Category Archives: Today in History

1940 Marshal Petain becomes Premier of Occupied France

On this day in 1940, Marshal Henri-Philippe Petain, World War I hero, becomes prime minister of the Vichy government of France.

As Germany began to overrun more French territory, the French Cabinet became desperate for a solution to this crisis. Premier Paul Reynaud continued to hold out hope, refusing to ask for an armistice, especially now that France had received assurance from Britain that the two would fight as one, and that Britain would continue to fight the Germans even if France were completely overtaken. But others in the government were despondent and wanted to sue for peace. Reynaud resigned in protest. His vice premier, Henri Petain, formed a new government and asked the Germans for an armistice, in effect, surrendering.

This was an ironic position for Petain, to say the least. The man who had become a legendary war hero for successfully repelling a German attack on the French city of Verdun during the First World War was now surrendering to Hitler.

In the city of Vichy, the French Senate and Chamber of Deputies conferred on the 84-year-old general the title of “Chief of State,” making him a virtual dictator–although one controlled by Berlin. Petain believed that he could negotiate a better deal for his country–for example, obtaining the release of prisoners of war–by cooperating with, or as some would say, appeasing, the Germans.

But Petain proved to be too clever by half. While he fought against a close Franco-German military collaboration, and fired his vice premier, Pierre Laval, for advocating it, and secretly urged Spain’s dictator Francisco Franco to refuse passage of the German army to North Africa, his attempts to undermine the Axis while maintaining an official posture of neutrality did not go unnoticed by Hitler, who ordered that Laval be reinstated as vice premier. Petain acquiesced, but refused to resign in protest because of fear that France would come under direct German rule if he were not there to act as a buffer. But he soon became little more than a figurehead, despite efforts to manipulate events behind the scenes that would advance the Free French cause (then publicly denying, even denouncing, those events when they came to light).

When Paris was finally liberated by General Charles de Gaulle in 1944, Petain fled to Germany. He was brought back after the war to stand trial for his duplicity. He was sentenced to death, which was then commuted to life in solitary confinement. He died at 95 in prison. The man responsible for saving his life was de Gaulle. He and Petain had fought in the same unit in World War I and had not forgotten Petain’s bravery during that world war.

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1914 Austrian Investigation into Archduke’s Assassination Concludes

On July 13, 1914, Friedrich von Wiesner, an official of the Austro-Hungarian Foreign Office, reports back to Foreign Minister Leopold von Berchtold the findings of an investigation into the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne, and his wife Sophie the previous June 28, in Sarajevo, Bosnia.

The Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary had long feared its waning influence in early 20th-century Europe, and was particularly threatened after the two Balkan Wars of 1912-13 confirmed the growing influence and ambition of Serbia, backed by its mighty Slavic ally, Russia. In fact, even before Franz Ferdinand’s death, Berchtold’s office had been preparing a memorandum for the archduke, as well as for Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II, proposing an alliance with Bulgaria to shore up Austrian influence and isolate Serbia in the tumultuous Balkans region. When Gavrilo Princip, a young Bosnian Serb nationalist, shot Franz Ferdinand and Sophie at point-blank range in their car in Sarajevo on June 28, Berchtold—along with most in Vienna and the rest of the world—assumed the Serbian government had some complicity in the plot. Two days after the assassination, Berchtold proposed a “final and fundamental reckoning with Serbia” to the Austrian emperor, 84-year-old Franz Josef, who agreed to send a personal note to Kaiser Wilhelm, along with a revised and more aggressive version of the memorandum. On July 5, the kaiser gave Berchtold’s ambassador what has become known as carte blanche or “blank check” assurance that Germany would back Austria-Hungary in any punitive action it chose to take against Serbia.

By July 8, both Berchtold and Conrad von Hotzendorff, the bellicose chief of staff of the Austrian army, had come to believe that a military invasion of Serbia was both desirable and necessary to capitalize on the situation and crush the upstart rival. Even as Austrian investigators worked to sort through the evidence in Sarajevo, then, Austria-Hungary, with German encouragement (in fact, Berlin was pressing Vienna to act more quickly) plotted the next step: the presentation of an ultimatum to Serbia that would be worded in such a way as to make it practically impossible for the other country to accept.

On July 13, Wiesner reported the findings of the Austrian investigation: “There is nothing to prove or even suppose that the Serbian government is accessory to the inducement for the crime, its preparation, or the furnishing of weapons. On the contrary, there are reasons to believe that this is altogether out of the question.” The only evidence that could be found, it seemed, was that Princip and his cohorts had been aided by individuals with ties to the government, most likely members of a shadowy organization within the army, the Black Hand. Realizing he would have to go ahead without evidence of Serbian guilt, Berchtold declined to share these findings with Franz Josef, while his office continued the drafting of the Serbian ultimatum, which was to be delivered on July 23 in Belgrade.

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1917 German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg Resigns

On July 10, 1917, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, chancellor of Germany, resigns his position after failing to control the divided German Reichstag (government) as World War I threatened to stretch into its fourth agonizing year.

A former Prussian minister of the interior and state secretary in the Imperial German Office, Bethmann Hollweg was appointed German chancellor by Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1909. Though of a relatively liberal bent, Bethmann Hollweg from the beginning strove to satisfy both the right and left extremes within the Reichstag, with varying results. His efforts to pursue diplomacy within Europe were often undermined by the strength of the German military establishment, supported by the kaiser. One outstanding example of this dynamic was Bethmann Hollweg’s unsuccessful efforts to scale back Germany’s aggressive naval build-up in the first decade of the 20th century, in accordance with negotiations he entered into with Britain. In the end, the kaiser weighed in on the side of Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, and the naval arms race continued.

Though Bethmann Hollweg personally expressed hopes of avoiding Germany’s going to war in the summer of 1914, he nonetheless played a central role in the machinations between Austria-Hungary and Germany that occurred in the wake of the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo in late June. Once the war was underway, Bethmann Hollweg struggled to make his influence felt with the kaiser and the military leaders of Germany, who effectively dictated policy from the first year of war and whose power was formally consolidated with the creation of the Third Supreme Command—effectively a military dictatorship—in August 1916. The chancellor, echoing more liberal elements within the Reichstag, including the socialists, spoke out for peace more than once and argued for limitation of Germany’s policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, actions that earned him the contempt of the military and naval command, including Von Tirpitz and Generals Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff.

The chancellor owed his final downfall, however, to his failure to manage the civil unrest within Germany, reflected in the feuding Reichstag. During the summer of 1917, as parliamentary debate raged over a proposed peace resolution, Bethmann Hollweg found himself unable to continue to balance the feuding elements of the German government, especially the majority Socialist Party—which was itself alienating its most radical leftist elements by aligning with a center-left coalition—and the conservative right, which predictably enjoyed the support of Hindenburg and Ludendorff. Having previously committed—reluctantly—to an unrestricted naval policy that had led the United States to declare war on Germany the previous April, Bethmann Hollweg was seen by the center-left, the authors of the Reichstag peace resolution, as a warmonger and by the right as a weakling for supporting the efforts to broker a peace.

Exhausted, Bethmann Hollweg rose in the Reichstag on July 9 to respond to his critics: “My position does not matter…I myself am convinced of my own limitations…I am considered weak because I seek to end the war. A leading statesman can receive support neither from the Left nor the Right in Germany.” The following day, he resigned as chancellor. He was replaced by Georg Michaelis, a relatively obscure undersecretary of state in the Finance Ministry who served for less than four months, only to be replaced by the equally unobtrusive Count Georg von Hertling, who served until the last month of the war and was, like Michaelis, basically a puppet premier subject to the authority of the kaiser and the military.

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1940 The Battle of Britain Begins

On this day in 1940, the Germans begin the first in a long series of bombing raids against Great Britain, as the Battle of Britain, which will last three and a half months, begins.

After the occupation of France by Germany, Britain knew it was only a matter of time before the Axis power turned its sights across the Channel. And on July 10, 120 German bombers and fighters struck a British shipping convoy in that very Channel, while 70 more bombers attacked dockyard installations in South Wales. Although Britain had far fewer fighters than the Germans–600 to 1,300–it had a few advantages, such as an effective radar system, which made the prospects of a German sneak attack unlikely. Britain also produced superior quality aircraft. Its Spitfires could turn tighter than Germany’s ME109s, enabling it to better elude pursuers; and its Hurricanes could carry 40mm cannon, and would shoot down, with its American Browning machine guns, over 1,500 Luftwaffe aircraft. The German single-engine fighters had a limited flight radius, and its bombers lacked the bomb-load capacity necessary to unleash permanent devastation on their targets. Britain also had the advantage of unified focus, while German infighting caused missteps in timing; they also suffered from poor intelligence.

But in the opening days of battle, Britain was in immediate need of two things: a collective stiff upper lip–and aluminum. A plea was made by the government to turn in all available aluminum to the Ministry of Aircraft Production. “We will turn your pots and pans into Spitfires and Hurricanes,” the ministry declared. And they did.

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1942 The Battle of El Alamein Begins

On this day in 1942, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel is brought to a standstill in the battle for control of North Africa.

In June, the British had succeeded in driving Rommel into a defensive position in Libya. But Rommel repelled repeated air and tank attacks, delivering heavy losses to the armored strength of the British, and finally, using his panzer divisions, managed to force a British retreat—a retreat so rapid that a huge quantity of supplies was left behind. In fact, Rommel managed to push the British into Egypt using mostly captured vehicles.

Rommel’s Afrika Korps was now in Egypt, in El Alamein, only 60 miles west of the British naval base in Alexandria. The Axis powers smelled blood. The Italian troops that had preceded Rommel’s German forces in North Africa, only to be beaten back by the British, then saved from complete defeat by the arrival of Rommel, were now back on the winning side, their dwindled numbers having fought alongside the Afrika Korps. Naturally, Benito Mussolini saw this as his opportunity to partake of the victors’ spoils. And Hitler anticipated adding Egypt to his empire.

But the Allies were not finished. Reinforced by American supplies, and reorganized and reinvigorated by British General Claude Auchinleck, British, Indian, South African, and New Zealand troops battled Rommel, and his by now exhausted men, to a standstill in Egypt. Auchinleck denied the Axis Egypt. Rommel was back on the defensive—a definite turning point in the war in North Africa.

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1941 Germans Advance in USSR

One week after launching a massive invasion of the USSR, German divisions make staggering advances on Leningrad, Moscow, and Kiev.

Despite his signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin knew that war with Nazi Germany–the USSR’s natural ideological enemy–was inevitable. In 1941, he received reports that German forces were massing along the USSR’s eastern border. He ordered a partial mobilization, unwisely believing that Nazi leader Adolf Hitler would never open another front until Britain was subdued. Stalin was thus surprised by the invasion that came on June 22, 1941. On that day, 150 German divisions poured across the Soviet Union’s 1,800-mile-long eastern frontier in one of the largest and most powerful military operations in history.

Aided by its far superior air force, the Luftwaffe, the Germans raced across the USSR in three great army groups, inflicting terrible casualties on the Red Army and Soviet civilians. On June 29, the cities of Riga and Ventspils in Latvia fell, 200 Soviet aircraft were shot down, and the encirclement of three Russian armies was nearly complete at Minsk in Belarus. Assisted by their Romanian and Finnish allies, the Germans conquered vast territory in the opening months of the invasion, and by mid-October the great Russian cities of Leningrad and Moscow were under siege.

However, like Napoleon Bonaparte in 1812, Hitler failed to take into account the Russian people’s historic determination in resisting invaders. Although millions of Soviet soldiers and citizens perished in 1941, and to the rest of the world it seemed certain that the USSR would fall, the defiant Red Army and bitter Russian populace were steadily crushing Hitler’s hopes for a quick victory. Stalin had far greater reserves of Red Army divisions than German intelligence had anticipated, and the Soviet government did not collapse from lack of popular support as expected. Confronted with the harsh reality of Nazi occupation, Soviets chose Stalin’s regime as the lesser of two evils and willingly sacrificed themselves in what became known as the “Great Patriotic War.”

The German offensive against Moscow stalled only 20 miles from the Kremlin, Leningrad’s spirit of resistance remained strong, and the Soviet armament industry–transported by train to the safety of the east–carried on, safe from the fighting. Finally, what the Russians call “General Winter” rallied again to their cause, crippling the Germans’ ability to maneuver and thinning the ranks of the divisions ordered to hold their positions until the next summer offensive. The winter of 1941 came early and was the worst in decades, and German troops without winter coats were decimated by the major Soviet counteroffensives that began in December.

In May 1942, the Germans, who had held their line at great cost, launched their summer offensive. They captured the Caucasus and pushed to the city of Stalingrad, where one of the greatest battles of World War II began. In November 1942, a massive Soviet counteroffensive was launched out of the rubble of Stalingrad, and at the end of January 1943 German Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus surrendered his encircled army. It was the turning point in the war, and the Soviets subsequently recaptured all the territory taken by the Germans in their 1942 offensive.

In July 1943, the Germans launched their last major attack, at Kursk; after two months of fierce battle involving thousands of tanks it ended in failure. From thereon, the Red Army steadily pushed the Germans back in a series of Soviet offensives. In January 1944, Leningrad was relieved, and a giant offensive to sweep the USSR clean of its invaders began in May. In January 1945, the Red Army launched its final offensive, driving into Czechoslovakia and Austria and, in late April, Berlin. The German capital was captured on May 2, and five days later Germany surrendered in World War II.

More than 18 million Soviet soldiers and civilians lost their lives in the Great Patriotic War. Germany lost more than three million men as a result of its disastrous invasion of the USSR.

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1948 U.S. Begins Berlin Airlift

On this day in 1948, U.S. and British pilots begin delivering food and supplies by airplane to Berlin after the city is isolated by a Soviet Union blockade.

When World War II ended in 1945, defeated Germany was divided into Soviet, American, British and French zones of occupation. The city of Berlin, though located within the Soviet zone of occupation, was also split into four sectors, with the Allies taking the western part of the city and the Soviets the eastern. In June 1948, Josef Stalin’s government attempted to consolidate control of the city by cutting off all land and sea routes to West Berlin in order to pressure the Allies to evacuate. As a result, beginning on June 24 the western section of Berlin and its 2 million people were deprived of food, heating fuel and other crucial supplies.

Though some in U.S. President Harry S. Truman’s administration called for a direct military response to this aggressive Soviet move, Truman worried such a response would trigger another world war. Instead, he authorized a massive airlift operation under the control of General Lucius D. Clay, the American-appointed military governor of Germany. The first planes took off from England and western Germany on June 26, loaded with food, clothing, water, medicine and fuel.

By July 15, an average of 2,500 tons of supplies was being flown into the city every day. The massive scale of the airlift made it a huge logistical challenge and at times a great risk. With planes landing at Tempelhof Airport every four minutes, round the clock, pilots were being asked to fly two or more round-trip flights every day, in World War II planes that were sometimes in need of repair.

The Soviets lifted the blockade in May 1949, having earned the scorn of the international community for subjecting innocent men, women and children to hardship and starvation. The airlift–called die Luftbrucke or “the air bridge” in German–continued until September 1949, for a total delivery of more than 1.5 million tons of supplies and a total cost of over $224 million. When it ended, the eastern section of Berlin was absorbed into Soviet East Germany, while West Berlin remained a separate territory with its own government and close ties to West Germany. The Berlin Wall, built in 1961, formed a dividing line between East and West Berlin. Its destruction in 1989 presaged the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and marked the end of an era and the reemergence of Berlin as the capital of a new, unified German nation.

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