On 01 January 1936, Adolf Hitler was assassinated by three anti-Nazi members of the military intelligence service, the Abwehr. Immediately upon public discovery of Hitler's death, a provisional government headed by Ludwig Beck (Chief of General Staff) and Carl Friedrich Goerdeler, took control of the country. The Schutzstaffel (SS) were disbanded and all SS leaders, including Heinrich Himmler and Kurt Daluege, were executed.
The 1936 Federal Election resulted in the defeat of the governing DNVP (German National People's Party), which won a mere 12.8% of the national vote. The National Liberal Party under former Weimar Chancellor Gustav Stresemann gained power with a landslide majority of 59.3% of the vote. Wilhelm of Hohenzollern was invited from exile in the Netherlands to Berlin, to create a new imperial monarchy similar to that of 1871-1918.
On 14 January 1936, the Federal Election began all over Germany. This was to prove a disastrous election for the newly created Provisional Government under Generaloberst Ludwig Beck and Carl Friedrich Goerdeler. The DNVP was replaced as the major party in the Reichstag by the newly reorganised National Liberal Party, led by Gustav Stresemann, who had governed the Weimar Republic from August to November 1923.
Wilhelm of Hohenzollern, who had been in exile in the Netherlands since the end of World War One, was invited to the Reich Chancellery on 16 January to discuss the future of Germany with the leaders of the National Liberal Party and Reichpräsident Beck.
After three days of negotiations, Beck agreed to step down as Head of State, with Wilhelm succeeding him. The government outlawed all nationalist and fascist parties in Germany, and trade unions were legalised.
The New Europe Policy
In February 1936 the Kaiser and the Chancellor met in Berlin to assess the foreign policy of Germany. The ex-Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop had advocated an expansionist policy similar to that of Hitler. The new foreign secretary, independent politician Otto Meissner, was aiming to forge a new-found friendship with the UK and France.
The Russo-German Nonaggression Treaty was signed on 05 August 1936 between Meissner and the Soviet foreign secretary, Maxim Litvinov. The German Empire and the Soviet Union agreed to a partnership spanning four years.
The British and French governments were alarmed by the Russo-German pact. Stanley Baldwin called it an "unholy alliance of ideological foes, linked only by the interests of their foolish leaders". The Kaiser at once visited the German embassy in London, and received overwhelming support from the British public.
Wilhelm spoke of a "natural bond... in the interests of every German and English citizen", when he was interviewed by the Manchester Guardian. "The bond is so strong that nothing, no Russian diplomat, can break it."
The Storm-Clouds Gather
In March 1938, the Austrian republic voted on the incorporation of their state into Greater Germany. The Anschluss, or 'union', was accepted by 72.4% of the population, and Otto Meissner met with Austrian foreign minister Egon Berger-Waldenegg in Munich as soon as the result of the referendum was received in Berlin.
During the brief meeting, Berger-Waldenegg described Germany as a "strong empire with a huge capacity for great things." Meissner stated the intentions of the Kaiser to annex Austria into the Reich and rename it the Federal State of Austria.
Not long after the meeting, Chancellor Stresemann was called to Vienna by President Miklas. The Austrian leaders, with the exception of Berger-Waldenegg, had hoped to fool the new chancellor, by persuading him to sign a treaty of alliance between the two nations. Miklas called it a "prelude to annexation", but Stresemann saw through the plan. Negotiations broke down and, on 15 March, German troops entered Austria unopposed. The government fled to Rome, and heard of the Anschluss by radio on 17 March.
The Italian prime minister, Benito Mussolini, was alarmed at the union. Several years earlier, he had vowed to preserve Austrian independence. He warned the Kaiser, "your forces should not be in Austria. It is an invasion, and Italy must come to the aid of her helpless neighbour."
German troops did not leave Austria; on the contrary, they poured south, towards the Italo-Austrian border. Mussolini threatened war, but the French government stepped in to deal with the German expansionism and Italian belligerence. The French prime minister, Edouard Daladier, had been concerned by the fascist regime in Italy, ever since its armies invaded Abyssinia in 1935. He backed the Kaiser's moves, and Mussolini backed down on 23 March.
But the war-hungry Italians did not stop there. In early April, the small kingdom of Albania was invaded. An amphibious assault on Vlorë left the rest of the country open to attack, and King Zog capitulated two days later. For the Italians, it felt too good to be true, but their luck seemed to have run out when Yugoslav bombers came to the assistance of the Albanians on 17 April.
The Italians declared war on Yugoslavia. Seven divisions were deployed all across Albania, but the enemy penetrated a small gap in the Italian front, which proved a fatal mistake for Mussolini. Though some troops managed to occupy parts of Macedonia, the disorganised invasion force was pushed back to Tirana on 21 April.
The short Italo-Yugoslav War ended on 25 April, with the signing of the Treaty of Rijeka. The Italians were, according to the treaty, allowed no more than five divisions in Albania at one time. Mussolini in shock, his armies confused and weak, and Belgrade triumphant, the Italian dictator pledged to tighten his grip on the country's politics and military.
The European Crisis
King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy was shot to death by a pro-republican terrorist on the night of 08 June 1938. The authorities arrested the man, and Mussolini merged the posts of Prime Minister and King, a decision modelled on that of Hitler in 1933. The Social Republic of Italy was proclaimed on 10 June.
This quick and dramatic turn of events startled the German government. Kaiser Wilhelm had favoured the Italian king since his visit to Naples in 1936. Now, with the monarch dead and a fascist dictator replacing him, Germany became hostile. The Metz Pact was concluded between the United Kingdom, France and Germany on 19 June. This was an alliance of old enemies, brought together to fend off the Italian threat to European stability. In return for alliance and guaranteed assistance, Germany received her former provinces of Alsace and Lorraine.
The new social republic bore striking similarities to Hitler's Third Reich. Jews and other "unfit citizens" were persecuted and tortured; a complex rearmament programme began as soon as the Metz Pact was signed; a nationalist regime controlled the nation with an iron fist. The National Fascist Party was renamed the Republican Fascist Party, and Il Duce replaced King and Prime Minister. The entire public sector was nationalised, with the private sector being allowed to remain private.
In response to the Metz Pact, Italy allied with Hungary on 05 July. The nationalist forces in Spain, who were close to destroying their socialist enemy, granted Italy access to the seaport of La Coruña. The European continent was split into two powerful alliances: the Allies, including the UK, France and Germany; and the Axis, including Italy and Hungary.
On 01 September, the German foreign minister Otto Meissner resigned, and Chancellor Stresemann appointed an Konstantin von Neurath (Hitler's foreign minister before Ribbentrop) as his successor. Neurath had been an admirer of Nazi expansionism, and now he had a real chance to return Germany to her pre-1914 borders. But first, the Reich required a vast power base to fuel such a foreign policy.
Czechoslovakia was first on the list. On 26 September 1938, the German minorities in the Sudetenland launched a revolt, calling for an independent Sudeten nation. Prague sent three tank divisions against the rebels, and defeated them at the Battle of Ostrava. The League of Nations, which Germany had rejoined in 1937, called Czechoslovakia's anti-partisan measures "a blatant disregard for human liberties".
Germany called for the granting of Sudeten independence on 28 September, but President Benes replied with the harsh words, "you Germans cannot scare us Czechs. You are not the mighty nation of the Great War, and we are not the oppressed foes of the Hapsburg monarchy." Eleven panzer units rolled closer to the German-Czech border.
German forces invaded Czechoslovakia on 29 September, and supported a revised uprising in the Sudetenland. After fierce fighting, the Germans threatened to attack Prague if the government did not give in to their demands. The Munich Agreement was signed by Germany, France, the UK and Italy the next day. Sudetenland became a national province of the Greater Reich, with pro-independence activists ruling in a civilian regional government.
With Austria and the Sudetenland added to the Empire, Neurath eyed Luxembourg. Her army was weak, but her resources plentiful, especially if harvested by the Germans. Luxembourg was declared war on by Stresemann on 05 November and, within three days, the tiny European nation was annexed to the Reich.
World War Two
Japan annexed China on 19 May 1939. A nationalist puppet regime was set up, with fascists Wang Jingwei and Wang Kemin as leaders. The Anti-Comintern Pact was signed by the Japanese and Italian governments on 02 June, effectively forming a new "trans-Atlantic alliance", with Hungary and China as minor participants.
Czechoslovak leader Edouard Benes was overthrown by Marxist rebels on 23 June. The Kaiser swiftly persuaded the new pacifist rulers to surrender their country to Germany. Slovakia became a semi-independent, conservative republic under Jan Srobar Vavro and Daniel Ertl. King Edward VI praised what he termed "a cunning maneuver".
Poland declared war on France on 15 July. This was due to the fact that, for ten years, the Poles had expected a Franco-Polish alliance. Now, with a German membership in the Allied Powers and the League of Nations, the time had come for a confrontation. Four cavalry divisions annexed the Free City of Danzig to the republic, a move that was seen to be a deliberate move against the League.
German troops and tanks swept through the Polish Corridor on 21 July, crushing the static defence line running from Lvov to Danzig. The capital, Warsaw, surrendered to Germany on 04 August. This war was an early display of German Blitzkreig ('Lightning War') tactics. Close Air Support played a vital role, bombing enemy armies before they clashed with the formidable Panzer units. The entire country surrendered on 22 August. The German occupied provinces of Danzig, Poznan, Bydgoszcz and Torun became federal states, and the rest of the territory formed the General Government of Occupied Poland.
The Soviet Union allied herself with Republican Spain on 26 August. Italy, with her nationalist partner fighting desperately to secure Madrid, decided to send two infantry brigades to La Coruña.
The Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian nations united, hence creating the Baltic Union. This military dictatorship invaded Grodno and Wilno on 1 September, and the General Government requested Berlin's aid. The Reich declared war on the Baltic Union two days later, as did Russia on 07 September. The former nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were occupied by the Red Army on the 13th, but the federal states of Grodno and Wilno were not returned to the General Government.
The UK and France declared war on the USSR on 14 September, and Italy invaded Republican Spain and Corsica on the 18th. The war now had three opposing sides: the Allies (UK, France & Germany), the Comintern (USSR, Mongolia, Tannu Tuva & Spanish Republic) and the Axis (Italian Social Republic, Hungary, Japan, China & Nationalist Spain).
The Downfall of Italy
Mussolini invaded Austria on 07 December 1939. This was a poorly-planned attempt to secure more territory. The time of year made it extremely difficult for any major Italian breakthrough, because of the bitterly cold weather. Also, Italy was trying to occupy Corsica and parts of Spain at the same time - the limited resources of Italy were being stretched to a ridiculous length.
German units in Innsbruck counterattacked, driving the Italians back to Trentino, where the largely German population supplied shelter and ammunition to the Reich's soldiers. Il Duce's armies collapsed, and the persistent Germans drove through Venice and Milan, until eight panzer divisions were outside the Vatican. French troops defeated the Nationalist forces at the Battle of Bilbao. Franco surrendered to the Allies on 14 March 1940, leaving the Italians to fight alongside their weak Hungarian ally.
Rome fell to the Germans on 28 March, and Mussolini fled to Sicily. Allied troops annexed Libya, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somaliland to the British Empire. On 05 April, Soviet troops pushed through Galicia and invaded Hungary, occupying Budapest within seven days.
In Europe, Italy was alone. Her national-socialist republic had failed to profit Mussolini, and now Rome was in the hands of the Kaiser. Things got even worse for Il Duce, though, when Jews in the Catania Concentration Camp revolted. The Italian army was forced to flee north - where the Allies were preparing to attack.
Operation Liberty began at 04:00 on 19 April 1940. Twenty-one British and nine French divisions invaded Sicily. They met with six Italian divisions, and crushed Mussolini's last hopes of victory, as Sicily fell into Allied control on the 24th.
The Italian Social Republic surrendered to the Allies and the Soviet Union on 25 April. Benito Mussolini was tried and executed several days later. Hungary became a Soviet satellite, and now Germany could focus all her efforts to the raging war against Russia.
The Russo-German War
Since the beginning of World War Two, the Fourth Reich had suffered a handful of defeats in Poland. The General Government had not introduced compulsory conscription until December 1939, and the Russians had successfully invaded Belarus, Galicia and parts of north-east Poland. The Battle of Brest-Litovsk would be the start of a massive German counter-offensive, aimed at pushing back the Russian armies to Smolensk.
Thirty panzer divisions attacked Brest-Litovsk on 02 May, and the nine Soviet infantry divisions there retreated to Minsk. A recent invasion of Communist Hungary by German troops had now broken the Soviet front, and Stalin needed to regain lost ground in Poland.
The Red Army attacked the eastern Slovak province of Ruthenia, but were stalled at Kosice. The Germans managed to divert the Russians, trapping them west of their supply lines. The Soviet occupation of Ruthenia ended abruptly, with the entire invasion force captured or killed by the Allies.
The Soviet Socialist Republic of Lithuania was occupied by German troops on 10 May, and the rest of the Baltic states were invaded shortly after. The forces of the Reich now had their eyes set on the city of Leningrad.
The Siege of Leningrad began on the bright summer morning of 3 June. The Germans had mounted up thirty-six divisions in north-east Estonia. They marched towards Leningrad, but were stopped in their tracks by thirty Russian divisions. Ten of the thirty-six German divisions swerved east, blocking communications from Leningrad to Moscow and encircling the Soviet troops. The fighting lasted for two weeks, until the Germans finally captured the city.
Romania entered the war on the Allied side on 23 June. The Russian armies in the Ukraine attacked Bessarabia, which was occupied four days later. Two British divisions came to the rescue of the Romanians, who were struggling to resist the Russians. The Soviets attacked Beltsy and drove into southern Poland. Lvov was captured by Soviet troops on 30 June.
On 03 July, Kaiser Wilhelm II introduced the Kampfgruppe Doctrine, an advanced version of the Blitzkrieg and Elastic Defence initiatives used by the Reichwehr since 1938. This new way of fighting relied more heavily on motorised infantry, and it helped the Germans to win the Battle of Smolensk in August 1940.
The Greater Empire of Germany now controlled the Baltics, Leningrad, Belarus and parts of the Ukraine, but Stalin refused to surrender. Stresemann was sure that a German occupation of Moscow would force the Russians to give up. Fedor von Bock, Chief of the German Army, sent forty panzer divisions and twelve infantry divisions to Smolensk, and prepared them for a final offensive. The Field Marshal planned to capture Moscow within three weeks of intense fighting.
At 6am on 20 July seventeen Stuka bombers attacked Moscow. Fifty-two divisions entered the city, which was heavily guarded. Stalin sent twenty-six tank divisions from Kiev to Moscow. However, Bock had also prepared for an attack on the Ukraine; now, with many Soviet tanks out of the picture, the occupation of Kiev seemed an easy task.
The Battle of Moscow and the Battle of Kiev began on the same day. In Kiev, the Germans overwhelmingly defeated the Red Army. By 14 August, the whole of the Ukraine was under German military occupation. The attack on the capital, however, was a far more complex scenario.
The Russians captured seven thousand POW in the first day of fighting. The Reichwehr captured local radio stations. Thirteen days of battle saw the Red Army stronger than ever and the Germans tired and confused. Then, unexpectedly, ten German divisions entered the south of the city - they had come all the way from Kiev. The Red Army was outnumbered. Moscow fell to the Reich on 20 August.