Germany’s attempt to dominate the world by force threatened all of humanity. It took a hugely powerful coalition of the United States, the Soviet Union, and Britain and its allies to gain victory in a bitter struggle that lasted from 1 September 1939 to 9 May 1945 and claimed the lives of up to 60 million people. Hitler alone was primarily responsible for this catastrophe, but millions of German people, as well as generals, soldiers, sailors and airmen, supported his foreign policy, cheered his military triumphs and turned a blind eye to the persecution of the Jews. They all must share the collective guilt for Germany’s war crimes and its catastrophic defeat.
Hitler was convinced Germany could only become a self-sufficient economic superpower by gaining living space (Lebensraum) and decided war was the best way to achieve his goal. Inextricably linked to Hitler’s desire for living space was his fanatical belief that Germany was involved in a global, existential, racial struggle against international Jewry and Soviet Bolshevism. Hitler believed Jews controlled the political and economic power of his enemies. It was all distorted nonsense, of course, but Hitler acted upon this ingrained mindset.
In September 1939 there were 9 million Jews in Europe but by 1945 only 3 million were still alive. The German-led genocide against the Jews primarily took place in German-occupied Poland and the Soviet Union. Jews from all over Europe were transported to this killing zone and murdered there. Every single Jew was sentenced to death, for merely existing. As the German historian Eberhard Jackel put it: ‘Never before had a state… decided to announce that a specific human group, including its aged, women, children and infants, would be killed as quickly as possible, and then carry through this resolution using every possible means of state power.’
Hitler’s obsessive hatred of Jews set the agenda for the Holocaust, but other dedicated National Socialists carried it out. The prime mover was undoubtedly the cold, detached bureaucrat Heinrich Himmler, who was in complete charge of the German terror system and the concentration camps. Hitler devolved great power and extraordinary freedom of decision-making to him. Himmler then devolved power to his own bureaucrats to carry out the mass murder. Himmler’s Einsatzgruppen killing squads escalated the genocide against the Jews soon after Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941, and then, in the spring of 1942, the Holocaust turned into a more systematic form of extermination during the horrific Operation Reinhard.
With the encouragement of Hitler and Himmler, antisemitism and fanciful ideas about racial purity spread like an epidemic throughout the Nazis’ key terror organizations, such as the SS, the SD and the Gestapo, but also beyond these organizations to the vast number of bureaucrats who were willingly complicit in genocide. As Martin Bormann put it: ‘National Socialist doctrine is entirely anti-Jewish, which means anti-communist and anti-Christian. Everything is linked within National Socialism and everything aims at the fight against Judaism.’
Most of the middle-ranking bureaucrats within the SS and SD who carried out the ‘Final Solution’ were relatively young, educated to a high level and were committed National Socialists indoctrinated from an early age by Nazi racist and antisemitic ideology. These people were assisted by the existing ‘conservative’ bureaucracy in German society, men and women who were able to switch from one set of rules founded upon on the rule of law and democracy to a system based on extrajudicial murder and thuggish criminality, without ever seemingly engaging their consciences at any point.
Before opting for war in September 1939 Hitler had played a skilful and flexible diplomatic game. It had fooled his opponents and brought Germany an almost complete revision of the Treaty of Versailles without even firing a shot. Yet, even though he was very good at it, Hitler hated turning on the diplomatic charm. He was only prepared to compromise tactically in order to further his underlying and fixed ideological and military objectives.
The war Hitler had deliberately provoked in September 1939 was not the one he outlined in Mein Kampf (1925), in which he expressed a firm desire for an Anglo-German alliance that would give him a free hand to attack the Soviet Union. Britain was greatly admired by Hitler, who often said that he would like to emulate the British rule of India, which was administered by a small number of individuals. Hitler refused to accept his desire to create an empire on mainland Europe was any different from what the British had already achieved elsewhere. Yet the idea of an Anglo-German alliance – thereby giving Hitler a green light to dominate Europe – was something the British could never contemplate.
Instead, when the British government finally accepted Britain’s position in the global order was threatened by Germany’s unfolding war programme, it declared war on 3 September 1939. By then Hitler was entangled in a diplomatically astute non-aggression pact with his long-standing ideological enemy, the Soviet Union under Stalin. In 1939, therefore, Hitler was fighting the wrong war against what he saw as the wrong enemy. In 1941, when the United States also joined the conflict, after the Japanese air attack at Pearl Harbor, Hitler had yet another unexpected adversary.
In the early stages of the European war from 1939 to 1941 Germany gained a stunning series of military victories through a combination of military boldness and flexibility, including the defeat of Poland, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Yugoslavia and Greece. Yet these victories owed as much to the tactical errors of Germany’s enemies and to sheer good luck than to any overwhelming German military power. Nevertheless, they made Hitler enormously popular in Germany.
Hitler’s greatest error during this early period of impressive military victories was to allow the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) to escape from Dunkirk in May 1940. This was followed by the Luftwaffe’s failure to achieve air superiority during the Battle of Britain in 1940. Hitler failed to see in both instances that Britain and its farflung empire had to be knocked out of the war completely or forced to accept an armistice if Germany stood any chance of winning the war. Hitler’s half-hearted enthusiasm for Operation Sea Lion – the planned German invasion of Britain in 1940 – further confirmed his inability to realize that Britain, with its superior navy, its imperial allies and the material support it received from the money-rich United States, was very far from defeated.
Hitler tried to create an anti-British bloc in the autumn of 1940, but he failed to gain support for this from Spain, France and the Soviet Union. If in 1941 Hitler had devoted all of his considerable military forces to driving the British out of North Africa – instead of launching Operation Barbarossa – then Britain’s ability to continue the war would have been seriously compromised and may even have forced the British government to capitulate.
Hitler probably started the war too early. Germany might have stood a better chance of winning the war in Europe if Hitler had waited until 1942 to launch it. Germany had only twenty-six operational U-boats in 1939 and yet it wreaked havoc on British merchant shipping. With a much larger force of U-boats a successful blockade of British ships might have been possible. If Hitler had also built up the strength of the Luftwaffe, then the Battle of Britain was potentially more winnable in 1942 than it was in 1940.
Another project that was in no way complete when Hitler embarked on war in 1939 was the so-called National Socialist Revolution. During the war, Hitler constantly went on about being surrounded by disloyal conservative aristocratic generals, judges and civil servants who did not believe in National Socialism. This was true and an admission of his own failure to Nazify Germany.
The much-trumpeted National Community (Volksgemeinschaft) – a consumer society free of class divisions, offering equality of opportunity, never happened. It was more propaganda myth than reality. Hitler did destroy communist and trade union organizations in Germany, but he never changed the country’s underlying class structures through legislation or a redistribution of wealth and power.
The National Socialist government Hitler led from 1933 to 1945 was much too dependent on conservative nationalists. Little was done to Nazify the civil service, the judiciary and capitalist business enterprises. Hitler never brought industry under state control. Germans enjoyed low taxes and minimal state ownership, which are both traditional conservative policies aimed primarily at the middle classes. Hitler enriched capitalist businesses and made them his partner in all his schemes – even in mass murder. The German army retained a huge level of independence and at its highest levels was composed of upper-middle-class conservatives, few of whom were ever committed National Socialists.
As Hitler failed to change the existing class structure of German society he concentrated instead on eliminating his key political opponents, most notably, the communists and Jews, from German politics, the economy and society. He introduced policies designed to increase the ‘racial purity’ of the German population through the introduction of a wide-ranging programme of sterilization and then euthanasia. These policies were aimed against disabled people and a wide range of others, mostly lower down the social order, who were classed as ‘anti-social’, including Gypsies, homosexuals, alcoholics, vagrants, habitual criminals, prostitutes and even the long-term unemployed.
Hitler’s government only really attempted to bring about a revolution in the heads of the German people, mainly through the skilful propaganda of Joseph Goebbels. The Nazis were most successful in mobilizing the population to support the idea of Germany once more becoming a great military power.
Hitler’s image was also carefully stage-managed using propaganda. A Führer cult persuaded the German people to give Hitler their unconditional support and loyalty. Hitler became the embodiment of the patriotism of the German people. He persuaded them to trust him and to blindly follow him. This helps to explain why – even in the face of devastating Allied bombing campaigns from 1942 onwards, and then numerous military defeats – there was no collapse of German morale on the home front. The level of popular resistance to Hitler – according to Gestapo files – amounted to a miniscule 1 per cent of the German population.
On 22 June 1941, having abandoned the much more sensible course of trying to defeat Britain and its empire, Hitler ordered the hugely risky Operation Barbarossa. This brutal war of racial annihilation against the Soviet Union unleashed unprecedented levels of German violence and inhumanity. Hitler was the prime mover in the decision to attack the Soviet Union, and thereby opened up a new Eastern Front in the Second World War. For Hitler, this was the ‘right war’ – the one he had outlined in Mein Kampf – but it was also a war on two fronts that Germany stood much less chance of winning.
Hitler totally underestimated the military potential of the industrialized Soviet Union. He was tempted into his biggest gamble – and blunder – because he had won all of his previous battles so easily and at so little cost. He thought a swift victory could be achieved again. The German-Soviet War was a lesson in how wrong Hitler had been to dismiss Soviet power and organization.
The equally overconfident German Army High Command fell into the same arrogant mindset and failed to make adequate provision even for winter fighting during the period leading up to the failure to take Moscow in December 1940. Nor did the German generals take enough account of the vast logistical problems of fighting deep into the hinterland of the Soviet Union. German military planning was hampered by a failure to consider a plan B if their objectives were not achieved quickly.
In the Western popular imagination – particularly in Britain and America – the victory over the Nazis in the Second World War is rooted in the D-Day landings. Yet that narrative overlooks the enormous importance of the German-Soviet War in the defeat of Hitler’s Germany. It must be understood that the war against the Soviet Union was Hitler’s major preoccupation for most of the period from 1941 to 1945. Even in his final ‘Political Testament’, dictated shortly before his suicide, Hitler stressed that if Germany rose again from the ashes of defeat in a hundred years’ time, its key objective should be to gain ‘living space’ once again in the east.
The Red Army was undoubtedly the main force behind the destruction of the German army on the battlefield. The monumental battles on the Eastern Front were on a completely different scale to the conflict on the Western Front. Out of every five German soldiers who died in the Second World War, four were killed by a soldier of the Red Army.3 By 1941, 75 per cent of all Germany’s fighting troops were fighting against the Soviet Union. Even in August 1944, towards the end of the Battle of Normandy, 66 per cent of all Germany’s troops were still fighting bloody battles on the Eastern Front.
The German government’s official record, researched by the military historian Rüdiger Overmans, listed 4.3 million German military personnel dead or missing during the Second World War. A further 900,000 – conscripted from outside Germany’s 1937 borders in Austria and East-Central Europe – were also killed fighting for the German cause. One third of all German males born between 1915 and 1924 were dead or missing by the end of the war. In the summer of 1944, the German army had lost 589,425 dead on the Eastern Front, compared to 156,726 on all the other war fronts combined. The Western Allies killed a further 350,000 to 465,000 German civilians in bombing raids, most of these were civilians – not combat forces.
The Soviet Union suffered a greater loss of life fighting the German army on the Eastern Front than any other power. The official Soviet record, compiled by the Russian Academy of Science, puts the Soviet military and civilian death toll in the German-Soviet War at 26.6 million, with 8.68 million of those being military deaths. Other historians have suggested that the Soviet military death toll was in fact up to 11.5 million as the official Russian death total does not include the huge number of Soviet POWs who died, mostly from German maltreatment. The Soviet civilian death toll was probably way above the official figure of 17.6 million and could even have been as high as 22.6 million, which, when the military deaths are added, brings a more accurate total of 34.1 million Soviets being killed due to German military aggression between 1941 and 1945.
In addition, the Soviet Union was left in utter ruins at the end of the war, its cities, villages and infrastructure totally destroyed. Economically, the Soviet Union never fully recovered from the ordeal it endured at the hands of Germany in the Second World War. Between 1940 and 1945, Soviet GDP fell by an enormous 18 per cent. By any measure, the suffering of the Soviet Union was truly appalling.
In comparison, the military losses of the Anglo-American Allies seem extraordinarily light. British military losses, including the navy and air force, totalled 383,700, with an additional 67,200 civilian deaths, mostly in German bombing raids. The United States suffered 407,300 dead, but only 12,100 civilian deaths. The Western Allies used tanks, artillery and devastating air power to defeat Germany in the western theatre of war, rather than putting at risk the lives of their foot soldiers. It was a strategy more suited to democratic countries who placed a greater value on human life than Stalin.
Yet the overall contribution of the Western Allies in the victory over the Axis powers was hugely significant. Without the substantial economic aid from the Western Allies – particularly the United States – the Soviet Union could not have mounted the huge offensives it did from 1943 to 1945. These US supplies were not merely food, but also equipment and transport vehicles. They helped to transform the Red Army into a fully mechanized and formidable fighting force, especially in the latter stages of the war.
The Allies’ overwhelming victory at sea against German U-boats also ensured war and food supplies flowed freely. Large numbers of well-equipped American troops sailed across the Atlantic to fight in the final battles in North Africa, Italy and Western Europe. The sustained air bombardment of Germany also took its toll – and not only on civilians, but on Germany’s wartime economy and infrastructure. Germany faced a draining Second Front in Western Europe from 1943 onwards that also assisted the Red Army grinding down the Wehrmacht.
The Anglo-American Allies also made a hugely important scientific and technological contribution to the victory of the Allies. They created radar technology and the bouncing bomb, as well as new fighter and number aircraft. They discovered that penicillin could be used to treat infected war wounds. They cracked the German Enigma codes at Bletchley Park and provided much better intelligence information than the Germans to the military commanders.
The Allies were lucky that Hitler did not devote enough time, energy and resources to building a German atomic bomb. A nuclear-armed Germany might have totally changed the course of the war. As it was, the US-led Manhattan Project led to the first functional nuclear bomb. On 6 August 1945, the United States dropped it on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, killing 80,000 people instantly, while tens of thousands more died later from radiation exposure in the years that followed. A second nuclear bomb fell on Nagasaki three days later, which led to the Japanese Emperor Hirohito announcing the Japanese intention to surrender on 15 August, known as V-J Day. The formal signing of the Japanese unconditional surrender came on 2 September 1945.
The question of whether it was primarily Hitler – with his fixed ideological ideas – that lost the war for Germany has long been discussed. He certainly judged himself one of the greatest historical figures who had ever lived, often comparing himself to Frederick the Great and Napoleon. Hitler expected everyone around him to recognize his greatness, but his personality was actually one of petty-minded egotism. This led, as we have seen, to frequent and often heated arguments with his generals.
Military decisions were debated between Hitler and his generals, with Hitler deciding on what he decided was the best course. Many times Hitler followed a course of action originally suggested by one of his generals. After the war was over, these aristocratic, nationalist and conservative generals pushed all of the blame on to Hitler, that ‘mere corporal’. In their testimony at the Nuremberg war trials, and in their self-serving memoirs, these German generals agreed it was Hitler’s poor military decision-making that led to Germany’s defeat, the implication being if he had left the generals alone to make the decisions then Germany could have won the war.
Unfortunately, too many Western historians in the Cold War accepted this verdict uncritically. On closer inspection, it has been shown here that these self-same German generals raised no objections to the attacks on Poland and France, and eagerly supported Hitler’s war of annihilation against the Soviet Union. They also knowingly supported and participated in the criminal orders and atrocities in the east, and never raised any objection to the mass murder of the Jews. They also took numerous bribes of land and money from Hitler. In truth, Germany’s generals were willing collaborators in Hitler’s plan to dominate Europe by force and they turned on him only when Germany began to lose the war.
Hitler had long been fascinated by the economic power of the United States, devoting many pages to this issue in his unpublished second book in 1928 – which was supposed to be the follow-up to Mein Kampf. To Hitler America was the economically self-sufficient, consumerist, capitalist superpower that he wanted Germany to emulate. Hitler loved American motor cars, gadgets and even Hollywood films. Hitler saw American power as being originally created by a strong Anglo-German ‘Aryan’ settler community which had been progressively compromised by mass immigration and Jewish influence. Hitler felt that the vast territory of the Soviet Union could be colonized in much the same way as German settlers had transformed America.
Hitler claimed he had not planned or wanted war with the United States. He frequently asked the Japanese government not to provoke war with America, but to attack the much weaker British forces in Southeast Asia. In fact, it was Hitler’s ill-judged alliance with Japan that was the key factor in Germany declaring war on the United States in December 1941. This was an error, of course, but President Roosevelt had already decided America’s global power and political interests were most threatened by Germany. It was inevitable, therefore, that whatever move Hitler made, Roosevelt would make defeating Germany his chief priority for the remainder of the war.