When the Nazis Steamrolled Europe

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In 1940, Nazism's popularity was allowing its power to grow unchecked, as France, until then Germany's largest western foe, was trampled under the jackboot. Belgium and the Netherlands also fell that year. In Berlin, pictured, Nazi ideology's hold on the people was as strong as ever. AP IMAGES

From"Vanquished to Vassals: 20 Nations Gobbled Up By Nazis,"published in Newsweek September 7, 1942.

No man in his sober senses had any right to be surprised by the outbreak of war on September 1, 1939. The doctrines of Hitler had not only been explicitly set forth in Mein Kampf but [also] were implemented by the seizure of Austria and Czechoslovakia. And yes, these were only the tail end of a warning: For 150 years, German philosophers, many of them willing tools of Prussian statecraft, had laid down the ideological foundations for a German-dominated Europe.

The pattern of the future was drawn by Adam Heinrich Müller (born in 1779), who foresaw a "great federation of European peoples" and insisted that "everything great, fundamental and eternal in all European institutions is certainly German." To Novalis, the Germans were the heirs to the Romans. Economic autarchy was outlined by J.G. Fichte in 1800. Joseph von Görres in the early 1800s denounced the British as "maritime leopards" and defined the French as the "hereditary enemy" (Erbfeind). Later, the "grandeur of war" was hymned by Friedrich von Bernhardi, Friedrich Nietzsche and by Heinrich von Treitschke, who probably first gave a political connotation to the word Lebensraum, which Hitler later used to annex areas of German heritage from other sovereign nations.

What it would all come to, Heinrich Heine, the poet, warned France in 1834: "When you hear the trampling of feet and the clashing of arms…be on your guard…the thought precedes the deed, as the lightning the thunder. German thunder is of true German character; it is not very nimble, and it rumbles along slowly. But come it will, and when you hear a crashing such as never before has been heard in the world's history, then know that at last the German thunderbolt has fallen."

But Heine, like Winston Churchill would be a century later, was ignored. While the general design of the Nazi blueprint was all too clear, the speed of victory and the cold efficiency employed in reducing the vanquished to vassals provided legitimate grounds for astonishment. From March 1938, when Hitler launched his career of conquest, up to the present, 20 nations in Europe with a total area of 1,282,550 square miles and an aggregate population of 227,986,000 have fallen into the German orbit. Austria and Czechoslovakia classified as hijacking operations. Thirteen more nations were the spoils of war: Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Denmark, Norway, Luxembourg, Holland, Belgium, France, Yugoslavia, Greece and Albania (Italy's only European conquest). The rest, Italy, Finland, Bulgaria, Hungary and Rumania, attained the dubious distinction of becoming allies of the Reich. The inventory of Nazi territorial aggrandizement must also include more than 600,000 square miles hacked from the Soviet Union.

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This article appears in the Newsweek's special edition, V-E Day, by Issue Editor Tim Baker of Topix Media Lab.

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Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS. Digital Colorization by Lorna Clark.