The Beginning - Modern Europe
Updated: Jan 29, 2019
Today most historians have concluded that Germany was among the less culpable of the major powers for causing World War I. Nevertheless, the vindictive victors imposed the Treaty of Versailles on that nation; it stripped Germany of seventeen percent of its territory, exacted immense reparations, and perhaps most importantly, dictated a new political system—a democratic republic. By 1930, forty political parties had representatives in the Reichstag, which resulted in a severe fragmentation of political power. When the Great Recession and hyperinflation caused economic chaos, Germans in ever-increasing numbers voted for the Communist Party. Leaders of the fragile Weimar Republic turned to Hitler and the largest minority party, the National Socialists (Nazis) as the best alternative to the communists. One of Hitler’s first acts was to ban the Communist Party and ordered the arrest of its leaders, many of whom fled to Russia.
Fast forward to the year 1940, German Dictator Hitler and the Fascists controlled almost all of Western and Central Europe, including the conquered counties of Poland, Czechoslovakia, France, Norway, the Netherlands, and Belgium. Great Britain stood alone in opposition to Nazi domination of Europe.
On June 22, 1941, Hitler overruled his closest advisors and generals by deciding to attack Russia. In the next four years, twelve percent of the population of the Soviet Union, over 20,000,000 people, died in their monumental struggle for survival against the German war machine. Gradually, the weather and Hitler’s maniacal insistence that his forces not retreat and regroup when Russian resistance stiffened, resulted in their ultimate defeat.
These staggering population losses did not bother Russian leader Joseph Stalin, who executed over two million political prisoners and ethnic minorities during the 1930s. During this same period, over a million died in forced labor camps (the Gulags) and another six to nine million died as a result of the famines caused by the forced collectivization of farms.
Human life had little value to either Hitler or Stalin. Perhaps as many as fifty million individuals were sacrificed with alacrity in this monumental struggle between fascism and communism. By April 1945, Russia and the Communists seemed to have won when a war-ravished Berlin was overrun by Soviet forces.
In early 1943, President Roosevelt declared that America’s objective in World War II was “Unconditional Surrender” of the Axis Powers—Germany, Japan and Italy. This announcement may have prolonged the war with Germany because the Nazi propaganda machine used it to stiffen the resistance against allied armies; it probably also deterred individuals in leadership positions from trying to get better treatment for their country by overthrowing Hitler.
Josef Stalin accepted the policy of unconditional surrender with alacrity. He knew that a prostrate Germany would facilitate his plans to expand communist influence into Central Europe, and from there, conquest of the entire world.
By early May 1945, Hitler had committed suicide and most of Germany was occupied by allied armies. On May 7 and 8, the last of Germany’s military forces formally surrendered. The British, French, Russian and American armies were now tasked with administering an abject country.