Category Archives: Today in History

Soviets blockade West Berlin

Jun 24, 1948:

Soviets blockade West Berlin

One of the most dramatic standoffs in the history of the Cold War begins as the Soviet Union blocks all road and rail traffic to and from West Berlin. The blockade turned out to be a terrible diplomatic move by the Soviets, while the United States emerged from the confrontation with renewed purpose and confidence.

Following World War II, Germany was divided into occupation zones. The United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and, eventually, France, were given specific zones to occupy in which they were to accept the surrender of Nazi forces and restore order. The Soviet Union occupied most of eastern Germany, while the other Allied nations occupied western Germany. The German capital of Berlin was similarly divided into four zones of occupation. Almost immediately, differences between the United States and the Soviet Union surfaced. The Soviets sought huge reparations from Germany in the form of money, industrial equipment, and resources. The Russians also made it clear that they desired a neutral and disarmed Germany. The United States saw things in quite a different way. American officials believed that the economic recovery of Western Europe was dependent on a strong, reunified Germany. They also felt that only a rearmed Germany could stand as a bulwark against Soviet expansion into Western Europe. In May 1946, the Americans stopped reparations shipments from their zone to the Soviets. In December, the British and Americans combined their zones; the French joined some months later. The Soviets viewed these actions as a threat and issued more demands for a say in the economic future of Germany. On June 22, 1948, negotiations between the Soviets, Americans, and British broke down. On June 24, Soviet forces blocked the roads and railroad lines into West Berlin.

American officials were furious, and some in the administration of President Harry S. Truman argued that the time for diplomacy with the Soviets was over. For a few tense days, the world waited to see whether the United States and Soviet Union would come to blows. In West Berlin, panic began to set in as its population worried about shortages of food, water, and medical aid. The United States response came just two days after the Soviets began their blockade. A massive airlift of supplies into West Berlin was undertaken in what was to become one of the greatest logistical efforts in history. For the Soviets, the escapade quickly became a diplomatic embarrassment. Russia looked like an international bully that was trying to starve men, women, and children into submission. And the successful American airlift merely served to accentuate the technological superiority of the United States over the Soviet Union. On May 12, 1949, the Soviets officially ended the blockade.

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Soviets enjoy a Victory Parade

Jun 24, 1945:

Soviets enjoy a victory parade

On this day in 1945, Soviet troops parade past Red Square in celebration of their victory over Germany. As drums rolled, 200 soldiers performed a familiar ritual: They threw 200 German military banners at the foot of the Lenin Mausoleum. A little over 130 years earlier, victorious Russian troops threw Napoleon’s banners at the feet of Czar Alexander I.

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First operational flight of New German Fokker Eindecker Plane

Jun 24, 1915:

First operational flight of New German Fokker Eindecker plane

On June 24, 1915, young Oswald Boelcke, one of the earliest and best German fighter pilots of World War I, makes the first operational flight of the Fokker Eindecker plane.

The years of the First World War, 1914 to 1918, saw a staggering improvement not only in aircraft production, but also in technology, on both sides of the conflict. The war began just a decade after Orville and Wilbur Wright made their historic 12-second flight at Kittyhawk, North Carolina; by 1918, fighter airplanes had been developed that could serve purposes of observation and reconnaissance, tactical and strategic bombing, direct attack on ground and air targets and use in naval warfare.

The Fokker Eindecker, a plane equipped first with one and eventually with two machine guns that could fire straight ahead through the aircraft’s propellers, would have a huge impact on air combat in the Great War and would put the Luftstreitkrafte, the German Air Service, far ahead of the Allied air forces for several months during the summer of 1915. The British referred to this as the Fokker Menace or the Fokker Scourge. The plane’s designer, Anton Fokker, had based the concept of synchronization, or the precise timing of the propeller blades to avoid being struck by the machine gun bullets, on an aircraft designed by France’s Morane-Saulnier corporation and flown by the famous French ace Roland Garros when he was shot down in April 1915 by the Germans. The Fokker Eindecker, or Fokker E, plane made German pilots like Boelcke and Max Immelmann into national heroes, as the number of their kills increased exponentially.

By the end of the summer of 1915, the Allies had managed to develop their own planes to rival the Fokkers, and balance was restored. Another German air menace reared its head in early 1917, though, as the new German Albatros planes decimated the British Royal Flying Corps in the skies over France. Soon, however, Allied aviation technology and production began to far outstrip the German efforts, as aerial combat became less a question of individual battles by heroic pilots than a matter of mass-production capability. In the last year of the war, Britain, France and the United States jointly produced an average of 11,200 aircraft and 14,500 engines per month, while their financially struggling German counterparts managed below 2,000 of each.

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Hitler’s Tour of Paris

Jun 23, 1940:

Hitler’s Tour of Paris

On this day in 1940, Adolf Hitler surveys notable sites in the French capital, now German-occupied territory.

In his first and only visit to Paris, Hitler made Napoleon’s tomb among the sites to see. “That was the greatest and finest moment of my life,” he said upon leaving. Comparisons between the Fuhrer and Napoleon have been made many times: They were both foreigners to the countries they ruled (Napoleon was Italian, Hitler was Austrian); both planned invasions of Russia while preparing invasions of England; both captured the Russian city of Vilna on June 24; both had photographic memories; both were under 5 feet 9 inches tall, among other coincidences.

As a tribute to the French emperor, Hitler ordered that the remains of Napoleon’s son be moved from Vienna to lie beside his father.

But Hitler being Hitler, he came to do more than gawk at the tourist attractions. He ordered the destruction of two World War I monuments: one to General Charles Mangin, a French war hero, and one to Edith Cavell, a British nurse who was executed by a German firing squad for helping Allied soldiers escape German-occupied Brussels. The last thing Hitler wanted were such visible reminders of past German defeat.

Hitler would gush about Paris for months afterward. He was so impressed, he ordered architect and friend Albert Speer to revive plans for a massive construction program of new public buildings in Berlin, an attempt to destroy Paris, not with bombs, but with superior architecture. “Wasn’t Paris beautiful?” Hitler asked Speer. “But Berlin must be far more beautiful. [W]hen we are finished in Berlin, Paris will only be a shadow.”

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First Battle of the Isonzo

Jun 23, 1915:

First Battle of the Isonzo

On June 23, 1915, exactly one month after Italy declared war on Austria-Hungary, the Italian army attacks Austro-Hungarian positions near the Isonzo River, in the eastern section of the Italian front; it will become the first of twelve Battles of the Isonzo fought during World War I.

Of all the fronts of the Great War, the Italian was the least well-suited not only for offensive operations but for any form of warfare at all. Four-fifths of Italy’s 600-kilometer-long border with Austria-Hungary was mountainous, with several peaks rising above 3,000 meters. Despite this, the Italian chief of staff, Luigi Cadorna, desperately wanted to satisfy the demands of his government–as well as the other Allies–by making substantial gains of territory against Austria-Hungary upon Italy’s declaration of war on May 23, 1915.

For its part, Austria-Hungary was surprisingly unconcerned with the Italian entry into the war, despite the fact that it opened a third front for an army whose resources were already stretched dangerously thin. In the years before the war, the Austrian commander in chief, Conrad von Hotzendorff, had often suggested a pre-emptive strike against Italy, as well as against Serbia; in 1915, the prospect of confronting an inferior Italian army seemed to lend a new burst of energy to the Dual Monarchy. Germany, though, pressured Austria-Hungary to fight defensively in Italy and not to divert resources from the Eastern Front against Russia. As a result, while the Italians plotted ambitious offensive operations, including surprise attacks across the Isonzo River, the Austrians settled into their positions in the mountains along the rapid-flowing Isonzo and planned to mount a solid and spirited defense.

After a series of preliminary operations on various sections of the front, Italian forces struck the Austrian positions at the Isonzo for the first time on June 23, 1915, after a one-week bombardment. Despite enjoying numerical superiority, the Italian forces were unable to break the Austro-Hungarian forces, Cadorna having failed to assemble adequate artillery protection to back up his infantry troops–a mistake similar to those made early in the war by commanders on the Western Front. Two Austro-Hungarian infantry divisions soon arrived to aid their comrades at the Isonzo and the Italians were prevented from crossing the river; Cadorna called off the attacks on July 7.

In the four battles fought on the Isonzo in 1915 alone, Italy made no substantial progress and suffered 235,000 casualties, including 54,000 killed. Cadorna’s plans for a highly mobile Italian advance had definitively failed, and battle on the Italian front, as in the west, had settled into slow, excruciating trench warfare.

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Germany launches Operation Barbarossa—the Invasion of the Soviet Union

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Jun 22, 1941:

Germany launches Operation Barbarossa—the Invasion of the Soviet Union

On this day in 1941, over 3 million German troops invade Russia in three parallel offensives, in what is the most powerful invasion force in history. Nineteen panzer divisions, 3,000 tanks, 2,500 aircraft, and 7,000 artillery pieces pour across a thousand-mile front as Hitler goes to war on a second front.

Despite the fact that Germany and Russia had signed a “pact” in 1939, each guaranteeing the other a specific region of influence without interference from the other, suspicion remained high. When the Soviet Union invaded Rumania in 1940, Hitler saw a threat to his Balkan oil supply. He immediately responded by moving two armored and 10 infantry divisions into Poland, posing a counterthreat to Russia. But what began as a defensive move turned into a plan for a German first-strike. Despite warnings from his advisers that Germany could not fight the war on two fronts (as Germany’s experience in World War I proved), Hitler became convinced that England was holding out against German assaults, refusing to surrender, because it had struck a secret deal with Russia. Fearing he would be “strangled” from the East and the West, he created, in December 1940, “Directive No. 21: Case Barbarossa”–the plan to invade and occupy the very nation he had actually asked to join the Axis only a month before!

On June 22, 1941, having postponed the invasion of Russia after Italy’s attack on Greece forced Hitler to bail out his struggling ally in order to keep the Allies from gaining a foothold in the Balkans, three German army groups struck Russia hard by surprise. The Russian army was larger than German intelligence had anticipated, but they were demobilized. Stalin had shrugged off warnings from his own advisers, even Winston Churchill himself, that a German attack was imminent. (Although Hitler had telegraphed his territorial designs on Russia as early as 1925–in his autobiography, Mein Kampf.) By the end of the first day of the invasion, the German air force had destroyed more than 1,000 Soviet aircraft. And despite the toughness of the Russian troops, and the number of tanks and other armaments at their disposal, the Red Army was disorganized, enabling the Germans to penetrate up to 300 miles into Russian territory within the next few days.

Exactly 129 years and one day before Operation Barbarossa, another “dictator” foreign to the country he controlled, invaded Russia–making it all the way to the capital. But despite this early success, Napoleon would be escorted back to France–by Russian troops.

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Erich Maria Remarque Born

All Quiet on the Western Front
All Quiet on the Western Front

Jun 22, 1898:

Erich Maria Remarque Born

On June 22, 1898, Erich Maria Remarque, the author of the great World War I novel All Quiet on the Western Front, is born in Osnabruck, Germany.

A student at the University of Munster, Remarque was drafted into the German army at the age of 18. He fought on the Western Front during World War I and was wounded no fewer than five times, the last time seriously. After the war, he worked various jobs—teacher, stonecutter, race-car driver, sports journalist—while working to complete the novel he had had in mind since the war. Published in Germany in 1929 as Im Westen Nichts Neues, it sold 1.2 million copies within a year; the English translation, All Quiet on the Western Front, published the same year, went on to similar success. It was subsequently translated into 12 languages, and made into a celebrated Hollywood film in 1930.

The smashing success of All Quiet on the Western Front was due in large part to its reflection of a widespread disillusionment with the war that took hold of many during the 1920s. Praised as a novel of unyielding realism, All Quiet on the Western Front described in stark detail the physical trauma of war. Remarque also articulated the numbing frustration and anger of the conscript soldier, sent into battle by government and military leaders for reasons of politics and power that he struggled to understand. In the words of his protagonist, Paul Baumer: I see how peoples are set against one another and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one anotherI see that the keenest brains of the world invent weapons and words to make it yet more refined and enduring.

The celebrated American journalist H. L. Mencken called All Quiet on the Western Front “unquestionably the best story of the World War.” Both the book and the 1930 film version were banned by the Nazis after their rise to power in Germany in 1933 as prejudicial to German national prestige. Remarque went on to write nine more novels, all dealing with the horror and futility of war and the struggle to understand its purpose; his last novel, The Night in Lisbon, was unsparing in its condemnation of World War II as Adolf Hitler’s attempt to perpetrate the extermination of Jews and other nonpeople on behalf of the master race.

Though he became a naturalized American citizen and was during the 1930s a frequent participant in New York City nightlife and a companion for several years in Hollywood of the actress Marlene Dietrich, Remarque lived for most of his later life at Porto Ronco, on the shore of Lake Maggiore in Switzerland. He died at Locarno in 1970 with his wife, the actress Paulette Goddard, at his side.

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