25 June – Today in German History

1915

  • On June 25, 1915, the German press publishes an official statement from the country’s war command addressing the German use of poison gas at the start of the Second Battle of Ypres two months earlier.

The German firing of more than 150 tons of lethal chlorine gas against two French colonial divisions at Ypres in Belgium on April 22, 1915, had shocked and horrified their Allied opponents in World War I and provoked angry outbursts against what was seen as inexcusable barbarism, even in the context of warfare. As Sir John French, commander in chief of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), wrote heatedly of the German attacks at Ypres: “All the scientific resources of Germany have apparently been brought into play to produce a gas of so virulent and poisonous a nature that any human being brought into contact with it is first paralyzed and then meets with a lingering and agonizing death.”

The German statement of June 25, 1915, was a response to this outraged reaction by the Allies; they considered it hypocritical, claiming that their opponents–namely the French–had been manufacturing and employing gas in battle well before the Second Battle of Ypres. “For everyone who has kept an unbiased judgment,” the statement began, “the official assertions of the strictly accurate and truthful German military administration will be sufficient to prove the prior use of asphyxiating gases by our opponents.” It went on to quote from a memorandum issued by the French War Ministry on February 21, 1915, containing instructions for using “these so-called shells with stupefying gases that are being manufactured by our central factories?[that] contain a fluid which streams forth after the explosion, in the form of vapors that irritate the eyes, nose, and throat.”

This memo, the Germans concluded, proved that “the French in their State workshops manufactured shells with asphyxiating gases fully half a year ago at least” and that they must have manufactured sufficient numbers for the War Ministry to issue directions on how to use the shells. “What hypocrisy when the same people grow indignant because the Germans much later followed them on the path they had pointed out!”

Though the French were, in fact, the first to employ gas during World War. In August 1914, they used tear-gas grenades containing xylyl bromide to confront the initial German advance in Belgium and northeastern France–Germany was undoubtedly the first belligerent nation during the war to put serious thought and work into the development of chemical weapons that were not merely irritants, like xylyl bromide but could be used in large quantities to inflict a major defeat on the enemy.

In addition to chlorine gas, first used to deadly effect by the Germans at Ypres, phosgene gas and mustard gas were also employed on the battlefields of World War I, mostly by Germany but also by Britain and France, who were forced to quickly catch up to the Germans in the realm of chemical-weapons technology. Though the psychological impact of poison gas was undoubtedly great, its actual impact on the warlike that of the tank–is debatable, due to the low rate of fatality associated with the gas attacks. In total, the war saw some 1.25 million gas casualties but only 91,000 deaths from gas poisoning, with over 50 percent of those fatalities suffered by the poorly equipped Russian army.

1948 

  • The Soviet Union tightened its blockade of Berlin by intercepting river barges heading for the city.

1987 

  • Austrian President Kurt Waldheim visited Pope John Paul II at the Vatican. The meeting was considered controversial by Allied nations due to allegations that Waldheim had hidden his service in the German Army of the Third Reich. Allegations of him participating in war crimes were proven invalid as they did not occur.

1999 

  • Germany’s parliament approved a national Holocaust memorial to be built in Berlin.
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24 June – On This Day in German Cold War History

1948

  • 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 German 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 the 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 the 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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23 June – This Day in German History

1940

  • On June 23, 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, and 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.”

1948

  • Berlin was divided into two different currency zones.
  • Just before midnight, the Soviets cut power to West Berlin and then began a blockade of the city.
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21 June – Today in German WWII History

1942

On June 21, 1942, General Erwin Rommel turns his assault on the British-Allied garrison at Tobruk, Libya, into victory, as his panzer division occupies the North African port.

Britain had established control of Tobruk after routing the Italians in 1940. But the Germans attempted to win it back by reinforcing Italian troops with the Afrika Korps of Erwin Rommel, who continually charged the British Eighth Army in battles around Tobruk, finally forcing the Brits to retreat into Egypt. All that was left to take back the port was the garrison now manned by the South African Division, which also included the Eleventh Indian Brigade. With the use of artillery, dive-bombers, and his panzer forces, Rommel pushed past the Allies.

Unable to resist any longer, South African General Henrik Klopper ordered his officers to surrender early on the morning of the 21st. Rommel took more than 30,000 prisoners, 2,000 vehicles, 2,000 tons of fuel, and 5,000 tons of rations. Adolf Hitler awarded Rommel the field marshal’s baton as a reward for his victory. “I am going on to Suez,” was Rommel’s promise.

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20 June – Today in WW2 German History

1919

  • On June 20, 1919, during the final days of the Versailles Peace Conference held in Paris, France, the German cabinet deadlocks over whether to accept the peace terms presented to its delegation by the other nations at the peace conference. Most notably the Council of Four: France, Britain, the United States, and Italy.

Presented with the terms of the treaty on May 7, 1919, the German delegation was given two weeks to examine the document and submit their official comments in writing. The Germans, who had put great faith in U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s notion of a so-called “peace without victory” and had pointed to his famous Fourteen Points as the basis upon which they sought peace in November 1918, were greatly angered and disillusioned by the treaty. By its terms, Germany was to lose 13 percent of its territory and 10 percent of its population; it would also have to pay reparations, a punishment justified in the treaty by the infamous Article 231, which placed the blame for the war squarely on Germany.

Ulrich von Brockdorff-Rantzau.

Ulrich von Brockdorff-Rantzau, Germany’s foreign minister and leader of the German delegation at Versailles, was furious about the treaty. “This fat volume was quite unnecessary. They could have expressed the whole thing more simply in one clause–Germany renounces its existence.” The country’s military leaders were similarly against the treaty; as Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg saw it, “as a soldier I can only prefer honorable defeat to a disgraceful peace.” Some members of the coalition government that had taken power in Berlin, however, were of a different view, believing that Germany, in its weakened state, would benefit by signing the treaty in order to put the war behind it and begin rebuilding its manufacturing and commerce operations.

After Brockdorff-Rantzau’s delegation passed a unanimous recommendation to reject the treaty, the German cabinet, which had previously been leaning towards signing, deadlocked in its vote on June 20 and subsequently resigned en masse. Brockdorff-Rantzau followed suit, leaving Paris, and politics, altogether. Friedrich Ebert, the German president since late 1918, was persuaded to stay on, however, and as the Allied deadline of June 23 approached, he managed to assemble another cabinet to put the issue to a vote. After a last-minute flurry of activity, the German National Assembly voted to sign the treaty, and its answer was delivered to the Council of Four at 5:40 p.m. on June 23. The Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919, in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, five years to the day after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife at Sarajevo.

1943

  • British bombers attacked sites in Germany and Italy under Operation Bellicose. It was the first time shuttle bombings took place during the war.
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17 June – Today in German History

1940

  • France asked Germany for terms of surrender in World War II. With Paris occupied and the German conquest of France reaching its conclusion, Marshal Henri Petain replaces Paul Reynaud as prime minister and announces his intention to sign an armistice with Germany. The next day, French General Charles de Gaulle, not very well known even to the French, made a broadcast to France from England, urging his countrymen to continue the fight against Germany.

A military hero during World War I, Petain was appointed vice-premier of France in May 1940 to boost morale in a country crumbling under the force of the German invasion. Instead, Petain arranged an armistice with Germany. The armistice, signed by the French on June 22, went into effect on June 25, and more than half of France was occupied by the Germans. In July, Petain took office as chief of state at Vichy, a city in unoccupied France. The Vichy government under Petain collaborated with Germany, and French citizens suffered on both sides of the divided nation. In 1942, Pierre Laval, an opportunistic French fascist and dutiful Nazi collaborator won the trust of Adolf Hitler, and the elderly Petain became merely a figurehead in the Vichy regime.

After the Normandy invasion in 1944, Petain and Laval were forced to flee to German protection in the east. Both were eventually captured, found guilty of high treason, and sentenced to die. Laval was executed in 1945, but provincial French leader Charles de Gaulle commuted Petain’s sentence to life imprisonment. Petain died on the Ile d’Yeu off France in 1951.

  • British troops evacuated France in Operation Ariel.
  • The Soviet Union occupied Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.
Soviet T-34-85 in East Berlin, 17 June.

1953

  • The Soviet Union orders an entire armored division of its troops into East Berlin to crush a rebellion by East German workers and anti-government protesters. The Soviet assault set a precedent for later interventions into Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.

The riots in East Berlin began among construction workers, who took to the streets on June 16, 1953, to protest an increase in work schedules by the communist government of East Germany. By the next day, the crowd of disgruntled workers and other anti-government dissidents had grown to between 30,000 and 50,000. Leaders of the protest issued a call for a general strike, the resignation of the communist East German government, and free elections.

Soviet forces struck quickly and without warning. Troops, supported by tanks and other armored vehicles, crashed through the crowd of protesters. Some protesters tried to fight back, but most fled before the onslaught. Red Cross officials in West Berlin where many of the wounded protesters fled estimated the death toll at between 15 and 20, and the number of wounded at more than 100. The Soviet military commanders declared martial law, and by the evening of June 17, the protests had been shattered and relative calm was restored.

In Washington, President Dwight D. Eisenhower declared that the brutal Soviet action contradicted Russian propaganda that the people of East Germany were happy with their communist government. He noted that the smashing of the protests was “a good lesson on the meaning of communism.” America’s propaganda outlet in Europe, the Voice of America radio station, claimed, “The workers of East Berlin have already written a glorious page in postwar history. They have once and for all times exposed the fraudulent nature of communist regimes.” These criticisms had little effect on the Soviet control of East Germany, which remained a communist stronghold until the government fell in 1989.

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