The European Theater

European theater introductory panel

The war in Europe had its roots in World War I. Unresolved conflicts, harsh reparations, and pervasive anti-Semitism gave rise to the Nazi Party and its desire for conquest. Adolph Hitler, leader of the Nazi Party, came to power in Germany in 1933 and immediately took steps to eliminate Jews and other people he thought were inferior, and to expand German territory. 

World War II officially began on September 1, 1939 when Hitler invaded Poland. Over the next year, Belgium, the Netherlands, and France fell. After his success in Western Europe, Hitler turned his attention east and invaded the Soviet Union (now Russia), despite a non-aggression pact that existed between the two nations. This drove the Soviet Union to join the Allied powers for the remainder of the war.

Once America entered the war in December 1941, the European theater was given top priority. The major strategic question for the Allies was when and where to open a second front against Germany. Since the Soviets were bearing the brunt of the fighting in Eastern Europe, they wanted the Allies to invade Western Europe immediately.

But the US and Britain needed more time to prepare for such a difficult operation. Instead, they launched a strategic bombing campaign, flying aircraft from England over Germany to bomb targets of military importance. In addition, in late 1942 the US invaded Morocco. For the next year the US and Britain made their way from North Africa to Sicily and Italy, striking at the “soft underbelly” of Europe.

The Allied invasion of Western Europe began on June 6, 1944, remembered as D-Day, when American, Canadian, and British forces invaded Normandy in northern France. From there, the US and Britain pushed east toward Germany, while the Soviets fought their way west. Along the way, Allied soldiers discovered the atrocities committed by the Nazis as they liberated concentration camps throughout Europe. As Allied troops closed in on Hitler’s headquarters in Berlin in May 1945, Germany surrendered unconditionally, ending the war in Europe.

The European Theater