1942 Europe map

The Nazi Conquest of Europe in Maps

World War II started in 1939, when Germany invaded Poland and Britain and France declared war. But the Nazi conquest of Europe started years earlier.

In 1935, the coal-rich Saarland rejoined the Reich. The following year, Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland in violation of the Versailles Treaty. Austria and what is now the Czech Republic were annexed in 1938.

At the height of his power, Hitler ruled an empire stretching from the Franco-Spanish border in the southwest to Svalbard (Spitsbergen) in the north to the Caucasus in the east. Here is a short history of how it happened — with maps!

Aims

Interwar Germany wasn’t shy about its territorial ambitions. In books, maps and speeches, German nationalists made clear their determination to win (back) lands populated by ethnic Germans.

They often exaggerated the extent of Germany’s “natural” frontiers. Swathes of Central and Eastern Europe were assigned to Germany’s “cultural space”, despite German speakers being in the minority there.

1923 Germany map
1923 map by the Austrian-German People’s League (Cornell University Library)

The right-wing Austrian-German People’s League demanded that Austria, the German-speaking parts of Italy and Switzerland as well as the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia and the areas of Posen and West Prussia that had been ceded to Poland after the First World War be reincorporated into Germany to make it “whole” again.

Albrecht Penck, a geographer, argued that, in addition to areas of German settlement (Volksboden), there were German “cultural” lands (Kulterboden), where German industriousness and intelligence had made their mark. This made it possible to claim for Germany parts of Europe it had never ruled, but where it had cultural or economic influence.

The Nazis ultimately rejected Penck’s argument, which was racially too inclusive and territorially too restrictive for them. Their idea of the German “nation” encompassed everyone of German ancestry, which, according to a 1938 map by Arnold Hillen Ziegfeld, added up to 87,545,000 people.

Saar

1935 Saarland Germany postcard
1935 German postcard (IISG)

The Nazi regime’s first step in making Germany great again was the reintegration of the Saarland.

The coal-rich region had been separated from Germany after the First World War and placed under an Anglo-French League of Nations mandate. When the mandate expired in 1935, and the population voted to rejoin Germany, the Nazis could claim they had begun to overturn the “diktats” of Versailles.

Rhineland

French soldiers in Germany
French soldiers look down from the Ehrenbreitstein Fortress on the German town of Koblenz during the occupation of the Rhineland, 1929 (Bundesarchiv)

The first real violation of the Versailles Treaty was Germany’s occupation of the Rhineland.

After France signed a defense treaty with the Soviet Union in March 1936, Hitler marched 3,000 German troops across the Rhine into the demilitarized economic heartland of Germany. Britain and France, unwilling to go to war over land that was German anyway, did not protest.

Austria

1938 Anschluss map
Anschluss of Austria as depicted in the 1943 American propaganda film Why We Fight: The Nazis Strike

Hitler’s next move was the annexation of his native Austria. Like the return of the Saar and the remilitarization of the Rhineland, the March 1938 Anschluss of Austria was accomplished without firing a shot.

The Austrian population seemed to welcome the annexation but, just to be safe, the Nazis rigged a referendum to produce 99.7 percent support for the joining of the two German-speaking nations. Austria became an integral part of the German Reich called the Ostmark.

Sudetenland

Sudetenland map
Sudetenland as depicted in the 1945 American propaganda film Why We Fight: War Comes to America

The western border region of Czechoslovakia, itself a creation of Versailles, was home to an ethnic German minority as well as the country’s border defenses. The Germans called this the Sudetenland. Emboldened by the Western Allies’ tepid response to the Anschluss, Hitler demanded that the Sudeten Germans be brought into the Reich.

Neville Chamberlain Adolf Hitler
Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler at the Munich Conference (UIG)

The Czechs offered the Sudetenland autonomy, which its local fascist party accepted. But this was not enough for Hitler. Britain and France agreed to split the region from Czechoslovakia and give it to Germany, but again Hitler — keen to use the crisis as a pretext for war — made additional demands: the immediate German military occupation of the Sudetenland, giving the Czechoslovaks no time to move their defenses.

To this Britain and France agreed as well at the infamous Munich Conference of September 1938. German troops moved in a month later.

But, breaking his promise not to invade the rest of Czechoslovakia, Hitler did just that five months later. The remaining Czech lands became the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Slovakia became an independent, Nazi-allied republic under Jozef Tiso.

Memelland

1918 Memel Germany postcard
1918 postcard of Memel, then in Germany (GenWiki Commons)

Next on Hitler’s list was the return of the Klaipėda Region, which the Germans called Memelland, from Lithuania.

Bordering on East Prussia and centered on the Baltic port city of Memel, the territory had been detached from Germany at Versailles and then seized by Lithuania in 1923. Nationalist sentiment had been rising among its German-speaking minority for years.

Without either Western or Soviet support, the Lithuanians saw no choice but to accept Germany’s ultimatum on March 22, 1939. German soldiers had already entered Memel and the following day a German armada, carrying the Führer himself, arrived to celebrate the territory’s return to the Reich.

1939 Germany map
1939 map by the pro-Nazi German Library of Information showing the extent of the German Reich in May 1939 (Cornell University Library)

Danzig and the Polish Corridor

1930s Polish Corridor map
1930s postcard (Barron Maps)

After Memel, the fear in Europe was that the Free City of Danzig (Gdańsk) and the so-called Polish Corridor, which separated East Prussia from the rest of Germany, would be next.

1939 Danzig postcard
1939 postcard (Wikimedia Commons)

The fear was justified. Hitler, convinced that the Western democracies would once again relent, ordered his generals to prepare to seize not just Danzig and the Polish Corridor but the entire western half of Poland.

In a secret protocol to the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Soviet Union accepted Germany’s plan provided it would get the eastern half of Poland and the Baltic states.

Poland

1939 Poland map
Map by Robert M. Chapin Jr., from Time magazine

Germany invaded Poland a week after the nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union was signed. Allied Slovak units attacked from the south. The Soviet invasion from the east followed two weeks later.

Polish defense planning had concentrated on stopping the Germans at the border in order to protect the country’s economically most valuable regions in the west. The Polish government also feared that if it gave up those areas, which had once been German, Britain and France might not come to its aid and accept German gains, like they had in the case of Czechoslovakia.

The strategy was ill-advised, and indeed Polish generals knew the better plan was to establish a defensive perimeter behind such natural barriers as the Vistula and San rivers.

1939 Poland map
Map by Robert M. Chapin Jr., from Time magazine

When the Germans did invade, Poland’s defenses were quickly overrun. Britain and France declared war on Germany but were unable to send help. Polish forces withdrew to the southeast, toward the so-called Romanian Bridgehead, where they planned to hunker down, wait for Western aid and eventually mount a counteroffensive.

But Western aid never materialized and meanwhile Soviet soldiers had started marching in from the east. At this point, a defense of the Romanian Bridgehead was no longer feasible and the Polish government ordered the evacuation of all remaining troops to neutral Romania.

Denmark and Norway

In the early morning of April 9, German troops invaded Denmark. Within hours, they had arrived in Copenhagen. There was only a minor skirmish with the King’s Royal Guard outside Amalienborg Palace before the Danish government capitulated.

1940 Northwest Europe map
Map from Life magazine (April 22, 1940)

Denmark gave the Germans a springboard for the invasion of Norway, which was their real target. Norway could serve as a base for naval units, especially U-boats, to harass Allied shipping in the North Atlantic, and its occupation would secure shipments of iron ore from Sweden through the port of Narvik.

The Norwegians resisted. The geography of the country, and their familiarity with the terrain, allowed the Norwegians to hold out for two months before they were forced to surrender.

There was fear Germany might attack Sweden next, but there was no need. Surrounded by the Axis on all sides (Finland, having been invaded by the Soviet Union, was on the German side), the Swedes were in no position to join the Allies.

Low Countries

German invasion Netherlands map
Map from Life magazine (November 25, 1940)

The invasion of the Low Countries was, to the Germans, only a prelude to the Battle of France. It obviously didn’t feel like a sideshow to the Dutch, who hadn’t been invaded in a hundred years. (Dutch — unlike Belgian — neutrality was respected in World War I.)

Dutch defense planning was rooted in the centuries-old method of flooding low-lying parts of the country to slow an invading force, but by 1940 the Germans could simply drop paratroopers behind Dutch lines. Airpower had defeated the Dutch Water Line.

When the Germans bombed the port city of Rotterdam on May 14, and threatened to bomb other cities unless the Dutch surrendered, the Netherlands’ main fighting force capitulated.

German invasion Netherlands map
Curtain-raiser is launched by German Army against the Low Countries. Main drive seems toward Rotterdam, with flank-guard attack across Dutch panhandle toward Albert Canal.
German invasion Netherlands map
Luxembourg is swallowed by second day. One of Liège’s great circle of forts, Eben-Emael, is taken and the Albert Canal line is broken. The small Dutch Army is decimated by tank thrusts.
German invasion Netherlands map
Northern Netherlands is overrun, having no defenses, while the Germans ominously sift into the “impenetrable” Ardennes Forest west of Malmedy in east Belgium, lightly held.
German invasion Netherlands map
Lightning breakthrough to Rotterdam paralyzes the Dutch. The unbelievable overrunning of the Ardennes Forest is all but complete and later King Leopold appeals to Liège to hold.
German invasion Netherlands map
All Netherlands except island of Zeeland surrenders. Everything in Belgium caves in at once. Main French armies stay behind Maginot Line, sending holding forces to help Belgians.
German invasion Netherlands map
Desperate counterattacks by British and French win, lose, win and lose Leuven. Really ominous was the German development of break through Little Maginot Line at Sedan.
German invasion Netherlands map
French Second Army counterattacks to patch hole in Little Maginot Line at Sedan, is violently thrown back, German Panzer divisions widen hole. British holding forces cover Brussels.
German invasion Netherlands map
French First Army is thrown back west of Sedan, farther widening the gap in the lines, while French reserves are rushed up. The Dyle River line and Brussels defenses fall before Germans.
German invasion Netherlands map
Last of Netherlands and Antwerp are overrun by Germans. 68 German divisions, 480 air squadrons try to separate France from Maginot Line near 1918 field of Somme.

France

German invasion Belgium map
The German 18th Army overruns the Netherlands. The 4th and 6th Armies crash through the Belgian defenses and draw French 1st and 7th Armies and British Expeditionary Force into Belgium. Then on May 14 the main German attack is delivered at Sedan by 2nd and 12th Armies.
German invasion Belgium map
The German 2nd, 9th and 12th Armies push through the Sedan gap, breaking the French 9th and then facing south to hold the reserve French armies (4th and 6th). Panzer divisions race on to the Channel coast and the Allied armies of the north are pocketed.

The key to Germany’s quick victory over France was the decision to invade through the Ardennes. French troops in this area were outnumbered and second-rate. France had sent its best troops across the Belgian plain to establish a defensive perimeter east of Brussels under the assumption that the Germans would take the same invasion route as they had in 1914.

Indeed, some German troops did, but the bulk of the invading force was making its way through the forest. It took the Allies four days to recognize their mistake, by which time it was too late. German armored columns had reached the English Channel, cutting off the British and French at Dunkirk.

Franz Halder
Franz Halder

What looks like a masterstroke in hindsight was closer to an accident of history. Germany’s top military planner, General Franz Halder, had originally proposed an invasion through the Low Countries, called the Manstein Plan or Case Yellow, that was close to what the Allies expected. But those plans fell into enemy hands when Mayor Helmuth Reinberger of the Luftwaffe was captured with the Case Yellow plans in Mechelen on January 10. Mechanical problems had forced his plane to land and the pilot mistook the Meuse River for the Rhine, stranding them both in Belgium. Germany was subsequently forced to alter its plan of attack.

German Case Yellow map
1939-40 evolution of Case Yellow, the German plan for the invasion of France (Wikimedia Commons)

French prime minister Paul Reynaud realized the battle was lost when the Germans broke through at Sedan on May 15. When his British counterpart, Winston Churchill, visited Paris the next day to lift Reynaud’s spirits, he was told by Maurice Gamelin, the top French military commander, that there were no reserves to protect Paris. The fall of France was imminent. They best French forces could hope to accomplish now was to fight on for several more days to give the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) a chance to escape.

On May 20, Reynaud sacked Gamelin and put Maxime Weygand in command. Weygand managed to mount some counterattacks, but, again, the main benefit was to slow the German advance to the coast and give the British time to get out.

When May turned to June, and the BEF was surrounded at Dunkirk, Weygand faced a front stretching from the English Channel to Sedan with an army less than half the size of the Germans to defend it. Nevertheless, the French put up a strong resistance. At least their supply lines were shorter and German blitzkrieg tactics were no longer a surprise. The Germans, by contrast, were overstretched and increasingly relied on superior numbers and airpower, rather than superior tactics, to break through the French defenses.

Weygand’s defense in depth inflicted maximum attrition on the Germans, but he could only slow them down, not stop them. The French government declared Paris an open city on June 10. When German troops marched in four days later, they respected the declaration and the city was taken without violence.

It was only at this point that the Germans attacked the formidable Maginot Line, which was now seriously undermanned. Some fortresses held out until the very end, but the war was clearly lost. Reynaud resigned on June 16. He was succeeded by World War I veteran and Marshal of France Philippe Pétain, who, in a radio address to the French people, announcing his intention to seek an armistice with Germany.

Pétain would serve as head of the collaborationist French state in Vichy until 1944. Weygand initially collaborated with the Germans as well until the Vichy government allowed the Axis use of military bases in the French colonies.

Greece

Benito Mussolini
Benito Mussolini in 1940 (Wikimedia Commons)

Italian forces had played only a tiny role in the fall of France, and they certainly hadn’t been instrumental. Keen to prove himself to Hitler, Benito Mussolini launched an invasion of Greece in October.

Greek invasion Albania map
Map of Greek counterinvasion of Albania from Life magazine (December 23, 1940)

It was a disaster. Mussolini already held Albania, which meant the Greeks knew where the attack would come from. They had prepared well. Greeks defenders stopped the Italians right at the border and were even able to advance a few kilometers into Albania in January 1941. The Italians tried a second time in March, but this Spring Offensive ended no better for them than their first attempt.

1941 Eastern Mediterranean map
Map of the military situation in the Eastern Mediterranean in April 1941, from Life magazine (April 21, 1941)

The fight had also worn out the Greeks, who appealed to the British for help. Britain sent weapons, ammunition and military gear, which to Hitler raised the specter of a British threat from the south. He decided to help the Italians.

German support was made easier by Bulgaria’s accession to the Axis in March. The following month, German troops invaded from the north. The Greeks were now forced to defend a front straddling their entire border, but they resisted British suggestions for a tactical withdrawal. Axis forces were able to break through and reach Athens on April 27 and the southern coast on April 30. The conquest of Greece was completed with the capture of Crete a month later.

Hitler would later blame Mussolini for diverting German troops from the planned invasion of the Soviet Union, causing them to just fall short of seizing Moscow before the winter of 1941.

Yugoslavia

1941 Yugoslavia invasion map
Axis invasion of Yugoslavia as depicted in the 1943 American propaganda film Why We Fight: The Battle of Russia

Another setback to Hitler’s plan to invade Russia was the March putsch in Yugoslavia. Pro-Western Serb nationalists overthrew the Axis-friendly regency of Prince Paul and installed the seventeen-year-old Peter II as king. Hitler immediately ordered an invasion, which began on April 6.

Following a devastating bombardment of Belgrade, which made it difficult for the Yugoslavs to coordinate their defenses, Axis forces attacked from Austria, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. It took them only two weeks to reach Belgrade.

Middle East

Nazi-occupied Europe map
Map of Nazi-occupied Europe and possible Middle East invasion routes, from Life magazine (May 5, 1941)

With the entire Balkans now under Axis control, and the newly-formed German Afrika Korps advancing on Egypt, an invasion of the Middle East seemed possible. If Germany were to simultaneously move on Gibraltar and the Suez Canal, it could trap Britain’s fleet in the Mediterranean, cut off the empire’s supply lines to India and protect Europe from a blockade by sea with the oil reserves of the Middle East and the granaries of North Africa in its possession.

İsmet İnönü
İsmet İnönü (Wikimedia Commons)

The main obstacle was Turkey’s neutrality. The Nazis offered Turkey parts of Greece in exchange for joining the war on the Axis side, as well as buffer states in the Caucasus, but President İsmet İnönü turned them down. His sympathies were with the Allies and the Germans recognized that an invasion would have needlessly made an enemy out of Turkey.

Click here to learn more about Hitler’s feared invasion of the Middle East.

Russia

1941 Russia invasion map
German invasion of Russia as depicted in the 1943 American propaganda film Why We Fight: The Battle of Russia

Instead of the Middle East, Hitler attacked his nominal ally, Russia. Launched in June 1941, the goal of Operation Barbarossa was to establish German control from Arkhangelsk in the north to Astrakhan on the Caspian Sea. Leningrad, Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod (known as Gorky in Soviet times) and Stalingrad (now Volgograd) would all be conquered. The Soviet Union would be deprived of the bulk of its population and industrial strength.

German invasion Soviet Union map
Map from Life magazine (July 14, 1941)

The attack was carried out in three major thrusts.

  • Army Group North, under the command of General Field Marshal Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb and consisting of the 16th and 18th Armies of the German Wehrmacht, invaded the Baltic republics with the goal of reaching Leningrad.
  • Army Group Center, under General Field Marshal Fedor von Bock and consisting of the 4th and 9th Armies and the strongest armored and air units, attacked Belarus with the goal of reaching Smolensk and eventually Moscow.
  • Army Group South, under General Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt and consisting of the 6th, 11th and 17th Armies, with additional forces from Hungary, Italy, Romania and Slovakia, attacked Ukraine with the goal of reaching Kiev before continuing eastward over the steppes toward the oil-rich Caucasus.

Finnish forces simultaneously launched an attempt to retake Karelia under Baron Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim.

On the Soviet side, Marshals Kliment Voroshilov, Semyon Timoshenko and Semyon Budyonny commanded the defensive sectors. All three suffered under micromanagement from Joseph Stalin. Much like Hitler when the roles were reversed a year later, the Soviet dictator would initially allow no retreats, hampering a defense-in-depth strategy that had served Russia well during Napoleon’s invasion and which Marshal Georgy Zhukov implemented the following year.

German invasion Soviet Union map
Sixteen days into the war, Germans are about to break the Stalin Line. Two armies point toward Leningrad, two toward Moscow, two toward Kiev and three toward the Dnestr River.
German invasion Soviet Union map
Main German thrust slams against Russian center into the Smolensk gateway, achieving a breakthrough toward Moscow. Germans announce they have broken the Stalin Line.
German invasion Soviet Union map
German blitzkrieg in south encircles Kiev too soon and its upper pincer is wiped out by a Russian counterattack. In center, Germans are slowed by batting surrounded Russians in their rear.
German invasion Soviet Union map
Five German armies concentrate on Ukraine. Russian counterattack fails. Germans abandon ill-fated pincer north of Kiev and strike south of Kiev to catch Ukrainian troops engaged by two southernmost German armies. Smolensk drive moves ahead with slow frontal assaults.
German invasion Soviet Union map
More Russian counterattacks on flank of German drive past Kiev fail while Germans race to surround Odessa. Smolensk drive stands still. Germans, balked in pincer movement on Leningrad, slide off and try again on the flank of Voroshilov’s armies.
German invasion Soviet Union map
Germans strike wherever Russian resistance weakens. Main thrust exploits breakthrough south of Kiev while same armies mop up Pripet Marshes and hold off Russian counterattacks. Moscow drive puts out a new spur.

The German occupied more than half a million square miles of Soviet territory and came within striking distance of Moscow before they were ground to a halt in the mud and snow of the Russian winter. Once he was confident the Japanese would not attack in the Far East, Stalin ordered his Siberian army to assist in the defense of the capital. The Germans lost the Battle of Moscow in January 1942. Operation Barbarossa had failed.

1941 Eastern Front map
Map of German gains in Eastern Europe from the 1943 American propaganda film Why We Fight: The Battle of Russia

An angered Hitler relieved Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch as supreme commander of the German Army and took command himself. With his Panzers running out of fuel, he decided not to try for Moscow again in the spring of 1942 but rather divert his forces to the south to seize the oil fields of the Caucasus and the city that bore his enemy’s name: Stalingrad.

Stalingrad

1942 Battle of Stalingrad map
Germany’s plan for the Battle of Stalingrad as depicted in the 1943 American propaganda film Why We Fight: The Battle of Russia
1942 Eastern Front map
Map of the situation in late September 1942, from Life magazine (October 5, 1942)

The objective of the 1942 German summer offensive, codenamed Case Blue, was to thrust across southern Russia, cut off remaining Soviet forces in the Caucasus, take the oil and then encircle Moscow.

The Caucasus part of the operation, called Edelweiss, initially went well, until stiffer Soviet resistance and lengthening supply lines slowed the Germans down. They never reached the Caspian Sea.

They did cross the River Don and reach Stalingrad, but five months of vicious fighting over the city precipitated the reversal of all of Germany’s 1942 gains on the Eastern Front. It was the beginning of the end of Hitler’s empire.

1942 Europe map
Map of Europe in 1942 at the height of German military expansion, from Yank, the Army Weekly (Cornell University Library)

2 Replies

  • Thanks for another excellent piece, Nick! I urge readers to click and enlarge all the maps. They’re great!

    I often wonder why Britain and France declared war only on Germany, just one of the three countries that invaded Poland in September 1939. Russia and Slovakia got a free pass. Fear of Russia’s military might was an understandable concern, but no excuse from an ethical and political viewpoint.

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