Category Archives: Today in History

1914 Russian Troops invade East Prussia

On this day in 1914, the Russian 1st and 2nd Armies begin their advance into East Prussia, fulfilling Russia’s promise to its ally, France, to attack Germany from the east as soon as possible so as to divert German resources and relieve pressure on France during the opening weeks of the First World War.

The Russian 1st Army, commanded by Pavel Rennenkampf, and the 2nd Army, led by Aleksandr Samsonov, advanced in a two-pronged formation—separated by the Masurian Lakes, which stretched over 100 kilometers—aiming to eventually meet and pin the German 8th Army between them. For the Germans, the Russian advance came much sooner than expected; counting on Russia’s slow preparation in the east, they had sent the great bulk of their forces west to face France. By August 19, Rennenkampf’s 1st Army had advanced to Gumbinnen, where they faced the German 8th Army—commanded by General Maximilian von Prittwitz—in battle on the River Angerapp on August 20.

During the Battle of Gumbinnen, Prittwitz received an aerial reconnaissance report that Samsonov’s 2nd Russian Army had advanced to threaten the region and its capital city, Konigsberg (present-day Kaliningrad) as well. With his forces greatly outnumbered in the region, he panicked, ordering the 8th Army to fall back to the Vistula River, against the advice of his staff and against the previous orders of the chief of the German general staff, Helmuth von Moltke, who had told him “When the Russians come, not defense only, but offensive, offensive, offensive.” From his headquarters at Koblenz, Moltke consulted with Prittwitz’s corps commanders and subsequently dismissed the general, replacing him with Paul von Hindenburg, a 67-year-old retired general of great stature. As Hindenburg’s chief of staff, he named Erich Ludendorff, the newly anointed hero of the capture of Belgium’s fortress city of Liege earlier that month.

Under this new leadership, and awaiting reinforcements summoned by Moltke from the Western Front, the German 8th Army prepared to face off against the Russians in East Prussia. Meanwhile, confusion reigned on the other side of the line, as the two advancing armies and their commanders, Rennenkampf and Samsonov, were cut off from each other and unable to successfully coordinate their attacks, despite enjoying numerical superiority over the Germans. This lack of communication would prove costly in the last week of August, when the Germans enveloped and devastated Samsonov’s 2nd Army, scoring what would be their greatest victory of the war on the Eastern Front in the Battle of Tannenberg. The battle elevated Hindenburg and Ludendorff to the status of national heroes in Germany. Their partnership, born in East Prussia in the opening weeks of the war, would eventually acquire mythic status, as the two men moved forward together at the heart of the German war effort, right up to the bitter end in 1918.

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1961 Berlin is Divided

Shortly after midnight on this day in 1961, East German soldiers begin laying down barbed wire and bricks as a barrier between Soviet-controlled East Berlin and the democratic western section of the city.

After World War II, defeated Germany was divided into Soviet, American, British and French zones of occupation. The city of Berlin, though technically part of the Soviet zone, was also split, with the Soviets taking the eastern part of the city. After a massive Allied airlift in June 1948 foiled a Soviet attempt to blockade West Berlin, the eastern section was drawn even more tightly into the Soviet fold. Over the next 12 years, cut off from its western counterpart and basically reduced to a Soviet satellite, East Germany saw between 2.5 million and 3 million of its citizens head to West Germany in search of better opportunities. By 1961, some 1,000 East Germans–including many skilled laborers, professionals and intellectuals–were leaving every day.

In August, Walter Ulbricht, the Communist leader of East Germany, got the go-ahead from Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to begin the sealing off of all access between East and West Berlin. Soldiers began the work over the night of August 12-13, laying more than 100 miles of barbed wire slightly inside the East Berlin border. The wire was soon replaced by a six-foot-high, 96-mile-long wall of concrete blocks, complete with guard towers, machine gun posts, and searchlights. East German officers known as Volkspolizei (“Volpos”) patrolled the Berlin Wall day and night.

Many Berlin residents on that first morning found themselves suddenly cut off from friends or family members in the other half of the city. Led by their mayor, Willi Brandt, West Berliners demonstrated against the wall, as Brandt criticized Western democracies, particularly the United States, for failing to take a stand against it. President John F. Kennedy had earlier said publicly that the United States could only really help West Berliners and West Germans, and that any kind of action on behalf of East Germans would only result in failure.

The Berlin Wall was one of the most powerful and iconic symbols of the Cold War. In June 1963, Kennedy gave his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” (“I am a Berliner”) speech in front of the Wall, celebrating the city as a symbol of freedom and democracy in its resistance to tyranny and oppression. The height of the Wall was raised to 10 feet in 1970 in an effort to stop escape attempts, which at that time came almost daily. From 1961 to 1989, a total of 5,000 East Germans escaped; many more tried and failed. High profile shootings of some would-be defectors only intensified the Western world’s hatred of the Wall.

Finally, in the late 1980s, East Germany, fueled by the decline of the Soviet Union, began to implement a number of liberal reforms. On November 9, 1989, masses of East and West Germans alike gathered at the Berlin Wall and began to climb over and dismantle it. As this symbol of Cold War repression was destroyed, East and West Germany became one nation again, signing a formal treaty of unification on October 3, 1990.

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1940 The Battle of Britain Escalates

On this day in 1940, German aircraft begin the bombing of southern England, and the Battle of Britain, which will last until October 31, escalates.

The Germans called it “the Day of the Eagle,” the first day of the Luftwaffe’s campaign to destroy the RAF, the British Royal Air Force, and knock out British radar stations, in preparation for Operation Sea Lion, the amphibious invasion of Britain. Almost 1,500 German aircraft took off the first day of the air raid, and 45 were shot down. Britain lost 13 fighters in the air and another 47 on the ground. But most important for the future, the Luftwaffe managed to take out only one radar station, on the Isle of Wight and damaged five others. This was considered more trouble than it was worth by Herman Goering, commander of the Luftwaffe, who decided to forgo further targeting of British radar stations because “not one of those attacked so far has been put out of operation.”

Historians agree that this was a monumental mistake on the part of the Germans. Had Goering and the Luftwaffe persisted in attacking British radar, the RAF would not have been able to get the information necessary to successfully intercept incoming German bombers. “Here, early in the battle, we get a glimpse of fuddled thinking at the highest level in the German camp,” comments historian Peter Fleming. Even the Blitz, the intensive and successive bombing of London that would begin in the last days of the Battle of Britain, could not compensate for such thinking. There would be no Operation Sea Lion. There would be no invasion of Britain. The RAF would not be defeated.

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1918 German Crown Council at Spa

On this day in 1918, five days after an Allied attack at Amiens, France, leads German commander Erich Ludendorff to declare “the black day of the German army,” Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany summons his principal political and military leaders to a crown council at Spa, a resort town in Belgium, to assess the status of the German war effort during World War I.

On August 11, after the Allied victory at Amiens kicked off a new Allied offensive on the Western Front, Ludendorff and Paul von Hindenburg, chief of the German army’s general staff, told the new naval chief, Admiral Reinhardt Scheer, that Germany’s only hope to win the war was through submarine warfare. “There is no more hope for the offensive,” the downtrodden Ludendorff told a staff member on August 12. “The generals have lost their foothold.”

At the crown council assembled on August 13-14 by the Kaiser at Spa, where the German High Command had its headquarters, Ludendorff recommended that Germany initiate immediate peace negotiations. Ludendorff failed, however, to present the true extent of the military’s disadvantage on the battlefield; instead, he blamed revolt and anti-war sentiment on the home front for the military’s inability to continue the war effort indefinitely. Meanwhile, the chief military adviser to Austrian Emperor Karl I informed Wilhelm that Austria-Hungary could only continue its participation in the war until that December. Though the Kaiser thought it advisable to seek an intermediary to begin peace negotiations, his newly appointed foreign minister, Paul von Hintze, refused to take such an approach until another German victory on the battlefield had been achieved. Hintze, working on suppressing discontent and rebellion within the German government, told party leaders the following week that “there was no reason to doubt ultimate victory. We shall be vanquished only when we doubt that we shall win.”

Meanwhile, on the battlefront in Flanders, Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, one of the German army’s most senior commanders, wrote of his own doubt to Prince Max of Baden (the Kaiser’s second cousin, who would become chancellor of Germany the following October): “Our military situation has deteriorated so rapidly that I no longer believe we can hold out over the winter; it is even possible that a catastrophe will come earlier….The Americans are multiplying in a way we never dreamed of….At the present time, there are already thirty-one American divisions in France.” The Allied commanders, for their part, pushed their troops forward on the Western Front and made aggressive preparations for future offensives in 1919, unaware that victory would come before the year was out.

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Hitler Institutes the Mother’s Cross

On this day in 1938, Adolf Hitler institutes the Mother’s Cross, to encourage German women to have more children, to be awarded each year on August 12, Hitler’s mother’s birthday.

The German Reich needed a robust and growing population and encouraged couples to have large families. It started such encouragement early. Once members of the distaff wing of the Hitler Youth movement, the League of German Girls, turned 18, they became eligible for a branch called Faith and Beauty, which trained these girls in the art of becoming ideal mothers. One component of that ideal was fecundity. And so each year, in honor of his beloved mother, Klara, and in memory of her birthday, a gold medal was awarded to women with seven children, a silver to women with six, and a bronze to women with five.

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1914 Walter Rathenau of AEG Takes Charge of German War Production

On August 9, 1914, barely one week after the outbreak of the First World War, German Minister of War Erich von Falkenhayn puts Walter Rathenau of the large electronics firm Allgemeine-Elektrizitats-Gellellschaft (AEG) in charge of organizing all the raw materials for Germany’s war production.

The issue of how to effectively collect and utilize raw materials for the production of munitions and other war supplies was especially important for Germany, who was prevented from importing anything by the Allied naval blockade in the North Sea, in place from the beginning of the war. Rathenau, the son of AEG’s founder, had approached the German War Department proposing to “save Germany from strangulation” with an idea of centralizing the management of the war production process under a single organization, a raw materials agency. In Rathenau’s vision, the agency would take inventory of the raw materials available—not only in Germany but in all German-occupied territories, such as Belgium—and allocate them to the firms that could use them best. Each commodity used in war production would have its own raw materials company, with a board of directors drawn from the firms that used the given commodity.

In this way, Rathenau convinced Falkenhayn, he would combine the best aspects of the capitalist free-market system would be united with the principles of collective management to enable a smooth, optimally effective war production process. Falkenhayn was convinced, and made Rathenau the head of what became the KRA, the German war production organization. Appointing Rathenau—who was Jewish—to head war production was an extraordinary step for a Prussian military officer to take at the time.

In the end, however, Rathenau served in the new post only briefly, as many of the businesses the KRA administered bristled under an organization directed by a Jew. In April 1915, Rathenau was forced to resign; he subsequently returned to his post at AEG, becoming chairman of the company upon his father’s death in June 1915. Rathenau remained active in politics, and worked to support the creation of the Third Supreme Command, an effective military dictatorship under Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff, in August 1916. He opposed some of the Command’s decisions, however, including the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917 and Ludendorff’s desire to annex territory on the Eastern Front. After the war, Rathenau joined the Democratic Party; he served as minister for reconstruction from 1919 to 1921 and became foreign minister in 1922. In June of that year, shortly after signing the controversial Treaty of Rapallo with the Soviet Union—which reestablished diplomatic relations between the two countries—Rathenau was murdered in Berlin by right-wing anti-Semitic extremists.

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1943 Hitler receives News of Italy’s Imminent Defection

On this day in 1943, Adolf Hitler learns that Axis ally Italy is buying time before negotiating surrender terms with the Allies in light of Mussolini’s fall from power.

Hitler had feared that such a turn of events was possible, if not probable. Hitler had come to Italy on July 19 to lecture Il Duce on his failed military leadership—evidence that he knew, even if he was not admitting, that both Mussolini and Italy were about to collapse, leaving the Italian peninsula open to Allied occupation. Despite a half-hearted reassurance from Mussolini that Italy would continue to battle on, Hitler nevertheless began preparing for the prospect of Italy’s surrender to the Allies.

When Mussolini was ousted from power and arrested by his own police six days later. Hitler gathered Goering, Goebbels, Himmler, Rommel, and the commander in chief of the German navy, Karl Doenitz, at his headquarters to reveal the plans of action he had already been formulating. Among them: (1) Operation Oak, in which Mussolini would be rescued from captivity; (2) the occupation of Rome by German forces and the reinstallation of Mussolini and his fascist government; (3) Operation Black, the German occupation of all Italy; and (4) Operation Axis, the destruction of the Italian fleet (in order to prevent it from being commandeered for Allied use).

Hitler’s advisers urged caution, especially since it would require recalling troops from the Eastern front. The Allies had not made a move on Rome yet, and although Mussolini was under arrest, the Italian government had not formally surrendered. Germany had received assurances from Mussolini’s successor, General Badoglio, that Italy would continue to fight at Germany’s side. Then on July 30, Hitler read a message from his security police chief in Zagreb that an Italian general had confided to a Croat general that Italy’s assurances of loyalty to Germany were “designed merely to gain time for the conclusion of negotiations with the enemy.”

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