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.
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.
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