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.
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.
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.
For nineteen years the Free City of Danzig was an independent city-state inside of the Polish-controlled Danzig corridor between Germany and its exclave of East Prussia. It stood as a reminder of Germany’s defeat in WWI and saw a great deal of tension between its German and Polish populations. In 1939, Germany demanded that Poland hand over the region and the city, and when Poland refused Germany invaded and on September 2nd took the city.
Following WWI, the Second Polish Republic gained independence and was given portions of eastern Germany. The most significant of these areas was the territory around Danzig. In order to be an economically independent state, Poland needed access to the sea and the city of Danzig was meant to be a neutral port city through which Poland would export and import goods. The Danzig constitution granted Poland the right to represent the city in foreign affairs, although the UK was given the duty of handling foreign relations, and further Poland had the final authority in economic decisions within the city, most importantly on tariff rates. A city police was established, along with a democratically elected senate which would manage domestic affairs. However, political instability was ever present. Although the Polish and German ethnicities were both granted equal rights, the two groups disliked each other with an intensity that only grew over time. By 1936 the Nazi Party gained a majority in the senate and the police were used to suppress political opponents and dissidents. The Danzig crisis began after the Munich Conference in 1938. Germany began to demand ever more control over the city and by 1939 clearly intended to use it as a pretext for war. The Danzig senate voted on August 23rd, 1939, to rejoin Germany, further increasing tensions. On September 1st, Germany invaded Poland and took the city the next day. Danzig was annexed into the German Reich, and would be occupied until 1945.
The history of the Free City of Danzig is an interesting tale of diplomatic compromise and competing nationalism. Realistically, the city could never have maintained its status for long as both German and Polish nationalists wanted to incorporate it into their respective nations. It served as a focus point for feelings of German revanchism, and was used by the Nazis to argue that Germany had been treated unfairly. Danzig is just one more example of how the Treaty of Versailles made another European war inevitable.
Albert Speer was a German architect and industrialist who was responsible for armaments organization during the latter years of WWII. During the decades after the war, he was often credited with significant increases in German weapons production and with being less brutal than other Nazis. He died on September 1st, 1981.
Speer was born in 1905 in the city of Mannheim. His father and grandfather were both architects and in 1923 he began studying the subject at university. He married in 1922, although his parents were unhappy with this as they thought his wife had inferior social standing. He became an architectural assistant in 1927 and in 1931 he joined the Nazi Party. The economic conditions of the Great Depression forced him to leave his position as an assistant and attempt to start his own practice as an architect. In this, he failed. In 1932 he visited Berlin to help the Nazi Party amid the elections that year and a friend of his recommended him to Joseph Goebbels to help renovate the Party’s headquarters in Berlin. Through this along with several other jobs for the Party, he gained favor with high-ranking members and in 1933 he met and befriended Hitler. He became the chief architect in 1934 upon the death of Paul Troost and was put in charge of constructing buildings for the 1936 Olympics, halls party rallies, and the Reich Chancellery. Speer used forced labor from concentration camps in the construction of many of his buildings. However, the start of WWII in 1939 forced the postponement of his grandest projects as the vast resources they required were needed for the war effort. Speer continued to oversee construction until 1942 when he was made Minister of Armament’s Production after the death of that position’s previous holder, Fritz Todt. Speer quickly set about gaining control over production for all military branches in the name of streamlining and consolidating production. Although Speer did become more politically powerful, he failed to radically increase German output. Although the production of weapons did increase in 1942 and 1943, this was due less to better management and more to a series of dubious decisions made. Speer decided to prioritize quantity of weapons over quality, which led to poorer combat performance. Further, he used slave labor on a massive scale to replace the millions of workers that had joined the army. He also diverted coal output from synthetic fuel to weapons factories, thus worsening fuel shortages. Speer’s attempt to increase U-Boat construction was perhaps his greatest failure. He tried to build new U-Boats using modular components that would be built separately and then put together. However, imperfections in construction led to unusable ships. In late 1943 Speer was incapacitated by a knee injury and in early 1944 things were made worse by a lung embolism. This coincided with the “Big Week”, a series of major allied bombing raids that inflicted great devastation on German production. As a result, he fell out of favor with Hitler, and by the summer of 1944 had lost control of production. He was still a prominent figure within the Reich, though, and continued to play a role in directing war industry. However, by early 1945 there was little industry left to manage and Speer spent most of his time trying to convince Hitler not to destroy German infrastructure. He was arrested in May 1945.
Speer was convicted of war crimes in 1946, primarily for his use of slave labor, and was sentenced to twenty years in prison. While in prison he wrote his memoirs, against prison rules, and had them sent to a friend on the outside. In them, he claimed to have been unaware of the Holocaust and other Nazi war crimes. Further, he said he was generally apolitical and not anti-Semitic. These lies were believed by many historians for decades. The “Speer Myth” of a Nazi in the inner circle who was unaware of Germany’s crimes was used by many other high-ranking Nazis as evidence for their own claims of ignorance. His memoirs sold well, and he lived in comfort until his death in 1981. Speer’s legacy is a dangerous one. Only in the 1990s did it become widely known that his claims of innocence were baseless and false. It is concerning that one so high in the Nazi regime was able to remain a respected member of high society after the war. That his charm and intelligence was enough to deflect attention for decades speaks volumes about what society is willing to overlook.
One of the realities of international relations is that even the most bellicose of nations need justification, however flimsy, to initiate war. When Germany invaded Poland on September 1st, 1939, the stated pretext was a series of Polish attacks on German military installations. The most significant of these attacks was the Gleiwitz incident, which saw German soldiers stage an attack on a radio station on August 31st, 1939.
Operation Himmler was a series of SS false flag attacks carried out in August. These attacks were supposed to create the impression of Polish aggression against Germany. News of these attacks was fed to the German press who would then report to the people that Germany was under attack. Operation Gleiwitz was the culmination of this operation. A small group of agents dressed in Polish uniforms and attacked a German radio station near the border. They broadcast an anti-German message and then left. To make the attack more credible a Silesian, Catholic, and pro-Polish farmer named Franciszek Honoik was murdered and made to look like a saboteur. His body was then left near the station. Further, several inmates from the Dachau concentration camp were murdered, disfigured, and left near the station. No international journalists were allowed to examine the station, and the attack was soon forgotten once the war began the following day.
Adolf Hitler never intended for Operation Gleiwitz to convince the international community of anything. He only needed an immediate excuse. If Germany had won the war, no one would have cared to determine if Operation Gleiwitz were a real attack or a false flag. Germany would have written the history books, and future generations would have simply accepted the attack as real. He who controls the present controls the past. When one entity controls the flow of information, that entity determines the truth.
In the first months of WWI, both the Eastern and Western Fronts were very mobile. In the west, Germany advanced into Belgium and France outflanking their enemy and occupying valuable territory. In the east, Russian, German, and Austrian armies clashed, the use of railways enabling the easy movement and concentration of forces. The initial Russian offensives in the east culminated in the Battle of Tannenberg, which ended on August 30th, 1914.
Before the war, both sides made plans for each of the probable scenarios. The German Schlieffen plan called for an invasion of France through Belgium in order to quickly knock the country out of the war. The German armies would then move east to defeat the Russians, who would take longer to mobilize due to their poor infrastructure. The Franco-Russian plan included a French invasion of Alsace-Lorraine and a Russian invasion of East Prussia. The Germans activated their plan first and swept into Belgium in early August. In the east, the Russians crossed into German territory on August 17th. This was earlier than the Germans had expected, and so the Eighth Army was caught outnumbered against the Russian 1st and 2nd Armies. Following a few initial engagements in which the Germans had some success but were unable to throw the Russians back, Generals Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Luddendorf were sent to take charge of the army; they arrived on August 23rd. The Russian First Army was concentrated in the North against the City of Konigsberg, while the Second Army was south and west. The German commanders decided to concentrate their forces against the Second Army, and to that end used rail lines to quickly move their troops to threaten the Russian left flank. The Second Army continued to advance into German territory with the intent of cutting off East Prussia. Russian General Samsonov only detected the German build up on his left on the 26th. He sent reinforcements, but they would not arrive for several days, slowed down by poor roads and inefficient transportation. Initial German attacks on the 26th achieved little, but on the 27th they captured the critical town of Usdau and pushed the Russian right flank back. In the center the Russians continued to advance, but Samsonov began to realize that his army was in danger of being surrounded. The First Army sent a contingent south to aid the Second Army, but it would not arrive in time to take part in the battle. By the 28th the Russian center was out of food and ammunition and so could not maintain its attacks and the left and right were in retreat. The Germans formed a line between the towns of Neidenberg and Willenberg, cutting the Russians off from behind and surrounding them. On the 29th the Germans began liquidating the pocket they created. The few Russians on the outside failed to break the German lines and those on the inside were subjected to artillery bombardment and suffered from shortages of food and munitions. On the 30th the battle was effectively over and Samsonov committed suicide.
The Battle of Tannenberg resulted in the destruction of almost an entire Russian army. The First Army was still intact, but it retreated shortly after its first contact with the Eighth Army in early September. While a major victory for Germany, the battle of Tannenberg did not lead to the immediate defeat of Russia. Instead, it would be followed by more battles over the next three years which would see Russia become exhausted and discontent. Eventually, the empire collapsed. The Battle of Tannenberg prevented a quick Russian victory in the east and ensured that the war would drag on. While the battle was certainly a great German victory, one wonders if it would have been better for Germany if Russia had won and forced an end to the war. Then, at least, the soldiers would have been home by Christmas.
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.
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.
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.