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The Interwar Years

Some historians regard World War I as only the first part of a "European Civil War" during the first half of the 20th century while others see the world wars as two completely separate events. Either way, one cannot deny that the second war's origins began with the end of the first war: a resounding German defeat. Because the surrender was on the part of the government, the German soldiers didn't know their military force had been ruined and were told that they were forced to stop by liberal political forces, which began the bitter resentment towards certain people. The war ended with Germany signing five treaties with hundreds of articles, which blamed them for the entire war and gave them severe punishments for their actions. In addition to substantial monetary compensation to Europe, their military was reduced to a skeleton force (approximately 100,000 men in 7 infantry divisions and 3 cavalry divisions), their air force was dismantled, their frontier fortification was eradicated and their high seas fleet eliminated.

Under the treaty, the Germans lost several regions of territory to neighboring states in a bitter concession. To the west, France claimed Alsace, Lorraine, and Saar while Belgium took Eupen and Malmťdy, as well as forcing them to de-militarize the Rhineland for insurance. To the north, Denmark was regiven Northern Schleswig, while Lithuania took Memel. Poland was recreated as a state and given access to the Baltic Sea in a strip of land known as the Polish Corridor, which came from parts of East Prussia. In this "corridor" the League of Nations made the port city of Danzig a free and independent city and through free elections returned the Eastern Upper Silesia region to the Poles. Other regions like East Prussia, Western Upper Silesia, and Southern Schleswig voted to remain part of Germany. Germany's territorial losses did not stop with Europe: the Germans lost all of their pre-war colonies, including those in central, western and eastern Africa, China, Indonesia and Samoa. These losses cost the Germans 80% of their pre-war fleet, 46% of total iron production, 16% of total coal production, and 12% of their population. The German people were humiliated by this and suffered its consequences both physically and mentally, causing them to harbor these feelings for years to come.

During the 1930s, Germany secretly built up their military force to restore their power not for revenge against Europe, but rather to get back their place as Europeís dominant force. The new German military was called the Reichswehr (later named the Wehrmacht) and it chose its members based on their potential, not their previous military records. Because the German military was rebuilt in such a concentrated method, almost as a nation within a nation, they created a highly elite fighting machine that was vastly superior to any other European state. They militarily collaborated with the Soviets to set against Poland, who took advantage of the Soviet political turmoil and took Soviet-held land. With the help of the Soviets, Germany tested out military skills on Soviet ground. They knew they could not win a future war of attrition (using ground and time to gain the advantage), so they would have to win their battles quickly and decisively.

During the 1920s, prime minister Benito Mussolini took advantage of political instability and used threats to gain his position. He did, however, do many good things for the Italian people and brought a much needed sense of order. He worked to create jobs, towns and increase agricultural productivity and output in attition to settling a long-standing church dispute and became well-loved by the Italians. Mussoliniís Fascist party replaced democracy and he set out to be a modern-day Caesar, with emphasis on expanding Italyís territory and began training the youth to become soldiers and increased his military capacity. Mussolini saw the Nazi party as a role model and adopted their views, like the persecution of Jews, even though they were a tiny minority in Italy. Because of their weak and ineffective army, Italy was not nearly as great a threat as Germany, but when the two powers became allies, it only made the German war machine stronger.

The British were somewhat naive about the German potential for starting another world war and did not build up their military accordingly. They instituted the "10 Year Rule," which greatly reduced defense spending. Some plans were made to incorporate armored weapons in the future, such as "Plan 19" (left over from WWI when they thought it would last until 1919), devised by General Fuller to use tanks to drive deep into Germany. Other military leaders like Sir Basil Liddell-Hart came up with using tank divisions and advocating "Limited Liability." These were revolutionary ideas because they thought that tanks would replace the cavalry as the dominant presence on the battlefield. Britain came up with good military ideas, but never developed them because they were extremely conservative at this point in time, and were also distracted by their involvement in colonies abroad. Many leaders like Liddel-Hart said it was a mistake to put troops in Europe, and that they should give financial support and naval assistance instead of British soldiers.

The French knew exactly what Germany was up to and decided to build up their military in preparation for the inevitable war. They thought that victory would go to the side that had the best preparation and the country that could best use attrition. They quickly made alliances with other European countries and devised a defense-oriented plan. They foresaw Germany invading the Alsace- Lorraine region and set up a series of defensive positions that stretched across this area called "The Maginot Line." Named for war veteran Andrť Maginot, the $500 million system of fortifications took several years to build and was designed to block the quickest route to Paris from a potential German invasion. The French plan was to drive the Germans north and crush them there by drawing the German attack into France, slowly wearing them out. Unfortunately, the Maginot Line wasnít strong enough. They mistakenly thought the Germans couldnít get through the thick forests of northeastern France and left that part relatively weak. The French took defense very seriously, but had a limited budget because of the costs of WWI.

The Soviet Union had great political instability, but a decent army, the Red Army, led by Leon Trotsky, who was personally selected by Vladmir Lenin. Trotsky wanted to appoint his officers, not elect them, which upset members of the Communist Party because they wanted to wipe out the remnants of the old army by electing their own members. To settle things, Trotsky created the Commissar System, in which power was distributed between a Communist official and each commanding officer. This allowed the Communist grip to be maintained in the army and the classless Marxist ideology would filter down to the ranks, which were supposed to be equal. In fact, saluting was abandonned and everyone simply called each other "comrade," but Trotsky opposed this because it undermined military integrity. When Stalin came to power, he made a few changes by increasing officers' wages, reducing power to the Commissars, and reintroducing saluting and rank, and in 1936 he made all Soviet citizens subject to the draft. However, a year later Stalin gave the Commissars back their power, and many officers were furious because the Communist collectivization enabled the government to take away their land. Some even wanted to conspire against him, which led to his infamous purging of his command, which lasted 1Ĺ years and rid the Red Army of 35,000 commanders, which was half of their high ranking officers. One man who did not escape execution was Leon Trotsky. Such a self-destructive action was unheard of in modern history. Stalin brought these men up on charges of "treason," which left his army both inexperienced and deathly afraid of Stalin. However, all of them thought twice about crossing him.

However, Stalin was interested in preserving the army, and was open to new ideas, especially tank warfare. Josef Stalin immediately called for rapid industrialization and military proliferation, and purged his army of disobedient or otherwise insubordinate military leaders. He believed that political loyalty was far more important than military capability. He created his own defensive line (ďThe Stalin LineĒ) which was better than the Maginot Line, but it had too many gaps to be effective. It didnít matter much because Stalin favored space over a strong defensive line, which is why he later partitioned Finland and Poland. Because Stalin worked so closely with the Germans during the 1930s, he completely trusted them and even gave them ample help. Even when all his advisors told him that Germany planned to attack the Soviet Union, he would not believe it until they finally invaded, which only fueled Stalin's paranoia.

After WWI, the US adopted a neutral stance towards the situation in Europe. As the country focused on returning to normal life during the prosperous 1920s, development of military technology was gradually put on the back burner. When the stock market crash of 1929 plunged the nation into a depression, some military programs were abandoned all together. During the 1930s, the last thing on the American mind was going to war again for Europe's many political problems. As a result, the Americans were years behind their future adversaries like the Germans and Japanese, particularly in aircraft and armored vehicles. Even as the Japanese overtook parts of China and the Pacific islands and the Germans rolled through Poland, the American public was against going to war. It was not until the United States was attacked by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor and the Hitler declared war on the US in 1941 that the country was jolted into military production. Once the great industrial nation was awakened, the enormous output of machines and weapons would soon overwhelm the Axis powers, no matter how hard they fought.

Early in 1939 the existing (and legitimately elected) Spanish Republican government was ousted by General Fransicso Franco and his Nationalist Party after 3 years of brutal civil war. Even after having received help from Italy and Germany, the country was torn apart, starving, homeless and suffering from an unforgiving drought. They had to turn to other countries for help, but with nearly all of Europe in political turmoil, they only received enough supplies to just barely survive. Franco's Fascist regime began imprisoning and murdering hundreds of thousands of Republicans and young children were sent to Fascist training camps, based on the Hitler Youth program. Portugal was not much better off, as they had gone through 50 different governments during the interwar years. Antonio Salazar seized power and saw how weak Spain and Portugal were and how a future war might draw one or both of them in it. He signed a pact with Franco on 17 March 1939 to strengthen their ties.

Josef Vissarionovich Djugashvili was born in the future Soviet republic of Georgia in 1879 to a peasant family. His father was an abusive shoemaker who regularly beat Josef, later influencing his violent ways. He earned good grades in school but was a notorious bully; a trait which never left him. His life went though many hardships, including having 2 toes joined together on his left foot and a case of smallpox, which left him with a short, stiff arm. His family life was also a wreck: his wife died in 1907 of pneumonia, and in 1932 his second wife died as well. Officially it was a suicide, although there is evidence to support that Stalin was involved. Even his oldest son attempted suicide. Stalin sought to become a priest, but was kicked out of the clergy in 1899 for his reading of Communist literature. This only strengthened his interest in Communism, drawing him into jail many times and to Siberia 6 times. It was this unshakable attitude made him adopt the name Stalin, or "man of steel." His Communist comrades often thought he was in the Okhrana, or the secret police of the Czar. Actually he was an ardent Communist, and worked his way up the Communist ladder through back-stabbing and manipulation. He wisely became closer to Lenin, who was always suspicious of him, yet was literally powerless to oppose Stalin because of the strokes that paralyzed him. Stalin seized this opportunity to become "good friends" with Lenin, while eliminating his rivals one by one. When Lenin died, Stalin took it upon himself to be in charge, although Lenin had warned Communist Officials of what Stalin might do with the state. In 1927 one psychiatrist diagnosed Stalin with paranoia; that doctor was later found dead of mysterious causes. Stalin escalated his paranoia in the 1930s by destroying anyone in the Communist Party that wasn't 100% behind him, and no one, not even his own family was safe from the purges. His own secret police, the NKVD, executed thousands and thousands of the USSR's highest officials. By some estimations, Stalin did away with 7 million of his own people through torture, starvation, imprisonment and execution, all before the war even began.

Even though Italy was allied with western democracy in WWI, Italy felt they were left out of the spotlight of victory. Nations like Britain and France seemed to rise in power while Italy's future remained uncertain, and feelings of bitterness were bound to linger. However, there was a man who was destined to make Italy rise up again and take their place in the sun as a world power. Mussolini was born in Forli in 1883 to an atheistic and anarchistic father and a Catholic mother. His first name came from the Mexican upstart Benito Juarez and in childhood he lived up to that name through his rebellious nature. In school he was known to stab 2 classmates and when he was 18 stabbed his girlfriend who happened to be married. As an adult, Mussolini was a small, fiery, often unshaven man, a known womanizer, yet also a health fanatic. To escape his mandatory military service he took refuge in Switzerland, where he started his political ambitions rather surprisingly. Under the influence of Marxist doctrine, he became an avid writer and supporter of left wing socialism. He returned to Italy in 1904, served out his military time, and continued his political writing in a weekly publication. When Italy declared war on Turkey in 1911, Italian forces invaded Libya, causing Mussolini to lead protests against the war. His brazen and outspoken actions landed him in jail for 5 months, but he had secured a place in the leftist political circles. It wasn't long after his release that Mussolini was made editor of an Italian Daily, but then something happened that changed his political stance and the future of Italy.

When WWI broke out in 1914, the western Allies sought to buy Italy's loyalty and draw them into the war with promises of rewards. Mussolini soon published an article that shocked and infuriated his socialist comrades who wanted Italy out of the war--he asked Italy to join the war on the Allied side. It is not entirely clear why Mussolini took such a reversal of philosophy, but it was most likely for monetary gain. Once he had the means to start his own newspaper, he continued to ask for Italy's help in the war. When Italy did join the war in 1915, Mussolini found himself in an Army uniform, and although he did not distinguish himself in battle like his German counterpart Hitler did, but Mussolini was wounded. When the war ended in 1918, Italy's bill for the war was 138 billion lire, enough to create terrible inflation, unemployment, strikes, and looting. These turbulent times also gave rise to political extremists who wanted to unify the country, and Mussolini saw this as his chance to take real action.

He organized a band of veterans under the name fascio di combattimento, or "combat group," which is where the word "fascist" came from. Fasces was the image of the Roman bundle of rods and a symbol of power in Italian history. The original aim of Fascism was to counter the leftist parties like the Socialists and Communists, who were gaining popularity throughout Europe. Mussolini's fascists wanted to fight for veteran's rights, combat foreign imperialism, and stamp out weak-minded Italian political groups whom Mussolini feared would betray his country. In the November 1919 election, no Fascists were voted in, and Mussolini only garnered 4000 votes. The Socialists gloated, and during their victory celebration the Fascists retaliated by throwing a hand grenade, injuring many party-goers. Mussolini was in turn thrown in prison, but put back on the streets the following day. The elections did nothing to stabilize Italy, as it was still divided with no clear majority. In 1920 alone there were 1880 reported strikes and the country teetered on anarchy.

Over time the support of the industry and land magnates shifted to the right and by the time the May 1921 election came around, the Fascists had won minor political offices. Initially they were not entirely focused or united, but in 1922 the extremists sought to challenge the government directly, something Mussolini was not fully behind. On 27 October 14,000 Fascists headed for Rome and instead of using the military to put them down, Premier Luigi Facta unwisely tried to negotiate with Mussolini. Facta offered him a cabinet position and asked King Victor Emmanuel III to declare martial law to maintain order. The King denied this request and asked Mussolini to become the new premier on 29 October. Mussolini accepted and became the youngest Premier in Italian history at 39.

At first things went well for Italy as workers stopped their strikes and the protesters quieted down and showed support for the new government. Mussoliniís cabinet was very small and only had a few Fascists, so at this point it seemed that a political balance had been achieved. Then the Fascists doctored the voting laws so that the April 1924 elections gave them a majority vote, but it was still considered "legal." However, when Socialist Giacomo Matteotti was suspiciously murdered after challenging the election results, Mussoliniís support dwindled. Realizing that he had the full support of the king and little support from the parliament, he abolished all rival political seats and proclaimed himself dictator. It wasnít long before he was known simply as Duce, or "leader," yet it was a thinly veiled symbol of Mussoliniís desire to become the new Caesar of Rome, and then all of the Mediterranean.

This new declaration ended Italyís existence as a free state, especially in the Italian media. Since Mussolini was already an expert in journalistic propaganda, he made sure that his words and face were omnipresent in Italian life. Icons of Il Duce became popular and he loved to give party rallies, commonly held in a public square where he would deliver a powerful, energetic speech from a balcony. Attendance was optional for the common townsperson, but for Fascist party members it was required under penalty of law. The great irony of Mussoliniís rise to power was that the Fascistsí main goal was to take control of Italy, and once they had achieved that, there was no definitive course of action to follow. Mussolini needed concrete proof that he would rebuild Italy from poverty so domestically he focused on the obvious: employment, the economy, and standard of living. He took a grass roots approach to supplement his speeches and went to great lengths to photograph himself with the common man, such as farmers, but also tried to show compassion by making appearances at hospitals. Mostly he wanted to show himself as a dominant masculine figure and once quipped "the crowd loves strong men."

Mussoliniís domestic efforts were fairly positive, most notably with his "land reclamation program" to bolster food production and his famous public transportation program that "made the trains run on time." However, Italyís government was weaker than it let on and the propaganda machine made any progress seem like a monumental leap forward. This was only worsened by Mussoliniís notorious reputation for being intolerant of dissenting ideas. Consequently he surrounded himself with "yes-men" who rarely came up with any new ideas that may have led Italy in a different, positive direction. Instead, Italyís foreign policy became increasingly aggressive as Mussolini coveted his place in the world as a Roman Emperor. On 3 January 1925 he boasted "Italy wants peace and quiet, work and calm. I will give these things with love if possible, with force if necessary." In his mind that applied to Italians and the rest of the world, but it was this overly eager desire to expand their influence across their borders that ultimately led to their downfall. Italy was simply not ready to become a major empire, but Mussolini had his eyes set on one thing: conquest.

Adolf Hitler was born on 20 April 1889 in Braunau-on-Inn, Austria, near the German border. His elderly father, Alois Schicklgruber, was an uneducated customs official ready to retire when Adolf was born. Supposedly in order to receive an inheritance, Alois had his surname legally changed in 1876 to "Hitler." Alois had an illegitimate birth, and there was a strong speculation that he came from a Jewish family. This possibility would later haunt Adolf the rest of his life. Adolf was the fourth child of his third marriage and was sometimes beaten, once so badly he was in a brief coma. Adolf's mother, Klara, was 23 years younger than her husband and worked as a servant. While Hitler always insisted he came from an impoverished background, he led a middle-class life and attended decent schools at his local village, as well as Lambach and Linz. Hitler disliked school and was a poor student, possibly from a combination of laziness and the desire to get back at his father. Alois wanted Hitler to get a good government job, but Hitler dreamt of becoming an artist or an architect. These pipe dreams infuriated Alois, but he died in January 1903 before he could further influence Hitlerís direction in life.

In 1905 at 16 years of age, Hitler left for Vienna to pursue his artistic dreams by applying to the Academy of Fine Arts in 1907. That year would profoundly affect the rest of his life. In addition to being rejected by the Academy, his beloved mother died, two events that shattered his world. He applied to the Academy again the following year, but was rejected again, forcing him to live with his aunt, Johanna PŲlzl. As an orphan he received meager stipends from the government, but when he reached adulthood, the funds were cut off. Rather than seek employment for some trite job, Hitler became a vagabond until the end of 1909 when he found residence in a state-run lodge. Spartan living conditions did not seem to bother him as he did not smoke, drink, or eat meat. He still clung to the idea of being an artist, and scraped together a living on selling his watercolors and posters for soap and anti-perspirant advertisements. While he later publicly declared Vienna as the "saddest" point in his life, one man who knew him recalled that Hitler enjoyed Viennaís city life. After seeing these comments in print many years later, Hitler found him and had him executed.

The seeds of this evil were sown in Vienna, when even as a young man he developed a hatred for foreigners. His Germanic heart burned when saw the streets crowded with immigrants from Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and other "impure" nations. Pamphlets of the day denounced these outsiders as a threat to the German race, especially the Jews. Certainly these words resonated with Hitler as he left his homeland in May 1913 for Munich, Germany. Apparently Hitler fled to avoid military service and his sister-in-law claimed that he went so far as to use the birth certificate of his dead brother, Edmund, to stay out of an Army uniform. However, Hitler firmly stated he did not want to serve a country that ignored its German heritage. Either way, he was found by Austrian officials and forced back into Austria in January 1914, but was rejected by the military for medical reasons. Hitler soon made his way back to Munich when a continent of inflamed nations were drawn into war. In a twist of fate he enlisted in the German army, which accepted him and any other volunteers gladly.

In the List Regiment of the Bavarian infantry, Hitler served on the Western Front for all four years of the war. He saw combat early, on 29 October 1914, in a German offensive near Gheluvelt in which his regiment lost 349 men. Hitler recalled "I can proudly say that our regiment fought like heroes. I was made Lance Corporal and was saved by a near miracle." He took part in another offensive just south of Ypres on 5 November 1914, for which he earned the Iron Cross, 2nd Class. Hitler later called it "the happiest day of my life." In the ten days of combat that his regiment had seen, 700 of the 3600 men had been killed. On 2 December 1914, he received the Iron Cross he had earned and again described his survial as "a sheer miracle." Later that year in December, his unit was on the receiving end of a controversial British offensive in the Ypres salient. The German trenches withstood other British offenses of that campaign and Hitlerís unit held their ground amidst horrific conditions. Hitler later wrote "The weather is miserable and we often spend days on end, knee-deep in water and, what is more, under heavy fire. We are greatly looking forward to a brief respite. Letís hope that soon afterwards the whole front will start moving forward. Things canít go on like this forever."

Astoundingly, for nearly the entire length of the war, Hitler managed to fight off the Allies and stay alive, while suffering only comparatively minor injuries. In October 1916 he was wounded in the leg, but returned soon afterwards. Hitlerís grit earned him recognition in the Army and was presented with a German regimental diploma for outstanding bravery on 9 May 1918. For his actions in the August 1918 retreat near Soissons, Hitler was decorated with the Iron Cross, First Class for "personal bravery and general merit." He was extremely proud for earning this prestigious award, a rarity for a lowly Corporal. In nearly every photograph of Hitler in uniform thereafter, the black and silver cross can distinctly be seen on his left breast pocket. Perhaps most astonishing about his most glorious achievement was that the officer who recommended him for it, Hugo Guttman, was a Jew.

With less than a month to go in the war, Hitler was gassed by the British near Wervik in the Ypres salient. After being temporarily blinded, he was taken to a hospital in Pasewalk, Pomerania. After a two month recovery, he was reunited with his unit on 18 December in Munich. Having been in the hospital during the 11 November armistice signing, Hitlerís feelings of betrayal only expanded when he learned that Bavaria was now led by socialists and Jews. He was in utter disbelief: "I thought I could no longer recognize the city." After the war he worked in Munich as an Army Reservist, and made sure to preach his gospel of resentment to all the returning POWs at Lechfeld. Many of his fellow veterans also felt stabbed in the back by the leftist politicians because the surrender had been so controversial.

The German army seemed poised for victory just months before the armistice, but in reality they were on the brink of total collapse. Many high ranking officers were in denial, and the average front-line soldier had little knowledge of the fragile shape the military was in. From the militaryís point of view, it was because of politiciansí actions that the German and Austrian empires had been irrevocably broken by the Allies. Even President Hindenberg spoke out that defeat came from Germanyís revolutionary traitors, not the soldiers. Conservatives and the military saw cloud of guilt over the heads of the liberals, communists, socialists and the Jews, all of which were seen as being one and the same. It is doubtful that Hitler knew that 12,000 German Jewish soldiers gave their lives for the Fatherland.

The rise of the Nazis

Prelude to war

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