The New Yorker
Lindbergh was right to sound the alarm about a German military buildup. But he was wrong about the strength of the the Luftwaffe, which was not as good as he—or the Nazis—believed it to be. It was true that the Germans had more planes than anyone else. But, as the historian Victor Davis Hanson explains, in “The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won,” the Luftwaffe had a number of weaknesses, some very fundamental. A lack of four-engine bombers, for example, made it hard for Germany to conduct truly devastating long-range strategic-bombing campaigns against enemies overseas. (The Nazis never succeeded in mass-producing an equivalent to America’s B-17 Flying Fortress, which was in the air before the war.) The German Navy had no aircraft carriers, which made air supremacy during naval battles impossible. (In total, the Axis fielded only sixteen carriers; the Allies, a hundred and fifty-five.) Germany had limited access to oil, and thus to aviation fuel, and this constrained the number of missions the Luftwaffe could fly. Unlike the Allies, who excelled at building tidy, concrete runways from scratch as the front shifted, the Germans relied on whatever slapdash rural runways they could find, resulting in more wear and tear on their planes.
The Nazis were slower than the Allies to replace downed aircraft (they had less experience with high-volume manufacturing); they were also slower to replace fallen pilots (their aircraft were harder to operate). Over time, this lower replacement rate eroded, then reversed, their initial numbers advantage. They also lagged behind in various other areas of aviation technology: “navigation aids, drop tanks, self-sealing tanks, chaff, air-to-surface radar.” Some of these factors emerged only during the war. But others were clear beforehand, and analysts could have noticed them. In truth, Hanson writes, Lindbergh and many others were “hypnotized by Nazi braggadocio and pageantry.” The Nazis were apparently hypnotized, too. As a land-based power with a small navy, they needed the Luftwaffe to perform miracles (for instance, bombing Britain into submission). They did not see the Luftwaffe realistically; they deluded themselves into believing it could do the impossible.
“The Second World Wars” takes an unusual approach to its subject. The book is not a chronological retelling of the conflict but a high-altitude, statistics-saturated overview of the dynamics and constraints that shaped it. Hanson is unusual, too: he is a classicist and a specialist in military history at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, where he edits Strategika, “an online journal that analyzes ongoing issues of national security in light of conflicts of the past”; he’s also an almond farmer and a conservative polemicist whose articles on race, immigration, and the decline of agrarian values appear regularly on National Review’s Web site and other places. I’ve long found his political commentary tiresome—but his deeply researched and detailed military analyses are fascinating. “The Second World Wars” confines itself to the latter subject, with spectacular results. Hanson starts with the idea that the Axis powers were more or less destined to lose, then works backward to understand the reasons for their defeat. The book revolves around a question highly relevant to our own brewing confrontation with North Korea: Why, and how, do weaker nations convince themselves, against all evidence to the contrary, that they are capable of defeating stronger ones?
Hanson begins by putting the Second World War in a “classical context.” Although it was a high-tech conflict with newly lethal weapons, he writes, it still followed patterns established over millennia: “British, American, Italian, and German soldiers often found themselves fortifying or destroying the Mediterranean stonework of the Romans, Byzantines, Franks, Venetians, and Ottomans.” In many instances, military planners on both sides ignored the lessons of the past. Some lessons were local: it’s always been hard to “campaign northward up the narrow backbone of the Italian peninsula,” for example, which is exactly what the Allies struggled to do. Others were universal. Small countries have difficulty defeating big ones, because—obviously—bigger countries have more people and resources at their disposal; Germany, Italy, and Japan, therefore, should have been more concerned about their relatively small size compared to their foes. History shows that the only way to win a total war is to occupy your enemy’s capital with infantrymen, with whom you can force regime change. Hitler should have paused to ask how, with such a weak navy, he planned to cross the oceans and sack London and, later,Washington. At a fundamental level, it was a mistake for him to attack countries whose capitals he had no way to reach.
In terms of management and logistics, the Axis powers were similarly, and sometimes quite conspicuously, disadvantaged. Before the war, the United States produced a little more than half of the world’s oil; Axis leaders should have known this would be a decisive factor in a mechanized conflict involving tanks, planes, and other vehicles. (The Nazis may have underestimated the importance of fuel because—even though they planned to quickly conquer vast amounts of territory through blitzkrieg—many of their supply lines remained dependent upon horses for the duration of the war.) In general, Allied management was more flexible—British planners quickly figured out the best way to place radar installations, for example—while the Axis powers, with their more hierarchical cultures, tended toward rigidity. Axis leaders believed that Fascism could make up the difference by producing more fanatical soldiers with more “élan.” For a brief time at the beginning of the war, Allied countries believed this, too. (There was widespread fear, especially, of Japanese soldiers.) They soon realized that defending one’s homeland against invaders turns pretty much everyone into a fanatic.
In any event, Hanson shows that the Second World War hinged to an unprecedented extent upon artillery (“At least half of the combat dead of World War II probably fell to artillery or mortar fire”): the Allies had bigger, faster factories and could produce more guns and shells. “The most significant statistic of the war is the ten-to-one advantage in aggregate artillery production (in total over a million large guns) enjoyed by the British Empire, the Soviet Union, and the United States over the three Axis powers.” Russia, meanwhile, excelled at manufacturing cheap, easily serviceable, and quickly manufactured tanks, which, by the end of the war, were better than the tanks the Nazis fielded. Many Allied factories remained beyond the reach of Axis forces. There were a few possible turning points in the war: had Hitler chosen not to invade Russia, or not to declare war on the United States, he might have kept his Continental gains. Similarly, Japan might have contented itself with a few local conquests. But temperance and Fascism do not mix, and the outsized ambitions of the Axis powers put them on a collision course with the massive geographical, managerial, and logistical advantages possessed by the Allies, which, Hanson suggests, they should have known would be insurmountable.
The Axis powers fell prey to their own mythmaking: they were adept at creating narratives that made exceedingly unlikely victories seem not just plausible but inevitable. When the Allies perceived just how far Fascist fantasy diverged from reality, they concluded that Axis leaders had brainwashed their citizens and themselves. They began to realize that “the destruction of populist ideologies, especially those fueled by claims of racial superiority,” would prove “a task far more arduous than the defeat of a sovereign people’s military”:
Sober Germans, Italians, and Japanese, in the Allied way of thinking, had to be freed from their own hypnotic adherence to evil, even if by suffering along with their soldiers. . . . Death was commonplace in World War II because fascist zealotry and the overwhelming force required to extinguish it would logically lead to Allied self-justifications of violence and collective punishment of civilians unthinkable in World War I.
Hanson explores the specific decision-making processes behind the most merciless Allied decisions—“the firebombing of the major German and Japanese cities, the dropping of two atomic bombs, the Allied-sanctioned ethnic cleansing of millions of German-speaking civilians from Eastern Europe, the absolute end of the idea of Prussia”—while, from a higher altitude, pointing out that the delusional ideological fervor that shaped the beginning of the war shaped its end, too.
Could the Axis and Allied countries have performed a searching, clear-eyed inventory of their respective strengths and weaknesses and decided beforehand that there was no point in having a world war? Could the Allies have done this on their own and decided to check Hitler’s aggression earlier? One of the tragic elements of war, in Hanson’s view, is that it often uncovers a reality that might have been comprehended in advance and by other means. Unfortunately, in the years before the Second World War, confusion reigned. The Axis countries lived in a fantasy world—they believed their own propaganda, which argued that, for reasons of race and ideology, they were unbeatable. The Allies, meanwhile, underestimated their own economic might in the wake of the Great Depression. They allowed themselves to be intimidated by Fascist rhetoric; justifiably horrified by the First World War, they wanted to give pacifism a chance, and so refrained from the flag-waving displays of aggression that might have revealed their true strength, while hoping, despite his proclamations to the contrary, that Hitler might be satisfied with smaller, regional conquests. “Most wars since antiquity can be defined as the result of such flawed prewar assessments of relative military and economic strength as well as strategic objectives,” Hanson writes. “Prewar Nazi Germany had no accurate idea of how powerful were Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union; and the latter had no inkling of the full scope of Hitler’s military ambitions. It took a world war to educate them all.”
In a general way, Hanson’s ideas are reminiscent of the thought of the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, who saw the market as a kind of information-producing machine. Buying and selling, Hayek wrote, were a “procedure for discovering facts which, if the procedure did not exist, would remain unknown or at least would not be used.” In National Review Online, Hanson writes that “war is a horrific laboratory experiment that confirms or rejects vague and inexact prewar guesses about relative strength or weakness.” Seeing war as a tragically destructive form of information discovery makes Hanson think differently about peace. The problem with peace is that it obscures the realities of relative military strength; it’s especially important, therefore, for countries to flex their muscles during peacetime. In the present, Hanson favors an aggressive response to North Korea, in large part because it might clear up mutual ignorance about everyone’s capabilities and intentions.
Sadly, a detailed examination of exactly when and how deterrence averts conflict is beyond the scope of “The Second World Wars.” Instead, with an extraordinary array of facts and statistics, the book offers an account of the fatalism of war. Until it begins, war is a matter of choice. After that, it’s shaped by forces and realities which dwarf the individuals who participate.