Directions: You are to create a timeline of events leading up to the start of World War II in Europe. First, list the events in order from beginning to end. Once you have ordered each of the events, provide a summary of each event which illustrates your understanding of that event.
Event – The Tripartite Pact (Sep. 27, 1940)
The Axis powers are formed as Germany, Italy, and Japan become allies with the signing of the Tripartite Pact in Berlin. The Pact provided for mutual assistance should any of the signatories suffer attack by any nation not already involved in the war. This formalizing of the alliance was aimed directly at “neutral” America – designed to force the United States to think twice before venturing in on the side of the Allies.
The Pact also recognized the two spheres of influence. Japan acknowledged “the leadership of Germany and Italy in the establishment of a new order in Europe,” while Japan was granted lordship over “Greater East Asia.”
Event – Battle of Britain (July 10-October 31, 1940)
The Battle of Britain is the name given to the air campaign waged by the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) against the United Kingdom during the summer and autumn of 1940. The objective of the campaign was to gain air superiority over the Royal Air Force (RAF), especially Fighter Command. The name derives from a famous speech delivered by Prime Minister WinstonChurchill in the House of Commons: “…the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin.”
The Battle of Britain was the first major campaign to be fought entirely by air forces, and was also the largest and most sustained aerial bombing campaign to that date. From July 1940, coastal shipping convoys and shipping centers, such as Portsmouth, were the main targets; one month later the Luftwaffe shifted its attacks to RAF airfields and infrastructure. As the battle progressed the Luftwaffe also targeted aircraft factories and ground infrastructure. Event__–_The_Nazi-Soviet_Non-Aggression_Pact'>Eventually the Luftwaffe resorted to attacking areas of political significance and using terror bombing strategy.
The failure of Germany to achieve its objectives of destroying Britain's air defenses, or forcing Britain to negotiate an armistice or an outright surrender, is considered its first major defeat and a crucial turning point in the Second World War. By preventing Germany from gaining air superiority, the battle ended the threat that Hitler would launch Operation Sea Lion, a proposed amphibious and airborne invasion of Britain.
Event – The Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact (August 23, 1939)
On August 22, 1939, German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop flew from Berlin to Moscow. He was soon inside the Kremlin, face-to-face with Stalin and Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov, who had been working with von Ribbentrop to negotiate an agreement (the Soviet minister is also the namesake for the incendiary device known as a Molotov cocktail). Ribbentrop carried a proposal from Hitler that both countries commit to a nonaggression pact that would last 100 years. Stalin replied that 10 years would be sufficient. The proposal also stipulated that neither country would aid any third party that attacked either signatory. Finally, the proposal contained a secret protocol specifying the spheres of influence in Eastern Europe both parties would accept after Hitler conquered Poland. In addition to stipulations of non-aggression, the treaty included a secret protocol that divided territories of Romania, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland into Nazi and Soviet “spheres of influence.”
During the Kremlin meeting, Ribbentrop several times telephoned Hitler, who was nervously awaiting news at his country estate in Bavaria. Finally, in the early hours of August 23, Ribbentrop called to say that everything had been settled. As Ian Kershaw notes in “Hitler: 1936–1945: Nemesis,” the German chancellor was ecstatic. He congratulated his foreign minister and said the pact “will hit like a bombshell.” It neutralized the French-Soviet treaty, which would reassure Hitler's generals, and cleared the way for Germany's attack on Poland.
The pact remained in effect until June 22, 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union.
Event__–_Conscription_and_Re-armament_in_Germany'>Event – Germany reoccupies the Rhineland (Mar. 7, 1936)
In March 1936, Nazi leader Adolf Hitler violated the Treaty of Versailles by sending German military forces into the Rhineland, a demilitarized zone along the Rhine River in western Germany.
The Treaty of Versailles, signed in July 1919 – eight months after the guns fell silent in World War I – called for stiff war reparation payments and other punishing peace terms for defeated Germany. Having been forced to sign the treaty, the German delegation to the peace conference indicated its attitude by breaking the ceremonial pen. As dictated by the Treaty of Versailles, Germany's military forces were reduced to insignificance and the Rhineland was to be demilitarized.
In 1925, at the conclusion of a European peace conference held in Switzerland, the Locarno Pact was signed, reaffirming the national boundaries decided by the Treaty of Versailles and approving the German entry into the League of Nations. The so-called “spirit of Locarno” symbolized hopes for an era of European peace and goodwill, and by 1930 German Foreign Minister Gustav Stresemann had negotiated the removal of the last Allied troops in the demilitarized Rhineland.
However, just four years later, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party seized full power in Germany, promising vengeance against the Allied nations that had forced the Treaty of Versailles on the German people. In 1935, Hitler unilaterally canceled the military clauses of the treaty and in March 1936 denounced the Locarno Pact and began remilitarizing of the Rhineland.
Event – Conscription and Re-armament in Germany (Mar. 16, 1935)
The German armed forces engaged in secret rearmament even before the Nazi takeover of power. Thereafter, the Nazis supported rearmament and rapidly expanded arms production. Military conscription was reintroduced on March 16, 1935, in open violation of the Treaty of Versailles. At the same time, Hitler announced the expansion of the German army to more than 500,000 men.
Hitler not only rebuilt the German army and navy, but also spent a lot of money on the creation of an air force, or Luftwaffe. Aircraft technology developed quickly after the First World War and by the 1930s it was clear that air power would play an important role in modern warfare. Hitler had an opportunity to give combat experience to his pilots during the Spanish Civil War. In 1937 the German Condor Legion bombed the Basque town of Guernica in support of the fascist rebel leader General Franco.
By 1939, Hitler had an army of nearly 1 million men, over 8,000 aircraft and 95 warships. This military strength had not been used in conflict, but the threat of it had helped him to achieve the remilitarization of the Rhineland in 1936, the Anschluss with Austria in 1938, the annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938 and the invasion of the rest of Czechoslovakia in March 1939. All of this had been achieved without a shot being fired.
Event – The German Invasion of Poland (Sep. 1, 1939)
At 4:45 a.m., some 1.5 million German troops invade Poland all along its 1,750-mile border with German-controlled territory. Simultaneously, the German Luftwaffe bombed Polish airfields, and German warships and U-boats attacked Polish naval forces in the Baltic Sea. Nazi leader Adolf Hitler claimed the massive invasion was a defensive action, but Britain and France were not convinced. On September 3, they declared war on Germany, initiating World War II.
To Hitler, the conquest of Poland would bring Lebensraum, or “living space,” for the German people. According to his plan, the “racially superior” Germans would colonize the territory and the native Slavs would be enslaved.
At 8 p.m. on August 31, Nazi S.S. troops wearing Polish uniforms staged a phony invasion of Germany, damaging several minor installations on the German side of the border. They also left behind a handful of dead concentration camp prisoners in Polish uniforms to serve as further evidence of the supposed Polish invasion, which Nazi propagandists publicized as an unforgivable act of aggression. Shortly after noon on August 31, Hitler ordered hostilities against Poland to begin at 4:45 a.m. the next morning.
At 4:45 a.m. on September 1, the invasion began. Nazi diplomats and propagandists scrambled to head off hostilities with the Western powers, but on September 2, Britain and France demanded that Germany withdraw by September 3 or face war. At 11 p.m. on September 3, the British ultimatum expired, and 15 minutes later British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain went on national radio to solemnly announce that Britain was at war with Germany. Australia, New Zealand, and India followed suit shortly thereafter. At 5:00 p.m., France declared war on Germany.
In Poland, German forces advanced at a dizzying rate. Employing a military strategy known as the blitzkrieg, or “lightning war,” armored divisions smashed through enemy lines and isolated segments of the enemy, which were encircled and captured by motorized German infantry while the panzer tanks rushed forward to repeat the pattern. Meanwhile, the sophisticated German air force – the Luftwaffe – destroyed Polish air capability, provided air support for the blitzkrieg, and indiscriminately bombed Polish cities in an effort to further terrorize the enemy.
The Polish army was able to mobilize one million men but was hopelessly outmatched in every respect. Rather than take a strong defensive position, troops were rushed to the front to confront the Germans and were systematically captured or annihilated. In a famously ill-fated strategy, Polish commanders even sent horsed cavalry into battle against the heavy German armor. By September 8, German forces had reached the outskirts of Warsaw, having advanced 140 miles in the first week of the invasion.
The Polish armed forces hoped to hold out long enough so that an offensive could be mounted against Germany in the west, but on September 17 Soviet forces invaded from the east and all hope was lost. The next day, Poland's government and military leaders fled the country. On September 28, the Warsaw garrison finally surrendered to a relentless German siege. That day, Germany and the USSR concluded an agreement outlining their zones of occupation. For the fourth time in its history, Poland was partitioned by its more powerful neighbors.
Despite their declaration of war against Germany, Britain and France did little militarily to aid Poland. Britain bombed German warships on September 4, but Chamberlain resisted bombing Germany itself. Though Germans kept only 23 divisions in the west during their campaign in Poland, France did not launch a full-scale attack even though it had mobilized over four times that number. There were modest assaults by France on its border with Germany but these actions ceased with the defeat of Poland. During the subsequent seven months, some observers accused Britain and France of waging a "phony war," because, with the exception of a few dramatic British-German clashes at sea, no major military action was taken. However, hostilities escalated exponentially in 1940 with Germany's April invasion of Norway and May invasion of the Low Countries and France.
Event__–_Fall_of_France'>Event – The Austrian Anschluss (Mar. 12, 1938)
In March 1938, Adolf Hitler announced an “Anschluss” (union) between Germany and Austria, in fact annexing the smaller nation into a greater Germany.
Union with Germany had been a dream of Austrian Social Democrats since 1919. The rise of Adolf Hitler and his authoritarian rule made such a proposition less attractive, though, which was an ironic twist, since a union between the two nations was also a dream of Hitler's, a native Austrian. Despite the fact that Hitler did not have the full approval of Austrian Social Democrats, the rise of a pro-Nazi right-wing party within Austria in the mid-1930s paved the way for Hitler to make his move.
In 1938, Austrian Chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg, bullied by Hitler during a meeting at Hitler's retreat home in Berchtesgaden, agreed to a greater Nazi presence within Austria. He appointed a Nazi minister of police and announced an amnesty for all Nazi prisoners. Schuschnigg hoped that agreeing to Hitler's demands would prevent a German invasion. But Hitler insisted on greater German influence on the internal affairs of Austria-even placing German army troops within Austria – and Schuschnigg repudiated the agreement signed at Berchtesgaden, demanding a referendum (vote) on the question. Through the machinations of Hitler and his devotees within Austria, the referendum was canceled, and Schuschnigg resigned.
The Austrian president, Wilhelm Miklas, refused to appoint a pro-Nazi chancellor in Schuschnigg's stead. German foreign minister Hermann Goering then faked a crisis by engineering a “plea” for German assistance from inside the Austrian government (really from a German agent). On March 12, 1938, German troops marched into Austria. Hitler announced his Anschluss, and a referendum was finally held on April 10. Whether the referendum was rigged or the resulting vote simply a testament to Austrian terror at Hitler's determination, the Fuhrer garnered a whopping 99.7 percent approval for the union of Germany and Austria.
Austria was now a nameless entity absorbed by Germany. It was not long before the Nazis soon began their typical ruthless policy of persecuting political dissidents and, of course, all Jewish citizens.
Event – The Munich Agreement (Sep. 30, 1938)
In September 1938, British and French prime ministers Neville Chamberlain and Edouard Daladier signed the Munich Pact with Nazi leader Adolf Hitler. The agreement averted the outbreak of war but gave Czechoslovakia away to German conquest.
In the spring of 1938, Hitler began openly to support the demands of German-speakers living in the Sudeten region of Czechoslovakia for closer ties with Germany. Hitler had recently annexed Austria into Germany, and the conquest of Czechoslovakia was the next step in his plan of creating a “greater Germany.” The Czechoslovak government hoped that Britain and France would come to its assistance in the event of German invasion, but British Prime Minister Chamberlain was intent on averting war. He made two trips to Germany in September and offered Hitler favorable agreements, but the Fuhrer kept upping his demands.
On September 22, Hitler demanded the immediate cession of the Sudetenland to Germany and the evacuation of the Czechoslovak population by the end of the month. The next day, Czechoslovakia ordered troop mobilization. War seemed imminent, and France began a partial mobilization on September 24. Chamberlain and French Prime Minister Daladier, unprepared for the outbreak of hostilities, traveled to Munich, where they gave in to Hitler's demands on September 30.
Daladier abhorred the Munich Pact's appeasement of the Nazis, but Chamberlain was elated and even stayed behind in Munich to sign a single-page document with Hitler that he believed assured the future of Anglo-German peace. Later that day, Chamberlain flew home to Britain, where he addressed a jubilant crowd in London and praised the Munich Pact for bringing “peace with honor” and “peace in our time.” The next day, Germany annexed the Sudetenland, and the Czechoslovak government chose submission over destruction by the German Wehrmacht. In March 1939, Hitler annexed the rest of Czechoslovakia, and the country ceased to exist.
On September 1, 1939, 53 German army divisions invaded Poland despite British and French threats to intervene on the nation's behalf. Two days later, Chamberlain solemnly called for a British declaration of war against Germany, and World War II began. After eight months of ineffectual wartime leadership, Chamberlain was replaced as prime minister by Winston Churchill.
Event – Fall of France (May 10-June 25, 1940)
In the Second World War, the Battle of France, also known as the Fall of France, was the successful German invasion of France beginning on May 10, 1940. The battle consisted of two main operations. In the first, German armored units pushed through the Ardennes to cut off and surround the Allied units that had advanced into Belgium. When British and adjacent French forces were pushed back to the sea by the highly mobile and well organized German operation, the British government decided to evacuate the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) as well as several French divisions at Dunkirk in Operation Dynamo.
With France left to fend for itself after the British evacuation, Germany launched a second operation, which was commenced on June 5 and ended several weeks later. Initially the depleted French forces put up stiff resistance, but German air superiority gradually overwhelmed French artillery positions. German forces outflanked the Maginot Line and pushed deeper into France as French forces began to collapse. German forces arrived in an undefended Paris on June 14 and their commanders met with French officials who sought an alliance with Germany. Chief among these was Marshal Philippe Pétain who, contrary to the wishes of many Frenchmen, announced he would seek an armistice.
On June 22, an armistice was signed between France and Germany, which resulted in a division of France whereby Germany would occupy the north and west, Italy would control a small Italian occupation zone in the southeast, and an unoccupied zone, the zone libre, would be governed by the newly formed Vichy government led by Marshal Pétain. France remained under Axis occupation until the liberation of the country after the Allied landings in 1944.
Event – The German Army invades Czechoslovakia (Mar. 16, 1939)
German occupation of Czechoslovakia began with the Nazi annexation of Czechoslovakia's northern and western border regions, known collectively as the Sudetenland, under terms outlined by the Munich Agreement. Nazi leader Adolf Hitler's excuse for this effort was the alleged hardships suffered by the ethnic German population living in those regions. New and extensive Czechoslovak border fortifications were also located in the same area.
Following the Anschluss of Nazi Germany and Austria, in March 1938, the conquest of Czechoslovakia became Hitler's next ambition. The incorporation of the Sudetenland into Nazi Germany left the rest of Czechoslovakia weak and it became powerless to resist subsequent occupation. On March 16, 1939, the German Wehrmacht (Nazi/German Military) moved into the remainder of Czechoslovakia and, from Prague Castle, Hitler proclaimed Bohemia and Moravia the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. The Nazi occupation ended with the surrender of Germany following World War II.
The United States and World War II
The Road to War – World War II Begins in Europe – TIMELINE