World War II (1939–1945)
The Fall of Germany
During the second half of 1944, the Nazi empire gradually imploded as its enemies invaded from east, west, and south. Supplies and manufacturing dwindled on a daily basis. The once-mighty Luftwaffe had some of the best military aircraft in the world but lacked fuel to fly them and parts to maintain them. Evidence suggests that Chancellor Adolf Hitler himself became addicted to a variety of drugs and that he may also have suffered from syphilis, Parkinson’s disease, or both.
Far separated from reality, Hitler placed his last hope of winning the war on the latest developments of German technology. These developments were both impressive and real but were too late and too poorly executed to change the outcome of the war or even delay it by much. Among Germany’s most fearsome new weapons were two missiles, the V1 and the V2. The V1 was the world’s first cruise missile, the V2 the world’s first weaponized ballistic missile. Other German innovations included both jet- and rocket-propelled aircraft. However, nearly all of these innovations were still experimental in nature and not truly ready for effective use in combat. German scientists were also busily working on the development of an atomic bomb, but the war ended before they could succeed.
The Battle of the Bulge
On December 16, 1944, the Germans began their last major counteroffensive of the war, as three German armies surged into the Ardennes Forest, dividing the Allied front with the ultimate goal of retaking the Belgian city of Antwerp. This time, Allied intelligence failed to intercept the German plans, and the action was a complete surprise.
The Germans launched the attack during a heavy snowstorm that grounded all aircraft, making it difficult for the Allies to evaluate the extent of the attack. Furthermore, the Germans deployed a group of about thirty English-speaking soldiers behind Allied lines, dressed in American uniforms and driving captured American vehicles. These special troops succeeded in creating chaos among the Allied troops by reversing road signs, cutting communications wires, and inciting a panic among Allied troops once they realized that they had been infiltrated.
By December 24, the Germans had penetrated deep into French territory, making a distinct bulge in the front line that lent the Battle of the Bulge its name. German forces surrounded a large contingent of U.S forces in the town of Bastogne and attempted to intimidate them with an invitation of surrender. The offer was refused.
As the weather cleared and Allied aircraft could fly again, the Germans were pushed back, and supplies were airdropped to the trapped American troops. In the meantime, other Allied armies were diverted from other areas of France to help. By early January 1945, the Germans were once again in retreat, and on January 16, the soldiers trapped at Bastogne were free, and the “bulge” was no more.
The German Retreat from the East
Throughout the fall and winter of 1944, Soviet forces slowly but steadily made their way toward Germany through eastern Europe. The brunt of the assault was concentrated on Poland, where most of the Nazis’ concentration camps were located. By early November 1944, the German S.S. was trying frantically to dismantle these camps and hide evidence of the atrocities that had taken place. The Nazis forced those prisoners who were still living to march on foot westward to Germany. On November 20, Hitler himself retreated, abandoning his staff headquarters at Rastenburg along the Polish-German border and relocating to Berlin.
The Yalta Conference
On February 4, 1945, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin came together for a now-famous meeting at Yalta, a resort on the Crimean Peninsula in the USSR. During the meeting, the “Big Three,” as they came to be called, discussed their strategy for the last stages of the war. They agreed that Britain and the United States would provide bomber support for Soviet troops fighting along the eastern front.
The three leaders also spoke about the issue of how Europe would be divided after the war, with particular concern regarding the situation in Poland, which was by this point controlled entirely by the Soviet Union. With considerable difficulty, Roosevelt and Churchill managed to pressure Stalin into holding democratic elections in Poland. However, these turned out to be heavily rigged in favor of a pro-Soviet Communist government.
The Soviet Advance
Meanwhile, the Red Army had moved deep into Hungary and, by early December, had taken most of the country except for the area immediately around Budapest. U.S. and British aircraft provided support as the Soviets advanced into German territory, making devastating bombing attacks on the cities of Leipzig, Dresden, and Berlin. Dresden, in particular, was almost completely destroyed.
By late March 1945, the Red Army had secured all of eastern Europe. It continued its advance into Austria, capturing the capital of Vienna on April 13. By this time, the Allied forces coming from France had crossed the Rhine River and were moving swiftly toward Berlin from the west. The Allies decided to let Soviet forces enter Berlin first, while British and U.S. forces concentrated on other areas to the north and south.
On April 12, 1945, U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose health had been failing for some time, died of a cerebral hemorrhage at his vacation home in Georgia. The United States saw an outpouring of grief, as Roosevelt had been president an unprecedented twelve years and, in addition to being an effective commander in chief and diplomatic leader, had almost single-handedly rallied the American people through the hardships of the war. Vice President Harry S Truman succeeded Roosevelt as president.
The End of Nazi Germany
Just days after Roosevelt’s death, on April 16, 1945, the Soviets began their final offensive against the Third Reich. Over the coming days, more than 3,000 tanks crossed the Neisse River, assaulting Berlin’s outer defenses while Allied aircraft bombed the city from above. On April 20, Hitler spent his birthday in an underground bunker and soon resigned to kill himself when the city fell. Although imminent defeat was obvious, Hitler not only refused to allow his troops to surrender but also insisted that the conscripted civilian army was to defend Berlin to the last man.
On April 25, the Allied armies advancing from east and west met for the first time, when a small group of American and Soviet soldiers met at the German village of Stehla. The hugely symbolic meeting was marked by celebrations in both Moscow and New York. On April 28, the former dictator of Italy, Benito Mussolini, under arrest since his ouster nearly two years before, was executed by Italian partisans and hung upside down in the center of Milan. Two days later, on April 30, Adolf Hitler killed himself in the bunker in which he had been living since the beginning of the month. Later that evening, the Red Army hung a Soviet flag from the top of the Reichstag, the German parliament building in Berlin.
Over the following days, there was a great deal of confusion throughout Germany. Some German forces surrendered, while others continued to fight. Among the remaining leaders, some went into hiding or sought escape abroad. Others followed Hitler’s example and committed suicide.
The Formal Surrender
Early on the morning of May 7, 1945, General Alfred Jodl signed the official surrender on behalf of all German forces, which went into effect the next day. Some sporadic fighting continued in the interim, particularly in Czechoslovakia. During the course of May 8, nearly all remaining German forces surrendered, and that night, additional members of the German high command signed a formal surrender. The Western Allies thus celebrated May 8, 1945, as V-E Day (Victory in Europe Day). Because some fighting between Soviet and German forces continued into the next day, May 9 became the official Victory Day in the USSR.
The Seeds of the Cold War
As it turned out, the dividing line between the Red Army’s position and the Western Allied armies’ position at the end of the war in Europe would solidify into roughly the same line as the Iron Curtain, the line dividing Western Europe from Eastern Europe in the Cold War. Berlin itself would remain divided into Soviet and Western zones—which became East and West Berlin, respectively—for decades. (For more information, see the History SparkNote The Cold War.)