The outbreak of war and its impact

Initial reaction to the outbreak of war

World War Two began on 3 September 1939, when Britain and France reacted to the German invasion of Poland two days earlier by declaring war on the Nazi state. Most Germans believed the attack on Poland was a reaction to Polish aggression and was designed to reclaim territory lost in the Treaty of Versailles, particularly the city of Danzig on the Baltic.

A little over a month later, with Poland defeated and occupied, Hitler publicly offered to make peace with the western allies, while secretly ordering his generals to prepare for an invasion of France that winter. Britain and France refused to trust Hitler this time and the war continued.

The German people reacted to the outbreak of war with resignation. In 1914, at the outbreak of World War One, there had been much enthusiasm but not this time. Germans in 1939 could still remember the pain of 1918, their surrender and the subsequent punishment at Versailles. However, the vast majority of Germans reluctantly supported the war and signed up to play their part in the war effort.

The growing impact of war

A list of ways that the Second World War began to impact on the German people


  • Rationing of food was introduced on 27 August 1939 and a points system for clothing was introduced in October 1939.
  • Autarky and rearmament meant consumer goods were already expensive due to low supply.
  • Germans’ diets became more monotonous, with lots of bread, potatoes and preserves.
  • There were meat shortages due to lack of imports from the USA.
  • Many Germans feared a repeat of the shortages experienced during World War One.
  • Food entitlements depended upon the importance of individuals to the war effort: 'normal consumers', 'heavy workers' 'very heavy workers' – there were also categories for children, pregnant women.
  • Jews' food entitlements were set below Aryans'.
  • The winter of 1939-40 was exceptionally cold and there were shortages of coal.

Area bombing

  • Up until the middle of 1942 the British had tried to target their bombing raids on industrial and military targets.
  • In 1942 RAF Bomber Command switched to a policy of ‘area bombing’ – targeting large industrial cities with incendiary bombs (bombs designed to cause fires), and not distinguishing between military and civilian targets.
  • On 30 May 1942 the first British ‘thousand bomber raid’ was launched against the German city of Cologne.
  • Over the next 3 years: 61 German cities, with a combined population of 25 million, were attacked; 3.6 million homes were destroyed; 7.5 million people were made homeless; 300,000 – 400,000 Germans were killed in the raids; and 800,000 people were wounded. However, German industrial production continued to increase until mid-1944.
  • The raids had a mixed impact on the morale of the German population as Nazi propaganda tended to downplay their impact and the number of deaths.


  • At the outbreak of war, many Germans from the western regions bordering France, such as the Saar, fled east further into Germany. However, many returned soon after when immediate fighting with France failed to begin.
  • The intensive British ‘area’ bombing campaign from May 1942 onwards, targeted at the industrial Ruhr region, created thousands of refugees as whole cities were flattened or burnt down.
  • During the advance of the Soviet army through Poland and eastern Germany during 1944 and 45, much of the civilian population fled westwards to avoid the brutality of the Russian soldiers.


  • 13.7 million German men served in the army during the war, and this created a huge labour shortage on the home front.
  • As they did during World War One, women entered the workforce in large numbers, working in armaments factories and as medics.
  • The Nazis also made extensive use of forced labour, transporting hundreds of thousands of civilians and prisoners of war from Eastern Europe and elsewhere to Germany to keep the war effort going.
  • At the end of the war, eight million enslaved labourers and other ‘displaced persons’ became refugees inside Germany. In addition, 11 million ethnic Germans were either refugees or had been expelled from the countries surrounding Germany in the East.