THE LIBERATION OF EUROPE
*After landing in Normandy in June 1944, the Allies began to move across France. Although initially slowed down by the bocage, American troops, especially George Patton’s Third Army, which used tactics very similar to those of the German blitzkrieg, moved so fast that their biggest problem was getting so far ahead of their supply lines that they could not get fuel for their tanks.
*In Paris, the French Resistance started an uprising that threw the Germans out on 25 August, 1944. After over four years of occupation, Paris was free.
*A few days later the British and Canadians freed Belgium, and in September British and American troops moved into the Netherlands, and even cross the border into Germany.
*After liberating most of Hitler’s conquests in Western Europe, the attack slowed at the Rhine, as the Germans fought harder in their Fatherland. Hitler also reinforced the western army with new recruits, even Hitler Youth as young as 15. In mid-December, 1944, the Germans threw all their force into a massive counterattack. Hitting First Army hard, the Germans pushed deep into the centre of Allies, creating a bulge in the line. This and the lengthy series of battles that followed was known therefore as the Battle of the Bulge. Many Allied troops in small groups were cut off from the rest of the Allies, the most famous being a detachment of the 101st Airborne trapped at Bastogne, who, when asked to surrender, replied ‘Nuts.’ They held out until rescued by Patton.
*In the ensuing weeks, First and Third Armies pushed the Germans back, and began to move into Germany again. Lasting from 16 December 1944 to 25 January 1945, the Battle of the Bulge was the largest battle on the Western Front and the largest single battle ever fought by the US Army, involving 600,000 GIs, with 80,000 American casualties, and an estimated 100,000 German casualties.
*In the East, the Soviets were also pushing into German territories, both Germany’s allies and conquered nations, and into Germany herself. After the fall of Stalingrad, the German army had been repeatedly pushed back. About 3 million Germans and 11 million Soviet soldiers died on this front. After this struggle, the Soviets wanted to take Berlin as a matter of honour, and fought hard for it, often house by house as the Germans fell back.
*This was a problem for the Allies. Although Stalin was very useful to us, he was still a Communist, and an evil, tyrannical, murderous dictator. We did not want him occupying too much of Europe, so as he pushed west we pushed east, meeting at the Elbe River near the centre of Germany on 25 April 1945.
*With the war almost over, the Allies had to decide what to do. In February 1945, Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin met at Yalta in the Crimea in the USSR. There they agreed to divide both Germany and the city of Berlin into four occupation zones, for Britain, America, France, and the USSR. They also made plans whereby Stalin would allow free elections in the other Eastern European countries he occupied after driving the Nazis out. Stalin also promised to enter the war against Japan three months after Germany’s surrender.
*As the Soviets surrounded Berlin and moved through its streets, Hitler refused to flee the city. He holed up in a bunker deep underground, where he committed suicide on 30 April 1945. The German U-boat commander, Admiral Karl Dönitz, was named the next Führer of the Third Reich on 1 May and on 7 May 1945, he offered Germany’s unconditional surrender. This is known as V-E Day.
*As Allied troops marched into Germany and the Red Army moved through Eastern Europe, especially Poland, they discovered evidence of Hitler’s greatest crime—they found the concentration camps and death camps.
*Recall that during Hitler’s rise to power, he had blamed the parasitical Jews, along with the liberals who stabbed Germany in the back, for Germany’s loss of the war and for her continuing weaknesses.
*Hitler, at least as early as Mein Kampf, posited the Aryan as the superman, as the exemplar of the master race. All other races were inferior to differing degrees (with Jews at the bottom), and the worst thing of all was the mingling of the races. America, for example, Hitler despised as a mongrel nation, which was one reason he did not fear the US when he declared war in 1941.
*As soon as Hitler became leader of Germany in 1933 he began persecuting the Jews, but initially in minor ways. Just as Hitler would achieve military and diplomatic victories one small step at a time, he would deprive the Jews and other ‘undesirable’ groups of their rights a piece at time as well.
*In 1933, the Nazis called for a one-day boycott of Jewish businesses, partly to harass them and partly to judge popular support for anti-Semitic policies.
*In 1935, the Nuremberg Laws decreed that Jews were no longer citizens, but merely subjects, and outlawed mixed marriages
*In 1938, the Nazis required Jews who still owned businesses to sell them to Aryans for a fraction of their actual value. Doctors and lawyers were forbidden to serve non-Jews and Jewish children were expelled from public schools.
*A Jew was defined racially, if he had three or more Jewish grandparents, no matter what his religion, or anyone with two Jewish grandparents who practised the religion. Jews were required to wear yellow stars with either a red letter J or the word Jew in them to identify them. This was done everywhere Germany conquered except Denmark. Jews were also given, by law, new middle names, Sarah or Israel, which appeared on all official documents to identify them as Jews.
*On 9 November 1938, Nazis throughout Germany and Austria attacked Jewish shops and businesses and synagogues, doing as much damage as they could. This came to be known as Kristallnacht, or ‘Night of the Broken Glass.’
*Hitler also employed secret police called the Gestapo, which was later merged with the SS, a private army belonging to the Nazi party. Among other things, the SS guarded the concentration camps.
*Concentration camps had been created right after the Reichstag fire, when Hitler arrested so many of his political opponents he did not have any place to put them. So he created camps with barracks surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. The first of these was Dachau, outside Munich. Into these camps, Hitler herded first his political opponents, but later other racial and social enemies. These were all identified by different coloured triangular patches.
*Green triangles represented common German criminals, red triangles were political prisoners (especially Communists), pink triangles represented homosexuals, black triangles represented ‘asocial’ people (like the homeless, prostitutes, and unemployed), brown triangles represented Gypsies, blue triangles stood for Poles, Russians, and other foreigners, purple triangles Jehovah’s Witnesses, and a yellow triangle over another coloured triangle indicated a Jew guilty of whichever crime the second triangle represented. Initially, Jews were only locked away for crimes, although their trials were often unfair and only used as an excuse.
*Between 1933 and 1937, about one quarter of Germany’s Jews fled the country, and the Nazis initially encouraged this. At first, they went to other European countries, where many were later made German subjects again, but some went to the US, Latin America, and British Palestine. There were so many Jewish refugees that no-one could handle them all, especially since they got this Depression on, and many countries refused to take them. Many also did not know or refused to believe how bad things were for the Jews.
*As the Germans took over Europe, they first locked Jews away in walled-off parts of town called ghettoes. Many towns, especially in Poland, already had ghettoes, but the Nazis walled them off and guarded them, and threw into them any Jews who did not already live there. These ghettoes were crowded, often did not get enough food, and did not get many city services, so that starvation and disease were major problems.
*Many Jews died in the ghettoes, but this was not good enough for Hitler. He had always wanted to do something about the Jews, and in 1942 he came up with what he called a ‘final solution to the Jewish question.’ To implement this, the SS created what they called Einsatzgruppen, killing squads that marched through Germany’s eastern conquests rounding up and killing thousands of Jews and other subhumans, sometimes after making them dig their own graves and line up next to them.
*This was not fast enough either, and eventually used up a lot of bullets, so the Nazis built more concentration camps. Some were work camps, where Jews and others were used as slave labour until they died. Others were simply death camps, were Hitler’s victims were sent to wait until there was time to kill them. These had gas chambers and crematoriums so that people could be killed and disposed of in mass numbers.
*There were six death camps. At four of them, the Jews were simply killed when they arrived. At the two largest, Auschwitz and Majdanek, the Jews were separated. Women, children, old people, the sick, and other useless cases were sent immediately to their deaths, but those who could work were used for slave labour until they died or got too sick to work.
*In the camps, everyone was shaved bald to keep down lice, given a uniform, and tattooed with a serial number. They were poorly fed and often died of disease.
*It was hard to resist this. Some Jews escaped, and eventually the Warsaw ghetto in Poland learned what happened to the people who were taken away, and rebelled, holding out for a month. Prisoners in the Treblinka death camp revolted and did so much damage the camp had to be closed. All these Jews were eventually killed, but they did try.
*Overall, six million Jews and at least five million other people were killed by the Nazis. This act of genocide—the attempt to wipe out an entire race—is called the Holocaust.
*The US had an idea this was happening, but most people did not believe it, and the government did not do much about it.
*In 1945 Americans saw concentration camps for the first time. Many were sick, even the unstoppable Patton. When they spoke to nearby Germans about it, they almost always said they did not know it was happening.
*After the war, an international war crimes trial was held at Nuremberg in Germany. At the Nuremberg Trials, the German officers said they were just following orders. Of 24 important German defendants, 12 were sentenced to death and most of the rest were imprisoned for life.
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This page last updated 13 November, 2003.