When the good guys prevail, we tend to forget the desperation they face on the route to victory.
We remember World War II as a hard-fought conflict in which democracy vanquished fascism. For those who lived through the conflict, however, it isn’t nearly as cut and dry. At any point, it seemed as though the fire of freedom could be snuffed out by the Axis.
We know the war started on September 1, 1939. We know Japan formally surrendered on September 2, 1945. Such is the nature of history. Regardless of initial successes, we know the Axis lost. The past offers us certainty that the future doesn’t.
But for those 6 years, hundreds of millions woke up every day, without knowing peace would ever arrive. In particular, I believe early July 1940 appeared the most dire for Europeans opposing Nazi Germany.
Let’s run through the timeline. Before facing any serious military opposition, Nazi Germany annexed Austria (March 1938) and Czechoslovakia (March 1939). When Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, the continent plunged into war.
The Nazis made short work of continental Europe. They invaded Denmark on April 9, 1940. Denmark surrendered within six hours. An entire country, government and all, collapsed between sunrise and sunset. The rest of Europe didn’t fare much better. The Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg were all conquered by the end of May. France, Germany’s strongest continental opponent, fell in six weeks, surrendering on June 25, 1940. By July 1, 1940, the German military occupied 9 sovereign nations.
By that point, the only remaining nations that could stand up to Germany refused to. The Soviet Union signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Germany in August 1939, guaranteeing that Hitler would face no opposition from the East. Francisco Franco, Spain’s premier pseudo-fascist, certainly wasn’t fighting against Nazi Germany. Italy and Germany established their alliance in September 1939 with the Pact of Steel, before Italy formally entered the war on June 11, 1940.
Importantly, the “Battle of Britain” began on July 10, 1940. For the next several months, the German and British air forces fought tooth and nail trying to seize control of the British skies. Although the Allies would ultimately defend against the bombardment, the Luftwaffe enjoyed initial successes. These battles didn’t appear to be a shining light in the distance, but instead appeared as Nazi Germany’s war machine setting its sights on Britain. With bombs falling on English cities, the end seemed nigh.
Clearly, the Axis started off World War II incredibly well. For those who witnessed these events in real time, there was no indicator that the tides of war would shift.
With our hindsight, we designate certain turning points in World War II. Pearl Harbor and the U.S.’s subsequent entrance into the war was clearly a turning point. As was Operation Barbarossa, where the German military launched an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to topple the Soviet Union. By early July 1940, however, hardly any events had transpired in a way that gave the Allies reason for hope. The most notable such event was the evacuation of Dunkirk. At this point in history, the Allies’s greatest success was an evacuation.
Let’s take a look at some important events that had yet to happen. The British-American alliance was informal at best, and wouldn’t be set in stone until the Atlantic Charter on August 14, 1941. The Battle of Britain hadn’t turned decisively in the Royal Air Force’s favor. As mentioned prior, the United States and Soviet Union hadn’t entered the war. At this point, World War II boiled down to a brawl between the Axis and the Commonwealth, which the Axis appeared to be winning.
As we churn further and further from this instrumental period in modern history, it’s important to remember how fortunate we are that the Allies won. Victory was not assured. At certain points, it wasn’t even expected.