Step into My Lebensraum
World War II
War is to man what maternity is to a woman. From a philosophical and doctrinal viewpoint, I do not believe in perpetual peace.
- Benito Mussolini
Fascism is a religion. The 20th century will be known in history as the century of Fascism.
- Benito Mussolini
The liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power
- Franklin D Roosevelt
World War II was caused by a multitude of factors, some far beyond Hitler and his Nazis. There were left over matters from World War I that had never been resolved plus imperial Japan was trying to expand and Hitler needed living space (Lebensraum) for his Master Race. The war had many lasting effects, as World Wars would be expected to do – one such change was the weakening of Europe and the shift of the centre of Western Culture to the US, with only Soviet Russia challenging the US as a world power. This was a major change from the past when Russia had typically been only a minor player on the world’s stage.
Germany had recovered from the economic chaos of the 1920s rather well and Hitler began to implement his perfect system as he had laid out in Mein Kampf. Then fascist Italy, under Benito Mussolini, invaded Ethiopia in 1935. This was a direct violation of the League of Nations rules. Italy should have been quashed (which would have been easy – Italy was very weak). However, they were not. This invasion showed Hitler (and others) that the League of Nations was feeble and that it would not enforce its own rules. Italy was already allied with the strengthening Germany and Hitler. By 1936, Hitler was re-arming Germany in violation of the Treaty of Versailles, especially the Rhineland and along the French border. This was Germany’s industrial heartland, and one of the core provisions of the Treaty of Versailles (meant to keep France from being invaded again) was that it must remain unarmed. Germany couldn’t believe she would get away with it, and the army almost revolted in fear of antagonising the “mighty” French. The soldiers re-armed under protest, poised to cut and run if a single French platoon crossed the border. France, and Europe, did nothing and WWII moved a giant step closer. Dictators around Europe and the world took note – France, and the League of Nations, were impotent. So let’s let Hitler arm for war but do nothing - it’s bound to all work out in the end. Appeasement was the diplomatic policy of the day – a painful legacy of World War I.
The person who became the British Prime Minister within the next couple of years was Neville Chamberlain, who completely misread Hitler, believing that Hitler’s expansionist tendencies would die out after a short while as Hitler was clearly good for Germany. Chamberlain thought Hitler would know where to stop, realising that war would NOT be good for Germany. Chamberlain felt that Hitler could be reasoned with and with good diplomacy could be defused harmlessly. Winston Churchill knew better, but he was out of power by that time and was not consulted. Hitler played the game brilliantly, and limited his speed so as not to cause undue alarm.
In 1938, Hitler annexed Austria but he did so peacefully – Austria seemed even to welcome it, making the outright annexation seem almost democratic. Next, he turned to the Sudetenland, a part of Czechoslovakia. He felt that the people of the Sudetenland would be just as amenable as Austria to join him as they, too, were primarily German. Since they also seemed agreeable, was there cause for France or Britain to act? Certainly Czechoslovakia was not pleased. At the Munich conference of 1938, Chamberlain was convinced that the Sudetenland would be where Hitler would cease his expansion. Due to this, the Munich Accords of 1938 actually gave consent to Hitler’s actions since no one wanted war and Hitler didn’t seem like such a bad guy (yet). There are none so blind as those who will not see…
Chamberlain thought that the Munich Accords would at least buy time and he was proud of that. When Chamberlain’s plane landed in London amid cheers, he was convinced he had done the correct thing by keeping England from going to war. He waved the Munich Accords document at the crowd and shouted, “Peace in our time!” (This was one of the least accurate proclamations ever…)
Within a matter of months, Hitler showed the world that he had not completed his expansion plans for Germany - he absorbed the entire of Czechoslovakia. However by this time it was too late to stop him via diplomatic means. So the Allies put forth an ultimatum: set foot in Poland and there will be war. Unfortunately for the Allies, 1939 came and brought with it the Hitler-Stalin Pact, which, though not signalling something so strong as friendship, was underpinned by a robust mutual interest. (Hitler believed he needed to neutralise a threat – Russia.) The invasion of Poland was tolerated by Russia because Russia got half plus Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia and Hitler got a safe eastern flank. Russia declared they were "protecting" Poland (yeah, right), but this was part of the secret Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact). And the invasion of Poland was an absolute rout. At least things were followed by a lull when everyone laid low.
Poland was a French ally, and France thought very highly of Poland. She couldn’t believe how easily Poland was defeated. Poland had had a well-deserved reputation for bravery – she was crippled by a recent political system which demanded unanimous votes among the nobility for any action, but her people were quite something. Some Polish cavalry units charged German tanks – a futile (and often fatal) gesture – but one which contrasts well with the actions of many others who faced German tanks.
Further, Germany and the province of East Prussia were separated by the “Polish corridor”, which allowed Poland access to the Baltic (see above). Germany hated having parts of Germany non-contiguous - this was a main reason for Germany grabbing Poland. Even moderate Germans wanted the borders revised. This division had been one of Wilson’s 14 Points – a key fact if one should wish to blame Wilson in part for WWII. Poland was a “tripwire” - invaded 1 September, France and UK declared war 3 September. (The US declared neutrality on 5 September.)
After spoils were divided between German and Russia, only Britain and France were left to fight against Hitler. The so-called Axis powers, Italy and Germany, were joined by Japan in 1940.
How did America react to the events in Europe? The US responded by not responding – she did not wish to get involved in Europe. Congress, in the mid-1930s, had passed bills emphasising neutrality, such as the restriction of trade on war materials with warring countries to a strictly cash and carry basis and the proclamation that US citizens on belligerent ships were on their own.
Franklin D Roosevelt was president and, while he was concerned about Germany, at that time he was more concerned about the Depression and his “New Deal” legislation. He wanted to be on friendly terms with Congress so he put his signature on whatever neutrality clauses Congress put before him. However, by 1939 when War was “official”, Roosevelt wanted to help the British and French – though without involving the country in fighting. To this end, he pushed through new laws that helped skirt the old neutrality laws such as a Lend-Lease clause for arms (for countries who didn’t quite have the cash). Also, Roosevelt gave Britain 50 destroyers that America “no longer needed.”
It didn’t much matter, and people don’t talk about it much today, but a lot of the “New Deal” legislation was quite fascist. Parts were struck down by the courts at the time – what people refer to as the “New Deal” now were merely the moderate bits which survived. Fascism appealed everywhere, it seemed (and eugenics - see A Little Known Chapter of History for a bit about eugenics in other countries at the time - including the US).
Despite this, however, the war in Europe took a serious downturn in 1940 with the German Blitzkrieg (or “Lightning War”), an unstoppable tank charge which came into France and overran it completely, seizing Paris along the way. The British forces retreated across the English Channel to prevent their troops from being captured and to regroup and consolidate. Hitler had essentially conquered the whole of Europe. This changed the dynamic for Roosevelt – Britain, a long-time US ally, was standing alone, and it would only be a matter of time before she fell.
There was still resistance in America, including the Isolationist Movement, the Pacifists, the irreconcilables, conservatives, pro-Nazis, and Communists (who, due to the Hitler-Stalin Pact, were against fighting Germany). If you like irony, chart the positions of the Communists – both in the US and Europe. They went from hating the Nazis as electoral rivals in Germany, to loving them after the Ribbontrop-Molotov deal, to hating them after Hitler backstabbed Russia… very doublethink. All were opposed to Roosevelt (photo at right). However in June of 1941, Hitler broke the Pact by invading Russia, even though he had planned to do that only after defeating Britain. For his part, Hitler was trying to remain on his timetable, despite the Battle of Britain (1940) being unsuccessful due to German pilots’ failure to bomb critical areas (consequently, they had not successfully compromised Britain’s power). So Hitler postponed the defeat of Britain, foolishly leaving a mortal enemy behind him while he turned around to attack a former ally. Hitler’s reasoning behind this was that Stalin’s purges had weakened the Russian military enough to allow for a quick victory. And Stalin was distracted and slow to react.
A Stab in the Back
At first, Germany’s advance was rapid and Hitler reached the outskirts of Moscow in short order. Stalin thought of retreating, but the Russian winter came as suddenly as it had for Napoléon, freezing Hitler in his tracks before he could get inside Moscow. Hitler decided to hold the line despite the weather, but that was a critical mistake – Russians have a history of fighting under those conditions and can cope – but other countries’ soldiers don’t do as well. The most brutal fighting of the War occurred at that point.
The brutal fighting alarmed the US and Roosevelt began actively misleading the American public in an attempt to get the US to enter the War. The US ship Greer was supposedly attacked by a German submarine near Iceland in December 1941. In actuality, in the Greer Incident (1941), it was more the Greer who was the aggressor (see box at right). Roosevelt presented it to the American people as if the German sub were the aggressor and the Greer a helpless victim. The German’s had fired first, but the Greer’s actions were a violation of US law, and accepted conventions about the role of neutrals. This drove the US to a state of very near undeclared war with Germany.
The “undeclared” part changed on December 7th, however, with the advent of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. War with Japan brought the US into the European War as well through a German-Japanese treaty - not one of Hitler’s finest diplomatic moments that. He had been trying to convince the Japanese to go after Russia, but instead managed to get the US to go after him. Oops.
Winston Churchill was the prime Minister of England at that point.
Japan had been brought into the war by several factors (for more on this and on Admiral Yamamoto Isokoru, see Japan and World War II). 1931 had seen the rise of a militant government and the country's decision to modernise equipped her military with the latest in weaponry. In 1931, Japan invaded Manchuria and set up a puppet government, called Manchukuo. The Japanese even brought in China’s last (deposed) emperor (who had been overthrown at the age of 3) to run things. After that, there was a more-or-less peaceful lull lasting 6 years. But eventually Japan moved from Manchuria into the rest of China, advancing quickly due to China’s weak and fragmented government (caused by internal strife with Communist rebels).
The weak Chinese government abandoned Beijing and Nanking to the Japanese forces. This led to the horrific Rape of Nanking in 1937 (see Yes, Virginia, There Was a Nanjing Massacre for more on this topic) and the brutal torture and death of possibly several hundred thousand Chinese. Though America was concerned, she did not want to get involved at this point. However, as an ally of China, she did try to do what she could. The US had a strong presence in the Pacific, at that point owning Hawaii, the Philippines and Guam.
In many ways, there was no reason why Japan seizing Indonesia required her to fight the US. The US wasn’t an ally of Indonesia – but the oil from Indonesia would pass too close to US bases and US allies – and Japan simply couldn’t conceive of trusting in the US's neutrality and good intentions. Perhaps a reflection of her likely actions if the situation had been reversed?
Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku planned the attack on Pearl Harbor. Japan did have the element of surprise. Yamamoto’s planning led to heavy losses for the US – the USS Arizona was sunk with 1,500 men aboard. However, there were no aircraft carriers at Pearl Harbor and no one in Japan quite realised the importance of aircraft carriers at that point – airplanes had been unimportant in war in the past. Japan had crippled a European power in the Russo-Japanese war – and that war had been decisively won by the might of Japanese battleships. As always, the winner of the last war attempted to re-fight it the next round – but the age of battleships was over.
Roosevelt gave his Day of Infamy Speech the day following the attack, leading to the US Declaration of War on Japan. If Hitler had been smart, he would not have honoured his treaty with Japan. He failed to realise his best course of action, however, and declared war on the US three days later. Well, he miscalculated, anyhow.
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This message was posted via the Feedback form.
Comments: Your "rending" of WW2 history is really awful. I'll be brief as this kind of "conservacrap" is an epidemic on the web, but I'll try to be cogent.
You are biased and verbose.
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Dear Old Pinko
Perhaps you jump to conclusions.
I went back to university when my younger son began attending. One of the courses I took was European history. The history section of my website was initially based solely on the notes I took - in an attempt to imprint the "facts" I needed to know for the final into my brain.
May I post your letter?
Any article you would be willing to write in refutation of any specific claim on my site I would post. I don't know enough about history to be dogmatic in my view. However, I am undoubtedly more liberal in my viewpoint than you are (but I think that's largely hard-wired).
Thanks for writing.
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Dear Ms Hatch
First I must say I was intemperate in saying you were verbose.
However, your comment about Germany's nice recovery from WWI is historically inaccurate. The chaos and despair epidemic in Germany was a direct contributor to Hitler's rise to power.
Saying that the New Deal was Fascistic is just plain silly extremist rhetoric. There are many forms of governments that employ government stimulus to economically depressed economies that are fully democratic - as FDR and the New Deal were.
I am a proud Liberal but I can't guess which one of us is more so. I guess we both may jump to conclusions?
Please feel free to post my replies.
Done. Points duly noted. Thanks.
The Isolationist Argument
by Charles Tansill
Immediately after the outbreak of World War II, President Roosevelt made a radio address in which he reminded the American people that they should master "at the outset a simple but unalterable fact in modern foreign relations. When peace has been broken anywhere, peace of all countries everywhere is in danger." Roosevelt then glibly gave the following assurance: "Let no man or woman thoughtlessly or falsely talk of America sending its armies to European fields. At this moment there is being prepared a proclamation of American neutrality." America would remain "a neutral nation." But he closed his address with a curtain line that had an ominous implication: "As long as it remains within my power to prevent, there will be no blackout of peace in the United States."
The fall of France in May 1940 imparted a sense of urgency to the Administration's program for aiding Britain by the sale or lease of war materiel. The president's qualms about constitutional limitations slowly disappeared under the drumfire of repeated requests from British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Moreover, Roosevelt brought into his Cabinet certain new members who were not averse to a pro-war inclination.
On 24 June Churchill wrote to the British Ambassador to Washington and emphasised the danger that if England fell there was the possibility that Hitler would get the British fleet. He also complained that Britain had "really not had any help worth speaking of from the US so far." After more than a month of silence he wrote again to the president to inform him that the need for destroyers had "become most urgent." The whole fate of the war might rest upon the speed with which they were delivered. And there was no doubt in Churchill's mind that any transfer of American destroyers to Britain would be a "decidedly un-neutral act by the United States."
Attorney General Robert Jackson blandly pushed aside the pertinent provisions of the Treaty of Washington (8 May 1871) and Article 8 of the Hague Convention of 1907 which required a neutral government to take measures to prevent departure from its jurisdiction any vessel intended to engage in belligerent operations if the vessel was specially adapted within the neutral's jurisdiction to warlike use. From the viewpoint of international law the destroyer deal was definitely illegal. Professor Herbert Briggs correctly remarked: "The supplying of these vessels by the US Government to a belligerent is a violation of our neutral status, a violation of our national law and a violation of international law." The St Louis Post-Dispatch carried the headline: "Dictator Roosevelt Commits an Act of War."
But the lend-lease legislation had a prelude of promises that American boys would not be sent abroad to die along far-flung frontiers. When the election currents in the fall of 1940 appeared to turn toward Republican nominee Wendell Wilkie, the president made new pledges: "While I am talking to you mothers and fathers, I give you one more assurance. I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again and again - your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars."
Under the impact of appeals from Churchill in England American neutrality was finally demolished by lend-lease. Admiral Harold R Stark expressed on 13 January 1941 the opinion, "We are heading straight for this war," - yet the lend-lease program was sold to the American people as a form of peace insurance. Senator Robert Taft forecast: "I don't see how we can long conduct such an undeclared war without actually being in the shooting end."
An American-British-Canadian military Staff Agreement was consummated which envisaged "full-fledged war co-operation when and if Axis aggression forced the US into the war." One section was aimed at creating an incident that would force the US into the war by saying, "Owing to the threat to the sea communications of the UK, the principal task of US naval forces in the Atlantic will be protection of shipping of the Associated Powers." In order to carry out this task the Royal Navy hastened to give the US Navy the "benefit of its experience, and of the new devices and methods for fighting submarines that have already been evolved."
A series of naval incidents involving German-American relations included the sinking of the American merchant ship (21 May 1941) Robin Moor, New York to Cape Town, by a German submarine. There was no visit or search - but crew and passengers were allowed to take to open lifeboats. As the sinking occurred outside the blockade zone, it was evident the submarine commander disregarded orders concerning American ships. German Admiral Eric Raeder immediately issued orders to prevent further incidents like this and Hitler remarked that he wished to "avoid any incident with the USA." On 20 June the President sent a message to Congress in which he bitterly criticised Germany as an international outlaw. He soon ordered American occupation of Iceland. Two days later Secretary of War Frank Knox gave a statement to the press which implied that American patrol forces in the North Atlantic had the right to use guns when the occasion arose.
The occasion arose in September with the Greer Incident (see above). And the de facto war in the Atlantic soon produced another incident. On 16 October 5 American destroyers rushed from Reykjavik, Iceland to help a convoy being attacked by submarines. On the following day, in the midst of fighting, the destroyer Kearny was struck by a torpedo. It had deliberately moved into the centre of a pitched battle between German subs and British and Canadian warships and had taken the consequences - but it was not long before President Roosevelt asserted that America had "been attacked. The USS Kearny is not just a Navy ship. She belongs to every man, woman, and child in this Nation. Hitler's torpedo was directed at every American." The American Navy was given orders to "shoot on sight." The Nazi "rattlesnakes of the sea" would have to be destroyed.
This declaration of war was confirmed by the Reuben James incident. On 31 October while the Reuben James was escorting a convoy to Iceland, some German subs were encountered. The American destroyer was struck by a torpedo and rapidly sank. Only 45 of a crew of 160 were saved. It was obvious America was really in the war - but the American people did not realise it.
In the second week in November tension began to mount in Tokyo. The Japanese Foreign Minister expressed to the US Ambassador the opinion that the Japanese Government had "repeatedly made proposals calculated to approach the American point of view, but the American government had taken no step toward meeting the Japanese position." Japanese Ambassador Nomura presented to President Roosevelt a further explanation of his government's proposals. But the US required that complete control over "economic, financial and monetary affairs" be restored to China and demanded Japan abandon any thought of preserving in China, or anywhere else in the Pacific area, a "preferential position." The US stated, "The government of Japan will withdraw all military, naval, air and police forces from China and from Indochina." Japan inquired if this was the American answer to the Japanese request for a truce? Was not the American Government interested in a truce? The US replied, "We have explored that," but had arrived at no real decision. It was obvious that the next step was war.
On the morning of 4 December 1941, the Navy radio receiving in Maryland intercepted a Japanese overseas news broadcast from Tokyo in which there was inserted a false weather report "east wind rain." The Japanese government had instructed its ambassador in Washington that such a weather forecast would indicate imminence of war with the US. After intercepting this Japanese instruction the radio stations of the American armed forces were on the alert for the "east wind rain" message. As soon as it was translated, Lieutenant Commander Alvin D Kramer handed it to Commander Laurence F Safford with the exclamation: "This is it." Safford immediately called the Rear Admiral who telephoned the substance of the intercepted message "to the naval aide to the President."
The unaccountable failure of high naval officers to convey a warning to Honolulu about the imminence of war was given additional highlights on the evening of 6 December when the Japanese reply to the American note of 26 November was sent secretly to the Japanese Ambassador. It was intercepted by the Navy and decoded. When the president read the message he at once exclaimed: "This means war!" It would ordinarily be assumed that the president would hurriedly call a conference of the more important Army and Navy officers to make plans to meet the anticipated attack. The testimony of Army General George C Marshall and Admiral Stark would indicate that the president took the ominous news so calmly that he made no effort to consult with them. Why such composure?
This problem grows more complicated at the approach of zero hour. At 9:00am on 7 December, Lieutenant Commander Kramer delivered to Admiral Stark the final instalment of the Japanese instruction to the Japanese Ambassador. Its meaning was now so obvious that Stark cried out in great alarm: "My God! This means war. I must get word to Kimmel at once." Admiral Husband Kimmel was Command-in-Chief, US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. But Stark made no effort to contact Honolulu - instead, he tried to reach General Marshall who had suddenly decided to go on a long horseback ride - a history-making ride. Marshall’s ride helped prevent an alert from reaching Pearl Harbor in time to save an American fleet from serious disaster and an American garrison from a bombing that cost more than 2,000 lives.
At 11:25am, Marshall returned to his office. If he carefully read the reports on the threatened Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor he still had plenty of time to contact Honolulu by means of the scrambler telephone on his desk - or by Navy radio or FBI radio. For reasons best known to himself, he chose to send the alert to Honolulu by telegraph and didn't even have it stamped, "priority." As the Army Pearl Harbor Board significantly remarked: "We find no justification for a failure to send this message by multiple secret means either through the Navy or FBI or the scrambler telephone or all three." Was the General under presidential order to break military regulations with regard to transmission of important military information? Or perhaps he thought the president's political objectives outweighed other considerations?
Excerpt reprinted from the book Back Door to War: The Roosevelt Foreign Policy, 1933 - 1941 by Charles Tansill © 1952 by Charles Tansill
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