Hindsight is always twenty-twenty.
– Billy Wilder
As everybody who has cracked a history book knows, the Axis lost the Second World War. The German Third Reich, Fascist Italy, and the Empire of Japan fell to the Allied powers. Why this happened, however, has always been a subject of debate and speculation. It’s true that the Wehrmacht was a very strong military force, more advanced in battle tactics and the technology of war than that of France, or Britain, or Poland, and many other nations at the time. Even though the Versailles Treaty prevented Germany from having a standing army stronger than 100,000 and practically no Navy or any Air Force, Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler ordered the buildup of the nation's military shortly after gaining power. The military buildup revived patriotism crushed after Germany’s loss in World War I and helped to pull the population out of their severe depression.
History being one of my favorite interests, and being my field of academic study as well, I have developed some personal opinions as to why the Wehrmacht was defeated. This is not to say I believe that they should have been victorious, however these are my opinions. There have been many speculations, theories, and even whole books dedicated to this subject, so keep in mind that these are my personal deductions.
The Wehrmacht certainly had the strength to defeat Europe, although whether or not they could have continued occupation or not is certainly arguable. At the time, one on one, man for man, Britain could not have held out against the German Wehrmacht. However, Hitler’s interference with his Generals and military strategy led to many of the downfalls that would eventually cause the fall of the Third Reich. I have deduced my theories to five specific actions that were the main reasons for defeat.
The First Error – Too aggressive, too quickly
The nations of Europe were still recovering from the Great War and the memories and horrors were still fresh in everybody’s mind. The Versailles Treaty was intended to eliminate the threat of war in the near future and help put Europe’s mind at rest. However, Germany slowly but surely began to ignore the terms of the treaty forced upon them under the guidance of Adolf Hitler. The other European powers turned a blind eye to this buildup as they feared any confrontation would incite more hostilities. Of course, the citizens of the other European powers would want no hostilities whatsoever, as their minds were steadfast on maintaining peace at the time. Mothers did not want their children back out in the battlefields, dying at the rate of hundreds, maybe thousands per day.
Adolf Hitler became very aggressive, very quickly. If he had taken advantage of Europe’s intentional disregard of his military buildup, he could have continued to build up his military, stockpiles, population, and infrastructure. A couple extra years of this before enacting their conquest plans would have given Germany a stronger upper hand when it came down to battle and invasion. It’s a simple concept: More troops, more military hardware, more war effort manufacturing, the better off a nation will be in warfare. He acted too quickly on his invasions and too hastily on his invasions.
The Second Error – The Holocaust
Hitler’s second mistake is an obvious one. He never should have taken anti-semitism to a governmental level. Anti-semitism was rampant in Europe at the time. This is not to say anti-semitism is good, or acceptable, but it wasn’t simply “those evil Krauts.” Unfortunately, what Hitler did was start persecuting them as an official government policy. First is began with removal of rights as citizens, then it progressed into public harassment and abuse, and finally escalating into the ghettos and camps. Many of the Jewish people Hitler persecuted could have been a significant portion of Germany’s war effort. A country engaging in full warfare needs the all the support and effort it can get. Killing off (estimates of) between 10,000,000 to 25,000,000 of your population while at war puts a serious dent in your efforts.
Germany would have had access to many more people. People who were potential soldiers or workers or leaders. The persecution of the Jews and a long list of other classes drove out many intellectuals who would have been beneficial to Germany - especially those in the science field (such as Albert Einstein). It has been noted that many of the best scientists of the time were German, and a good deal of them were also Jewish. Persecuting the Jews, Poles, Catholics, Socialists, Homosexuals and even Union workers in this manner was a bad move for Germany. While that may have been the sentiment at the time, it certainly was not a good idea to act on any of that conviction. It severely contributed to the downfall of the Third Reich.
The Third Error – The Delay at Dunkirk
The outbreak of war between Germany and England followed the Wehrmacht’s invasion of Poland in 1939. Seven panzer divisions under Generals Heinz Guderian and Erwin Rommel had pushed through the “impassable” Ardennes forest on the Belgian frontier, crossed the Meuse River at Sedan, France, and advanced on Paris. May 20th, the Germans got to the English Channel near Abbeville. Their advance had split the Allied lines in two and had cornered the British Expeditionary Force and French forces, up against the coast. Out powered and cornered, commander of the BEF, Lord Gort, immediately began focusing on evacuation of as many troops as possible.
The German Panzers were getting close to the site where the BEF, French, and a few thousand Belgians were cornered. The German troops were exhausted, but were still generally battle-worthy. The BEF was not equipped to handle the Germans, especially in their situation of retreat and entrapment. However, the Germans have never been a great seafaring nation and therefore never imagined the possibility of evacuating an estimated 300,000 soldiers and equipment across the Channel. Therefore, an order came down from Adolf Hitler, to have the troops pause to refit, rest, and allow the trailing infantry units to catch up. One other major reason, however, that the decision was made was because Hermann Göring, Reichsmarshall of the Luftwaffe, convinced the Führer that the Luftwaffe was fully capable of annihilating the BEF at Dunkirk by themselves.
If the Germans had realized that their opportunity would swiftly disperse and disappear, and without Göring’s relentless stupidity, they could have managed an assault on the entrapped, in conjunction with the Luftwaffe as close air support. The BEF was the major portion of the British’s land forces. With them severely disabled and out of the order of battle, it would have been easy for Germany to elicit Great Britain’s surrender. The Wehrmacht could have amassed troops for a land invasion of England, which the Brits would have had an extremely difficult time repelling without the BEF, French troops, and other allied support. With Britain surprised, the Wehrmacht and its resources would have been less stressed and spread out during future battles.
The Fourth Error – After the Fall of France
The German Wehrmacht moved its eye upon France in the spring of 1940. After defeating Belgium and Luxembourg, the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, or the German High Command, moved in on France. The French believed they were well protected behind the madly expensive and fabled “Maginot Line. First, Panzer troops under Rommel, and then two days later, Guderian’s troops broke through the Maignot Line on June 7th, and 9th 1940, respectively. The Germans conquered France, with the fall of Paris, so surprisingly quickly that neither the French nor the German leaders expected it! The German Generals were still weary and recalling the drawn-out, gory, stalemate battles of the World War I and therefore did not expect France to fall with such relative ease. They never would have imagined that the French armies could be defeated in a single stroke. Therefore, the German High Command had no contingency plan for the defeat of France. There was no follow-up strategy. Instead there was delay and lingering. The delay allowed the Royal Air Force and Britain’s other defenses and forces to recuperate and strengthen, making the upcoming Battle of Britain even more difficult for the Luftwaffe.
Without that delay, and with a plan to organize a land invasion of Britain shortly thereafter the conquering of France, the Germans could have made very significant advances, especially with the Brits still hurting from Dunkirk, had they also been defeated there.
The Final, Fatal Mistake for the Wehrmacht – The Battle of Britain
With Great Britain preparing as best they can for defense of their island, Adolf Hitler and the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht made their last major strategic error. The decision was made to switch resources from a plan of invasion to one of aerial bombardment of civilian targets. The Reich would use the Luftwaffe and V-2 rockets to bombard London and other civilian locations. The targets chosen were of no large military significance. The hope behind this path was to demoralize the British people and to cripple their war industry. They expected with such tragedy occurring to England’s main population center, many workers helping the war effort would die or become disabled. They were also hoping the people would become demoralized and would petition their leaders to stop the war.
What Germany wasn’t expecting was the outcome of their Blitz. The bombings did not demoralize the Brits, but made them unite and stand stronger against the enemy. The bombings may have put people out of house and home, disparage families, and burn down buildings, but it did not create a significant enough impact on Britain’s war industry. In addition, Göring’s Luftwaffe pilots were continually suffering an uphill battle with the men of the RAF. Recall the chance the RAF came by during the Wehrmacht’s delay at Dunkirk. This put the Luftwaffe on the disadvantaged side in numbers and strength.
Furthermore, this strategy of bombing civilian populations outright, would come back to haunt them when the Allies pushed the war back into Reich’s homeland. The most memorable and atrocious of these was the Allied firebombing of Dresden. February 13, 1945, Allied bombers entered the city and dropped incendiary bombs on Dresden, a city with no military or strategic value whatsoever. In fact, the city was a world cultural and historical center - much of the beauty which was ruined in the monstrous firestorm that killed somewhere between 35,000 to 130,000 innocent civilians, again in an attempt to demoralize the German people.
I believe had the German military not made these five major strategic errors, the Third Reich may very well have conquered and occupied a good portion of the western world. Many people have argued that the two front war with the Soviet Union was the major deciding factor in the Third Reich's defeat. It is true that it is generally accepted that the Wehrmacht had its turning point at Stalingrad and that the two front war stressed its capabilities. However, war with Stalin was inevitable. If the Germans did not break the non-aggression pact, the Russians would have soon enough. Since war with Russia was going to happen whether Germany started it or not, it was not truly an error on their part. There are also many other events that people believe to be the major errors of the Wehrmacht. I have not ignored these, but I have selected the five most important mistakes as I see them.
In part, other errors were due to Adolf Hitler’s incompetence and close-minded view. Often times, his best Generals proposed plans or proposed logical changes to them, and Hitler would simply refuse their requests. More than one General was removed from office or resigned due to his, at times, inept leadership and ignorance. However, sometimes Hitler's leadership was brilliant.
This is not to say, however, that the Wehrmacht would definitely had won the war nor even been able to maintain continued occupation if all these mistakes were not had. Further difficulties or mistakes could have been made following my proposed paths as well. In a highly subjective topic as this, one can only analyze the historical records, events, and statistics and make educated theories as to why the Reich lost.
- Personal knowledge and opinion
- Various facts: World War II, Ed. Richard B. Stolley
- Statistics from various minor sources