Just as the Nuremberg defendants attempted to place total blame on the dead Führer for all the crimes of the Nazi state, so a slew of books written by the German generals in the 1950s and 1960s attempted to attribute the military defeat solely to him and his closest acolytes, Keitel and Jodl. But almost all of them had served Hitler faithfully during the war.
It should not be for the unhinged decisions made regarding his troops in the last ten months of his life that the Führer should be principally arraigned, so much as for the disastrous decisions he took when he was rational. The war ought not to have started in 1939 at all, but at least three or four years later, which is what he had originally promised the leaders of the Wehrmacht, Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine. In those years, Germany would have had time to rearm even more. It would have had a better chance of winning the war.
In May 1940, Hitler should have supported those generals who wanted to overrule Rundstedt’s Halt Order outside Dunkirk, thereby capturing the British Expeditionary Force en masse and preventing it from escaping the Continent.
After Göring had failed to destroy the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk in 1940, as he had promised he would, he should have been moved to a less vital post. Instead, he was allowed to continue in command of the highly important Luftwaffe. He then failed to stop the bombing of Berlin in 1940 as he publicly promised he would, thus escalating the battle of Britain. Hitler regularly kept proven incompetents in place as long as they told him what he wanted to hear. One example is the chief of Luftwaffe intelligence, Colonel ‘Beppo’ Schmid, whose over-optimistic reports of RAF strength helped lose the battle of Britain.
Hitler delayed the invasion of Russia by six weeks in order to invade the comparatively unimportant Yugoslavia, where the pro-Allied Government threatened his prestige but posed no appreciable threat to his southern front. Even in that hugely successful campaign – Yugoslavia fell faster than France had, and Greece and Crete soon followed – Hitler learned the wrong lesson about airborne assault. Because Karl Student’s paratroop attack on Crete had been relatively costly at over 4,000 casualties out of the 22,000 dropped on the island, Hitler told their commander: ‘The day of parachute troops is over.’
Hitler learned the wrong lessons from the Russians’ Winter War against Finland, assuming that the Red Army was weak, rather than accepting the fact that, in atrocious weather conditions, defenders in a country of lakes, forests and bad roads can be strong. In his invasion of Russia, despite the glaring example of Finland, he failed to make proper winter provision for his troops. The problem with invading Russia was always going to be as much logistical as military. Hitler should have concentrated on taking Moscow as quickly as possible, thus striking a hard blow against Stalin.
Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, his cardinal error of the war. Given that Rommel took Tobruk and got to within 60 miles of Alexandria by October 1942 with the twelve-division Afrika Korps, even a fraction of the force thrown against Russia could have swept the British from Egypt, Palestine, Iran and Iraq long beforehand. If Germany had captured the Middle-East, they would have had access to that region's oil, at the same time cutting the British off from their supply. Hitler could have invaded Russia from a much stronger position, through the Middle East, and into the Caucasus.
It was incredibly fortunate for the Allies that the Axis never coordinated their war efforts. They even failed to exchange information on basic equipment such as anti-tank weapons. The Japanese Foreign Minister Yosuke Matsuoka resigned in July 1941 because he wanted to attack Russia from the east at the same time that Hitler unleashed Operation Barbarossa on her from the west. By the time Stalingrad fell, and when Hitler desperately needed such an attack, the Japanese were on the retreat from the point they had reached the previous spring.
Hitler should have studiously ignored all provocations from Franklin Roosevelt, especially in the Atlantic, in the knowledge that the President did not have the political power to declare war against a Germany that was professing friendship and sympathy towards the United States. In the absence of a declaration of war against America after Pearl Harbor, something Hitler was under no treaty obligation to furnish, it would have been well-nigh impossible for Roosevelt to have committed the United States to invading North Africa in 1942 and aiding the Soviets.
The Nazis’ contempt for all Slavs meant that they were incapable of following the obvious beneficial course of action during Barbarossa. Putting Lebensraum and ethnic cleansing on the bottom of the agenda, the Germans ought to have striven to make allies of the Greater Russian subject peoples against their Bolshevik oppressors, allowing Ukraine, Belorussia, the Baltic States, the Crimea, and the Caucasus republics the widest possible degrees of autonomy consistent with German hegemony in Europe, not unlike that enjoyed by Vichy France.
A single supreme commander on the Eastern Front from the very start – with Erich von Manstein easily the best choice, but several others possible – would have done far better than Hitler did when he replaced Walther von Brauchitsch with himself in December 1941. The Führer thereafter listened to senior generals less and less. Instead he used their perceived failures to add to the preferential resourcing of the Waffen-SS which led to deprivations for Wehrmacht units.
Once it was clear that the Russians not only were not going to collapse but were actively counter-attacking, from Zhukov’s 6 December 1941 offensive onwards, Hitler began to issue the ‘Stand or die’ orders that substituted his own willpower for genuine strategy. Some, such as Wilhelm Keitel and Alan Clark, have argued that these orders made good military sense in bad weather conditions when retreats could be conducted only at 3 or 4 mph and heavy equipment could not be saved. On occasion that might have been correct, but soon Hitler proved himself psychologically incapable of ever giving up any ground that had been won.
In naval matters, Hitler managed to drive the best German strategist, Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, out of the Kriegsmarine. In February 1942, he was so convinced that the Allies were about to attack Norway that he threatened Raeder that if the Prinz Eugen, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau did not escape from Brest, he would remove their guns for coastal artillery. There was no credible Allied threat to Norway. Although the capital ships did make a successful dash down the Channel, they were no longer of any great use, and certainly not as the Atlantic raiders that they could have been when operating out of Brest.
In his Memorial Day Address of 15 March 1942, Hitler promised listeners that the Red Army would be destroyed by the summer of 1942, another brazen, soon-to-be-broken promise. When he redirected Army Group B to Stalingrad, there began a series of absurd changes in disposition which were the stuff of any planner’s nightmares. The cumulative effect of these changes of mind and direction was fatally to slow the momentum towards Stalingrad. He attacked that city for ideological reasons rather than military ones - never a good tactic. When the attack failed, he blamed his generals, rather than admitting his mistakes.
Having received Rommel’s news, during El Alamein, that his tanks could not prevent a breakthrough by Montgomery, Hitler issued another ‘Stand or die’ order. This revealed Hitler’s lack of regard for human life, reflected in the Nazi ideology that whereas the nation was all, the individual – barring the Führer himself – was worthless.
Hitler’s disagreements with the generals over the withdrawal of the Seventeenth Army from the Kerch Straits bridgehead in late 1942 and early 1943 reflected a deeper dichotomy over future strategy. Hitler wanted to leave the force in place so that the Caucasus could be recaptured when the tide of fortune turned. The generals had written off the oil-rich region, wanting to use the saved Seventeenth Army to plug the growing gaps in the Ukrainian front. Similarly, Hitler wanted to leave large German and Romanian forces in the Crimea rather than evacuate them, in the hope that the land connection with them could be reestablished even after it had been cut off.
Very often, of course, the policy choices were not clear cut between Hitler on one side and his generals on the other, but were debated between the generals on both sides of the argument, with Hitler deciding the issues. Even though Hitler very often came down on the wrong side, he was rarely ever reminded of this. Hitler’s continual sacking and reinstatement of senior generals were bewildering for the High Command and demoralizing for the troops. In considering many of the errors made by Hitler, it is important to remember that it was not just Keitel and Jodl who fully supported him, but also many of his generals, who provided convincing arguments for him.
Hitler delayed the Operation Zitadelle attack on Kursk for a hundred days, partly because of Speer’s promises that the new Panther tanks would arrive in large numbers by then. The complete loss of surprise, which had been Germany’s best weapon in the days of Blitzkrieg, was disastrous.
Although Hitler can hardly be blamed for sleeping through the D-Day landings, Rundstedt’s defence of Normandy was badly hampered by him. Indeed, he could hardly have helped the Allies better had he been working for them. The compromise he effected between Rundstedt’s desire to deploy inland and Rommel’s plan of fighting on the beaches created the worst of both worlds, by muddying the response and separating the commands disastrously. Hitler also fell for the Allied deception, believing that the main landing would take place at Calais. Additionally, he refused to allow his Generals to withdraw troops when the military situations dictated it.
By Christmas Day 1944, despite the Ardennes offensive having recaptured 400 square miles, it was clear that Antwerp would not fall and that the attack could not move much further. In yet another ‘Stand or die’ order, Hitler insisted that there would be an Alsace offensive in the New Year, which never materialized.
Even though the war was effectively lost after Kursk, it still could have dragged on into 1946 or later, had not Hitler listened to so few of his good generals and dismissed the very best of them. In contrast, the Western Allies fought the war substantially by committee, with the American Joint Chiefs of Staff and the British Chiefs of Staff Committee creating grand strategy in conjunction with input from the politicians. Even in the Stavka, Stalin permitted a reasonable degree of free discussion on military affairs, so long as it did not stray into the political sphere, which was exclusively his.
Britain stood alone against Germany when no one else could. British scientists also cracked the German Enigma machine. This was vital to the Allied war effort. Britain became a fortress from which Operation Overlord could be launched. At first the British did badly in France, Malaya, Greece, North Africa and Crete. Afterwards, in Europe and Burma, the British fared better. But the best soldiers were already either killed or captured.
It was the Russians who provided the manpower to defeat Germany. It cannot be reiterated enough that out of every five Germans killed in combat, four died on the Eastern Front. It is the central statistic of the Second World War. The full cost to the Russians amounted to around twenty-seven million dead soldiers and civilians. It needs to be borne in mind that much of the responsibility for the catastrophe lay with Stalin himself.
American contribution was made primarily in the production and distribution of armaments, the overall financing of the conflict, the size of forces mobilized and the successful campaigns fought, often in places that American strategists did not want to be. Much as nationalist historians like to present their own countries as central to victory, the Second World War was a genuine team effort which required the full exertions of all three major partners for victory, each in their different but complementary ways.
Churchill was fighting for an empire in which by 1945 very many senior British decision makers besides himself no longer believed, whereas Stalin was fighting for an equally doomed system, before deliberately initiating a Cold War that his country would eventually lose. Roosevelt fought for a future which actually came to pass, that of United States hegemony, with military bases around the world, generally unfettered access to global markets, and a Pax Americana that has lasted to the present day. Hitler was unable to take on leaders such as Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin.