turn of the 20th century Germany was the world’s largest producer of chemicals and second largest producer of steel and coal. By 1914 Germany’s economy was the largest in Europe and second largest in the world, behind only that of the USA.

However, the First World War put enormous strain on the economy. Germany was cut off from international trade by the British blockade and thus lost national resources which were necessary for production. It could not produce enough synthetic nitrates to satisfy the demand for fertilizer, leading to the collapse of domestic agriculture in 1917. Workers moved from civilian to military industries which led to a decrease in domestic consumption. Most importantly, millions of laborers joined the army and millions died. By the end of the war, the German economy had decreased by 40% relative to its prewar size. Following the war, Germany lost territory and was forced to pay large war indemnities. However, the economy rebounded towards the end of the 1920s with US loans facilitating a economic expansion known as the Weimar Golden Age. The start of the Great Depression derailed this period of growth and led to massive poverty and unemployment and a steep decline in industrial output. The Nazi Party came to power amid the chaos and set about instituting a series of massive public works and rearmament programs meant to end unemployment and rejuvenate the economy. While the German economy did rebound somewhat, the underlying financial schemes used to fund these project would have led to collapse if not for WWII.

The Second World War opened with Germany again losing connection to world markets. However, it was able to loot occupied nations, especially France, to sustain its military and civilian industries for the first years. As the war dragged on, however, Germany had to shift to a militarized economy. From 1943 on Germany suffered extensively from losses of manpower and from allied bombing. Strict rationing was introduced and consumer goods production decreased to almost nothing. When the war ended in 1945 Germany was in ruins. Most of its cities were destroyed and the US and the Soviet Union attempted to de-industrialize what remained by removing factories. However, Germany still possessed an educated and hard-working populace. Under the leadership of Konrad Adenauer and with aid from the US, West Germany rebuilt its economy and quickly surpassed pre-war production levels. This Wirtschaftswunder saw miraculous growth which again made Germany the largest economy in Europe even before unification with the east. Since the 1990s, German industry has continued to advance and today the country has one of the highest rates automation. Although Germany experienced some manufacturing decline along with the rest of Europe, it remains a major industrial nation and is still one of the largest exporters of goods in the world.

September 7th: The Death of Wilhelm Pieck and Update

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Wilhelm Pieck.

Wilhelm Pieck was a communist activist and East German politician. He was born in 1876 and was educated as a carpenter. In 1894 he joined the German Timber Workers Association and the wood-worker’s federation. As a member, he became increasingly political and in 1895 he joined the Social Democratic Party of Germany. He rose through he party, becoming chairman in 1906. Pieck opposed WWI and in 1915 was arrested at a demonstration. He was arrested again for opposing the war and moved to Luxembourg to live in exile for a short time. When he returned in 1918 he joined the Communist Party of Germany and in 1919 was arrested along with Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht. The latter two were killed by Far-right partisans on the way to the prison, but Pieck managed to escape. He continued to lead communist organisations until 1933 when Hitler took power. He fled to Russia with his family and lived in Moscow until 1945. After the war ended he moved to East Germany and set about organizing the Socialist Unity Party. He was made president of East Germany and served in that position until 1960. However, after he lost the chairmanship in 1950 he was not dominant in party politics. He was very old and suffered two strokes in the 1950s. In August of 1960 he left Berlin and died the next month.


As you may or may not be aware, I am a high school student. My school is set to begin the fall semester tomorrow. As such, I will not have the time to write as many posts as I do now or maintain a daily schedule for posts. That being said, I will attempt to write several posts each week. Further, I am considering shifting to a new format instead of discussing events that occurred on a given day.

September 6th in German History: The Munich Massacre

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One of the terrorists on a balcony.

Germany has seen its fair share of terrorist attacks. Political and religious extremists have multiple times killed Germans so as to create fear or make a perverse point. However, less common are attacks on German soil that have targeted non-Germans. One such attack was the Munich massacre, which ended on September 6th, 1972.

On September 5th, 1972, members of the Palestinian terrorist group Black September took nine members of the Israeli Olympic team hostage, killing two members in the process. The takers demanded the release of 234 Palestinians in Israeli prisons and the release of the founders of the terrorist Red Army Faction from German prisons. Negotiations were held over a period of several hours but the terrorists refused to release the hostages. German police attempted a rescue, but failed after one of the Palestinians threatened to kill two hostages. Following the breakdown of negotiations the authorities feigned agreement to the terrorist’s demands. However, they planned to use snipers and police on rescue helicopters to extract the hostages and rescue the captives. However the police aboard the helicopter voted to abandon the mission and the sharpshooters were thus outnumbered and failed to overpower the terrorists before they slaughtered the athletes.

Certainly, the main consequence of the attack were the deaths of eleven Israelis and one German police officer. The attack also forced the postponement of the games for 34 hours. In revenge, over the next twenty years Israel carried out a series of assassinations against members of the Black September group. While certainly violent, this response was entirely necessary. Acts of terrorism cannot go unpunished, and surviving perpetrators make for excellent recruiters.

September 5th in German History: The Birth of Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb

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Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb.

During the Second World War, all branches of the German military committed war crimes to some degree. Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb was a member of the old guard of the Wehrmacht who was fired by Hitler and who claimed to to have been innocent. He was born on September 5th, 1876.

Leeb was born in Landsberg am Lech, in Bavaria, in 1876. In 1895 he joined the Bavarian Army and fought in the Boxer Rebellion. He joined the Bavarian General Staff and in WWI served on the Eastern Front. He fought well in the campaign against Serbia and with Russia. In 1915 he was awarded the Military Order of Max Joseph and was thus made a noble. He stayed in the army after the war and in 1938 was made commander of the 12th Army. He opposed the plan to attack France through Belgium but nevertheless fought in the Battle of France. He was commander of Army Group North during Operation Barbarossa and was tasked with taking Leningrad. During the invasion Leeb’s men looted and burned Russian villages and shot civilians. Further, Leeb voiced little opposition when he learned of the systematic killing of Jewish civilians in conquered areas. Despite initial advances, Leningrad held out against German bombardment and starvation, and on December 15th, 1941, Leeb pulled his forced back without authorization in order to avoid encirclement. In January of 1942 Leeb asked for freedom of action or to be relieved; Hitler relieved him. After the war, Leeb was convicted of war crimes and served three years in prison. He retired to his estate after he was released and died in 1956.

Leeb’s complicity in war crimes is proof that at the highest positions of authority, it is next to impossible to be blameless when atrocities are committed. One has the duty to oppose such actions when one can; simply ignoring them is not enough.

September 4th in German History: Fritz Todt is Born

Bundesarchiv Bild 146-1969-146-01, Fritz Todt.jpg
Fritz Todt.

A few days ago, I discussed Albert Speer. Speer was catapulted to the height of his power by the death of another man, Fritz Todt. Todt was the Minister for Armaments and Production before his death in 1942. He was born on September 4th, 1891.

Todt was born in Baden, in the south of Germany, to a small-scale factory owner and his wife. He studied engineering from 1911 to 1914 and during WWI served first in the infantry and second in the airforce, where he earned an Iron Cross. In 1922 he joined the Nazi Party and quickly rose through the ranks of the SA, the party’s paramilitary wing. In 1933, after Hitler became Chancellor, he was given authority over all German roads. He was outside the general bureaucratic system and was under the direct authority of Hitler. As long as the infrastructure projects he headed were successful, he would keep his position; his neutrality in party politics kept him out of the cross hairs of many of the most powerful Nazis. In the late 1930s he gained ever more power over the German economy, particularly in the armaments industry. In 1940 he was appointed Minister for Armaments and Munitions and so managed the German war economy. However, he became less popular than Hitler throughout 1941 as Germany experienced shortages of equipment and resources. After a tour of the Eastern Front, Todt told Hitler that unless more equipment could be produced, peace should be made with the USSR. Nevertheless, he continued to manage the economy until 1942 when he died in a plane crash at the age of fifty.

There is some speculation that Todt was assassinated by Hitler. The investigation into the cause of the crash was ended quickly and his position was filled by Albert Speer, a man who Hitler had grown to like more than Todt. Regardless of the cause of his death, Todt is interesting in that he is remembered primarily as the man who died so that Speer could gain prominence. While it may be appropriate, it is unfortunate that his achievements, although they were generally negative, are forgotten in favor of a more notable individual.

September 3rd in German History: France and the UK begin the blockade of Germany

World War II -- aftermath in Germany : post-War food crisis Western Zones
German children in the aftermath of WWII food shortages.

In every war Germany has fought with the UK, the Royal Navy has been able to cut off Germany from oceanic trade. WWII was no different. On September 3rd, two days after Germany invaded Poland, Great Britain and France used their navies to stop the passage of trade vessels to German ports.

The initial phase of the naval blockade ran from 1939 to 1940 and saw Germany cut off from direct trade with the Americas, Africa, and Asia. However, under the provisions of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Germany was able to purchase food and fuel from the USSR, and this lessened the effects of the blockade on Germany’s war-making capabilities. In June of 1940 Germany invaded and occupied France, thus gaining access to more ports and to a land border with Spain. Spain could import war materials and then sell them to the Germans, and could also sell domestically produced tungsten and aluminum and transport it overland. Germany also extracted natural recrudesces and food from France, which further helped the nation make up for domestic shortfalls. However, German attempts to directly combat the blockade generally failed as did attempts to carry out a blockade of Great Britain using submarines. In 1941 the situation worsened for Germany with the invasion of the Soviet Union. Germany could no longer import resources from the east and further failed to effectively exploit the areas of the USSR it occupied. Once the allies liberated France and the Balkans, Germany could no longer extract resources from those countries. Over the course of the war, Germany suffered from ever-worsening shortages of food, oil, steel, and numerous other materials. These shortages decreased the output of German industry and contributed to the collapse of the German Army in 1945.

WWII was fundamentally an economic war. Germany invaded nations in order to secure raw materials and land with the objective of achieving national self-sufficiency. However, Germany’s attempt to end reliance on other nations only led to shortages and failed in the end. In contrast, Great Britain made amazing use of its colonies and allies and was able to produce more weapons than Germany even with a smaller industrial base at the beginning of the war. In the end, reliance on international trade and specialization was not a weakness; rather, it allowed nations to make the best use of their own capabilities.