History 104: Western Civilization since 1648

Lecture: World War II

Grosz's painting

George Grosz
I Am Glad I Came Back (1943)

Based on a German poem from World War I, the song "Lili Marlene" was loved by both German and American soldiers in World War II. Here it's sung by Marlene Dietrich, an anti-Nazi German-born movie star who became an American citizen:

Lyrics in German
Lyrics in English

Lecture contents:

Treaty of Versailles
1920s False Prosperity
Stock Market Crash
Fascist Italy
Hitler's Germany
Fascist Expansion
War: Pacific Theatre
War: European Theatre
The Holocaust

We enter parliament in order to supply ourselves, in the arsenal of democracy, with its own weapons.... If democracy is so stupid as to give us free tickets and salaries for this bear’s work, that is its affair.... We do not come as friends, nor even as neutrals. We come as enemies. As the wolf bursts into the flock, so we come.

--Joseph Goebbels, Nazi leader, 1928


The Treaty of Versailles

The Treaty of Versailles was extremely harsh on Germany, preventing all but defensive military bodies and forcing Germany to accept responsibility for the Great War. It also included reparations, money Germany would have to pay to the Allies to make up for all their losses during the war. Many Germans found the Treaty humiliating. You've read excerpts that show you why, but take a peek at the whole thing.

Hitler speaking
Hitler in 1935, emphasizing that he has destroyed the Treaty of Versailles, "which in its 448 articles contains the vilest oppression which peoples and human beings have ever been expected to endure".

Web document: The entire Treaty of Versailles (1919)

Most historians agree that the Treaty was an indirect cause of World War II, but they differ as to why. Some say that the Treaty was too harsh, and forced Germany into a psychologically defensive position that would encourage the rise of Hitler. Others disagree, saying that if the Treaty had been enforced in its entirety by the League of Nations, Germany would not have had the means to rise again.

What both sides often ignore is that some members of the German General Staff (a body made illegal under the Treaty) secretly got around the Treaty's military provisions. General Hans von Seekt made arrangements with high-ranking members of the Soviet military to experiment with and build weapons inside the territory of the Soviet Union, where the League could not inspect. This made it possible for Hitler to later turn a modernized army and air force onto Europe. Von Seekt himself had a fan in Oswald Spengler (Decline of the West), who wanted him to lead Germany in the early 1920s. [I find it interesting that even the nationalistic Spengler, who despised the decadence of the 1920s and wanted a return to authority, didn't end up joining the Nazis.]


1920s False Prosperity

During the 1920s, Europe was already in a deep post-war depression. Germany's government had been recreated as a republic (the Weimar Republic) by the League of Nations, although she had always been a monarchy. The result was a proliferation of political parties, each with a different agenda. You can view the elections results to see the rise of the Nazis (NSDAP) within this republican system.

The U.S. and other prosperous countries invested heavily in Germany during the 1920s, because its severe depression made it a good deal for businesses wanting cheap land for factories and cheap labor. This foreign investment created a false prosperity. The corruption of the middle classes at the expense of working people disgusted artist George Grosz, whose work you can see here:

In 1923, Germany was years behind on reparations payments, and France decided to take its share instead. France invaded the Ruhr, the last area of Germany where there was a product (coal) to prop up the monetary system. Germany spiralled into hyperinflationHyperinflation occurs when a country experiences very high and accelerating rates of inflation, rapidly eroding the real value of the local currency and causing the population to minimize their holdings of the local money. This cartoon is titled "Although the Ruhr sickens [double meaning: disease/an industrialized river region in Germany] it doesn't taste bad". The Frenchman eats it with a typical bottle of French wine. "The Pillars of Society" (1926) openly criticizes the middle-class who supported the increasing number of fascists. The priest is a Nazi, as is the man in uniform. The businessman has a head full of steaming shit.


The Stock Market Crash

Depression men standing in line for coffeeDuring the 1920s, the United States also experienced a period of false prosperity, propped up by the stock market. As post-war business increased, companies began selling more stock and investing the capital in questionable schemes (including buying the stock of other companies) instead of using it to modernize their production. Ordinary citizens bought into the market surge by purchasing stocks "on margin", paying only 10% of the price and borrowing the rest from their stock broker. Stock brokers making such loans at first borrowed the money from banks. Economic indicators like banking and business kept going up, but others like agriculture and housing were going down. Banks stopped making loans for stock speculation, so brokers began borrowing from companies.

The companies were using the broker loans to get more capital, which they then invested back into the stock market. This house of cards fell apart in 1929, with the Great Crash.

As the Great Depression worsened in the U.S., companies were forced to cancel foreign investments. American-owned factories closed all over the world. Germany, with so many American investments, and Japan, which relied on the U.S. for steel, oil and food, were hardest hit.


Fascist Italy

During the 1920s, Italy was a nation disappointed. Italy had hoped to gain substantial colonies and international respect from her participation in the Great War. But at the Treaty of Versailles conference, her representative was ignored as Britain, France and the U.S. designed the peace.

MussoliniBenito Mussolini created the ultranationalist concept known as fascism. The image was of the fascisti, a bundle of sticks that had represented the Roman Empire: individually a stick could be broken, but together the bundle was unbreakable.

bookWorkbook document: What is Fascism?

Mussolini created a massive propaganda machine to sell his new ideas after he took power in 1922. Although clearly a dictator, Mussolini worked with the middle-class and the Catholic Church to assure his long reign. His charismatic personality held the nation together under his ruthlessly efficient system. Italians still say that despite undeniable political oppression, he "made the trains run on time".


Hitler's Germany

A corporal in the Great War, Hitler was a man who embodied the frustrations of post-war Germany. His concepts regarding future glory for Germany, to be achieved through military expansion and racial cleansing, were rooted in his earlier years.

The swastika was an image associated with Indian/Aryan myths, and thus with Aryan ethnic superiority.

Like other Europeans, Hitler was influenced by diverse trends of anti-Jewish, anti-foreign, and anti-communist ideas popular through much of Europe. One influence was Lanz von Liebenfels, a mystic who believed in the purity of the Aryan race.

The Nazi (National Socialist) party was ultranationalist, and its precepts were based on Mussolini's fascism. Applying these ideas to the German situation (humiliation at Versailles, hyperinflation during the 1920s, total depression from 1929) was easy: fascism promised Germany glory, military expansion, and a leadership role in the world. Relying on history, the Nazis declared that a Third Reich, or empire, was coming (the First had been the uniting of the Germanic tribes under Charlemagne in AD 800, the Second the unification of Germany under Otto von Bismarck). After an unsuccessful attempt to take over the government, Hitler wrote about his struggle in jail.

bookWorkbook document: Mein Kampf (1925)
After the Stock Market crash disposed of the false prosperity of the 1920s, the Nazis used the republican system to their advantage. Hitler became Chancellor legally in 1933, and immediately pulled Germany out of the League of Nations and began building up the military. More information is at Germany in the 20s: Rise of Hitler (BBC). For information about life in Nazi Germany, see Life in Germany (BBC) [sorry, site removed].

Culturally, Hitler subjected the goals of modernists to ridicule. One way was to invoke the twin spectres of fascism in western Europe: Jewishness and communism. Anything that wasn't in line with nationalism according to fascist definition was unacceptable. Because Jews had international connections to other Jews, Hitler considered them traitors to Aryan culture who possessed no culture of their own. Because communists wanted a communal utopia that would cross national boundaries, they were traitors to the state.

Art of the Western World:
Nazism and Art

Hitler and Mussolini in a car

Realizing their common goals for expansion, Hitler and Mussolini allied as the Axis powers in 1936. The concept was one of an "axis" or line running from Berlin to Rome, around which the world would turn. Though the two men were extremely different personalities, and both considered the other ultimately expendable, the alliance meant military goals would be met quickly.

Fascist Expansion click here for audio

1935 was an important year for the expansion of fascism.

Republican poster showing fascism as meaning exploitation and death for the worker
In Germany, the Nuremberg Laws were passed, which deprived Jews in Germany of citizenship. It was also the year in which Germany announced she was re-arming, and signed the Anglo-German Naval Agreement, which permitted Germany to build a Navy 35% the tonnage of the British navy. In this time of depression and a desire to avert war, other powers permitted Germany to restore her sovereignty. Also in that year, Italy invaded Ethiopia (called Abyssinia) to start the Italian empire. Britain and France did little to stop this; indeed, they may have hoped that Italy could someday serve to counter Nazi expansion. The League of Nations protested but was powerless to act.

The next year, in Spain, the new Axis of Germany and Italy had an opportunity to test their weapons systems. Fascists led by General Francisco Franco were rebelling against the Republican Spanish government in the Spanish Civil War (1936). Supporting the fascists gave the Axis a chance to test blitzkrieg, the lightning war technique: leading with planes to bomb communications and transportation networks, followed by tanks, then light armored vehicles and infantry to "mop up". Artist Pablo Picasso recorded the horror of the bombing of a civilian village called Guernica:

Picasso's Guernica
Drawing by 11-year-old Magalena Ruiz, made of the attack on her town, Oliva
Art of the Western World:

This same year, Germany moved into the demilitarized Rhineland, then proceeded to annex Austria and the southern portion (Sudetenland) of Czechoslovakia. At the Munich Conference in 1938, Britain and France agreed to permit this expansion, which Hitler claimed was to reunite the old German empire. This policy of appeasement was designed to prevent an all-out war. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced the accord on the radio:

This morning I had another talk with the German Chancellor Herr Hitler, and here is the paper which bears his name upon it as well as mine.

Some of you perhaps have already heard what it contains, but I would just like to read it to you.

"We, the German Fuhrer and Chancellor and the British Prime Minister have had a further meeting today and are agreed in recognizing that the question of Anglo-German relations is of the first importance for the two countries and for Europe. We regard the agreement signed last night and the Anglo-German naval agreement as symbolic of the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with one another again."


War: Pacific Theatre

Japan, though not a fascist country, also used military expansion and imperialistic goals to save herself from global depression. Dependent on outside sources for food and materials, and limited by treaty to a small fleet of ships, modern Japan became increasingly militarized. It was time for a Japanese empire, designed to make Japan self-sufficient and no longer dependent on other nations.

Map of Japanese empireIn 1931, as other nations entered the depth of their economic crises, Japan invaded Manchuria on the Chinese mainland. By 1937, Japan was invading China itself, and heading toward Southeast Asia.

Vast resources were the goal, especially oil and iron in Indonesia. British, French and Dutch colonies were easy targets as these countries were dealing with Hitler and Mussolini in Europe. But the United States also had bases in the Pacific which could threaten the Japanese empire.

By this time, Japan was aware of the Axis activities in Europe, and Britain's frantic pleas to the U.S. to enter the war in Europe. The Tripartite Pact was signed in 1940, permitting Japan to join the Axis. The reason was twofold. First, all parties concerned were against the expansion of the Soviet Union. And because the United States was bound to enter the war, it was to the advantage of both Japan and fascist Europe to have the U.S. fighting on two global fronts simultaneously. It was agreed that whoever went to war with the U.S. first, the other party would declare war also.

YamamotoKnowing the might of the American navy, Admiral Yamamoto developed a plan to eliminate the U.S. Pacific Fleet with a single attack at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. If every ship were sunk, it would give the Japanese at least two years to solidify their empire before having to worry about the U.S. The attack did not go as planned, however, and the remaining two aircraft carriers provided the foundation for rebuilding the fleet.

By 1942, Japan controlled a vast area in the Pacific and threatened India and Australia. Six months after Pearl, the U.S. was counterattacking in the Pacific. The Japanese fought fiercely, often down to the last man with a gun on tiny South Pacific islands. Because of a secret pact between Japan and the Soviets, the Soviet Union did little to help in the Pacific. British troops (including colonials) and the Americans carried the brunt of the work.Hiroshima

The end came as, upon approaching the Japanese mainland, the U.S. government decided to use a new superweapon: the atomic bomb. One was dropped on August 6, 1945 and exploded a mile above target, causing extensive devastation in and around the city of Hiroshima. The other was dropped three days later on Nagasaki, ushering in the nuclear age.


War: European Theatre

On September 1, 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland. This began the European war, and was a carefully planned action. The Non-Aggression Pact had been signed with the Soviet Union, ensuring that the USSR would do nothing to stop the action. A secret portion of the agreement ensured that the Soviet Union would benefit by acquiring the Baltic Republics (Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania), the Ukraine, and the eastern half of Poland as a result. Britain, France and her allies declared war.

The blitzkrieg machine moved quickly into Scandinavia and France, collaborating with the fascist French Vichy, who were allowed to control southern France. Spain was already fascist, though independent under General Franco. Italy controlled the south, so the next step was Britain. Failing to bomb the British into submission after switching from military to civilian targets (like London), the Nazis turned their sites on the Soviet Union and attacked in May 1941. Stalin, the Soviet Premier, joined the Allies. By 1942 (the same year Japan was controlling the Pacific), the Axis controlled Europe:

Nazi Europe

The Big Three (Churchill of Great Britain, Roosevelt of the U.S., and Stalin of the Soviet Union) planned the Allied strategy for the war. Stalin's biggest concern was to get his allies to open the "second front" -- invade Big Threenorthern France and force Germany to fight on two fronts. But Churchill of Britain had two reasons to oppose this: the British military's desire to attack the weaker points first, and Churchill's own concern about Stalin's future ambitions in Eastern Europe. The U.S. generals wanted to open the second front and head straight for Berlin. But President Roosevelt had to keep Stalin and Churchill talking, since the two men did not trust each other. He agreed to Churchill's strategy for 1942 and 1943: attacking North Africa, then Italy. But in 1944 he sided with Stalin, hoping that the Soviet Union would be a full participant in the United Nations after the war. This disappointed Churchill, who had hoped for an invasion of the Balkans in the south, which would secure eastern Europe for democratic governments. But Operation Overlord took place in June 1944, and combined British and American troops began pushing toward Berlin.

Soviet troops simultaneously began a major offensive from the east, and liberated Eastern Europe as they headed toward Berlin to meet up with the British and Americans. V-E Day (Victory in Europe) was May 8, 1945. The war against Japan still raged, but would end in August with the dropping of the atomic bomb. The founding of the U.N. had occurred in April 1945.

book Workbook document: The U.N. Charter

The Holocaust

The Holocaust is the term used to describe the systematic extermination of people considered undesirable

Nazi cartoon "The Spider. Many victims are trapped in the web, caught by flattering words. Rip the web of deceit and free German youth." (1934)

to Hitler's idea of a third German Reich. The Jews in particular were subjected to genocide, the deliberate effort to extinguish an entire segment of the population. The Jews had been persecuted in Germany since Hitler's rise to power in 1933, and gradually their civil and legal rights had been taken away. By 1936, over 75,000 Jews had left Germany and 8,000 had committed suicide. Nazi racial theory saw Jews as an inferior race to be overrun in social Darwinistic fashion, and Nazi political theory saw them as an international force which (like Bolshevism) undermined German nationalism.

Beginning with the invasion of Poland in 1939, Jews were rounded up in ghettos. In their invasion of Russia in 1941, Germany discovered there were millions of Jews in Russia. Although the original idea had been to relocate all the Jews east of the new Reich, it became obvious that there was nowhere to put so many people. By 1942, extermination camps were in operation. Unlike labor camps (used by both sides during the war), prisoners in extermination camps were there to die. The only work was in the killing and processing of bodies. Anyone not suited for work was killed. Gradually the killing process was refined, from shooting to gassing with Zyklon-B and incinerating the remains. The largest camp, Auschwitz (in Poland) had an organized system consisting of arrival by cattle car, separation into workers (about 30% of all new prisoners) and the condemned (about 70%), gassing of the condemned, removal of useful by-products (glasses, hair, gold teeth, artifical limbs), and burning in crematoriums. All work was done by prisoners.

Nazi badges for prisoners
Yellow - Jew
Brown - Gypsy
Violet - Jehovah's Witness
Pink - Homosexual
Green - Habitual criminal
Red - Political prisoner
Black - Asocial
Blue - Emigrant

Jews were not the only victims. Political prisoners, Slavs, gypsies, Catholics, prisoners of war, homosexuals, mental patients, transvestites, all were to be exterminated. Prisoners at the larger camps wore color-coded with tags on their clothes: a star of David for Jews, a violet badge for Jehovah's Witnesses, a brown badge for gypsies, a pink triangle for gay people. And a red and white target for anyone who had attempted to escape.

As it became obvious that the Germans were losing the war, there were efforts to destroy evidence of some of the camps. Many camps were simply abandoned, their prisoners left to starve, as Germany retreated westward. The worst camps, because they were in the east, were liberated by Soviet troops. This may have had something to do with the loyalty some eastern European nations felt toward the Soviet Union after the war.

The death toll of the Holocaust is hard to determine; records were destroyed in many cases. The nearest estimate is:

  • 6 million Jews (including 90% of the Jewish population of Poland, the Baltic Republics, and Germany; a total of 66% of all European Jews)
  • 4 million Soviet prisoners of war
  • 4 million Poles, Ukranians, Belorussians and other Slavs
  • 400,000 Gypsies (40% of all European gypsies)
  • 10,000 homosexuals

There is much information available about the Holocaust: see the Holocaust Timeline for the major events and issues. So-called "revisionist" historians have tried to argue with the genocidal aspects of the Holocaust, claiming that Jews were not exterminated because they were Jewish, etc. Although the revisionist analyses are unconvincing, their presence has led to the release of a great deal of evidence showing what really happened, such as the pictorial archives and Stephen Spielberg's Shoah project.



All text, lecture voice audio, and course design copyright Lisa M. Lane 1998-2018. Other materials used in this class may be subject to copyright protection, and are intended for educational and scholarly fair use under the Copyright Act of 1976 and the TEACH Act of 2002.