WW2 Anniversary

|   11 December 2011

Declaring war on America

Seventy years ago today Germany declared war on America.

Many people are mystified by Hitler’s decision to take on the most powerful economic power in the world – especially since the German army was mired in a conflict with the Soviet Union at the time, and Hitler had no real way of ever conquering America. What were the Germans going to do, invade Manhattan? They hadn’t even been able to cross the English Channel to land on the beaches of the south coast, so what chance did they have of ever crossing the vast Atlantic?

But Hitler’s thinking was not so crazy, and this decision is easy to explain. In essence, Hitler believed that the Germans were effectively already at war with America. The German declaration of war of 11 December 1941 accused Roosevelt of ‘virtually’ bringing America into the war three months before, as result of his decision to allow US ships in pursuit of their convoy protection duties to attack German warships in the Atlantic .

The head of the German navy, Grand Admiral Raeder, had told Hitler in the autumn of 1941 that it was all but impossible for the German navy to prevent American convoys reaching Britain. How could German submarines know which convoy protection ships were American – and avoid them – and which were British – and attack them?

Moreover, Hitler was concerned that in the wake of the Pearl Harbour attack and the entry of America into the war against Germany’s ally, Japan, it was likely that Roosevelt would shortly declare war on Germany himself. Hitler, for reasons of prestige and no doubt still smarting from the British and French decision to declare war on Germany on 3 September 1939, thought that great nations declared war on other nations, they didn’t wait for others to decide to fight them.

It didn’t even matter to Hitler that Todt, his armaments minister, told him that with the resources of America behind them, the British were all but unbeatable. Hitler still believed that Germany’s future would be decided on the Eastern front. If the Soviet Union could be defeated then American involvement in the war would be an irrelevance.

Those were the thoughts that were in Adolf Hitler’s mind 70 years ago today.

WW2 Anniversary

|   27 November 2011

Causes of great events

Pearl Harbour – 70 years ago today the Japanese fleet were on their way to Hawaii.

Historians often focus their attention on great events – the Battle for Berlin or Stalingrad or the German invasion of the Soviet Union. And we commemorate these and other anniversaries, marking the date when something of vital importance happened.

But today I want to focus on the 70th anniversary of events that were about to happen.

Seventy years ago this month three actions which were to be of great significance in the history of WW2 – indeed the history of the world – were all in preparation. Two of them would bear immediate fruit in December 1941 – and many of the historians I most respect consider December 1941 the most important month in the history of WW2, as I will explain in a later blog – and one would not be drawn to the attention of the world until much later.

What were these three actions? Well, the first is the most obvious. Exactly seventy years ago yesterday, on November 26, 1941, a Japanese fleet tasked with attacking the American naval base in Pearl Harbour, Hawaii, left the Japanese home islands. Constructed around six aircraft carriers, this fleet would eventually launch its assault on 7 December, and draw America into the Second World War.

Second, seventy years ago today, military units from Siberia were in the process of traveling west within the Soviet Union to defend Moscow. These units would, on 5 December, provide the backbone of the vast Soviet counter attack on German forces who were closing on the Soviet capital.

And, finally, in Eastern Poland near the small town of Belzec, the Nazis had begun construction of the very first fixed extermination centre. In November 1941 these gas chambers were being constructed to kill Jews from the surrounding area. Whilst the Europe wide Holocaust had not yet begun, this still marks a decisive, and horrific, moment in the history of the human race.

All these events – the Japanese fleet en route to Hawaii, Siberian soldiers en route to Moscow, the construction of the gas chambers at Belzec – were, seventy years ago today, as yet unknown to the vast majority of people. But the fuse for the momentous explosion that each would contribute to had been lit.

WW2 Anniversary

|   11 October 2011

One of the most important days in history

Moscow in the snow

First, I want to ask forgiveness from the few of you who are already aware of my views on this – but, I’m sorry, I can’t let this anniversary go by without mentioning the immense importance of a decision that was taken seventy years ago, on 16 October 1941.

In October 1941 the German Army was closing on Moscow. It seemed as if the Soviet capital might fall to the Nazis. There was panic, as many Muscovites sought to escape the city. And amongst those who favoured running from the enemy was Lavrenti Beria, the head of the NKVD – the Soviet secret police. Stalin’s own armoured train was prepared and waited at Moscow’s central station, ready to carry the Soviet leader east to safety.

But Stalin decided not to run. On 16 October 1941 he resolved to stay and lead the resistance against the Nazis from his office in the Kremlin in the centre of Moscow.

I believe Stalin’s decision to stay was a momentous one. I think that if Stalin had run from Moscow then the capital would have fallen. And Moscow, as the centre of the Soviet road and rail network, would have been an immense prize for the Germans. It’s not too hard to imagine, if this had happened, that Stalin’s authority as leader would have been fatally compromised. Perhaps then – probably then, I think – the Soviet governement would have sought some kind of peace with Hitler, most likely along the lines of the Brest-Litovsk treaty in early 1918 which gave huge amounds of territory, including the Baltic states and Ukraine, to Germany. (Territory which the Germans subsequently lost in the peace settlement after their defeat in WWI).

So think of that, this Sunday, the 16th October. Exactly seventy years ago one man made a decision which could well have decided the outcome of the Second World War and which, unknown to most people in this country, also had a huge effect on all our lives. And, appalling as Joseph Stalin was, we must recognise that it was a decision that took great personal courage and benefited every one of us.

WW2 Anniversary

|   27 July 2011

70th anniversary of a dark day in history

The gate to the main camp at Auschwitz, through which the sick prisoners marched.

Exactly 70 years ago tomorrow, on 28 July 1941, an event of great tragedy and great significance took place. The very first Auschwitz prisoners were selected to be gassed. But in a piece of history which symbolizes the complex history of the camp, these prisoners were not selected because they were Jews, and they were not murdered in Auschwitz, but transported back to Germany to be killed. (more…)

WW2 Anniversary

|   29 June 2011

The advantage of arbitrary terror

Soldiers of the Red Army were surrendering in droves.

Today is the 70th anniversary of one of the most dramatic meetings of the Twentieth Century.

Joseph Stalin arrived at Soviet Military headquarters on Frunze street in Moscow and confronted his generals about the desperate military situation – just one week after the Germans had launched their invasion. At Frunze street Stalin learnt that the Germans were about to capture Minsk, capital of Belarus, and that the whole front was in disaray. He lost his temper with General Zhukov and then stormed out of the meeting, pausing only to say ‘Lenin founded our state and now we’ve fxxked it up’.

Stalin then disappeared to his Dacha outside Moscow and wasn’t seen for 36 hours. Did he have some kind of breakdown? Historians still argue about Stalin’s mental state at this most crucial time. My own view, having studied the evidence, is that Stalin wasn’t faking it – he genuinely was close to losing his confidence as the leader of his country.

But what I think we should think about today – and something which is seldom mentioned in the context of what happened 70 years ago – is how even though Stalin was in a such a bad place mentally there was no plot to overthrow him. Molotov and the other Politburo members were too frightened, too traumatized by years of Stalin’s oppression and persecution that they dared not move against him.

It’s important in this context, I always think,to remember that whilst there were a number of attempts on Hitler’s life, there was not one on Stalin’s. And, significantly, Hitler – though a monster himself – did not persecute his colleagues as arbitraily as Stalin did.

The truth is that mindless terror directed against people who are working closely with you can help keep you in power in the tough times – at least it did in Stalin’s case.

WW2 Anniversary

|   22 June 2011

The biggest invasion in history

Six weeks to get to Moscow?

Today is the 70th anniversary of the largest invasion in the history of the world. Just before dawn on 22 June 1941 over three million German soldiers and their allies pushed forward in three massive thrusts into the Soviet Union. Army Group North, commanded by Field Marshal Leeb, headed for the Baltic States and Leningrad; Army Group Centre, led by Field Marshal Bock, pushed straight into the Soviet Union on the Minsk/Smolensk/Vyazma axis; and Army Group South, under Field Marshal Rundstedt, advanced into the rich agricultural land of Ukraine. (more…)

WW2 Anniversary

|   26 March 2011

Fighting in the desert

The desert of Libya

Seventy years ago this month, the most brilliant German battlefield commander of the war, Erwin Rommel, was fighting over the exact same territory in Libya as the rebels are today.

Rommel, who had only arrived to take up command of German forces in North Africa just days before, led in March 1941 one of the most audacious offensives in modern military history against British, Commonwealth and Empire troops who were defending Benghazi and Tobruk in Western Libya. The British swiftly withdrew from Benghazi and the Germans laid siege to Tobruk. (more…)

WW2 Anniversary

|   14 December 2010

Roosevelt and the art of timing.

Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt

This Friday, 17th December, is the 70th anniversary of one of the most important speeches ever made by a democratic leader. On this day in 1940 President Franklin Roosevelt announced to the American people his idea of ‘Lend Lease’.

Instead of selling the British what they needed to carry on the fight against the Nazis, Roosevelt said the Americans would ‘lend’ what was required. The folksy analogy Roosevelt used in the speech was that of a good citizen lending a length of hose to his neighbour when his house was on fire. After the fire was put out the hose could be returned, and if it was damaged then the good citizen could later be recompensed with a replacement hose bought by a grateful neighbour.

It was a wholly misleading comparison, of course. Because the British were clearly going to use the equipment the Americans gave them under ‘Lend Lease’ and Roosevelt knew they didn’t have the money to replace it. But nonetheless, Roosevelt’s speech caught the imagination of many Americans – as always FDR knew the right buttons to press. In this case he was locking into the American ‘frontier spirit’ of neighbourliness in adversity.

But for me almost the most significant aspect of this remarkable speech is the timing. Roosevelt had been careful during the Presidential election of 1940 not to give the impression that he was taking America to war. He was standing for an unprecedented third term as President and he knew that any hint of full scale military support for Britain would be dangerous to his chances. So he waited until after his re-election and then carefully announced this opaque ‘Lend Lease’ policy which appealed to the best in the American character.


WW2 Anniversary

|   12 October 2010

Invading Russia – the “sensible” option.

The Untersberg – mountain of myth

70 years ago, Adolf Hitler stood on the terrace of his house, the Berghof, above Berchtesgaden in southern Germany, and contemplated this view. The massive Untersberg, directly in front of him, was the mountain in which legend said that the Emperor Charlemagne slept, ready one day to rise again.

And in 1940, Hitler believed that a decision he had just reached would make him greater than Charlemagne, the man who created the German monarchy, greater indeed than any German who had ever lived. Because Hitler – and Hitler alone – had decided that Germany should invade the Soviet Union. With hindsight it seems to have been a catastrophic decision – one that led directly to Germany’s defeat. But that was not how most people saw it at the time. In fact, most German Generals thought that the decision to invade France in May 1940 had been much more risky – and that had brought victory in six weeks.

How much resistance could the Red Army – weakened by Stalin’s purges in the 1930s and broken by failures during the Winter war against Finland a few months before – actually put up? Well, most informed opinion agreed with General Jodl of the German High Command who said the Soviet Union would be ‘proved to be a pig’s bladder; prick it and it will burst.’


WW2 Anniversary

|   9 September 2010


Of all British cities, London suffered the most during the Blitz but how could the British endure the Blitz? Why could they ‘take it’?

I saw an amazing film this week about the Blitz – one that was made nearly 40 years ago.

It was an episode of the famous documentary series ‘The World at War’ produced by Jeremy Isaacs. It was called ‘Alone’ and was directed by David Elstein. I watched it in a newly restored format at the Imperial War Museum, and later took part in a panel discussion with Sir Jeremy, David and others to talk about the immense impact the ‘World at War’ has had on our understanding of the conflict.

Many things were remarkable about the documentary. As a filmmaker I admired the swift pacing of the programme – something which made the the work still seem very modern. (Often the older the documentary the slower and more ponderous it appears today – but most certainly not in this case). But it was as a historian that I was most entranced. Because the quality of the interviewees was breathtaking – from Sir Anthony Eden to Sir Max Aitken, a whole host of important figures from the war were represented.

However, it was the interviews with the ‘ordinary’ people of London that made the greatest impression upon me. David Elstein had the clever idea of interviewing a whole group of Eastenders in a pub, and the convivial setting contributed hugely to the relaxed way in which people talked. One thing was clear. These people were not prepared to be beaten by the German bombers. They were the living embodiment of the famous phrase ‘Britain can take it!’  But why, I wondered? Why could Britain take it in 1940?