August 13th in German History: Construction on the Berlin Wall Begins

The Berlin Wall

The Berlin Wall was the most visible symbol of communist oppression in Europe. For twenty-eight years it stood, holding the people of East Berlin captive under an oppressive government. On August 13th, 1961, the border between East and west Germany was officially closed and construction on the wall began.

East German workers build the Berlin Wall.

After the Second World War, Germany was divided into two zones. The west was under French, British, and American occupation and the east was put under Soviet occupation. Soon, the western powers combined their zone to form the Federal Republic of Germany and shortly after the eastern portion was made into the nominally independent German Democratic Republic. However, these two states quickly saw divergent standards of living. US aid in the form of the Marshall Plan along with superior economic policies led to the standard of living in West Germany rising far faster than in East Germany. Although the main border between the two states was closed, the border between East and West Berlin remained opened, creating a loophole which allowed migration. This allowed a large number of East Germans to flee from east to west. By 1961, twenty percent of the East German population emigrated to the Federal Republic. These people were dis proportionally young and well-educated, leading to a brain drain. The East German economy suffered and so did the prestige of its ideology, Soviet Socialism. Both the east German government and its puppet masters in the USSR realized that something had to be done. Thus, when John F. Kennedy, president at the time, said that the US would not take military action if the border in Berlin were closed, Walter Ubricht, the chair of the Socialist Unity Party, decided that the time was right to close the border and build a barrier. Thus, on August 13th, 1961, East German troops were sent to the border with orders to shoot those who attempted to cross. On that day, workers began demolishing buildings and setting up the barriers, guard towers, bunkers, and minefields that would make up the wall.

The Berlin Wall did solve the immediate problem faced by East Germany. It prevented illegal border crossings and kept the people of East Germany from fleeing west. However, it in the long term contributed to the destruction of Soviet Socialist as an acceptable ideology. The wall showed the world that the Soviet system was fundamentally inferior to the capitalist one of the west, and demonstrated that force was necessary to prevent people from choosing the west over the east. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the Soviet Union’s grip on Eastern Europe shattered. Its grip on the minds of the people, however, was shattered when the Berlin Wall rose.

August 12th in German History: The Wola Massacre Ends

Wola Massacre Memorial on Górczewska Street | The Wola massa… | Flickr
The memorial to the Wola massacre.

During the Second World War, Germany was responsible for an uncountable massacres, atrocities and genocides. The reasons for these acts were many, but they often boiled down to a combination of racist hatred and a brutally practical desire to eliminate resistance. These motivations were behind the Wola Massacre, the killing of tens of thousands of Poles by German soldiers. The massacre ended on August 12th, 1944.

Polish women and children led by German troops.

The Warsaw Uprising began on August 1st and saw Polish Resistance attack German forces occupying the city. Large segments of the city, especially those on the left bank of the Vistula river, were liberated quickly before the Germans could organize an adequate response. Heinrich Himmler, commander of the SS, issued orders to suppress the uprising without mercy, and on August 5th German battle groups began to advance on the city from the Wola suburb in the west. The German forces consisted of SS and Wehrmacht troops along with Russian collaborators. The lead battle groups were stopped by Polish resistance and took to looting civilian houses in their areas of control and killing the inhabitants. Himmler stated that Warsaw’s population was to be killed, and the Germans, some of them from the SS Dirlewanger brigade, a unit composed of criminals and collaborators that was famous for its sadistic brutality, were all to happy to oblige. The arrival of reinforcements and the use of the Polish population as human shields for tanks allowed the Germans to push to the city center and cut resistance in Wola in half. Men from the district were conscripted into burning detachments forced to burn the bodies of the dead; most of these men were executed to eliminate witnesses. German troops burned hospitals with patients inside, executed civilians, and tortured prisoners. The massacre only ended on August 12th when the general in command, Erich von dem Bach, ordered that killings stop and for prisoners to be sent to concentration camps. In all, forty to fifty thousand people were killed in the Wola massacre.

War brings out the worst in humanity, that much has always been true. However, the particular brutality which Germany exhibited on the conquered peoples of Europe stands out as among the most evil practices ever engaged in by a nation. The factors which enabled such savagery-the dehumanization of enemy civilians, the actions and rhetoric of revered leaders, and the desperation of soldier sunder fire, are not in themselves uncommon. However, in this case they were taken to extremes and combined to deprive the perpetrators of their humanity.

August 11th in German History: The Death of Johann Tetzel

Johann Tetzel | Dominican friar | Britannica
Johann Tetzel.

Martin Luther’s attacks on the Catholic Church and resulting protestant reformation shaped German and European History for centuries. Someone not often remembered is the man whose actions spurred Martin Luther to break with the church. That man was Johann Tetzel, who died on August 11th, 1519.

Tetzel was born in the town of Pirna in Saxony, then a duchy, in 1465. He entered the Dominican Order after studying philosophy and theology at Leipzig University. The Dominican Order was dedicated to opposing heresy, and it was to this task that Tetzel dedicated his efforts during his early years. He was successful as a preacher and in 1502 Cardinal Giovanni di’Medici, a future pope, commissioned him to preach the Jubilee indulgence. The Jubilee was a year of pardon for sins that generated a great deal of pilgrimage and thus revenue for the church. In 1509 Tetzel was appointed an inquisitor of Poland and in that office acted to reinforce the catholic faith there. In 1517 he was given the role that would make him infamous, that of commissioner of indulgences for Archbishop Albrecht. He was put in charge of selling indulgences to fund the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica. Indulgences were traditionally remitances which when bought would release a family member of the purchaser from purgatory if they had failed to have last rights administered. However, the extravagances of the church necessitated a large income, and to that end Tetzel made wild claims about the ability of an indulgence to absolve one of future sins. His selling of these indulgences inspired Luther to write his 95 Theses, two of which were explicitly dedicated to attacking indulgences. Although Tetzel initially gained favor with the church for attacking Luther’s writings, accusations of fraud and immorality led him to retire to the Dominican Monastery in Leipzig. He died in 1519, not quite in disgrace but certainly in infamy.

Johann Tetzel is one of the best examples of a man who influenced history through his failures rather than through his successes. His initially successful, of not outstanding career, came to a quick end when his corruption was exposed by Martin Luther and his reputation tarnished. His selling of indulgences was not abnormal for the time. The Catholic Church was immensely corrupt, a Medici did become Pope after all, and its leaders flaunted their disregard for church doctrine with their mistresses and children. Tetzel was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Specifically, he was close to Martin Luther, who would become a historical giant largely at Tetzel’s expense.

August 10th in German History: The Battle of Narva

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German soldiers defend the Narva River.

Although the Soviet Union largely held the initiative on the Eastern Front after the Battle of Kursk, the weakened German armies were still able to put up significant resistance throughout 1944. At the Battle of Narva, the Soviet assaults were held back by soldiers of the Wehrmacht and SS. Although Narva itself fell to the Red Army, the Soviets failed to achieve their goal, to retake Estonia, and suffered heavy casualties and were forced to cease their offensive on August 10th, 1944.

After the failure of the Siege of Leningrad, Germany was pushed back to the Baltics and there was forced to hold against numerically superior Russian forces. This region had been occupied by the Soviet Union before the war, but had been under German control since Barbarossa in 1941. Stalin wanted to retake the Baltics in order to secure air and naval bases for attacks on the German iron ore trade from Sweden, and further to facilitate an invasion of East Prussia. As it was, German control of the northern Estonian coast prevented the Soviet Baltic Fleet from operating. However, the German defenders benefited from the lakes and swamps on the Estonian-Russian border and further from the river behind which Narva was located. However, if Estonia were captured, the Soviets would gain a base of supply from which they could launch further operations against the Germans. Although the Germans were not critically outmatched in manpower, they had 123,000 men to the Soviet’s 200,000, they had less than a fourth the tanks and one fifth of the planes of their enemy. Thus, when the Soviets attacked on the second of February they were able to secure multiple beachheads on the western side of the Narva river. However, despite suffering from heavy bombardment, the Germans were able to prevent the Russians from expanding their bridgeheads for several weeks. Large numbers of Estonians volunteered to fight alongside the Germans, hoping that by forming military units they would be able to secure Estonian independence. However, Soviet attacks in the Ukraine and in Belarus forced Germany to move many formations south, leaving the defensive line in front of Narva untenable. Although several Soviet battle groups had been annihilated in March, the exit of Finland from the war freed up men and material for Baltic operations. This gave the Soviets four-to-one superiority and allowed them to take Narva on July 26th, although they sustained very heavy losses. Estonian troops saved the Germans from being cut-off and allowed them to withdraw to the Tannenberg Line. On July 29th, Soviet shock troops assaulted several hills that made up part of the line, and looked poised to take them. However, seven tanks under the command of Felix Steiner flanked the Soviet armored columns and forced them to retreat. This allowed a German counterattack to retake Grenadier Hill and stabilize the front. Subsequent assaults failed to break the Tannenberg Line and the offensive was terminated on August 10th.

The Soviet failure to take Estonia on August of 1944 merely delayed the eventual outcome for Germany. Failures on other parts of the line and the growing Soviet superiority in men and equipment eventually forced Germany to abandon the Baltics, leaving behind 200,000 men encircled in the Courland pocket. However, resistance by the Germans and Estonians did buy Finland time to negotiate an acceptable peace treaty with Stalin. Further, it provided inspiration for future Estonian nationalist movements which would contribute to the country’s fierce resistance to Soviet occupation.

August 9th in German History: The Birth of Erick Huckel

Erich Huckel

The German people have made enormous contributions to all fields of science. Erich Huckel was one of the innumerable Germans whose work moved huamnity forward and helped to further the scope of human knowledge. He was born on August 9th, 1896.

Huckel was born in Berlin, in the affluent suburb of Charlottenburg. He studied at the University of Gottingen from 1914 to 1921. He became an assistant at the university after receiving his doctorate and then to Peter Debye. The two developed the Debye-Huckel theory in 1923, which explains several properties of electrolytic solutions. In 1930 he first proposed the Huckel method of orbital calculations, which allows for the construction and interpretation of the structures of certain organic molecules. He later joined the faculty of the Technische Hochschule and moved again to Phillips University, int he city of Marburg. In 1936 he developed the theory of non-Kekule molecules, although he is not usually given credit for it. He was made a full professor in 1960 and retired in 1961. He died on February 16th, 1980.

Erich Huckel was given little recognition for his work during most of his life. He is thought to have lacked communication skills, and so his contribution of the molecular orbital theory was not widely-known, which led to his remaining an assistant for most of his career. However, he was eventually made a full professor and in 1965 won the Otto Han Prize for Chemistry and Physics. It is good that he received credit during his lifetime, if only near the end of it.

August Eighth in German History: The Start of the Hundred Days Offensive

An under-strength platoon of the 5th Australian Division is addressed by an officer near Warfusee-Abancourt during the Battle of Amiens, 8 August 1918. © IWM (E (AUS) 2790)
Australian troops are inspected on August 8th in preparation for the offensive.

The First World War was characterized by years of bloody stalemate. Offensive after offensive failed to break the trenches, and millions died for little perceivable gain. It would require hundreds of thousands of men from the United States, a nation that had only just entered the war, and a collapse of the German economy and government to end the war. On August 8th, 1918, the Hundred Days Offensive began. It would end with the collapse of the German Army and the end of WWI.

The German Spring Offensives of 1918 had nearly led to the collapse of the Allied lines and the fall of Paris. However, the Germans had been stopped at the Marne, for the second time, and in July the front had again become quiet. Time was on the side of the Allies, as the American Expeditionary Force was arriving in great strength and the domestic situation in Germany was continuing to deteriorate. Thus, Allied supreme commander Ferdinand Foch decided in August that conditions were right for another offensive. British commander Sir Douglas Hauge chose the area south-west of the Somme, in Picardy, as the place for the offensive. The terrain would allow for the use of tanks and its location along the lines would allow for cooperation between the British and French armies. The operation began with the Battle of Amiens on August 8th. Ten allied divisions, with five hundred tanks, broke through German lines, achieving surprise and capturing 17,000 prisoners. A 15-mile gap was opened in the enemy defenses and over the next three days, the Allies advanced twelve miles. Subsequent battles at the Somme and other areas forced the Germans back to the Hindenberg Line, a series of extensive fortifications intended to allow a weaker force to hold out against a more numerous enemy. German commanders Paul von Hindenberg and Erich Ludendorff realized that the collapse of army morale made holding their gains from earlier int eh ear impossible, and that their only hope was to retreat to more entrenched positions. However, the decline in German morale caused by food shortages at home and defeated on the front made holding against a superior force nearly impossible, regardless of the fortifications present. On September 26th the first assaults on the Hindenberg Line commenced as French and American troops pushed forward in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Numerous breakthroughs in the German lines led to the total collapse of the Hindenberg line on October 17th. The German Army was pushed back into Belgium, and this total defeat led to German capitulation on November 11th, 1918.

While no Allied soldier set foot on German soil on the Western Front, after the fall of the Hindenburg Line there was really nothing Germany could have done to alter or even forestall the outcome of the war. Far more decisive in determining the outcome than the 100 Day’s Offensive was the British blockade of Germany. This blockade resulted in food shortages which, although they impacted the civilian population more than the soldiers who had a higher priority for rations, lowered German combat effectiveness and decreased morale. Further, domestic dissatisfaction with the Imperial government led to revolts in 1918. If the war had not ended in November, these revolts could have grown and put in place a government far more radical than that of the Wiemar Republic. In the end, Germany’s defeat in 1918 was perhaps the best possible outcome at that point, as it did not have to experience trench warfare on its own soil and still had a cohesive army with which to defend itself against domestic threats.

August 7th in German History: The Birth of Carl Ritter

Carl Ritter.

It is hard to imagine a time before accurate maps. For well over a century every distance and landmass in the world has been recorded and mapped, allowing anyone to see what the world looks like. One often forgets that as late as the 19th century large parts of the world were still relatively unknown. Modern geography has facilitated world trade and diplomacy, as well as allowing us to better visualize the world. Carl Ritter, one of the founders of modern geography, was born on August 7th, 1779.

Karl Ritter was born in Saxony and was the son of a doctor. As a result, he was able to obtain a good education at the Schnepfenthal Salzmann School, which focused on the study of nature. After completing his initial schooling, he served as a tutor to the children of the banker Bethmann Hollweg’s children. During that time, he attended the University of Halle. He also began to study geography and in 1819 became a Professor of History at the University of Frankfurt. He maintained correspondence with numerous explorers, especially those focused on Africa, and in 1822 he was made a member of the Prussian Academy of Sciences. At this time, he was working on his “Erkunde”, a series of geographic treatises that contained theories and analysis of nearly the entire world. He gathered information and based theories on it using an inductive method of reasoning which allowed him to real conclusions as to the nature of faraway civilizations and the conditions of distant lands. He became ever more prominent in the scientific community, and was made an honorary member of the American Academy of Sciences and Curator of the Prussian Institute of Cartography. Ritter died in 1859; at the time of his death, he was one of the premier social scientists of Europe.

The study of geography, while important, has also been one of the most misused in modern history. Theories on the impacts of different climates on societies have been warped into racist beliefs of racial superiority. Ritter’s theory on the organic state was used by the Nazis to justify their invasions of Poland and Russia to obtain living space. It is unfortunate that such an important science has been blackened by the warping of its teachings.

August Sixth in German History: German U-Boats Commence Operations against British Shipping.

The U-Boat U-9, the first modern submarine to sink a surface warship.

One of the most well-known instruments of German warfare are the U-Boats, submarines which gained fame during the First and Second World Wars through their attempts to cut Great Britain off from world trade by sinking merchant shipping. On August sixth, 1914, two days after Britain declared war on Germany in WWI, ten U-Boats left their bases on the island of Heligoland to attack British shipping for the first time.

Initial U-Boat actions met with little success. Beset with engine failure, one submarine had to turn back, and another, U-15, was sunk after she failed to torpedo an enemy vessel and was instead rammed by a cruiser. However, the destruction of U-15 gave the British the impression that submarines were little threat to surface warships, which it forced the Germans to further develop their doctrine. On September 5th, the threat of submarines was made known when U-21 sank the HMS Pathfinder, the first victory of a modern submarine over a warship. Later that month, U-9 sank three British cruiser and in October she would sink another. Each member of the crew, except the captain, was awarded the Iron Cross; Captain Weddigen was awarded the Iron Cross First Class. Also in October, the first attacks on shipping took place. The British navy was numerically superior to the German one, and so was able to maintain a blockade. The Germans looked to their submarines to sink ships carrying food for Britain in order to visit upon the British population the same hunger that the German people were experiencing. The U-Boats would continue their attacks against British shipping and military vessels, but the British introduction of the convoy system and arming of merchant ships would lead to a decrease in effectiveness and an increase in losses. Although the total value of ships sunk far exceeded the value of U-Boats lost, there were simply too few U-Boats and to many escorts, and thus Germany was unable to adequately disrupt British trade.

The U-Boats were and attempt to remove the advantages afforded Britain by its status as an island nation. Germany, situated as it is in the middle of Europe between often hostile nations, is inherently less connected to the maritime world. As an island nation, Britain has long had an intense focus on its navy, and for centuries it was the premier ocean-going power. Both Britain and Germany were dependent on food imports, but Britain’s navy ensured that her imports could be protected while Germany, focused on its large land army, was always at risk of losing food aid to enemy blockade. Thus, Germany built submarines to subvert British naval supremacy. In both world wars, however, German submarines have proven insufficient to overcome the Royal Navy. Until land powers can find a way to cheaply undo the advantages of an expensive navy, it seems that they will largely be at the mercy of naval powers in a long and drawn-out war.

August 5th in German History: The Death of Wilhelm Marx.

Reichskanzler Wilhelm Marx (cropped).jpg
Wilhelm Marx

The Weimar Republic suffered from political turmoil during its short existence. The humiliation of the Great War and financial turmoil led to the collapse of government after government, and numerous changes to Germany’s laws were made. However, there were those who tried to create a stable and democratic Germany. One such man was Wilhelm Marx, German Chancellor and politician, who died on August fifth, 1946.

Marx was born in 1863 to a catholic rector. By 1881 he passed the university entrance exam and studied law. He joined a catholic student organization, which at the time were repressed as part of Germany’s Kulturkampf. He married in 1891 and by 1894 became a judge. He entered political life in 1899 and by 1921 had risen to the position of President of the Centre Party. the new Weimar government did not discriminate against Catholics as Imperial Germany had, which allowed him to further his political career. Politically, he favored adherence to the Treaty of Versailles in order to deter the Allied nations from occupying more German territory. In 1923 he first formed a minority government and became Chancellor. He attempted, and largely succeeded, to stabilize the currency through the introduction of a new currency. He also reconciled with Bavaria’s right-wing government. His government signed on to the Dawes Plan, which restricted reparation payments and so stabilized European diplomacy. His government fell in December of 1924 and lost the presidential election of 1925 to Paul von Hindenburg. He considered leaving political, but in 1926 he was appointed Chancellor by Hindenburg after the government of Hans Luther fell. During his second term, he oversaw Germany’s entrance into the League of Nations and the institutions of several social programs. His government fell in June 1928 as his coalition with the right-wing parties broke over education reform. He retreated from prominence by the end of 1928 as the Centre Party lost power and in 1932 he left the Reichstag. He was fortunate in escaping persecution by the Nazi government, and in 1946 he died in the City of Bonn.

Germany’s short period of democracy in between Monarchism and Nazism saw the lack of stability that usually accompanies the transition to a democratic form of government. Marx’s total of just three years as Chancellor was the longest of all Weimar Chancellors. People like Wilhelm Marx were vital supports of the republic, but despite their best efforts, they were unable to hold back the tide of extremism that would sweep the Weimar Republic into the ash heap of history.

August 4th in German History: The German Invasion of Belgium

Belgium troops defend against German attacks.

The initial sides of the First World War took shape on August 4th, 1914, when Germany invaded Belgium. Belgium’s neutrality had bee guaranteed by the United Kingdom in 1839, and so when Germany refused to leave the country Britain declared war.

The pre-war British Army was numerically inferior to those of the great Powers of the continent. It had not instituted the practice on conscription, and so relied entirely on volunteers. As such, it took several months to raise and train the necessary forces send and expeditionary force to France. However, when that force did arrive, the BEF played a critical role in stopping the German offensive into France. Further, the Royal Navy immediately set about implementing a blockade on Germany, preventing food from reaching the country. Britain also cut the diplomatic cables between Germany and the US, ensuring that all war news that reached America would be from a British point of view. However, Britain, like France, would be unable to break the stalemate in the west and would suffer horrendous casualties at the Somme and other battles for little ground gained. Her soldiers would also fight, along with men from the colonies, in Africa and the Middle East against German colonial forces and the Ottoman Empire. Here, Britain would see much more success, advancing into Jerusalem by the start of 1918 and occupying most of Germany’s African holdings. Germany, for its part, would attempt to break the naval blockade at the battle of Jutland. Although Britain did suffer heavier losses, Britain retained naval supremacy and continued to cut Germany off from world trade. The British naval blockade would prove to be decisive in the end, as the German army, still on Belgian and french soil, would be forced to surrender by food shortages and unrest at home.

Although the German invasion of Belgium did provide the immediate pretext for war, Britain would likely have found another way to involve itself even if Germany had withdrawn from the country. The reason for this is quite simple; Germany’s industrial capacity had already far exceeded that of Britain and its land forces eclipsed the British Army in number and equaled or surpassed in doctrine and training. Britain had to stop Germany’s rise, lest it challenge Britain’s supremacy on the world stage and supplant it as the dominant power. As always happens when the dominant nation is threatened, Great Britain did everything in its power to defeat its challenger and maintain its global hegemony.