Stalin and Churchill's Deal
During the summer of 1944, as the Allies forced the Germans out of France and Belgium, the Soviet Red Army was camped outside the Polish capital of Warsaw. At that time, Polish rebels took over their capital and fought bravely for several months before being destroyed by the Germans. Soviet leader Josef Stalin could have helped the rebels, but barely did anything. He claimed that because they represented the Polish government in exile and not communism, they would not be helped. The Soviets did nothing as the Polish were left on their own before finally being defeated. The aim of the war for Stalin had now changed. After pushing the Germans far out of the Soviet Union, it became clear to him that it would be a good idea to conquer weaker nations that were defeated by the Germans and take them over for the Soviet Union. Stalin hoped to make Poland a buffer zone from Germany.
The British prime minister, Winston Churchill, was horrified by Stalin's conduct, but he knew he needed to work with the Soviet leader. When Churchill went to Moscow to meet Stalin they made a deal. The deal was for the Soviets to have 90% influence in Romania and the British got 90% influence in Greece. In Bulgaria, the Soviets would have 75% influence and each power would have 50% influence in Yugoslavia and Hungary. Poland was left out. Churchill never told the Americans, he knew that they would be upset by old fashioned imperialism between European powers. In late 1944, Germany abandoned Greece and a civil war broke out between monarchists and communists. Churchill wanted his 90% influence and he sent in British troops to support the pro-western monarchists. Stalin did nothing. However, the Americans found out and were outraged. By now it did matter as there was a more pressing issue. Soviet and Allied forces were about the same distance away from Berlin. The race was on, but even before it began, new and shocking news came out in the east.
Since the start of Adolf Hitler's leadership it was clear the Jewish people were in dire trouble under the new Nazi regime. In fact, many wealthy Jews fled before he gained power in the 1930s. Those who couldn't lost their rights. Suddenly the German Reich ruled over 2,000,000 more Jews so special elite SS squads were sent to round up Jews. Many were rounded up into ghettos where they were sealed from the rest of the country. Then when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, millions more Jews were in German territory. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were rounded up and exterminated. Many shot and put into huge graves. Machine gunning was an expensive way of eliminating Jews so the Germans decided to improvise.
At a conference in January 1942, the SS leadership looked for more efficient solutions. The leadership decided to round up the Jews into a series of camps where they would work for the German war effort. Eventually, when they could not be used anymore, they would be moved into extermination camps where they would be killed. There would be six of these death camps, all in Poland. As the camps were being built, the Germans forced the Jews out of the ghettos and put them in cattle cars on trains where they would be sent to the labor and extermination camps. Usually men were sent to work in labor camps. Children, the elderly, and most of the women were sent to be immediately exterminated. They were told that they were going into showers, but they were actually poison gas chambers. When they were sealed in the chambers, the gas was unleashed and the Jews were killed. Once they were killed, valuable parts of their body, golden fillings for teeth for example, was taken for the war effort. Their hair was shaved off before they went to the showers for the war effort to.
Jewish people were not the only victims of the Hitler's tyrannical rule. People who were mentally disabled, homosexuals, Freemasons, Jehovah's Witnesses, political activists against Nazism, blacks, Gypsies, Soviet POWs, Slavs, Ethnic Serbs, Ethnic Slovenes, some Ethnic Poles, and other people were also killed in the Holocaust. This pattern continued for the entire war until the Soviets were getting closer and closer to the camps. The Germans blew up the gas chambers and other buildings in order to hide what they were doing. Overall, over 5 million people were killed.
The Red Army Advances
The Holocaust shocked everyone from soldiers to simple citizens. It did seem that the Allied and Soviet governments actually knew of what was happening, but nothing was done before the war. This was probably because nothing could be done except for the defeat of Germany. The war still needed to end and the Soviets were ready to attack. By the end of January 1945, Soviet troops had entered Germany and reached the Oder River. For the Russian commander, Marshal Georgy Zhukov, the advance was a real triumph as he reached the river in just fourteen days. It was one of the fastest advances in military history. His troops now paused to prepare for the final assault on the German capital of Berlin. Zhukov's troops were joined by a second Soviet army that paused just south of them on the Neisse River.
While two Societ armies waited to invade Germany, a third Russian army moved north to defeat the remains of the German forces in East Prussia. The Soviets had advanced far, but they left most of the north open, so this force was sent to clear it out. The plan was for this force to head for the East Prussian port of Königsberg and take it. It was an important port for the East Prussians. The East Prussians were part of Germany, not Poland. This was one of the reasons why Hitler declared war on Poland, so he could link East Prussia with the rest of Germany. Now the region was about to be taken over by the Russians. Hitler had appointed the SS leader Heinrich Himmler to command the forces in the region. Himmler had no experience or knowledge of war. This was a sign of how Hitler has now betrayed most of his own generals and placed officials who were friends of him to command armies even if they had no experience.
During February 1945, troops under Himmler's command were torn apart by the Soviets. By now, Soviet troops were eager for revenge after seeing the horrors that the Germans did to their own people under occupation. As a result, over 15,000,000 frightened German citizens in East Prussia and Eastern Germany fled their homes and moved west in hope of safety. In an emergency operation, the German government gathered a series of civilian and military vessels to transport 2,000,000 Germans along the northern coast by sea to safety. They were easy targets for Soviet submarines as 24 German passenger ships were torpedoed. Among them was the German cruise liner MV Wilhelm Gustloff which carried 10,000 people on board. Her maximum capacity was around 1,450 people. Around 9,400 of those people died, far more than in the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912 in which some 1,500 people died. Not in any other sinking has their been a higher death toll. Back on land, the Soviets pressed on and took over East Prussia. It was clear this war was coming to a brutal end.