A Chacun Son Boche:
The Allied Push On Berlin, 1917
by Chris Oakley
Summary: In the previous four episodes of this series we followed the events leading from the capture of vital German military papers in 1914 to the folding of the Second Reich in 1917; the Versailles- Geneva peace treaty that ended the First World War; the Spanish flu epidemic that wiped out much of the human race in the first months after the war was over; the establishment of the League of Nations and Woodrow Wilson’s failed attempts to get the United States into the League; the American shift towards isolationism during the 1920s; the start of the Great Depression; the rise to power of fascist regimes in Germany and Italy; and the revival of Communism in 1930s Russia. In this chapter we’ll summarize how the United States gradually stepped away from its isolationist policies, chart the sequence of events that led to the Second World War, and recall the opening salvo of the Soviets’ attempt to conquer Poland in the spring of 1939.
Adolf Hitler formally assumed the chancellorship of Germany on January 25th, 1933 amidst pervasive speculation about whether the self-styled revolutionary could successfully maintain a coalition administration with the more traditional elements of the German political spectrum. Though it was still too early for him to even consider implementing his ambitious secret program for re-arming Germany, in his inaugural speech before the Reichstag he nonetheless repeatedly touched on the theme of restoring of German greatness-- "giving the nation back her rightful place in the sun", as he put it. He also dwelled at length on the injustices of the Versailles- Geneva accords, particularly those clauses of the treaty which had stripped Germany of many of her former territories in continental Europe, and vowed to rectify those injustices by any means he could. He hadn’t mentioned anything about expanding the German military beyond the ceilings specified by Versailles-Geneva, but thanks to his nationalist rhetoric his continental European neighbors were already starting to get nervous.
They would get even more nervous in May of the following year when Hitler orchestrated a massive and bloody purge of the SA-- "the Night of the Long Knives", as it became known in the world press. Hundreds of people, including SA leader and longtime Hitler comrade Ernst Rohm, were executed by firing squad because Hitler deemed them a threat to his power; the German chancellor had convinced himself (and went to great lengths to convince others) that the SA were on the brink of mounting a coup against him, and that paranoid vision became the spark that lit the fuse for the gruesome obliteration of a host of Hitler’s perceived enemies.
Ironically, Hitler took his inspiration for the SA purge from his most hated ideological foe, Communist Russia. A few weeks before the Night of the Long Knives Stalin had ordered the NKVD1 to do away with scores of alleged "class enemies" of the Communist Party on the grounds they were plotting to assassinate him prior to the national elections which had been scheduled to take place in Russia in June. The small detail that there was almost no evidence at all to support his allegations hardly made a jot of difference to Stalin-- it gave him a useful pretext for clamping down on all domestic opposition to his rule.2 The elections were first postponed and then cancelled as the Russian premier bullied the Duma3 into granting him emergency powers that in effect made him Russia’s sole dictatorial ruler. The lesson was not lost on Hitler, who had his own ruthlessly efficient secret police-- the SS4 --to carry out his lethal wishes.
Once he had effectively crushed his domestic opposition, Hitler began making preparations to overcome his foreign foes. He started out modestly enough, expanding the size of the German army beyond the 100,000-man cap officially prescribed by the Versailles-Geneva pact; from there, he employed Germany’s glider clubs to covertly train pilots for the new German air force he planned to build in the next few years. Almost simultaneously with these actions he gave his naval chief of operations, Admiral Erich Raeder, a free hand to do whatever was necessary to upgrade the German navy’s surface and U- boat fleets. He even recruited two of Germany’s most respected physicists, Otto Hahn and Werner Heisenberg, to conduct a secret study on the possibility of harnessing atomic energy to create a new kind of super-weapon5.
Initially, the Western powers were too busy trying to overcome the Great Depression to put up much opposition to Hitler. When in February of 1935 he unilaterally cancelled Germany’s participation in the Versailles-Geneva pact, it provoked little reaction on their part other than a flurry of strongly worded protests to the German foreign ministry; the same held true in April of 1936 when German troops reoccupied the Rhineland, which according to the terms of Versailles-Geneva was supposed to be demilitarized. But this state of affairs wouldn’t last forever: as the global economy gradually recovered from the Depression’s ill effects and the other major European powers began to suspect the Nazi overlord was seeking more than just the reclamation of lost German lands, Hitler’s schemes to expand his empire through bluff and threats met with increasingly stronger opposition, until one week in the fall of 1938 the tensions between Berlin and the rest of Europe would explode into all-out war.
In eastern Europe, meanwhile, Stalin began forcibly reuniting the former provinces of the old Russian Empire into a Communist superstate called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics(USSR). The first victim of his expansionist designs was his western neighbor Ukraine, occupied by Soviet troops in October of 1934; two months later, Belarussia suffered the same fate, with the additional blow of having its capital Minsk sacked when Belarussian militias tried to oppose the Red Army’s occupation of the city.
Stalin’s pretext for this aggression against his neighbors was the same as his alibi for the NKVD purges: the need to safeguard Russia’s security against anti-Communist foes bent on toppling his regime. The fact that neither the Ukraine nor Belarussia had shown the slightest sign of aggressive intent towards Russia hardly made much difference in the Kremlin’s eyes-- the Vozhd6 wouldn’t tolerate any competing regimes on his doorstep.
Next on Stalin’s hit list were the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia; they were invaded and occupied in the spring of 1935 shortly after Hitler declared his intention to withdraw Germany from the Versailles-Geneva treaty. Once they were conquered, Stalin began to turn his attention toward his most ambitious campaign yet: the re-occupation of Poland, then nearing its second decade as an independent state. The Soviet ruler had long felt that allowing the formation of an independent Polish state was Alexander Kerensky’s greatest mistake-- and he was determined to correct that perceived mistake at any cost, even if the cost included all-out war.
But Poland would not be like Stalin’s other past victims. It had a large, well-equipped army and air force and a counterintelligence bureau second to none. Its people were filled with intense national pride, and the memory of Czarist oppression in the days before the 1917 Kerensky revolution was still fresh in the Polish collective mind; they weren’t about to let the Communists usurp their liberty. On the diplomatic side, the Polish foreign minister had concluded mutual defense pacts with Romania, Czechoslovakia, and France and was negotiating a similar deal with Britain. Furthermore, defenses along the Polish border had been steadily augmented since Stalin first came to power in Moscow, posing a serious challenge even for the formidable Red Army.
As if those factors weren’t enough to seriously complicate Stalin’s aspirations to reclaim Russian-- or rather Soviet-- control over Poland, there was one other obstacle to contend with: Stalin himself. The Soviet dictator was notorious for his suspicious nature and occasional lapses into paranoia, and his relationship with many of his generals was, to put it kindly, strained. It was only a question of time before something happened to send him over the edge into madness....
...and it did in September of 1935 with the assassination of Leningrad7 mayor Sergei Kirov. Convinced that he was the target of a military coup, Stalin ordered a sweeping purge of the Red Army’s upper echelons, and NKVD boss Lavrenti Beria was all too willing to comply. Beria’s hit squads decimated the Red Army officer corps in an orgy of bloodletting and murder that rivaled the worst of Ivan the Terrible’s atrocities; by June of 1937 NKVD executioners had killed 95% of the Red Army’s generals, 83% of its colonels, 72% of its majors, and at least 60% of its captains. This left the Soviets short of experienced field commanders at exactly the moment when such men would be urgently needed to fulfill Stalin’s goal of taking Poland back into Moscow’s bosom.
The Red Army purge would have one other effect besides upsetting Stalin’s timetable for conquering Poland: it emboldened Russia’s old Pacific adversary, Japan, to hasten its preparations for a military campaign to seize disputed territories along the Soviet borders with Japanese-occupied Manchuria and Korea. It was common knowledge among Emperor Hirohito’s top military advisors that the Soviet Union’s Siberian territories were ripe with strategic minerals, and if the Japanese Empire could get access to those minerals it would go a long way towards enhancing her economic and martial standing among the world’s great powers.
But first there was Japan’s other major Asian rival, China, to be dealt with. In July of 1937 the Imperial Japanese Army launched an invasion of the Chinese mainland from bases in Manchuria and on the island of Formosa(present-day Taiwan); had Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek not hastily called a truce with his rival, Communist chief Mao Zedong, so that their respective armies could unite to oppose the invaders it’s likely the disorganized Chinese regular army would have been vanquished in the first weeks of the Japanese attack.
As it was, the Chinese regular army slowed down the Japanese advance with a series of holding actions while Chinese Communist partisans waged a ruthless guerrilla war against Japanese occupation forces in eastern China. The Japanese campaign against mainland China, which had originally been anticipated as a quick and mostly bloodless victory over Chiang Kai-Shek’s forces, instead became a conflict of attrition that would disrupt the Tokyo government’s schedule for going to war with the Soviet Union just as the NKVD purges had thrown off the Kremlin’s agenda for recapturing Poland. Worse, it put Japan on a collision course with China’s old ally the United States; as isolationism gradually lost its hold on the White House and Congress, the Roosevelt Administration took increasingly sterner measures against Tokyo in an effort to force the Imperial Japanese Army to leave the Chinese mainland until by the late spring of 1941 the United States and Japan would be standing on the brink of full-scale war.
The straw that finally broke the camel’s back for the Western powers regarding Hitler came in the summer of 1938 when he began mounting a war of nerves against Czechoslovakia, whose Sudetenland region was home to a sizable ethnic German community. A few months earlier, the Nazi ruler had caught the rest of Europe with their pants down by orchestrating a swift and nearly bloodless takeover of his ancestral homeland Austria; that lapse in judgement had cost British prime minister Neville Chamberlain his job. In late July Chamberlain’s successor, ex-Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, held a series of conferences with French prime minister Eduoard Daladier aimed at formulating a joint policy for opposing Hitler’s expansionist plot against the Czechs.
These conferences were followed in early August by a multi- national European summit in Paris at which Churchill and Daladier sought to enlist the cooperation of their fellow heads of state in putting pressure on Hitler to back off. Italy, which had formed a close if somewhat uneasy association with the Third Reich by this time, was conspicuously absent from the summit-- an ominous sign in Churchill’s eyes, since it left open the possibility Mussolini might eventually conclude a formal military alliance with Hitler.
Sure enough, about two weeks after the summit, Mussolini’s foreign minister and son-in-law Count Galeazzo Ciano flew to Berlin to meet with his German counterpart Joachim von Ribbentrop to open negotiations for a German-Italian mutual cooperation treaty. The result of their talks was the ‘Pact of Steel’, which committed each country to support the other if it went to war with Great Britain. With Italy’s friendship assured at least in the short run, Hitler could now launch his invasion of Czechoslovakia in earnest.
On September 20th, 1938 the Führer made a speech before the Reichstag essentially ordering the Czech government to turn over the Sudetenland to Germany and give Sudeten Nazi chief Konrad Heinlein a cabinet post in the administration of prime minister Eduoard Benes. If Benes did not comply with these conditions by October 1st, Hitler warned, the Reich would have no choice but to declare war on Czechoslovakia. Predictably, Benes immediately rejected Hitler’s ultimatum, giving the Nazi tyrant the excuse he was looking for to attack the Czech homeland.
But Prime Minister Benes was hardly unprepared; thanks to his mutual defense agreement with Poland and offers of military assistance from Britain and France he had considerable foreign support to draw on in countering German aggression, and his own armed forces were widely acknowledged to be one of the strongest in Europe. Indeed, even as Hitler was issuing his declaration of war against Czechoslovakia a combined Anglo-French assault force was being gathered near the Franco-German border to strike at the Siegfried Line, Germany’s main western defense fortification system at the time. The two most senior officers of that force, British army Lieutenant General Percy Hobart and French ex-Military Cabinet chief Alphonse-Joseph Georges, planned to breach the Siegfried Line using mobile assault tactics Hobart himself had first devised in the mid-1930s.
On September 22nd, the day after Hitler declared war on the Czechs, Britain and France issued a joint declaration of war against Germany; within hours Georges and Hobart’s forces were crossing the German border and engaging the Wehrmacht8 along a half-dozen vital areas of the Siegfried Line. The Second World War had started.
In spite of the Pact of Steel’s provision for Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy to come to each other’s aid immediately if either was attacked by Great Britain, Mussolini did not make a declaration of war on the Anglo-French alliance until October 2nd, ten full days after the invasion of Czechoslovakia began. By that time the Germans found themselves on the defensive against Allied troops as well as the Czech army, putting Hitler in precisely the sort of situation he had hoped to avoid-- a two-front war.
But to their credit Wehrmacht troops along the Franco-German border recovered from the initial shock of the Anglo-French invasion and launched a swift counterattack against the invasion forces. To the chagrin of then-French army commander-in-chief General Maurice Gamelin, Hobart and Georges continued to use mobile defense tactics despite his instructions that they switch to a static defense. He argued bitterly about this with his British counterpart, Chief of the Imperial General Staff Sir Edward Ironside, but to little avail: Ironside was firmly in Hobart’s and Georges’ corner on this issue, and Churchill in turn backed Ironside. As a result, the French and British general staffs were locked in a philosophical standoff that complicated-- and at times threatened to disrupt --the Allied war effort.
In spite of this discord, however, the Allied armies managed to make good progress against the Germans; by Christmas Eve British artillery had gotten within shelling range of Wiesbaden and RAF fighters were starting to make sweeps of Luftwaffe bases across the Rhine. By January of 1939 the British and French general staffs had started outlining tactics for a possible drive on Berlin. On the Czech front, meanwhile, the Czechoslovak army held firm against all German attempts to break through its defensive lines; a budding Konrad Heinlein-directed Sudeten Nazi insurgency collapsed when Heinlein and his three top subordinates were killed in a Czech air force bombing raid on Heinlein’s command post.
In mid-January of 1939 Mussolini, in a bold but misguided attempt to divert Britain’s attention from the Anglo-French struggle with Germany, directed Italian colonial troops in Libya to invade Egypt, then a key component of the British Empire’s Middle Eastern domain. It was a mistake that would cost the Duce his Mediterranean armies, his political career, and ultimately his life: despite being outnumbered 5 to 1 by the invaders, the British garrison in Egypt routed the Italians with relative ease and chased them deep into Libyan territory. Aided by Commonwealth troops from South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and India, the British seized Tripoli in early February of 1939; shortly afterwards a British-supported uprising in Ethiopia overthrew the Italian colonial regime there and restored Emperor Haile Selassie to the throne which he’d been forced to vacate nearly four years earlier.
Mussolini tried to shore up his faltering regime, and the morale of his fellow Italians, with a radio address from the balcony of his office in Rome on February 15th, 1939. Using words that from another man might have sounded quite admirable, the Duce told his listeners:
"Let every nation know, whether it wishes us good or ill, that we the people of this great land will pay any price, bear any burden, oppose any enemy, to ensure our safety and liberty. And if our foes imagine that we might falter at this hour, they are making a grave mistake....We shall fight them on the beaches, and in the streets! We shall fight them in the hills and fields, we shall fight them at sea, we shall fight them in the clouds, and we will never surrender! We will fight on so that if this country should last for a thousand years, men will still say ‘This was their finest hour’!"
His ‘finest hour’ speech was meant to rally the Italian people to his banner, and for a while it did...that is, until the Allies mounted an amphibious landing on the island of Sicily. The assault, code-named Operation Paladin, jolted the Italian masses and caused the Duce’s power base to begin eroding once and for all. As the Allied foothold in Sicily expanded, whispers of protest started to circulate against Mussolini; after the Italian army lost two full divisions in a futile effort to keep the British from capturing the strategically vital city of Palermo, those whispers morphed into shouts.
With over 100,000 British and Commonwealth troops already on Italian soil in Sicily, and additional forces being gathered in anticipation of a future assault on the Italian mainland, Mussolini needed fresh reserves of men to shore up Italy’s coastal defenses. Unfortunately for him, he had very few options for obtaining those reserves-- and one of those options meant having to further shrink his already diminishing overseas empire.
At the time the Second World War began, Italian troops had been occupying Albania since April of 1938, controlling the hapless Balkan country through a Mussolini-handpicked puppet regime while the rightful Albanian ruler, King Zog, acted as head of an Athens- based government in exile. As Italy’s military situation worsened Mussolini’s generals had started urging him to recall at least some of his soldiers from Albanian soil to assist in the defense of the Italian mainland; for weeks the Duce had rejected this idea, fearing it might encourage either the Albanians to start a rebellion or the Greeks to send their own army into Albania-- or worse, both of these things simultaneously.
Even when Tripoli fell to the Allies Mussolini insisted on retaining his garrisons in Albania, famously warning that if "we give up Albania now, we’ll never get it back!". But with Allied troops now on Italian soil in Sicily and preparing to invade the neighboring island of Sardinia, and the Italian mainland faced with the prospect of assault in the near future, the Duce was finally obliged to concede(with some reluctance) that Italian troops would have to be withdrawn from Albanian soil in order to accommodate the more critical priority of defending the Italian homeland against the British and Commonwealth invaders.
In early March of 1939 the Italian government started covertly drawing down troop levels in Albania; to minimize any possibility of an Albanian revolt against the remaining Italian occupation forces, these drawdowns were disguised as routine personnel rotations and the occupation forces command staff waged a disinformation campaign to convince the masses new divisions would be arriving shortly from the Italian mainland. The occupiers also cultivated a network of pro-Italy Albanian informants who tipped them off to any hints of insurrection so that the would-be insurgents could be detained, and if necessary eliminated. Sooner or later, though, the truth about the drawdowns would come to light-- and when it did it would begin the final chain reaction leading to the collapse of the Mussolini regime.
Right about the time Italy began its secret troop withdrawals from Albania, Joseph Stalin finally made up his mind once and for all to invade Poland. Despite the fact that the Red Army’s officer corps had not yet fully recovered from the damage wrought on it by the purges following Sergei Kirov’s assassination, Stalin was sure he could dispatch the Polish army with relative ease if he timed his attack just right; no matter how high a state of alert in which they kept their army, the Poles were bound to let their guard slip sooner or later even if only for a brief instant. When that instant finally came, Stalin promised himself he would take the fullest advantage of it.
He put the chief responsibility for executing the invasion in the capable hands of stocky ex-Czarist cavalryman General Georgi Zhukov. Zhukov, a protégé of Stalin’s and one of the few Red Army senior officers to survive the NKVD purges, had already staged a number of peacetime exercises based on a hypothetical invasion of Poland; to his dismay, most of those of exercises had ended with the units playing the Polish side defeating the troops acting the part of the invasion force.
Despite his reservations about the offensive, designated Operation Borodino by the Soviet high command, Zhukov nonetheless gave Stalin his word that he would carry out his orders to the letter. The general wanted to remain in Stalin’s favor, and in any case a part of him relished the challenge of overcoming the Polish army’s border defenses.
At midnight Moscow time on March 17th, 1939 General Zhukov received via coded telegram Stalin’s formal directive to cross the Polish border; by 4:45 AM the next morning the first Soviet advance troops were probing the Polish army’s frontier defenses. The Poles immediately counterattacked, and at 6:30 AM the Polish embassies in London, Stockholm, and Paris issued press statements formally announcing that Poland was at war with the Soviet Union. Unfortunately for Stalin his hopes for making short work of the Polish army were swiftly dashed; the Poles, determined that they would not yield to their larger foe no matter what the cost, were contesting every square inch of territory like a lion defending its hunting ground and inflicting dreadful casualties on the Red Army invasion forces....
To Be Continued
1The Communist-era Russian secret police; its initials were taken from the Russian words Narodnyy Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del(People’s Comissariat For Internal Affairs).
2It also offered an ideal opportunity for him to begin implementing his expansionist agenda against his neighbors in eastern and central Europe, as we’ll see further on.
3The pre-World War II Russian parliament; it was revived following the collapse of the Communist regime.
4Schutzstaffel, literally "protection squad" in German; they were originally established to act as Hitler’s personal bodyguard.
5Anxious not to run the risk of tipping the Western powers off prematurely to what he intended, Hitler told Hahn and Heisenberg to disguise their study as a civilian physics research project. The disguise seems to have worked fairly well for a long time, given that Hahn eventually won a Nobel Prize for his work in discovering the process of atomic fission.
6Colloquial Russian term for "boss"; it was a popular nickname for Stalin at the time.
7Renamed from St. Petersburg in 1932 by Joseph Stalin as a tribute to the assassinated Vladimir Lenin.
8The Nazi-era German army.