In 1938, Germany was a total dictatorship under the Nazi Party and Chancellor Adolf Hitler. Although the 1919 Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I had imposed strict disarmament terms on Germany, by the late 1930s, Hitler had dropped all pretense of observing the terms of the treaty. He began not only to rebuild his military rapidly, but also to speak openly of Germany’s need for lebensraum , or “living space.”
In March 1938, offering little in the way of justification, Nazi troops took control Austria, which put up no resistance. Hitler claimed that the annexation was supported by his doctrine of Anschluss , or natural political unification of Germany and Austria. Though gravely disturbed, Britain and France took no action. Shortly thereafter, Hitler demanded that Czechoslovakia cede to Germany the Sudetenland, a territory along the German-Czech border. Hitler accused the Czechs of repressing the large German population there and asserted that the territory rightly belonged to Germany.
The September 1938 Munich Conference was called to address the situation; ironically, Czechoslovakia was not present. After several rounds of negotiation, and despite their own treaties with Czechoslovakia, Britain and France agreed to give in to Hitler’s demand, as long as he agreed not to seize any further European territory. Hitler did sign an agreement to that effect, promising no further invasions.
After taking the Sudetenland, however, Hitler ignored the agreement and proceeded to occupy most of western Czechoslovakia, along with several other territories in eastern Europe. Britain and France again took no action. This policy of appeasement of Hitler’s demands, which was advocated primarily by British prime minister Neville Chamberlain, has been much criticized as paving the road to World War II.
The decisions made by the Allied nations leading up to World War II, as well as those of the first six months or so after the war began, have dumbfounded historians ever since. The appeasement of Hitler, in particular, has been so often held up as an example of how not to deal with a rising dictator that it has become a stereotype.
However, although it may be obvious in hindsight that Hitler should not have been appeased, the actions of Prime Minister Chamberlain must be considered within the context of the time. Europe was still recovering from World War I: many of the countries of Europe were adjusting to new parliamentary governments, and the newly created League of Nations was a new force in international affairs. Few European leaders understood the full scope of Hitler’s intentions, and a decision to go to war would have been hugely unpopular in countries, such as Britain and France, that had been so devastated in World War I. Indeed, many sincerely believed that the very concept of war had become obsolete.
Several months after Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland, on August 23, 1939, a fateful meeting occurred in Moscow between German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov. Afterward, they announced publicly that Germany and the USSR had signed the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact to prevent hostilities between the two countries.
However, the ministers kept secret the fact that, in addition to agreeing not to attack each other, Germany and the USSR had also agreed to overrun the countries that lay between them. Specifically, they agreed that Germany and the USSR would each take over one half of Poland, with a further provision that the USSR would take over Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia without German interference.
Germany’s invasion of Poland came quickly and with overwhelming force. The attack began on September 1, 1939, with heavy air strikes followed by a rapidly advancing ground invasion. Hitler referred to the strategy as blitzkrieg, or “lightning war.” The object of the blitzkrieg strategy was to shock the opponent so severely that there would be little resistance, allowing the country to be overrun quickly, with minimal German losses.
The primary obstacle to the German invasion force proved to be the Polish capital of Warsaw, which did not surrender until September 27, after a prolonged siege. By this time, all of western Poland was firmly under German control.
Although Germany’s invasion of Poland is often cited as the definitive example of the blitzkrieg tactic, not all historians share this view. Rather than rush straight to Warsaw and topple the government, Germany’s forces moved relatively slowly, focusing much of their energy on targets that were neither military nor political in nature. They sought not just to destroy the Polish government but also to obliterate the Polish people. In the first days and weeks of the war, both Jewish and non-Jewish civilians were killed regardless of whether they resisted. Villages and towns were burned, and fleeing survivors were ruthlessly chased down and shot.
It was in this invasion that the real nature of Hitler’s plan began to reveal itself. Although the regular German army, the Wehrmacht, defeated the Polish military within days of the initial invasion, a more sinister set of squadrons followed—the Totenkopf, or “Death’s Head,” part of the soon-to-be-infamous S.S. These squadrons immediately began rounding up and killing Polish civilians. Larger groups of Jews were singled out and herded into the central Warsaw ghetto where they were slowly starved for the next two years. Smaller groups encountered along the way were shot on the spot. Although Jews were particularly singled out, the non-Jewish Polish peasantry was treated little better. Though these atrocities would pale in comparison with what was to come, the initial weeks of Hitler’s invasion were a gruesome demonstration of the German war machine’s capabilities and intentions.
Just two weeks after the German invasion began, Soviet troops invaded Poland from the east, on September 17, 1939. It took them only two days to push far enough to meet German troops advancing from the west. By this time, Germany had already taken most of Poland except for Warsaw, which was under siege. Upon meeting the Russian troops, the Germans handed over large numbers of prisoners and promptly pulled back to the line agreed upon in the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact. Retreating Polish armies, unaware that the USSR was part of Germany’s occupation plan, fled directly into Russian hands.
Britain and France—which were soon labeled the Allied Powers, just as they had been in World War I—both declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939, just two days after Germany began its invasion of Poland. However, aside from basic defensive preparations, neither country took significant action for several months. Rather, Britain initiated a propaganda effort against Hitler by using its bombers to drop millions of anti-Nazi leaflets over Germany. Among the British public, this effort soon came to be known as the “confetti war.”
Germany likewise took little action after the invasion of Poland was complete, aside from several small naval attacks on Allied shipping vessels. This period of relative calm has been sarcastically labeled the “Sitzkrieg,” or sitting war—a play on blitzkrieg. Rather than make an offensive move of their own, the Allies waited for the expected German attack on Belgium and France. It would not come for many months, until the late spring of 1940.
The one active hot spot during this “Sitzkrieg” was Finland, which the USSR invaded on November 30, 1939, with the goal of seizing the eastern Finnish territory of Karelia. Though vastly outnumbered and outgunned, the Finns fought back with determination and innovation, even employing troops on bicycles and skis. The invasion, which was expected to end quickly, instead lasted until March 13, 1940, when Finland finally capitulated, ceding Karelia to the Soviet Union, along with the major port of Viipuri (present-day Vyborg). Although Finland lost territory, the victory cost the USSR more than 200,000 lives, more than twice the number that it cost the Finns.
After months of inaction, the first sign that Hitler was again on the move came in early April 1940. On April 9, German troops simultaneously took Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark, and landed on the coast of Norway. Denmark gave in almost immediately. In Norway, although the capital at Oslo was quickly taken and a puppet government set up, a strong resistance movement supported by Britain and France continued to fight the Germans for two months. The combat was generally limited to the less densely populated areas in the north of the country.