August 6th 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 6th, 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 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 cruisers 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 submarine effectiveness and an increase in their losses. Although the total value of ships sunk far exceeded the value of U-Boats lost, there were simply too few U-Boats and too many escorts, and thus Germany was unable to adequately disrupt British trade.

The U-Boats were an 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 5th, 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 politics, but in 1926 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 been 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 of conscription, and so relied entirely on volunteers. As such, it took several months to raise and train the necessary forces to send an 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 was 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.

August 3rd in German History: Germany Declares War on France

The New York Herald reports on the German declaration of war.

Another domino on the way to war fell on August 3rd when Germany declared war on France. France was allied with Russia, who Germany had declared war on two days earlier, and it was generally understood that France would soon declare war on Germany. Thus, Germany planned to preempt a French attack by invading Northern France through Belgium. To this end, the German Army mobilized against France and the two nations entered a state of war.

The initial German invasion of France went very well. Although the Belgian fortifications held out longer than the German planners expected, the offensive was able to occupy the whole of Belgium and sweep into France. Germany occupied the most industrialized region of France within months of the outbreak of the war, and forced the French Army back to the Marne. At the Battle of the Marne, however, the overstretched German forces were stopped and forced to give up some of the ground they gained. The Western front then settled into a stalemate characterized by costly Allied offensives to retake French and Belgian territory, generally to no avail. The invention of chemical weapons, tanks, and introduction of planes all failed to break the deadlock. It would take until 1918 and the German Spring Offensive to restore mobility to the front. Using infiltration tactics, prototype sub machine guns, and concentrated attacks, German storm troopers broke Allied trenches and pushed their forces back. The Germans advanced across all of the territory the Allies had recaptured over the past four years, and again reached the Marne. The Second Battle of the Marne would see the Germans stopped yet again. This time, however, there would be no drawn-out stalemate as German food shortages and the influx of American troops led to a collapse of the German Army and the armistice on November 11th.

That a war in the Balkans led to a German declaration of war on France shows the perils of unconditional alliances. The French alliance with Russia drew France into the Russian war with Austria, which it itself had only entered because of its commitment to Serbia. While international alliances can certainly prevent war when nations are reasonable, in an era of nationalism and militarism, they only served to expand its scope.

August 2nd in German History: Adolf Hitler Becomes Fuhrer of Germany After the Death of Hindenberg

Bundesarchiv Bild 183-C06886, Paul v. Hindenburg.jpg
Paul von Hindenberg

On August 2nd, Paul von Hindenberg, hero of the First World War, died. Upon his death, the presidency was left vacant. In his absence, Adolf Hitler, until then the Chancellor of Germany, was able to abolish the positions of President and Chancellor and merge their powers into that of Fuhrer of Germany.

After Hitler became Chancellor in January of 1933, he set about dismantling German democracy. He first orchestrated the passage of the Enabling Act, which allowed the government to rule by decree. Then, after the Reichstag fire, he passed the Reichstag Fire Decree, which suspended civil liberties and allowed Hitler to repress the Communist Party and Social Democrat Party. He spent the next year building his popularity. He took control of state governments, spent enormous amounts of money on public works and employment projects, and established patriotic organizations, all to unify the country around him. Hindenberg was the only person who could in theory check Hitler’s power, and by early 1934 he was growing concerned by the cult of personality around Hitler and the savagery of his persecution of political opponents. In particular, he feared the SA, the Nazi paramilitary organization, and demanded that Hitler destroy it. After the Night of the Long Knives, in which the SA’s leadership was killed or imprisoned, his apprehension abated and he voiced little opposition to Hitler thereafter. His death on August 2nd, 1934, removed the last person who legally could fire Hitler. On that same day, Hitler made himself the supreme leader of Germany. The powers of this position allowed him to stamp out all remaining legal opposition and finalize Germany’s transformation into a totalitarian dictatorship.

Recently, I discussed the importance of popular faith in democracy. The death of Paul von Hindenburg and Hitler’s subsequent seizure of power only further emphasizes the need for the population to prevent tyranny. That the last barrier between Hitler and Germany was not a pro-democracy but rather a monarchist General shows just how weak German democratic institutions and culture were. It is the responsibility of the people, not just of a few of their leaders, to maintain and protect their freedoms.

August 1st in German History: The German Empire Declares War on Russia

Generalleutnant von Moltke, der neue Chef des Generalstabs, 1906 (cropped).jpg
Helmuth von Moltke the Younger, Commander of the German Army in the outbreak of the war.

The outbreak of the First World War did not occur all at once. Rather, the war started over the course of a month as nations mobilized and declared war on each other in turn. One of these steps was the German declaration of war against Russia on August 1st.

Germany was obliged to declare war on Russia by the alliance that it formed before the war. When Austria declared war on Serbia following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Russia mobilized and declared war on Austria. In response, German mobilized to defend its ally and declared war on August 1st. However, Germany’s initial efforts during the war were focused on France rather than Russia. Russia was a larger country with a more dispersed industry than France. German generals thus believed that France could be quickly forced out of the war, while the Russian Army would take a long time to mobilize and thus could not invade Germany. This plan, dubbed the Schlieffen Plan after its creator, was activated on the day of the declaration and two days later Germany declared war on France. The invasion of France went well initially, but at the Battle of the Marne, the Germans were stopped. The Russian Army mobilized far more quickly than was expected and soon invaded East Prussia. However, the outnumbered Germans, reinforced by some troops from the Western Front, trounced the poorly-led Russians at the Battle of Tannenberg. The war in the east was very mobile, and the Russians were pushed far back from their borders. Although they had some successes against Austria, by 1917 Russia was in crisis as its population no longer supported the war and its army was in tatters. The Russian Revolution that year effectively ended Russian action against Germany, and that year the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk saw Russia surrender.

The German declaration of war on Russia should not have happened. The alliance system that made a war in the Balkans a global war was responsible for the deaths of millions. The war destroyed both the German and Russian empires, and the rulers who made those alliances would either be executed or die in exile. While isolation from foreign affairs is foolish, nations should be careful with choosing their allies, and what commitment they guarantee them.

July 31st in German History: The July 1932 German Federal Elections Held

Reichstagswahl Juli 1932.svg
July 1932 election results by district.

The collapse of German democracy was preceded by multiple elections which further destabilized the German political system. The elections held on July 31st of 1932 strengthened the Nazi Party and its rival Communist Party, and weakened the more moderate parties. In doing so, it pushed Germany towards extremism and accelerated the end of the Weimar Republic.

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The makeup of the Reichstag after the election.

Germany became a democracy in the aftermath of the First World War. The abdication of the Kaiser and concurrent revolution established a republic. However, the new government was soon faced with the prospect of a collapsed economy and huge reparation payments, along with having to oversee the handover of German territory. The government’s response to these crises led to hyperinflation and further instability, which contributed to the rise of the Nazi and Communist parties in the early 1920s. However, the economy recovered in the middle of the decade, and the late 1920s were even known as the Weimar Golden Age. This, however, did not last. The relative prosperity was built on large public deficits and loans from American businesses. The onset of the Great Depression in 1929 led to an economic collapse. This in turn led to the collapse of the governing Social Democrat-Center coalition in 1930, which forced President Paul von Hindenburg to appoint a minority government led by the Center Party. This government could only operate via Hindenburg’s emergency powers, which only further weakened public faith in democracy. The 1930 elections saw the Nazi Party win ninety-five seats. In 1932 Hitler nearly beat Hindenburg in the presidential elections. In that year Hindenburg replaced Chancellor Bruning with Franz von Papen, who had almost no support from the legislature. As such, Hindenburg dissolved the legislature and called for new elections. The campaign leading up to the July 31st elections saw street clashes between the Communists and the Nazis, reflecting the deterioration of civil politics. The Nazi Party saw enormous gains from the elections. They became the largest party in the Reichstag, gaining one hundred and twenty-three seats. Further, the Communist Party also gained seats, although far fewer, and the Social Democrat Party lost seats. However, no party had a majority or could form a coalition to create one. As a result, Papen’s minority government continued. Germany’s democracy was left in tatters, as a majority of the voters had voted for parties that wished an end to it.

For a democracy to survive, it must have popular support. More than just support for a party, support for the democratic system is vital. When the population loses faith in that system, it does not often survive for long. When people turn to authoritarian or totalitarian systems in search of safety and security, democracy and its leaders have clearly failed. It is thus the primary responsibility of a nation’s leaders to provide safety and security for all.

July 30th in German History: The Birth of Walter Schuck

Walter Schuck | Military Wiki | Fandom
Walter Schuck

The Second World War is full of stories of soldiers who distinguished themselves on the field of battle before dying tragically during one of their daring exploits. Walter Schuck was a rare case of a fighter ace who fought from the beginning of the war and survived its end. He was born on July 30th, 1920.

Walter Schuck was born in the town of Bexbach, which at the time was under British occupation. His father was a coal miner and he was unable to find job training, and so welcomed the introduction of compulsory military service in 1935 as it provided opportunity for career advancement. To avoid conscription into the infantry and because he had always dreamed of flying, he volunteered for the Luftwaffe at the age of 16. Schuck completed training in 1940 and saved his flying career, which had been troubled by a history of indiscipline, through a demonstration of his skill. He spent 1941 flying escort missions and being transferred from one position to the next and it was not until 1942 that he scored his first victory, over a Soviet plane. He soon scored four more and was awarded the Iron Cross. By June of 1944 he had claimed 100 kills and had been awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross. In August he was made leader of a squadron, but was poor at enforcing discipline. His string of victories continued until 1945, only interrupted by a minor injury and a period of vacation following the wedding of one of his friends. He began flying the Me 262, the first jet fighter introduced into an air force on a large scale, and by April 10th he had 206 claimed victories. On that day, however, his plane was hit and he was forced to bale out. He received only minor injuries, but the war ended before he recovered. He lived a long life after the war, dying on March 27th, 2015, at the age of 94.

Walter Schuck’s survival was in of itself miraculous. In a war where the average lifespan of a German pilot was measured in months and even weeks, that he survived for years was very impressive. Further, he scored an astounding number of victories. While some of his numbers may have been exaggerated, he was clearly an extremely skilled pilot. While not as important as the generals or kings that I have discussed on this blog, Walter Schuck’s story is perhaps less common, and certainly happier, than many of the others.

July 29th in German History: Adolf Hitler Becomes Leader of the Nazi Party

Adolf Hitler | Biography, Rise to Power, & Facts | Britannica
Adolf Hitler.

Germany’s descent into Nazism was a multi-decade process that began with the end of WWI and ended in 1934 when government and society came under the complete control of the Nazi Party. One of the most significant steps in this process occurred on July 29th, 1921, when Adolf Hitler took control of the Nazi Party.

Anton Drexler - Wikipedia
Anton Drexler.

One thing that most people don’t know is that Adolf Hitler was not the founder or the first leader of the Nazi Party. That distinction belongs to Anton Drexler, who founded the German Worker’s Party in January of 1919. Drexler founded the party with the attention of making Germany a nationalist and vaguely socialist country. The party was very small initially, and had fewer than one hundred people when Hitler joined in September of that year. However, once Hitler joined he began to rapidly grow the Party’s base of support. His fiery and impassioned speeches attracted a myriad of dissatisfied Germans and by 1920 the newly renamed National Socialist German Worker’s Party had over 2,000 members. Hitler also began to emphasize the already existent antisemitism and gradually turned the party’s message away from socialism as he became the face of the movement. However, a crisis began when, in 1921, members of the executive committee made plans to merge with the German Socialist Party. Hitler opposed this, and on July 11th he returned from a fundraising trip to tender his resignation. The other leaders knew that the loss of Hitler would destroy the Party’s support. Thus, when Hitler offered to rejoin if he was allowed to replace Drexler as leader, the party Congress voted 533 to 1 in favor of the proposal. Hitler would thus become Fuhrer of the Nazi Party, and in little over a decade would become Fuhrer of Germany.

Hitler’s meteoric rise within the ranks of the Nazi Party and eventual takeover of Germany shows just how dangerous the combination of skill and pure moral evil is. Hitler used his rhetorical ability to advance his own reputation and power, with the ultimate goal of enforcing his vision on Germany and on the world. Evil alone is not enough, rather, it must be paired with great talent in order to inflict great harm.

July 28th in German History: A Firestorm Engulfs the City of Hamburg

The Eilbek district after it was gutted by flames.

Germany began the Second World War confident in its prospects of victory and assured that it would itself see the devastation of conflict. Germany’s leaders promised that German cities would be free of violence, and that the battles would be fought far from the nation’s borders. These promises were broken. Even before Germany itself was invaded, Allied bombers wreaked havoc on the cities and towns of the Reich. One of the most deadly incidents occurred on July 28th, 1943, when a firestorm started by bombing the night before burnt much of the city to the ground.

Of course, the early years of the war saw Germany rain death on cities in Poland, France, and most notably Britain. The Battle of Britain saw the Luftwaffe nearly gain air superiority over the British Isles. However, the UK’s aircraft production along with advances in RADAR allowed the RAF to maintain control of its skies. Their effort was helped by the German decision to switch from bombing military targets to bombing London after a small air raid accidentally bombed Berlin. This raid, while important symbolically, had little impact on Germany’s war production. That would not be the case for long, as the RAF increasingly turned its attention to German cities. As the American and British air forces increasingly overwhelmed the German one, the Allies were able to undertake ever bolder actions against German population and industrial centers. Beginning on July 24th, 1943, the RAF undertook Operation Gomorrah, a bombing campaign on the city of Hamburg. However, the culmination of these efforts did not come until three days later. On July 27th, 787 aircraft from the Royal Air Force took off from British airfields and, shortly before midnight, dropped their bombs on the city. The warm and dry weather, along with damage done to the city’s fire department by earlier raids, resulted in massive fires erupting in a concentrated area. This in turn led to a firestorm, which saw winds as high as 240km per hour and temperatures as high as 1,470 degrees Fahrenheit. All told, over 40,000 people were killed, most suffocating while seeking shelter. Eight square miles of the city were left in ruins. One fourth of the city’s large factories and half of the small ones were destroyed, along with more than half of its housing. Yet, the bombings did not stop, and they would not stop until the city was occupied by the Allies in May of 1945.

There is a certain irony in the devastation visited upon German cities during WWII. Hitler and his underlings promised the German people prosperity and safety during the war, and threatened to destroy his enemies from above. In fact, his attempts to force Britain to submit were to end in disaster, and it would be his people that experienced the worst devastation from the air. Germans, especially Nazis, believed that they could achieve victory with comparably little sacrifice. Instead, they would suffer utter destruction in their defeat.