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World War II for Kids
A History with 21 Activities
By Richard Panchyk
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2002 Richard Panchyk
All rights reserved.
A WORLD AT WAR
Throughout the 1920s, everyone in the world was aware of the terrible price of the First World War. Though it ended in 1918, many people were fearful that another war could easily start over a relatively minor disagreement. Germany, the main aggressor of World War I, was punished severely by the Allies — the United States, France, and England — who won the war. As part of the Treaty of Versailles of June 28, 1919, Germany had to pay large fines and was not allowed to manufacture any weapons. Inflation made German money worthless after the war. People went hungry. Disease ravaged the population. The political situation in Germany was chaotic. New political parties were formed to oppose the ruling government. One of these was called the Nazi Party.
The Nazis were a strongly patriotic, anti-Communist party whose name was short for the National Socialist German Worker's Party. Founded in 1920, the Nazi Party was eventually led by a failed Austrian artist named Adolf Hitler. The Nazis believed Germany had to be rebuilt regardless of what the Treaty of Versailles said. The French, a major enemy of the Germans in World War I, were very concerned about the neighbors who had invaded their country so many times over the years.
While Germany suffered greatly in the years after World War I, many people in the United States were still bitter about being dragged into the war at the cost of $32 billion and at the loss of 50,000 lives. Though in 1920 the Americans had helped create the League of Nations, an early form of the United Nations, President Woodrow Wilson could not get support in Congress and the United States did not join the League. Most Americans were content to have their country stay out of world politics. This policy was called "isolationism."
Still, when France called on America to sign a pact banning wars, the United States was interested. Why not invite other countries to participate? After some discussion, the question was settled. In August 1928 the United States and France were joined by 13 other countries in signing the Kellogg-Briand Pact, named after the Secretary of State of the United States, Frank B. Kellogg, and the foreign minister of France, Aristide Briand.
The idea of the pact was to outlaw war: "... [the diplomats signing the pact] solemnly declare in the names of their respective peoples that they condemn ... war for the solution of international controversies, and renounce it ... [and] agree that the settlement or solution of all disputes or conflicts of whatever nature or of whatever origin they may be, which may arise among them, shall never be sought except by pacific [peaceful] means." Eventually, about 60 countries signed the pact, including Italy, Japan, Germany, and the Soviet Union. Nobody in the United States foresaw that within a few years, several of the signing countries would violate the pact.
The Great Depression
American hopes for world peace were soon overshadowed by a new concern. On Tuesday, October 29, 1929, the value of the New York stock market fell and, in a panic, people around the country rushed to their banks to withdraw all their money. The banks, having also suffered badly from the crash, could not pay everyone who wanted their money. So began the Great Depression in America.
Once prosperous, Americans now struggled to make ends meet. Farmers could not make enough money because crop prices tumbled. Jobs were scarce, and many families did not have enough money to pay for their basic needs. By the end of 1932, nearly 100,000 businesses had collapsed. The presidential election of 1932 pitted Republican President Herbert Hoover against former New York governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a Democrat. Americans decided that they were ready for a change and voted in Roosevelt as the 32nd President.
Over the next several years, President Roosevelt did much to help his country get back on its feet. In 1936 he won reelection by a landslide. Roosevelt started many federal programs aimed at assisting the needy and putting "a chicken in every pot," as he promised. Because many people had lost almost all their money, Roosevelt created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), a plan that insured bank deposits against future bank closings. Overall, in the 1930s Americans were focused on fixing their own problems. Through the early and mid-1930s, hoping to avoid major involvement in world politics, Roosevelt participated warily in world affairs.
Meanwhile, trouble was brewing in Europe. For years Hitler had tried to gain power in Germany, and, in November 1923, he staged an attempt to overthrow the government by holding hostage the leaders of a rival political party who had been meeting at a beer hall. For this attempt he was thrown into prison for a short time. While in prison he wrote Mein Kampf, a political philosophy that laid out many of his ideas about Germany's superiority. Through the late 1920s, the Nazi Party's influence slowly grew, but not enough to attract the attention of the world. By 1928 the Nazis had only a few seats in the Reichstag, or German parliament.
Things changed quickly, though. In 1930, after inflation and high unemployment hit Germany, elections gave the Communists 13 percent of the vote and the Nazis 18 percent. In the 1932 elections, President Hindenburg received 53 percent of the vote and Hitler, 37 percent. Giving in to pressure, Hindenburg appointed Hitler as chancellor on January 30, 1933. The German people, of whom millions were unemployed, were eager for a leader who could take them into prosperity. Meanwhile, on February 27, 1933, the Reichstag building broke out in flames. The German Communists were blamed for the fire, and several thousand were arrested.
By July 1933 Hitler's power was much greater than Hindenburg's. After the elderly Hindenburg died in August 1934, the military swore their allegiance to Hitler, and the Nazis took complete control of the government. Hitler continued to have Communist and Socialist leaders arrested, and finally he was able to declare that the Nazi Party was to be the only legal party in Germany. Teams of his specially trained black-shirted "protection team," the Schutz Staffel (SS), roamed the streets. Hitler was now in a position to begin the rearmament of Germany.
As the world eyed Germany cautiously, there were already signs that the new Nazi government would spell big trouble for world peace. In 1936, in defiance of the Versailles Treaty, Hitler militarized the Rhineland, the area of Germany along the west banks of the Rhine River. Hitler quickly gained complete support of the people in Germany. By 1936 almost 99 percent of the people said they had confidence in him — few dared oppose him. To restore pride in Germany and also to create loyalty to the Nazi Party, Hitler organized youth groups. German boys and girls, some as young as six years old, were encouraged to join these groups. Many of these youths joined the army when they grew up and fought during the war in France, Poland, and Russia. Most of them did not have a choice. In March 1935, service in the German Army became mandatory for all German men of military age. In June 1935, it became a law that German men who turned 20 had to join the Arbeitsdienst (work service) to help build roads or construct buildings for six months to prepare for service in the army. By the end of the year almost 600,000 young German men had been called into army service. Each year hundreds of thousands more German men were drafted. Factories turned out new planes, warships, and weapons at an alarming rate.
The building of an air force and the enforcement of an army draft were both violations of the Treaty of Versailles. In April 1935, a German official said, "The necessity of a new European peace conference to replace the Versailles Treaty has long been evident ... [but if the new conference] is predicated upon ... an agenda inconsistent with Germany's position and policies, much of its value and effort would pale immediately."
Though the American government was not very interested in becoming involved in world politics, the American people were well aware of the situation in Europe. The New York Evening Journal of April 11, 1935, had several stories about the crisis. Across the front page in bold headlines was written, "France Will Meet With Hitler." Inside were several articles on possible upcoming peace talks. There was also a story about a proposed student antiwar strike organized by the National Student Strike Committee, which hoped to convince 50,000 students to strike as a way to "protest the world armament race."
In 1935 Mussolini had sent troops into a part of Africa known then as Abyssinia, now Ethiopia. The League of Nations told Italy it was in violation of the rules, but Italy requested that it be allowed to resolve the crisis with the Ethiopian government alone and not go through the League of Nations, to which Ethiopia had sent a complaint.
As Germany rearmed and grew stronger, Hitler became greedy for more territory. Hitler, like Benito Mussolini in Italy, was a Fascist. The Fascists believed in absolute power for a dictator and in expansion of their countries and exploitation of other countries, even at the expense of lives. In 1937 Hitler and Mussolini agreed to form the Rome — Berlin Axis, a partnership that laid the foundation for the Fascist takeover of Europe. Both countries had an interest in the Spanish Civil War, begun in 1936. This war pitted the government of Spain against rebels led by the Fascist General Francisco Franco. Both Germany and Italy provided Franco's forces with aid.
At this point President Roosevelt was still trying to keep America out of the mess in Europe, but he saw that it would be wise to prepare for war anyway. He asked Congress for a billion dollar program to build up the United States fleet of warships. Hitler invaded Austria in March 1938, claiming it was a natural thing for these two countries to be joined because the people, the language, and the heritage were the same. An Austrian by birth, Hitler had long dreamed of the day when the two countries could be united. With his appetite for more land still not satisfied, Hitler next announced that he wanted to take over a part of neighboring Czechoslovakia called the Sudetenland. The excuse was that this part of Czechoslovakia was heavily populated by German-speaking people.
The Prime Minister of Britain, Neville Chamberlain, went to Munich, Germany, to try to talk some sense into Hitler. Instead, Chamberlain wound up agreeing to let Hitler take over the Sudetenland, as long as it was the last territory he would take. Chamberlain thought that the appeasement of Hitler would create good feeling between Germany and the rest of Europe, but he was wrong. Hitler, still hungry for more territory, took over the rest of Czechoslovakia in March 1939. President Roosevelt, growing more alarmed, sent a personal message of concern to Hitler in April 1939, but received no reply.
Dark Clouds Eva A., born 1919
On March 10, 1938, Eva gave birth to a baby daughter in Budapest, the capital of Hungary. She was in the Fasor sanitorium, a small hospital, recuperating for the next week. As pleasant and quiet as it was inside, she felt the world was turning very black outside. Since she had just given birth, nobody wanted to upset her by telling her that Germany had invaded Austria on March 12, and it did not look good for the rest of Europe. Though they tried to be cheerful and hide their concern, she remembers seeing the worry in the faces of her husband, brother-in-law, and mother-in-law when they came to visit her and the baby. "We hoped that we would be excluded from Hitler's stupidity, but we somehow knew that sooner or later it would come to us," she said.
After the war started, her husband insisted on listening to Hitler's speeches on the radio, even though Eva did not want to hear them. He thought it was important to keep informed about the situation in Europe. He and his friends always discussed Germany and Europe when they met at parties or gatherings. Eva hated hearing Hitler shouting his threats over the radio. She remembers feeling very frightened when he yelled, "Wir werden Euere Städte aus radieren!" ("We will erase all your cities!") Even 60 years later, she can still hear his menacing voice in her head.
The German American Bund Howard S., born 1925
Though many Americans were appalled at the actions of Hitler and his Nazi Party, there were some who supported Germany. In 1937 a group called the German American Bund was formed, with its headquarters in New Jersey. This Bund (association) was made up of Americans of German descent who were proud of their heritage and who also supported Hitler.
Howard, who was about 14 years old at the time, remembers that one branch of the Bund had meetings not far from where he grew up in Queens, New York. The group of at least 100 people were dressed in uniforms with swastikas, and they carried Nazi flags. He could hear them swearing their allegiance to Hitler in German and performing their drills behind their fenced-in meeting grounds. Howard recalled that in February 1939 the Bund even had a huge rally at Madison Square Garden that attracted about 20,000 people.
At that time many Americans were not too interested in the situation abroad. "This isn't our war. That's over there, with an ocean between us," he remembers some people's sentiment being before America entered the war. Within a few years, the Bund was outlawed in the United States as anti-German sentiment grew strong.
A World at War
Hitler was still not satisfied. He wanted control over the parts of Poland that had large German populations. Many of the towns and villages in western Poland had both German names and Polish names because they once were part of Prussia, a German territory. But as with Czechoslovakia, Hitler never intended to stop. He wanted to control all of Poland. He knew that Britain and France would declare war on Germany if the Nazis invaded Poland. In order to succeed, Hitler knew he had to strike an agreement with the Soviet Union before Britain and France tried the same thing. If he could get the leader of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin, to agree to a nonaggression pact, it would mean the Russians would sit by and not take any action to stop him. On August 23, 1939, Hitler's foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, signed an agreement with Stalin's foreign minister, Yacheslav Molotov. It was a coup for Hitler and Germany. The Germans were so giddy that there was even a political song played on the radio that went: "Hast kein Gluck beim Stalin Chamberlain" — Chamberlain had no luck with Stalin.
The world was in shock. On August 24, 1939, Roosevelt wrote a note to Hitler: "I therefore urge with all earnestness — and I am likewise urging the President of the Republic of Poland that the Governments of Germany and Poland agree by common accord to refrain from any positive act of hostility for a reasonable and stipulated period, and that they agree likewise by common accord to solve the controversies which have arisen between them ... I appeal to you in the name of the people of the United States, and I believe in the name of peace loving men and women everywhere ..." Roosevelt also wrote to the president of Poland on the same day, assuring him that he believed that "the rank and file of every nation — large and small — want peace."
The communication had no effect on Hitler, and on September 1, 1939, the German army invaded Poland. Two days later, on September 3, Britain and France declared war on Germany, as promised. On September 5 Roosevelt declared the United States' neutrality. Still, Americans wanted to protect their interests. The countries in North and South America met soon after and on October 3 came up with the Act of Panama. The act called for neutral zones extending from the shoreline of the Americas a few hundred miles into the ocean. All countries of the world were warned against any hostile actions within that neutral zone.
Having made peace with Hitler, Stalin had his own plans for expansion and decided to take action next. He sent the Red Army into Finland for what turned out to be a difficult and bloody struggle. Meanwhile, now that war had begun, Hitler continued his quest to control all of Europe. He planned to strike quickly and conquer most of Western Europe in a few weeks. The main target was Germany's old adversary, France.
Growing Up in Nazi Germany Helga S., born 1929
"One morning early in September 1939, my mother came upstairs to wake up my brother and me, but there would be no school. German troops had invaded Poland and there was to be a school holiday. We jumped up and down on our beds, planning on what to do on this unexpected day of freedom! My brother was seven, and I was nine years old. Mostly we played on our street with the neighborhood kids: dodge ball or marbles or rode our bicycles. Our parents reacted quite differently and there was a lot of talk about the war of 1914 to 1918, when they were our age. Not much changed right away and people talked about it being all over by Christmas.
"But then fathers, uncles, and neighbors were drafted. Some went to fight the war at the front, others to build roads and police the conquered lands. Gradually there was less to buy in the stores, then there was rationing. You got coupons for one pair of shoes a year and also for foodstuff. Private cars had to be given up. But we had to go back to school and there were always geography lessons, maps with little flags on the areas in the news. And, of course, the bullies in school and the neighborhood who said, 'We beat them! Let's play war!' Both my brother and I were too young and anyhow not interested in joining the Hitler youth group."
Excerpted from World War II for Kids by Richard Panchyk. Copyright © 2002 Richard Panchyk. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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