August 29th in German History: German Reich Dissolves the Danish Government

The headquarters of a Danish SS unit.

The first years of the Second World War saw Germany quickly overrun most of Western and Eastern Europe. These nations were placed under harsh occupations which saw freedoms restricted and reprisals carried out against any who resisted. However, not all conquered nations were so harshly treated, at least initially. Denmark, which surrendered within six hours, was at first allowed to maintain a great degree of autonomy, and its people were treated with no leniency. That changed on August 2th, 1943, when the German Reich dissolved the Danish government.

Initially, Germany intended the occupation of Denmark look as though it was both oeaceful and done with the consent of the Danish people. To that end, the Danish parlaiment remained active, elections were still held, and King Christian of Denmark remained in power. Denmark even isgned the Anti-Comintern Pact. However, by 1942 the Danish population grew more restless under occupation and began violently resisting the Germans. In the Fall of 1942 Germany declared Denmark “enemy territory” and after the battles of Stalingrad and El-Alamein attacks and acts of sabotage become even more frequent. A general election in March of 1943 overwhelmingly returned members of democratic parties that supported cooperation. However, that summer a series of strikes and riots broke out which led to German issuing a series of demands to the Danish government. These included the introduction of censorship, the establishment of German military courts, the outlawing of strikes, and the introduction of the death penalty for sabotage. The Germans also demanded that the city of Odense pay 1 million kroner and deliver hostages as compensation for the death of a German soldier during riots. The Danish government refused to comply and so on August 29th, 1943, the Germans dissolved the government and instituted martial law. The Danish Cabinet tendered its resignation, although the king never accepted it and so it remained de jure in existence. The Germans took full control of the bureaucracy and economy and set about implementing the same policies that had been put in place in other occupied countries. They tried to seize the Danish Navy, but only succeeded in taking control of 14 the larger ships; of the others, 32 were scuttled by their captains, 4 escaped to Sweden, and 2 remained at safe harbor in Greenland. The Germans also attempted to round up the Jewish population, but most escaped to Sweden. Denmark would remain under strict opposition until it was liberated in 1945.

The institution of martial law in Denmark and the accompanying dissolution of the Danish government is yet more proof that submission does not guarantee security. The Danish government chose to capitulate almost instantly to the Germans in hopes of preserving a modicum of independence and preventing the destruction of their country. While its decision made short-term sense, if every occupied nation had followed that logic the war would have been far easier for the Germans. The sacrifice on the part of the people of Yugoslavia, Poland, France, and the parts of the USSR that fell to the Germans drained resources and manpower. Denmark preserved its people and its property at the cost of freeing up German men and German weapons that would be used in the war effort.

August 28th in German History: The Battle of Heligoland Blight

A Remarkable Camera Record of the Sinking of the German Cruiser Mainz off Heligoland August 28th 1914.jpg
The German light cruiser SMS Mainz just before it sank.

The beginning of the 20th century had seen a great shift in German foreign policy. Kaiser Wilhelm II wanted to assert Germany’s position on the world stage. To this end, he pursued a program of naval construction with the intent of building a fleet that could contend with the Royal Navy. The resulting naval arms race was one of the causes of the First World War. However, the war itself saw relatively little action between the opposing navies. The first of the few battles, the Battle of Heligoland Blight, was fought on August 28th, 1914.

During the first month of WWI the British Army rapidly transferred hundreds of thousands of troops to France. The Germans failed to disrupt this action, as the British Home Fleet had set up patrols in the Heligoland Blight, off the coast of Germany. Destroyer and Cruiser squadrons were tasked with watching for German fleet movements. If anything was spotted, the main fleet would sail out to engage. The British learned that the Germans had a regular schedule for their patrols, and came up with a plan to attack one of them. The plan called for a large force of destroyers and light cruisers to ambush a German squadron as it returned to port in the night. The attack commenced on August 28th. The German ships were commanded by Rear Admiral Leberecht Maass while the two British flotillas were commanded by Reginald Tyrwhitt and Roger Keyes. Maass’s ships were severely outnumbered and spread out, which allowed the British ships to isolate and destroy them. From 7 am to 11:30 am groups of German light cruisers suffered heavy damage, although the few light cruisers involved did succeed in damaging a few British ships. By 11:30 am, the tide had risen to the point where larger German ships would be able to enter the engagement. Further, three German light cruisers had arrived and succeeded in damaging several British destroyers. However, the Germans were still outnumbered and the cruiser Mainz was surrounded by multiple destroyers and the cruiser Arethusa. Soon after, five British battle cruisers commanded by Admiral Beatty arrived and sunk two of the three reinforcing cruisers. One of those cruisers was Maass’s ship, and he was killed in its sinking. The arrival of a mist saved the other German ships and by 3:10 larger German ships arrived, but by then the British had retreated.

When the two sides broke contact, the Germans had lost three light cruisers and one torpedo boat. Three light cruisers and three more torpedo boats were damaged. The British had only suffered one damaged light cruiser and three damaged destroyers. German dead numbered 712 to Britain’s 35. The battle was the first in a string of minor defeats that the German Navy suffered in the first year of the war. The ship losses were not the most significant consequence, though. The High Seas Fleet could afford to lose a few light cruisers, especially since those ships were of limited used in large-scale fleet engagements. More importantly than the suffering of the fleet was the hit to Kaiser Wilhelm’s ego. He could not bear to lose his precious ships and essentially robbed the naval commanders of freedom of action. The dreadnoughts and battle cruisers of the German Navy would remain sequestered in port for most of the war because those in positions of influence refused to risk losing them. Thus, at the cost of a few hundred men across a handful of battles, the British Navy won the naval war. Without control of the seas Germany could not fully feed itself, and thus was set on a clock which, when it ran out, would force the nation to surrender or starve.

August 27th in German History: The Sarny Massacre Begins

When discussing the Second World War, one has to remember that battles were important not just in that they determined the outcome of the war. All too often, the military outcomes were life or death matters for civilian populations. When Poland fell in 1939 its occupiers, the USSR and Nazi Germany, set about killing unwanted portions of the population. This process intensified in Eastern Poland when Germany occupied in 1941. The following year, as many as 18,000 Jews were murdered in the town of Sarny in present-day Ukraine.

Sarny has historically been part of Russian Ukraine, but between 1919 and 1939 was controlled by Poland. Germany quickly occupied the city when it invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. The Ukrainian nationalists allied with the Germans and were allowed to loot Jewish homes and businesses for three days following the fall of the city. The Ukrainian Auxiliary Police then took what remained and gave it to the Germans. In April 1942, Germany established a ghetto in the city and forced 6,000 more Jewish people into it. In August they emptied the ghetto and moved the 15,000 people in it to a camp outside the city. They then forced Jews from nearby towns into the camp, killing many along the way. On August 27th, the massacre began. People were taken from the camp and herded to prepared pits on the outskirts of the town. They were then shot by German troops and Ukrainian police. Many tried to escape but most of those who did were killed. In 1945, only 100 survivors were identified.

The massacre was obviously horrible in of itself. To make matters worse, it has largely been forgotten, and attempts to honor the dead have failed. The cemetery established by the remnants of the Jewish community was destroyed in the construction of a soccer stadium. The disgusting lack of respect that the Ukrainian government showed to those killed is proof that the holocaust and the knowledge of it did not end antisemitism or even its influence over government policy.

August 26th in German History: The Battle on the Marchfeld

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Battle of Rudolph of Habsburg against Ottokar of Bohemia by Julius Schorr von Carolsfeld.

The Habsburg dynasty is commonly the object of ridicule and humor for their slow decline that began in the 17th century and ended with the destruction of Austria-Hungary at the end of WWI. However, for nearly a millennia they were the preeminent force in Central Europe and at times held sway over entire continents. The Battle on the Marchfeld, fought on August 26th, 1278, saw the beginning of the rise of the Habsburg dynasty and the weakening of its enemies.

The middle of the 12th century saw a succession crisis in the Holy Roman Empire. Ottokar II, King of Bohemia, had experienced a quick rise in power, acquiring numerous territories outside his homeland. The death of the emperor in 1250 had led to a series of powerless candidates. However, Ottokar’s rise frightened the German electors and in 1273 they made Rudolph of Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor. Ottokar did not accept this decision, as it had been made in his absence, and refused to appear at the Imperial Diet in 1275. In response, Rudolph confiscated his new territories and besieged Ottokar in Vienna. Ottokar was forced to surrender in 1276 and was left with only Bohemia and Moravia as fiefs. Ottokar looked to regaining his lost lands and allied with Brandenburg, Poland, and Lower Bavaria and invaded Habsburg territory. Rudolph marched out of Vienna and met with his Hungarian allies to give battle. Ottokar had 1,000 heavy cavalry and 5,000 light cavalry. Rudolph had 300 heavy and 4,000 light cavalry. In addition, he had 5,000 Cuman horse archers. The battle began with attacks by the Cumans on the heavy Bohemian horses. Despite initial losses, the Bohemians did well when the armies first collided. However, three hours of fighting on a hot summer day exhausted the heavily armored Bohemians. To make matters worse, Rudolph ordered a fresh unit of heavy cavalry that he had concealed to attack Ottokar’s flank. Ottokar tried to attack this unit in the rear, but the maneuver was interpreted as a rout by his men. The Bohemian lines collapsed and in the ensuing panic Ottokar was killed.

The destruction of the Bohemian Army and the death of Ottokar secured Rudolph’s position as Holy Roman Emperor. He was relatively merciful to his enemy. He displayed Ottokar’s body in Vienna, and he did allow the dead king’s son to rule Bohemia. He installed his sons as Austrian dukes and their descendants would control Austria until 1918. In one day, the Battle on the Marchfeld elevated a dynasty that would rule for the next seven centuries.

August 25th in German History: The Birth of Erich Honecker

Erich Honecker - Wikipedia
Erich Honecker.

Germany had more than its fair share of totalitarian leaders during the 20th century. While Adolf Hitler ruled the country for twelve years, for forty years the eastern half was controlled by a communist dictatorship. This regime, while not as brutal as that of the Nazis, maintained a repressive grip on the people of East Germany for the duration of its existence. Erich Honecker, the man who led that regime and failed to stop its downfall, was born on August 25th, 1912.

Erich was born in the industrial Saarland region, on the border with France. Honecker’s father was a coal miner and political activist. In 1922 Honecker joined the Spartacus League, a communist youth league, and four years later he joined the Young Communist League of Germany. In 1928 he left to study in Moscow and in 1930 joined the German Communist Party, or KPD. When the Nazis took power in 1933 they banned all communist activities, but the Saarland Region was still outside of Germany in a League of Nations mandate. Honecker campaigned against the region rejoining Germany, but the 1935 referendum voted overwhelmingly in favor of reuniting with Germany so Honecker was forced to flee to Paris. Later that year he traveled illegally to Berlin to engage in resistance activities. In late 1935 he was detained and remained in prison until he was released by the Soviets in 1945. There is some evidence that, while imprisoned, he offered to betray fellow communist inmates in exchange for release and was willing to join the German Army. During the late 1940s and 1950s he rose quickly through the ranks of the East German Communist Party, becoming a Politburo member in 1958. He formed ties with the Russian leadership and promised to overturn Chairman Walter Ulbricht’s economic reforms. Thus, in 1971 the USSR forced Ulbricht to retire and Honecker assumed power. As chairman, Honecker was able to improve East German living standards by focusing the economy more on consumerism. He normalized relations with West Germany by signing the Basic Treaty in 1972. Further, he improved relations with the West and was able to make East Germany a full member of the UN. However, he continued the repression of the East German people; 125 people were killed attempting to cross the border during his time as leader. While the 1970s went well for East Germany, the early 1980s saw economic stagnation and political unrest. Honecker refused to implement Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberalizing economic and political reforms. He became one of the hard-liners who attempted to maintain socialist rule in Eastern Europe. However, unrest grew and the population began to call for his removal. He fell gravely ill in 1989 and so was unable to effectively respond to the protests against his rule. Thousands began to flee across the border into Hungary and then into Austria in order to reach West Germany. Gorbachev refused to send troops in to quell demonstrations, and it became clear that the party could not maintain its grip on power. The Central Committee removed him from power in October of 1989 and two months later communist rule ended.

Although he was not as brutal as earlier German leaders, Erich Honecker was none the less a totalitarian ruler who tried to maintain complete control of East Germany. He did not believe in freedom of speech or even of movement, and was willing to kill those who attempted to leave his country. The reunited German nation did not, however, punish Honecker for his crimes. He was put on trial but released and he died of cancer in 1994. Honecker, I think, is one of the better examples of bureaucratic evil. He did not kill those he believed were racially inferior, but rather those who challenged the ordered system he controlled. He believed that his system was superior, and that the cogs that made it work had little inherent value except in their usefulness in maintaining the system’s functionality.

August 24th in German History: Adolf Hitler Orders the End of the T4 Killings

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Hitler’s order to begin carrying out T4.

The T4 killings were the systematic mass murder of much of the elderly, critically ill and disabled population of Germany. T4 is an abbreviation of the address of a government building which recruited and organised those involved in the program. On August 24th, 1941, Adolf Hitler ordered that the systematic killings stop. However, they continued to be carried out by hospitals and old-age homes throughout the remainder of the war.

The sterilization of the disabled was a normalized practice during the first half of the 20th century. In most western nations, the practice was legal and even encouraged. In 1933, the Nazi government made sterilization for the mentally ill mandatory. Those with physical disabilities were also subjected until 1937, when the labor shortage forced the government to declare all those who could work useful and thus exempt. In 1939, the government began the killing of children with hereditary disabilities and later that year the program expanded to adults in occupied Poland and Eastern Germany. Gassing began in 1940 and that year over 35,000 people were killed. Although many individual church hospitals allowed their patients to be euthanized, the Catholic Church issued condemnations of the practice and German church officials began protesting. Many families attempted to take their relatives out of sanitariums and hospitals, but too often they were prevented from doing so. By August of 1941 the planned 70,000 deaths had been reached and Hitler ordered that the program be suspended so that the resources could be used on the Eastern Front. However, local Nazi Party officials and directors of mental institutions continued to kill disabled adults and children until the war’s end. An estimated 200,000 people were killed during the war in Germany and Austria.

The T4 program was the logical conclusion of the ablest beliefs of the first half of the 20th century. The belief that the disabled are inherently less valuable and damaging to society leads to their dehumanization. Especially during times of crises, such as wartime, those who society views as less are subjected to persecution and attack.

August 23rd in German History: The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact is Signed

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Joseph Stalin and Joachim von Ribbentrop shaking hands after the signing of the treaty. The former would have the latter executed after the war.

The Soviet Union was the nation that sacrificed the most in the defeat of Germany. As such, we often forget that it also was crucial to enabling Germany to invade and take over much of Europe. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was a non aggression pact signed by the USSR and Nazi Germany which gave Germany a free hand in expanding into Poland and invading France the following year. It was signed on August 23rd, 1939.

The pact’s main component was a treaty of non aggression between the two nations. Both promised not to attack each other. This agreement was surprising not least because of Hitler’s well-known hatred of communism and of the Slavic peoples. However, there were strategic reasons for his decision. He did not want to fight a two front war in 1939 and so desired to pacify the east so that he could focus on France and the UK in the west. Further, the Soviet Union was a crucial supplier of raw materials for the German war machine. Stalin, for his part, wanted the Democratic and Fascist countries to exhaust each other, which would allow the USSR to sweep in and create a communist Europe. He was thus happy to sell oil to Germany if that oil would be expended against French tanks. The pact also divided Eastern Europe up between the two nations. Germany was to get Western Poland while the Soviet Union would take the rest along with the Baltic States, parts of Finland, and the Romanian territories of Besserabia and Bukovina. Polish diplomacy in the 1930s was focused on playing Germany and the USSR off each other, but this treaty ensured that the two would be partners in the carving up of nations instead of rivals. In accordance with the pact, the Soviet Union invaded Poland after Germany did and subsequently it annexed the Baltics, invaded Finland, and forced Romania to cede territory to it. When Germany invaded France in 1940, it did so knowing that it would face no invasion from the east and what’s more, it did so with tanks built with Russian minerals, fueled with Russian oil, and crewed by men fed with Russian grain. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact would see nearly two years of collaboration between the greatest Communist power and the greatest Fascist one, and it would allow Germany to invade and subjugate most of Western Europe.

The nation that would suffer the most from the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was, of course, the Soviet Union. Hitler was able to take the west and then turn his full focus east. He broke the pact in 1941 and the war that followed resulted in the death of ten million Soviet citizens. The USSR paid dearly for Joseph Stalin’s short-sighted diplomatic ploys. Germany would not have been able to invade Poland if it had been opposed by with the Western Allies and the USSR. Without Poland and France subjugated, Germany could never have invaded Russia. If the Soviet Union had not signed the pact and had instead warned Germany against invading Poland, a great deal of suffering could have been avoided.

August 22nd in German History: German Troops Perpetrate the Holocaust of Kedros

Memorial to the massacre of the village of Ano Meros.

While the German occupations of France, Poland, and Yugoslavia are well-known, the occupation of Greece is not often discussed. From 1941 until 1945, Greece was occupied by both Italian and German forces following the invasion of the country. The occupying forces committed numerous atrocities. One of the worst, the Holocaust of Kedros, occurred on the island of Crete on August 22nd, 1944.

Soon after mainland Greece fell, the island of Crete was invaded by German paratroopers and amphibious troops. Although Allied forces were defeated, many remained in the countryside and the island became a hotbed of resistance activity. In the Amari Basin are located the Kedros villages, which during the war sheltered several bands of Commonwealth soldiers. During the summer of 1944 the German occupying forces were preparing to withdraw to the city of Chania as they could no longer maintain any effective control over the countryside. In order to dissuade any resistance attacks against their retreating troops, German commanders decided to attack villages which were known to have sheltered the enemy. So, at dawn on August 22nd, German infantry battalions arrived in the Amari valley and rounded up the populations of the eight Kedros villages. They gathered the locals together and separated those who would be executed. Women were told to gather valuable belongings and the men who were not to be executed were sent to a separate location and held there. After the men and women left, the Germans began shooting those they had selected for execution. When done, they burned the bodies and looted the houses of everything they could find. Then they burned the houses.

The commander of the German occupation, Lieutenant General Friedrich-Wilhelm Muller, was captured by the Soviets on the Eastern Front and in 1947 was executed by Greece for war crimes. However, the damage that he did to the Kedros villages was never fully undone. One of the villages, Smiles, was never rebuilt and no reparations were ever paid to the survivors. While the world has done a great deal to repair the damage done by the Second World War, the Kedros Holocaust is just one example of how we have failed to completely erase what was done.

August 21st in German History: Christian Schad is Born

Christian Schad.

Although Germany is known more for its political figures and its scientists, it has also produced numerous artists. One was Christian Schad, a painter and photographer who was part of the Dada and New Objectivity movements. He was born on August 21st, 1894.

Schad was born in the town of Miesbach in Upper Bavaria. His father was a prosperous lawyer who paid for his studies at the Art Academy of Munich. He moved to Switzerland in 1915 to avoid military service and there he became a Dadaist. He began painting and developed his own version of the photo-gram in 1918. He moved to Italy in 1920 and began painting more realistic works. In 1927 he moved with his wife to Vienna and later to Berlin. Because his art seemed more conventional than that produced by other members of the New Objectivity movement, it was not condemned by the Nazis. In fact, it was part of The Great German Art Exhibition set up by the government in 1937. However, he was forced to stop painting in the 1930s because the Great Depression forced his father to stop supporting him and his work. His studios were destroyed by bombings multiple times during the war and he lived in relative obscurity until the 1960s. In that decade, his reputation increased as his works were shown several times and the Photo-realist movement increased in popularity. He died On February 25th, 1982.

Christian Schad made important contributions to art in the 20th century. Although not as significant as, say, Picasso, his works are important parts of the Dadist and New Objectivity movements. Even though he was not the most talented painter of his era, his name should not be forgotten as if he accomplished nothing.

August 20th in German History: Germany Captures Brussels

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German troops march into Belgium.

Soon after Germany entered WWI, it invaded the neutral nation of Belgium. It wanted to bypass French defenses on the French-German border and so sought to move troops through Belgian territory. When the Belgian government refused to allow German armies to pass, Germany declared war and quickly invaded the kingdom. Although the Belgians fought bravely, they were outnumbered and soon their capitol fell on August 20th, 1914.

The German invasion of Belgium began on midnight, August 4th when Germany declared war. German troops crossed the Belgian border and attacked the city of Liege. The fortifications around Liege were meant to hold back the German forces for long enough to allow the French and British armies to arrive in Belgium and push the Germans back. Further, the demolition of railways and bridges was supposed to slow down the German advance by hampering the progress of their heavy artillery. The German plan called for Liege to fall in two days, but it in fact took eleven days for all of the forts to be captured. However, the Fall of Liege left the capitol open, and German troops marched into it unopposed on the 20th. The Germans continued on, taking most of Belgium before advancing into France. The Allies had been unable to defend Belgium, and soon the Germans had taken most of the industrial territory on the Franco-Belgian border. Although the Germans were stopped at the Marne River, the quick fall of Belgium had allowed the Kaiser’s armies to take large amounts of territory and nearly win the war in 1914.

The capture of Brussels, while damaging to the French and the British, was disastrous for the Belgian people. The Germans perpetrated numerous atrocities on the civilian population in revenge for resistance by soldiers and partisans. The “Rape of Belgium” saw men, women, and children shot in reprisal for attacks on German troops. Further, the German occupation saw the conscription of the Belgian population as forced labor and the theft of Belgium’s wealth and industry for use in the German war machine. Although Belgium fell quickly, it would endure the horrors of war for the entire duration of the conflict.