10 Ways Nazi Germany Sucked at War: (10) They Excelled at Criminality

 

10 WAYS NAZI GERMANY SUCKED AT WAR: (10) THEY EXCELLED AT CRIMINALITY

 

For ‘wehraboo’ fanboys who tout Nazi Germany’s military ‘excellence’ in the Second World War, there was indeed one defining characteristic in which they excelled, exceeding every other combatant – criminality or atrocity. Not only did Nazi Germany lose in the most complete defeat in modern history, itself a powerful rebuttal for fans of its military, but it lost while fighting in such vile fashion as to leave its indelible stain in history. As I’ve said before, the Nazis were two-time losers, hopelessly fighting and predictably losing the same war Germany had lost twenty years previously, only worse – in every way.

 

Nazi Germany’s criminality or atrocity is too prolific for a simple summary, and besides, is well known to students of history – as is, or should be, the myth of the “clean Wehrmacht”, or that the Germany military was apolitical and largely innocent of Nazi Germany’s crimes (typically by emphasizing the role of the SS, party or civil administration). Indeed, the German military was highly politicized by the Nazi regime and deeply implicated in Nazi Germany’s crimes.

 

Naïve arguments for Nazi Germany’s military ‘excellence’ often focus on K/D ratios – or the ratio of casualties killed by Nazi Germany as opposed to their own losses. Setting aside that war is not won on points (and that Germany had the highest casualties in the European war after the Soviet Union), the majority of casualties killed by Nazi Germany were civilians and prisoners of war. That K/D ratio doesn’t look so impressive now, huh?

 

Of course, atrocity or criminality may have no impact on military proficiency. Indeed, the military proficiency of armies like the Mongols arguably were reinforced by terror or at least their reputation for it. However, military forces in modern history have tended to baulk at the wholesale elimination of civilian populations as counterproductive, because of the fundamental importance of civilian populations in modern economies (not to mention the propagation of modern media) – and it is a sign of the atavistic savagery of Nazi Germany that it attempted to do so on a strategic scale. And for Nazi Germany, it was a decisive factor for it losing the war, particularly where it counted most – on the Eastern Front:

 

“Since the end of the Second World War, it has been generally acknowledged that German brutality on the Eastern Front in 1941 was counter-productive, and in the long term, may have been the single most important factor in ensuring German failure”

 

Not only did the criminality of the Nazi regime unite its adversaries, both within themselves and their alliance with each other, it also deprived Nazi Germany of any means to consolidate its victories:

 

“In essence, this failure to tap the potential goodwill of various conquered peoples was the product of philosophies that offered subjected peoples nothing other than slavery and death…herein lay what was perhaps the supreme irony of the war: what made the German and Japanese forces so formidable in the assault – a moral advantage based on concepts of racial supremacy – ultimately prevented them from consolidating their initial success. Many factors contributed to the final defeat of the Axis powers, but this inability to build upon their initial successes was arguably the most important single ingredient in the defeat of Germany and Japan.”

 

And that, my friends, is what is called sweet poetic justice.

10 Ways Nazi Germany Sucked at War: (9) They Sucked at Leadership

 

10 WAYS NAZI GERMANY SUCKED AT WAR: (9) THEY SUCKED AT LEADERSHIP

 

This one we can certainly lay at the door of Hitler and his Reich – as one might expect of what was essentially a predatory gangster state held together by a cult of personality. Yet another of my historical pet peeves is the myth that Nazi Germany was a model of efficiency – making the trains run on time and all that, although that was actually a slogan of fascist Italy (not that they were any better in organization).

 

Instead, the political administration of Nazi Germany was one of organized chaos as factions or leaders competed for power or Hitler’s favor (often the same thing), resulting in the promotion of competition and sycophancy rather than competence. There was no clear framework or division of power – compounded as the Nazis created new agencies which overlaid traditional government agencies and in large measure deliberately encouraged by Hitler’s ‘divide and rule’ style of leadership (or ‘fuhrerprinzip’), in which he was the supreme arbiter of power. The concept of leadership in Nazi Germany precluded any cabinet system for the effective coordination of power – “highly structured administrative systems, complete with clearly defined and jealously guarded lines of demarcation and established hierarchies, did not lend themselves to close cooperation, not least in Germany because of the rivalries between different agencies”.

 

And so Nazi Germany had multiple agencies responsible for the economy, military intelligence, diplomacy and so on – thus underlying its other deficiencies in waging war:

 

“At no stage during the Second World War did the Fuhrerprinzip submit to the structured chain of command emanating from a settled cabinet system that alone allowed the coherent formulation of policy and the integration of political, economic and military efforts and then the supervision of implementation that was essential to German success. While this was of little consequence when Germany was able to dictate the unfolding of the European conflict, the later phases of the war demonstrated to the full the consequences of an organizational failure that made Wilhelmine Germany seem a model of efficiency in comparison”

 

One might think that while Hitler cared little for civilian administration, he would at least strive to avoid this in the military, the one thing he did care about, but…no. There were the competing Supreme Commands (compounded by Hitler assuming personal command of military forces) – and the competing services within the military, exceeded in the Second World War only by Imperial Japanese army  and navy. In particular, the Luftwaffe – perhaps the most politically Nazi military service – jealously kept its monopoly of airpower, leading to the navy having to beg it for naval aviation. And then the cohesion of military forces was weakened by the deliberate sponsorship of private armies – with the Luftwaffe, SS and navy fielding their own divisions.

 

A classic illustration is the “hopelessly confused command structure” of German military forces opposing the Allied invasion of Normandy (under unified supreme command). The army was divided between different groups in a manner too baffling to summarize succinctly here, but which left the German theater supreme command in Western Europe “without direct operational control of the bulk of the forces in its area of responsibility and without a theater reserve”. Compounding this, Hitler had appointed tasked his golden boy Rommel in an inspector’s role and to take overall command wherever the Allies landed. The German theater supreme command’s authority also did not extend to the navy’s naval and coastal defense forces, nor to the Luftwaffe’s air formations – and about a quarter of German divisions were actually under the administrative control of the navy, Luftwaffe and SS.

10 Ways Nazi Germany Sucked at War: (8) They Sucked at Logistics

 

10 WAYS NAZI GERMANY SUCKED AT WAR: (8) THEY SUCKED AT LOGISTICS

 

Again – “You have horses! What were you thinking?”

 

This is perhaps the microeconomic version of Nazi Germany’s general economic deficiencies – logistics or supplying its forces in the field, among other things its reliance on horse-drawn transport.

 

There’s an adage about military discussion – amateurs talk tactics, professionals talk logistics. And for a nation that prided itself on its military professionalism, Germany had consistent deficiencies in logistics.

 

In fairness, that was consistent for Germany in both world wars, as a combination of a military culture that placed less emphasis on its forces’ support ‘tail’ (as opposed to their combat ‘tooth’, in the military slang of ‘tooth-to-tail’ ratio) and its overestimation of its military force – with its cavalier hand-waving away logistical problems, while trusting to fortune favoring the bold (or foolhardy).

 

To return to the Schlieffen Plan of Imperial Germany – committing the majority of its forces to a quick knockout victory over France on Western Front before turning to Russia on Eastern Front – one of its primary difficulties was the logistical difficulties in supplying those forces advancing into France.

 

However, as usual, Nazi Germany exceeded the logistic deficiencies of its predecessor, notwithstanding more advanced means of transport on land (or air). The primary example of this is the Eastern Front and particularly Operation Barbarossa, where problems of supply were a constant constraint, perhaps most famously with its winter gear. Indeed, its final desperate winter offensive against Moscow was more born from a ‘counsel of despair that it was better to advance to cover than remain exposed in the open.

 

Not to mention that most famous of Nazi German military leaders who fought his own supply lines as vigorously as he did his enemy – Rommel. Rommel was an effective tactical commander, particularly at a smaller level and on the offensive, but in many ways he embodied the strategic and logistical flaws of Nazi Germany itself – and his North African campaign in 1941-1943 was a microcosm of Nazi Germany in the Second World War. Rommel would have been better off sticking to his original orders to remain on the  defensive, just as Germany would have been better off not going to war at all. Germany (and any historical fantasies of a ‘Mediterranean strategy’) had limited means in its logistics and supply to North Africa, let alone any historical fantasies of a ‘Mediterranean strategy’ advancing into the Middle East – there was only so much Italian shipping (and only so many Italian naval forces to protect it from attack) to North Africa, only so much North African port facilities could carry, and most of all, only so much fuel trucks could carry before they started consuming it themselves. Hence the extent to which the North African theater would see-saw between both sides depending on their supply lines. Effectively, there was only so far Rommel’s forces could go and only so much they could achieve due to their logistics and supplies (against the superior logistics and resources of the Allies) – and nothing of strategic consequence for Germany, although like Germany, Rommel tended to dismiss the problems of logistics or supplies with wishful thinking (or blame them on his Italian allies).

 

10 Ways Nazi Germany Sucked at War: (7) Their Economy Sucked

 

10 WAYS NAZI GERMANY SUCKED AT WAR: (7) THEIR ECONOMY SUCKED

 

“Say hello to Ford! And General f*****g Motors! You have horses! What were you thinking?”

 

This is the big one. Like most wars, the Second World War was won through material superiority – overwhelming Allied material superiority “that was applied on the battlefield to ever increasing effect during and after 1942”. The fundamental economic deficiency of Nazi Germany was its inability or outright failure to win the contest for material superiority.

 

But first, let’s take a step back for a pet peeve of mine – the common misconception of the Hitler’s or Nazi Germany’s economic proficiency in its management (or even ‘miracle’) for the recovery from the Depression and reduction of unemployment before the war:

  • Firstly, Hitler and his ideology only saw the economy, much like the state itself, as an instrument for rearmament and war
  • Secondly, the Nazi regime rode on the back of the preceding Weimar Republic, with its public works – including the autobahns often attributed to the Nazi regime
  • Thirdly, the author of the economic recovery was primarily Hjalmar Schacht, appointed by Hitler as Minister of Economics and president of the national bank (a position he also held in the Weimar Republic)
  • Fourthly, Nazi Germany was effective in its economic recovery, but at the cost of high public debt and, more fundamentally, only to a point. That point was when Hitler’s massive military spending threatened to derail the Germany economy. Schacht resigned as Minister of Economics, leaving Goering to drive the economy into the ground much as he did the Luftwaffe. At that point, the German economy started to resemble a runaway Ponzi scheme – or military kleptocracy – that could be sustained only by looting other countries of their resources, starting with Austria’s gold and foreign currency reserves. Nazi Germany started the war with national debt at about 120% of its economy – the same level of debt with which the United States finished the war. Or in other words, the United States took on debt to fight a war while Nazi Germany took on a war to fight its debt.

Of course, even their war economy of plunder succeeded only to a point – and that point was the inability or failure of the Nazi war economy to win the contest against Allied material superiority. Despite the popular image of blitzkrieg, outside a small component of its forces, the German army had an astonishing lack of mechanization and was mostly horse-drawn – much like Napoleon’s army that invaded Russia the previous century and unlike the fully mechanized Anglo-American army that swept across western Europe, hence the featured quote. Like its ally Japan, Germany only achieved the peak of their aircraft production (although still hopelessly behind that of the Allies) in 1944 – at the very time when they had effectively exhausted their fuel supplies and pilot training programs.

 

This stands in marked contrast to the Allies, who “achieved both a massive increase of production and a balance of production that eluded their enemies”. Between 1939 and 1943, Britain out-produced Germany despite the latter’s greater industrial capacity (and even in 1944, when Germany produced more aircraft, Britain continued to out-produce Germany in aircraft weight – in many ways the more accurate yardstick of aircraft production). The Soviet Union out-produced Germany in aircraft, tanks and guns, particularly for the critical battles of 1942-1943. As for the United States, it was in a class of its own – “whereas in 1942 the productive capacity available to the (Axis) European powers was superior to the United States, the latter out-produced Germany four-fold”.

 

It is impossible go into full detail for the reasons of this inability or failure of the Nazi war economy here, although in The Great Crusade, Willmot summarizes it simply as the German (and Japanese) preoccupation with the acquisition of resources contrasted with the Allied practice of expanded capacity and output. (Elsewhere he cites a British cabinet paper which stated that Germany had factories but no resources and Japan had resources but no factories). Nazi Germany, like its Japanese ally, had “aspects of political, industrial and administrative organization that prevented their full mobilization of resources”. They “tied output to changing and often ill-defined requirements at the expense of production”, a problem which for Germany (and Japan) “was exaggerated by the primacy of designers rather than production managers”, hence the featured image. Neither Germany nor Japan “had the transport infrastructure, the long-term investment plans and financial reserves, the management techniques and the skilled labor necessary to turn economic potential into war material on the scale necessary to meet their widening military commitments”.

 

The fundamental economic deficiency and material inferiority of Nazi Germany lent itself to the Nazi emphasis on the political and psychological aspects of warfare – or the virtual Nazi ghost dance of ‘triumph of the will’. As I said before, history usually has a term for people who try to win wars against materially superior forces through ghost dances or magic – losers. Of course, Nazi Germany then and Nazi fanboys now often try to slight Allied material superiority:

 

“The industrial performance of the Allied powers is often slightingly considered as if the fighting and winning of wars of attrition on the basis of superior strength represents no real achievement, but wars between great industrial powers necessarily involve attrition, and in terms of their direction and management of their war economies, the Allied powers displayed a more profound understanding of the business of war than enemies that were poorly organized and stressed the political and psychological aspects of conflict at the expense of the material”.

 

Oh – and fanboys of Nazi economic proficiency? Konrad Adenauer, West Germany’s leader after the Second World War, built a better and more stable economy – from a lower base (and with cities in ruin from Hitler’s war), in less time, with less people, with less land, and without slave labor or needing to prop up his economy by plunging the world into a war that killed millions.

10 Ways Nazi Germany Sucked at War: (6) They Sucked at Political Diplomacy

 

10 WAYS NAZI GERMANY SUCKED AT WAR: (6) THEY SUCKED AT POLITICAL DIPLOMACY

 

What a surprise – Nazis are good at, ahem, pissing other people off. Although in fairness, the Germans generally were in both world wars.

 

In more formal terms, they were consistently deficient in political diplomacy – a broader extension of their failure to have effective allies or coordinate with them effectively, or indeed, their inability to understand the limits of military force within war and their national power within the world, as political diplomacy strives to keep conflict within those limits.

 

As I’ve said before, it’s as if the one German leader who understood those limits, Bismarck, used up all Germany’s political diplomacy for the next sixty years. Whenever Germany has succeeded, it has done so by essentially following a Bismarckian strategy – striving to keep the peace and balance of power in Europe, particularly through good relations or at least some sort of arrangement to avoid conflict with Russia, trusting to Germany’s position as the most populous and prosperous state in continental Europe (outside Russia) to achieve predominance. That is how Germany returned to predominance after the Second World War – the arrangement to avoid conflict with Russia (or the Soviet Union) essentially being the European alliance with the United States.

 

Accordingly, Germany’s consistent deficiencies in both world wars can be mapped out by its lapses from Bismarckian strategy – foremost among which was the failure of Germany’s leaders to apprehend that their most effective ‘ally’ was Russia, at least in terms of avoiding conflict with Germany’s larger and more populous neighbor. Instead, Imperial Germany found itself increasingly in conflict with Russia – and worse, potentially encircled by an alliance between Russia and France. Astute political diplomacy might have counterbalanced that with some sort of détente or arrangement with Britain – history has paid a heavy price for the failure to form an Anglo-German Entente – but Imperial Germany antagonized Britain with its rival naval and colonial ambitions (in which Bismarck had little interest). Germany compounded this by characteristically ignored the long-term political consequences of infringing Belgium’s neutrality with respect to Britain entering the war for the short-term military advantage of attacking France – just as it did for submarine warfare against Britain with respect to the United States entering the war (not to mention the incredibly inept promise to ally with Mexico attacking the United States).

 

Ironically, although Nazi Germany similarly lapsed into the same conflict as its predecessor, it initially had more success with what might be called a neo-Bismarckian strategy – firstly, in its diplomatic offensives that outmaneuvered its adversaries, at least until they resulted in actual war, but even then in initially containing that war to campaigns that matched its military capacity. Of course, that was never going to last – most directly because Nazi Germany once again failed to recognize that their most effective ‘ally’ was the Soviet Union through the Nazi-Soviet Pact, without which Nazi Germany would not have been able to invade Poland, go to war with the western Allies and defeat France in the first place. That all came crashing down when Nazi Germany abandoned the Pact to attack the Soviet Union instead (rivalled only by its incredibly inept declaration of war on the United States).

 

In addition to that, Nazi Germany could not or would not offer anything to exploit divisions within or between its adversaries – despite those divisions resulting in cold war between former allies as soon as they had defeated Germany – or to the subjects of its conquests as a political alternative to military victory:

 

Neither Germany nor Japan “had the political will and moral authority to enable them to supplement their own war efforts by enlisting the support of peoples under their jurisdiction. Throughout the areas they conquered both Germany and Japan installed puppet administrations, yet in their determination to reserve for themselves the power of decision, neither would sponsor client regimes that could mobilize support for the Axis cause even when potential support existed. German and Japanese attitudes were determined in part by the fact that neither Axis power was prepared to rely on anyone other than their own nationals for the order and effective exploitation of conquered territories. In essence, this failure to tap the potential goodwill of various conquered peoples was the product of philosophies that offered subjected peoples nothing other than slavery or death”.

10 Ways Nazi Germany Sucked At War: (5) They Did Not Work Well With Allies

 

10 WAYS NAZI GERMANY SUCKED AT WAR: (5) THEY DID NOT WORK WELL WITH ALLIES

 

What a surprise – Nazis don’t play well with others!

 

To put it in more formal terms, Nazi Germany did not have effective allies, or failed to coordinate with them effectively – or both.

 

In fairness, the same applied to Imperial Germany, or indeed, Bismarck’s successors generally – as if Bismarck used up all of Germany’s diplomacy points for sixty years or so.

 

Germany entered the First World War allied to an ailing Austria-Hungary – or “shackled to a corpse” in the memorable phrase attributed to Germany’s General Ludendorff, with Austria-Hungary largely shaping up to this expectation. Germany gained another ally in the Ottoman Empire or Turkey, which had spent the most part of the last century as the “sick man of Europe”, although it proved to be somewhat more robust in defending itself before collapsing. Bulgaria was the only other ally Germany gained in the war.

 

Nazi Germany actually found itself in a better position in the Second World War. It either absorbed or allied itself with the constituent parts of its former ally Austria-Hungary, as well as renewing its alliance with Bulgaria. And although Turkey remained neutral, it gained Italy and Japan, which had been allied against Germany in the First World War – as well as Romania (similarly a former adversary in the First World War) and Finland (formerly a subject part of Russia).

 

As for Germany’s most effective combatant ally, Japan, Germany largely could not and did not coordinate effectively with it, as the two fought largely separate wars against their superpower nemeses – Japan with the Pacific War against the United States, Germany with its Nazi-Soviet war.  In a supreme irony, Germany’s strongest ally remained at peace with Germany’s strongest adversary – as Japan preserved its pact with the Soviet Union, which it had signed a couple of months before Germany invaded the Soviet Union, as Germany had not bothered to inform Japan of its intentions. Among other things, this resulted in Japan not cutting off the massive amounts of American aid and material shipped on the Pacific to the Soviet Union to use to fight Germany – as long as it was in Russian shipping.

 

As for Germany’s other allies, they were largely ineffective. Italy’s military performance was too inconsistent to be effective, although ultimately Nazi Germany had little basis to mock Italy. As this feature hopes to demonstrate, despite its superior fighting force (and economic capacity), Nazi Germany showed similar deficiencies when it came to waging war – “in Mussolini’s case, the weakness of Italy as an industrialized and military power immediately manifested itself in battlefield failures, whereas the weaknesses inherent in the German system were disguised for many years by greater national power and early victories”. In the latter days of the Cold War, the Soviet Union was famously described as Upper Volta with rockets (which would now have to be updated to Burkina Faso with rockets), for its mediocre economy outside its military-industrial and aerospace complex. Whatever the truth of that description, in the Second World War, Nazi Germany might equally have been described as fascist Italy with rockets.

 

Rounding out its allies with even more dubious effectiveness were Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia (except in the case of Romania and Hungary, with their enthusiasm for fighting each other). Finland was something of an exception in combat effectiveness, but largely fought its own war against the Soviet Union and resisted formal alliance with Nazi Germany:

 

“Germany’s associates were not capable, either immediately or in the long term, of providing her with effective military support in the prosecution of the war, and indeed, were liabilities that had to be supported”

 

Nor did they particularly want to as all, were conscious of the contempt in which they and their countries were held by the German system:

 

“Nazism abrogated, as the natural right of the German volk, the resources of Germany’s associates, an imposition that was ever more ruthlessly applied as defeat came closer, yet the Germans were never able to comprehend the hatred that their demands generated and they could never understand, except in terms of the innate treachery of inferior races, the ease and willingness with which such countries as Italy and Romania defected to the enemy”.

 

Not surprisingly, Nazi Germany found itself alone in its final pity party (and unconditional surrender)

10 Ways Nazi Germany Sucked at War: (4) They Sucked at Intelligence

 

10 WAYS NAZI GERMANY SUCKED AT WAR: (4) THEY SUCKED AT INTELLIGENCE

 

Deficient military intelligence tends to flow from underestimating one’s adversaries, just as deficient strategy tends to flow from overestimating one’s own military and national power. German military intelligence didn’t completely suck as it had some substantial successes, but on the whole it had consistent deficiencies.

 

There’s the more famous deficiencies in German intelligence (or superior intelligence of their adversaries). For Imperial Germany, there’s the Zimmerman Telegram – the secret diplomatic communication from the German Foreign Office in January 1917 that proposed an alliance with Mexico (as well as promising the latter Texas, Arizona and New Mexico) to attack the United States – which was promptly decoded by British intelligence and forwarded to the American government (also illustrating consistent German deficiencies in political diplomacy, but we’ll get to that). However, this pales in comparison to the British Ultra program in the Second World War, which systematically decoded Nazi Germany’s communications and signals traffic. And as for classic human espionage, there’s the Double Cross System, in which all the agents Nazi Germany sent to Britain gave themselves up, were captured or were turned by British intelligence into double agents.

 

Let’s face it, Nazi Germany had consistent failures of intelligence against its adversaries, whether it was due to ideological bias or the ‘organized chaos’ of the Third Reich (but we’ll get to that too), not least its competing and not very cooperative intelligence agencies – the various service agencies (army, navy, air force), the Foreign Ministry, the Security Service or SD (Sicherheitsdienst) and other agencies of the Party and the SS as well as the Abwehr (headed by Admiral Canaris and often working directly against the Nazi regime).

 

In the Battle of Britain, Nazi Germany lacked intelligence of British aerial defences – overestimating British fighter losses and underestimating British fighter production (such that the Germans thought they were winning when they were actually losing), while also lacking intelligence to target British radar stations or command centers.

 

In the invasion of the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany massively underestimated Soviet military forces and reserves. It also consistently failed to apprehend or detect Soviet counter-offensives, leading to German forces constantly being taken by surprise – by the Soviet counter-offensive that drove the Germans back from Moscow in December 1941, by the Soviet counter-offensive in November 1942 that cut off the German army at Stalingrad (despite its weakly held flanks being an obvious target), by the depth of Soviet defenses in July 1943 to the German attack at Kursk (which the Soviets had prepared with their foreknowledge from intelligence) and most dramatically of all by the Soviet offensive in Operation Bagration in June 1944 which effectively destroyed Germany’s Army Group Center and broke the back of the Eastern Front.

 

However, it was the western Allies who really ran rings around Nazi Germany’s military intelligence with their landings – despite (and because of) the advantage Germany had with the mechanized transport of the twentieth century, which left maritime means of transport at a disadvantage to transport on land, particularly in western Europe. In short, a defender on land had an inherent advantage over any invader by sea – “an ability to bring superior force to bear on a beachhead by virtue of lines of communication” that were “intrinsically superior”. And yet, the Anglo-American alliance pulled this off THREE times (that is, in major operations, not counting more minor operations), particularly by counter-intelligence that was able to distract German attention from targets that should have been obvious. In 1942, it was mostly the surprise of invading French North Africa, although the Allied intention should have alerted itself to any astute German intelligence. Sicily should have been obvious as the next target in 1943 due to its geographic position (closest to Allied forces in Tunisia and Malta), but Allied counter-intelligence – notably through their Operation Mincemeat posing a corpse as a dead officer with false invasion plans (for Greece and Sardinia) with Sicily as a feint – persuaded German leadership otherwise. The crowning achievement was Normandy, where despite limited options for Allied invasion and years of preparation by Germany, Allied counter-intelligence effectively deceived German leadership that Normandy was only a feint while the real invasion was to occur at the Pas de Calais. Fool me three times – shame on Nazi Germany!

10 Ways Nazi Germany Sucked at War: (3) They Underestimated Their Adversaries

Underestimate THIS, Nazis!

 

10 WAYS NAZI GERMANY SUCKED AT WAR: (3) THEY UNDERESTIMATED THEIR ADVERSARIES

 

The flip side of overestimating your own military and national power, as Germany did in both world wars, tends to be underestimating your adversaries. It doesn’t necessarily follow, of course, as it is possible to overestimate yourself while accurately knowing your enemy, but for Germany it certainly did – particularly for Nazi Germany through its ideological prism of racial supremacy.

 

At the outset of the First World War, Germany underestimated virtually all of its adversaries for its Schlieffen Plan to knock out France (by invading through Belgium) before taking on Russia. It underestimated the tenacity of France (and Belgium) to defend the Western Front, while also underestimating Russia’s speed of mobilization and offensive capacity on the Eastern Front – and thus found itself ground down between the two for the balance of the war.  Added to that, Germany also underestimated Britain’s intervention, both in determination (with Germany typically ignoring the longer-term political consequences of their infringement of Belgian neutrality for the shorter term military advantage) and in ability – the latter with the dismissal infamously attributed to Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm as a “contemptible little army”. Germany subsequently repeated its underestimation of Britain with its underestimation of the United States.

 

However, once again Nazi Germany’s underestimation of its adversaries makes Imperial Germany look like the model of sober assessment. With the exception of the French, it underestimated all of its major adversaries. It underestimated Britain, not so much in military capacity, but in determination to continue the war rather than surrender – and although it fluctuated in its assessment of the United States, it tended to underestimate not only American intervention but also the full American economic and military potential.

 

Pro tip” Never underestimate an adversary who has the resources to spare for pinup girls on planes

 

Above all, in invading the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany woefully underestimated not only Soviet military forces and war production, but also Soviet powers of resistance and recovery in both.

 

As well as underestimating them by several time zones – that’s eleven time zones right there, comrade!

 

Indeed, the reality was that France was, uniquely, the only major adversary Nazi Germany could actually defeat. It lacked the airpower and seapower to defeat Britain, whereas the Soviet Union was simply too big for blitzkrieg – with the resources, space and will, unlike France, to survive a blitzkrieg attack, indeed a number of blitzkrieg attacks. The United States, of course, combined the worst features of both for Germany, as well as being completely beyond Germany’s reach. Which is why Nazi Germany floundered after its victory over France, at worst combining incoherence and wishful thinking – that Britain would conveniently surrender and the Soviet Union would conveniently collapse. And perhaps that the United States would conveniently disappear. As historian Paul Johnson noted in his Modern Times, Hitler confessed to the Japanese ambassador in January 1942 that he did not yet know “how America could be defeated” – that made two of them, as the Japanese did not know either.

 

TO BE CONTINUED

 

10 Ways Nazi Germany Sucked at War: (2) They Sucked at Strategy

 

10 WAYS NAZI GERMANY SUCKED AT WAR: (2) THEY SUCKED AT STRATEGY

 

Of course, they didn’t completely suck. The Battle of France in 1940, for example – although that was almost as if Nazi Germany expended all its strategic resources to improving on 1914 without much thought beyond that. In more general terms, German tactical proficiency did not compensate for consistent deficiency at a strategic or operational level. Of course, that’s mostly just a fancier way of saying that Germany was very good at fighting but not very good at war – “in two world wars, Germany showed an understanding of fighting but not war itself, and in both conflicts she displayed an ability to conduct campaigns – as long as they were relatively straightforward – but no ability to prosecute war across both space and time”.

 

This can be seen with Imperial Germany’s Schlieffen Plan in the First World War – to commit the majority of its forces to knock out France quickly, as in the Franco-Prussian War, before turning to Russia and hence avoiding war on two fronts. However, the fundamental flaw of the Plan should have been obvious – that, if anything went wrong with its optimistic timetable, that Germany would find itself caught and relentlessly ground down between two fronts. Things like, you know, if France had improved its defensive position since the Franco-Prussian War, or defensive firepower had increased, or indeed if the Franco-Prussian war was something of an anomaly, as opposed to the slugfest of attrition that characterized other contemporary wars such as the American Civil War.

 

As for its successor, even in its victories, Nazi Germany had strategic deficiencies – or long term strategic consequences to its detriment, often the seeds of ultimate defeat. Of course, some of those strategic deficiencies can be attributed to the political leadership of Hitler himself – Nazi Germany’s declaration of war on the United States on 11 December 1941 might count as the single greatest act of idiocy in this or any other war. However, the military leadership of the Wehrmacht was jointly deficient with the political leadership, as when it planned the invasion of the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa on 22 June 1941, demonstrating strategic deficiency bordering on incoherence and wishful thinking – or as Nazi ideology called the latter, triumph of the will.

 

The military leadership “had more time to prepare for Operation Barbarossa than any other offensive of the war and it was given twice as long to perfect its plan of campaign than it allowed for the campaign itself” – 10 months as opposed to 5 months. And yet their final plan of campaign was incoherent – “by any standard…the selection of three objectives on divergent axes of advance at distances between 500 and 900 miles from start lines, followed then by a chronic inability to decide between them, constitutes a cardinal weakness of Operation Barbarossa”. Worse, it was wishful thinking – that the Soviet Union would conveniently collapse in a few weeks. From the start, “staff planning showed that Germany lacked the means to conduct a campaign of five months in a theatre 900 miles in depth and 800 miles across its front”. Yet, this somehow became an assumption that six weeks would suffice for the destruction of the Soviet Union. “The amazing inconsistency inherent in this view – what could not be achieved, even in five months, could therefore be done in six weeks” can of course be explained by the systematic strategic deficiencies of Nazi Germany, not least its belief in the ‘the triumph of the will’. But for the tragic consequences to millions of lives, there’s a certain black humor here – essentially, a realization that they had to win it in six weeks or else they would be in serious trouble became an assumption that they would win it in six weeks.

 

Pictured – rare footage of Nazi Germany’s military planners six weeks after their invasion of the biggest nation in the world

 

That same wishful thinking – “the belief in will as the decisive factor in the conduct of war, and the inability to contemplate effective resistance and anything other than total, easy victory” – characterized Nazi Germany’s strategic deficiency for the war itself, as their basic plan was to fight the same war Germany had lost twenty years previously.

 

TO BE CONTINUED

10 Ways Nazi Germany Sucked at War: (1) They Overestimated Their Military and National Power

 

10 WAYS NAZI GERMANY SUCKED AT WAR

 

If I have a pet hate in history (and indeed I have many), it is the myth of German military proficiency, particularly for Nazi Germany in the Second World War. All too often in popular history and culture, or the dankest recesses of the internet, there is a virtual fetishization of the Nazi German military in the Second World War – a fetishization best captured by the term ‘wehraboo’, a conflation of the internet slang term ‘weeaboo’ for excessive anime fandom and Wehrmacht, the title for the military forces of Nazi Germany, and which all too often sadly overlaps with a broader neo-Nazi or alt-right fetishization of the Nazi regime or ideology.

 

 

Fortunately, I came across the antidote to such ‘wehraboo’ fetishism in my formative years – The Great Crusade by H.P. Willmott, still my favorite single-volume history of the Second World War. As Willmott paraphrased Oscar Wilde in his preface – to lose one world war may be regarded as misfortune, to lose both looks like carelessness. When you come right down to it, the Nazis were two-time losers, hopelessly trying to re-fight and predictably losing the same war Germany had lost twenty years previously, only worse. (Which makes neo-Nazis three-time losers, hopelessly trying to re-fight the Second World War on the internet).

 

 

Willmott’s recurring theme is that Germany was very good at fighting, but not very good at war (the converse of the art of war, at least according to Sun Tzu – and the United States of America). One might add that all Germany’s military and political leadership achieved in both world wars was their encirclement and attrition by enemies with superior resources – again, even more so in the second.  In terms of actually waging war, Nazi Germany was hopelessly outclassed by the Allies, matched only by the similar hopelessness of their ally Imperial Japan, but surpassing it in that this was the second time Germany had pulled this crap. So how did Nazi Germany – and its predecessor, Imperial Germany – suck at war? Let me count the ways.

 

 

(1) THEY OVERESTIMATED THEIR OWN MILITARY AND NATIONAL POWER

 

At the heart of Germany’s defeat in both wars was a result of its inability to understand war, which fundamentally involves understanding the limits of military force within war and of national power within the world. As Willmott observed, it was “almost as if the very successes of the one German leader who understood both – Bismarck – blinded successive generations of Germans to these realities because they only saw his military victories”.  One might add that whenever Germany – or the core Bismarckian state that survived the wars of his idiotic successors (but ironically not his native Prussia) – has succeeded, it has done so by essentially following a Bismarckian strategy. That is to say, after his unification of Germany through short, small wars against carefully isolated opponents (Denmark, Austria and France) – striving to keep the peace and balance of power in Europe by careful diplomacy, particularly through good relations with Russia, trusting to Germany’s position as the most populous and prosperous state in continental Europe (outside of Russia) to achieve predominance. The only thing that would stuff it all up for Germany was striving for military domination and war in Europe, particularly against its larger and more populous neighbor, Russia.

 

Needless to say, his successors were not so astute or capable and proceeded to stuff it all up by leading Germany into not just one but two world wars, particularly against its larger and more populous neighbour Russia. And underlying it all was their overestimation of Germany’s military and national power. His successors in Imperial Germany sought to counter their potential encirclement (or war on two fronts) by an Anglo-French-Russian alliance with what history has labelled the Schlieffen Plan – to commit the majority of their forces to knock out France in six weeks or so before turning to Russia. Unfortunately, this completely overestimated their military and national power to achieve this victory in the circumstances, with the result that Germany instead found itself relentlessly ground down between two fronts.

 

However, Imperial Germany seems a model of sober self-appraisal compared to Nazi Germany, in which overestimation of military and national power was at the very core of an ideology that deemed the use of military force in the name of racial supremacy as the purpose of the state. This was compounded by also stressing the political and psychological aspects of conflict – the “triumph of the will” – at the expense of material. History tends to have a word for people who try to win wars through “triumph of the will” against material superiority – losers. Indeed, the Second World War might well be characterized as a perverted Nazi ghost dance, trying to conjure up an agrarian slave fantasy empire – as opposed to the industry and trade that was the real basis of German economic power, before and since – until the true world powers, the United States and the Soviet Union, crushed them like a bug.

 

TO BE CONTINUED – (2) THEY SUCKED AT STRATEGY