Adolf Hitler and World War II


Figure 1.--

Hitler in the first year of the War proved remarkably astute. In fact he was lauded by the NAZI press as the greatest German of all time. Something appears to have changed with the great success in France (May-June 1940). And almost immediately failures begin. He failed to destroy the British Army at Dunkirk and the British to seek terms. Even so Hitler's personal assessment of himself was unchanged. Hitler not only saw himself as a visionary strategic war planner, but as a great tactical commander and as the War progressed played an increasingly important role in Wehrmacht operations. Historians debate Hitler's effectiveness as a war leader. Here his basic strategic concept was to divide his enemies and defeat them one by one which was the same tactic used in domestic politics. Here his on failure was the failure to defeat the British and then going on with the Soviet invasion with the British still undefeated in the rear. His grasp of the political situation proved more insightful than that of the military and was responsible for the startling success of the Germans early in the War. His actions in the Rhineland, Austria, and Czechoslovakia were all at first opposed by elements of the Germany military. He played key roles in the campaigns against Poland, Norway and in the West against France and he was proven correct against more timid military commanders. Jodl based on these campaigns called him "a great military leader" even after the War. [Schramm, p. 1721.] After the early military victories, his value as a military leader declined even has he played an increasing important role in German planning. The one exception was his insistence on holding in the Winter of 1941-42 before Moscow. In general, however, after the success in France, his decisions were almost always wrong. These include a long litany: a switch of tactics in the Battle of Britain to bomb London, the invasion of the Soviet Union (this is debatable), the division of the army in the Soviet Union in both 1941 and 42, the declaration of war on the United States, the failure to allow Von Paulis to break out at Stalingrad, the use of reserves to bolster the Afrika Corps after Alamein and Torch, the failure to attack the Normandy bridgehead in force, the attack in France leading to the Falaise pocket, various unsuccessful stands in the East, the deployment of SS Panzer divisions to defend Budapest leaving Berlin essentially undefended, and finally the decision to fight on the west side of the Rhine. Jodl does agree that Hitler did, when the tide turned against Germany, interfere in operational matters which disrupted the military, some times disastrously. [Schramm, p. 1721.] Hitler also had a major role in German armaments. Here he had some successes such as the selection of the anti-tank gun used in Soviet campaign. [Picker, p. 96.] He made, however many huge mistakes. He delayed the German jet program and then insisted that the Me-262 be used as a bomber. Huge resources were devoted to the V-1 and V-2 programs which had little real impact on the War. He constantly went for massive projects like the Bismarck or tiger tank when more numerous smaller systems would have been more effective. Here Hitler appears to have over-emphasized the psychological impact of weapons. It was his idea to install sirens on Stuka dive bombers and he ordered several terror bombing raids. He also greatly over emphasized the power of the will--especially in Russia. He consistently demanded more of the German troops there than was physically possible. [Hadler, p. 489.]

Domestic Successes


International Successes

Hitler's actions in the Rhineland, Austria, and Czechoslovakia were all at first opposed by elements of the Germany military. The failure of the Allies to oppose him greatly strengthened his position in Germany. His successes greatly increased his popularity. It undermined the charge that Hitler would cause another War. Hitler was able to achieve the popular goal of undoing the Versailles Treaty without war. And his successes undermined the faction in the military who opposed him. Some authors argue that if Chamberlain had stood up to Hitler at Munich that the military would have removed him. We are not sure about that, but it is absolutely true that these peaceful victories greatly increased his stature both within and outside the military. At the time of World War II, as a result, Hitler's position was unassailable,

The German People

One of the major charges in the political campaigns before Hitler and the NAZIs seized power was that he would launch another war. There were still many terrible memories of World War I. Hitler at first pursued a moderate foreign policy while launching a vast new rearmament program. And as Hitler began to pursue a more aggressive foreign policy, the results were spectacular. The German people were elated with the success of Hitler and the NAZIs in regaining the Saarland (1935), re-militarizing the Rhineland (1936), uniting with Austria--the Anschluss (1938), and finally reclaiming the Sudetenland (1938)--all without war. It is unquestionable that Hitler was enormously popular with the German people. Had he stopped with the Sudetenland, there would have been no War and Hitler would have been the most popular German statesman since Bismarck. Hitler had assured Chamberlain that he wanted no Czechs in the Reich. He was, however, actually disappointed at Munich. He felt that Chamberlain had denied him his war in 1938. He kept his plan to launch a new war from the German people whose martial spirit in early 1939 disappointed him. There are many indications that there was no desire for war among the great bulk of the German people. War when it came at first resulted in spectacular German victories and very limited casualties. This added to Hitler's popularity. Germans, even many doubters, began to believe increasingly in Hitler and his program. Hitler for his part was an extraordinarily effective politician. He did not want to be a politician, he wanted to be a great German war leader and he was determined to go down in history as the German war commander that would reshape Europe and history.

Concept of the War

Quire a number of historians have misjudged Hitler, seeing him as just another German imperialist such as Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. [Taylor] These historians tend to focus more on the German military and its Prussian officer class. President Roosevelt and many others at the time tended toward this view. This of course before the Holocaust was fully understood. Or the fact that Wehrmacht commanders were much more cautious than Hitler and less than enthusiastic about launching the War. Or the social gulf between the NAZIs and the Prussian officer corps. Modern historians are increasingly drawn to the view that a racial struggle was not an ancillary part of Hitler's makeup, but was central to his world outlook. And remaking the ethnic map of Europe was the central objective in the war that Hitler launched.

War Leadership

Historians debate Hitler's effectiveness as a war leader. Here his basic strategic concept was to divide his enemies and defeat them one by one which was the same tactic used in domestic politics. Here his one failure was the failure to defeat the British and then going on with the Soviet invasion with the British still undefeated in the rear. His grasp of the political situation proved more insightful than that of the military and was responsible for the startling success of the Germans early in the War.

Early Phase of the War

Hitler in the first year of the War proved remarkably astute. In fact he was lauded by the NAZI press as the greatest German of all time. He played key roles in the campaigns against Poland, Norway, and in the West against France and he was proven correct against more timid military commanders. Jodl based on these campaigns called him 'a great military leader' even after the War. [Schramm, p. 1721.] Hitler was a soldier in World War I and that War was central in formulating his military strategy. There were two principal strategic mistakes to which Hitler attributed Germany's defeat in the war. First was fighting a two front war. Germany was unable to concentrate its prodigious military power on any one enemy. Second was underestimating the power of the United State. Thus we see Hitler pursuing war policies designed to avoid both mistakes. This is why the NAZI-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact was so important. And why he avoided a confrontation with the United States, even ordering U-boat commanders to avoid attacks on the U.S. Navy. This was also a part of the long list of matters he accused the Jews of -- the stab in the back accusation. Here he was quite consistent. His war strategy on 1) a two-front war and 2) fighting America, however, began to change after the fall of France. .

Change

Something appears to have changed with the great success in France (May-June 1940). And almost immediately failures begin. He failed to destroy the British Army at Dunkirk and the British to seek terms. Even so Hitler's personal assessment of himself was fundamentally changed. Hitler not only saw himself as a visionary strategic war planner, but as a great tactical commander. He initially listen to his generals. After France this began to change. As the War progressed, Hitler played an increasingly important role in Wehrmacht operations. He saw the victory in France as his personal achievement and not the visionary leadership of military visionaries like Manstein and Guderian. As a result after France, Hitler began lecturing the generals not only strategy, but tactics as well. This would be a factor in the Battle of Britain, It would be a far greater factor in the Soviet Union. One might think that Hitler might have seen the disasters he caused as a reason to listen to his generals. He did not. And in his mind, the failures were not failures of his strategic and tactical leadership, nut on the failure of the military to carry out his orders.

Later Phases of the War

After the early military victories, his value as a military leader declined even has he played an increasing important role in German planning. The one exception was his insistence on holding in the Winter of 1941-42 before Moscow. In general, however, after the success in France, his decisions were almost always wrong. These include a long litany: a switch of tactics in the Battle of Britain to bomb London, his policy in the Balkans leading to a delay of Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union (this is debatable), the division of the army in the Soviet Union in both 1941 and 42, the declaration of war on the United States, the failure to allow Von Paulis to break out at Stalingrad, the use of reserves to bolster the Afrika Corps after Alamein and Torch, the failure to attack the Normandy bridgehead in force, the attack in France leading to the Falaise pocket, various unsuccessful stands in the East, the deployment of SS Panzer divisions to defend Budapest leaving Berlin essentially undefended, and finally the decision to fight on the west side of the Rhine. Jodl does agree that Hitler did when the tide turn against Germany interfere in operational matters which disrupted the military, some times disastrously. [Schramm, p. 1721.] Hitler also had a major role in German armaments. Here he had some successes such as the selection of the anti-tank gun used in Soviet campaign. [Picker, p. 96.] He made, however many huge mistakes. He delayed the German jet program and then insisted that the Me-262 be used as a bomber. Huge resources were devoted to the V-1 and V-2 programs which had little real impact on the War. He constantly went for massive projects like the Bismarck or tiger tank when more numerous smaller systems would have been more effective. Here Hitler appears to have over-emphasized the psychological impact of weapons. It was his idea to install sirens on Stuka dive bombers and he ordered several terror bombing raids. He also greatly over emphasized the power of the will -- especially in Russia. He consistently demanded more of the German troops there than was physically possible. [Hadler, p. 489.] Hitler threw away the last opportunities or victory in France, the seat of has greatest triumph. The Germans prevailed in 1940 by concentrating their armor for the breakout through the Ardennes. Hitler's decision to contest the Allied cross-Channel invasion was to disperse armor, even placing key units in southern France, ensuring that they could not reach the invasion beaches on the critical first days.

Führer Headquarters Directives

The major German operation orders for World War II came from the Führer, often issued through OKW. Most of the important ones were titled Führer Directives. There were also Führer Orders and other various titled orders and directives late in the War. We do not know at this time why these different orders had various titles. In part some were not directed at the military, but the Party, security forces, and government agencies. These various orders are useful in following Hitler's major decisions and conduct of the War.

Sources

Hadler, Generaloberst. Kriegstagebuch ed. Hans-Adolf Jacobsen, 3 vol (Stuttgart, 1962).

Picker, Henry, ed. Percy Ernst Schramm. Hitlers Tischgespäche im Führerhauptquartier, 1941-42 (Stuttgart, 1963).

Schramm, Percy Ernst., ed. Kriegstagebuch des OKW iv: 1944-45 (Frankfurt-on Main, 1961), pt. 2.

Taylor, A.J.P. The Origins of the Second World War (1961). Taylor is pershaps the best reprsentative of the historians who see Hitler as just another German imperialist and focuses more on the German Army as the primary cause of the War.

Wistrich, Robert. Who's Who in Nazi Germany (Macmillan Publ., New York, 1982).






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Created: 2:58 AM 10/15/2005
Spell checked: 6:49 PM 1/4/2017
Last edited: 6:50 PM 1/4/2017