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World War II : 75 Years Later

Discussion in 'Military History' started by Manmohan Yadav, Sep 4, 2014.

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  1. Manmohan Yadav

    Manmohan Yadav Brigadier STAR MEMBER

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    World War II began before dawn even had the opportunity to break in September 1939 when German forces tore into Poland. For the better part of the next six years, war consumed the globe. On the 75th anniversary of Germany’s invasion of Poland, look back at the Nazi offensive that launched World War II.

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    Polish soldiers captured by the Germans during invasion of Poland, September 1939. (Credit: Hugo Jaeger/Timepix/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

    At 4:45 a.m. on September 1, 1939, the pre-dawn skies lit up over the Baltic Sea as the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein opened fire on a Polish fortress on the Westerplatte Peninsula as assault troops hidden aboard the vessel stormed the shoreline. The venerable ship that had seen action in World War I fired the first salvos of what would be a second global conflagration. Without a declaration of war, 1.5 million troops stormed Nazi Germany’s 1,750-mile border with Poland. They came from the north, south and west. They came by land, by air and by sea in a quest to regain territory lost by Germany in the Treaty of Versailles and colonize its neighbor.

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    Polish cavalry moves to the front to meet German invasion
    (Credit: Popperfoto/Getty Images)


    The Nazis overwhelmed the antiquated Polish defenses with their blitzkrieg, or “lightning war,” tactics. German tanks steamrolled into the country. The Luftwaffe destroyed airfields, bombed passenger trains and mowed down civilians indiscriminately with machine-gun fire. Incendiary bombs torched Katowice, Krakow and the capital city of Warsaw. By sea, German warships and U-boats attacked the Polish navy. The 1 million-man Polish military was undermanned and underequipped. So antiquated were some army units that cavalry horses trotted to the front lines to confront the enemy’s mighty armored tanks.

    German chancellor Adolf Hitler had rattled his saber at Poland for months. As he had done prior to the occupation of other countries, Hitler claimed that ethnic Germans were being persecuted inside Poland. Addressing the nation hours after the firing of the first shots, Hitler said he acted strictly in justifiable self-defense in response to Polish attacks on German soil the night before. Those attacks were not launched by Poland, however, but were carefully choreographed operations stage-managed by the Nazi propaganda machine as a pretext for an invasion. In the border town of Gleiwitz, S.S. operatives donned Polish military uniforms and seized one of Germany’s own radio stations and broadcast an anti-Nazi message in Polish. Prisoners from the Dachau concentration camp were dressed in Polish uniforms, brought to the radio station and shot to make it appear as if they were casualties of the firefight.

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    Hitler addresses the Reichstag on September 1, 1939 (Credit: Corbis)

    “The Polish State has refused the peaceful settlement of relations which I desired, and has appealed to arms,” Hitler wrote of the phony attacks in his proclamation to the army. “In order to put an end to this lunacy, I have no other choice than to meet force with force from now on.”

    Throughout the summer of 1939, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union had carried on negotiations for forming a three-way alliance against Germany, but talks broke down over Poland’s refusal to grant Soviet troops the right to enter its territory, a demand the Polish military viewed as no more than a thinly veiled occupation. “With the Germans, we risk losing our freedom,” said Polish commander-in-chief Edward Rydz-Smigly, “with the Russians our soul.” The stymied Soviets instead pursued a separate peace with Germany, and the two countries signed a nonaggression pact on August 23 that contained a secret clause that divided Poland between them. With no threat of a Soviet intervention, Hitler believed he had a free hand to move against Poland. “The way is open for the soldier, now that I have made the political preparations,” he told his military commanders.

    Still, Great Britain and France had guaranteed to fight in Poland’s defense, but many Nazi leaders, including foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, believed history would repeat itself and the countries would back down. When Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland in 1936 in violation of the Treaty of Versailles, Britain and France did not respond militarily. When he annexed Austria two years later, the Western powers had no reply. When he annexed Czechoslovakia in 1939 in violation of the Munich Pact, which had already granted him the Sudetenland, Britain and France still did not respond with force.

    This time, however, was different. Both Britain and France issued ultimatums for Germany to withdraw troops from Poland immediately or risk war. When Hitler learned of the British demand, he sat in stony silence before glaring at a surprised Ribbentrop and demanding to know, “What now?”

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    On September 3 Britain and France declared war on Germany. Less than 20 years after “the war to end all wars,” the guns once again roared over a Europe that still bore deep scars from World War I. In spite of the declarations of war, little was done to stop the rapid German advance that had reached the outskirts of Warsaw by September 8. Britain was not prepared to launch a large military action, and French efforts were half-hearted along its eastern border with Germany.

    Once the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the east on September 17, the country was squeezed in a vice grip that would last for 50 years until the fall of communism. By the end of September, Polish government and military leaders had fled the country, and the Nazis and Soviets had partitioned the country. A month after announcing the “counterattack” to the German people, Hitler declared victory on September 30, 1939.

    Swastika flags now flew from public buildings. Resistors and Jews were rounded up and sent to concentration camps. Tens of thousands of Poles died in the invasion, the first of some 50 million men, women and children who would lose their lives in World War II. It was just the beginning of the suffering for the Polish people, who were victims of some of the greatest horrors in a monstrous war. Six million Poles, half of them Jewish, died during World War II at the hands of the Nazis and the Soviets. Even after the Red Army defeated Nazi forces in 1945, the brutality continued as Poland remained under the yoke of a totalitarian communist government until 1989.
     
  2. Manmohan Yadav

    Manmohan Yadav Brigadier STAR MEMBER

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    Exactly 75 years ago on September 1, Nazi Germany invaded Poland, which valiantly sought to resist the onslaught, but was overwhelmed by the numerically and technologically superior invading army.

    Two days later, on September 3, 1939, Britain and France declared war on Germany. The history of the ensuing years, until the day of Germany’s surrender on May 8, 1945, has been extraordinarily well documented.

    Over the course of nearly six years of battle on the European continent – not to mention other key military theaters in North Africa, the Middle East, and, of course, Asia – an estimated 50-60 million people were killed, and tens of millions more were injured, left homeless, or exiled.

    Six million Jews, including one-and-a-half million children, were among the victims. Nearly half came from Poland, while other once-vibrant Jewish communities from Lithuania to Greece were almost totally wiped out.

    In pursuing what they called the Endlösung, or Final Solution, the Nazis created an entirely new alphabet of genocide, from the letter “A” for Auschwitz, the most infamous of the concentration camps, to “Z” for Zyklon-B, the deadly poison gas used to murder vast numbers of Jews.

    Indeed, the very word “genocide” did not yet exist at the time. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said in 1941: “We are in the presence of a crime without a name.” A few years later, a Polish Jew, Raphael Lemkin, coined the word “genocide” to refer to the Nazi campaign to annihilate the Jewish people.

    This solemn historical occasion contains lessons with contemporary significance.

    First, the democratic world, humankind’s greatest hope, must never suffer from a failure of imagination.

    Adolf Hitler spelled out his goals in Mein Kampf (and elsewhere) years before January 1933, when he became German chancellor, yet an array of politicians, diplomats, journalists, and scholars in Europe and the United States chose, for a range of reasons, not to take him at his word.

    Rather, they convinced themselves, and in turn sought to persuade others, that the responsibilities of governance would moderate the German Führer; that he didn’t really mean what he said but resorted to rhetorical excesses to restore German pride after the humiliations of the First World War and the Versailles Treaty; or that he could serve as a useful bulwark against Bolshevik Russia.

    Second, Winston Churchill was a heroic exception to this mindset. He was never in doubt as to Hitler’s intentions, but, alas, he did not hold political office during the fateful years from 1933 to 1939.

    Here, for example, is Churchill in his own words: “One day President Roosevelt told me that he was asking publicly for suggestions about what the war should be called. I said at once, ‘The Unnecessary War.’ There never was a war more easy to stop than that which has just wrecked what was left of the world from the previous struggle [i.e., the First World War].”

    Churchill was referring to the key moments between 1933 and 1939 – and there were several – when resolute leaders could have stood up to the Third Reich rather than avert their eyes, seek to appease, or convince themselves they were not seeing what was, in fact, staring them in the face.

    Given the perilous state of the world today, no wonder that so many continue to quote Churchill and yearn for leaders who share his unflinching leadership traits.

    Third, there are times when the tools of soft power – such as dialogue, negotiation, and compromise – do not work, much as they should always be the preferred options.

    Driven by diabolical racial theories, territorial ambitions, and the yearning for a “thousand-year Reich,” the Nazi regime could only have been stopped in one way, and that central message was finally driven home 75 years ago.

    To its credit, Poland understood it.

    The Polish army fought back as best it could against the German blitzkrieg, but was no match.

    Britain, now led by Churchill, and France declared war on Germany, but with the fall of France in June 1940, Great Britain stood essentially alone until June 1941, when the USSR entered, following its two-year Faustian bargain with Hitler, the Molotov-Ribentropp pact. And then, of course, the United States, with all its might, joined the Allied cause in December 1941, after Pearl Harbor.

    Nothing less than unconditional German surrender was the Allied goal. After immense valor and at great sacrifice, it was achieved.

    And fourth, it would have been impossible on September 1, 1939, to imagine the formation of the European Union, including, at its heart, France and Germany as partners and allies.

    Or to think that 75 years later, almost to the day, a Polish prime minister would be selected to lead the 28 EU member states, and an Italian foreign minister, whose country was once allied with Nazi Germany, would become the foreign policy chief.

    The EU did not come about by accident.

    Rather, it resulted from the extraordinary vision of those leaders who, after the war’s end, set out to create an alternative model for the blood-soaked European continent.

    They were successful beyond their wildest dreams, though as long as the Berlin Wall defined east and west, they were limited in what they could achieve. After the wall’s fall, however, the EU could expand still further, broadening the zone of peace and democracy, proving that history can indeed leap forward.

    Meanwhile, when Polish and other Jews still had the chance to leave their countries as the storm clouds gathered, too often they had nowhere to go. They were locked out. In the 1930s, Hitler taunted the world, asserting that if everyone was so worried about the fate of the Jews, then other countries should take them in and resettle them. But alas, with tragically few exceptions, there weren’t many welcome mats put out – not by the U.S., Canada, or Australia, not by Latin American nations, and not by others.

    Had Israel existed as a sovereign state in 1939 rather than as a British mandate with severely restrictive immigration policies, how many more European Jews could have been saved from their tragic fate in Belzec, Buchenwald, and Birkenau?

    Yet, astonishingly, only ten years after the war’s start, the reborn nation of Israel, fulfilling the ancient vision of the Jewish people, was admitted to the UN, which itself was created only four years earlier.

    Yes, the seemingly impossible can happen.

    Just as the democratic world must be vigilant about the evils that lurk, so, too, it must never lose its capacity to envision and strive for still more leaps forward.

    On this solemn anniversary, these are lessons well worth pondering.
     
  3. Manmohan Yadav

    Manmohan Yadav Brigadier STAR MEMBER

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    After the invasion of Poland in September 1939, Hitler parades in the streets of the city of Danzig.

    Today, 75 years later, Hitler is regarded as one of history's great villains. So it's easy to forget how slowly and reluctantly the worlds most powerful democracies mobilized to stop him. France and Britain did declare war on Germany two days after the invasion of Poland, but it would take them another eight months before they engaged in full-scale war with the Nazis. The United States wouldn't join the war against Hitler until December 1941, a full two years after the war began.
     
  4. Manmohan Yadav

    Manmohan Yadav Brigadier STAR MEMBER

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    Why did Adolf Hitler invade Poland?

    The short answer is that Adolf Hitler was a ruthless dictator with dreams of conquering all of Europe. Annexing Poland was a step in that larger plan. The Polish military wasn't powerful enough to resist him, and Hitler calculated — correctly, as it turns out — that Europe's other powers wouldn't intervene in time.

    The invasion of Poland occurred almost exactly 25 years after the start of World War I in August 1914. That war ended in Germany's defeat, and in 1919 the victorious allies carved up territory that had been part of Germany, Austria-Hungary (Germany's defeated ally), and Russia (which had fallen to the Bolsheviks) into an array of new countries.

    One of these new countries was Poland, which before 1919 had last existed as an independent nation in 1795. Another was Czechoslovakia — its awkward name reflects the Allies' decision to combine areas dominated by two different ethnic groups, Czechs and Slovaks, into a single nation.

    Hitler was contemptuous of these new nations, which he regarded as artificial creations of the Allies. There were significant German populations in both countries, and Hitler used trumped-up concern for their welfare as a pretext to demand territorial concessions.

    In the infamous 1938 Munich Agreement, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain agreed to Hitler's annexation of the Sudetenland, portions of of Czechoslovakia with ethnic-German majorities (Czechoslovakia itself was excluded from the negotiations). Chamberlain claimed that the deal had averted another massive European war, but it only delayed the conflict while making Hitler more powerful when the war finally came.

    Chamberlain's accommodating stance in the 1938 negotiations convinced Hitler that the British and French wouldn't seriously resist further annexations to his east. And in any event, Hitler calculated — correctly as it turned out — that he could conquer Poland before the Allies could do anything to stop him.
     
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  5. Manmohan Yadav

    Manmohan Yadav Brigadier STAR MEMBER

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    How did the Soviet Union react to the invasion of Poland?

    You might have expected a German invasion of Poland to set off alarm bells in Moscow. Germany and Russia were historic enemies, having fought each other during World War I. Moreover, Hitler and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin were theoretically at opposite ends of the political spectrum — the Communists and Nazis had viewed each other warily throughout the 1930s.

    But the Allies' handling of the Sudetenland crisis spooked Stalin. He feared that Hitler would seek to annex portions of the Soviet Union next. He thought that the Western Powers — who had no love for either Hitler or Stalin — would be happy to leave the Communists to face the Nazis alone.

    So in August 1939, these historic enemies signed a non-aggression pact. The deal shocked the Allies, who had counted on the Soviet threat checking Hitler's territorial ambitious. What London and Paris didn't know was that the deal included secret provisions outlining how the two powers would divide up the smaller nations that lay between them — including Poland.

    So when German troops crossed the border into Poland, Stalin not only didn't object, he began making plans for his own invasion of Poland from the East.
     
  6. Manmohan Yadav

    Manmohan Yadav Brigadier STAR MEMBER

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    How effective was Polish resistance?

    Not very. Poland was determined to resist Germany's invasion, and on paper it had a decent shot at doing so. Poland had 1.3 million troops against Germany's 1.5 million, and Polish troops were highly motivated.

    But the Polish military was no match for Hitler's war machine. While Poland and Germany deployed similar numbers of men, Germany's troops were much better supplied. According to historian Max Hastings, Germany had 3600 armored vehicles against 750 in Poland. Germany had twice as many airplanes as Poland did — and its planes were more advanced.

    So Poland found itself overmatched. And because the German army in 1939 was a lot more mechanized than it had been in previous wars, the Germans were able to make progress extremely quickly. A little over a week after the start of combat, German troops had reached the outskirts of the Polish capital, Warsaw. It fell on September 29.

    The Polish situation became even grimmer on September 17, when Russian troops began pouring across the border from the East. The Polish army had already been at a disadvantage, but when the Soviets attacked the Polish situation became hopeless. German and Russian troops secured full control over Poland by October 6, 1939.
     
  7. Manmohan Yadav

    Manmohan Yadav Brigadier STAR MEMBER

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    How did the Allies respond to the invasion?

    The British and the French had both promised to declare war on Germany in the event of an invasion of Poland. But after Munich, Hitler doubted that Chamberlain had the stomach to go to war in defense of Poland. He was wrong. Chamberlain was furious that Hitler had broken his Munich promise to seek no more territorial gains beyond Czechoslovakia. On September 3, both France and Britain kept their promise and declared war on Germany.

    But while both countries could declare war, neither was really prepared to wage it. They had begun mobilization a few months earlier to prepare for possible German aggression, but the two countries still felt a few more months of military buildup would put them in a stronger position to fight the Nazis.

    While they didn't expect the Polish to beat the Germans, they expected Poland's million-man army to put up a stronger resistance, bogging down the German troops and giving the Allies time to make war plans.

    Obviously, that calculation proved to be a mistake, both because the Germans were more powerful than expected and because the Allies hadn't counted on the Soviets invading Poland as well. So Poland fell before the Allies could launch more than token attacks on the Nazis.
     
  8. Manmohan Yadav

    Manmohan Yadav Brigadier STAR MEMBER

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    What happened next?

    Once Hitler and Stalin had consolidated their combined control over Poland, the Western Allies felt even less pressure to attack Germany quickly. Warsaw had already fallen, so there was no Polish government to save from defeat. The Allies controlled the seas and believed they had time on their side.

    The Allies were also haunted by memories of World War I, in which millions of lives had been lost to no obvious purpose. They hesitated to launch into a second continent-wide war with little apparent strategic purpose.

    In this sense, the opening months of World War II were the complete opposite of World War I. In the earlier war, hostilities on the Western Front began almost immediately after war was declared in early August. Indeed, much of the action in the First World War occurred in the first six weeks, with German troops nearly reaching Paris before getting bogged down into trench warfare.

    In contrast, there was an eight-month gap between France's declaration of war against Germany in September 1939 and the beginning of full-scale war between Germany and France in May 1940. During this period, the continent was technically at war, but not much actual fighting was happening. Some in Britain and France still hoped that a solution to the crisis could be found without the loss of millions of lives. Only after German tanks began to stream into France on May 10, 1940 did the Allies fully accept that stopping Hitler would require another full-scale world war.
     
  9. Manmohan Yadav

    Manmohan Yadav Brigadier STAR MEMBER

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    How did the Polish cope with occupation?

    According to historian Max Hastings, "Poland became the only nation occupied by Hitler in which there was no collaboration between the conquerors and the conquered." Historians estimate that about 5.5 million Polish people died under the Nazi occupation of their country, half of whom were Polish Jews. Another 150,000 died under Soviet rule.

    Nazi propaganda portrayed the Poles as having oppressed ethnic Germans in Poland, and they used this as a pretext for subjecting the Polish people to ethnic cleansing and slavery. The Poles responded by organizing one of the largest resistance movements in Nazi-occupied territory. Polish nationalists sabotaged German production facilities and disrupted German supply lines. Polish nationalists organized the unsuccessful Warsaw Uprising to throw off Nazi rule in 1944.

    Unfortunately, the defeat of the Nazis in 1945 did not bring about Polish freedom. Poland was "liberated" by the Soviet Union, which installed a repressive communist regime there. Poland would be trapped behind the Iron Curtain until the Polish people finally threw off Communist rule in the 1980s.
     
  10. Anish

    Anish Lt. Colonel ELITE MEMBER

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    Still Applicable

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