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Adolf Hitler (April 20, 1889 - April 30, 1945), Chancellor (January 30, 1933
- April 30, 1945) and Führer (effectively dictator) of Germany (August 2,
1934 - April 30, 1945), widely held to be the principal instigator of World
War II and the author of the Holocaust, was directly responsible for the
deaths of millions of people, including about 6 million Jews murdered by his
Childhood and youth
Adolf Hitler was born on April 20, 1889 at Braunau-am-Inn, a small town near
Linz in the province of Upper Austria, near the German border, in what was
then Austria-Hungary. His father Alois (1832-1903) was a minor customs
official. His mother, Klara Hitler (née Pölzl), was Alois's third wife. Of
their six children, only Adolf and his sister Paula survived infancy.
Alois Hitler was born illegitimate, and as a young man he used his mother's
surname, Schicklgruber. In 1876 he legally adopted his natural father's
surname, Hitler. (The name had been simplified from Hiedler in an earlier
generation.) Adolf Hitler never used the name Schicklgruber: this was a
canard circulated later by his political enemies—as were insinuations
that he was of Jewish descent.
Hitler was an intelligent but moody boy, and he twice failed to pass the
examinations to gain admission to the high school in Linz. He was devoted to
his indulgent mother and developed a hatred for his father, whom he later
portrayed as a sadistic tyrant, although in fact he was no more than a
normally strict German father.
Vienna and Munich
In January 1903 Alois Hitler died, and in December 1907 his widow Klara died
of cancer. Eighteen-year-old Adolf was orphaned and he soon left home for
Vienna, where he had vague hopes of becoming an artist. He was entitled to
an orphan's pension, and eked this out by working as an illustrator. He had
a little artistic talent but was rejected by Vienna schools of art and
architecture. He lost his pension in 1910, but by then he had inherited some
money from an aunt.
It was in Vienna that Hitler began developing into an active anti-Semite, a
passion that was to rule his life and was the key to all his subsequent
actions. Anti-Semitism was deeply ingrained in the south German Catholic
culture in which Hitler was raised. Vienna had a large Jewish community,
including many Orthodox Jews from eastern Europe. Hitler later recorded his
disgust on encountering Viennese Jews.
In Vienna anti-Semitism had developed from its religious origins into a
political doctrine, promoted by publicists such as Lanz von Liebenfels,
whose pamphlets Hitler read, and politicians like Karl Lueger, the Mayor of
Vienna, or Georg Ritter von Schönerer, who contributes the racial aspect of
anti-Semitism. From them Hitler acquired the belief in the superiority of
the "Aryan race" which formed the basis of his political views. Hitler came
to believe that the Jews were the natural enemies of the "Aryans," and were
also in some way responsible for his poverty and his failure to achieve the
success he believed he deserved.
In 1913 Hitler moved to Munich to avoid military service in the
Austro-Hungarian army. But in August 1914 when Germany entered World War I,
he at once enlisted in the German Army. He attained the rank of corporal and
saw active service in France and Belgium as a messenger. He was wounded and
gassed and won the Iron Cross for bravery. During the war he acquired a
passionate German patriotism, despite not being a German citizen (a detail
he did not rectify until 1932). He was shocked at the German capitulation in
November 1918, when the German army was (so he believed) undefeated. He,
like many other German nationalists, blamed civilian politicians (the
"November criminals") for the surrender.
The Nazi Party
After the war Hitler stayed in the army, which was now mainly engaged in
suppressing the socialist revolutions which were breaking out across
Germany—including in Munich, where Hitler returned in 1919. While
still in the army he was assigned to spy on the meetings of a small
nationalist party, the German Workers' Party. Hitler joined the party as
member number 555 in the spring of 1919. He would not be discharged until
1920; after this he began to take full part in the party's activities. He
soon became its leader and changed its name to the National Socialist German
Workers Party (National Sozialistische Deutsche Arbeitspartei - NSDAP),
usually known as the Nazi party from National Sozialistische, in contrast to
Sozi, a term used for the Social Democrats. The party adopted the swastika
(supposedly a symbol of "Aryanism") and the Roman salute, also used by the
The Nazi party was but one of a large number of small extremist groups in
Munich at this time. But Hitler soon discovered that he had two remarkable
talents—for public oratory and for inspiring personal loyalty. His
street-corner oratory, attacking the Jews, the socialists and liberals, the
capitalists and Communists, began to attract adherents. Early followers
included Rudolf Hess, Hermann Goering, and Ernst Röhm, head of the Nazis'
paramilitary organization, the S.A. Another admirer was the wartime
Field-Marshall Erich Ludendorff. Hitler decided to use Ludendorff as a front
in a rather ridiculous attempt to seize power, the "Beer Hall Putsch" of
November 8, 1923, when the Nazis marched from a beerhall to the Bavarian War
Ministry, intending to overthrow Bavaria's right-wing separatist government
and then march on Berlin. They were quickly dispersed by the army and Hitler
Hitler was put in trial for high treason, and used his trial as an
opportunity to spread his message throughout Germany. In April 1924 he was
sentenced to five years? imprisonment in Landsberg Prison. Here he dictated
a book called Mein Kampf (My Struggle) to his faithful deputy Hess. This
ponderous work contained Hitler?s views on race, history and politics,
including plenty of warning of the fate that awaited his enemies,
particularly the Jews, should he ever attain power. The book was first
published in two volumes: the first in 1925 and the second a year later. The
prospects of Hitler attaining power seemed so remote at the time that no-one
took his writings seriously.
Considered relatively harmless, Hitler was given an early amnesty. He was
released in December 1924. By this time the Nazi party barely existed and
its leader would have a long effort in trying to rebuild it. During these
years he established a group which later became one of his key instruments
in carrying out his objectives. As Röhm's Sturmabteilung ("Stormtroopers" or
SA), were unreliable and formed a separate base of power within the party,
Hitler established a personal bodyguard, the Schutzstaffel ("Protection
Unit" or SS). This elite black-uniformed corps was to be commanded by
Heinrich Himmler, who was to become the principal executor of his plans with
respect to the "Jewish Question" during the Second World War.
A key element of Hitler's appeal was the sense of offended national pride
caused by the Treaty of Versailles imposed on Germany by the Allies. Germany
lost territory to France, Poland, Belgium and Denmark, and had to admit sole
responsibility for the war, give up her colonies and her Navy, and pay a
huge reparations bill. Since most Germans did not believe that Germany had
started the war, and did not believe that they had been defeated, they
bitterly resented these terms. Although the party's early attempts to garner
votes by blaming all these humiliations on the machinations of
"international Jewry" were not particularly successful with the electorate,
the party's propaganda wing learned quickly, and soon a more subtle
propaganda - which combined anti-semitism with a spirited attack on the
failures of the "Weimar system" and the parties which had supported it -
began to come to the fore.
The Road to Power
The turning point in Hitler's fortunes came with the Depression which hit
Germany in 1930. The democratic regime established in Germany in 1919, the
so-called Weimar Republic, had never been genuinely accepted by
conservatives, and the powerful Communist Party also rejected it. The Social
Democrats and the traditional parties of the center and right were unable to
deal with the shock of the Depression, and were, moreover, all tainted with
association with the Weimar system, and in the elections of September 1930
the Nazis suddenly rose from obscurity to win more than 18% of the vote and
107 seats in the Reichstag, becoming the second largest party.
Hitler's success was based on winning over the bulk of the German
middle-class, who had been hard hit by the inflation of the 1920s and the
unemployment of the Depression. Farmers and war veterans were other groups
who supported the Nazis. The urban working classes generally ignored
Hitler's appeals, and Berlin and the Ruhr towns were particularly hostile.
But in these cities the Communists were strong, and the Communist Party also
opposed democratic government and refused to co-operate with other parties
to block Hitler's rise.
The 1930 election was a disaster for Heinrich Brüning's center-right
government, which was now deprived of any chance at a Reichstag majority,
and had to rely on the toleration of the Social Democrats and the use of
presidential emergency powers to remain in power. With Brüning's austerity
measures in the face of the Depression having little success, the government
was anxious to avoid a presidential election in 1932, and hoped to secure
the Nazis' agreement to an extension of President Hindenburg's term, but
Hitler refused to agree, and ultimately competed against Hindenburg in the
presidential election, coming in second in both the first and second rounds
of the election, and attaining more than 35% of the vote in the second
round, in April, depiste the attempts of both Interior Minister Wilhelm
Groener and the Social Democratic Prussian government to restrict the Nazis'
public activities, notably including a ban on the SA.
The embarrassments of the election put an end to Hindenburg's tolerance for
Brüning, and the old Field Marshal dismissed the government, appointing a
new government under the reactionary non-entity Franz von Papen, which
immediately repealed the ban on the SA and called for new Reichstag
elections. In the July 1932 elections the Nazis had their best showing yet,
winning 230 seats and becoming the largest party. Since now the Nazis and
Communists together controlled a majority of the Reichstag, the formation of
a stable majority government committed to democracy was impossible, and,
following a vote of no-confidence in the Papen government supported by 84%
of the delegates, the new Reichstag was immediately dissolved and new
Papen and the Centre Party now both opened negotiations to secure Nazi
participation in the government, but Hitler set high terms, demanding the
Chancellorship and the President's agreement that he be able to use
emergency powers under Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution. This failure
to join the government, along with the Nazis' efforts to win working class
support, alienated some of the Nazis' previous supporters, so that in the
elections of November 1932, the Nazis actually lost votes, although they
remained by far the largest party in the Reichstag.
As Papen had clearly failed in his attempts to secure a majority through
negotiation to bring the Nazis into the government, Hindenburg dismissed him
and appointed in his place General Kurt von Schleicher, long a power behind
the scenes and more recently Defense Minister, who promised that he could
secure a majority government by negotiations with both Social Democratic
labour unions and with the dissident Nazi faction led by Gregor Strasser.
As Schleicher attempted this difficult mission, Papen and Alfred Hugenberg,
Chairman of the German National People's Party (DNVP), before the Nazis'
rise Germany's principle right-wing party, now conspired to persuade
Hindenburg to appoint Hitler Chancellor in a coalition with the DNVP,
promising that they would be able to control him. When Schleicher was forced
to admit failure in his efforts, and asked Hindenburg for yet another
Reichstag dissolution, Hindenburg fired him and put Papen's plan into
execution, appointing Hitler Chancellor with Papen as Vice-Chancellor and
Hugenberg as Minister of Economics, in a cabinet which only included three
Nazis - Hitler, Hermann Goering and Wilhelm Frick.
The German Communist Party and its masters in Moscow must take a large part
of the blame for Hitler's rise to power. Since 1929 Stalin had directed the
Comintern to adopt a policy of extreme sectarianism towards all other
parties on the left—Social Democrats were to be treated as "social
fascists" and no alliances were to be made with them. This suited Stalin's
domestic political ends, but it had disastrous consequences in Germany. The
Communist Party not only failed to oppose the Nazis in alliance with the
Social Democrats, it tactically co-operated with them (most notably in the
1932 Berlin public transport strike). They soon realised the error of this
policy. Using the pretext of the Reichstag fire, Hitler issued the Reichstag
Fire Decree of February 28, 1933. The decree supressed several significant
civil rights in the name of national security. The Communist leaders, along
with all other opponents of the regime, soon found themselves in prison. At
the same time the SA launched a wave of violence against the labour
movement, the Jews and other enemies.
But Hitler did not yet hold the nation in thrall. Hitler's initial election
into office and his use of constitutionally enshrined mechansims to shore up
power have led to the myth that his country elected him dictator and that a
majority supported his ascent. He was made Chancellor in a legal appointment
by the President, who was elected. But Hitler himself was never awarded a
popular mandate. At the last free elections, the Nazis polled 33% of the
vote, winning 196 seats out of 584. Even in the elections of March 1933,
which took place after terror and violence had suffused the state, the Nazis
received only 44% of the vote. The party attained a Reichstag majority
through a formal coalition with the DNVP. Finally, by intimidation they
secured needed votes from the Centre Party to pass an Enabling Act, which
gave dictatorial authority to Hitler. Through a series of decrees that
followed shortly afterwards, other parties were suppressed and all
opposition was banned. Without ever violating or suspending the Weimar
constitution, and in the space of just a few months, Hitler had attained
The Nazi regime
Having secured supreme political power without a popular mandate, Hitler in
fact did go on to win one, and he retained the support of a very large
majority of Germans until the very end of his regime. He was a master
orator, and with all of Germany's mass media under the control of his
propaganda chief, Dr Josef Goebbels, he was able to persuade most Germans
that he was their saviour—from the Depression, the Communists, the
Versailles Treaty and the Jews. For those who were not persuaded, the SA,
the SS and the Gestapo (Secret State Police) were given a free hand, and
thousands disappeared into concentration camps. Many thousands more
emigrated, including about half of Germany's Jews.
To consolidate his regime, Hitler needed the neutrality of the Army and the
industrial magnates. They were alarmed by the "socialist" component of
National Socialism, which was represented by the mainly working-class
Brownshirts of Ernst Roehm's SA. To remove this barrier to acceptance of his
regime, Hitler unleashed his lieutenant Himmler to murder Roehm and dozens
of other real and potential enemies during the night of June 29-June 30,
1930. The event is remembered as the Night of the Long Knives. When
Hindenburg died on August 2, 1934 Hitler merged the offices of President and
Chancellor, appointing himself Leader (Führer) of the German State, and
extracting an oath of personal loyalty from every member of the armed
Those Jews who had not emigrated in time soon regretted their hesitation.
Under the 1935 Nuremberg Laws they lost their status as German citizens and
were expelled from government employment, the professions and most forms of
economic activity. They were subject to a barrage of hateful propaganda. Few
non-Jewish Germans objected to these steps. The Christian Churches, steeped
in centuries of anti-Semitism, remained silent. These restrictions were
further tightened later, particularly after the 1938 anti-Jewish operation
known as Kristallnacht. From 1941 Jews were required to wear a yellow star
In March 1935 Hitler repudiated the Treaty of Versailles by reintroducing
conscription in Germany. His set goal seemed to be the building of a massive
military machine, including a new Navy and an Air Force (the Luftwaffe). The
later was set under the command of Hermann Goering, a veteran comander of
World War I. The enlistment of vast numbers of men and women in the new
military seemed to solve Germany's unemployment problems, but seriously
distorted its economy.
In March 1936 he again violated the Treaty of Versailles by reoccupying the
demilitarised zone in the Rhineland. When Britain and France did nothing to
stop him, he grew bolder. In July 1936 the Spanish Civil War begun when the
military led by General Francisco Franco rebelled against the elected
Popular Front goverment of Spain. Hitler sent troops to help the rebels.
Spain served as a testing ground for Germany's new armed forces and their
methods, including the bombing of undefended towns such as Guernica, which
was destroyed by the Luftwaffe in April 1937.
In October 25 1936 Hitler formed an alliance with the Italian fascist
dictator Benito Mussolini. This alliance was later expanded to include
Japan, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. They are collectively known as the
On March 12, 1938 Hitler bullied Austria into unification with Germany (the
Anschluss) and made a triumphal entry into Vienna. Next he created a crisis
over the German-speaking Sudetenland district of Czechoslovakia. This led to
the Munich Agreement of September 1938 where Britain and France weakly gave
way to his demands, averting war but sealing the fate of Czechoslovakia. The
Germans entered Prague on March 10, 1939.
At this point Britain and France decided to make a stand, and they resisted
Hitler's next demands, for the return of the territories ceded to Poland
under the Versailles Treaty. But the western powers were unable to come to
an agreement with the Soviet Union for an alliance against Germany, and
Hitler outsmarted them. On August 23, 1939 he concluded an alliance (the
Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact) with Stalin. On September 1 Germany invaded Poland.
Hitler was surprised when Britain and France honoured their pledge to the
Poles by declaring war on Germany.
World War II: Victories
Over the next three years Hitler had an almost unbroken run of military
success. Poland was quickly defeated and partitioned with the Soviets. In
April 1940 Germany invaded Denmark and Norway. In May Germany initiated a
lightning offensive that quickly overran The Netherlands, Belgium,
Luxembourg and France, which collapsed within six weeks. In April 1941
Yugoslavia and Greece were invaded. Meanwile German forces were advancing
across North Africa towards Egypt. These invasions were accompanied by
bombing of undefended cities such as Warsaw, Rotterdam and Belgrade.
Hitler's only setback was the failure of his attempt to bomb Britain into
submission, which was thwarted during the Battle of Britain.
On June 22, 1941 Operation Barbarossa begun. Hitler's forces invaded the
Soviet Union, rapidly seizing the western third of European Russia,
besieging Leningrad and threatening Moscow. In the winter the Germans were
repelled from the gates of Moscow, but the following summer the offensive
was resumed. By July 1942 Hitler's armies were on the Volga. Here they were
defeated at the Battle of Stalingrad, the first major defeat of Nazi
Germany. In North Africa the British defeated the Germans at the battles of
El Alamein, thwarting Hitler's plans of seizing the Suez Canal and the
It is sometimes asked why Hitler invaded the Soviet Union while leaving
Britain undefeated in the west. The answer is that Hitler had two overriding
objectives: creating an eastern empire for the Germans, and exterminating
the Jews. The Soviet Union was harbouring the second-largest Jewish
population in Europe after Poland. For Hitler, the war against the western
allies was only a necessary prelude to the conquest of Eastern Europe. Here
he intended enslave, expel or kill the Russians, Poles and other Slavic
peoples to make room for German settlers. This was an objective many Germans
shared. But his personal obsession had always been the extermination of the
Jews. The large number of Jews (3.3 million) who lived in the Soviet Union
was clearly a major factor behind his order to invade that country.
To further this end, the Wannsee conference was held near Berlin on January
20, 1942 with the participation of fifteen senior officials, including
Reinhard Heydrich and Adolf Eichmann. It developed a plan to execute the 11
million Jews in Europe and North Africa. Between 1942 and 1944 the SS,
assisted by collaborationist governments and recruits from occupied
countries, killed between 5 and 7 million Jews. Two-thirds of these were
systematically killed in six camps in Poland: Auschwitz-Birkenau, Belzec,
Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor and Treblinka. The rest were killed less
systematically elsewhere, or died of starvation and disease while working as
slave labourers. Many thousands of ordinary Germans were complicit in these
crimes. This attempt to exterminate the Jews of Europe is now generally
called the Holocaust, although the Hebrew word Shoah is preferred by some
Other ethnic groups and social categories were also subject to persecution
and in some cases extermination. Thousands of German socialists, communists
and other opponents of the regime died in concentration camps, as did a
large but unknown number of homosexual men. The Gypsies were regarded as an
inferior race and were sent to death camps. About three million Soviet
prisoners of war also died in camps or as slave labourers. All the occupied
countries suffered terrible privations and mass executions: up to three
million (non-Jewish) Polish civilians died during the occupation.
World War II: Defeat
Hitler's early military triumphs persuaded him (and many others) that he was
a strategic genius, and he became increasingly unwilling to listen to advice
or to hear bad news. After Stalingrad his military decisions became
increasingly erratic, and Germany's military and economic position
deteriorated. The entry of the United States into the war on December 7,
1941 brought the world's greatest industrial and financial power into the
coalition arrayed against him. Realists in the German army saw that defeat
was inevitable, and some officers plotted to remove Hitler from power. In
July 1944 one of them, Claus von Stauffenberg set up a bomb at Hitler's
military headquarters (the so-called July 20 Plot), but Hitler narrowly
escaped death. Savage reprisals followed and the resistance movement was
Hitler's ally Benito Mussolini was overthrown in 1943. Meanwhile the Soviet
Union was steadily forcing Hitler's armies to retreat from their conquests
in the east. But as long as western Europe was secure, Germany could hope to
hold the line indefinitely, despite an increasingly heavy campaign of
bombing of German cities. On June 6, 1944 (D-Day), American and British
armies landed in northern France, and by December they were on the Rhine.
Hitler staged a last ditch offensive in the Ardennes (the Battle of the
Bulge). But by the new year the western armies were advancing into Germany.
In February the Soviets smashed their way through Poland and eastern
Germany, and in April they arrived at the gates of Berlin. Hitler's closest
lieutenants urged him to flee to Bavaria or Austria to make a last stand in
the mountains, but he was determined to die in his capital. His armies
crumbling, and with Russian forces fighting their way into central Berlin,
Hitler killed himself in his Berlin bunker on 30 April 1945. He was 56. As
part of his last will, he ordered that his body be taken outside and burned.
In the testament he left, he dismissed the other Nazi leaders and appointed
Admiral Karl Dönitz as the new Führer and Joseph Goebbels as the new
Chancellor of Germany. However the later commited suicide on May 1, 1945. On
May 8, 1945 Germany surrendered. Hitler's "Thousand Year Reich" had lasted a
little over 12 years.
Hitler's partly burnt remains were found by the Russians. They kept this
fact secret, and for years the Soviet Union fostered rumours that Hitler had
somehow survived the war and was living in Latin America (where many
ex-Nazis actually were living). In fact his remains were buried at an
undisclosed location in eastern Germany on Stalin's instructions.
More than 40 million people died in World War II and associated events.
Hitler must take the greatest share of responsibility for the majority of
these deaths. The decision to launch the war was his alone, although he had
the enthusiastic support of most Germans. There is no known document in
which he explicitly ordered the Holocaust, but most historians believe he
not only knew of it but ordered Himmler to carry it out—certainly it
was entirely consistent with his lifelong beliefs.
For more than 60 years Hitler has been seen as the personification of evil.
Some writers have assumed that he was insane, but there is no real evidence
to support this. Today psychologists speculate that his early childhood
experiences left him incapable of emotional empathy and unable to
understand, or even see, the humanity of those he condemned to
extermination. The dominant emotion in his life was hatred, directed mainly
at the Jews, but also at other categories of people he saw as enemies.
Certainly what is known of Hitler's personal life reinforces such a view. He
is known to have had only two emotional relationships in his life after the
death of his mother when he was 18. In 1927 he formed a close friendship
with his niece, Angelica Maria "Geli" Raubal. She apparently commited
suicide in 1931. Whether the relationship was sexual is not known. Soon
after, he developed a relationship with Eva Braun, an assistant to Hitler's
court photographer. Braun is considered a woman of limited intelligence who
offered Hitler total devotion and submission. Hitler married her on April
29, 1945 and they commited suicide together the following day. Again it is
not known if this relationship was sexual. It is possible that Hitler died a
Psychological speculation about Hitler is interesting, but of limited value.
The fact, if it is a fact, that Hitler was emotionally or psychologically
disturbed does not explain how he was allowed to seize control of a great
and cultured nation and lead it to total physical ruin and moral
degradation. Every society produces sociopaths, but not every society
permits them to come to power, and no other modern society has ever followed
one so enthusiastically to catastophe. The important point is not Hitler's
mental state, but the mental state of the German people.
In the view of many historians, the key to this puzzle is anti-Semitism.
Germany was far from being the only country in Europe in which there was
endemic anti-Semitism, and Hitler was very far from being the only
anti-Semitic politician in Europe. But Germany was the only great European
state in which what recent historians have called "eliminationist
anti-Semitism"—the belief that the Jews were malevolent enemies who
should be killed - was so prevalent that a talented demagogue like Hitler
could ride it to power, given the opportunity. It was the political
demoralisation of Germany after the defeat of 1918, the catastrophe of the
Depression, and the divisions on the left that prevented effective
resistance, that gave him that opportunity.
The Consequences of Hitler
The impact of Hitler's dictatorship has been felt on events in Europe and
elsewhere ever since his death. In the short-term, Germany itself was
physically and economically devastated, its sovereignty abolished, its
territory filled with millions of refugees expelled from the lost provinces
in the east. Stalin took the opportunity to rewrite the map of eastern and
central Europe, moving the German border to the Oder-Neisse line. A
Communist regime, the German Democratic Republic, was established in the
Soviet Zone of Occupation. West Germany (the German Federal Republic)
recovered its (de facto) sovereignty in 1949, but it was 20 years before the
German economy was rebuilt, and 41 years before it was re-united.
For the Jewish people, Hitler's regime was the greatest calamity in their
history since the fall of the Temple in AD 70. Of the world's 15 million
Jews in 1939, more than a third were killed. Of the 3 million Jews in
Poland, the heartland of European Jewish culture, barely 350,000 survived.
Most of the remaining Jews in eastern and central Europe were destitute
refugees, unable and/or unwilling to return to countries which they felt had
betrayed them to the Nazis. This gave a powerful incentive to the Zionist
movement to press for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. This in
turn led to the creation of Israel in 1948 and the Arab-Israeli conflicts
The peoples of eastern Europe found themselves under Soviet military
occupation at the end of the war, and the Soviets rapidly installed
subservient Communist regimes in all the countries they controlled. Some of
the radical reforms these regimes carried out were initially popular, but it
soon became clear that this came at the price of a total loss of national
sovereignty. It was to be more than 40 years before the Russians retreated
from their gains of 1945. The Communists emerged from the war sharing the
vast prestige of the victorious Soviet armed forces, and for a while it
looked as though they might take power in France, Italy and Greece.
Hitler, however, had killed more than 27 million Soviet citizens during the
war, including some 11 million soldiers who fell in battle against Hitler's
armies or died in POW camps. Millions of civilians also died from
starvation, exposure, atrocities, and massacres, and a huge area of the
Soviet Union from the suburbs of Moscow and the Volga River to the western
border had been destroyed, depopulated, and reduced to rubble. The
staggering mass death and destruction there badly damaged the Soviet
economy, society, and national psyche. This confirmed the Soviet Union's
already paranoid fear of the West, which led to the setting up of the
Communist governments in eastern Europe; the Soviets hoped to use the
satellite states there as a buffer zone against new invasions from the West,
and to prevent such a catastrophe from ever happening again. This resulted
in a new bipolar world that was the setting for 45 years of struggle between
the capitalist and Communist powers, the Cold War.
Britain and France were on the side of the victors, but they were exhausted
and bankrupted by the war, and they never recovered their status as world
powers. With Germany and Japan in ruins as well, the world was left with
only two dominant powers, the United States and the Soviet Union. Economic
and political reality would soon force the dismantling of the European
colonial empires, especially in Africa and Asia. The new states quickly
found themselves unprepared for the realities of independence and faced the
harsh reality of rapid population growth, social unrest, and political
instability, all of which afflict many of these former colonies today.
The only positive outcome of the war was the destruction of Nazism and
fascism as political and ideological forces, although modified forms of
fascism lingered in Spain and Portugal under Franco and Salazar. The horrors
of Nazism, when fully revealed by the Nuremberg Trials in 1946, also
produced a radical re-assessment of the anti-Semitic attitudes which had
been so prevalent in Europe. The process known as denazification meant that
German society, in particular, was radically changed for the better in the
postwar years. Other forms of pseudo-scientific racism, such as eugenics,
were also discredited by the uses to which the Nazis put these doctrines.
The founding of the United Nations on October 24, 1945, and the principles
enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations, were signs that at least
some of the lessons of Hitler's career had been learned.