This account covers the Allies' relentless defeats as the Axis overran most of Europe, North Africa, and the Far East. But midyear the tide began to turn. America finally went on the offensive in the Pacific, and in the west the British defeated Rommel's panzer divisions at El Alamein while the U.S. Army began to push the Germans out of North Africa. By the year's end, the smell of victory was in the air. 1942, told with Groom's accomplished storyteller's eye, allows us into the admirals' strategy rooms, onto the battle fronts, and into the heart of a nation at war.
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World War II descended on planet earth as swift and deadly as a desert whirlwind, but the forces that unleashed its terrible power had been building beyond the horizon for years. Whole libraries exist to house only the books that grapple with the roots and causes but, as most wars do, it boils down to three simple things: pride, property, and power — and two more complicated things: prejudice and persecution. With this in mind I believe it is useful for readers of this story to have an appreciation, however abbreviated, of the events leading up to the critical year of 1942, and in that spirit a concise narration is offered.
Germany's role of instigating the conflict is better understood than that of the Japanese. The Nazi militarists had arisen bitter and venomous from the bones and ashes of the First World War, convinced that they had been stabbed in the back by their own cowardly politicians and the Jews — these latter perceived as either communists (the poorer ones) or war profiteers (the rich). Added to that was the loathing that practically all Germans felt over the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, which the Allied Powers, principally France and England, imposed upon Germany following the armistice of 1918. Among other things, this document stripped the Germans of 25,000 square miles of their territory, which included vast amounts of its raw materials such as coal, ores, and oil, as well as all of its overseas colonies and practically all of its military armaments. Most gallingly, it required the German people to pay "war reparations" to the victors to the tune of many billions of dollars. Germany struggled under these conditions, plagued by labor strikes (ultimately, so they claimed, forced on them by the Jews) and other internal strife, for the next ten years.
Then in 1929 the American stock market crashed, setting into motion a worldwide economic depression. In Germany, monetary inflation at one point reached such stupendous proportions that a mere loaf of bread cost a million or more German marks! At the normal ratio of four marks to the dollar, this was devastating, and many Germans saw their life's savings wiped out almost overnight.
Finally there was the matter of German honor. Up until the very moment in 1918 when the Germans sought an armistice, that nation's people were persuaded by its leaders and the press to believe that they were only a few footsteps away from total victory. News of their defeat came as an unbelievable shock. This was where the stabbed-in-the-back theory came into play. The American army had arrived on the scene in force just six months before the cease-fire was requested by Germany, but the American commander in chief, General John J. Pershing, was all for marching into Berlin anyway, herding the German army before him with all of its soldiers' hands in the air.
This was the only way, Pershing declared, that the German people would believe they had been beaten. But France and Britain, exhausted by four years of slaughter in the trenches of the Western Front, disagreed about further military action, and their view prevailed. Thus the Germans increasingly came to think that they had not been beaten at all, but had been betrayed by dishonorable politicians (backed by Jews) who gave up the fight before victory could be won. Humiliation is a stern taskmaster, and the Germans had long memories. Thus some historians, and many others, are of the opinion that the Second World War was merely an extension of the First World War, with a twenty-year "rest period" in between.
Into this combustible mix entered Adolf Hitler, a cranky aspiring Austrian artist who had served as a corporal in the German army from 1914 to 1918. Having been decorated with the Iron Cross, Hitler emerged from the First World War even more bitter than most of the rest of his adopted countrymen. By 1922 he had assembled about him a clique of like-minded people who called themselves Nazis (National Socialist Party) and who distributed pamphlets such as Bolshevism from Moses to Lenin, which attempted to prove that "Judaism was the great destructive force which had ruined Western Civilization." Psychiatrists have diagnosed Hitler's case history as that of a "psychopathic escapist type with a complex effecting megalomania." Historians smugly described him as someone who had "escaped from his case history into world history, before the psychiatrists got him."
The Nazis were a disturbing grab bag of thugs, criminals, zealots, and dupes aided by not a few misguided aristocrats and otherwise intelligent people such as General Erich Ludendorff, who had masterminded the German army in World War I and nearly engineered a German victory in 1918. In 1923 Hitler felt strong enough to challenge the new Weimar government but only got himself thrown in jail, where he penned his grimly prophetic Mein Kampf (my struggle). This seven-hundred-page screed, published in 1925, was the blueprint for Nazi dictatorship (with Hitler himself, of course, as dictator), advocating ethnic cleansing and aggressive territorial expansion, and has been described as "a satanic Bible." It remains a great curse that so few people in positions of power have ever read it, or understood its sordid implications.
Thereafter, Hitler and his cronies organized themselves into a kind of paramilitary party, goose-stepping up and down the streets in brown shirts and displaying the swastika as their national emblem. Yearly their power grew, feeding off hatred, intimidation, resentment over the Versailles Treaty, staggering unemployment, leftist labor strikes, and the seeming inability of the new democratic Weimar government to solve the nation's problems.
By 1933 the Nazi party had gained not only enough votes to make itself a formidable force in the German Reichstag (parliament) but also enough power to force the eighty-six-year-old president, Paul von Hindenburg, to appoint Hitler chancellor, from which position he quickly consolidated his strength and seized total control of the German government, setting it up as a brutal police state. Calling himself "Der Führer" (the leader), Hitler then set about pacifying the seething German nation, building the vast autobahns, housing projects, and industrial plants, and, of course, repudiating payment of any more war reparations.
Also, from that point on, Hitler and his Nazis began a stealthy but deliberate program to rearm Germany with the most modern weapons, converting otherwise peaceful businesses into war-making enterprises. Even though the Treaty of Versailles forbade the Germans from having a naval fleet, tanks, heavy artillery, and an air force, the Nazis brazenly defied the Allied nations and the new League of Nations — forerunner to the United Nations, set up in 1919 to maintain world peace — and continued creating what would become one of the most powerful military forces in history.
Still horrified by the slaughter of the 1914 — 1918 war, as well as financially devastated by it, and caught up like everyone else in the worldwide depression, France and England did nothing to head off Hitler's warlike machinations. The great pity is that they easily could have, at least at the beginning; France's army alone outnumbered Hitler's infantry divisions by more than ten to one. But the mood in the so-called Great Democracies was quiescent, perhaps, more accurately, ostrichlike, while Hitler fulminated from the speaking platforms of huge outdoor stadiums and the German people became true believers, eagerly and delectably cheering every violation of the Treaty of Versailles.
Not only that but the Nazis began to fulfill their grisly prophecy of ridding the nation of all but their own concept of a pure Aryan (Nordic) race. Millions of Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, and anyone else unlucky and un-Aryan enough to be caught in Germany from the mid-1930s onward were subjected to almost unendurable hardships and indignities and, in many cases, death. First, Nazi victims were stripped of their citizenship, then their property, then the right to practice their trades and professions. Finally, they were herded into concentration camps, which, beginning in 1942, became death camps. Those who had been unable to emigrate or escape were worked or starved to death, and many were murdered by firing squad and, later, more efficiently, in gas chambers.
In Italy, meanwhile, a similar though somewhat lesser evil had been at work. Benito Mussolini, like Hitler, had fought in World War I and, also like Hitler, appeared to be promising material for psychiatric study. The child of socialist parents, Mussolini was editing a socialist newspaper in 1914 when the war broke out and quickly became a draft dodger until the authorities caught up with him in 1916 and marched him into the army. At war's end, great labor strikes paralyzed Italy, many organized by Italian communists. Mussolini, who has been described variously as a crude bully, an atheist (in Catholic Italy!), and a womanizer, soon abandoned his socialism and in 1922 he became the leader of what was called the Fascist party, a group consisting primarily of former soldiers who had by a decade presaged Hitler's Nazi "brownshirts" by adopting their own "blackshirts" and strutting around town beating up anyone who disagreed with them.
Many of the early Italian fascists simply wanted jobs or for the government to halt the chaos and run the country effectively, but Mussolini had a far greater plan: he envisioned an Italy returned to the glory days of the Roman empire (with himself, naturally, as a Caesar). Like Hitler, Mussolini could legitimately be described as a comical character, right down to his dress and the hands-on-hips posturing — like something out of Laurel and Hardy pictures — were it not for the fact that he was a brutal dictator who murdered people at the drop of a hat.
He called himself "II Duce" (the leader), "a superman, in the words of Nietzsche, with whom of course he agreed," and became a much-celebrated windbag among disaffected Italians. It was said that "he made the trains run on time," and this was true enough, but at dear cost to any tardy trainman. In 1922, four years after the armistice to end World War I, Mussolini and his fascists — now comprised of a huge throng of gangsters as well as the ex-soldiers and other well-wishers — marched on Rome, and for their efforts the hapless king of Italy anointed Mussolini prime minister. As Hitler was to do later, Mussolini quickly consolidated his power, abolished parliament, and became a totalitarian ruler. In a move that Hitler would also emulate, Mussolini forthwith outlawed all political parties except his own fascists and set about turning Italy into his personal vision of a great empire. First, though, he made certain improvements on the domestic scene, as Hitler was to do later, building much-needed housing and roads and getting industries operating again, mainly the armaments industry. For this he was publicly admired by such diverse personalities as Thomas A. Edison, the playwright George Bernard Shaw, and Mohandas Gandhi.
Then, perceiving correctly that one cannot have an empire without colonies, Mussolini decided to acquire more of these for himself. In 1935 he mandated that every male between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five be subjected to military service. As a victim of colonial conquest Mussolini selected the peaceful and undeveloped African nation of Abyssinia (Ethiopia), just down the Red Sea from the Mediterranean. It was one of the few African countries not yet colonized by other powers and, besides, the Italians had lost an important and humiliating battle there at the end of the previous century, and this still rankled. Ruled for years by its hereditary emperor Haile Selassie, who sat on a throne draped in leopard skins, this poor tribal land was hardly a match for Mussolini's new army of tanks, artillery, and air force bombs. Testing every weapon in the Italian arsenal, including poison gas, which had been outlawed by worldwide treaty, Mussolini's army slaughtered an estimated 500,000 Ethiopian natives and subjugated the rest. The League of Nations condemned Italy but took no action, thus paving the way for mid-twentieth-century dictators to flout the international democracies' efforts to contain them.
In 1937 Mussolini met Hitler for the first time and was suspicious of him (the feeling was mutual) but, dictators being dictators, Mussolini agreed as a sop to Der Fuhrer to strip Italian Jews of all their civil rights and, for some odd reason as well, to adopt the German "goose step" as the official Italian army marching cadence. Two years later, on the eve of World War II, he and Hitler signed their names to what was called the Pact of Steel, a fateful decision for everyone concerned, which created the first two of what would soon become known as the Axis powers.
With the Nazi rise the Germans, particularly the warlike Prussians, were becoming more belligerent by the moment. The whole nation seemed to be on some kind of war footing, including teenage German "youth groups," who paraded around in khaki short-pant uniforms shouting Heil Hitler! at everyone they passed on the streets. The "stabbed-in-the-back" theory assumed renewed national importance, spurred on by state-sponsored propagandists who had begun shortly after the end of the 1914 — 1918 war to distribute all sorts of material aiming to prove that Germany was not responsible for starting World War I.
This disinformation soon reached foreign shores, including Great Britain and America, where revisionist scholars began publishing books and articles denouncing German "war guilt" and laying blame for the great conflict on France, England, Russia, and even the United States. Hitler's ranting diatribes merely fueled the flames of this fiery new nationalism, born of the humiliation of defeat and the urge to avenge its perceived dishonor.
One of the main grievances the Germans had was the dismemberment of part of what it considered its own territory by the Allied victors who in 1919 had created the independent states of Poland, Austria, and Czechoslovakia and returned to France the Alsace-Lorraine provinces, which had been seized by Germany in 1871. These separate entities contained some seven million German-speaking citizens, and the Fatherland, as defined by Hitler and his associates, wanted them back. Here lay the immediate bones of contention that would eventually rattle and herald World War II.
There was something else in Hitler's mind, too, more momentous than merely occupying or reoccupying such small-potato territories as Poland, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. This was his doctrine of lebensraum (living space), in which he hoped to relocate into huge areas of Europe Germany's overpopulation of millions of peasants. And where was he to find this immense lebensraum? In Hitler's own words, taken from his Secret Book, a sort of sequel to Mein Kampf: "The only area in Europe that could be considered for such a territorial policy therefore was Russia."
One of the first statesmen to read true danger in the Hitler regime was the British parliamentarian Winston Churchill, and he remained a lone voice in the wilderness until it was far too late to halt the German juggernaut. The policy of both his country and France, the only two European states then powerful enough when combined to have stopped Hitler, was one of "appeasement." But the victors of World War I had lost their stomach for war, or even the prospect of it. The year that Hitler came into power the prestigious Oxford Union, a student debating society, overwhelmingly approved a motion stating that "this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country," and within a short period similar resolutions were adopted by most of England's other colleges and universities. When in 1934 it became apparent that the Germans were swiftly rearming, the leader of the British Labour Party vowed "to close every recruiting station, disband the Army and disarm the Air Force," and he got his candidate elected by saying so. The Peace Ballot, a national survey of public opinion, was distributed throughout Great Britain in 1935 and a majority of those polled stated that while they supported collective national security, they did so only "by all means short of war."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "1942: The Year that Tried Men's Souls"
Copyright © 2005 Winston Groom.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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