August 30th 1914: Battle of Tannenberg ends
On this day in 1914 during World War One, the Germans defeated the Russians at the Battle of Tannenberg after four days of fighting. The first major battle on the Eastern front, Tannenberg devastated the underprepared Russian army, who suffered 170,000 casualties to the Germans’ 12,000, thus eviscerating the Russian Second Army. The overwhelming victory of the German army made this battle one of the few decisive battles in a war characterised by stalemate and attritional warfare. The Germans thus successfully repelled the Russians from East Prussia, and their victory can partly be attributed to their superior tactics, including the use of large turning movements by train. One German leader for this battle was Paul von Hindenberg who went on to become President of Germany and saw the start of Nazi rule before his death in 1934. The Russian generals were largely incompetent due to their personal feud and one, Alexander Samsonov, committed suicide on August 30th after the Battle of Tannenberg rather than report the defeat to Tsar Nicholas II. The Russian First Army soon suffered the same fate as the Second and fell under German attack.
100 years ago today
July 20th 1944: Assassination attempt on Hitler
On this day in 1944, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler narrowly survived an assassination attempt in what became known as the July 1944 bomb plot. The plot was led by German Army Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg and several military figures who also planned a military coup d’etat after the assassination. The plan was to place a bomb under the table in a briefcase in a conference room in Hitler’s Prussian Wolf’s Lair headquarters. However one of the attendees at the meeting moved the case behind the table leg with his foot, thus deflecting the blast from Hitler, though the blast did kill four in attendance. The Gestapo arrested at least 7000 people in response to the attack and almost 5000 were executed.
June 26th 1963: JFK’s Berlin speech
On this day in 1963, at the height of the Cold War, US President John F. Kennedy addressed hundreds of thousands of people in West Berlin. He expressed US support of West Berlin following the building of the Berlin Wall by the Soviet-controlled East Germany. His appearance was greatly welcomed and gave the people of West Berlin a morale boost. Kennedy’s powerful rhetoric and delivery led many to call it one of his best speeches.
"All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words 'Ich bin ein Berliner!’”
June 15th 1888: Wilhelm becomes Kaiser
On this day in 1888 Crown Prince Wilhelm became Kaiser Wilhelm II upon the death of his predecessor Frederick III. He dismissed Chancellor Otto von Bismarck and took more control of policy; Wilhelm proved an ineffective war leader during World War One. He was the last Emperor of the German Empire and reigned until 9th November 1918 when he abdicated following growing disaffection with his leadership. After Wilhelm, the German monarchy was abolished and Friedrich Ebert became the first President of Germany. Wilhelm died in 1941 aged 82.
June 4th 1942: Heydrich assassinated
On this day in 1942, the Nazi official - SS General and chief of the Gestapo and Kripo - Reinhard Heydrich died aged 38. Heydrich is perhaps most famous for the fact that he chaired the Wannsee Conference in January 1942 which aimed to find a ‘final solution to the Jewish problem’, making him a chief architect of the Holocaust. Heydrich was also Deputy Reich-Protector of Bohemia and Moravia (the modern Czech Republic). It was in this capacity, where he brutally repressed local culture and resistance to Nazi control, that he was attacked in Prague on May 27th 1942 by British trained Czech and Slovak soldiers. He died from the injuries he sustained in the assassination attempt on June 4th. The assassins were wrongly linked to the villages of Lidice and Ležáky and their inhabitants were executed or sent to concentration camps.
April 29th 1945: Hitler marries Eva Braun
On this day in 1945, as Germany’s defeat in the Second World War became imminent, Adolf Hitler married his lover Eva Braun. Hitler’s National Socialist Party, more commonly referred to as Nazis, came to power in 1933 with Hitler as Chancellor. He immediately set about consolidating his power and establishing a dictatorship in Germany, making himself Führer. An ardent nationalist, Hitler targetted groups he considered a threat to Germany, including Jews, communists, gypsies, homosexuals and the disabled. His regime committed atrocities on an unprecedented scale; the Holocaust saw the deaths of six million Jews and World War Two, which Hitler’s aggressive foreign policy precipitated, was the most destructive war in history. Hitler’s relationship with Eva Braun predated his rise to power, but they never married as Hitler feared it would damage his image. Their relationship was thus kept quiet, but was nonetheless apparently affectionate. At the end of the war, as the Allied forces moved on Berlin and defeat seemed all but certain, Hitler (along with some of his advisers and Braun herself) relocated to the Führerbunker. In the early hours of the morning on April 29th 1945 the pair got married in a small civil ceremony in the bunker, the culmination of a relationship that had lasted over ten years. The newlyweds hosted a modest wedding breakfast, attended by the bunker’s fellow residents such as Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, and promptly made their wills. The next day, April 30th 1945, the couple committed suicide together, with Braun ingesting a cyanide capsule and Hitler shooting himself. In one fell swoop their love affair was over, as was Hitler’s brutal dictatorship and the war that had plagued Europe since 1939.
"From our first meeting I swore to follow you anywhere even unto death. I live only for your love"
- Eva Braun in a letter to Hitler, after the July 1944 attempt on his life
April 26th 1937: Bombing of Guernica
On this day in 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, the Basque town of Guernica was bombed by the German Luftwaffe. The attack was planned to fall on a market day, when they knew there would be a lot of people on the streets of Guernica. Guernica had little strategic value, but was a cultural centre of the Basque people who had been resisting Franco’s Nationalist forces. Over the course of three hours, over twenty five planes dropped one hundred thousand pounds of bombs, reducing the beautiful town to rubble. Those who tried to escape were shot down by the guns on the fighter planes. Final death tolls are unclear - most sources suggest around 1,500 were killed, however recent calculations have put the figure as under 400. The incident has become immortalised in the famous anti-war painting by Spaniard Pablo Picasso, which helped bring the atrocities of the civil war to international attention. The bombing served as a testing ground for Hitler’s military and the concept of ‘total war’, in which civilians are considered combatants and thus attacks on them are justified. The Guernica attack was indeed one of the first air raids and inaugurated the widespread use of aerial attacks in warfare. Just two years after the devastation of Guernica, World War Two broke out and the world experienced its first truly ‘total’ war.
"We were still a good ten miles away when I saw the reflection of Guernica’s flames in the sky. As we drew nearer, on both sides of the road, men, women and children were sitting, dazed. I saw a priest in one group. I stopped the car and went up to him. ‘What happened, Father?’ I asked. His face was blackened, his clothes in tatters. He couldn’t talk. He just pointed to the flames, still about four miles away, then whispered: Aviones…bombas’…mucho, mucho.’”
- recollections of Noel Monks, the first journalist on the scene
March 23rd 1933: Enabling Act passed
On this day in 1933 the German Reichstag passed the Enabling Act, which essentially made Adolf Hitler dictator of Germany. The law gave Chancellor Hitler legal powers to establish his dictatorship as it gave the Cabinet the power to enact laws independently of the legislature (the Reichstag). Its formal name was ‘Law to Remedy the Distress of People and Reich’. Hitler had been appointed Chancellor on January 30th and just before the scheduled election, the Reichstag fire occurred. The Nazis used the incident to suggest a Communist revolution was imminent and passed the Reichstag Fire Decree which suspended civil liberties and habeas corpus. The Nazis failed to gain an absolute majority in the Reichstag and so Hitler drafted the Enabling Act to secure his position. The Nazis pressured and threatened representatives of the Reichstag to pass the bill, positioning SA men and Nazi swastikas in and around the building. With the bill’s passing, Hitler’s dictatorship was assured, and thus began a brutal regime which would last until 1945.
"The authority of the Führer has now been wholly established. Votes are no longer taken. The Führer decides. All this is going much faster than we had dared to hope"
- Joseph Goebbels after the passage of the act
August 17th 1987: Rudolf Hess dies
On this day in 1987 Adolf Hitler’s former deputy in the Nazi Party, Rudolf Hess, died in Spandau Prison, Berlin. Hess, a leading figure of the Nazi regime, famously fled Hitler’s Germany during World War Two and flew to Scotland in an attempt to negotiate peace with the United Kingdom. On May 10th 1941, he flew from Augsburg and later parachuted near the Scottish village of Eaglesham. He told authorities he had an important message and was handed to the army who took him as a prisoner of war. Winston Churchill sent Hess to the Tower of London, making him its last inmate. After the end of the war and the fall of Hitler’s government in 1945 Hess was tried at Nuremberg alongside 22 others for his role in Nazi war crimes. He was sentenced to life imprisonment and incarcerated at Spandau until his death aged 93. Hess committed suicide via asphyxiation by electrical cord, however some have claimed that he was murdered.
June 30th 1934: Night of the Long Knives
On this day in 1934, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler violently purged his political rivals. The Nazi secret police (Schutzstaffel and Gestapo) murdered their opponents like ex-Chancellor Kurt von Schleicher and leading figures in the Nazi Party such as Gregor Strasser and Ernst Röhm (leader of the paramilitary brownshirts the SA). Hitler especially targeted the SA as he believed their violence threatened his political stability and because he feared their independence. The purge lasted a few days and ended on July 2nd. The Night of the Long Knives was a pivotal moment in Hitler’s consolidation of power and establishment of a dictatorship.
June 22nd 1941: Operation Barbarossa begins
On this day in 1941 during the Second World War, the German invasion of Soviet Russia (codenamed Operation Barbarossa), began. Over three million German troops, armed with 3,000 tanks, 2,500 aircraft and 7,000 artillery pieces, crossed the border, making it the largest invasion in the history of warfare. The operation, pushed for by German Chancellor Adolf Hitler, was driven by the Nazi leader’s fears of the Soviets (with whom the Nazis had made a non-aggression pact in 1939) joining forces with Britain and her allies. The invasion and the tactic of blitzkrieg was initially successful, allowing the Germans to take hundreds of miles of land and decimate the Russian military forces. Russia was taken by surprise by the invasion and unprepared for war, with a vast but unorganised army and a lack of coherent leadership as Stalin had purged 2/3 of senior army officials during the 1930s. However the Soviets reorganised and the Germans began to lose, most famously at the Battle of Stalingrad where German soldiers froze in the sub-zero temperatures lacking winter clothing. Thus ultimately the Axis powers failed, and Allied victory was effectively secured. Barbarossa is remembered as a major turning point of the war but also as one of the largest military operations in history.
"When Barbarossa commences, the world will hold its breath and make no comment"
- Adolf Hitler
June 14th 1940: Paris falls to the Nazis
On this day in 1940 during World War Two, German soldiers marched into Paris without resistance, and began the occupation of the city. France had fallen quickly to Nazi Germany partially due to its ill-preparedness for war, and the formidable Nazi blitzkrieg attack. Troops took over the city and hung swastikas on public buildings and monuments. Many Parisians fled, and those who remained faced four brutal years of occupation. Many reported on other people’s opposition to the Nazis, and the dissidents faced torture by the Gestapo and SS. Parisian Jews were also persecuted and sent to concentration camps. Paris was eventually liberated in 1944, 70 years ago this year, following the Allied invasion of Normandy.
May 31st 1962: Eichmann hanged
On this day in 1962, the fugitive Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann was executed in Israel. During the Nazi rule of Germany Eichmann was one of Chancellor Adolf Hitler’s top men in the paramilitary organisation the SS, charged with overseeing the deportation of Jews to extermination camps. For this role, and his prominent participation in the 1942 Wannsee Conference that planned the ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Problem’, he is considered one of the chief architects of the Holocaust. After the fall of the Third Reich with Germany’s defeat in the Second World War and Adolf Hitler’s suicide in 1945, many top Nazi officials faced charges of war crimes. Many were captured, and either committed suicide rather than face trial (like SS leader Heinrich Himmler), were executed after the Nuremberg Trials (like Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop), or were sent to prison (like Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess). Eichmann however, fled first to Austria and then to Argentina in 1950, where he lived until he was captured by Israeli intelligence services. Eichmann was subsequently put on trial in Jerusalem for war crimes, found guilty and was executed by hanging in 1962.
April 27th 1810: Beethoven composes Für Elise
On this day in 1810, the famous German composer Ludwig van Beethoven composed his piano piece Für Elise. Over the course of his life he composed nine symphonies, five piano concertos, thirty-two piano sonatas and sixteen string quartets, despite losing his hearing towards the end of his life. This piece was not published until 1867, long after Beethoven’s death, as the manuscript had been lost. However when it was recovered, Beethoven’s manuscript for the composition was dated 27th April 1810. Für Elise translates as ‘For Elise’, and scholars have long debated the identity of the woman who inspired Beethoven to write this beautiful piece. It is now one of the most famous piano pieces of all time and one of Beethoven’s best known works.
April 14th 1759: Handel dies
On this day in 1759, the German composer George Frederic Handel died aged 74. Famous for his Baroque pieces, Handel was born in Germany in 1685 but moved to Britain later in life. He gained a reputation there for his Italian operas, and some of his works were performed for Queen Anne and her successors on the British throne. Handel enjoyed royal patronage, and his music is regularly played at royal coronations even to this day. However he is perhaps best known for his biblical choral masterpiece: Messiah. Handel died in 1759, and was honoured with a state funeral and burial in Westminster Abbey. Alongside his grave is a monument, sculpted by Louis Francois Roubiliac, which was unveiled in 1762 and features a statue of Handel which supposedly has the exact likeness of his death mask.