Conflict in Europe

The European Theater

The 1941 German invasion of the Soviet Union and the exhausting offensive on the Eastern front stalled Nazi Germany’s gains and paved the way for the Allies’ victory.

Learning Objectives

Describe the arc of the war in Europe from 1939–1945

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland, marking the outbreak of World War II. Three days later, the United Kingdom and France declared war on Germany, and on September 17, the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the east. After Poland’s fall, a period known as the Phoney War followed.
  • In 1940, Germans invaded and occupied all of the non-neutral Allied states in Europe with the exception of the United Kingdom. The 1940 Battle of Britain left the U.K. the only non-neutral European Allied state that was not occupied or annexed by the Axis powers.
  • In 1941, the Axis powers seized control over the European part of the Mediterranean and the Balkans.
  • On June 22, 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa. The ultimate failure of the operation opened up the eastern front, to which more forces were committed than in any other theater of war in world history.
  • Continuous fighting, particularly on the eastern front, significantly weakened both Germany and Italy in 1942 and 1943.
  • The June 1944 Normandy landings, which led to the defeat of the German Army units in France, marked the beginning of a serious of victories of the Allied powers that eventually forced Germany to surrender in Italy on April 29. Total and unconditional surrender was signed on May 7, to be effective by the end of May 8.

Key Terms

  • Phoney War: The period of relatively limited military operations between the fall of Poland in October 1939 and the German invasion of Low Countries and France in May 1940.
  • D-Day: Term used to refer to Tuesday, 6 June 1944 when the Allied forces invaded Normandy in Operation Overlord during World War II. The largest seaborne invasion in history, the operation began the liberation of German-occupied northwestern Europe from Nazi control, and contributed to the Allied victory on the Western Front.
  • Battle of Britain: A combat of the Second World War, when the Royal Air Force defended the United Kingdom against the German Air Force attacks from the end of June 1940. Described as the first major campaign fought entirely by air forces.
  • Operation Barbarossa: The code name for Nazi Germany’s World War II invasion of the Soviet Union, which began on 22 June 1941.
  • Winter War: The Soviet Union′s assault on Finland on November 30, 1939, that occurred during the so-called Phoney War.
  • Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact: A non-aggression pact signed between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in Moscow on August 23, 1939.

The Outbreak of World War II in Europe

Although Germany and the Soviet Union were sworn enemies, on August 23, 1939, the Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov and the German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop signed a non-aggression treaty known as the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. Only a week later, on September 1, Germany invaded Poland, marking the outbreak of World War II. On September 3, the United Kingdom and France declared war on Germany and British troops were sent to France. However, neither French nor British troops gave any significant assistance to the Poles during the invasion, and the German–French border, excepting the Saar Offensive, remained mostly calm. On September 17, the Soviet forces attacked Poland from the east, but they remained neutral with respect to Western powers. Poland fell within five weeks and Hitler offered peace to Britain and France on the basis of recognition of German European continental dominance. On October 12, the United Kingdom formally refused.

1940 in Western Europe

Not until May of 1940, when Germany attacked neutral low countries and France, did massive military operations involving Western European powers continue (the period between the fall of Poland and the German invasion of low countries and France is know as “the Phoney War”). However, several critical developments occurred before May 10. By the end of September of 1939, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia succumbed to the pressure and permitted Soviet bases and troops on their territory. The Baltic Republics were eventually occupied by the Soviet army in June 1940 and annexed to the Soviet Union in August 1940. In November 1939, the Soviets attacked Finland in the Winter War. While the Soviet Union failed to annex Finland, it took over part of its territory and drew substantial benefits from the Finnish economy.

In April, Hitler invaded Denmark and Norway. The Allied troops assembled to support the Finns were redirected to Norway, but in June, the Allies evacuated, ceding Norway to Germany in response to the German invasion of France. In May 1940, Germany occupied Luxembourg, followed within days by the Netherlands and Belgium. On June 22, France signed an armistice agreement. As its result, Germany occupied northern France and the Atlantic coastline, while southern France remained under the control of a Nazi-controlled French government with the capital in Vichy.

The fall of France left Britain alone among formally non-neutral states in Europe. The British rejected several covert German attempts to negotiate peace. Germany massed their air force in northern German-occupied France to prepare the way for a possible invasion, deeming that air superiority was essential for the invasion. The operations of the Luftwaffe against the Royal Air Force became known as the Battle of Britain (according to British historians: July 10–October 31, 1940). In July 1940, the air and sea blockade began with the Luftwaffe mainly targeting coastal shipping convoys, ports, and shipping centers. In August, the Luftwaffe shifted the attacks to RAF airfields and infrastructure. As the battle progressed, the Luftwaffe also targeted factories involved in World War II aircraft production and strategic infrastructure and, eventually, it employed terror bombing on areas of political significance and civilians.

By preventing the Luftwaffe’s air superiority over the UK, the British forced Adolf Hitler to postpone and eventually cancel Operation Sea Lion, a provisionally proposed amphibious and airborne invasion of Britain. However, Nazi Germany continued bombing operations on Britain, known as the Blitz. During the Blitz, all of Britain’s major industrial, political, and cultural centers were heavily bombed.

Italy began operations in the European region of the Mediterranean by initiating a siege of Malta in June 1940. In October 1940, Mussolini started the Greco-Italian War driven by his jealousy of Hitler’s success, but within days was repulsed and pushed back into Albania (Italian protectorate since 1939). The UK responded to Greek requests for assistance by sending troops to Crete and providing air support to Greece. By late March 1941, following Bulgaria’s signing of the Tripartite Pact, the Germans were in position to intervene in Greece. Plans were changed, however, because of developments in neighboring Yugoslavia. The Yugoslav government had signed the Tripartite Pact, only to be overthrown two days later by a British encouraged coup. Hitler viewed the new regime as hostile and immediately decided to eliminate it. On April 6, Germany simultaneously invaded both Yugoslavia and Greece, making rapid progress and forcing both nations to surrender within the month. The British were driven from the Balkans after Germany conquered the Greek island of Crete by the end of May.

Operation Barbarossa

On June 22, 1941, Germany, supported by Italy and Romania, invaded the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa. They were joined shortly by Finland and Hungary. The primary targets of this surprise offensive were the Baltic region, Moscow, and the Ukraine, with the ultimate goal of ending the 1941 campaign near the Arkhangelsk-Astrakhan line, from the Caspian to the White Seas. Hitler’s objectives were to eliminate the Soviet Union as a military power, exterminate Communism, generate Lebensraum (“living space”) by dispossessing the native population and guaranteeing access to the strategic resources needed to defeat Germany’s remaining rivals.

Operation Barbarossa was the largest military operation in human history. Despite initial successes, the German offensive stalled on the outskirts of Moscow and was subsequently pushed back by a Soviet counteroffensive. The failure of the operation opened up the eastern front, to which more forces were committed than in any other theater of war in world history. The eastern front became the site of some of the largest battles, most horrific atrocities, and highest casualties for Soviets and Germans alike, all of which influenced the course of both World War II and the subsequent history of the 20th century.

1942–1943

Despite considerable losses, in early 1942, Germany and its allies stopped a major Soviet offensive in central and southern Russia, keeping most territorial gains they had achieved during the previous year. By mid-November, the Germans had nearly taken Stalingrad when the Soviets began their second winter counteroffensive, starting with an encirclement of German forces at Stalingrad and an assault on the Rzhev salient near Moscow, though the latter failed disastrously. By early February 1943, the German Army had taken tremendous losses. German troops at Stalingrad had been forced to surrender and the front line had been pushed back beyond its position before the summer offensive.

Both the Germans and the Soviets spent the spring and early summer of 1943 preparing for large offensives in central Russia. On July 4, 1943, Germany attacked Soviet forces around the Kursk Bulge. Within a week, German forces had exhausted themselves against the Soviets’ defenses and, for the first time in the war, Hitler cancelled the operation before it had achieved tactical or operational success. This decision was partially affected by the Western Allies’ invasion of Sicily launched on July 9 which, combined with previous Italian failures, resulted in the ousting and arrest of Mussolini later that month. Also, in July 1943, the British firebombed Hamburg killing over 40,000 people.

On July 12, 1943, the Soviets launched their own counteroffensives, thereby dispelling any chance of German victory or even stalemate in the east. The Soviet victory at Kursk marked the end of German superiority, giving the Soviet Union the initiative on the eastern front. On September 3, 1943, the Western Allies invaded the Italian mainland, following Italy’s armistice with the Allies. Germany responded by disarming Italian forces, seizing military control of Italian areas, and creating a series of defensive lines. German special forces then rescued Mussolini, who then soon established a new client state in German-occupied Italy named the Italian Social Republic, causing an Italian civil war. The Western Allies fought through several lines until reaching the main German defensive line in mid-November.

The Defeat of the Axis Powers

On June 6, 1944 (known as D-Day), after three years of Soviet pressure, the Western Allies invaded France. The landings, known as Normandy landings, led to the defeat of the German Army units in France. Paris was liberated by the local resistance assisted by the Free French Forces in August and the Western Allies continued to push back German forces in western Europe.

On June 22, the Soviets launched a strategic offensive in Belarus (“Operation Bagration”) that destroyed the German Army Group Center almost completely. Soon after that, another Soviet strategic offensive forced German troops from Western Ukraine and Eastern Poland. The Soviet advance prompted resistance forces in Poland to initiate several uprisings against the German occupation. However, the largest of these was in Warsaw where German soldiers massacred 200,000 civilians. A national uprising in Slovakia did not receive Soviet support and was subsequently suppressed by the Germans. The Red Army ‘s strategic offensive in eastern Romania cut off and destroyed the considerable German troops there and triggered a successful coup d’état in Romania and Bulgaria, followed by those countries’ shift to the Allied side.

In September 1944, Soviet troops advanced into Yugoslavia and forced the rapid withdrawal of Germany in Greece, Albania, and Yugoslavia to rescue them from being cut off. In northern Serbia, the Red Army, with limited support from Bulgarian forces, assisted the Partisans in a joint liberation of the capital city of Belgrade in October. A few days later, the Soviets launched a massive assault against German-occupied Hungary that lasted until the fall of Budapest in February 1945. Unlike impressive Soviet victories in the Balkans, bitter Finnish resistance to the Soviet offensive in the Karelian Isthmus denied the Soviets occupation of Finland and led to a Soviet-Finnish armistice on relatively mild conditions, although Finland later shifted to the Allied side.

By January 1945, the final German attempt on the western front to launch a massive counteroffensive in the Ardennes failed. In mid-January, the Soviets and Poles attacked in Poland, pushing from the Vistula to the Oder River in Germany, and overran East Prussia. On February 4, U.S., British, and Soviet leaders met for the Yalta Conference. They agreed on the occupation of postwar Germany, and on the time when the Soviet Union would join the war against Japan. Also in February, the Soviets entered Silesia and Pomerania (today’s Poland), while Western Allies entered western Germany and closed to the Rhine River. By March, the Western Allies crossed the Rhine north and south of the Ruhr while the Soviets advanced to Vienna. In early April, the Western Allies finally pushed forward in Italy and swept across western Germany, while Soviet and Polish forces stormed Berlin in late April. American and Soviet forces joined on the Elbe River on April 25. On April 30, 1945, the Reichstag was captured, signaling the military defeat of Nazi Germany.

German forces surrendered in Italy on April 29. Total and unconditional surrender was signed on May 7, to be effective by the end of May 8.

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Destroyed Warsaw, the capital of Poland, January 1945: Ruins of Warsaw in January 1945, after the deliberate destruction of the city by the occupying German forces.

Blitzkrieg

Blitzkrieg (German for “lightning war”) was a German military strategy whereby an attacking force, spearheaded by a dense concentration of armored and motorized or mechanized infantry formations with close air support, breaks through the opponent’s line of defense by short, fast, powerful attacks and then dislocates the defenders, using speed and surprise to encircle them.

Learning Objectives

Define the German military tactic of blitzkrieg

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Blitzkrieg involved a coordinated military effort by tanks, mobilized infantry, artillery, and aircraft to overwhelm the opponent.
  • Historians debate whether Germany defeated Poland using the blitzkrieg tactic in 1939, with some seeing the fall of Poland as a classic example of the strategy.
  • In 1940, Germany applied blitzkrieg to seize power over low countries and France.
  • In 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union but was unable to achieve a strategic victory. Historians debate at what point of the complex operation Germans no longer were able to apply blitzkrieg.
  • By late 1942, France and most of western Europe had fallen to the Nazis, partially as a result of the blitzkrieg strategy.

Key Terms

  • blitzkrieg: A method of warfare, used by Germany in the early period of World War II, whereby an attacking force, spearheaded by a dense concentration of armored and motorized or mechanized infantry formations with close air support, breaks through the opponent’s line of defense by short, fast, powerful attacks and then dislocates the defenders, using speed and surprise to encircle them.

Blitzkrieg is a method of warfare whereby an attacking force, spearheaded by a dense concentration of armored and motorized or mechanized infantry formations with close air support, breaks through the opponent’s line of defense by short, fast, powerful attacks and then dislocates the defenders, using speed and surprise to encircle them.

Blitzkrieg refers to German tactical and operational strategies in the first half of the second World War. The word, meaning “lightning war,” is associated with a series of quick and decisive short battles to deliver a knockout blow to an enemy before it can fully mobilize. The tactical meaning of blitzkrieg involves a coordinated military effort by tanks, mobilized infantry, artillery, and aircraft to overwhelm an enemy and break through its lines. German military official Heinz Guderian was probably the first to fully develop and advocate the principles associated with blitzkrieg.

As used by Germany, blitzkrieg had considerable psychological, or “terror” elements, such as the noise-making sirens on dive-bombers to affect the morale of enemy forces.

The Use of the Blitzkrieg Strategy in World War II

Despite the term blitzkrieg being coined by journalists during the Invasion of Poland of 1939, historians Matthew Cooper and J.P. Harris have written that German operations during it were consistent with traditional methods. The Wehrmacht strategy was more in line with Vernichtungsgedanken, a focus on envelopment to create pockets in broad-front annihilation. Panzer forces were dispersed among the three German concentrations with little emphasis on independent use, being used to create or destroy close pockets of Polish forces and seize operational-depth terrain in support of the largely unmotorized infantry which followed. However, historian Basil Liddell Hart argues that “Poland was a full demonstration of the Blitzkrieg theory.”

Germany launched an offensive against France and also attacked the neutral nations of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg on May 10, 1940. The Netherlands and Belgium were overrun using blitzkrieg tactics in a few days and weeks, respectively. The French-fortified Maginot Line and the main body of the Allied forces which had moved into Belgium were circumvented by a flanking movement through the thickly wooded Ardennes region, mistakenly perceived by Allied planners as an impenetrable natural barrier against armored vehicles. As a result, the bulk of the Allied armies found themselves trapped in an encirclement and were beaten. The majority were taken prisoner, approximately 300,000 (mostly British and French), and were evacuated from the continent at Dunkirk by early June, abandoning almost all of their equipment. Eventually, the French army collapsed after less than two months of fighting.

Use of armored forces was crucial for both sides on the eastern front. Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, involved a number of breakthroughs and encirclements by motorized forces. The Germans conquered large areas of the Soviet Union, but their failure to destroy the Red Army before the winter of 1941 was a strategic failure that made German tactical superiority and territorial gains irrelevant. In the summer of 1942, Germany launched another offensive in the southern USSR against Stalingrad and the Caucasus. The Soviets again lost tremendous amounts of territory, only to counterattack once more during winter. German gains were ultimately limited by Hitler diverting forces from the attack on Stalingrad and driving towards the Caucasus oilfields simultaneously. The Wehrmacht became overstretched, and although winning operationally, it could not inflict a decisive defeat as the durability of the Soviet Union’s manpower, resources, industrial base, and aid from the Western Allies began to take effect. In July 1943, the Wehrmacht conducted Operation Zitadelle (Citadel) against a salient at Kursk that was heavily defended by Soviet troops. Soviet defensive tactics were by now hugely improved, particularly in the use of artillery and air support.

Historians disagree over when the blitzkrieg phase of World War II in Europe ended. Some assert that Operation Citadel was planned and intended to be a blitzkrieg operation. Many of the German participants who wrote about the operation after the war make no mention of blitzkrieg in their accounts. In 2000, Niklas Zetterling and Anders Frankson characterized only the southern pincer of the German offensive as a “classical blitzkrieg attack.” Pier Battistelli wrote that the operational planning marked a change in German offensive thinking away from blitzkrieg and that more priority was given to brute force and firepower than to speed and maneuver.

Although effective in the early periods of the war, the blitzkrieg strategy could not be sustained by Germany in later years. Tank and vehicle production was a constant problem for Germany. As the end of the war approached, Germany also experienced critical shortages in fuel and ammunition stocks as a result of Allied strategic bombing and blockades.

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German armed forces in Russia, June 1942: The classic characteristic of what is commonly known as “blitzkrieg” is a highly mobile form of infantry and armor, working in combined arms.

Britain’s Strategy

Britain’s military strategy evolved from the early idea of Appeasement to the active involvement on the three fronts of the European Theater as a follower of the Joint Allied Strategy.

Learning Objectives

Differentiate between the Eastern Front, the Western Front, and the Mediterranean Theater

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The European Theater of World War II was a huge area of heavy fighting across Europe. The Allied forces fought the Axis powers in three European sub-theaters: the Eastern Front, the Western Front, and the Mediterranean Theater.
  • Initially, the British attempted to prevent and avoid war through diplomacy ( Appeasement ), but they joined military operations in Western Europe shortly after the German invasion of Poland.
  • ” Europe First ” was a strategy employed by the United States and the United Kingdom, according to which the United States and the United Kingdom would use the preponderance of their resources to subdue Nazi Germany in Europe first.
  • The British were particularly active on the Western Front, including their critical defense of UK in the Battle of Britain.
  • The Mediterranean and Middle East Theater included British involvement in Southern Europe and the protection of British North African and Middle Eastern colonies and dependencies.
  • Compared to the two other European sub-theaters, the British presence on the Eastern Front was relatively limited.

Key Terms

  • Europe First: A key element of the grand strategy employed by the United States and the United Kingdom during World War II. According to this policy, the United States and the United Kingdom would use the preponderance of their resources to subdue Nazi Germany in Europe first.
  • Appeasement: A diplomatic policy of making political or material concessions to an enemy power in order to avoid conflict.
  • Battle of Britain: A combat of the Second World War, when the Royal Air Force defended the United Kingdom against the German Air Force attacks from the end of June 1940. It is described as the first major campaign fought entirely by air forces.
  • Luftwaffe: The German air force until the end of the Second World War.

Three Fronts of the European Theater

The European Theater of World War II was a huge area of heavy fighting across Europe from Germany’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, until the end of the war, with the German unconditional surrender on May 8, 1945. The Allied forces fought the Axis powers in three European sub-theaters: the Eastern Front, the Western Front, and the Mediterranean Theater.

The Eastern Front was by far the largest and bloodiest theater of World War II. It occurred between the European Axis powers and co-belligerent Finland and the Soviet Union, Poland, Norway, and some other Allies, which encompassed northern, southern, central, and eastern Europe from June 22, 1941, to May 9, 1945. The Western Front of the European Theater comprised Denmark, Norway, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, France, and West Germany. The first phase saw the capitulation of the Netherlands, Belgium, and France during May and June 1940 and continued into an air war between Germany and Britain that climaxed with the Battle of Britain. The second phase consisted of large-scale ground combat, which began in June 1944 with the Allied landings in Normandy and continued until the defeat of Germany in May 1945. The Mediterranean Theater, commonly discussed together with operations in the Middle East, saw interconnected naval, land, and air campaigns fighting for control of the Mediterranean, North Africa, the Horn of Africa, the Middle East, and Southern Europe. The fighting in this theater lasted from June 10, 1940, when Italy entered the war on the side of Nazi Germany, until May 2, 1945, when all Axis forces in Italy surrendered. However, fighting would continue in Greece, where British troops had been dispatched to aid the Greek government, during the early stages of the Greek Civil War.

British Strategy

Since the Entente Cordiale which had won the First World War, Britain’s strategy for continental war was based on alliance with France and later unsuccessful efforts to engage Fascist Italy and the USSR in an effort to contain Germany. Confronted with the rise of Hitler’s power on the continent in 1933, and weakened economically by the Great Depression, Great Britain sought initially to avoid or delay war through diplomacy (Appeasement), while at the same time re-arming (Neville Chamberlain’s European Policy). Emphasis for re-armament was given to air forces with the view that these would be most useful in any future war with Germany.

Upon the outbreak of war in September 1939, British rearmament was not yet complete. Britain remained incapable of offensive operations except for strategic bombing, and this was relatively ineffective in the early war.

After the fall of France in mid-1940 and Italian entry into the war on the Axis side, Britain and her commonwealth allies found themselves alone against most of Europe. British strategy was one of survival, defending the British Isles directly in the Battle of Britain (according to British historians: July 10–October 31, 1940) and indirectly by defeating Germany in the Battle of the Atlantic (the longest continuous military campaign in World War II, running from 1939 to the defeat of Germany in 1945) and the combined Axis powers in the North African Campaign. Through this period, and until the German invasion of the USSR in June 1941, there was no possibility of Britain winning the war alone, and so British Grand Strategy aimed to bring the U.S. into the war on the allied side. Prime Minister Churchill devoted much of his diplomatic efforts to this goal. Churchill met U.S. President Roosevelt in August 1941 in the first of many wartime meetings wherein allied war strategy was jointly decided.

In December 1941, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States entered the war. Britain was also at war with imperial Japan, whose forces inflicted rapid defeats on British forces in Asia, capturing Hong Kong, Malaya, Singapore, and Burma. Nevertheless, Churchill expressed the view that with the entry of the U.S. into the war, ultimate victory was assured for the Allies. “All the rest was merely the proper application of overwhelming force.” From this point onward, the strategy of the Allies, other than the USSR, is better addressed as Joint Allied Strategy.

“Europe First”

“Europe First,” also known as “Germany First,” was the key element of the grand strategy employed by the United States and the United Kingdom during World War II. According to this policy, the United States and the United Kingdom would use the preponderance of their resources to subdue Nazi Germany in Europe first. They would also fight a holding action against Japan in the Pacific, using fewer resources. After the defeat of Germany—considered the greatest threat to Great Britain—all Allied forces could be concentrated against Japan. However, official U.S. statistics show that the United States devoted more resources in the early part of the war to stopping the advance of Japan, and not until 1944 was a clear preponderance of U.S. resources allocated toward the defeat of Germany.

Western Front

Following the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, the British Expeditionary Force was sent to the Franco-Belgian border in mid-September. During this period, (known as the Phoney War), the RAF carried out small bombing raids and a large number of propaganda leaflet raids (code named “Nickels”) and the Royal Navy imposed a coastal blockade on Germany.

During the German invasion of Norway, British troops made amphibious landings at Namsos during April 1940 in an effort to stop the Germans advancing North, but all British troops were evacuated by May 4, 1940. As a consequence of the loss of Norway and Denmark, the Royal Navy commenced a preemptive occupation of the Faroe Islands and the Royal Navy occupied Iceland to install naval and air bases on this Atlantic island. After German troops entered France, the British forces attempted to stop the offensive and launched counterattacks. Eventually, Churchill ordered that all British troops be evacuated from France without delay.

The fall of France left Britain alone among formally non-neutral states in Europe. The operations of the Luftwaffe against the Royal Air Force became known as the Battle of Britain. In its aftermath, the UK remained independent. The invasion of Normandy, the largest amphibious assault in history, took place on June 6, 1944, and marked the critical point in the eventual victory of the Allied powers in Europe. Britain was the main base for the operation and provided the majority of the naval power for it. Nearly 80 percent of the bombarding and transporting warships were from the Royal Navy. Air power for the operation was a more even divide. The operation was a success. Both tactical and strategic surprise were achieved.

The Mediterranean and the Middle East

Fascist Italy aimed to carve out a new Roman Empire, while British forces aimed initially to retain the status quo. Italy launched various attacks around the Mediterranean which were largely unsuccessful. With the introduction of German forces, Yugoslavia and Greece were overrun. Allied and Axis forces engaged in back and forth fighting across North Africa, with Axis interference in the Middle East causing fighting to spread there. With confidence high from early gains, German forces planned elaborate attacks to be launched to capture the Middle East and then to possibly attack the southern border of the Soviet Union. However, following three years of fighting, Axis forces were defeated in North Africa and their interference in the Middle East was halted. Allied forces then commenced an invasion of Southern Europe, resulting in the Italians deposing Mussolini and joining the Allies. A prolonged battle for Italy took place between Allied and German forces, and as the strategic situation changed in southeast Europe, British troops returned to Greece.

Eastern Front

The involvement of the British at the Eastern Front was relatively limited compared to the two other sub-theaters. British and Commonwealth forces contributed directly to the fighting on the Eastern Front through their service in the Arctic convoys and training Red Air Force pilots, as well as in the provision of early material and intelligence support.

Soon after the German attack, the British supplied a unit, No. 151 Wing RAF, to defend Murmansk and train Soviet pilots on British Hurricane fighters. After the RAF personnel left, the British continued to supply aircraft: 3,000 more Hurricanes and 4,000 other aircraft during the war. Five thousand tanks were provided by the British and Canada. As Soviet tank production increased, these foreign tanks were used on less important fronts such as the Caucasus. Total British supplies were about four million tons.

The Holocaust

The Holocaust, also known as the Shoah, was a genocide in which Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany and its collaborators killed about six million Jews during World War II.

Learning Objectives

Explain the costs inflicted by the Holocaust and Hitler’s Final Solution

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Holocaust ‘s victims represented about two-thirds of the nine million Jews who resided in Europe. Killings took place throughout Nazi Germany and German -occupied territories, with Nazi-occupied Poland constituting the geographical hub of the genocide.
  • Holocaust scholars draw a distinction between extermination camps and concentration camps. The former were established during WWII to systematically kill millions while the latter were first established as prison camps immediately after the Nazi Party took over power.
  • Nazi policies divided people into three types of enemies: the “racial” enemies, political opponents and “reactionaries,” and moral opponents. This ideological division was based on the presumption of the superiority of “the Aryan” race and was behind the decision of which groups would be exterminated by Nazi Germany.
  • The killings were systematically conducted in virtually all areas of German-occupied territory. The use of extermination camps equipped with gas chambers for the systematic mass extermination of peoples was an unprecedented event of the Holocaust.
  • A distinctive aspect of Nazi genocide was also the extensive use of human subjects in “medical” experiments conducted in both extermination and concentration camps.
  • Once the Nazis realized that their defeat may be forthcoming, massive efforts were put into removing evidence that the genocide occurred.

Key Terms

  • Shoah: An alternative term used for the Holocaust.
  • concentration camps: Originally located in Germany proper, prison camps set up prior to World War II for people defined as “undesirable” by the Nazis. During WWII, tens of thousands of them were established across all the German-occupied territories.
  • extermination camps: Eights death camps designed and built by Nazi Germany during World War II (1939–45) to systematically kill millions, primarily by gassing, but also in mass executions and through extreme work under starvation.

The Holocaust, also known as the Shoah, was a genocide in which Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany and its collaborators killed about six million Jews during World War II. The victims represented about two-thirds of the nine million Jews who had resided in Europe. Killings took place throughout Nazi Germany and German-occupied territories, with Nazi-occupied Poland constituting the geographical hub of the genocide. Out of eight Nazi extermination (or death) camps, designed to systematically kill millions primarily by gassing, mass executions, and through extreme work under starvation conditions, six were built on the occupied Polish territory. The Nazis used the phrase “Final Solution to the Jewish Question” and the formula “Final Solution” has been widely used as a term for the genocide of the Jews.

Holocaust scholars draw a distinction between extermination camps and concentration camps. The latter were first established as prison camps to hold Hitler’s opponents in Germany immediately after the Nazi Party took over power. The lead editors of the Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933–1945, of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Geoffrey Megargee and Martin Dean, cataloged some 42,500 Nazi ghettos and camps throughout Europe, spanning German-controlled areas from France to Russia and Germany itself, operating from 1933 to 1945. They estimate that 15 to 20 million people died or were imprisoned in the sites.

Other victims of Nazi crimes included ethnic Poles, Soviet citizens and Soviet POWs, other Slavs, Romanis, communists, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the mentally and physically disabled.

Ideological Background

The first medical experimentation on humans and ethnic cleansing by Germans took place in the death camps of German Southwest Africa during the Herero and Namaqua Genocide (1904–07). Some historians suggested that this was an inspiration for the Holocaust. In many other genocides, pragmatic considerations such as control of territory and resources were central to the genocide policy. Historian Yehuda Bauer argues that “the basic motivation [of the Holocaust] was purely ideological, rooted in an illusionary world of Nazi imagination, where an international Jewish conspiracy to control the world was opposed to a parallel Aryan quest.”

Nazi policies divided people into three types of enemies, the “racial” enemies such as the Jews and the Romani who were viewed as enemies because of their “blood”; political opponents such as Marxists, liberals, Christians, and the “reactionaries” who were viewed as wayward “National Comrades”; and moral opponents such as homosexuals, the “work-shy” and habitual criminals, also seen as wayward “national comrades.” The last two groups were to be sent to concentration camps for “re-education,” with the aim of eventual absorption into the Volksgemeinschaft  (“people’s community”), though some of the moral opponents were to be sterilized, as they were regarded as “genetically inferior.” “Racial” enemies such as the Jews could, by definition, never belong to the Volksgemeinschaft; they were to be totally removed from society.

The Execution

After invading Poland, the Nazis established ghettos in the incorporated territories and General Government to confine Jews. The ghettos were formed and closed off from the outside world at different times and for different reasons. Ghettos were intended to be temporary until the Jews were deported. But deportation never occurred. Instead, the ghettos’ inhabitants were sent to extermination camps.

The killings were systematically conducted in virtually all areas of German-occupied territory. It was at its most severe in East-Central Europe, which had more than seven million Jews in 1939. About five million Jews were killed there, including three million in occupied Poland and over one million in the Soviet Union. Hundreds of thousands also died in the Netherlands, France, Belgium, Yugoslavia, and Greece.

The use of extermination camps (also called “death camps”) equipped with gas chambers for the systematic mass extermination of peoples was an unprecedented part of the Holocaust. These were established at Auschwitz, Belzec, Chełmno, Majdanek, Sobibór, Treblinka (all in today’s Poland), Maly Trostenets (today’s Belarus), and Jasenovac (today’s Serbia).

A distinctive feature of Nazi genocide was also the extensive use of human subjects in “medical” experiments conducted in both extermination and concentration camps. The most notorious of the physicians participating in the experiments was Josef Mengele, who worked in Auschwitz. His experiments included placing subjects in pressure chambers, testing drugs on them, freezing them, attempting to change eye color by injecting chemicals into children’s eyes, and amputations and other surgeries.

The Final Phase

By mid-1944, the Final Solution had largely run its course. Those Jewish communities within easy reach of the Nazi regime had been largely exterminated, in proportions ranging from about 25 percent in France to more than 90 percent in Poland. During 1944, the task became steadily more difficult. German armies were evicted from the Soviet Union, the Balkans and Italy, and German forces—as well as forces aligned with them—were either defeated or were switching sides to the Allies. At this time, as the Soviet armed forces approached, the camps in eastern Poland were closed down, and any surviving inmates were shipped west to camps closer to Germany.

Despite the desperate military situation, great efforts were made to conceal evidence of what had happened in the camps. The gas chambers were dismantled, the crematoria dynamited, mass graves dug up and the corpses cremated, and Polish farmers were induced to plant crops on the sites to give the impression that they had never existed. Local commanders continued to kill Jews and shuttle them from camp to camp by forced “death marches” until the last weeks of the war. Already sick after months or years of violence and starvation, prisoners were forced to march for tens of miles in the snow to train stations and were then transported for days at a time without food or shelter in freight trains with open carriages. They were forced to march again at the other end to the new camp. Those who lagged behind or fell were shot. Around 250,000 Jews died during these marches.

Some extermination and concentration camps were liberated by Allied powers in their final march through Europe on the way to defeat Nazi Germany. Soviet, British, and U.S. troops liberated Majdanek, Chełmno, Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen, Dachau, Ravensbrück, Mauthausen, and Theresienstadt. Treblinka, Sobibór, and Bełżec were never liberated, but were destroyed by the Nazis in 1943. In most of the camps discovered by the Soviets, almost all prisoners had already been removed, leaving only a few thousand alive. Some 60,000 prisoners were discovered at Bergen-Belsen by the British, 13,000 corpses lay unburied, and another 10,000 died from typhus or malnutrition over the following weeks. The British forced the remaining guards to gather up the corpses and place them in mass graves.

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Young survivors at Auschwitz, liberated by the Red Army in January 1945: Still photograph from the Soviet Film of the liberation of Auschwitz, taken by the film unit of the First Ukrainian Front, shot over a period of several months beginning on January 27, 1945, by Alexander Voronzow and others in his group. Child survivors of Auschwitz, wearing adult-size prisoner jackets, stand behind a barbed wire fence. Among those pictured are Tomasz Szwarz; Alicja Gruenbaum; Solomon Rozalin; Gita Sztrauss; Wiera Sadler; Marta Wiess; Boro Eksztein; Josef Rozenwaser; Rafael Szlezinger; Gabriel Nejman; Adek Apfelbaum; Hillik (later Harold) Apfelbaum; Mark Berkowitz (a twin); Pesa Balter; Rut Muszkies (later Webber); Miriam Friedman; and twins Miriam Mozes and Eva Mozes wearing knitted hats.