France and Britain were hardly ready for war against
Germany, but sides had already been taken. In the mid-1930s Germany and Italy
had supported the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War. The two had forged an
alliance, and they now became known as the Axis powers. France and Great Britain--later
joined by Russia--came to be known as the Allied Powers.
Hitler was eager to conquer France. He wanted revenge
for Germany's defeat in World War I. And he very much wanted to conquer Russia
and overthrow the Communists there. But he had no quarrel, he said, with Great
Britain. Indeed, he admired the British for the empire that they had built, and
for their mighty navy. He also realized how weak the Italians were. They were as
much a burden as a help to him. Their Fascist government was a watered down
version of Nazism that Hitler thought was weak-kneed, and Hitler had little
respect for the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.
In the weeks following the conquest of Poland, Hitler
was pleased to see that the Allies were taking no steps to attack his western
borders. For one thing, much German equipment had been damaged in Poland. And
for another, Hitler had placed most of his troops inside Poland. Germany might
have been defeated had the Allies attacked from the west in those early weeks of
the war before the German army could be re-equipped and transferred to the
War in the North
Instead, it was Russia that next entered the fray. On
November 30 the Russians attacked Germany's ally, Finland, in what would prove a
failed attempt to conquer it.
The Russian move gave Hitler reason to be both angry and frightened. More than ever he was
now determined to conquer Russia; and more than ever he was afraid that his enemies
would now join to come at him from the north, through Finland, Norway, and
To keep this from happening, Hitler occupied Norway and
Denmark. He forced the Danes to accept German "protection." Two months
later, Norway succumbed. But both the Norwegians and the Danes proved to be
thorns in his side throughout the war. Time and again small groups of Norwegians
banded together to attack German installations and outposts in Norway; and the
German navy was often engaged in battling Norwegian ships and sailors. Denmark
refused to carry out Hitler's anti-Jewish programs and resisted every German
attempt to deport the Danish Jews.
With Norway and Denmark occupied, Hitler had to make a
major decision. He wanted to attack Russia, but was afraid that France and
Britain might choose that moment to attack him from the west. He knew that his
armies were not strong enough yet to fight in both the east and west.
Reluctantly, he turned his forces westward. On May 10, 1940, the German armies
entered Belgium and Holland to "protect" them from attack by the
English and the French. Both countries fell to Germany within days.
It was the first maneuver in a clever scheme. Just as
Hitler had hoped, the Allied armies marched toward the Low Countries during
those few days, while the main section of the German army began its march
southward into France. It was only a matter of weeks before the French and
British armies were trapped between the two halves of the German forces; their
food lines to the south had been cut, and their backs were to the sea. Four tank
divisions of the German army were closing in for the kill--and the British and
French armies faced certain destruction.
At that fateful moment Hitler sent orders to the front
to stop the tank divisions. The job of finishing off the Allied armies was
awarded to the German air force, the Luftwaffe. The Luftwaffe, however,
had little success. The British Royal Air Force gave protective cover as more
than three hundred thousand British, French, and Belgian soldiers were rescued
by sea at Dunkirk and taken across the English Channel to safety. Nevertheless,
France--Germany’s hated enemy--had been conquered.
Hitler's Hour of Victory
On June 21, 1940, France surrendered to Germany. Hitler
was celebrated in Germany as the greatest military leader of modern times. He
had defeated the French, he had ousted the British, and he had conquered most of
For a while he considered sending his troops into
Britain. But between Europe and the British Isles there was the sea, and Britain
still had the strongest navy in the world. So Hitler turned his eyes back to the
east. Feasting on his victories, he was hungrier than ever to conquer Russia and
to defeat the "Communist Jews," as he called the Russians.
Just as Hitler was about to attack and invade Russia,
the Italians attacked Greece. As Hitler had feared, the Italian army was too
weak to conquer the fiercely resisting Greeks. In the end, afraid that the
British might come ashore in Greece to help the Greek army, Hitler sent
twenty-nine divisions against Greece. It took only four weeks to conquer Greece,
including the island of Crete; but it was a four-week delay that Hitler had not
Hitler’s alliances had not been helpful to him. Italy
had proved next to useless. Japan--a more recent ally--despite her pact with
Hitler, refused to attack the Russians. Spain--which had also made a pact with
Hitler--refused, for reasons that Hitler could not understand, to attack the
fortress of Gibraltar. Taking Gibraltar would have made it possible to keep the
British navy out of the Mediterranean, and might have shifted the balance of the
war. But Francisco Franco, the dictator of Spain, had reasons for being a "nonbelligerent"
ally of the Axis. For one thing, Spain was exhausted after its civil war. For
another, although Hitler did not know it, Franco may have been partly Jewish, at
least, so it was rumored. In the main, Germany had to go it alone in western
The Soviet Union
On June 22, 1941, three million German soldiers, more
than 7,000 cannons, and 3,500 tanks crossed over into Russia. The Luftwaffe
quickly defeated the Russian air force. Russian tank divisions were
speedily overcome. But the Russian army continued to fight. The war in Russia
dragged on; the precious months of summer turned to fall, then quickly to
winter. It was October before the Germans saw Moscow in the distance. The
weather was below zero in December, they still had not taken the capital city,
and they were still in their summer uniforms. For Hitler it was all going too
slowly. The blitzkrieg was turning into a suicide mission. And in the
midst of it, on December 7, 1941, his Japanese allies attacked Pearl Harbor,
drawing the United States into the war. The Germans had had their hours of
victory; now began the long slow days of defeat.
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“Seymour Rossel, a
long-experienced and gifted educator, here gives yet another important
contribution for readers of every age and background. This book is a rare
and valuable overview of an enormously challenging subject. Every chapter
is accessible, intelligent, and compelling.” — David
Altshuler, PhD, Founding Director, Museum
of Jewish Heritage, New York