It is probably true that Hitler and the OKW were also more comfortable planning a land campaign into Russia than a cross-Channel invasion of Britain. The German Führer and his generals shared a view that the Red Army was ineptly led and ill-prepared for defense. That was not entirely inaccurate. But a larger point is that perception of Soviet weakness persuaded Hitler that an eastern campaign conducted by the Heer would be easier than trying an amphibious operation for which the Kriegsmarine was unprepared and unenthusiastic. And there were underlying and long-term ideological and depraved racial motives for an attack in the east. In the short-run, however, Hitler believed that eliminating the Soviet Union was the only way to extricate Germany from the strategic cul-de-sac it had entered in 1939. A bonus of quickly eliminating the Soviet Union from any potential enemy coalition and order of battle was that a second severe blow would be struck against Britain’s other great hope for a war-winning alliance: the United States. With the Soviet threat removed, Hitler’s reasoning proceeded, Japan would be freed to turn its full military power against the Americans. Hitler admired the Imperial Japanese Navy and coveted its entry into the war. That is why he still believed as late as his invasion of the Soviet Union in mid-1941 that it was far preferable that Japan attack Great Britain and the United States in Southeast Asia, rather than the Soviet Union in Siberia. His misreading of strategic realities and possibilities was reinforced by a belief that the Soviet Union must collapse militarily in short order, once he kicked in Stalin’s front door with Operation BARBAROSSA . In his final “Testament” dictated in the ruins of Berlin in April 1945, Hitler openly regretted that Japan did not attack into Siberia in 1941. But such regret still lay a world of death and destruction away. Finally, in the calculus of decision to launch BARBAROSSA and in its operational planning, Hitler and the OKW alike cleaved to a faulty operational doctrine of a “war of annihilation” that foresaw the Wehrmacht easily crushing the Soviet colossus in a matter of weeks, or a few months at most.
At first all went spectacularly well in the western Soviet Union, even better than the campaigns in Poland and France. But as logistics and Soviet resistance hardened over the autumn of 1941, the task looked more daunting. As always, Hitler’s answer to shortfalls of men and war matériel was more “iron will.” He therefore took personal control of operations. It was his decision to shift two Panzerkorps away from Army Group Center barely a month into BARBAROSSA. Now he shifted them back, ordering a recommencement of the central drive on Moscow in Operation TAIFUN (September 30–December 4, 1941). Why did he make the original shift to the south? One of his generals said after the war that Hitler had an intuitive fear of retracing the invasion route taken by Napoleon. Maybe. More reliably, we know that he believed that he alone truly understood grand strategy and geopolitics, and that he saw urgent capture of the food supply and natural resources of Ukraine as superceding any need to defeat the Red Army in the north. He therefore turned the Panzers to the flanks of the invasion, away from the central thrust to which nearly all his generals pleaded he give priority. Many historians consider that decision to be the main operational blunder of the war in the east, and even of the entire war. On the other hand, Hitler was most likely right to issue his Haltebefehl (“stand fast”) order during the Soviet counteroffensive, or Moscow offensive operation (December 5, 1941–January 7, 1942). That saved the Wehrmacht’s Panzers and artillery and held the line, where his Generalfeldmarschälle and generals all wanted to retreat. But Hitler obliterated that temporary operational success by reinforcing grander strategic failure, as was his wont: just a week into the desperate Moscow battle he declared war on the United States.
The planned knockout blow in western Russia had led to a great crisis for the Heer as Army Group Center reeled backwards, fighting manically to avoid total annihilation while stunned by the appearance of entire Fronts the Abwehr could not imagine existed. Where was Hitler? Rushing back to Berlin from his eastern field headquarters. He had heard news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941) and misread it as a great boon to the Axis alliance. Four days later he announced Germany’s declaration of war against the United States, proclaiming that America was “guilty of the most severe provocations toward Germany ever since the outbreak of the European war . . . [and] has finally resorted to open military acts of aggression.” Strategic errors were piling up, large and fast. First there was the miscalculation that Britain and France would not fight in 1939, then the mistake of thinking the British would quit after the fall of France in 1940. Next came overestimation of the military capacities of the Italians, followed by embroilment in a wasteful southern front in the Balkans and another in North Africa. That added to overextension of the Wehrmacht through occupation of Norway and holding open a high Arctic front in Lapland. And during what proved to be only the opening campaign of a four-year war in the east, he suffered from such delusions of rapid victory he ordered a shift of war production away from the Heer toward the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine, pending new plans for strategic bombing and invasion of Britain in 1942. Worse, after the failure to achieve quick victory over the Red Army, Hitler and the OKH decided to continue a war that was now fundamentally attritional. From 1942 to 1945, Nazi Germany’s 80 million people fought a losing Materialschlacht against a stronger and larger Soviet economy, backed by 100 million people even after the loss of 80 million in German-occupied parts of the western Soviet Union. Hitler had also arranged for Germans to fight the British Empire, whose war economy was already outproducing Germany’s, while Britain and its Commonwealth allies numbered over 70 million souls (not including India). Hitler then added the economy of the United States, far and away the world’s most productive, innovative, and largest, and the military capacity of another 145 million people to the Allied order of battle. That was the most reckless, feckless, and disastrous decision of his wartime leadership.
With failure of Operation BLAU and its ancillary offensive operations in 1942, Hitler had lost two giant military gambles in the east (BARBAROSSA and BLAU) and a third in North Africa ( El Alamein ). The minor Axis states were shredded of men and resources and of little aid to his failing cause. Their peoples were war weary and deeply frightened, as increasingly were Germans as well. Hitler’s efforts at grand strategic thrusts into Ukraine and the Caucasus, and toward Suez, had all failed. The year of “breathing space” he thought he had during 1942, before the United States fully entered the fight, was wasted. American and British troops landed in North Africa in November 1942, jumped to Sicily in mid-1943, thence to southern Italy in September. Vast air armadas now darkened German skies more than the Luftwaffe had ever done or hoped. By the start of 1943, any grand strategy Hitler ever pursued was done. Thereafter, all he could do was hang on to power until it was wrested from his dead hands by the greatest violence, systematic destruction, and horror the world has ever seen. From 1943 to 1945, his leadership style in field operations thus changed significantly. He became extremely cautious about most proposals for offensives, but also ever more inflexible in defense. Over the second half of the war he was intent on holding what he had gained during its first half, although inflexibility about how to accomplish that cost him whole armies and then entire countries, time and again.
The pattern was first made clear in his refusal to withdraw in front of a series of effective Soviet offensives in Ukraine lasting from November 1943 to March 1944. Hitler insisted on trying to hold at all costs the line of the Dnieper bend. Those operations—the Second Battle of Ukraine, the Zhitomir-Berdichev operation, and the Proskurov-Cherovitrsy operation —drove Army Group South entirely out of Ukraine, leaving it shattered and isolated in eastern Rumania. They also cut off German and Rumanian armies on the Taman peninsula in the Crimea. Again revealing his Great War experience of trench warfare, Hitler hated retreat of any kind, even a successful and necessary one. He could not brook abandonment of a declared but largely imaginary line of “ feste Plätze ” in Ukraine. Field Marshals Erich von Manstein and Ewald von Kleist were therefore summoned to see Hitler in Bavaria on March 30, 1944, to be dismissed. They were neither the first nor the last of the best German field commanders to be forcibly retired by Hitler’s need to blame others for cascading military failures. Georg von Küchler had been sacked in February, joining a long list of field marshals and generals fired in the fall of 1941 and winter of 1942. Others followed as the Wehrmacht lost more battles and campaigns on several fronts in 1944–1945. The battlefield skills of such professionals could not have prevented most German losses after mid-1943, and probably not even from the end of 1942. But they would have delayed Nazi Germany’s final defeat.
From 1943 to 1945, Hitler repeated a pattern of trying to hold territories of limited strategic importance with diminishing military assets: in the Crimea, the Baltic States, Greece and the eastern Mediterranean, then in Sicily, Italy, Hungary, France, Finland, and Norway. That left large pockets of German forces isolated and cutoff in the Crimea and Lower Dnieper bend, before Leningrad, then at Falaise, the Ardennes, in the Rhineland, and in Courland. Hitler might have learned better from a dead Prussian king he claimed to admire. Friedrich II (“der Grosse”) once famously warned: “He who defends everything defends nothing.” In 1944 Hitler proposed to hold in northern Italy, give ground slowly as he must in the east, but concentrate to defend against the expected infantry of France by the Western powers. He failed spectacularly in France, not least because he was duped by deception operations about where the blow would fall on D-Day (June 6, 1944). That and other grave operational errors assisted the Wehrmacht lose the Normandy campaign in June–August 1944. Even then, Hitler indulged fantasies of snatching ultimate victory from obvious military catastrophe with spectacular operational blows and Wunderwaffen (“wonder weapons”), such as V-weapons bombardment of London and Antwerp and contemplation of attacking Britain with gas weapons. As Hitler’s wars in the eastern, western, and southern theaters were progressively lost from 1943 to 1945, and as he turned against the professional officer corps toward his fanciful inner lights, he displayed a deepening and fatuously “Nietzchean” superstition about the capability of “superior will” and the putative military utility of ideological resolution. It was other men, most notably Albert Speer, who finally put Germany’s economy on a full war footing, cutting back civilian goods production and emphasizing defensive weapons systems. It was once argued that Hitler only organized the economy to fight serial short wars, but this is no longer the view of most historians. Instead, it is recognized that while the Nazis made a prewar effort to organize Germany’s economy for general war, Hitler and other top Nazis maintained a high level of civilian production to damp down potential unrest. Fear of a second “stab-in-the-back” by dissatisfied folks on the home front was also persistent and powerful. It was more important for German unreadiness that Hitler provoked war with France and Britain years before he expected to have to fight a long war, and in ignorance of the superior capacity for economic mobilization of the British and French economies. He was similarly overconfident in the sure success of Vernichtungskrieg against the Soviet Union: barely a month into BARBAROSSA he ordered some war factories to revert to producing civilian goods. Even on a full war-footing, Germany could not hope to win the great Materialschlacht contest against the Soviets and Western Allies. Hitler instead indulged delusions about supposed limits to Allied production. For example, he rejected Luftwaffe estimates of enemy fighter production as ridiculous; they were not. He relied increasingly on assertions that men inspired by his correct racial ideology should overcome all physical obstacles and powerful opponents, performing feats in battle that were impossible for ordinary men.
Top commands were doled out on the basis of loyalty to the regime rather than military competence, so that even Heinrich Himmler received a field command. Hitler habitually encouraged and exploited normal rivalries among generals to maintain overall control. He was assisted in that scheme by sycophantic staff officers on the OKW and OKH who took it upon themselves to stroke his delusions and pass off all blame for failure to field commanders. In the last two years of the war Hitler repeatedly issued orders to whole armies to stand fast, resulting in their premature annihilation. In many cases, all military logic argued for tactical withdrawal to preserve men and weapons to fight another day, or defend from better ground selected for terrain advantages instead of symbolism. Nor had Hitler any real or sound appreciation of military logistics. He grossly overstretched Germany’s resources by tying down large garrisons in occupied countries such as Norway, Greece, and Yugoslavia, none of which were significant in the military balance or final outcome of the war. The most spectacular example of his logistical ignorance was invasion of the Soviet Union in the face of information from the Wehrmacht logistical service that it could not support a deeper penetration than 500 km.