Tuesday, June 21, 2011

So, Adolf, why, exactly, the rush?

Europe in 1941 with initial Barbarossa gains
Note also that significant neutral powers such as Sweden and Spain were economically within the Axis sphere

Observers generally agree that Hitler's biggest error in World War II was attacking the Soviet Union and exposing Germany to a 2-front war. It didn't work out so well, after all.

But it's often pointed out that a war between the two great European dictators was inevitable, after all, and Hitler had little choice but to settle things one way or the other. True, I think, but also missing the point. It wasn't the question of IF, but of WHEN. Part of the reason why Stalin was caught by surprise was that he judged that the Germans weren't likely to start the war so soon. And Stalin was probably right.

While Hitler was evidently trying to capitalize on a known German advantage in quality while it lasted, I see little reason to think that advantage was in any immediate danger of narrowing. Indeed, more attention to war preparedness on the German side and an earlier start to the campaign season (undistracted by Balkan adventures) in 1942 would probably have seen very similar results to the 1941 campaign -- but with another 6-8 weeks of campaigning. Sure, the T-34s and KV-1s would have been a nasty surprise, but German successes had never depended on superior tanks anyway and there's every reason to think that the Russian tank crews would have been unable to translate their better tanks into tactical success.

A delay in the start of Barbarossa until 1942 would have had some other interesting implications. For one, it would have meant Britain fighting on alone for yet another year. Undoubtedly, without the need to immediately divert resources for the upcoming Russian campaign, events in the Middle East and the Med (Greece, Crete, Iraq, Western Desert) could have easily taken a very grim turn for the Allies without requiring all that much in extra German effort. Another Panzer division or two, a Luftwaffe air group and it's easy to see the Germans overwhelming the overstretched British.

What about the Americans? Well, the trajectory of events driving the USA and Japan to war was largely independent of the Russo-German question. It's probable that Japan and the US would have gone to war more or less on the historical schedule and it's an open question whether Hitler would have repeated his historical mistake of gratuitously declaring war on the US (he wasn't required to by treaty because Japan had attacked the US) . If he didn't, it's hard to see how FDR could have even brought up declaring war on the Germans when it was Japan that had attacked, let alone following any kind of "Germany First" strategy. The natural course of events would have focused American attention on the Pacific first -- bad for Japan but a boon for Hitler. Undoubtedly the Russians and Japanese would have followed their historical course and avoided hostilities for now.

So instead of merging into one grand Second World War in 1941, we may have seen two large regional wars instead. A sputtering European/ expanded Middle Eastern theater and something similar to the historical Pacific War. There would have been a slight overlap in combatants, as the British had their Far East interests, but they may have been unable to make even a token defense given the crisis elsewhere.

A more patient Hitler, striking Russia in the spring of 1942, would have had a much more favorable strategic situation to deal with than he had in 1942. Britain, still isolated, would have beset by even more foes and without as strong help from the USA as it historically received. America would have been emotionally and logistically well and truly committed to the Pacific War and unlikely to change course in mid-stream and Russia, with the training, doctrine and leadership deficiencies from the year before still endemic, would have still been vulnrable to being blitzed into defeat.

Of course, Hitler was not known for his patience, but he could muster it on occasion. And it's hard to see what urgent requirement was driving the need to start the Russo-German War in 1941, rather than waiting less than a year more.


  1. Its posts like this that I learn more about actual history, from speculating the 'what ifs', than I ever did in History class... That, and it follows suit with my theory that Wargaming and Re-enacting are two of the best ways to really learn history! After all, wargames are written based on the historical setup, and allow the 'what ifs' to happen (realistically if its well researched)!

  2. Hitler attacked Soviet Union on 41 becuase of his analisis of the Finnish- Soviet war. He believed that the russian warmachine was weak in performance and thinked he could beat it in one year. the true was that germany was a second class industrial power who attacked a first class industrial power ( in brute capacity ). He never could have achieved victory.
    Also Stalin would never surrender.

  3. Germany could never have won the russian campaign.It was a question of industrial capacity and resources. And in this two questions russia was a first class power and germany was a second class.( The only other first class was USA ).At most it could hace get a draw.

  4. I'm wary of deterministic arguments in history, particularly when it comes to war. As far as Germany being a second-class power, goes, don't forget that they had the resources of all of Europe to draw upon, while the Soviets lost access to much of theirs in the initial campaign.

    I think it's true that the longer the war went on, the more that economic considerations played a role, but I think it's dangerous to assume that the "big battalions" were the only consideration. War is a est of economic strength, but it's also, primarily, a test of wills. Often enough an economically weaker power is able to secure victory against the stronger one that it's not a forgone conclusion.

    I think that Germany had it within its power to possibly defeat the Soviet Union in World War II -- especially if they'd timed the strike a little better and later. The fact that they fell short is due to their mistakes and the resistance of the Soviets. Things could have turned out differently.