‘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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.