What was the reason Hitler started the war?

lemoLiving Museum Online
  • Polish prisoners of war, 1939

With the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, the war for "living space in the east", which Adolf Hitler had long planned, began. In Germany, the start of the war, despite the massive Nazi propaganda, caused mainly oppression. Many people looked fearfully into the future, most adults were still too aware of the memories of the catastrophic consequences of the First World War. The successes of the Wehrmacht in the theaters of war quickly generated a noticeable euphoria for victory in the home country, which persisted in the first months after the German attack on the Soviet Union in 1941. This collective high mood in the German Reich, which ruled half of Europe, stood in stark contrast to the general lack of prospects and desolation that prevailed only a few years later in defeated, occupied and largely destroyed Germany.

Preparing for war

After 1933, the Nazi regime enjoyed growing approval among the German population, primarily due to social policy measures and foreign policy successes. Most people in Germany, but also abroad, could not or did not want to recognize Hitler's real intentions in view of the successes of Hitler: On February 3, 1933, only four days after his appointment as Reich Chancellor, Hitler had in front of the highest-ranking officers of the Reichswehr about the forcible conquest of Spoken "habitat in the east". The prerequisite for this was a war against Poland. From now on the German population must be prepared for war, demanded Hitler of the German press one day after the "November pogrom" of 1938, which gave an idea of ​​what the National Socialists were capable of. Yet Hitler's statements that a new war in Europe would end with the "annihilation of Judaism" were hardly taken seriously. With his 50th birthday in mind, Hitler wanted to wage the war as soon as possible, while still at the height of his "creative power". After Germany had started negotiations with the Soviet Union and signed a German-Soviet non-aggression treaty in Moscow on August 23, 1939, it was clear to many Germans that a war could be imminent with the pact of years of "mortal enemies". The use of the term "war" was expressly forbidden by the Nazi regime after the attack on Poland on September 1, 1939: The Nazi propaganda spoke of a "punitive action" because of alleged provocations and border violations by Poland.

The phase of the "lightning wars"

The armed forces defeated the Polish troops within five weeks. As allies of Poland, France and Great Britain declared war on the German Reich, but did not intervene militarily. On September 17th, in accordance with the secret agreement in the "Hitler-Stalin Pact", the Red Army also invaded Poland from the east, thus sealing the division of the country. Warfare and German occupation policy in Poland were dominated by the Nazi racial ideology: They showed no consideration whatsoever for the people living there, for whom arbitrariness and repression were now part of everyday life. The terror in Poland was particularly directed against the Jewish population, who were crammed into ghettos. The German attack on Poland marked the beginning of a second world war with fighting initially in northern and western Europe, which Adolf Hitler had hoped to avoid for strategic reasons. After the occupation of Denmark and Norway, the conquest of the Benelux countries and France began on May 10, 1940 with the German offensive to the west. What the Wehrmacht did not succeed in from 1914 to 1918 achieved in around six weeks: On June 14, Paris was occupied with almost no fighting, around a week later France capitulated. The unexpectedly quick victory over the "hereditary enemy" Adolf Hitler himself was credited: in the summer of 1940 he was at the height of his popularity as the "greatest general of all time".

In the war against Great Britain, however, the Wehrmacht encountered for the first time a level of resistance that was completely unexpected. Despite the massive air offensives with tens of thousands of victims, the German leadership waited in vain for the British surrender, which Prime Minister Winston Churchill had sworn to perseverance with "blood, hard work, tears and sweat". The plans to conquer Great Britain had to be abandoned in the spring of 1941 after heavy losses for the German Air Force. At the same time, Germany was providing military support to its ally Italy, which was besieged by British troops, in North Africa and the Balkans. This was intended to secure the strategic starting position before the intended war against the Soviet Union.

The war against the Soviet Union and the genocide

The Nazi regime proclaimed the long-planned campaign in the East as a fight against "Jewish Bolshevism". The Soviet troops, apparently completely taken by surprise by the German attack on June 22, 1941, withdrew far back with considerable losses. With rapid tank advances, the Wehrmacht gained enormous space, and at the end of 1941 it stood before Moscow with certainty. In the snow and frost, however, counter offensives by the Red Army stopped another advance on the capital. The war in the East radicalized World War II in every respect: it was planned by the Germans as a war of annihilation, and as such it was waged from the start. The focus was on the conquest of "living space" and the exploitation of the conquered areas and the people living there as forced laborers. Terror against the civilian population became an everyday instrument of warfare. Captured Red Army soldiers were deliberately left to starve. "Einsatzgruppen" systematically murdered the Jewish population in the rear area of ​​the front, but also Sinti and Roma as well as communist functionaries. After the Nazi leadership decided on the genocide of the Jews in the summer of 1941, hundreds of thousands from Europe were deported to the extermination camps set up for this purpose and murdered. After the "Wannsee Conference" of January 1942, the Nazi state used all means to coordinate and systematically carry out the genocide across Europe. While the machinery of extermination had not yet passed its peak, Germany's military defeat in 1942 was long in sight.

The turn of the war

From 1942 the German Reich fought against a fixed coalition of the USA, Great Britain and the Soviet Union. Their superior combat strength determined the war more and more clearly. In the summer of 1942, the Wehrmacht succeeded in gaining major territorial gains in the southern section of the Soviet Union's front, but their forced retreat to the west began a short time later. German rule in Europe began to crumble in 1943. Stalingrad became a symbol of the turn of the war in the east, where the loss-making defeat of the Wehrmacht at the beginning of 1943 deeply shook the morale of many Germans. Under the immediate impression of the catastrophe in Stalingrad, Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels proclaimed the "total war" on February 18, 1943: the "home front, ready to make sacrifices", was to be encouraged to perform once again with the mobilization of the last human and material resources. At the same time, the war hit Germany more and more often. The British and Americans wanted to break the morale of Germans with systematic bombing of residential areas far away from military and industrial facilities. The targeted air strikes on the civilian population mostly increased their perseverance and hatred of the enemy.

The closer the Allies moved to the borders of the Reich, the more the Nazi propaganda sparked the will of the population to resist the Red Army's "maddening vengeance". In the summer of 1944, it was located roughly where the Wehrmacht had started the attack on the Soviet Union three years earlier. Despite the inevitable defeat, hundreds of thousands of soldiers and Volkssturm fighters were still sent into militarily senseless battles. In their unbroken fanaticism, the military command ordered the soldiers to defend untenable positions down to the proverbial last cartridge.

The end of the war

Driving huge treks of refugees in front of them, the Red Army reached the Oder and Neisse rivers in January 1945. Three months later the Eastern Front ran along the outskirts of Berlin. In the west, after landing in Normandy in June 1944, the Allies advanced largely according to plan. At the beginning of September 1944, France was completely liberated, and a little later an American scout troop broke into Reich territory for the first time near Trier. After the last German offensive in the Ardennes failed in the winter of 1944/45, Allied troops occupied large areas of the German Empire in the west. Here they were mostly greeted in a friendly manner by the population. The people were relieved that Americans, British and French, and not Red Army soldiers, were occupying the area.

With the unconditional surrender of the Wehrmacht on May 8, 1945, the war sparked by Germany and the twelve-year Nazi rule ended. Most Germans, unless they were persecuted or imprisoned for political, racial or religious reasons, did not see the surrender as a liberation but as a collapse. But they too were relieved at the end of the war, which claimed more than 50 million lives around the world. For many Germans, the end of the war was characterized by uncertainty and fear of the future. People were afraid of a peace that could be dictated to Germany and of harsh penalties for crimes committed in Europe. Many Nazi functionaries therefore chose suicide in the last days of the war. Other men and women committed suicide because the "final victory" that had been propagated until the very end did not materialize and after 1918 they could not bear another German war defeat. In 1945, millions of refugees, bombed-out and war orphans embarked on the difficult search for a new home in a Germany that had been transformed by loss and destruction.

The Second World War left traces and social rifts in all the warring states, albeit to varying degrees. Villages, cities, infrastructures and supply facilities were destroyed or damaged along the lines of the front, and survivors were traumatized. A lack of housing, supply difficulties as well as epidemics and famines with countless deaths prevailed in large parts of Europe, where people faced an uncertain future in view of the consequences of the war and economic crises.