World War II In Perspective
Remember why the war was fought
author Paul Boșcu, January 2017
The Second World War was the most destructive conflict in human history. It shaped the world into what it is today. If nothing else, we ought at least to remember the most destructive war in history and the terrible tragedies it wrought. World War I provided the first intimations of Total War: the idea that war was fought not just by armed combatants but by the nations themselves. World War II realized this concept to the greatest extent in history. The distinction between combatants and noncombatants almost became meaningless.

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‘This war,’ Hitler told the Reichstag in 1942, ‘is one of those elemental conflicts which usher in a new millennium and which shake the world.’ He was right, of course. Far from a Thousand-Year Reich, Germany today is a pacific, liberal democracy, as is Italy. Poland and Russia are independent Slavic states. France is restored and plays a leading role in Europe. The Jewish people have their own democratic state. The United States, which Hitler loathed, is the greatest world power and has had an black president. China is a powerful independent state and Japan a neutral, anti-militarist democracy. The British Empire has gone, but its Commonwealth is thriving across the continents.

The realization of Hitler’s hopes for a ‘Pan-European Economic Area’ does not conform to his scheme for a giant life support system for the Aryan race, which never won its Lebensraum after all. Hitler’s war was indeed therefore ‘one of those elemental conflicts which usher in a new millennium’, but it was precisely the opposite kind of millennium to the one he had in mind.

The Second World War lasted for 2,174 days, cost $1.5 trillion and claimed the lives of over 50 million people. That represents 23,000 lives lost every day, or more than six people killed every minute, for six long years. One cannot look across the long, seemingly endless rows of headstones marking the military cemeteries throughout Europe and the Pacific or the great memorials and earthen mounds memorializing the dead of Eastern Europe without a sense of the terrible cost of World War II.

At the Commonwealth Beach Head Cemetery just north of Anzio in Italy lie some of the men who fell in that campaign. The bereaved families were permitted to add personal messages to the tombstones. The gravestone of Private J. R. G. Gains of the Buffs, who was killed aged thirty, says: ‘Beautiful memories, a darling husband and daddy worthy of Everlasting Love, His wife and Baby Rita’. Even two-thirds of a century later, it is still impossible not to feel sad that baby Rita Gains had to grow up without her father. Only by multiplying this tragedy by 50,000,000, can one even begin to grasp the sheer extent of the personal impact of the Second World War.

On the 216th day of the trials at Nuremberg, General Alfred Jodl addressed his judges and posterity. Knowing that his fate was going to be death by hanging, the former OKW Chief of Staff directed his remarks to ‘later historians’ as much as to the President and bench of the International Military Tribunal. Speaking for the German High Command – or ‘the higher military leaders and their assistants’, as he put it – Jodl effectively set out their case, arguing that as soldiers they had to follow their Fuhrer’s lead.

Jodl said that they were: ‘confronted with an insoluble task, namely, to conduct a war which they had not wanted under a Commander-in-Chief whose confidence they did not possess and whom they themselves only trusted within limits; with methods which frequently were in contradiction to their principles of leadership and their traditional, proved opinions; with troops and police forces which did not come under their full command; and with an Intelligence service that was in part working for the enemy. And all this in the complete and clear realization that this war would decide the life and death of our beloved Fatherland. They did not serve the powers of Hell and they did not serve a criminal, but rather their people and their Fatherland.’

To what extent was Jodl right? It was certainly true that few in the High Command wanted war with Britain and France in 1939. However, they were happy enough to fight Poland, which inexorably led to the wider conflict, given the British guarantee to that country. It was also true that the generals did not possess Hitler’s confidence, but this is understandable, considering that some of them tried to kill him. At the same time, every German general knew that the war in the east was to be one of extermination rather than a conventional engagement. Jodl was also right about the fragmented nature of authority in the Nazi state.

The ‘methods’ the German officer corps permitted to be used against civilian populations, especially on the Eastern Front, were far worse than Jodl’s weasel words implied. Those officers were almost universally deeply implicated in monstrous abuses of every canon of the rules of war, written and unwritten. Jodl’s explanation that the partisans ‘used every – yes, every – single means of violence’, and that the Allies ensured that ‘hundreds of thousands of women and children were annihilated by layers of bombs’ cannot excuse the Axis methods of warfare.

If Jodl had known the true story of why Allied intelligence so regularly outwitted the OKW – owing to the Ultra information gained from decrypting the Enigma codes – he would undoubtedly have added another line of defence for the High Command. Ultimately, however, Jodl’s excuses are not convincing: the German generals did indeed serve ‘a criminal’, as well as the Volk and Fatherland.

The German people nicknamed Nazi Party functionaries ‘golden pheasants’, but none were more heavily gilded than the Wehrmacht generals. ‘Nor could they plead ignorance about what was involved,’ points out historian David Cesarani in relation to their refusal to apply the Geneva Convention on the Eastern Front and elsewhere. Hitler ‘regularly briefed his party followers, ministers and military men about his racial goals. Occasionally some demurred… but most cooperated. By 1939, thanks to Hitler’s successes, his popularity and his style of rule, there were no alternative centres of power capable of stopping him or willing to try.’

The SS and other state institutions in particular were deliberately kept separate from the Wehrmacht. This could have been operationally frustrating for the generals. It was also true that Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of the Abwehr, thought Hitler a ‘madman’ and had been in communication with the Allies towards the end of the war, although his organization did not systematically aid the enemy, as Jodl alleged.

The reasons why so many outwardly dignified professional officers served the Nazis so efficiently and seemingly enthusiastically were numerous and complicated. Many of them had a family military tradition: their grandfathers and fathers had served in the Franco-Prussian war and the Great War. Others served out of conviction, ambition or patriotism.

Their fathers and grandfathers had shot French francs-tireurs in the Franco-Prussian War and had ill-treated Belgian and French civilians in the Great War, so the supposedly noble Prussian military tradition was always something of a myth. The oath they swore to Hitler personally could not excuse them.

Their motives included natural ambition, criminal complicity, genuine patriotism, lack of an alternative, professional pride, an understandable desire to protect their loved ones from Bolshevik vengeance, a desperate hope for unexpected victory, Nazi faith in many cases, but probably above all simple loyalty to their men and brother officers.

The German generals who argued with, stood up to or even disobeyed Hitler were not particularly ill-treated, unless of course they had been involved in the Bomb Plot. They were dismissed, reassigned or retired for a few months, but they did not face the ultimate sanction, as anyone who displeased Stalin certainly did. Therefore the reason they followed orders was not fear for their lives.

Just as no one was shot for refusing to execute a Jew, so German generals put only their jobs, rather than their lives, on the line when they crossed Hitler on a point of military principle. Very often they were brought back from enforced retirement to serve again, as happened to Rundstedt three times. They might therefore have been ‘only obeying orders’, but they were not doing so out of a well-founded fear for their lives.

Albert Speer wrote to Otto Thierack, the Nazi Minister for Justice, saying that he wanted to testify as a character witness for General Friedrich Fromm, who had ‘maintained a passive stance’ towards the Bomb Plot and not warned the authorities about it. If anyone had done such a thing in Soviet Russia, it would have been considered a suicide wish. It did no good: Fromm was executed by firing squad.

There was a good deal of bluster at the Nuremberg Trials, with defendants distancing themselves from Hitler and Nazism. A man is not required to be truthful when pleading for his life. Walther Funk, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hermann Göring, Rudolf Höss, Albert Speer, Wilhelm Keitel, Karl Dönitz, Arthur Seyss-Inquart, and others all tried this tactic.

Walther Funk, the Reich Minister for Economic Affairs, claimed to have actively opposed scorched-earth policies. Ribbentrop cited his work for Anglo-German amity and said that he had told Hitler that Russian POWs ‘should be treated according to the Geneva Convention’.

Göring said, ‘I was never anti-Semitic. Anti-Semitism played no part in my life’... ‘I helped a great many Jews who appealed to me for help.’ He also claimed that he ‘had no knowledge of the atrocities committed against Jews and the brutalities in concentration camps’.

Camp commandant Rudolf Höss said, ‘I thought I was doing the right thing, I was obeying orders, and now, I see that it was unnecessary and wrong. But… I didn’t personally murder anybody. I was just the director of the extermination programme in Auschwitz. It was Hitler who ordered it through Himmler and it was Eichmann who gave me the order regarding transports.’

Albert Speer tried to argue that ‘the activities of the defendant as an architect were of a nonpolitical nature’, despite his having also been the minister for armaments and war from 1942.

Wilhelm Keitel declared, ‘I was never really close to the Führer,’ with whom he lived cheek-by-jowl and whom he saw almost every day for six years.

Karl Dönitz apparently ‘knew nothing about the plans for an offensive war’ even in the U-boat arm he commanded. Paul von Kleist even came out with the classic line, ‘I can only say that some of my best friends were Jews’.

Artur Seyss-Inquart, who was responsible for mass deportations, summary executions and the shooting of hostages in Poland, claimed he had ‘tried everything to prevent violations against the provisions of international law’, and ingeniously tried to argue that ‘The starting of a war without a declaration of war also still does not make this into a war of aggression.’

Nuremberg testimony needs to be treated with extreme caution, especially such claims as that of Dönitz’s that National Socialism probably ‘would have collapsed soon after a German victory’. It was perhaps inevitable that the survivors should have blamed everything upon Hitler, Goebbels, Himmler, Bormann, Heydrich and Ley, who were conveniently all dead by the start of the trials.

Admittedly, some of the Nazis, such as Julius Streicher, who pronounced that Jesus Christ was ‘born of a mother who was a Jewish whore’, conformed precisely to type. Mainly, however, they argued vehemently that they had known nothing about the Holocaust, and claimed they would have resigned if they had known that Hitler planned war, but could not do so after it had broken out, for moral and patriotic reasons.

Yet for all their lies and claims to have constantly stood up to Hitler – Kleist even claimed to have regularly shouted him down at meetings – the fact remains that virtually no one voluntarily resigned from a position of power, even when the war was clearly going to be lost.

If Hitler had not been a National Socialist, he would probably not have unleashed the Second World War, but equally he might possibly have won it. There was nothing inevitable about the Allied victory in the conflict. Many of his worst strategic blunders were the result of his ideological convictions rather than military necessity. Analyses of Hitler’s defeat have tended to portray him as a strategic imbecile – ‘Corporal Hitler’ – or otherwise as a madman, but these explanations are clearly not enough. The real reason Hitler lost the Second World War was exactly the same one that caused him to unleash it in the first place: he was a Nazi.

General von Kleist told historian B.H Liddell Hart after the war, ‘Under the Nazis we tended to reverse Clausewitz’s dictum, and to regard peace as a continuation of war.’ It is not difficult to construct a narrative of the Second World War in which a Chiefs of Staff committee of German generals did not make the blunders Hitler did.

Hitler’s defeat was intimately tied up in the political nature of Hitlerism, in particular his refusal to retreat, his belief in the power of his unfettered will and his constant upping of the stakes, which had worked well for him in Weimar domestic politics in the 1920s and in his international brinksmanship in the 1930s.

Hitler could not have left soldiering to the soldiers. A Führer had to be a superman, equal to any calling, and for such a spectacular know-it-all as Hitler – with views on everything, a love of military history and an impressive recall of military facts – the prospect of taking a back seat in a world war was an emotional and psychological impossibility.

Nazi philosophy contained within it, once translated onto the military plane, the seeds of its own destruction. An expansionist nationalist German without a Nazi worldview – another Bismarck, say, or a Moltke – would probably not have defeated the USSR either, but he would have made the war go on even longer and claim even more lives.

Historian Alan Clark pointed out, ‘There is no evidence that Hitler ever changed his mind on questions of strategy either at the persuasion of his intimates in the Party or the senior officers of the Army.’ If Hitler and certain generals agreed on something, it was almost always because they agreed with him rather than vice versa.

It was said of Emperor Napoleon III that his name was both his making and his undoing. Similarly, Hitler won his revolution because of his drive, willpower, impulsiveness, philosophy and policies, which seemed – however wrongly – to offer Germany hope in the 1930s. Yet it was precisely these same phenomena that led to his destruction the following decade.

Of course it is easy today to fight the Second World War with hindsight, ridiculing Hitler for errors that at the time might have seemed like the best options available, especially in the absence of critical advice. He did not have the intelligence and information available to us today. He was not privy to the enemy’s thinking as we are. But even Stalin allowed himself to be persuaded in the Stavka, so long as it did not look as if he was being overruled. Hitler should have been a politician instead of a strategist during the war.

A Chiefs of Staff committee in which Hitler and Göring had little influence should have directed Germany’s strategy after 1939. Ideally, this committee should have drawn from the collective talents of generals such as Manstein, Halder, Brauchitsch, Rundstedt, Rommel, Guderian, Student, Senger, Vietinghoff, Bock and Kesselring. Raeder and Dönitz should have directed the naval strategy. Hitler should have concentrated on visiting fronts, bomb-sites and the wounded, threatening neutral countries, making morale-boosting speeches and doing everything in his diplomatic power to prevent the United States from declaring war.

It is impossible to say whether the German generals would have made the same or perhaps some quite different but no less disastrous errors. Perhaps the subjugation of 193 million Russians by 79 million Germans was simply a mathematical impossibility, and so Germany could never have won the war under any circumstances. If Hitler had taken a junior role after Barbarossa, it is likely that the only difference would have been a longer and more costly war.

‘Allied air power was the greatest single reason for the German defeat,’ claimed Albert Kesselring, with Blumentritt and others agreeing. In fact, it was Russian ground-based power that tolled the death knell of Nazism. But together these two factors discovered how far fanaticism and Blitzkrieg could get a nation. The answer was the cornfields outside the village of Prokhorovka, near Kursk. But no further.

The fact that the German generals often despised each other does not mean they could not have fought a more rational war than they did under Hitler, given a chief of staff more respected than Wilhelm Keitel. As with any army, ambition played a part, as did sheer personality clashes. The personal antipathies described before the battle of Kursk between Zeitzler, Manstein, Kluge and Guderian – the last two having to be dissuaded from fighting a duel – were just one example of a phenomenon that was to dog the German High Command.

The generals cannot be seen as a unified voice: Zhukov, Konev and Rokossovsky were rivals, just as Patton, Montgomery and Bradley were on the other side of the conflict. The dismissal of one German general was usually seen by the rest as an opportunity.

Hitler’s anti-Semitism, culminating in the Holocaust, was central to his Nazism but did nothing to aid Germany’s chances of winning the war, and possibly a great deal to retard them. The Reich devoted a great amount of effort, especially in terms of transportation, in its effort to render Europe ‘Judenfrei’. Quite apart from the sheer moral issue involved, the Holocaust was a military mistake, tying up railway stock and (admittedly relatively few) SS troops, but above all denuding Germany of millions of potentially productive workers and potential soldiers.

German Jews who had fought bravely for the Kaiser were not only not called up for the Volkssturm, they were gassed. Between 1939 and 1944 the German labor force shrank from thirty-nine million to twenty-nine million people, a disastrous 26 percent fall at a time when a massive increase in production was vital for victory.

While production was being badly hampered by the lack of intelligent, educated, hard-working people, Hitler massacred some six million Europeans Jews, an action that would be evidently self-defeating, except to the diseased mind of a Nazi fanatic.

While the Germans did not recruit any women to serve in combat situations, the Red Army did so, thus further increasing their personnel resources. Russian women served in all major battles on the Eastern Front as infantry soldiers, aviators, medics or doctors.

For ideological reasons the Wehrmacht did not recruit women, while the Red Army called up between 1 million and 1.5 million of them. The only difference in women’s benefits was that they received 100 grams more soap than the men.

Once he declared war against the United States, Hitler effectively lost all hope of winning the war. A nuclear bomb was being successfully developed in New Mexico, whereas Germany was far from reaching such a level of accomplishment. With the United States effectively uninvadable, it was clear that, however long the war eventually took, the side possessing atomic weaponry would come out victorious. It was inevitably going to be the Allies. Had D-Day failed, as it easily might have, the Allies might have been forced to win the war in Europe as they did in Japan: by obliterating German cities one by one until the Nazis eventually surrendered.

For all the military defeats on the European Continent to both the east and west by 1945, there was one thing that could still have won Hitler a stalemate, or even the war. In 1942, the German physicist Werner Heisenberg reported to Hitler that an amount of uranium ‘no larger than a pineapple’ would be enough to destroy a city. Yet the Jewish and German émigré scientists who had the knowledge and genius necessary to split the atom were by then working in New Mexico, rather than for Heisenberg in the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Dahlem.

In the two areas where pure intellect had an appreciable influence on the outcome of the war - the cracking of codes at Bletchley Park and in the Far East, and the creation of a nuclear bomb at Los Alamos - the Allies won the battle of the brains.

The Allies always had a significant superiority in numbers. They also had a significant advantage in resources such as oil, iron, steel and coal, all of which are vital to winning a war. The sheer, bloody-minded determination of both Germany and Japan was one reason for the length of time they were able to hold out against the Allies. The high quality of their troops, especially the Germans, was the other.

In December 1941, Germany, with her population of 79 million, Japan (73 million), Italy (45 million), Romania (13.6 million) and Hungary (9.1 million), faced the combined onslaught of the USSR (193 million), USA (132 million), Great Britain (48 million), Canada (11.5 million), South Africa (10.5 million), Australia (7.1 million) and New Zealand (1.6 million). These figures do not count India and China, which both made very significant contributions to the Allied victory. After Italy changed sides in 1943, that left roughly 175 million Axis facing 449 million Allies, or two and a half times their number.

With the Allies also controlling two-thirds of the global deposits and production of iron, steel, oil and coal from 1941 onwards, victory should have been assured. Yet it was not until May 1945 that Germany bowed to her conquerors, and it took two nuclear bombs to force the Japanese into the same posture three months later.

Up until the end of 1944, on a man for-man basis, the Germans inflicted between 20 and 50 per cent higher casualties on the British and Americans than they suffered, and far higher than that on the Russians, under almost all military conditions. Although they lost because of their Führer’s domination of grand strategy as well as the sheer size of the populations and economies ranged against them, it is indisputable that the Germans were the best fighting men of the Second World War for all but the last few months of the struggle, when they suffered a massive dearth of equipment, petrol, reinforcements and air cover.

Allied grand strategy was forced on the three major players by circumstance as much as by choice. The Russians simply had to survive. Similarly, there was no real choice for the Americans even after Japan unleashed war on them and then Hitler declared it four days later. Before the Allies invaded France, they first had to win the war in the Atlantic. They finally achieved this in 1943. By that time operations for the invasion of Sicily were well under way. The clashes between the British and American policymakers over the timing of Operation Overlord were titanic, but without British consent the Normandy landings could not have been undertaken any earlier.

Only after the German reverses at Stalingrad and Kursk could the Russians start to impose their will upon the battlefield, which they eventually did with great vigor, especially in 1944. The destruction of Army Group Center during the Bagration offensive in the summer of that year was as decisive as anything seen in the history of warfare. It utterly dwarfed the contemporaneous Operation Overlord. Advances on the Eastern Front were still costly, however, for even in 1945 the Germans were inflicting more losses on their opponents than they suffered themselves. This was not the case in the west, however.

Theoretically the Americans could have pursued a Pacific First policy. But General George C. Marshall rightly considered that while it would be relatively easy to defeat Japan after a German surrender, the opposite was not necessarily the case. The strategy whereby American forces first engaged German forces in North Africa, then Sicily, then Italy before finally squaring up to them in north-western France was effectively forced on the Joint Chiefs of Staff by the British, who vetoed any recrossing of the Channel before 1 May 1944.

After the Germans introduced an extra rotor to the Enigma machine, the Allied navies were plunged into the dark over Kriegsmarine movements in the battle of the Atlantic for almost a year. No landings in north-west Europe could be attempted with supply lanes at the mercy of the U-boat fleet. That battle was not won until May 1943, by which time a quarter of a million Germans had surrendered in Tunisia and plans were well under way for the invasion of Sicily.

Marshall might have complained about being led ‘down the garden path’ by Brooke and Churchill, but at the Casablanca Conference of 1943 he had to acknowledge that there was no possibility of crossing the Channel in any significant numbers that year. The war could not be simply suspended until enough men had been assembled in southern England for Overlord. Sicily followed Africa logically, just as Italy followed Sicily.

A number of historians and other commentators have suggested that the Allied war effort was nothing more than the opposite side of the same coin— that an American or British war crime can be found for every one committed by the Germans or Japanese. Across the ledger from Nanking, Rotterdam, Belgrade, Oradour-sur-Glane, or Malmédy, they place the Allies’ refusal to bomb the rail lines to Auschwitz, the starvation of German POWs at war’s end, and the incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — the latter being the worst of all. While all these things did happen, it is important to note that the Axis started the conflict.

In considering the war’s human cost, those of us privileged to live at the dawn of a new millennium should renew our effort to remember why the war was fought. The wars unleashed by the Japanese in 1937 and by the Germans in 1939 came close to destroying the two great centers of world civilization and imposing in their stead imperial regimes founded on racial superiority, slavery, and genocide.

As each year passes, fewer and fewer elderly visitors come to visit the war cemeteries in France, Britain, Belgium, Poland, Hawaii, the Philippines, Malaya, and other foreign lands. The generation that fought World War II is now fading into the shadows of history. For example, by 1999 in the United States, those who served during the war were dying at the rate of 1,000 per day. By the third decade of the twenty-first century, they will all be gone. As these brave men and women leave us, it is important to remember the conflict in which they fought in order to try and avoid an even more destructive one in the future.

The Second World War was the most destructive conflict in human history. It shaped the world into what it is today. If nothing else, we ought at least to remember the most destructive war in history and the terrible tragedies it wrought. World War I provided the first intimations of Total War: the idea that war was fought not just by armed combatants but by the nations themselves. World War II realized this concept to the greatest extent in history. The distinction between combatants and noncombatants almost became meaningless.

As each human generation rises and then falls into the mists of history, those who follow tend to forget the lessons their predecessors learned. Each generation makes its own history based upon its own identity, experiences and the world that they live in. Yet the terrible lessons of World War II must never be forgotten. To forget the sheer destructiveness of the war would mean that other leaders like Hitler could rise somewhere and once again bring fire and death to the world. Considering humanity’s nuclear arsenal, that must never be allowed to happen.