How Did the Germans Let it Happen?

nazi helmet
Nazi soldier’s helmet (Jeff Burgess)

Numerous events were held across the world this year to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the of the end of WWII. The commemorations of the  surrender of Nazi Germany in May, 1945, and the subsequent end to the Holocaust inevitably reignited the question of how the German people could have allowed it all to happen.

Like most Americans, I grew up believing that fascism could never succeed here, because our democracy is too strong. But I’m not sure I believe that anymore. Consider the following:

Starting Unjustified Wars
  • In 1939 the Nazis faked an attack by Poland on the German border and used it as an excuse to invade Poland, thereby starting WWII.
  • In 1964 the U.S. falsely claimed that North Vietnam fired on a U.S. Navy vessel in the Gulf of Tonkin and President Lyndon Johnson used it to convince Congress to let him go to war with North Vietnam.
  • The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were exploited by U.S. President George W. Bush to promote an invasion of Iraq, despite the fact that there was no evidence Iraq had cooperated with the Al-Qaeda terrorists who were responsible for the attacks. The result was the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the start of the Iraq War.
Imprisoning Undesirables
  • In 1937 the Nazis began rounding up tens of thousands of German citizens deemed to be habitual criminals, asocial, chronically unemployed, beggars, and vagrants and put them in slave-labor camps.
  • In 2013 there were more than 2.2 million people imprisoned in the U.S., or about 698 people per 100,000 – the highest rate in the world. A large portion of them were non-violent offenders arrested for drug-related offenses, including the sale of marijuana.
Treating Propaganda as Real News
  • In the German elections of 1930 the right-wing newspaper mogul Alfred Hugenberg used his publications to help Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels conduct a propaganda campaign that helped the Nazis win enough seats to become the second biggest party in the German parliament.
  • In 1996 former Republican political strategist Roger Ailes launched the Fox News cable TV channel. Fox promotes right-wing political views under the guise of real news while using the  slogan “Fair and Balanced.”
Creating Scapegoats
“All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger.” – Herman Goering
  • The Nazis blamed Germany’s problems on Communists and Jews.
  • Modern Republicans blame America’s problems primarily on undocumented immigrants, but also on environmentalists, the urban poor and homosexuals.
Right-wing Radicals Allowed to Violate the Law
  • In 1924 Adolph Hitler led his Nazi party in a violent attempt to overthrow the Bavarian government. The Beer Hall Putsch, as it came to be called, failed and 16 Nazis and 4 policemen were killed. Hitler was arrested and convicted of treason, but due to right-wing sympathizers in the government he was only sentenced to five years in prison, and then served only nine months.
  • In 2013 Maricopa County  Sheriff Joe Arpaio was convicted of racial profiling in federal court in Phoenix, Arizona. Arpaio is still in office, despite the fact that the judge is also pursuing contempt of court charges against him.
  • in 2014 Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy incited his right-wing supporters to offer armed resistance against an attempt by federal government officials to carry out a court order to round up his cattle, which were illegally grazing on public land. A substantial number of well-armed people responded and the roundup was cancelled due to the threat of violence. Bundy has yet to be arrested for inciting violence, or for violating of the court order by continuing to graze his cattle on public land.
Pernicious Campaign Promises
  • The 1932 German elections gave the Nazis increased power because Hitler promised to restore Germany to greatness, overturn the Treaty of Versailles, revive the economy, and save Germany from communism.
  • Republican candidates for the 2016 presidential election are promising to restore the U.S. to greatness, revoke the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, revive the economy by pandering to big corporations, and save the country from illegal immigration.

Victory in Europe Day, 1945

Worldwide celebrations were held yesterday to celebrate the 70th anniversary of V-E Day, May 8, 1945, the day that Nazi Germany officially surrendered to the Allies and ended WWII in Europe. But while V-E Day is recognized as the official surrender date, important German armies had already surrendered.

On the Eastern Front, the Soviets had launched their attack on Berlin on April 16, and by the 25th they had completely encircled the city. German dictator Adolf Hitler had moved into his Führerbunker in Berlin on January 16. On April 30, after he was told that German forces defending the city couldn’t hold out any longer, he committed suicide. In a will he’d written on April 29, Hitler had designated Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, who was also in the bunker, to succeed him as the new Chancellor of Germany.

On May 1 Goebbels sent General Hans Krebs to meet with General Vasily Chuikov, who commanded the Soviet troops in central Berlin, to negotiate terms of surrender. Chuikov rejected the offer and demanded that the Germans unconditionally surrender. After Krebs returned to the bunker and informed Goebbels of Chuikov’s reply, Goebbels committed suicide too. General Helmuth Weidling, the commander of the surviving German troops in Berlin, unconditionally surrendered on May 2.

On the Italian front, the western Allies had launched a massive attack against the Germans and their Italian fascist allies in northern Italy on April 6. The Allies succeeded in smashing through the Axis forces and on April 27 Italian resistance fighters captured Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and executed him the next day. General Heinrich von Vietinghoff, the commander of German forces in Italy, surrendered on May 2.

In his will, Hitler had also  designated that German Admiral Karl Dönitz should become the new President of Germany and supreme commander of the armed forces. Dönitz set up his government at a German naval academy in Flensburg, in northern Germany near the Danish border. On May 4 the German troops he commanded in the Netherlands, Denmark and northwestern Germany surrendered to the opposing British forces. (Significant organized German resistance on the Western front had already ended on April 21, when the last of the German troops trapped in the Ruhr Pocket surrendered.)

Dönitz sent General Alfred Jodl to Reims, France, on May 6 with an offer to surrender all German forces fighting the Western Allies. But the Supreme Allied Commander, U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, threatened to break off all negotiations unless the Germans agreed to an unconditional surrender of all German troops, including those still fighting the Soviets on the Eastern Front. Dönitz had no choice but to accept Eisenhower’s terms and authorized Jodl to sign surrender documents the next day, May 7.

German surrender, May 8, 1945
German Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel signs the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany in Berlin, May 8, 1945 (Wikipedia)

But Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin wasn’t happy about the German surrender in Reims. His Soviet armies, after all, had done the bulk of the fighting in the war and had suffered millions of casualties. He claimed the Soviet representative at Reims had lacked the authority to sign a surrender document and demanded that the Germans also surrender directly to the Soviet forces in occupied Berlin. So on 8 May Dönitz sent General Wilhelm Keitel to Berlin to sign the “official” unconditional surrender with Soviet General Georgy  Zhukov and other Allied representatives. Because it was signed late at night, and it was already May 9 in Moscow, Russia celebrates May 9 as Victory Day.

World War II in Iraq – May 1941

Iraqi aircraft insignia
Iraqi aircraft insignia

In 1991 a U.S.-led coalition launched Operation Desert storm against Iraq, the combat phase of the Persian Gulf War, because Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait the previous year. The troops the United Kingdom contributed to the coalition were outnumbered only by those from the U.S.

This wasn’t the first time the British had attacked Iraq. Iraq was part of the Ottoman Empire during World War I. The Ottoman Turks were one of the Central Powers, allied with Germany, and the British were one of the opposing Allies and they sent troops to Iraq to fight the Ottomans.

After the Central Powers lost WWI the Ottoman Empire collapsed and many of its territories became “mandates” of the winning Allies. Iraq became a British mandate until 1932, when Iraq was given its independence. The Iraqis weren’t truly independent, however, because the British retained the right to transport their troops across the country and to operate two Royal Air Force (RAF) airbases there.

Iraqi nationalists, as you might imagine, were unhappy with this arrangement. They were encouraged by the military successes of Hitler in the early years of WWII because German agents were promising to help kick the British out of the Middle East and to prevent the Jews from establishing a nation in Palestine. Subsequently, at the beginning of April, 1941, a military coup in Baghdad put an Iraqi nationalist named Rashid Ali in power and he appealed to the Axis for help. (One of the conspirators was Khairallah Talfah, the uncle that raised Saddam Hussein.) Ali promised the Germans and Italians unrestricted use of all airfields in Iraq for any forces they were willing to send to help fight the British.

Britain’s military was already fully engaged in Greece and Africa, but the British knew they could not afford to lose control of Iraq’s oil, or to have hostile forces gain a foothold east of Egypt. In mid-April they responded to the coup by landing troops at Iraq’s Persian Gulf port of Basra to supposedly assert their right to move troops across Iraq. Some of these troops were airlifted to reinforce the British airfield located at Habbaniya, along the Euphrates River west of Baghdad.

Ali warned the British that no additional troops could enter Iraq until the first batch had moved on. But the British ignored his threat and began landing a large contingent of Indian troops at Basra. Ali responded by sending thousands of Iraqi troops to surround Habbaniya on the night of April 29.

While Iraq had several airfields of its own, the British one at Habbaniya had modern maintenance and repair facilities and plenty of high-octane fuel. If the Iraqis captured it and turned it over to the Germans, Hitler would be firmly established in the region. This was a real possibility, as Habbaniya was isolated by hundreds of miles of desert and had insufficient troops, despite the reinforcements, to protect it from a ground attack. They had 64 operational aircraft but they could only put 39 planes in the air at a time due to a pilot shortage. And most of their aircraft were obsolete warplanes because Habbaniya was a pilot training facility, not a combat base. The surrounding Iraqi troops occupied high ground and had artillery and tanks, while the outnumbered British defenders had none. And the Iraqi air force, which numbered about 70 aircraft, included some modern warplanes.

Despite the unfavorable odds, the RAF launched a surprise air attack against the Iraqi ground forces surrounding Habbaniya on the morning of May 2. It included all of the planes the flying school could put in the air, plus a few Vickers Wellington bombers flying from the other British airfield in Iraq, located near Basra, 300 miles away. The RAF’s motley collection of planes and pilots from Habbaniya recorded 193 sorties on the first day of their bombing campaign.

The Iraqi ground forces responded with heavy anti-aircraft fire and began shelling the airfield. And the Iraqi air force responded by strafing and bombing Habbaniya and harassing the RAF flights. By the end of the day, 22 RAF planes had been destroyed or damaged beyond use. The non-stop bombing, however, had inflicted heavy losses upon the Iraqi troops and significantly reduced their volume of fire.

Subsequently, on the second day the RAF shifted the focus of its air campaign to the Iraqi airfields. They succeeded in destroying numerous Iraqi planes on the ground and effectiveness of the Iraqi air force quickly declined. On May 6 the Iraqi troops on the escarpment by Habbaniya could not take any more of the RAF’s continual bombing and they fled in disorder.

The British at Habbaniya assumed that the worst of their troubles were over, as they knew relief was on the way. But on May 16 several Messerscmitt Bf 110 fighter bombers and Heinkel He 111 bombers from Germany’s Luftwaffe, painted with Iraqi markings, successfully attacked them. The Germans had flown from occupied Greece, refueled in neighboring Vichy French Syria, and then flown to the Iraqi city of Mosul, where they made their base.

Hitler, however, was preoccupied with planning his upcoming invasion of the Soviet Union and the few warplanes he sent to Iraq were too little and too late. Despite being attacked by the German planes, a British relief force from Palestine was able to relieve Habbaniya. British troops from Habbaniya and Basra then converged on Baghdad. Mussolini sent a few Fiat C.R. 42 fighters to help, but Iraqi resistance crumbled in the face of the British advance. Rashid Ali and his supporters gave up and fled the country at the end of May and Iraq surrendered. The German and Italian air units fled Iraq by way of Vichy Syria again.

The 1941 Battle of Habbaniya Was A Turning Point in WWII

It may be that in those dark days of early 1941, when Britain stood alone against the Axis, that the RAF’s #4 Flying Training School at Habbaniya stopped the war from being lost before the United States joined the fight. If Hitler had succeeded in gaining a military foothold in Iraq, the British would probably have been driven out of the Middle East and the Mediterranean Sea would have been an Axis lake. The Germans would have gained control of the region’s oil, the Suez Canal, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. They could have joined with Muslim nationalists to drive British forces out of Africa and India. And the country of Israel would certainly not exist.

In fact, these things would probably have happened anyway if Hitler had sent most of his Wermacht, especially the Luftwaffe, into the Middle East and North Africa in 1941, instead of invading the Soviet Union. He “cast away the opportunity of taking a great prize for little cost in the Middle East,” said Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill. But Hitler was obsessed with the destruction of communism and so the Battle of Habbaniya was an important turning point of the war. We should consider it the original Operation Desert Storm.

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