How Did Germany Lose a War It Had Won?
At the dawn of 1941, there was no expectation in Moscow that Germany would violate the tense but still very much viable August 23, 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, or that the U.S. would intervene on Britain’s side. The U.S.S.R. was eager to stay out of any second phase of fighting beyond Europe, and especially fighting the victor of the entire continent. Moscow was guided by Marxist orthodoxy that supplying Hitler both to bomb Britain and to fight the British Empire in Africa had been a good way of attenuating two capitalist enemies. The aim was that when subsequently mutually weakened, both Germany and Germany’s enemies, as fellow capitalists, were equally enemies but would pose now little threat to Stalin’s own developing megalomaniac agendas.
As the continental war raged in 1939 and then again in 1940, American war planners, while cognizant that the U.S. might eventually be forced to fight Hitler, were far more concerned with the September 1940 Japanese absorption of the orphaned remains of the resource-rich French Southeast Asian empire. They pessimistically assumed that when Britain was likely to be finished off, the Japanese would eventually harvest the Dutch East Indies, Singapore, and British colonies in Burma and India—and then turn to either the Philippines or Hawaii or both.
What next happened were two entirely unexpected attacks that recalibrated the somnolent European occupation into a real world war, the world’s first truly global conflict. Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa campaign to destroy the Soviet Union that commenced on June 22, 1941, and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, ushered in a veritable world war on all the continents to some extent, and radically changed the relative balance of power against Germany.
As long as Germany, Italy, and Japan were likely enemies of the isolated British Empire, the Soviet Union a rich supplier of the Third Reich, and the U.S. stubbornly neutral, the odds still probably favored the Axis. But their own self-created remaking of the conflict in 1941 radically changed relative capabilities and doomed their cause. They needlessly rebooted a stagnant war, this time earning as enemies the world’s two greatest powers, in terms of population, industrial potential, natural resources, sheer size, and ideological zeal. And both the Soviets and the Americans reenergized the ongoing British war effort by diverting and diluting German resources and supplying American aid.
In a logical sense, the two surprise attacks of 1941 still baffle the mind. How could Axis countries that respectively had won the 1939–41 war by the conquest of all of Europe—something that neither Caesar nor Napoleon had accomplished—and absorbed most of resource rich Indochina and nearly half of China—precipitate a global war that they could not win, by starting regional conflicts against superpowers that had no intention themselves of any immediate preemptive action?
Here we should give little credence to mostly wartime and postwar German arguments that Operation Barbarossa was a preemptive strike against a soon to pounce Russia, or that an oil-starved Japan had no other choice after U.S. oil boycotts but to go to war. Just as the U.S. had not gone to war to keep Japan out of mineral and food-rich French Indochina, so too, had Japan focused on the rich, but orphaned since May 1940, Dutch East Indies, and sidestepped American holdings, pre-Pearl Harbor Washington may still have not gone to war and Japan would have secured its oil needs.
There are a number of traditional explanations why the Axis could not rest on their victories of 1939–41 and risked throwing them away in an ensuing global war. Both Germany and Japan had underestimated respectively the British Empire and the resistance and sheer population and geographical size of China. In frustration, turning elsewhere for supposedly easier and more lucrative victories might still tip the material and psychological odds in their direction to finish off both Britain and China.
National Socialist doctrine was always focused on the prize of Lebensraum of the east that explained its fixation on the purported need for the resources and land of the rich Soviet East. A sick desire to eliminate the Jews of Europe could only be finally reified by going eastward into European Russia.
Yet Mein Kampf fantasies still do not completely explain the particular moment of attack on Russia or the belief in ultimate Axis success.
Rather, after the unimpressive performances of the Red Army in 1939-40, the Soviets had lost deterrence in Hitler’s eyes, and in a variety of ways. The false sense of Russian weakness was earlier fueled by the Soviet liquidation of nearly 40,000 of its top military officers in 1937–38, and a complete German intelligence failure about the nature of new and deadly Soviet weaponry, from the potential of the new T-34 tank to novel Katyusha rocket batteries.
Stranger still, Hitler reasoned that Germany’s deadlock with the Royal Air Force and Navy could be broken by a swift Blitzkrieg victory over the Soviet Union that would psychologically shake Churchill, ensure the U.S. did not enter the war, and provide Germany with unlimited supplies of steel, oil, coal, and food stuffs—while eliminating the need to put up any more with the perceived whiny demands of the Soviet communists. These considerations seem near unhinged today, given the ensuing German four-year quagmire that accounted for two of every three dead German soldiers of World War II. After all, how absurd was the idea of seeking to defeat a proximate defiant enemy like Britain, by starting a more distant, and larger conflict with an even more powerful enemy Russia?
But these considerations must again be seen in the context of the times‚ one of 22 months of uninterrupted Wehrmacht ground victories that had resulted in the greatest European conquests in history. In German reckoning, the Soviets also lacked the air and sea reach of Britain, the lone country to resist Blitzkrieg, and the mechanical and technological know-how of the now collapsed French army.
The June 1940 destruction of the French Army, the renowned bulwark of the West, also made a profound impression on the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht. If the unconquerable—“Ils ne passeront pas”—savior of World War I had the year before crumbled in just seven weeks, what then would the Russian Army do against the same enemy? Unlike the French 22 years prior, the imperial Russian army had disintegrated by late 1917—and to a tired and worn out imperial Germany Army that was then fighting on two fronts?
In this German World War I calculus of relative strength against Germany, the French Army had held out almost a third longer than the Russian. Thus, the former’s recent collapse in 45 days suggested that the contemporary Soviets likely would implode in about a month or so. Or as General Halder, in overweening Napoleonic fashion, put it in his diary near the end of June 1941, “I think I am not exaggerating when I say that the campaign against Russia has been won in fourteen days…” Strangely, no German put much credence in the reality that neither the French nor Russian armies of 1940–41 were at all similar to their earlier incarnations. The French socialist 1940 military was far weaker than in 1918 and the 1941 communist Red Army far stronger than the Czar’s forces of 1914-17.
As far as Japan, its disastrous decision to attack Pearl Harbor rested on even more contorted logic. It had not synchronized a June 1941 attack on the Soviet Union from the east to dilute the Russian response to Operation Barbarossa—and for a variety of understandable reasons. One, the Japanese in the midst of a losing war in Manchuria against Marshall Zhukov’s Soviet forces along the Mongolian border, had resented deeply the August 23, 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
The deal had ensured the Soviets that they had no worries of an attack from Europe and could thus focus on Japan alone. Tokyo itself had no idea of the likely sell-out bargain. And it would reward the perfidy of its fascist ally with its own April 13, 1941 Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact—on the eve of Operation Barbarossa, and as much a surprise to Berlin as earlier German back dealing had been to the Japanese.
More importantly, Hitler was initially not eager to share the sure spoils of a supposedly doomed Russia, at least before December 1, 1941, with the perceived piggy-backing rapacious Japanese. Berlin’s desire for a two-front war against the U.S.S.R. emerged only weeks after the invasion, when the Wehrmacht was in extremis and eager for the very assistance it had once snubbed. This about-face about outside help grew desperate after massive transfers of 1,700 Soviet tanks, 18 divisions, and 1,500 artillery pieces across the trans-Siberian railroad in time to save Moscow—Stalin’s gamble based on the Russian intelligence services’ assurances that Japan would not attack from the rear in the far east.
In addition, after the defeat and loss of some 40,000 Japanese troops in the May–September 1939 Soviet-Japanese war along the Mongolian border, Japanese planners realized that while its air and naval forces were comparable to Western adversaries, its army was inferior in tanks, artillery, motorized transports, and sheer firepower to most European powers. The eventual occupation of nearly half of China tied down much of the Japanese army. And given perceived Japanese resource shortages, especially in oil, the Imperial Navy assumed a more preeminent role in promising the capture of the Dutch East Indies after neutralizing the British and American Pacific fleets at Singapore and Pearl Harbor.
These calibrations were superficially rational but again strategically unhinged. The December attacks on Britain and the United States were in part predicated on a completely false reading of the radically changing events on the outskirts of Moscow. Not only would the Soviet capital not soon fall, as the Japanese had expected on December 7, but a Soviet counteroffensive would lead to a four-year grind that ensured the Japanese alliance with Germany brought no real upside.
Tokyo had also completely ignored the resilience and reach of the undefeated British Empire and the industrial, scientific, and manpower potential of the United States—oddly both manifest in the First World War. Japan also never grasped that, unlike all the other major belligerents of the World War II—Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union—only the British Empire and the U.S. had sufficient resources, naval power, and manpower to wage simultaneous two-front wars by land, sea, and air.
In sum, there really was not a six-year Second World War as we traditionally envision it. Rather, there was an initial 22-month-European war of conquest by Germany and its appendage Italy. The continental war ended in spring 1941 with Germany’s victory.
After a brief lull, a truly global and quite different war in mid- and late-1941 ensued. In anticipation of further global success, the Axis upped their ambitions to world conquest, and turned on their de facto ally Russia. Such an expansionist agenda in the East, in Hitler’s thinking, required a surprise attack on the U.S.S.R. and a declaration of war on the U.S. Only those two unforeseen unexpected events of 1941 ushered in an entirely new four-year-long war, with radically different alliances and one that the Axis powers had little chance of winning, but a very good chance of losing all that they had gained in their first victorious war.