What drew us into World War II

The way to the Second World War

This war did not come as a surprise. Hitler had made no secret of his aggressive expansion plans, even if he played the "pacifist record" from time to time, according to Hitler's own words, says Klaus Hesse from the Berlin documentation center "Topography of Terror". It is clear to him: "Ever since Hitler came to power in January 1933, everything has been aimed at preparing for war. Since then, everything has served to revise the Versailles post-war order, everything to regain hegemony in Europe through Greater Germany, and everything to create a large European economy that Germany made it possible to wage a major war in Europe that would also last longer. "

Internal war - against opposition and Jews

The Treaty of Versailles in 1919 established the sole responsibility of the German Reich and its allies for the outbreak of World War I and obliged it to cede territories, disarm and pay reparations to the victorious powers. In Hitler's understanding, a humiliation that needed to be revised. The so-called "stab in the back legend", according to which social democrats and Jews had stabbed the Reich from behind from behind, came in very handy. And so the path to another war began internally.

The boycott of Jewish shops began in 1933, and the regime's brutality became even more visible in the November pogroms of 1938

Only a few days after he came to power, on April 1, 1933, Hitler had the first nationwide boycott of Jewish businesses organized. This was followed by the "Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service" - a de facto exclusion of all Jews from activities in the public service. From the beginning it was also about financial means with which an external war could be financed. Even before the government comprehensively regulated the robbery of Jewish property by law, Jewish entrepreneurs were put under pressure, and even profits were made from fleeing Jews from Germany: emigrants had to surrender 25 percent of their taxable assets to the state, which in the first instance alone was able to collect 153 million Reichsmarks during the two years of Nazi rule. When transferring foreign currency abroad, an advance payment was also due to the state-owned Deutsche Golddiskontbank. By September 1939 it rose to 96 percent of the transfer fee.

Berlin 1936 - Olympia and the early declaration of war

Until 1939, however, the majority of Germans saw Hitler as the savior. For many of them, his dictatorship improved their economic situation. Unemployment fell and individual consumption rose. "Hitler was too much of a populist not to know that he had to offer butter as well as cannons," says Klaus Hesse. But the cannons were the real target. While the world was making a guest appearance at the Olympic Games in Berlin, Hitler consolidated his war plans. In four years the Wehrmacht should be ready for the war in the east. Hitler's plan in the secret "memorandum on the four-year plan": Germany should become self-sufficient in as many areas as possible and decouple itself from the world market in order to be able to invest all resources in armaments. Soon half of all government spending was used to procure weapons.

Olympia 1936 in Berlin: The American Jesse Owens wins the long jump against the German Carl Ludwig Long, who gives the Hitler salute clearly visible to the world with a silver medal on the podium

In the same year the Wehrmacht occupied the demilitarized Rhineland - a clear breach of the Versailles Treaty, which Hitler had been aiming for since the beginning of his rule. In November 1937, Hitler secretly revealed his plans to the most important representatives of the Wehrmacht: Germany needed more living space, "to maintain the mass of the people and to increase them".

September 1938 - the war is not prevented, it is postponed

In 1938 Hitler had his native Austria annexed in the so-called "Anschluss". Shortly thereafter, he threatened an invasion of Czechoslovakia because the Sudeten Germans living there were allegedly discriminated against. British and French politicians now feared a European war - and tried to prevent it with a policy of appeasement. If you give Hitler what he understands as national law, he will give calm, so the hope. In the "Munich Agreement" the Sudentenland is ceded to the German Reich. "Chamberlain let Hitler get away with a whole series of territorial enlargements without initially leading to a war," says the historian Antony Beevor of the British Prime Minister at the time. The question of what would have happened if Winston Churchill, the opponent of the appeasement strategy, had already been British Prime Minister at that time is still pointless. "Would the British and French have been in a stronger position vis-à-vis the Wehrmacht in September 1939? We will never get an answer to that."

Hitler at the Munich Conference - between Neville Chamberlain (far left), Eduard Daladier and Benito Mussolini (right)

According to Klaus Hesse, the fear of war had been palpable in Germany since 1938. "It was foreseeable that this German development in Europe from a defeated Germany to a new power factor could no longer be had without the risk of war." The Munich Agreement had been sold by the Nazi propaganda as a great success of Hitler's peace policy, but actually he was annoyed because he would have liked to start already.

In September 1939 a coup was out of the question

The really tragic thing in September 1938 is that at this point in time Hitler was quite alone with his war plans in Germany. His generals wanted to prevent a premature war at all costs. Chief of Staff Franz Halder, important troop commanders in and around Berlin, as well as the Berlin police president, had already discussed a new government with critical officials and social democratic ex-politicians. A secret raiding party was ready to storm the Reich Chancellery as soon as Hitler started the war. A year later, the coup was out of the question. Even if there was no cheering among the population on September 1, 1939, the majority of Germans supported Hitler despite everything - and were ready to go to war for the "Führer".

60 million people will die in World War II. The National Socialists murder six million Jews. For Antony Beevor, World War II is "the greatest man-made disaster in history".