In the twenty-first century, the quantity of scholarship on the Third Reich shows few signs of slowing. Nazism, with its sinister dramaturgy of torchlit parades and red-and-black swastika banners, continues to fascinate scholars. As the German-American historian Fritz Stern put it in 2006 in his memoir, Five Germanys I Have Known, in National Socialism there is “something inexplicable”, a large residue of historical puzzlement at how a movement so unambiguously malevolent should have appealed to so many millions of Germans. The last quarter of a century has witnessed an avalanche of studies on Nazi Germany ranging from Ian Kershaw’s two-volume biography of Adolf Hitler through Richard Evans’s three-volume study of the rise and fall of the Third Reich. The last three years alone have seen the publication of several major works such as Volker Ullrich’s two-volume biography, Hitler: Ascent (2017) and Hitler: Downfall (2020); Thomas Childers’s The Third Reich: A History (2017); Johann Chapoutot’s The Law of Blood: Thinking and Acting as a Nazi (2018); Peter Longerich’s Hitler: A Life (2019) and Carl Müller Frøland’s Understanding Nazi Ideology: The Genesis and Impact of a Political Faith (2020).
This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
Click here to subscribe
Yet despite this weight of scholarship, there remains a relative neglect of published material on Hitler as a strategist. As John Lukacs notes in his book The Hitler of History (1997), the vast literature about the Nazi leader is focused on Hitler the national leader, not Hitler the strategist. To be sure, every recent major study of Hitler and the Third Reich contains chapters on the Führer’s military strategy but they are seldom related to the theory and practice of strategy or to strategic studies as a specialised field of scholarly endeavour. Similarly, studies of the Nazi military from Geoffrey Megargee’s Inside Hitler’s High Command (2000) through Robert Citino’s masterly three-volume operational history on the rise and fall of the Wehrmacht (2007–17) to Rolf-Dieter Müller’s Hitler’s Wehrmacht, 1933–1945 (2016) deal as much with Hitler’s generals and command system as they do with his strategic theory and practice. We are left with the curious situation that there is only one study devoted to Hitler as a military strategist, Major-General John Strawson’s Hitler as Military Commander (1971). While still in print, Strawson’s book has long been overtaken by new research and is now a period classic.
Strategy is not a secret science. It is the application of a healthy knowledge of human nature. Its basis may be studied at a boxing match. Armies are nothing but gigantic bodies. — Adolf Hitler
It is against this intellectual background that the American military historian Stephen G. Fritz’s study, The First Soldier: Hitler as Military Leader and the British historian Brendan Simms’s Hitler: A Global Biography seek to fill a vacuum in our understanding. These books represent new attempts to comprehend Hitler’s strategic decision-making and to do so by firmly situating their analyses in the Führer’s political-military ideology. Fritz and Simms confront the complex challenge of disentangling Hitler’s individual role as supreme commander from the institutional activities of the Wehrmacht generals. This is no easy task for three reasons which, for the purposes of context, it is important to analyse before going on to examine the two books.
The first problem in assessing Hitler as a strategist stems from the reality that, unlike their leader, many of the Führer’s generals survived defeat in the Second World War. In the post-war years, through memoirs, several leading Wehrmacht military leaders sought to protect their military reputations at Hitler’s expense. The books of generals such as Franz Halder, Heinz Guderian, Albert Kesselring and Erich von Manstein do much to cast the Führer as an unschooled corporal, a demented dilettante devoid of military sense, who presided over what Field Marshal von Manstein famously called “lost victories”.
Second, the German generals’ memoirs provided the raw material for what historians now label the “myth of the clean Wehrmacht”. This myth was cultivated largely by a cohort of Anglo-American writers in the early post-war era including British military historians Basil Liddell Hart and Desmond Young as well the US Army’s Historical Division which employed several hundred former Wehrmacht generals to assist in writing an official history of the war. In particular, Liddell Hart and Young tended to see the German officer corps as a brilliant caste of military professionals divorced from Nazi ideology and its criminality. Liddell Hart’s books The German Generals Speak (1948) and The Rommel Papers (1953) alongside Young’s Rommel: The Desert Fox (1950) came to represent an ironic phenomenon in the aftermath of the victory over Nazism: an Anglophone rehabilitation of an enemy officer corps which only a few years before had presented a mortal threat to liberal democracy. Indeed, Liddell Hart was keen to persuade the world that the lightning victories of the Wehrmacht in 1940-41 were derived from his own inter-war theories on mechanised warfare.
At the centre of the Anglo-American cult of the “clean Wehrmacht” stands Erwin Rommel as the archetype of the chivalrous “good German”—the fabled Desert Fox of the Afrika Korps and master of mobile warfare. The career of Rommel is a metaphor for an unblemished form of German generalship that served Fatherland over Führer. This “good German” view passed rapidly from literary endeavour into Western popular culture, beginning with the release of the 1951 Hollywood movie The Desert Fox. Starring the English actor James Mason as the German field marshal—and concluding with an admiring voiceover by Winston Churchill—this film was a worldwide box-office success. There is a direct line of Hollywood admiration for the Wehrmacht that runs from The Desert Fox in 1951 to 2008’s Valkyrie, a movie about the failed plot to kill Hitler in July 1944 with American star Tom Cruise as the heroic conspirator, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg.
The early post-war narrative of a noble and brilliant Wehrmacht officer corps grappling with a demented Hitler also influenced later historiography. In 1977, the American military historian Colonel T.N. Dupuy published A Genius for War: The German Army and General Staff, 1807–1945. Dupuy argued that, despite losing the Second World War, the performance of the German General Staff during the struggle was reminiscent of Hannibal and Napoleon at their finest. As late as 1989, the British military historian Correlli Barnett echoed Dupuy, writing in his edited book Hitler’s Generals that “the [German] generals in the field sought with high professional distinction to make military sense of Hitler’s caprices; to save by operational skill inherently lost campaigns”.
Yet, this paean of praise for German military genius obscures the reality that at the 1946 Nuremberg war crimes trials, the presiding judge, Sir Geoffrey Lawrence, described the German generals as “a disgrace to the honourable profession of arms” and went on to state “the truth is they actively participated in all these [war] crimes, or sat silent and acquiescent, witnessing the commission of crimes on a scale larger and more shocking than the world has ever had the misfortune to know”. Nonetheless, leading British figures such as Churchill and Montgomery believed that Germany’s Second World War had somehow involved a “dual conflict”: a professional “clean war” waged by the Wehrmacht and a parallel criminal war of genocide perpetrated by Hitler and the political soldiers of the Nazi Schutzstaffel (SS). This attitude helped separate the Third Reich’s military history from Holocaust history, a situation that was to last for over four decades. Despite Justice Lawrence’s moral condemnation, the General Staff and the Wehrmacht were not declared to be criminal organisations at Nuremberg, so paving the way for their professional and historical rehabilitation.
Third, and finally, scholars studying Hitler as a military strategist must face the truth that the rehabilitation of many of the Nazi-era generals was assisted by the outbreak of the Cold War in the late 1940s. The Cold War made it strategically necessary to rearm West Germany against the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. It is no accident that, in the 1950s, officers who had served on the wartime German General Staff such as Adolf Heusinger and Hans Speidel became leading figures in both the creation of the West German Bundeswehr and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. In this way, the notion of a Wehrmacht untainted by Nazi war crimes became a form of received political wisdom during the Cold War era. “The greatest victory of the German army,” the Israeli historian Omer Bartov wryly noted in 1991, “was won on the field of politics, where it managed to return from the most murderous military action in German history all but unscathed.”
It was only after the end of the Cold War when the Soviet and East German archives were opened to scholars that the myth of a “clean Wehrmacht” began to break down through such works as Hannes Heer and Klaus Naumann’s edited book War of Extermination: The German Military in World War II, 1941-1944 (2000). New research painted a far grimmer and morally unsettling picture of the relationship between Hitler and his generals and overturned the notion of a “dual conflict”. The Wehrmacht’s campaigning and the genocidal actions of the SS were gradually integrated into the reality of an overarching war of racial annihilation—a Vernichtungskrieg as envisioned by Hitler—in which Nazi ideology and German military proficiency were allied. Yet, it is important to note that the complicity of Germany’s military leadership in enabling, tolerating or ignoring Nazi war crimes is not the same as the complicity of average soldiers. Most German military personnel in the Second World War were not involved in civilian genocide, but in fighting the Red Army and the armed forces of the Western allies.
It is against this background of a powerful mythology created by a mixture of self-serving German military memoir, an uncritically admiring Anglophone historiography of the Wehrmacht, and the rehabilitative legacy of the Cold War era that the works by Fritz and Simms on Hitler as a strategist must be viewed. The two authors, however, come to different conclusions. In The First Soldier, Fritz, a highly regarded American historian of the German military, reflects the orthodox thinking of studies of the Third Reich in English—studies that view German National Socialism as a reaction to Russian Bolshevism. Simms, on the other hand, is not a German specialist per se, but rather a leading British historian of international relations at Cambridge, specialising in Europe. He is perhaps best known for a grand-scale study, Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy, from 1453 to the Present (2014). His Hitler: A Global Biography is similarly sweeping and reflects international history as well as German historiography. It presents a revisionist view of Hitler aimed at changing our entire understanding of the German leader’s strategic theory and praxis. Unlike Fritz’s Hitler, Simms’s Hitler is less fixated on the Soviet Union’s “Jewish-Bolshevism” than on the alleged threat to Germany from an Anglo-American Jewish capitalist world conspiracy.
Fritz’s The First Soldier views Hitler as a revolutionary politician who operated according to a consistent ideological worldview. As Fritz puts it, Hitler’s strategic logic was fashioned from a rationalist, if not conventionally rational, historical perspective. As Hitler wrote in 1925 in Mein Kampf:
Our [National Socialist] program replaces the liberal idea of the individual and the Marxist concept of humanity with the people, a people defined by its blood and rooted in its soil. This may be a simple and concise sentence, but its consequences are colossal.
For Hitler, the Nordic race had been stripped of its historical destiny by Jews, by Christianity, by the Enlightenment and by bourgeois humanistic morality. Hitler’s eschatology was based on the reign of a superior German race in which the only sure path was “the path of the law of blood”. Nazism, then, was a worldview, a Weltanschauung, based on a peculiar vision of history with a clear narrative that explained human existence in terms of race and space.
In the wake of defeat in the First World War, Hitler’s ideological program offered the German people a form of “apocalyptic utopianism” through the creation of a redeemed national community, a Volksgemeinschaft—one that emphasised a combination of nationalism and socialism—embedded in a virulent form of anti-Semitism that identified Jews as the prime cause of German weakness. National Socialism drew on the writings of Carl von Clausewitz’s On War and Erich Ludendorff’s Total War for an understanding of the vital role of military force in politics; and on Social Darwinism for the racial life-struggle of the survival of the fittest. Like Heraclitus, Hitler believed that war was “the father of all things”, the arbitrator of history. “Who is guilty?” he once mused. “The cat or the mouse when the cat eats the mouse? The mouse, even if it never hurt a cat?”
Hitler also embraced geostrategic thinking through his fundamental belief in Lebensraum (living space) in ideas drawn from the geopolitics of Karl Haushofer and Friedrich Ratzel. To achieve its destiny Germany had to create an Aryan continental empire in Eastern Europe by eradicating the Jewish-Bolshevik-ruled Soviet Union. As Fritz writes:
Hitler prided himself on being a Raumpolitiker, a geopolitician who thought in grand terms of space, rather than a Grenzpolitiker who was concerned merely with border revisions. He thus combined his twin fixations, race and space, into one vision.
National Socialism’s fusion of total war, Social Darwinism, a Volk united by racial superiority and geopolitical expansion, appealed to a generation of Germans traumatised by military defeat, the Great Depression, and the national humiliation symbolised by the unstable politics of the Weimar Republic.
The instrument of Hitler’s ambitions to create a new order in Europe was the German military. While he covers much familiar ground in explaining Hitler’s relationship with the German generals, Fritz’s particular focus on the fusion of war, ideology and geopolitics provides a clearer picture of Hitler as a singular strategist. Because of its conservatism, the German officer corps was particularly susceptible to Hitler’s ideas. As a result, the German military welcomed Hitler’s creation of the new Wehrmacht and his 1936 decree that Germany was to be ready for war by 1940 with an army of forty-one divisions with a mobilisation strength of 3.6 million troops. The subsequent overthrow of the Versailles settlement by the re-occupation of the Rhineland in 1936, the Anschluss with Austria and the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia in 1938-39 only increased Hitler’s prestige in the German officer corps. Nonetheless, Fritz is careful to highlight that Hitler’s political domination of the German military was accompanied by the existence of a persistent social unease between the former corporal and the professional military elite. Hitler never lost a revolutionary déclassé’s natural dislike for what he called the “special caste of particularly high nosed, nobility airheads” and “learned gentlemen” of the Prussian military aristocracy.
Hitler’s disdain for many of his generals was further exacerbated by his philosophy on the role of war in human affairs. Hitler viewed war as existential in character. War was not simply Clausewitz’s “continuation of politics by other means”, but an extension of biological domination—of racial blood identity—in which a commitment to ecstatic violence was the highest expression of the life force of a people as “lords of the earth”. As a decorated First World War veteran of the trenches, Hitler had great faith in the innate superiority of the German soldier. He noted with satisfaction that world history had witnessed three great battles of annihilation: Cannae, Sedan and Tannenberg, with the last two won by German armies. As a National Socialist revolutionary, Hitler’s view of strategy embraced the unrestrained use of military force against inferior peoples who, by being unfit, were condemned to die as the mouse before the cat. “Shaped profoundly by his own experience of war,” explains Fritz, “Hitler saw in it the essence of human activity; what her first sexual encounter with a man was for a woman, war meant to him. Living meant killing.”
Hitler’s existential view of war based on martial ecstasy and racial supremacy was imposed on an instrumental German General Staff focused on winning battles in the Prussian tradition of Moltke the Elder and Graf von Schlieffen. German military doctrine emphasised Schwerpunkt (decisive concentration of force) and Aufragstaktik (mission orders) requiring bold initiative by commanders in the field. The central concern of the General Staff was how to overcome Germany’s central geographical position in Europe, which posed the critical operational problem of how to fight a two-front war in the east and west simultaneously. As the Bundeswehr soldier-scholar Gerhard P. Gross notes in his 2016 study, The Myth and Reality of German Warfare: Operational Thinking from Moltke the Elder to Heusinger, a form of self-imposed strategic illiteracy lay at the heart of the General Staff. “By focusing on the operational level of command,” Gross writes, “the German General Staff consequently neglected the strategic level [of war].”
The German military’s operational orientation and strategic naivety paved the way for the elevation of Hitler’s strategy of racial struggle and total war. In 1938 Hitler appointed himself Minister of Defence and established a new dual higher command organisation, Oberkommando des Wehrmacht (OKW) or Armed Forces High Command under his lackeys Wilhelm Keitel and Alfred Jodl, and Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH), or the Army High Command, led by Franz Halder as Chief of the General Staff and Walter von Brauchitsch, as commander-in-chief of the army. In this way, the Wehrmacht’s operational excellence was harnessed to Hitler’s strategic philosophy of race and space based on an armed quest for Lebensraum.
The German military’s strategic inadequacies in dealing with Hitler were further exacerbated by his promotion of the new technologies of military mechanisation, motorisation and air power which only increased the operational inclinations of talented officers such as Heinz Guderian, Erwin Rommel and Erich von Manstein. In the thinking of such soldiers lay the core of what has become known to military history as Blitzkrieg using Panzer armoured formations supported by motorised infantry, Stuka dive bombers and Messerschmitt fighter aircraft co-ordinated by radio. Yet Blitzkrieg was never a formal Wehrmacht doctrine. Rather it was an opportunistic style of warfare, consisting of operational shock with Panzer forces and air power launching an avalanche of actions to achieve victory by breakthrough and encirclement. Despite the legendary status the German Blitzkrieg has achieved in the popular imagination, its essential features were not new to German military thinking—Clausewitz had written of Blitzeschnelle (lightning-quick) decision—an approach that was now made possible by the new technologies of mechanisation and aviation.
Fritz points out that although Hitler did not conceptualise Blitzkrieg into his strategic philosophy, it was an approach to war based on boldness, velocity and destruction that perfectly suited his martial temperament. This approach became evident when the Second World War broke out in September 1939. Hitler’s rapid conquest of Poland followed by the bold seizure of the Low Countries and then the famous Sickle Cut campaign through the Ardennes that defeated France in six weeks in the summer of 1940 elevated Hitler from Führer to Feldherr (great commander). In six weeks, Hitler’s Third Reich achieved what the Kaiser’s armies had failed to do in the four years of the Great War. Although the Sickle Cut plan of 1940 was drawn up by the Third Reich’s greatest general, Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, it was Hitler’s strategic preference for a sudden strike based on an instinctive belief in French weakness that led him to support a bold plan that overcame the reservations of many of his cautious generals.
Although Hitler’s great success in France was marred by not finishing off the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk by the issue of the famous “Panzer halt” order, Fritz argues that the instruction was issued not by Hitler but by Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, who feared that his flanks were too exposed to counterattack. Hitler subsequently backed the halt order, but the decision resulted in the salvation of the British army through the “miracle of Dunkirk” and so permitted continued British resistance to Nazi Germany under Winston Churchill.
As Hitler paraded through Paris much as Alexander the Great had marched through Persepolis, many German generals, now intoxicated by the speed of victory, embraced Hitler’s strategic judgment as a source of infallibility and viewed him as a military genius. Swift victory in the West also elevated Blitzkrieg into a war-winning method. After an invasion plan for Britain was checked by the defeat of the Luftwaffe in late 1940 by the Royal Air Force, Hitler turned his attention to what Fritz views as his true ideological interest, the continental east. Confronting Soviet Russia represented the essence of Hitler’s apocalyptic ideology as the “messianic path” toward Lebensraum by Aryan colonisation of Slav territory. By conquering the vast Russian east, sufficient economic resources could be gained to lift Germany to world power status while further isolating the Reich’s sole remaining enemy in the west, Churchill’s Britain.
In March 1941 Hitler outlined to his generals his vision of the anti-Soviet struggle as a merciless war of racial and ideological extermination against the “asocial criminality” of Jewish-Bolshevism. He told the Wehrmacht senior officers who were to lead the Ostkrieg (eastern war) that legal conventions of war did not apply in fighting sub-humans (Slavs) or microbes (Jews). “The struggle we are about to undertake,” explained Hitler, “will be extremely different from the one we waged in the West. In the East, harshness makes the future kind. Officers must make the sacrifice of overcoming their reservations.” Hitler wanted no “Salvation Army methods” and favoured the murderous methods of Genghis Khan whom he considered to be “the great founder of a state”. As Hitler’s close colleague Hermann Göring put it, “we [Nazis] are barbarians and we think with our blood”.
The French historian of Nazi ideology Johann Chapoutot has noted that in mid-1941, military veterans in cravats with Iron Crosses, noble names and civilised values were plunged into a “radically different normative universe” in which the rear areas of the territory they conquered became zones for genocide and a string of death camps, symbolised by Auschwitz. Hitler’s notorious May 1941 “Commissar Order” and his special eastern plan, Generalplan Ost, unleashed two massive murder campaigns. The first involved the killing of all communist cadres and Jews. The second mandated the death by starvation of some 30 million Soviet citizens to save grain for the Reich and prepare the land for a future of German settlement. In both plans, the SS with their lighting flash runes insignia the Siegrunen, Norse daggers and skull rings played a key role in waging a cosmic war of racial extermination. Their commitment to murder was on hideous display in September 1941 at Babi Yar in the Ukraine where, in less than two days, 34,000 Jews were systematically shot to death by SS Einsatzgruppen (special task forces) and the SD or Sicherheitsdienst (SS security service).
As for the military campaign itself, Operation Barbarossa involved the deployment of three huge army groups to bring the Soviet Union to its knees within five months. Yet campaign planning was hampered by Hitler’s desire to seize economic objectives. While many army generals wanted to strike at Moscow and crush the Red Army in the field, Hitler was more interested in an annihilation campaign that allowed him to acquire Soviet economic resources in the north and south to strengthen Germany’s war-making capacity. Ultimately, the German dictator decided he could achieve his military and economic objectives simultaneously. Barbarossa’s Final Directive 31 of January 1941 involved a massive three-pronged attack in what Fritz calls an “all-out, front-loaded knockout blow”.
Yet despite a huge German invasion force of three million men, 3600 tanks, 600,000 motorised vehicles and 2500 aircraft launched in June 1941, strategic victory eluded Hitler. While the Red Army was initially pulverised by the German Panzer generals in huge Cannae-style battles at Vyazma-Bryansk, Bialystok, Minsk and Kiev, the Russian military survived the onslaught by exploiting geographical space to withdraw and regroup. In an arresting phrase, Fritz notes that, in Russia, Hitler’s Blitzkrieg machine was efficiently “winning itself to death” in a succession of victorious battles but lacked the strength to land a killer punch to Stalin’s regime. Over vast Russian distances, the Werhrmacht came to resemble a wooden spear with a metal tip and became “a two speed” force. The lethal metal spearhead consisted of motorised and mechanised forces, but the supporting wooden shaft consisted of slow-moving horse and foot, making swift victory unlikely.
By December 1941, as overextended German forces reached the gates of Moscow with winter descending, a resilient Red Army counterattacked, precipitating a strategic crisis. The OKH chief, General Franz Halder, fearing “a catastrophe of Napoleonic proportions”, recommended that Hitler withdraw his army group in the centre to prepared defensive positions. True to his Social Darwinist logic of fight or die, Hitler rejected withdrawal and issued a “stand fast order”, posing the question, “Is it any less cold fifty miles back?” He then showed his contempt for the military hierarchy by taking over personal command of the army, sacking many of his best Panzer generals including Guderian, and refusing to countenance any form of Napoleonic-style retreat.
Fritz argues, however, that as the Soviet winter counter-offensive failed in the face of German resistance, Hitler’s strategic judgment—as in the Sickle Cut in France—was again vindicated over the professional counsel of his senior generals. The Feldherr myth of infallibility was thus reinforced in the halt before Moscow in December 1941. Hitler, the military autodidact, avoided Napoleon’s fate in 1812 and, like Frederick the Great before him, had proven his ability not only to win offensives but also to prevail on the defensive. As the British military historian John Keegan has written, Hitler was always an “anti-clerical in the church of war, a devotee of its practices but a root-and-branch critic of its high priests”. In December 1941, when he cleared the military temple of its high priests and took on the mantle of a warlord blessed by “Samuel’s oil”, he demonstrated his iron belief in the superiority of his own strategic intuition and creativity as the “first soldier of the German Reich”.
Nonetheless, in December 1941, the German halt before Moscow coincided with America’s entry into war after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, which meant that Hitler now faced a global war before he had been able to knock out the Soviet Union. Despite losing 1.1 million men killed and wounded in 1941, Hitler embarked on a second Blitzkrieg campaign in Russia in 1942 under his best general, Erich von Manstein, aimed at winning the Caucasus oil fields. In June 1942, Manstein took much of the Crimea as a springboard for advancing into the Caucasus, only to then face Hitler’s Directive 45 which Fritz describes as “perhaps the most fateful decision of the war”. The directive converted the southern Russian campaign into a dual offensive to seize both Stalingrad and the Caucasus. Here Hitler’s hubris was confronted by his inexperience in handling the complex operations of army groups. If strategy was not a “secret science” for the layman, Hitler confronted the reality that the conduct of operations required professional military expertise of the kind he scorned but clearly lacked. The split offensive buried Hitler in operational minutiae as opposed to strategy and diluted the Wehrmacht’s concentration of force. Hitler’s conduct of the campaign of 1942 led directly to German defeat at Stalingrad and the loss of the entire German Sixth Army in February 1943. In July 1943, Hitler sought to recover his fortunes by throwing all his remaining offensive power at the Soviets at Kursk, involving the greatest tank battle in the history of war. Yet, with Anglo-American forces landing in Sicily fresh from victory in North Africa, he was forced to break off the offensive in Russia to transfer precious Waffen SS Panzer forces from east to west to meet the new threat.
By mid-1944 Hitler’s war strategy was undermined by three factors. First, the military reverses of 1943 signalled the loss of the German military’s strategic initiative in Russia. Second, the war came directly to the homeland itself as the Allied bomber offensive with long-range Mustang fighter escorts crushed the Luftwaffe in the skies over Germany. Third, the Germans failed to prevent the Western allies from landing and then breaking out of Normandy in mid-1944—events that coincided with the Soviet army launching its huge counter-offensive, Operation Bagration, designed to push the Germans out of Russia. With a twelve-to-one advantage in tanks and guns, the Soviets advanced into Poland inflicting 400,000 German casualties in what Fritz describes as “the greatest German defeat of the war, with only the Somme in 1916 exacting a greater toll in German military history”.
Hitler’s strategic conduct in the face of these reverses was to hold ground in the east while taking bold offensive action in the west. As the Wehrmacht faltered in Russia, he rid himself of Manstein while informing his other generals in December 1944, “There’s no need for you to try to teach me. I’ve been commanding the German Army in the field for five years.” In December 1944, he rolled the iron dice in the west, striking through the Ardennes during winter, hoping for a repeat of 1940, but the offensive failed in the face of massive American material superiority. Thus, as 1945 dawned, Hitler’s road to final defeat and suicide began. Fritz writes that there was no other option, for “with the extermination of the Jews he had burned all his bridges. The point now was to create a transcendent myth of heroic struggle to the end, of defiance in the face of certain defeat, of a valorization of National Socialism.” Hitler’s decision to fight to the death in Berlin, a decision that cost 1.4 million German soldiers their lives, and then to commit suicide in April 1945, was based entirely on Social Darwinist and racial ideological grounds. For Hitler, the German cat had failed to prevail in the life-struggle and had become the mouse to be devoured by the stronger cats of Russia and the Western allies. Yet even as he faced complete defeat, Hitler’s geostrategic insight remained astute. As he told Martin Bormann, head of his Chancellery, in early April 1945:
With the defeat of the Reich and pending the emergence of the Asiatic, the African, and perhaps the South American nationalisms, there will remain in the world only two Great Powers capable of confronting each other—the United States and Soviet Russia. The laws of both history and geography will compel these two powers to a trial of strength, either military or in the fields of economics and ideology. These same laws make it inevitable that both powers should become enemies of Europe. And it is equally certain that both these Powers will sooner or later find it desirable to seek the support of the sole surviving great nation in Europe, the German people.
Fritz concludes that Hitler’s grasp of strategy, particularly in the areas of psychology and economics, was superior to that of his military entourage. He had an “extraordinary strategic instinct” which only deserted him when overweening ideological ambition driven by opportunist success became his lodestar. Thus, if Hitler is to be blamed for the military disasters from 1942 to 1945, then he should also be given credit for masterminding much of the military successes from 1939 to 1941. In the end, his failure as a military strategist was caused by a radical ideological commitment to a merciless war of race and space that was beyond Germany’s means and which precipitated a two-front global struggle that could not be won. His fundamental failure, argues Fritz, “was one of grand strategy: Hitler sought not merely a revision of the Versailles system, but a complete reordering of Europe—and perhaps the world—for which the conquest of Lebensraum in the east was the essential first step”.
The problem of grand strategy is the subject of Brendan Simms’s Hitler: A Global Biography. Unlike Fritz’s study, which is focused on Hitler the military strategist operating in Europe, Simms’s book is a revisionist and “substitutive” biography based largely on re-interpreting Hitler as a grand strategist with a global perspective.
The Cambridge historian advances three revisionist propositions. First, he argues that Hitler’s principal preoccupation was in confronting the domination of Anglo-American global capitalism, so rebutting the conventional historical belief that the source of Hitler’s virulent anti-Semitism was driven by fear of the Soviet Union. Second, Simms suggest that Hitler’s view of the German Volk was highly ambivalent, reflecting not confidence in an Aryan master race, but rather a sense of inferiority in comparison with the racial strength of the Anglo-Saxons. Third, he believes that Hitler’s belief in eugenics locked him into an existential struggle with “world Jewry” as the dynamic driver of global politics. As Simms puts it, “the centrality of [Hitler’s] anti-Semitism in his world view can only be described as paranoid”.
If Hitler is viewed as a global strategist, he emerges as an anti-Semitic Malthusian geopolitician of scarcity rather than an obsessive anti-Marxist ideologue of Lebensraum. Simms argues that Hitler and the Third Reich were “thus a reaction not to the Russian Revolution but to the dominance of Anglo-America and global capitalism”. Moreover, he suggests that the unleashing of the Holocaust was not a copy of Stalin’s Great Terror, but rather “a pre-emptive strike against the power of Roosevelt’s America”. By Germanising Eastern Europe to create a powerful Greater Reich, Hitler was in revolt against the “Anglo-American cartel” which emerged after the First World War in the wake of German defeat and which provided English-speakers with global space and racial hegemony. For Germany to match Anglo-American global domination it was necessary, first, to master Europe—particularly the eastern part of the continent—and create a German European empire equal in global status to Britain and America. Hitler’s onslaught on Russia, then, had “less to do with hatred of Bolshevism and eastern European Jewry, and more to do with the need to prepare the Reich for a confrontation or equal coexistence with an Anglo-America whose dynamism mesmerised Hitler more than ever”.
Simms makes the controversial assertion that if we are to understand Hitler’s grand strategy, we must understand the dominance in his mind of the international Jewish conspiracy and acknowledge that the Nazis targeted Bolshevik Russia for where it lay, not for what it represented ideologically. The drive for eastern Lebensraum was characterised less by Aryan confidence than by Hitler’s pessimism about Germany’s long history of political fragmentation which had led to a large drain of German emigrants to America. In geopolitical terms, then, Hitler sought not just the end of the Versailles settlement of 1919, but the overthrow of the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia whose state system had yielded historical greatness to France and Britain as imperial powers and led to the settlement of North America. Hitler’s grand strategic thought was based on the conquest of Eastern Europe as a necessary step towards Berlin’s assumption of global power. Simms writes:
Lebensraum in the east would kill two birds with one stone. First, it would provide Germany with the critical territorial mass to balance the American Union and the British Empire, and to some extent that of France as well. Secondly, eastward expansion would secure the raw materials and especially the farmland to feed the German demographic surplus. Eastern colonization was the answer to pernicious transatlantic and antipodean [German] migration. Hitler was proposing to strike east, but he was really looking west.
For much of his revisionist analysis, Simms relies on Hitler’s unpublished 1928 Second Book of Mein Kampf which emphasises how the United States had reached global power with an Anglo-Saxon racial core that had conquered a continent. British global power was similarly race-based, through a demographic spread of Anglo-Saxon dominance over a third of the world’s geography. The Anglo-Saxons, not the Germans, were the world’s true “master race”. They could only be matched by a new breed of German Aryan settlers springing out of the colonised lands of Eastern Europe. Lebensraum in the east was not so much a final showdown with the Jews or Slavs as the essential measure to gain the critical territorial mass and resources to confront Anglo-American global domination. Like Fritz, Simms identifies Hitler’s “deadly dialectic of space and race” as the engine unleashing a war of extermination in the east but differs in his interpretation of its strategic logic. Simms points out that seen from a Europe-centric perspective, Hitler’s 1939 Non-Aggression Pact with Stalin seems counterintuitive given the orthodox historical view of Hitler’s hatred of Jewish Bolshevism. Yet seen from a global perspective and, in terms of Hitler’s broader ideological struggle between German and Jew and between Teuton and Anglo-Saxon, the Nazi-Soviet Pact makes eminent strategic sense.
Simms is careful to note that much of the unfolding of Hitler’s grand strategy was subject to opportunism, not determinism. As Hitler put it in August 1938: “in politics one must believe in the Goddess of Fortune who only passes once, and one must grasp her then! She will never return!” Accordingly, Simms views the Blitzkrieg victory over France as a “monumental fluke” which Hitler did not expect. In its wake, the German dictator hoped to divide Britain and the United States and to triangulate between them through a treaty with Britain in late 1940. Like Fritz, Simms sees Churchill’s defiance and German defeat in the Battle of Britain as the main factors that impelled the turn towards a German invasion of Russia in 1941. However, whereas Fritz views Hitler’s approach to Russia as an ideologically messianic crusade and the essence of his anti-Semitism, Simms emphasises Hitler’s focus on acquiring Russia’s economic resources as evidence of his preparation for a longer war with the real enemy, the Jewish-inspired Anglo-American cartel. Anti-Semitism, not anti-communism, was the main driver for war with the Soviet Union. Simms concedes that Barbarossa led to genocide and the Holocaust, but he appears to view the extermination inherent in the Final Solution as the essential means to an end: the Germanisation of the east. Provocatively, Simms insists that Hitler’s Jew-hatred was “primarily to be found in his hostility to global high finance rather than his hatred of the radical left [the communists]. Those who do not want to speak about Hitler’s anti-capitalism should remain silent on his anti-Semitism.”
Hitler’s invasion of Russia was conceived as both an anti-colonial and a colonial enterprise. He claimed to be liberating Europe from Anglo-American capitalism and Jewish manipulation in the guises of plutocracy and Bolshevism. For Simms, the tensions Fritz identifies between Hitler’s desire for economic objectives and the Wehrmacht’s preference for military objectives in Russia was driven by the German leader’s global anti-Semitism and the need to fight the Jewish-dominated British and American allies. As a global strategist, Hitler was always looking west, while fighting east. This interpretation explains Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Even while he faced a strategic crisis before Moscow that threatened a Napoleonic catastrophe, Hitler did not lose his focus on the larger global picture—a confrontation with Jewish-dominated Anglo-America. By late 1943, as Germany’s war in the east faltered, Hitler switched his offensive focus towards the west. Simms suggests that the transfer of many elite Waffen SS Panzer formations and parachute divisions from the Russian front to France and Italy in 1943 is evidence that the Jewish-controlled Anglo-Americans represented “the Third Reich’s most dangerous military and ideological enemies”.
Simms’s revisionist view of the Third Reich’s strategic imperatives is not entirely original. Some of his views can be found in Adam Tooze’s study The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy (2007). As an economic historian, Tooze argues that a contest with the Anglo-American global condominium with Roosevelt as “the chosen one of world Jewry” was Hitler’s ultimate strategic goal. Such a contest required the fusion of economics and genocidal ideology in “a grand strategy of racial war” in eastern Europe to eradicate Jews and Slavs and replace them with German settlers, with the Volga as Germany’s Mississippi. Simms has extended Tooze’s economic interpretation of Nazism into a full-blown study of the Third Reich’s global strategy under Hitler.
The books by Fritz and Simms do much to illuminate Hitler as an ideological strategist of racial war but by using different perspectives. Fritz is in the mainstream of English-language historiography on the Third Reich. He gives primacy to Hitler as the Social Darwinist Feldherr focused on annihilating Jewish Bolshevism as the prime goal of National Socialism. In contrast Simms is a contrarian, who emphasises Hitler’s role as a global strategist driven to confront the Anglo-American world order under the “Jew-ridden Roosevelt”. In some ways Simms’s revisionist book on Hitler as the grand strategist who sought a global German empire and who lost all has an echo of John Charmley’s Churchill: The End of Glory (1993), a revisionist view of Churchill as the grand strategist who defeated Hitler, but lost a global British Empire in the process. It remains to be seen whether Simms’s book, like Charmley’s, remains an outlier study or whether it sparks an English-speaking version of the German Historikerstreit (historians’ dispute) on the Third Reich’s strategic objectives.
Part of the answer to whether orthodoxy or revisionism will prevail in future historical studies of Hitler as a strategist probably lies in a deeper understanding of the ideological history of the Third Reich. Nazi ideology has largely been neglected in modern historiography in favour of what Johann Chapoutot calls “the logic of managerial and genocidal praxis”. What we currently possess on Nazi ideology tends more to Fritz’s orthodox view than Simms’s revisionist view of Hitler as a strategic actor. For instance, in his own exhaustive book on Nazi thought, The Law of Blood, Chapoutot emphatically states that “the Third Reich had no ambitions for world domination. What interested it was the European continent.” Similarly, Carl Müller Frøland’s Understanding Nazi Ideology contains little on the importance of Hitler’s Second Book. While Frøland concedes Hitler’s view of the United States and the Soviet Union as dual instruments of the “Judeo-materialistic spirit” he does not press the case for a Jewish Anglo-American world conspiracy as the messianic force behind Hitler’s ideology of race war. Like Chapoutot, Frøland locates the roots of Hitlerite thinking in European philosophical thought—in a combination of the German pre-Romantic Sturm und Drang movement, Völkisch nationalism and a Nietzschean worship of war. He describes Nazism as a “kind of political religious community bound by blood and soil” based on a synthesis of conservative, socialist and even liberalist thought (it permitted personal wealth and private property). The essence of National Socialism was, then, the demonisation of communism as an impure manifestation of Jewish Bolshevism.
We can be sure that the debate on Hitler as a strategist and ideologue of total war and racial extermination will continue and that more publications will appear in the years to come. Hitler’s Third Reich continues to be “the past that will not pass”. This is a phenomenon we should welcome and encourage rather than regret, for we can never afford to forget the evils that militant National Socialism wrought on Western civilisation. It is well for us to heed Fritz Stern’s wise words from his Five Germanys I Have Known: “We owe the victims of the last century’s descent into an inferno of organised bestiality an enduring, awed memorial; a prudent vigilance—and the knowledge that the bacillus that killed them did not die with them.”
Michael Evans is the General Sir Francis Hassett Chair of Military Studies at the Australian Defence College in Canberra and a professor in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Deakin University. He is a frequent contributor to Quadrant