By Victor Davis Hanson
As with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, once more, what seems foolhardy to Americans in the 21st century may not have seemed so to Nazi Germany.
True, the Germans each month were receiving generously priced Soviet products, many on credit; but Hitler (wrongly) felt that he could nevertheless steal food, fuel and raw materials from the east more cheaply than buying them. And while the Germans were paranoid about opening a two-front war – like the one that had plagued them between late 1914 and 1917 – Hitler argued that the western front was all but somnolent. British strategic bombing in 1941, remember, was still mostly erratic and ineffective.
In any case, Hitler was more paranoid about a British embargo and blockade that might cut off fuel and food in the manner of 1918; with the acquisition of the great natural reserves of the Soviet Union, especially its Caucasian oil, the Nazis believed they would become immune from the effects of a maritime blockade.
In addition, the war was never intended to be entirely rational in the purely strategic sense; instead, it was seen also as a National Socialist ideological crusade in which the complete destruction or enslavement of Europe’s supposed Untermenschen was impossible without access to the huge populations of Jews and Slavs in Russia. To Hitler, Marxism was a Jewish perversity and Operation Barbarossa meant that he could kill two birds with one stone. The perverse notion that a Germany with 30 percent more territory and a population of 80 million – similar to its population today – still could not live without “Lebensraum” apparently appealed to many German elites who had visions of eastern estates and baronies, worked by serfs, with vacation trips on super-autobahns to the Crimean beaches – at least if all that cost only a month of war.
With the conquest of the Balkans by June 1941, the ground war in Europe was all but over. Great Britain was alone and isolated, and had scarcely survived the Battle of Britain. There was no reason to believe that the United States would enter the war; if America had not declared war to aid Britain, it most certainly would not do so to save the communist Soviet Union.
Moreover, the German army had proved almost superhuman in its invasion of Poland and Western Europe; even the messy conflicts in the Balkans, Crete, and the recent deployments to North Africa had not slowed the Wehrmacht’s progress. Hitler, just to be sure, took no chances and assembled the largest invasion force the world had yet seen, over three million Germans and 500,000 allies. Operation Barbarossa was truly a multilateral effort, with contingents from most of Eastern Europe, Spain and Italy joining the German effort. By mid-1941 there was nothing comparable, at least in adequate numbers, in the east to the ME-109, the Panzer Mark IV, or the 88-mm flak/anti-tank gun. Such technological superiority blinded Hitler to the reality that there were few modern roads in Russia, and most of the invasion would still be powered by horses, with inadequate air, train and truck transport.
Still, in contrast to Germany’s string of successes, the Soviet Union’s recent military record was dismal. Stalin had liquidated many of the officer class (although not as large a percentage as was once thought). The Red Army had not performed well in carving up Poland in September 1939 and appeared almost incompetent in the early stages of the Soviet invasion of Finland in late 1939 (Hitler foolishly did not distinguish between the Red Army when fighting on home soil and when it was deployed abroad). Such impressions confirmed Hitler’s racialist views that the Russians were backward and incapable of waging modern mechanized war – an inferiority supposedly only enhanced by bankrupt Leninism. Given poor German intelligence about the quality and production of Russian artillery, tank (cf. the new T-34 that was about to go into full production), and aircraft, the Germans assumed that Russia would fall rather easily – relying on a comparative World War I calculus. France had held out for four years, while Russia had fallen in about three; thus, the next time around in 1940, France’s fall in about seven weeks suggested a Russian collapse in about four.
Japan, at war in the east with Russia during 1938-1939, had felt betrayed when its Axis partner had signed without warning the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, effectively ensuring the Soviets could focus on one front against the Japanese. A defeated Japan repaid the treachery in kind, by signing a similar neutrality pact with Russia in April 1941. That bargain assured Stalin, in turn, that the Soviets would have only a one-front war should Hitler break his agreements – a fact that might have saved Moscow as reinforcements from the east poured in.
In short, had Hitler maintained his pact with Stalin and focused instead on North Africa and the Persian Gulf oil fields, perhaps in conjunction with the Japanese advancing toward India and Suez, Great Britain would have probably lost the war. But by invading Russia, and declaring war on the United States on December 11 (when Army Group Center seemed on the verge of taking Moscow, when Japan seemingly had destroyed the Pacific fleet and had ensured both Britain and America a two-front war, and when U-boat commanders assured the Nazi high command that with free rein to attack the East Coast of the United States they could destroy the shipping lanes of the convoy system between North America and Great Britain), Hitler chose about the only two courses of action that could have lost him the war.
Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in Residence in Classics and Military History at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, a professor of Classics Emeritus at California State University, Fresno, and a nationally syndicated columnist for Tribune Media Services. He is also the Wayne & Marcia Buske Distinguished Fellow in History, Hillsdale College, where he teaches each fall semester courses in military history and classical culture. Each week he writes his “Works and Days” column at PJ Media.com.
Hanson is also the host of the new six-part series of video lectures on World War II at the PJ Media Freedom Academy, where he explores the causes of the war, its major battles, the end of the Axis and the war’s winners and losers.