Part 2 of 2
The questions we need ask ourselves are these:
Should Germany have annexed Czechoslovakia in 1938?
Should Germany have invaded Poland in 1939?
Should Germany have invaded the Soviet Union in 1941?
In answer to the first question, Germany’s annexation of Czechoslovakia was part of its larger policy toward Eastern Europe. Nations which adopted an anti-German, pro-Soviet foreign policy–such as Czechoslovakia–would be punished. Nations which did the opposite would be rewarded. Nations which remained neutral in Germany’s favor would be left alone. By the spring of 1941, that policy had resulted in a situation in which nearly all the governments of Eastern Europe were either neutral or pro-German. That situation was much better, from the German perspective, than things had been in the mid-'30s. At that time the mood in Eastern Europe was decidedly anti-German, as governments anticipated that the Soviet Union and the Western democracies would unite in crushing Germany.
Germany’s annexation of Czechoslovakia also gave it access to more manpower, raw materials, and industrial capacity: the very things it needed to compete in a long war, or even a short one. On the other hand, Imperious Leader correctly pointed out that the annexation was very damaging to Chamberlain’s administration and to the credibility of his pro-German, anti-Soviet foreign policy. (A policy which Chamberlain’s enemies labeled “appeasement.”) The damage to British prestige largely explains why, by 1939, Britain had become far more anti-German than anti-Soviet. That represented a very serious diplomatic setback for Germany. The question is whether institutional and political forces in Britain would have forced a worsening of relations with Germany anyway. Might a gifted orator such as Churchill have eventually come into power even without Munich? Germany paid a very heavy diplomatic price in the short-term for taking all Czechoslovakia. But there’s at least a chance it might have had to pay that price anyway in the long run without having received more than just the Sudetenland in return.
- Should Germany have invaded Poland in 1939? In 1939, combined British and French military spending had exceeded Germany’s. Germany had reached the limit of the military spending it could afford. Britain and France had not. If war between Germany and Britain and France was inevitable, it was better (from the German perspective) for that war to occur in 1939 as opposed to later. The defensive alliance between France and the Soviet Union may also have played an important role in Hitler’s thought process. While the Soviet Union would not go to war to save France–defensive alliance or no defensive alliance–there was a very real chance–almost a certainty–that France would go to war to save the Soviet Union if Germany invaded. That alliance–plus the guarantees Britain and France had given to Poland–meant that Hitler could not strike out in any direction without going to war at very least against France. If, however, Hitler had remained within the confines the Allies had created for Germany after WWI (plus Czechoslovakia), Germany would have been extremely vulnerable to Soviet invasion after Stalin’s militarization and industrialization effort had been completed. As noted, the major Western democracies would have remained neutral in the Soviet Union’s favor, with many of their leaders preferring to join the Soviet side.
The war in 1939–and the conquest of France in 1940–opened up options for Germany. Now it could focus its army on its eastern front without having to worry about the French Army to the west. French industrial capacity, manpower, and natural resources also strengthened Germany, though not by as much as had been hoped. On the downside, British and American industrial capacity was now turned toward the destruction of Germany from the air. That fact severely constricted Germany’s future options, and forced it to choose between either acquiring a roughly equal amount of industrial capacity and labor, or else watch its cities and its people perish in flames.
- Should Germany have invaded the Soviet Union in 1941? There were a lot of reasons why an invasion seemed to make sense. During the Spanish Civil War, German and Soviet aircraft competed with each other as the fascists fought the communists. Observers from both Germany and the Soviet Union paid close attention to how their nations’ military hardware performed. In 1936, Soviet aircraft were at least as good as their German counterparts. But then in 1937, the Germans introduced new, significantly improved aircraft–aircraft which could go 100 MPH (160 km/hour) faster than had their predecessors. The Soviet Union responded with a massive effort to engineer its own radically improved aircraft designs. But by the spring of 1941, those new Soviet aircraft designs either had not yet been put into production, or else existed in very limited numbers. This meant that the Soviet Air Force was almost entirely obsolete; but that it would remain obsolete for only a limited period of time.
Another factor was that Stalin had purged the Red Army’s officer corps in the late '30s. I have heard it said that his reason for doing so was to eliminate the gentlemanly traditions of the old Russian Army, and to make his new army more thuggish. If that was his goal he certainly succeeded, as shown by the rape and mass murder perpetrated by the Red Army’s soldiers during and after WWII. But whatever Stalin’s motives for the purge may have been, it left the Red Army temporarily weakened. That weakness was exacerbated by its transition to a new doctrine. During the spring of '41, it was halfway between doctrines as it were, and in a position to adequately execute neither. The very poor performance of the Red Army during its invasion of Finland resulted from these sources of temporary weakness.
However, the limitations of Germany’s supply lines–which I mentioned in my earlier post–meant that Germany could only hope to conquer the western portion of the Soviet Union during the summer and fall of '41. German military planners had recognized this prior to the start of Barbarossa, but had hoped that the main strength of the Red Army would be enveloped and captured in the western territories Germany conquered. Prior to the start of the operation, German military planners had reckoned on a total Red Army strength of 200 divisions. They were off by a factor of three: by the end of the fall of '41, the Red Army consisted of a staggering 600 divisions! In contrast, the German Army was 150 divisions strong in the spring of '41–though a German division was somewhat larger than a Soviet.
Had the invasion of the Soviet Union gone as planned, Germany would have grabbed off large stretches of Ukrainian farmland (necessary to prevent starvation from the Allied food blockade), as well as the oil, manpower, and industrial capacity it required to counter the Anglo-American bombing effort. German military planners had underestimated the sheer size and strength of the Red Army, as well as the extent of the industrial capacity the Soviet Union could bring to bear on the war effort. The Soviet habit of moving whole factories eastward, away from the German invasion, meant the rewards were far fewer than expected. (As did the Soviets’ scorched earth policy.)
Imperious Leader is absolutely correct about the qualitative advantage the German Army had over the Red Army. But the Red Army made up for that with sheer numbers, and by the improvements in tactics, weaponry, and execution it had made since its Winter War against Finland. The Red Army of '43 or '44 was far more effective, on a man-for-man basis, than the Red Army had been in '40 or '41. While the German Army still had a significant qualitative advantage over the Red Army even in '43, that advantage was no longer enough to prevent sheer Soviet numbers from dictating the outcomes of battles.
Over 80% of German military deaths during WWII were caused by the Soviet military. The Nazi-Soviet war was the one place where the core of Germany’s military strength slipped away. It’s easy to say in hindsight that Hitler should not have done that. One reason hindsight is so easy is because we have information–especially information about the sheer scale of Soviet strength–unavailable to the German military planners of '40 and '41. If the Germans had known how many men the Red Army would be able to recruit during '41 and '42, and how many tanks, planes, and artillery pieces the Soviets would build, they almost certainly not have launched the invasion when they did.
The problem Hitler faced in the fall of 1940 was that Germany had to conquer something if it was to compete against the Anglo-American bombing effort directed against German cities, or prevent the famine the British food blockade would otherwise impose. One option that had been discussed would have been to use Libya as a base for a thrust into Egypt, and thence Syria and Persia. After Egypt fell, Hitler could also have turned part of his army south, into the heart of Africa. Persian oil would have taken the place of the Caucasus oil Hitler had hoped to gain from the Soviet Union.
The problem with all this is that the operation would have had to have been supplied from the Central Mediterranean. That, in turn, meant that Hitler would be placing heavy reliance on Italy’s military–and in particular its navy–to keep Britain from interfering with the Axis’ military transports. Anyone familiar with Italy’s record in WWII should realize why relying on the Italian military for anything would have been a very bad idea.
In the long run, Hitler could have built up a German presence in the Central Mediterranean. However, if Hitler lacked the industrial capacity to win an air and sea war against the British in the North Atlantic, would he have had the industrial capacity to win such a war against them in the Central Mediterranean?
Germany could have avoided such problems by using an overland route through Turkey instead. Turkey was neutral, but Turkish leaders could have been coerced into allowing the German Army through. Or, failing that, Turkey could have been conquered. The possession of Turkish and (subsequently) Persian territory would have allowed the later invasion of the Soviet Union to occur along a broader front.
The three things that kind of invasion would have gained for Germany would have been oil, a larger border with the Soviet Union, and more time during which to prepare for the invasion. However, that last factor would have been a mixed blessing, as the Soviets would also have had more time to prepare for the coming war. One or two additional years to prepare would have given the Soviets the chance to more fully recover from the officer purges, to fully implement their new army doctrine, to begin producing large numbers of their new, modern aircraft designs, and to make further progress down Stalin’s road of industrialization. A delay of a year or two would also have given the U.S. more time to expand its aircraft production. Germany’s military production would have expanded as well during this delay. But the lack of conquests from the Soviet Union would have meant that the production increase would have been smaller than the one historically observed. (Unless, of course, Germany had sent large numbers of Middle Easterners to German factories to do the work Soviet POWs would otherwise have done.)
Imperious Leader is absolutely correct to state that Germany’s military production was far stronger in relation to the Soviet Union’s in '43 and '44 than it had been in '41 and '42. But it needs to be pointed out that the Red Army would have experienced significant qualitative improvements between '41 and '43 even if Hitler had not invaded. That latter factor largely offsets the former. Delaying the invasion by a few years might not have helped Germany nearly as much as an analysis of industrial production figures alone might seem to suggest.
What if Germany hadn’t launched the invasion at all? In the long run, Britain and the U.S. would have simply outproduced Germany, and would have reduced its cities and its people to ash. Germany’s jets would have created a respite from the bombing, but sooner or later the Allies would have developed jets of their own. Once Stalin judged Germany’s strength had been sufficiently smashed by the Western democracies, the Red Army would have invaded.
Looking at the options Hitler had, I don’t see anything which would have prevented, with 100% certainty, a Soviet invasion and postwar Soviet occupation of Germany. Some of the options Hitler had were better than others, and he clearly made mistakes along the way. But even if he’d been mistake-free, there’s still a very solid chance Germany would have fallen to its far larger, stronger enemies.