On 1 September, 80 years ago last month, Adolf Hitler’s Nazi legions invaded Poland to start World War II; a war that was to prove the deadliest and the most destructive war in human history. It marked the day when Europe finally committed suicide. Eighty years on, world leaders convened in Warsaw to mark and remember that terrible moment in history.
World War II lasted from 1939 to 1945 and involved 30 countries from every part of the globe. The war killed an estimated 70-80 million people, or 4 per cent of the world’s population. If war is about breaking things and hurting people, then World War II’s impact was horrific. Soldiers and civilians alike were slaughtered; huge tracts of Europe and western Russia were devastated, with whole cities razed; South East Asia was wracked by war; millions starved; Jews and undesirables were murdered on an industrial scale by the Nazis; and the use of atomic bombs on Japan signalled a new and deadly way of wiping out humanity.
The facts are terrifying. The Soviet Union suffered most, with over 20 million killed. Almost 3.5 million Soviet prisoners of war died in German slave labour camps. German soldiers were ordered to exterminate all Jews, communist leaders, as well as any Soviet civilians resisting the Aryan ‘Master Race’ in order to take their grain and livestock. During the two-year siege of Leningrad, more than 1 million residents starved to death.
Germany fared little better. It lost around 9 million people: 5.3 million soldiers; and 3.3 million civilians. The Nazis murdered 300,000 of their own citizens and the Allied bomber offensive killed 600,000, leaving Germany as a heap of rubble by 1945.
Poland lost 5 million people: 16 per cent of its total population. Of those, 2.7 million were Jews, and 240,000 were soldiers. Yugoslavia lost 1 million people including 445,000 soldiers. France lost 568,000 people, of which 218,000 were soldiers. The United Kingdom lost 60,000 civilians to German air raids and 384,000 military. The United States lost 405,000 soldiers.
Further afield, the war killed 30 million in the Pacific. China lost 20 million, 80 per cent of whom were civilians. In just one incident, the 1937 Nanking massacre, Japan killed around 300,000 Chinese.
Japan’s brutal Samurai Code (‘the way of the warrior’) led to 6 million deaths in China, Japan, Korea, Indochina and the Philippines. This included the slaughter of civilians in villages, slave labour in Korea and China, and the use of human experiments to develop biological weapons. In addition, up to 400,000 ‘comfort women’ were forced into sexual slavery; 90 per cent of these unfortunate females had died by the end of the war.
This lengthy litany of horrifying statistics is vital because they rub home the key point, all too easily forgotten as memory turns to history: Hitler’s war was nothing less than the biggest disaster in recorded history.
The irony is that the war should have come as no surprise. Hitler had, years before, spelled out in cold print his plans for a war to end wars.
As he held court in 1924 as a prisoner in Bavaria’s Landsberg Castle for leading an attempted coup in Munich, Hitler committed his plans to paper. In a turgid and badly written book called Mein Kampf (My Struggle, in English), Germany’s future Führer drafted his battle plan. Germany would rise again and seize by force lebensraum (‘living space’) and raw materials to the east. The malign megalomaniac who caused World War II openly warned the world what he intended to do.
The problem really started in 1914, when the great powers of Europe blundered into a cataclysmic European civil war, thanks to a system of unwise military alliances and epic diplomatic miscalculation. By 1918, exhausted and bankrupt, the old ‘Europe’ had fallen apart. Four empires lay in ruins: Germany; Austro-Hungary; Russia; and the Ottoman-Turks. Out of the ruins the Peace Treaty of Versailles made things worse.
Versailles imposed savage terms on Germany, holding Berlin responsible for the whole war and demanding unheard of sums as reparations. The German Weimar government printed money to meet its exorbitant payments, thus creating hyperinflation: a wheelbarrow full of millions of Reichsmarks was needed to buy a loaf of bread.
As Germans lost buying power, they looked for salvation. The harsh economic conditions made people turn to new leaders, principally the Communists and the Fascists. Adolf Hitler, a spellbinding orator and embittered veteran of the trenches played on ordinary Germans’ fears. Leading his National Socialist Party, he blamed the Jews for Germany’s defeat and promised a return to power, full employment and prosperity. A generation of Germans welcomed his policies and his promise to make Germany great again.
Once again, nationalism was on the rise. In Germany, Mussolini’s Italy and Japan’s warrior state, new leaders advocated militarism, re-armament and the use of naked force to overcome other nations and seize their natural resources.
In 1931 Japan struck. The island nation required oil and food imports to feed its growing population. In what many consider to be the true start of World War II, Japan invaded China, intent on grabbing the mineral riches of Manchuria. The powder train to a wider war was burning, because the global economy was in crisis; the Wall Street Crash of 1929-31 changed everything.
The Great Depression and economic crisis reduced global trade by 25 per cent. In Germany, unemployment reached 30 per cent. Communism began to look attractive to the millions of unemployed and broke. To quell rioting on the streets, Germany’s politicians and industrialists turned to Hitler and his Nazi Party as a bulwark against this growing ideological threat from the east.
On 30 January 1933 they appointed him Chancellor. It was a grave mistake.
Within months Hitler and his henchmen had seized full power. Following a disastrous fire at the Reichstag – almost certainly ignited by the Nazis – President Hindenburg published a decree on 28 February 1933 as an emergency response to what was widely believed to be a Communist Coup. It suspended many of the civil liberties of German citizens. It was swiftly followed by an ‘Enabling Act’ on 23 March 1933, as ‘A Law to Remedy the Distress of People and Reich’, an amendment to the Weimar Constitution. It gave the Chancellor power to enact laws without the involvement of the Reichstag.
Hitler was now the legal dictator of Germany. With all power in his hands his plan for a war of conquest was now possible.
The rest, as they say, is history. Hitler, now ‘Supreme Leader’ of the Germans, tore up the Versailles Treaty, re-armed Germany and began his long European land grab for the Rhineland, Austria, Czechoslovakia and then Poland.
Finally Hitler did two things in that final summer of 1939 to make sure that no one stood in his way.
On 23 July, to the amazement of the world, Ribbentrop and Molotov signed a formal ‘Non-Aggression Pact’ between the two sworn ideological enemies. Unbelievably, Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Communist USSR were now allies.
Hitler’s final step towards the war he had dreamed about and planned for in Landsberg fortress was a typical deceit. Rather than openly declare war, he resorted to trickery.
On the eve of that fateful day – 31 August 1939 – a handful of doomed concentration camp prisoners were given Polish uniforms, unloaded rifles and ordered to attack an isolated German frontier post on the Polish border. The Wehrmacht machine gunners at Gleiwitz were waiting. The wretched prisoners were slaughtered to a man. Journalists were later invited to view the bodies at the scene as Doctor Goebbels’ Nazi propaganda machine swung into action to denounce a Polish atrocity.
At dawn the next day – 1 September 1939 – Hitler’s Panzers and Stukas attacked Poland to seize lebensraum to the East. World War II had begun. It had all been predicted by the Mein Kampf blueprint.
Hitler’s war would complete what 1914-18 had begun: the destruction of Europe. From 1945 onwards, America, fat on Europe’s gold and self-immolation, took over the role of world leader.
Curiously, that outcome does not feature in Mein Kampf….