Chapter 62: The Second Great Brothers' War - World War II

PART ONE: From Versailles to operation barbarossa (1919-1941)

As staggering as had the cost been of the First World War, even that disaster paled into insignificance with the war which became the single greatest conflict of all time: the Second World War. This war saw all of Europe consumed into a conflict in which the total dead of the First World War would be surpassed by the dead of one country alone: it marked the first total and ideological war which Europe had ever seen.

The Treaty of Versailles

It is no exaggeration to say that the Second World War started with the treaty that ended the first one: the Treaty of Versailles, drawn up by the victors of the First World War treated Germany and her allies very badly, blaming them for a war which had been as much the Allies fault as anybody else.

Germany was stripped of huge pieces of territory in all directions.

All told, Germany lost some 25,000 square miles of territory inhabited by nearly seven million Germans: it was a recipe for a nationalist revival. The union of Germany and Austria - the logical consequence of the destruction of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was also strictly forbidden, crippling Austria economically.

Military Restrictions AND Reparations

The German army was placed under great restrictions: limited to 100,000 men, no important naval units; and no airforce at all. These measures were taken as personal insults by the Prussian militarists. Finally, foreign observers were stationed in Germany to keep an eye on factories which might be used to make munitions.

Germany was then presented with a bill for the war, again based on the totally false grounds that Germany had alone been responsible for the conflict. An immediate payment of the then amount of $5,000,000,000 was demanded and paid - by the exchange rate of the end of the 20th century, this would probably amount to several hundred times that figure.

This was however was not all: when the Allies finally fixed the full amount of the reparations bill in 1921, it was put at a further $32,000,000,000 - in value at the time. It was not physically possible for Germany to meet this demand, but nonetheless the Weimar government, established by the Social Democratic Party government in Germany, was forced to sign the treaties: thereby earning the enduring hatred of a large number of Germans.


In August 1921, Germany made a payment of $250,000,000 - only a fraction of the amount demanded, but in real terms a staggering amount. Immediately the German economy crashed with this massive pay-out impacting on its foreign reserves.

The German currency failed completely: in January 1923, one US dollar was worth 896 Marks: by November 1923, one dollar was worth 6,666,666,666,667 Marks.

Unable to make any more payments, Germany threatened defaulting on the next reparations bill. In retaliation, the French army then invaded the Saar demilitarized area, establishing martial law in the region. The French used Black African occupation troops in this move: something which caused great resentment in Germany.

Only in 1924, did the American government intervene with a massive loan in terms of a plan drawn up by the banker Charles Dawes: the bail out became known as part of the Dawes plan, which helped to stabilize the German economy, although it was never to recover fully until after Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933.

The League of Nations

In 1920, the international community created the League of Nations in an attempt to establish a lasting peace. Despite some small successes, the League never addressed itself to the real cause of conflict: the provisions of the treaty of Versailles. Although the European states tried to address some issues of potential conflict with treaties in the 1920s - most notably the Pact of Locarno and the Kellogg-Briand treaty, nothing was done to lift Germany out of the state in which it had been placed.

The advent of the Great Depression in 1929 made the economy even worse and paved the way for the coming to power of the German nationalist Adolf Hitler.

Above: Adolf Hitler speaks in the German Reichstag, 1935: "Not only have I united the German people politically, but I have also rearmed them. I have also endeavored to destroy, sheet by sheet, that treaty (Versailles) which in its 448 articles contains the vilest oppression which peoples and human beings have ever been expected to endure."

The state that Hitler created is the subject of another chapter: suffice to say here that it was by exploiting German grievances with the Treaty of Versailles, both in terms of national pride and territorial losses; and by pulling the German economy back on track, that Hitler was able to come to power with the support of the majority of Germans.

Hitler Overthrows the Treaty of Versailles

An important part of Hitler's political program was the overthrow of the Treaty of Versailles: as a first stage he unilaterally re-armed Germany and refused to pay any more reparations.

Then Hitler started retaking the areas lost by Germany in which Germans still lived: the Saar was occupied in 1936 (the French had left a while earlier, but the region still was officially a demilitarized zone); in 1938, Austria was annexed to Germany and in that same year Czechoslovakia was broken up, with the region in which a majority of Germans (3.5 million of them) lived, the Sudetenland, being formally annexed to Germany.

Further parts of Czechoslovakia that were ethnically Polish and Hungarian were given to those two countries; the eastern section of the country was made independent as the Slovak Republic. The remainder of Czechoslovakia was then made into a German protectorate.

The Polish Question and the Outbreak of Hostilities

Then Hitler turned his attention to the Polish corridor made up of former German territory and the city of Danzig. At first restricting himself to requesting road and rail links between Germany and East Prussia, Hitler decided on a military option after these overtures were rejected by the Poles. Alleging that Germans were being maltreated by the Poles - and in certain areas they were - Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939.

Above: A German poster illustrates how East Prussia was cut off from the rest of Germany by the Danzig corridor, which comprised German territory handed over to Poland in terms of the Versailles Treaty.

The Germans hoped that France and Britain would not go to war over the issue - Hitler drew the analogy that Germany would not go to war with France if that country claimed one of its cities back from foreign rule. This hope was misplaced: on 3 September, France and Britain both declared war on Germany for the act of invading Poland.

The Second World War had started, on the surface caused by Germany reclaiming territory inhabited by Germans which had been torn off that country by the Treaty of Versailles.

The Polish Campaign DEMONSTRATES GERMAN "Lightning WAR"

Germany put 1.5 million men into battle: the Poles met them with a numerically superior force of 1.8 million. The Germans had however learned the lessons of the First World War well: they had invested heavily in the building of tanks and had developed the concept of mobile war in these armored vehicles: the "blitzkrieg" or lightning war, was unleashed on Poland.

The Polish army, expecting head on static conflicts as had happened in the First World War, were no match for the mobile Germans. By 17 September, the Germans had overrun huge areas of the country and had encircled Warsaw, routing the Poles in every major engagement of the campaign.


On 17 September, the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the East: an earlier treaty between Germany and the Soviet Union had provided for such an eventuality. The Soviets quickly rolled up the by now panicked Poles, and within three days Poland had been divided between German and Soviet troops. The last pockets of Polish resistance surrendered on 6 October 1939.

The Soviet Union's invasion was a mirror image of the German invasion: yet here came the best indication that there was something more to the war than just Britain and France resisting German aggression, as the conventional historical accounts would have everyone believe.

For if France and Britain had declared war on Germany for the aggressive act of invading Poland, then surely for the sake of consistency they should have declared war on the Soviet Union as well, when it too invaded Poland.

The reason for this clear and obvious double standard was the overtly racial ideological element which Hitlerian politics had introduced into the war: this is discussed in a later chapter.

Above: Adolf Hitler enters the shattered city of Warsaw, 5 October 1939. Britain and France declared war on Germany for invading Poland, but not on the Soviet Union for doing the exact same thing - the clearest evidence one can find for the existence of ulterior motives in wishing to destroy Hitler.

The Sitzkrieg - SITTING WAR

Germany only annexed that part of Poland which had been German before the First World War: the rest of the country was made into a protectorate, while the eastern part was annexed by the Soviet Union.

France and Britain were astounded at the speed of the Polish campaign: the French only launched a half hearted attempt to attack from behind their heavily fortified Maginot line of concrete emplacements along the border with Germany. The Germans had built a similar fortified wall: the Siegfried Line, and the French attack petered out before it even reached the German line.

Hitler than made an offer of peace to Britain and France: he had never declared war on them (and never did during the entire course of the war) and did not seek a war with them. Making the offer of peace in a speech in Berlin, Hitler put no pre-conditions other than that the two European nations recognized the right of Germany to re-incorporate the German lands in Poland. The offer was rejected out of hand by both the British and French governments.

Still no military action took place: caught in between building up military reserves and trying to end the war by diplomatic means, Germany kept behind its Siegfried Wall. France, waiting for the British to arrive in significant numbers, kept behind their wall: both sides feared above all else a repeat of the static trench war of 1914-1918. The Sitting War, or Sitzkrieg, continued from September 1939 until May 1940.


At the end of November 1939, the Soviet Union then invaded Finland. Despite being outnumbered five to one, the Finns fought bravely and inflicted massive losses on the Red Army. Fighting on into the new year, without aid or support from Britain or France, Finland only lost small pieces of land before fighting the invaders to a standstill. On 8 March 1940, the war came to an end, with Finland only ceding the small slice of territory which the Soviets had managed to grab.

Above: A Soviet column, wiped out by A Finnish attack, during the Soviet invasion of Finland in 1940.

Once again Britain and France refused to declare war on the Soviet Union for doing exactly what Germany had done to Poland: this blatant double standard once again proving that the declaration of war against Germany was motivated by an underlying ideological reason, rather than just a desire to protect small nations against aggression.

Denmark and Norway OCCUPIED BY GERMANS

Britain in the meanwhile decided to land troops in Norway to seize the Swedish iron ore mines which were continuing to supply Germany with raw iron. On 6 April, a large British and French expeditionary force sailed for Norway; then the British navy proceeded to lay mines outside the Norwegian harbor of Narvik, hoping to sink some German ships carrying ore back to Germany.

The mines were laid on 7 April: Hitler, sensing that something was afoot, hastily pulled together an invasion force which sailed the same day, landing in Norway on 9 April. On the way, Germany occupied Denmark to use that country's ports and airfield. The small nation surrendered immediately and was relatively well treated by Germany for the rest of the war.

The German landings in Norway succeeded everywhere except in Narvik, where a small German force of 4600 men were faced by 24,600 British, French, and Norwegian troops. The minute German force held out, but by the first week of June had been pushed back against the Swedish border. They were on the point of surrendering when the French and British withdrew to go the aid of the then rapidly deteriorating military situation in France.

Norway then fell completely under German occupation, never to be disturbed again for the entire duration of the war, with the occupation army only withdrawing after the German surrender in 1945.

Case Yellow: The Invasion of France

On 10 May 1940, Germany broke the Sitzkrieg and attacked in the west, following a plan worked out by Hitler personally which he called Case Yellow: created over the objections of his generals. Employing the same tactics they had used in Poland, the tight German armored divisions raced past British and French troop concentrations, surrounding them into isolated pockets where their dispersed tanks and armor was of little use.

This tactic was especially advantageous in light of the fact that the opposing armies were, in terms of numbers, evenly matched.

On the first day of the invasion, German airborne troops landed in Belgium and the Netherlands. In Belgium. German paratroopers succeeded in knocking out the Belgian concrete forts of Eben-Emael, swiftly defeating that small nation's only major line of defense. In the Netherlands, Dutch resistance crumbled after a small German bomber force attacked the inner city of Rotterdam, killing several hundred civilians.

The British and French forces in northern France then moved into Belgium to meet the oncoming Germans. Then Hitler launched what would be his master stroke in the West: the main German force attacked in the center of the border between France and Germany, the Ardennes forest.

With the tank, or panzer, army in the lead, the Germans raced past the Maginot line and then swung northward, covering 400 kilometers (250 miles ) in 11 days: mobility unheard of in any war till that time. Racing for the coast, the panzers encircled the British and French forces busy moving into Belgium. The Allied army was cut into two by this move.


By 26 May - 16 days into the campaign - the Allied army in the north was trapped along a coastal enclave next to the town of Dunkirk. For reasons which have never been explained (the most common belief is that Hitler wanted to let the British escape so as to facilitate a peace with them at a later stage) the German panzers were deliberately stopped outside the town.

The pause in the German attack allowed the entire British Expeditionary Force - some 330,000 men - be evacuated by an astonishing flotilla of British naval and civilian ships, back to England across the channel. Although all the men were evacuated, they left behind tons of sorely needed equipment on the beach.

The Defeat of France - THE 46 DAY CAMPAIGN

With the main body of the British force gone, the Germans turned south and west once again: ignoring the French troops still sitting in their virtually impregnable Maginot Line, the German tanks drove deep into the French countryside. They met only scattered resistance: more often than not, when French soldiers surrendered, their weapons were taken from them and they were sent home by the Germans who did not want to burden themselves with prisoners.

Finally on 17 June, the French premier, Marshal Henri Petain, the First World War hero who had held the French together in their darkest hour of that war, realized that the situation was militarily hopeless. He asked for an armistice which was signed on 25 June. France had been beaten by Hitler's plan in 46 days.

Above: German troops march down the main thoroughfare of Paris, 1940, with the Arc de Triomphe behind them.

The armistice gave Germany control over northern France extending into a strip down the Atlantic coast: the rest of France was left independent under Petain, with its capital at the city of Vichy, causing this territory to become known as the Vichy republic.


The invasion of France had been followed in Britain by the appointment of Winston Churchill as prime minister, who proved to be an able war leader whose carefully media cultivated image in many ways captured the dogged resistance put up by the British when that nation was the only major power on the European continent which had not been overrun by Germany.

The English channel had been the only physical reason why the German tanks had not rolled on to occupy Britain at the same time that France was overrun: certainly after the defeat at Dunkirk the British army barely had enough armor or heavy weapons left to ward off any significant German attack.

The Germans then drew up a plan to invade Britain: called Operation Sea Lion, it consisted of crossing the channel in invasion barges and landing on the southern coast of England. Before this could be achieved, Germany had to achieve air superiority to make up for their overwhelming inferiority at sea. The mighty British navy could knock out almost anything put to sea and could only be warded off by superior air power. The war for Britain then switched to a battle in the air.

The Battle of Britain

When Germany had invaded Poland in September 1939 and the Netherlands in May 1940, pinpoint air strikes against civilian towns had been carried out in Warsaw and Rotterdam: both had served effectively to wear down the resistance of the invaded countries.

So it was that when Winston Churchill became prime minister of Britain on 10 May 1940, his first act the next day was to announce that German cities would be targeted for bombing attacks. The same month the first German cities were bombed by British aircraft.

The German airforce however avoided bombing British cities, concentrating on the strategically more important airfields and ports, launching the first of these major raids during August 1940.

The British came up with a surprise weapon: the Spitfire fighter, which at first outclassed almost all the fighters the Germans put into the battle, apart from the Messerschmidt Bf109, with which it was on virtually equal terms. However, the British Royal Air Force (RAF) took a heavy toll on the other German aircraft. The famous Stuka dive bomber, for example, was shot out of British skies in such numbers that after a few weeks they had been withdrawn from the battle.

German air losses mounted: the bravery of the British aircraft teams in defending their homeland has become legendary: certainly it was their efforts which caused the Germans to shelve Operation Sea Lion indefinitely by the end of 1940.


In the interim, British bombers had been raiding German cities for almost four months: finally, after a bombing raid on Berlin itself, Hitler authorized the Luftwaffe to start bombing British cities in return. Selected British cities were then targeted: London, Coventry, Birmingham and Sheffield came in for particularly heavy bombing, and the raids became known as the Blitz.

Despite large scale destruction, the death toll was surprisingly low: in Coventry, only 380 civilians died as a result of the bombing raids throughout the course of the entire war: and total British civilian losses during the war due to German bombing was around 60,000.

To put this into perspective, more than 500,000 German civilians died in the Allied bombing of German cities during the war: in one raid, on Dresden in 1945, 135,000 German civilians were killed in a single raid.

Nonetheless, the Blitz caused great hardship and forced the British to evacuate virtually all children out of the major cities to rural destinations, splitting families and greatly adding to the misery of wartime Britain. However, most importantly, the Blitz did not break the spirit of the British people or their preparedness to pursue the war.


Above left: The ruins of the German city of Dresden, where 135,000 German civilians died in one bombing raid a few days before the war ended: more than all the Japanese who died in both the atom bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki put together. Right: St. Paul's cathedral in London during the Blitz. 60,000 Britons were to die in all the German bombing raids on that country during the entire war.

Italian Misadventures

The Italian leader, Benito Mussolini, had allied himself to Germany before the war in a 1938 alliance known as the Pact of Steel or the Berlin - Rome Axis: as a result this alliance was known as the Axis. In the closing week of the German campaign against France, Mussolini entered the war on Germany's side.

The Italian declaration of war against Britain caught a large number of Italian ex-patriats in Britain by surprise: the British government detained thousands of Italians and kept them without trial for the duration of the war in prisoner camps.

Mussolini launched an attack on France from the Italian side of the French-Italian border immediately after declaring war on that country. The attack was a total failure and French troops even crossed the border into Italy after driving off the initial Italian assault. Only the collapse of the French armies in central France saved Mussolini from an embarrassing defeat.

Eclipsed by Hitler in Western Europe, Mussolini then turned his attention south: in September 1940, he launched an attack on British held Egypt from the Italian colony of Libya, which was easily driven off.

The British then in turn invaded Libya, and started to push the Italians back into that territory. Undaunted, Mussolini then launched an invasion of Greece from the Italian held territory of Albania, in October 1940. Soon the Greeks had defeated the Italian forces as well, and pushed deep into Albania in retaliation. British forces then landed in Crete and Greece to aid the Greeks.

On all fronts then, Mussolini's endeavors faced catastrophe: his inept invasion of Greece had even allowed the British back onto mainland Europe: Hitler was forced to act to bring the situation under control.


Germany quickly prepared an invasion force to drive the British out of Greece. To reach Greece, German forces had to cross a number of other Eastern European countries: Rumania, Bulgaria and Hungary had formally allied themselves to Germany and gave permission for German troops to move through their countries: only Yugoslavia refused and had to be subdued by force.

The German invasion of Yugoslavia and Greece began in early April 1941: by 13 April, Belgrade had fallen and the Yugoslav army surrendered the next day. The Germans split Yugoslavia up, giving the Albanian dominated region of Kosovo to Albania and letting Croatia become independent: however for the rest of the war, Yugoslav guerrillas fought a merciless war against German troops in the region, and were never completely subdued.

By 9 April, the Germans had smashed the relatively strong Greek army of some 430,000 men: the British expeditionary force in that country was forced to retreat south with its entire force of some 62,000 men. By the end of April, all of Greece had been overrun: the British had withdrawn to Crete, an operation which cost them 12,000 men.

Even there they were not safe: a German airborne invasion in May 1941, (the first in history, discounting the comparatively small landings in the Netherlands in May 1940) drove them off that island, although the German losses were so high that they were never to try an airborne assault on this scale again.


Hitler also sent a small German panzer division to Libya to aid the Italians there: under the able leadership of General Erwin Rommel, this German unit, to be known as the Afrika Korps, soon won renown as daring and tactical fighters, quickly stabilizing the military situation and even pushing the British back into Egypt.


Although officially neutral, the United States made its partiality for Britain known from the beginning, even duplicating the British overlooking of the Soviet Union's invasion of Poland and Finland as a reason to censure that country. In March 1941, the US Congress passed the Lend-Lease Act and appropriated an initial $7 billion to lend or lease weapons and other aid to any countries the president might designate as in America's interests: this of course meant Britain and immediately a flow of material and other supplies started to the beleaguered island.

In July 1941, the US stationed troops in Iceland and the American navy was escorting convoys supplying Britain in waters west of Iceland. In September 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized American ships doing convoy duty to attack German warships or submarines. America was as good as at war with Germany already.


Hitler had decided as early as December 1940 that an invasion of the Soviet Union would have to be made: apart from the fact that the Communists were his traditional political foe, all evidence showed that the Soviets were planning to attack Germany at some time during the course of 1941 or 1942. Given all the factors, Hitler decided to strike first.

An invasion plan was drawn up under the code name Barbarossa: after the ancient German king of the same name. This plan entailed a series of quick thrusts through western Russia, halting at the Ural mountains.

Hitler never foresaw going further than this, nor of concluding a treaty with the defeated Russians: rather he saw the territory east of the Urals as alien land which he neither wanted nor wished to subdue.


Originally, Hitler planned Barbarossa for early 1941 so that the campaign could be completed before the advent of the notorious Russian winter. This early invasion had to be postponed due to the disastrous invasion of Greece by Mussolini.

Forced to intervene in Greece and Yugoslavia, the Germans lost a critical month in organizing the invasion of the Soviet Union: the result was that the Russian winter did indeed set in before their primary objectives were reached, forcing them onto the defensive for the first time in the war.

This loss of initiative was the first important German reverse of the war: if ever there was a turning point in the war, it was the delay caused by Mussolini's clownish invasion of Greece. Ultimately Hitler was undone by his choice of allies, rather than by his choice of foes.

The Greatest Land War of All Time

Finally, Barbarossa was executed on 22 June 1941. More than 3 million German troops took part in the assault, which was spread from the Baltic Sea in the north right through to the Black Sea in the south. It was the beginning of the greatest land war of all time, never equaled since.

The Soviet Army also had just over 3 million men in its western army (it had more reserves in the far east) and outnumbered the Germans by two to one in tanks and by two or three to one in aircraft. The Soviet tanks, in particular the T-34s, were far superior to anything the Germans had at the time: the first T-34s captured intact were dragged away by German engineers for inspection, and it was only much later in the war that the Germans were able to put anything as effective into the field.

Despite the odds, the three German army groups: North, Center, and South, made tremendous speed in rushing towards their three objectives: Leningrad, Moscow, and Kiev respectively.

The speed of the initial advances served to give credence to the German hope that the campaign could be finished before the end of the year: however the delay caused by the Italian debacle would yet catch up with the Germans.

The British offered the Soviet Union an immediate alliance, with Churchill personally issuing the offer: Roosevelt also offered lend-lease aid, which soon came flooding into the Soviet Union in such quantities as to significantly affect the course of the war.

Massive Soviet Losses

By the end of the first week in July, the German Army Group Center had taken 290,000 prisoners and had passed Minsk: in early August, the Germans crossed the Dnieper River, the last natural barrier west of Moscow, and destroyed a Soviet army at Smolensk, taking another 300,000 prisoners.

By early September, Leningrad, the former city of Petrograd (now known as Saint Petersburg) had been encircled by Army Group North. The Finns, who had participated in the invasion in the far north, also lay siege to Leningrad. Soon a great famine spread through the city, with its only supply route being across the frozen lakes, an extremely hazardous route.

In mid-September, Army Group South captured an incredible 650,000 prisoners in an encirclement to the East of Kiev. By late October, Army Group Center was once again pushing east towards Moscow. On the way, it captured yet more prisoners: this time some 663,000 Red Army soldiers fell into their hands.

Above: Despite severe losses, the Soviets had managed to rally themselves by the time the German Army stood at the gates of Moscow: here a Soviet poster shows their readiness to defend the capital city.

In less than four months, the Soviets had lost more than 1.8 million men in prisoners alone: it became a serious logistical problem for the Germans in handling the prisoners: in effect they all of a sudden had to feed and provide shelter for a mass of men two thirds the size of the German army itself.

Such losses had not been sustained by an army before in history, yet the Soviet ability to fight on serves as a striking example of how vast this particular campaign was; and also of the massive reserves the Soviets could call upon.


By late November, two German advance units penetrated right into the suburbs of Moscow: one advance unit came to within eyesight of the onion domes of the Kremlin itself. Then the Russian winter set in with a viciousness which the Germans were not expecting: many were also not equipped for the winter, and the month delay in launching the campaign finally tripped up the Blitzkrieg war.

With victory in Moscow in sight, the German tanks, vehicles and even guns froze: hundreds of soldiers froze to death in the cold snap which halted the advance in its tracks. On 5 December the advance unit commanders reported that they could go no further: they were not equipped to fight under the freezing conditions and they were unable to dig in because the ground itself was frozen. It was impossible even to bury the dead: not that they needed burying, as they did not decay in the frozen ice. The German commanders reported finally that the conditions and lack of winter equipment for the German troops had caused morale to sink to a low as then unseen amongst the soldiers.

Soviet Counter Attack Succeeds

The Soviets, all well equipped for the harshness of the winter, had brought up reserves from the Far East and exploited the halt in the German advance to press home a counter attack. With their vehicles, equipment and weapons specifically designed to fight in sub-zero temperatures, the fresh Soviet troops devastated the advance German units and the invaders were driven out with great ease.

Below left: Clad only in gray coats, German soldiers struggle to dig their vehicles out of the snow, December 1941. Below right: Soviet troops, on the other hand, marching through Moscow towards the front in the same month, are fully equipped for winter fighting, with snow camouflage, skis and padding. The onset of winter - one of the worst in decades - combined with  the German Army's unpreparedness for it - proved to be too much for the exhausted invaders.

The retreating Germans left behind their frozen tanks, trucks and weapons, being forced to flee on foot. It was the first major defeat for the Germans of the war. Fighting a desperate rearguard action, the Germans managed to plug the holes in their front line by the end of December: but the immediate threat to Moscow was lifted and the plan to destroy the Soviet Union by the end of 1941 had been wrecked.

Part Two: Pearl Harbor to D-Day (1941-1944)

Part Three: Allied Victory in Europe and Asia (1944 - 1945)

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