Similarities and Differences
As we near the anniversary of the armistice ending the first world war, the contrast between the termination of that conflict and World War 2 continues to stand out quite starkly. When World War 1 ended in November of 1918, not one allied soldier had yet entered Germany, as all the fighting continued to take place in France and Belgium. Indeed, no German territory had even suffered war damage of any kind.
Yet in 1945, the second world war was only brought to an end once nearly every inch of Germany was controlled by allied forces, and her major cities lay in total ruins.
How is it that in the late summer of 1944, when Germany faced essentially the identical military situation as it had in November of 1918, that a similar end did not then take place? Why did Germany terminate one war when the end was clear, but not the other?
The answer lies in understanding a single individual who had been involved in both conflicts, the first time as a soldier, the second as the military leader and dictator; namely, Adolf Hitler.
One of the great myths inside of Germany that came out of the armistice ending World War 1 was that it represented a 'stab in the back' to an undefeated army by spineless, cowardly politicians. After all, the German army was still occupying foreign soil at the time of the armistice - so how could one say they had been defeated? A question many Germans asked at the time.
But the German military dictator in 1918, General Ludendorff, understood quite clearly at the time that the hand writing was on the wall, and eventual military defeat was just a matter of time. To his credit, he decided to give Germany the opportunity to cut the best deal it could, and also spare the fatherland the horrors of having the war spill into Germany itself.
To do this, Ludendorff brought his political opponents into the German government and invited them to approach the Allied forces with an offer to end the war. In doing so he killed two birds with one stone. First, he brought into government the voices most likely to find a sympathetic ear in the West, and secondly, he avoided being accused at home of being the one who surrendered. "Let them face the music" he sneered. And in doing so, he spared Germany physical destruction, and also saved his own reputation, or what was left of it.
Many soldiers and citizens took the bait. Among them was Adolf Hitler, who wrote in Mein Kampf of his feeling betrayed by these politicians. He considered the formulators of the armistice as nothing more than traitors. So disgusted was he, and so determined to both undo what they had done and prevent it from ever happening again, that he decided to enter the world of post-war German politics. And with that decision began one of the - if not the - most infamous political careers in world history.
By August of 1944, Hitler had become the supreme commander of Germany's armed forces, which at that moment faced an almost identical military situation to that of November 1918. No foreign armies had yet entered Germany, but there could be no doubt of the eventual outcome of the war at that point. However, one thing was certain; Adolf Hitler would never allow the same ending to this war as had occurred in the last one. This time he was determined that if Germany was to lose - it would go down fighting to the bitter end. Literally.
To prevent even the possibility of an armistice, Hitler identified the same strata of civilian leaders to whom Ludendorff had turned in 1918 in-order to spare Germany invasion and destruction, only this time instead of asking for their help in forging a peace, he had them all arrested. He was determined that the war would continue, no matter what.
And so it was that on August 22nd 1944 Hitler ordered the roundup and detention of some 5000 former Ministers, mayors, Members of Parliament, political leaders and civic officials of the pre-Nazi Weimar Republic in what was called Operation Thunderstorm.
Since this initiative was launched just over a month after the notorious July 20th assassination attempt against Hitler, it has often been assumed these arrests were part of the response to that event. But they were entirely unrelated. Operation Thunderstorm would've taken place even if the assassination attempt had not, because it was dictated by the military situation itself.
Among those whom he had incarcerated were both Konrad Adenauer and Kurt Schumacher, who were later to emerge as protagonists in Germany's post Nazi era. Schumacher was shipped off to the Neuengamme concentration camp, where he was liberated in April 1945 by British troops. Adenauer was sent to a labor camp where he was detained for several months, ultimately being released before war's end due to ill health.
It was in this manner that Hitler made good on his vow to never let another November 1918 take place in Germany. And as a result, the war lasted another eight long - extremely bloody - months. In fact, militarily speaking, they were the bloodiest months of the war for Germans themselves. And, of course, the death camp trains continued to roll during all of this time as well.
Hiller had always said that no matter what, he would fight until the bitter end - until five minutes past twelve - as he once put it. And he wouldn't let anyone stop him. He had also promised that if Germany could not win the war, he would shed no tears if it was destroyed; in fact, he would assure it, because it did not deserve to survive if it was , in his estimation, proven an "inferior" nation through military defeat. And by ensuring the continuation of a lost war, Hitler fulfilled those dark promises - in spades.