Thursday, January 22, 2004

Hitler's Great Blunder

A comment made in response to my earlier post about the upcoming D-Day ceremony led me to thinking about Hitler's decision on to declare war on America, on December 11, 1941. That surely has to rank as one of the greatest blunders in all of history, so needless was it, and so certainly did it seal the demise of the Third Reich. To be sure, America and Germany were already in a barely concealed state of hostilities at that point, as Ribbentrop missive declaring war makes clear enough (though, as with anything said by Hitler for public consumption, the speech contains at least as many falsehoods as true statements) ; nevertheless, a rational person, faced with an awareness of America's industrial might, would have judged it better to remain in a state of low-level hostility than to provoke an America in which isolationist sentiment still prevailed to enter whole-heartedly into the fray. Hitler's decision cannot be rationalized away as being a result of his ignorance, for he was well aware, having been thoroughly briefed by Fritz Todt, of America's vast industrial potential. In Todt's own words, "given the arms and industrial supremacy of the Anglo-Saxon powers, we can no longer militarily win this war."

And yet Hitler went ahead and declared war on America anyway, in fulfillment of a pact with an "ally" (Japan) that felt itself under no obligation to reciprocate the gesture by declaring war on Hitler's primary opponent, the Soviet Union. For the Japanese, Hitler's declaration of war was a godsend - without it, Imperial Japan would certainly have perished long before it actually did - but what did Hitler expect his own side to get out of it? Why did a man who took pride in his having broken every pact he'd signed decide to keep this one in particular? The Soviet Union was far from defeated at that point, as his generals had made abundantly clear to him, and if he had reason to doubt his generals, any doubts about Soviet military reserves ought to have been dispelled by the Red Army counter-attack that began on December 6, 1941. Britain too remained both hostile and undefeated, and had even begun to take the fight right into the German heimat by carrying out bombing raids on industrial targets, sometimes in daylight. All things considered, there is simply no way one can explain Hitler's decision other than as an act of madness, motivated by his intemperate hatred for a nation of "mongrels", too weakened by admixture with Jews and blacks to be worth worrying about, rather than by the sort of cold calculation that is supposed to be the lot of the statesman.

Whatever Hitler's reasons (or lack thereof) for declaring war on America, I must say that I'm glad that he did. It is fashionable these days to declare that the Soviet Union would have won the war even without American intervention, a reaction that is to a great extent understandable, given the irritating American tendency to ignore the vital contributions of other nations to the war effort, not least the Soviet Union, Britain, Canada and Poland; but if it is natural that the self-aggrandizing tendencies exhibited in films like "Saving Private Ryan" and "U-571" tend to provoke an equally emphatic downplaying of America's significance in defeating the Third Reich, that does not make this reaction any more accurate than the attitude that provokes it.

It is true that Britain had begun harrassing Nazi Germany with its bomb raids, but these were little more than annoying pinpricks at the time - not until America entered the war did their scale escalate to the level that would see entire cities riduced to rubble, and the Luftwaffe devoting more resources to defending the homefront than to attacking the Red Army. On the Soviet side, most industrial capacity had been lost to the invaders, while the Red Air Force had been almost completely annihilated in the first days of Operation Barbarossa, losing more than 4,000 aircraft in the first week of battle; losses on such a scale would have been almost impossible for the Soviets to make up had they been forced to rely only on what help they could get from the British. The Red Army's relentless forward drive from late 1943 to the close of the war would simply have been inconceivable without the prodigious quantity of materiel supplied under the Lend-Lease program, as this link makes clear: "From March 1941 until October 1945, the United States provided the Russians with 15,000 aircraft, 7,000 tanks, 350,000 tons of explosives, 51,000 jeeps, 375,000 trucks, 2,000 locomotives, 11,000 rail wagons, 3 million tons of gasoline, and 15 million pairs of boots." These figures completely exclude the substantial American contribution to the Soviet Union's food supply during the period in question.

In fact, it is safe to say that America's primary contribution to the war in Europe came not from its troops, whose valiant deeds are not to be denigrated, but from its willingness to act as manufacturer in chief, on terms that were extremely generous, to the Soviet Union, a country that had not long before been regarded as a mortal adversary (as it again would be within months of the war's end). Without America's participation in the war, there is no good reason to think that Hitler would not have defeated the Soviet Union outright, even if at a cost far higher than he had initially anticipated. There are those who may wonder why this was an outcome to be regretted any more than that which came about with the spread of communism throughout Eastern Europe and much of East Asia, but I am not one such person. Going by the sorts of things outlined in the Generalplan Ost (also see here and, for an English-language outline, here), the bodycount under the New Order would have made Stalin look like a rank amateur; apart from the annihilation of every single one of the 11 million Jews on the European continent, more than 50 million Slavs would have been "deported" to Western Siberia (with the intention in mind clearly being that they should perish there), to make room for the Herrenvolk, while yet millions more would have been worked and starved to death on the spot for the sake of their new masters. As bad as Stalin was - and he was very, very bad indeed - Hitler would have been far worse had he been given the chance. Some mistakes do turn out for the better, and Hitler's was one of them.