Richard J. Evans: What the War Was Really About:
This leads on to a wider question about the role of leadership during the war. [Paul] Kennedy recognizes, of course, that “the men at the top made a difference.” Hitler’s claim to be the “Greatest Field Commander of All Time” (Grösster Feldherr aller Zeiten, abbreviated ironically by some of his subordinates as Gröfaz) was accepted by many after his initial triumph over conventional military strategy in the defeat of France in 1940, but it was a claim increasingly questioned by his generals as time went on. Hitler, for example, divided the German forces on the Eastern Front in the late autumn of 1941, taking troops away from the assault on Moscow and diverting the impetus of the invasion to the Caucasus. But this was not, as Kennedy implies, an act of folly: Hitler considered it a priority to occupy the grain-growing regions of the Ukraine and take over the Crimea to stop the Soviets from using it as a base for air raids on the Romanian oilfields, on which Germany depended heavily. There was something to be said for this view.
Kennedy says that in going along with Hitler’s decision “the Wehrmacht leadership…had, ironically, forgotten Clausewitz’s stress upon the importance of focusing upon the enemy’s Schwerpunkte (centers of gravity, or key points)”; but in fact they had not. The general commanding Army Group Center, Fedor von Bock, was bitterly opposed to the decision, remarking to the Chief of the Army General Staff, Franz Halder, that “the turn away toward the south is a sideshow.” “I don’t want to capture Moscow,” he protested in response to constant war directives from Hitler warning that the capture of Moscow was not a top priority: “I want to destroy the enemy army, and the mass of this army is standing in front of me!” The weakening of his forces by diverting many of them away to the south meant that “a question-mark is placed over the execution of the main operation, namely the destruction of the Russian armed forces before the winter.”
Neither the calculations of Bock nor those of Hitler were particularly rational. Both seemed to expect that the Soviet Union would crumble easily into anarchy and chaos, Bock because Prussian military doctrine had taught him that an enemy could be defeated by a single knockout blow, Hitler because he considered the Soviet Union a ramshackle state held together only by the terror of a Jewish-Bolshevik clique. In fact, following a series of stunning victories in the south, Hitler transferred large quantities of men and matériel back to Bock, who launched a further assault in October, taking some 673,000 prisoners and advancing further toward Moscow.
But the Soviet military leadership had rethought its tactics, Stalin had managed to inspire the will to resist, and the Soviet spy Richard Sorge in Tokyo had convinced him that the Japanese were not going to attack Russia, enabling him to transfer 400,000 experienced troops to the Moscow front. The Soviet Union did not collapse; its resources were so deep that a single knockout blow was simply not possible; and Bock’s army was halted before the gates of Moscow and pushed back into a defensive position where many of the men froze to death because they had only been issued with summer uniforms, in the expectation that they would win before winter set in.
These events called into question the rationality of the entire Axis war effort. For in the end, success and failure in any war have to be measured by the aims with which the belligerents enter it, and these aims have to be realistic to stand any chance of success. Japan’s initial aims, though ambitious, were relatively limited—the establishment of a “Greater Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere,” in other words a Japanese economic empire that would harness the resources of a large area of East Asia and the Pacific at a time when oil and other supplies had been cut off by the US embargo imposed in July 1941.
It might have been possible to secure this goal against retaliation from the already overstretched British Empire, whose easy defeat presaged its subsequent dissolution after the war. But it was wholly unrealistic to think that the US would meekly stand aside after Pearl Harbor and negotiate a peace settlement that would leave most of the Co-Prosperity Sphere in Japanese hands. Moreover, the brutal and sadistic behavior of the Japanese conquerors in the areas they occupied doomed any idea of “Co-Prosperity” from the outset. The Japanese invited total war by their behavior, and they got it; it was a war they could never hope to win.
Hitler’s war aims were boundless, expressing an even greater degree of illusion about his country’s ability to achieve them than the Japanese harbored about theirs. The Nazis believed above all in the supremacy of will-power; the triumph of their own will over Germany would be followed by a similar triumph over the feeble and degenerate nations of the West and the primitive and backward Slavic societies of the East. Victory would be followed by a racial reordering of Europe, with 30 to 45 million Slavs exterminated to make way for German farmers. The resources of a Nazi-dominated Europe would then be mobilized for a new confrontation with the US. Here too, the ruthless and exploitative behavior of the Germans in the occupied countries ensured that the resources of Europe rapidly dwindled, as the economies of the defeated nations plunged rapidly toward exhaustion and collapse.
Kennedy speaks of “the folly of the cruel Nazi treatment of the Ukrainians and other ethnic groups within Stalin’s loathed empire.” But such treatment was more than “folly”; it was built into the Nazis’ war aims. Similarly, it would be missing the point to see a strategic error in the diversion of German resources into the extermination of the Jews. In the deranged vision of the Nazis, Germany’s war was being waged above all to destroy a worldwide conspiracy against the “Aryan” race orchestrated by international Jewry, of whom Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin were the willing tools. This was a racial war, in which the extermination of six million European Jews, not dealt with at all in Kennedy’s book because it did not seem to belong to the normal arsenal of military strategy, was a paramount war aim, to be extended ultimately from Europe to America itself, from which, Hitler supposed, the world conspiracy against Germany was being orchestrated.
Struggle, conflict, aggression, and violence were central to Nazi ideology, which envisaged endless war as the only way of keeping the “Aryan” race supreme. In the face of irrationality of this order, it is rather beside the point to suggest, as Kennedy does, that the Germans might have won the war, or to claim that without the contribution of this or that logistical, organizational, or technological innovation, “victory would remain out of grasp.” Defeat was preprogrammed for the Axis by the very nature of its war aims, not just by the means through which the Axis powers sought to achieve them. Like every book that treats World War II as a rational conflict along the lines of the Seven Years’ War or the Franco-Prussian War or the American Civil War, which were fought for clearly defined ends that either side might have achieved, Engineers of Victory in this sense is fundamentally misconceived from the outset.
[ALAS! THE LA REVIEW OF BOOKS WANTS THE RON ROSENBAUM PIECE GONE]