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Highlands Ranch High School - Mr. Sedivy
Highlands Ranch, Colorado

Modern European History

- Modern European History -

Germany: WWI and WWII Overstretch
By David Sedivy

The Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) completed German unification. In foreign policy, it was said that all roads lead to Berlin's Brandenburg Gate. Bismarck did not seek additional territory but only wanted to preserve Germany's unification. In 1880, he created the Triple Alliance- Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy, with an alliance with Russia. Kaiser William II ascended the throne in 1889 and forced Bismarck to resign in 1890. German nationalism became extreme; the new leadership thought Germany should have its place in the sun. They allowed the treaty with Russia to lapse, thus, Germany could give full support to Austria. This proved fatal to European peace. France took advantage and entered into an alliance with Russia- French isolation was over.

Nationals pushed the government to build a powerful army and navy, and acquire colonies to expand German influence in Europe. Germany was a threat to English trade, which forced Britain to ally with France. France, Britain, and Russia, settled their colonial disputes and formed the Triple Entente.

Europe was divided into two hostile alliances with inherent dangers. First, a country could be reckless, when before, it would have to be cautious during a crisis. Second, a conflict between two states could spark a chain reaction and thus draw in other states, thereby turning a limited war into a general war. This is exactly what happened after the Black Hand- Serbian terrorists, assassinated Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria-Hungary on June 28, 1914. Austria used the assassination as a pretext to eliminate Serbia. This would solve the problems of the uniting of the South Slavs. Germany supported Austria; rather than seeking a peaceful settlement they encouraged their ally to take Serbia out. Austria gave Serbia an ultimatum that they knew would be impossible to accept. Russia saw this as an attempt to dominate the Balkans and refused to abandon Serbia.

The general staffs of both alliances had battle plans worked out well in advance and this worked against peace. Russia ordered full mobilization for a war with Austria and Germany. German battle plans called for war against Russia and France. On August 14, 1914, the German army invaded Belgium on their way to France in accordance with the Schlieffen plan. France must be taken before the Russians could fully mobilize and invade Germany. Germany felt they could defeat France in two months or less, then turn their full attention to Russia. By September, the Germans had reached the Marne River, forty miles from Paris, but the Russians had invaded East Prussia which forced Germany to transfer troops from the French front. The German army was exhausted by long marches and had outrun their supplies; while exposing their flank, which the French attacked. Now the war entered a new stage-trench warfare. In the east, the Russians were soundly defeated on August 30,1914, at the battle of Tannenberg. Germany had to come to Austria's aid, Serbia was taken and the Russians were forced out of Poland. Again the Germans outran their supplies and although battered, Russia stayed in the war causing Germany to fight on two fronts.

The year 1917, didn't look good for the allies; much of the French army had mutinied, and British forces were suffering severe casualties. But German lack of diplomacy and common sense, turned the tides and brought the United States into the war on April 6, 1917. Germany was determined to starve Britain into submission. The United States was England's main supplier and thus American ships became U-boat targets in unrestricted submarine warfare. With the American entry, the war of attrition now favored the Allies. Without an immediate victory, Germany would lose the war. Within two weeks the Germans had taken 1250 square miles; but once again they were exhausted, short on ammunition, and food; they were forced to call off the drive. Fresh, well supplied and equipped American troops made the difference and uplifted Allied morale.

During 1918, things were getting bad at home for the German people. Germany had succumbed to overstretch; they could afford a three year war but not a four year war. Germany had used up its moral capital, it was out of food, and industry could no longer keep up with war demands. The shock of defeat and hunger sparked a revolution that forced the Kaiser to abdicate. On November 11, 1918, the new German Republic signed an armistice ending the war.

Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles on June 18,1919. Article 231 placed sole responsibility for the war on Germany. Germany was expecting Wilson's 14 points, they felt betrayed and denounced the treaty; in their mind the war ended in a stalemate not a defeat. In 1921, Germany and Russia signed the Treaty of Rapala. On the surface the Weimar Republic looked like they were on the up-and-up but by 1924, Von Seeckt was manufacturing artillery shells, U-boats, planes and tanks.

Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933. Less than one month later the Reichstag fire gave him the excuse to become a dictator. Hitler and his Nazi Party intended to reunite all of Germany. In 1935, the people of the Saar voted to return to Germany. Hitler announced that Germany would demilitarize the Rhineland and repudiated the Treaty of Versailles. Hitler knew the League of Nations was a toothless tiger and the people of Europe wanted peace at any cost- appeasement. In March 1938, the Anschuss was signed making Austria part of Germany. Hitler proclaimed to the world that it was self determinism. The Munich Agreement gave the Sudetenland to Germany as Chamberlain declared, "peace in our time." Then Hitler invaded what was left of Czechoslovakia- the first takeover of non-Germans. German generals who were worried of overstretch, planned an assassination of Hitler.

September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. France and Britain declared war on Germany. Hitler hoped that they would once again back down and allow him another limited war of plunder. Now Hitler plans an invasion of France but because of delays, the Sitkrieg- Phoney War sets in for six months. German Generals plan another assassination. April 1940, Germany invades Denmark and Norway; Hitler wanted to ensure the delivery of Swedish iron to Germany. On May 10, 1940, Winston Churchill replaced Chamberlain as prime minister of Britain; while on the same day, Germany launched blizkrieg against Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg and by May 12th, they were on French soil. The French appealed for armistice which was signed on June 22.

Hitler now hoped Britain would make peace; the British, now standing alone, refused. Hitler proceeded with invasion plans. Before Germany could cross the English Channel they must have control of the skies. Goeering's Luftwaffe began with tactical bombing- the hitting of defined military targets, on August 13,1940; known as Eagle Day- the Battle of Britain began. On September 7th, Germany resorted to strategic bombing- to destroy the enemies will and means to fight, the city of London was now under attack. By mid November, Germany realized they couldn't beat the British in the air. Why did Germany lose the Battle? The Luftwaffe did not have the tools to do the job; they only had short and medium range bombers so Britain moved their factories out of range; and the British people didn't lose their will to fight.

Germany had to postpone their Russian invasion to protect its flank; in April 1941, they took Yugoslavia and then Greece. At 3:15 AM, June 22, 1941, Germany launched Operation Barbarossa and blizkrieg rolled into western Russia. By the end of 1941, Germany had conquered vast areas of Russia but had failed to bring them to their knees.

After the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, Germany declared war against the United States. Now the immense American industrial capacity would be be working against the Axis powers- Germany, Italy, and Japan.

Back in Russia the German 6th army was trapped, the soldiers were out of food, medical supplies, weapons and ammunition. They finally surrendered, February 2, 1943. Over 260,000 German dead and another 110,000 were taken prisoner. In Egypt Rommel's forces were defeated by Montgomery at the battle of El Alamein in October 1942. This was followed by an Anglo-American invasion of North Africa. By May, the Germans and Italians were out of North Africa. In July, Sicily was quickly taken and Mussolini was overthrown. In September, the new government declared war against Germany. Allied troops landed on the Normandy beaches of France on June 6, 1944, for the D-Day invasion. By the end of July, the Allies had one and a half million soldiers in France. Paris, Brusseles and Antwerp were liberated; the Allies were bombing German factories and cities. In December 1944, Hitler made one final gamble, he launched an offensive to split the Allies and regain the Antwerp port. The Allies were taken by surprise in the battle of the Bulge but the Americans in Bastogne helped stop the German offensive.

While the Allies were advancing in the west, the Russians had taken the Baltics, Poland and Hungary. By April 1945, British, American, and Russian troops were penetrating Germany from the east and west. April 30, 1945, Hitler took his own life. On May 7, 1945, Germany surrendered unconditionally.

Overstretch doomed Germany's attempt at world domination. Hitler was driven from one acquisition to the next; if he called a halt to the plunder, the capital for the Thousand-Year Reich would run out. Hitler's decision to invade Russia changed the entire dimensions of the war. Strategically, it meant that Germany would have to fight on several fronts; the very thing that hurt them in World War I. This had turned into a limitless war, and the Third Reich was not properly equipped to fight it.

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Sample Research Papers
Peace At Any Cost

Further Reading / Essay Examples
Habsburgs and French Overstretch
German WWI & WWII Overstretch
History of Hitler
Cost of the Cold War

Related Book Review Example

Information for Students
Guide For Organizing Debate Position

Research Activity
United States Entry Into WWI

Mr. Sedivy no longer teaches geography, or Modern European History (non AP), but we've decided to leave his web contribution to these classes up anyway. The AP classes cover the same material, but in more detail.

Advanced Placement Modern European History



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