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World War II
The Use of Terror as a Weapon
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The Use of Terror as a Weapon
Reichsfuehrer-SS Heinrich Himmler looks on as Reinhard Heydrich's casket is carried out from the Reich chancellery for burial.

The German army committed many acts of terror. In 1941, the Czech resistance assassinated Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich. It was German military policy to severely punish any attacks on German officials. The killing of Heydrich led to the total destruction of a small village called Lidice. The Nazis wanted to send a warning to anybody else wanting to assassinate German officials. All 173 men in the village were murdered, and 198 women were sent to the concentration camp in Ravensbrueck. Another 256 Czechs were condemned to death for so-called ‘aiding’ the assassination plot. Thousands of other Czech people were also deported to concentration camps in revenge for the killing of Heydrich.

Terror in Germany

The The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language defines the word "terror" in the following way:
" …… the ability to instill intense fear, violence committed or threatened by a group to intimidate or coerce a population, as for military or political purposes."
Even before Adolf Hitler and his Nazis came into power in Germany, they decided that violence and terror could be very useful instruments. The Nazis created the SA (Strom troopers) in the 1920s to intimidate political opponents. In these early years they were notorious for street fighting and brutal violence. Many of these same men, trained in the tough streets of post World War I Germany, received free license to terrorize the opponents of the Nazis after they came into power in 1933. The Nazi government created both the SS (Stutzstaffel = protection squads) and the Gestapo (Secret police). These started a campaign of terror against all deemed to be "an enemy of the state." All who spoke out against the Nazis could expect a visit by members of these organizations. Hundreds of thousands were arrested and tortured, and many murdered. This cruel treatment was a warning to anybody who wanted to oppose the Nazis. Later, those who decided to help Jews could also be subject to the same brutal treatment.

It was not only those who directly spoke out against the Nazi government who were threatened with arrest and violence. It was clear that their families could also be punished. This prevented many people from speaking out, since they did not want to harm the ones they loved dearly.

Terror against Jews

The main target of Nazi terror was the Jewish population of Europe. The Nazis set up an elaborate system of concentration camps for Jews and other ‘undesirables’. Millions of Jews were brutally murdered, either in these camps or by special Mobile killing brigades that followed the German army into occupied Eastern Europe. Entire Jewish communities were herded together, brought to the forest and shot. The ultimate goal was not deportation or conquest, but the murder of every Jewish man, woman and child.

Terror against other nations

In the Nazi campaign to conquer Europe, terror was a key weapon. The German Air force conducted thousands of bombing raids on cities throughout Europe with almost exclusively civilian populations. The aim was to force surrender. In some cases, such terror was successful. The Dutch surrendered shortly after the Germans bombed and destroyed Rotterdam, the second largest city in the Netherlands and threatened to bomb other cities in the same way.

In response to German occupation, resistance groups came into existence throughout Europe. They often worked together with the Allied forces. Attempts were made to disrupt the German war machine through sabotage and to assist fleeing Jews. Those who collaborated with the Nazi occupiers were also targets of the resistance. Direct confrontations with the German army were mostly avoided because the resistance did not have the resources for full combat. Assassinations of German officials were often discussed. But Reinhard Heydrich was the only Nazi leader that the Allied forces attempted to assassinate. They took this decision knowing that the German military would take terrible revenge on innocent victims. The massacre in Lidice proved this.

The use of terror by the allies

It was not only the Nazis that used terror in the Second World War. Especially controversial was the conscious decision to bomb German and Japanese cities to demoralize the enemy. The killing of thousands of innocent men, women and children through bombing was deemed a legitimate way to force the enemy to surrender. Hundreds of thousands of innocent people died in the fierce bombing that took place over Japanese and German cities.
Photo Credit: USHMM, courtesy of William Gallagher.
Anne Frank Guide
This day in history
Today: 18 July 2018
Then: 18 July 1945

Otto Frank hears that Anne and Margot have died in Bergen-Belsen.