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The World Wars and Interwar Period 



The first half of the 20th century saw the world entangled in two global wars, conducted with an unprecedented brutality. The First World War developed from a purely European affair into a conflict involving the colonies and the United States. It altered Europe's political landscape and shifted the power balance worldwide. In World War II, the nations of Europe, Asia, the Americas, and Africa were drawn into the conflict through the aggressive policies of an ambitious Nazi Germany. The war was conducted with the most up-to-date weapons technology and cost the lives of more than 55 million people. The Holocaust, the systematic annihilation of the European Jews, represented an unparalleled moral catastrophe for modern civilization.


Pablo Picasso "Weeping Woman", 1937




The Second World War



Allied forces propaganda poster, 1943


With its attack on Poland in September 1939, the German Nazi regime under Hitler initiated the most devastating military conflict in world history to date. Before the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan in 1945, World War II claimed the lives of some 62 million people. The heavily ideological aspect of the war led to incomprehensible crimes against humanity. World War II fundamentally altered the international political situation. The victorious United States and the Soviet Union became the leading world powers.


Air Warfare

The battle in the air, waged with the cutting-edge technology of the day, caused heavy losses on both sides. The Allied bombing raids on Germany in the final stages of the war were primarily intended to demoralize the population.


Aerial warfare had played a decisive role since the beginning of the war. Successfully tested in the Spanish Civil War, the German pinpoint bombing of military targets effectively contributed to the conquest of Poland in 1939 and Norway in 1940. In May 1940, the Germans for the first time destroyed an entire city, Rotterdam. The air war was radicalized by deliberate "carpet bombing," that is, the systematic saturation bombing of an inhabited area. Both sides gradually accepted the mass murder of civilians and employed it as an instrument of warfare.

The German bombing raids on London and 3 Coventry during the air war over England in 1940-1941  aimed not only to destroy armaments factories but also to undermine the morale of the civilian population.

3 Coventry after a bomb attack, 1941

By 1943 the Allies, superior both in material and manpower, were forcing the Germans completely onto the defensive in the air war. Well-directed air attacks on German positions on the front lines cleared the way for Allied advances on the ground.

From 1942, 1 American and British bombing raids had been reaching cities in the north and west, particularly the industrial regions on the Rhine and in the Ruhr Valley, with increasing frequency.

1 US bombers attack Frankfurt,
January 29, 1944

Soviet Il-2s in the skies above Berlin

In order to break the resistance of the German civilian population, complete 2 cities were also purposefully destroyed.

In both daylight and nighttime offensives, Allied bombing raids had by 1945 reduced to rubble major areas of Cologne, Liibeck, 6 Berlin, 4 Dresden, and Hamburg, among others, and had forced the German population to live in overcrowded 7 air shelters or to flee to the eastern regions of the Reich.

Almost two million tons of bombs were dropped; nearly every fifth family was homeless. At war's end, 51 million cubic meters of debris lay in Berlin; in Hamburg, it was close to 36 million, in Dresden 25 million, and in Cologne 24 million.

Altogether, 5 around 600,000 Germans lost their lives in the Allied bombing attacks.

2 Nuremberg, 1945; 4 Dresden, 1945; 6 Berlin, 1945

7 Homeless families seek shelter in
a bunker, 1944

5 After a bomb attack in Dresden bodies are
burnt because of the danger of an epidemic,
February 1945



The War at Sea

The Allies had the upper hand in the naval war after 1943. Up until then, the Germans had been able to disrupt the Allies' merchant marine traffic effectively in the Atlantic with their submarines, but in March 1943 the supreme commander of the German navy, Karl Donitz, broke off warfare in the Atlantic due to the high losses suffered.

Karl Donitz plans a submarine attack, 1943




Total War and Resistance in Germany

The Nazis began to mobilize the entire population after 1943 despite the hopeless military situation. An attempted putsch on July 20,1944, failed.


The closer they came to military defeat, the more the Nazi leaders fanatically tried to mobilize the last reserves at home and on the front lines, attempting to force an exhausted and starving population into action in defense of their hometowns. After the defeat at Stalingrad, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels proclaimed the start of "total war.". All males between 16 and 6s, as well as females between 17 and 45, could be called up in defense of the Reich in order to achieve the "final victory." After August 1945, Hitler Youth members were shipped out of "defense fitness camps" directly to the front. Large segments of the population were conscripted to work in the armaments industry, and forced laborers were more intensely recruited.

"See-it-through" slogans, promulgated either by propaganda posters or over the 8 Volksempfanger—mass-produced radios for the general populace—were meant to inspire the "home front willing to sacrifice" to maximum performance.

9 "See-it-through" slogans, 1945:
"Frankfurt will be held!"

8 The Volks-empfanger, a very
cheap radio; no foreign programs
could be received, 1938

Martial criminal law was made stricter; deserters were shot or hanged on the spot by a drumhead court-martial to intimidate the people.

The terror against civilians became more radical once the 10 German resistance had entered the public consciousness for the first time with a failed assassination attempt on Hitler on July 20, 1944.

Germans taking a stand of resistance in the 12 church and 11 political opposition had been struggling since 1933, unsuccessfully, in a police state against a regime that was still supported by a considerable portion of the population. The risks were high and many paid with their lives.

10 Court-martial where suspected resisters were condemned, 1944

12 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, member of the political opposition, executed 1945

11 Helmuth James Count von Moltke, founder of the
resistance group Kreisauer Kreis before the court-martial,
executed in 1945



From Joseph Goebbels's Sportpalast Speech,
February 18, 1943

"The English maintain that the German people are resisting the government's total war measures.

They do not want total war, but capitulation! I ask you: Do you want total war?

If necessary, do you want a war more total and radical than anything that we can even imagine today?"

Goebbels makes his speech in the Sportpalast,
February 1943




The Assassination Attempt of 1944

Colonel Count von Stauffenberg, 1934

The bomb attack aimed at Hitler carried out by Colonel Count von Stauffenberg on July 20, 1944, in the Fuhrer's headquarters in Poland had been planned since 1943 by a group of conspirators from all sections of the resistance.

It was supposed to launch an immediate overthrow; after the death of Hitler, party and governmental offices were to be occupied and a new government put in place that would end the war. When Hitler survived the attack with only slight injuries, the coup attempt quickly collapsed.

About 200 members of the resistance were executed and a further 7000 incarcerated.

The conference room after the bomb




July Plot

The conference room after the bomb

German history

abortive attempt on July 20, 1944, by German military leaders to assassinate Adolf Hitler, seize control of the government, and seek more favourable peace terms from the Allies.

During 1943 and early 1944, opposition to Hitler in high army circles increased as Germany’s military situation deteriorated. Plans for the coup, code-named Walküre (“Valkyrie”), were set late in 1943; but Hitler, increasingly suspicious, became more difficult to access and often abruptly changed his schedule, thus thwarting a number of earlier attempts on his life.

The leaders of the plot included retired colonel general Ludwig Beck (formerly chief of the general staff), Major General Henning von Tresckow, Colonel General Friedrich Olbricht, and several other top officers. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, one of Germany’s most prestigious commanders, agreed with the conspirators that Hitler should be removed from power, but he looked on assassination with distaste and took no active part in the assassination attempt. The most stalwart conspirator was Lieutenant Colonel Claus, Count Schenk von Stauffenberg, who personally carried out the assassination attempt.

On July 20 Stauffenberg left a bomb in a briefcase in a conference room at the Wolfsschanze (Wolf’s Lair) field headquarters at Rastenburg, East Prussia, where Hitler was meeting with top military aides. Stauffenberg slipped from the room, witnessed the explosion at 12:42 pm, and, convinced that Hitler had been killed, flew to Berlin to join the other plotters, who were to have seized the Supreme Command Headquarters there. Bad luck and indecisiveness thwarted the plans. An attending officer had nudged the briefcase containing the bomb out of his way to the far side of the massive oak support of the conference table, which thus shielded Hitler from the full force of the explosion. A stenographer and three officers died, but Hitler escaped with only minor injury. Meanwhile, the other conspirators, unsure whether Hitler was dead, failed to act until Stauffenberg landed near Berlin more than three hours later. By then it was too late. Rumours of Hitler’s survival melted the resolve of many of the key officers. In a countercoup at the Berlin headquarters, General Friedrich Fromm, who had known about and condoned the plot, sought to prove his allegiance by arresting a few of the chief conspirators, who were promptly shot (Stauffenberg, Olbricht, and two aides) or forced to commit suicide (Beck). In subsequent days, Hitler’s police rounded up the remaining conspirators, many of whom were tortured by the Gestapo to reveal their confederates and hauled before the Volksgericht (People’s Court) to be excoriated by the dreaded Nazi judge Roland Freisler. About 180 to 200 plotters were shot or hanged or, in some cases, viciously strangled with piano wire or hung up on great meat hooks. Even Fromm was eventually arrested, tried, and executed.

Encyclopaedia Britannica



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