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World War II memorial - Atlantic Theatre monument In January 1933, amid German unhappiness with the Treaty of Versailles and a struggling economy, Adolf Hitler became the Chancellor of Germany.  The charismatic leader made promises of new prosperity and German "living space" while systematically solidifying his power.  The Nazis quickly declared theirs the only party in Germany, and in 1934, elevated Hitler to the position of Fuhrer, or absolute leader, following the death of the aging President Hindenburg.

In 1935, Hitler reintroduced military conscription and created a new air force, directly flouting the Treaty of Versailles which had dictated much German disarmament.  He joined with Italy in supporting the military rebels in Spain's civil war, leading to a pact with Italy which formed a primary part of the Axis.  The Nuremberg Race Laws were put into place, stripping away some basic human rights of Germany's Jews.  Germany's expansionist goals began their realization with the occupation of Rhineland that March.  Two years later, in March 1938, Germany annexed Austria.  In September, Germany threatened war over the Sudetenland, a portion of Czechoslovakia.  British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain negotiated the Munich Pact, in which the Czech government relinquished the territory in return for Germany's promise to refrain from taking any more Czech land.

The 9th and 10th of November 1938 brought the first mass brutalities toward the Jews within the German Reich.  Homes, businesses, and synagogues were burned; Jewish men were beaten, killed, or shipped to concentration camps; and Jewish women and children were brutalized by Nazi forces and sympathizers during Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass.  These attacks generated an outpouring of negative press abroad and weakened pro-Nazi sentiment internationally.  They were a bitter foretaste of the Holocaust to come, which would see the deaths of approximately six million Jews, Gypsies, and other "undesirables" in Nazi concentration camps.

Less than six months after the Munich Pact, Nazis took the remainder of Czechoslovakia.  Britain responded by entering into a mutual defense treaty with Poland, the next nation in Germany's sights.  France already had a similar treaty in place.

German army helmet from World War II era German forces marched on Poland on September 1, 1939.  Two days later, Britain and France declared war on Germany.  Within weeks, German forces had swept through Poland, destroying railways and making a concerted push toward the major cities.  Poland was unprepared for the "blitzkrieg" (lightning war) brought by Germany:  armored, infantry, and air units moving at once to isolate and defeat enemy forces.  As Germany moved east, Russia — with whom Germany had a non-aggression pact — moved in from the west, and by October 6, Poland had fallen into foreign hands.

Europe was mostly quiet for two months, until late November when the Soviets attempted a mostly unsuccessful attack on Finland.  Their assault lasted until the following March.  Conflict ended with the Finns surrendering some land but retaining their sovereignty.  In April, Germany took Norway, with the exception of the northern port of Narvik, a strategic harbor that was heavily defended by Norwegian, British, and French troops.

On May 10, 1940, Hitler began his march to the sea across Belgium, Holland, and France.  The Dutch fell in just four days.  As German forces marched across France in June, newly-seated Marshal Henri Philippe Petain negotiated an armistice which surrendered northern France and the Atlantic Coast.

World War II era Spitfire - British fighter plane Hitler turned next to Britain.  After submarine attacks on British shipping, German forces next began an air war which came to be known as the Battle of Britain.  Initially, German planes attacked in the daylight, attempting to draw out and destroy the British air force.  When the Brits' newly-developed radar proved too costly to German bombers, they switched to nighttime attacks.  However, 71 raids on London and many other cities failed to produce the targeted destruction necessary for military victory; on September 17, 1941, Germany aborted its Operation Sea Lion plan to invade Britain.

Meanwhile, Mussolini led the Italian army in failed attempts to invade British-occupied Egypt and Greece during the fall of 1940.  Britain responded by taking airfields in the region, forcing Hitler to become involved in order to protect nearby oil interests.  Romania, Hungary, and Bulgaria entered the Axis during late 1940 and early 1941, and Yugoslavia was occupied when it refused.  April and May of 1941 saw Greece and Crete fall to the Axis powers.

German tank heading for the Eastern Front during WWII On June 22, 1941, German troops began an assault on the USSR.  The Soviets, unprepared for the conflict, attempted a disorganized defense and lost ground steadily until December 5, when harsh winter weather crippled the Nazi forces less than a day's marching distance outside of Moscow.  Stalin quickly took advantage and counterattacked, significantly weakening German forces and pushing them back to Leningrad.

Nineteen forty-two saw the tide of war begin to change.  British and American troops reversed German and Italian advances in North Africa, capturing 275,000 enemy soldiers.  The war in the USSR also took a turn.  After resuming the Soviet offensive, the Germans were spread thin along a huge front near Stalingrad and the Caucasus, forcing Hitler to deploy his allies' troops between his own divisions.  In November, Stalin swept through the weaker forces and surrounded the Germans, forcing their surrender.  Germany lost about 200,000 troops and all the ground gained during the year.  After one final attempt to take Kursk on the eastern front, Germany shifted its focus entirely to the western front, and Stalin's army made steady gains.

American Cemetery at Normandy, France After Pearl Harbor, the United States formally entered the war.  American, Canadian, and British forces landed at Sicily in 1943.  As they pushed back against Italian and German defenses, Mussolini was removed from power, and the Italian government agreed to an armistice in September.

Britain and the U.S. then began bombing raids of Germany as a prelude to a planned cross-channel invasion of northern France in 1944.  On June 6, 1944, U.S. and British forces took the beach at Normandy, eliminating Hitler's hopes of eliminating the western front.  Soviet attacks to the east further battered the divided German forces.  As his military crumbled, Hitler committed suicide in April 1945, and his successor quickly surrendered on May 7, 1945.

For more detailed information about World War Two operations in Europe and North Africa, you may wish to read Wikipedia's European Theatre of World War II article and study these World War 2 in Europe timeline pages.


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World War Two - European Theatre