The Second World War is one of the most significant conflicts in history, but for seven decades our understanding of the war has remained mostly fixed, framed by the accounts of participants and an early generation of historians. James Holland, one of the leading young historians of World War II, has spent over a decade conducting new research, interviewing survivors, and exploring archives that have never before been so accessible to unearth forgotten memoirs, letters, and official records. In The Rise of Germany , Holland draws on this research to reconsider the strategy, tactics, and economic, political, and social aspects of the war. The Rise of Germany is a masterful book that redefines our understanding of the opening years of World War II. Beginning with the lead-up to the outbreak of war in 1939 and ending in the middle of 1941 on the eve of Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi invasion of Russia, The Rise of Germany is a landmark history of the war on land, in the air, and at sea.
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About the Author
James Holland is a member of the British Commission for Military History and the Guild of Battlefield Guides. His books include Dam Busters, Fortress Malta, Italy’s Sorrow, The Battle of Britain, and his fictional World War II series featuring Sergeant Jack Tanner. He lives near Salisbury, England.
Read an Excerpt
Tuesday, 4 JULY 1939, and a hot, humid Independence Day in New York City. Far away, across the Atlantic, Europe appeared once more to be cantering towards all-out war for the second time in a generation, but here in America, the land of the free, the growing crisis seemed remote. Most in the United States had quite enough worries of their own after ten long years of bitter depression. True, there were signs of recovery, but there had been similar signs three years earlier and then there had been another dip. The first concern of Americans was to have a job and put bread on the table, not to get embroiled in what was happening back in the old countries. In any case, while many in the US might only have been first- or second-generation Americans, they had made the trip across the Atlantic for a reason, and for the majority that was to escape to a better life. America promised to be a land of opportunity, and a land of peace, and even with the pain of depression it stood unrivalled as the most modern and forward-thinking country in the world. Europe, with its history of despots and wars, famine and plague, was a world away ...
And so now there was another round of bickering on the other side of the Atlantic. Let them fight it out for themselves; there were other things to think about than a madman, with a dodgy moustache, called Adolf Hitler.
Things to think about like baseball, and, on that sticky summer day in New York, one ball player in particular. The game was the country's national sport, an obsession for many millions, and Lou Gehrig was not only one of the greatest hitters ever to have played the game, but a household name across the United States – as famous as any man alive in America. In a career with the New York Yankees that had spanned seventeen seasons, he had hit more than forty home runs six times, had dipped below thirty only once since 1927, was one of the highest run-producers in history and consistently had one of the highest batting averages. His record of a staggering 2,130 consecutive games was one that would stand for over fifty years, which was why, when his form had so dramatically collapsed at the start of the 1939 season, it had seemed unfathomable. Clearly, there was something wrong. He'd noticed himself that he had begun feeling tired midway through the previous season, but during spring training he appeared to have lost all his strength, such a feature of the Iron Horse's game. At one point, he had even collapsed on the field. He struggled badly on the opening day, then benched himself. His career was over.
Sent to the famous Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, he was diagnosed with a rare degenerative disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, on his thirty-sixth birthday, 19 June. This was a terminal wasting disease that would lead to paralysis, difficulty in speaking and, in due course, death. Life expectancy was around three years, if he was lucky.
The Yankees and the baseball world were in shock. Lou Gehrig was not so colourful a character as his former team-mate Babe Ruth, but he was respected for his quiet humility and for his amazing strength and agility. He had always let his batting do the talking, but on this 4 July, 1939, 'Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day', he was to make one of the most famous speeches in sporting history. Nearly 62,000 fans had crammed into the Yankee Stadium to see a double-header against the Washington Senators, and between the games the great slugger would make his final appearance on the plate in a ceremony attended by Babe Ruth and New York's mayor, Fiorello H. La Guardia.
Among those watching was John E. Skinner, a fourteen-year-old from New Brunswick, across the Hudson in New Jersey. A keen and promising young ball player himself, he was a Yankees fan and had been taken to see Gehrig for the last time by a friend of his father's. What had shocked him most was the change in the great slugger's appearance. Gehrig had been a big man, but he looked shrunken now, his famous Number 4 jersey hanging off his shoulders and his pants bunched badly at his waist. 'Before the ceremonies began,' says Skinner, 'you'd picture Gehrig belting a ball out of the park, but then, when you have to see him pull himself up by his hands to get out of the dugout, it was a very sad thing.'
As speeches were made and gifts handed over, Gehrig stood, twisting his cap in his hand and looking awkward. Eventually, it was time for the quiet man to say a few words. The crowd was chanting and applauding as he stepped up to the microphone. As he cleared his throat, he stopped, hands awkwardly planted on his sides and head stooped. 'For the past two weeks,' he said, 'you've been reading about a bad break.' He paused, then added, 'Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.' The times he'd had, the players he'd played with, the family he had. 'Sure I'm lucky,' he said.
Behind John Skinner, two huge men were bawling like babies. 'They were ... really moved,' says Skinner. 'It was a moving experience.' It was a speech of humility and bravery, from a sporting hero who was demonstrating astonishing courage in the face of cruel adversity. Before the coming war was out, John Skinner would need some of that courage himself. So would millions of other Americans, not that they could know it that hot summer afternoon in New York.
A few hundred miles south of New York, just a day later, the President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was floating down the Patuxent River in Maryland on the presidential yacht, the USS Potomac, a vessel he liked to call the 'floating White House'. He had come to visit his close friend and advisor, Harry Hopkins, who was laid low and convalescing at Delabroke, a beautiful pre-Revolution house on the river loaned to him for the summer. Hopkins had organized, overseen and run many of the key projects of Roosevelt's New Deal – relief agencies in which the government invested heavily in an attempt to provide jobs and public works projects and help the country crawl out of depression. The biggest of these jobs programmes, the Works Progress Administration, or WPA, had been the centrepiece of the New Deal from 1935 and had been run by Hopkins until the previous summer, when he'd been recovering from a vicious bout of cancer that had seen two-thirds of his stomach removed. Now, eighteen months after his treatment, he could no longer ingest properly. Like Lou Gehrig, it seemed that Hopkins was dying.
His death would be a huge blow to the President, who had developed a close bond with this thin, sickly man with the rapier wit, dynamic organizational skills and shrewd judgement. More recently, FDR – as the President was widely known – had started using Hopkins in a different role. The imminent war in Europe may not have been foremost on the mind of most Americans but it certainly was now centre stage in the President's thoughts, and had been for some time, the more so because of the events in Munich the previous autumn. Back then, war had threatened to engulf Europe, but both France and Britain had stepped back from the brink; they had allowed Hitler, the German Chancellor, to annex the German-speaking Sudetenland from the rest of Czechoslovakia unopposed. The Czechs had had their country sliced up, and war had been averted, but then in March that year, just six months after the Munich agreement, Hitler's troops had marched into the rest of Czechoslovakia, and in so doing the German leader had flagrantly gone back on his promise. Now he wanted part of Poland too. A pattern was clearly emerging: bully, threaten, watch the rest of the world step aside, and then walk in. Land grabs had never been so easy. The issue, as Britain, France and Roosevelt were all too aware, was that Hitler was unlikely to stop unless made to by military force. And that meant war.
Thus a European conflict seemed to the President to be increasingly likely, but while many in Washington assumed that a future European conflict had little to do with them, FDR was not so sure. He had also begun to realize that the Atlantic was no longer the barrier it had once been. Air power was growing rapidly, as was naval power. Charles Lindbergh, an American, had famously flown across the Atlantic in a single flight back in 1927; it was only a matter of time before fleets of bombers could do the same. And, in any case, there were now aircraft carriers, floating airstrips that could deliver air power to all corners of the globe. Technology was advancing rapidly. The world was becoming a smaller place.
Be that as it may, it was not a view that was widely shared within the United States. Americans were quite aware of the emergence of Hitler and the Nazis, the suppression of civil rights in Germany, and the rising persecution of Jews and other minorities, and yet the overwhelming view was that these were problems for Europe to resolve not the United States. Americans had reluctantly become drawn into the last war and had been given, in the eyes of many in the US, precious little thanks for it.
Yet they had entered the war in 1917 on the back of idealism – an idealism that had long since been exposed for its naivety and resentfully cast aside. It had been Woodrow Wilson, the US president at the time, who had been the architect of this American world-view, outlining his vision for a future world peace early in 1918 with his 'Fourteen Points' speech. He had attended the subsequent Paris Peace Conference with lofty ideals for global free trade and a future League of Nations, in which he saw the United States playing a central and progressive role – the New World showing the Old Order how to create a better, fairer globe. The subsequent Treaty of Versailles, however, had fallen some way short of such ideals; the peace terms revealed no utopian future but rather exposed deep-rooted national mistrust and hatred, made worse by four years of slaughter – much of it on French soil and in the heart of Europe.
One of those who had observed the Paris Peace Conference first hand had been Roosevelt, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, although perhaps his most significant conversation was not at the conference itself, but with Woodrow Wilson on the return crossing afterwards, when the President was still fired with enthusiasm for his proposed League of Nations. 'The United States must go in,' he told FDR, 'or it will break the heart of the world, for she is the only nation that all feel is disinterested and all trust.'
It was not to be, however. When Wilson returned to the United States, he was unable to persuade the Senate to ratify the treaty and with it American membership of the President's proposed League of Nations. The appetite for playing a leading role in world affairs had gone. Few wanted a large military either; after all, what was the point? What's more, it appeared to many that the Old Order had prevailed in Europe after all, with Britain and France the major beneficiaries. The New World had tried to help but had had that offer thrown back in its face. Well, if that was the way they wanted it, then fine.
None the less, this new isolationist stance had short-term consequences. Four million men in uniform had to be demobilized and sent home, while the booming wartime armaments industry was to be equally rapidly reduced. It was inevitable that the economy consequently took a dip.
It was hardly any surprise, then, that at the next elections the Democrats were out and the Republicans came to power with the promise of a return to a more inward-looking future. Far from promoting free trade, they increased import tariffs, reduced taxes and encouraged spending. A more laissez-faire approach ensued, in which central government was reduced. The brief dip turned swiftly to boom. Americans were free to enjoy the time of plenty in this young, vibrant and liberal country. The Roaring Twenties and the Jazz Age had arrived.
But while the US had turned its back on leading the world into a progressive modern age, this did not mean America was keeping out of European affairs altogether. Far from it, and throughout much of the 1920s it was the United States which played the most significant part in getting Germany back on to its feet. When the severity of the reparations led to hyperinflation and wheelbarrows of printed money, it was the Dawes Committee that oversaw a dramatic reduction in the payments. Led by General Charles G. Dawes, a Chicago banker and industrialist, and with another American industrialist, Owen Young, the chairman of General Electric, driving the scheme, they also brought in increased foreign investment, re-established the Reichsmark on gold at its pre-war level against the dollar, and helped stabilize the German economy. The New York bankers J. P. Morgan then backed these changes with a massive loan of $100 million.
A further measure was the establishment of a Reparations Agent – in this case a rising Wall Street financier, Parker Gilbert – who had the power to halt any reparations payments if they looked set to endanger the stability of the German economy. Suddenly, the flow of foreign capital – and particularly dollars – was enough to not only get the Reichsmark back on its feet, but also for Germany to easily pay its reparations to Britain and France without default. This money was then ploughed back into the US, which was insisting France and Britain honour their wartime debts. Thus, the money was effectively going round and round, but in the process Germany was climbing back out of the abyss and emerging once more as the modern, industrial economy at the centre of Europe that it had been before the war.
This was all very well until suddenly America, and then the rest of the first world, was mired by the Wall Street Crash of October 1929. The loans to Germany dramatically dried up, while in the US the days of boom were for the time being over. By the time FDR became the thirty-second President of the United States and brought the Democrats back to power for the first time in twelve years, America was in the grip of the worst depression in its history, with unemployment soaring to 25 per cent and the economy in a nosedive. Roosevelt had got into power on the back of greater isolationism and on the promise of relief, recovery and reform: relief for the poor and unemployed, recovery of the economy, and reform of many of the US's financial institutions. These pledges were almost entirely domestic and continued America's inward-looking progress. There was now little room for Germany.
Another central tenet shared by both sides of the American political divide had been the need to reduce the military. It had been Roosevelt, for example, who, as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, had overseen much of the demobilization of that part of the services. A strong military, the theory went, did not act as a deterrent but as a provocation. And for America, now pursuing an isolationist stance, there was simply no need to spend billions on large armed forces.
It was a very different world now, however. The democratic Weimar Republic had gone, the German policy of the 1920s had been cast aside, and in its place there ruled an absolute dictator in Adolf Hitler, and a Nazi party that let no opportunity to rattle sabres and display its martial strength slip by.
Roosevelt had not forgotten that conversation with Wilson on the ship back to America after the Paris Peace Conference, however, and no matter how inward-looking he had pledged to be on taking office in 1933, he had become convinced that Hitler was a madman bent on world domination, and that should Germany crush France and Britain, then it would most likely turn on the USA. He still hoped to prevent war, but believed the best way of doing that was to discard the policy of the past two decades and rapidly rearm, and particularly in terms of aircraft. The Germans were known to have more aircraft than Britain and France, and, in the summer of 1939, greater ability to maintain that advantage.
Late in 1938, FDR had sent his friend Hopkins on an undisclosed mission to the West Coast of America to assess the capacity there to build aircraft and how to increase production urgently. Hopkins had reported back favourably. FDR had hoped to sell aircraft, especially, to France and Britain. Perhaps if Germany knew this, it would think twice about taking on the two biggest powers in Europe; he viewed Britain and France as America's front line, where the critical struggle would take place in the air. American aircraft might make all the difference.
There were two stumbling blocks, however. The first was that this represented a major political volte-face and would require some incredibly deft public relations to pull off, even though there were signs in the polls that increasing numbers of Americans accepted rearmament as a policy. The second was legal – namely, the Neutrality Act of 1937, which placed an embargo on the sale and shipment of arms to any belligerent, whether aggressive dictatorships or friendly democracies. Britain, for example, could get round this by using existing funds in the USA and shipping arms in its own vessels from Canada, but there was no doubt a repeal of the act would show intent and represent a warning shot to Nazi Germany.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Rise of Germany 1939 — 1941"
Copyright © 2015 James Holland.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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Table of Contents
List of Maps,
List of Principal Characters Featured,
Note on the Text,
Part I: War Begins,
3 Running Out of Time,
4 The Point of No Return,
5 War Declared,
6 All at Sea,
7 Offensive Reconnaissance,
8 Vehicle Shortages,
9 The Modern Army,
10 Leading the Nation,
11 Attention to Detail,
12 Case YELLOW,
13 Home Front,
14 Iron in the Soul,
15 All Alone,
Part II: Germany Triumphant,
16 Operation WESERÜBUNG,
17 The Battle for Norway,
18 The Go-for-Broke Gamble,
19 Attack in the West,
20 Race to the Meuse,
21 Smashing the Meuse Front,
23 Britain's Darkest Hour,
24 Getting Away,
25 The End in France,
26 Air Power: I,
Part III: War in the Air and on the Sea,
27 Air Power: II,
28 Not Alone,
31 Crossing the Water,
32 The Approach to Battle,
33 Science, Money and Resources,
34 The Grey Atlantic,
35 The Humiliation of Mussolini,
36 Change of Tack,
Part IV: The Widening War,
37 The Vanquished and the Defiant,
38 Saved from the Deep,
39 Developments at Sea,
40 Sea Battles,
41 Mixed Fortunes: I,
42 Forwards and Backwards,
43 Gains and Losses,
44 Mixed Fortunes: II,
45 Mercury Falling,
46 Midsummer Heat,
47 Industrial Potential,
48 Trouble at the Top,