Previous posts in this discussion:
PostCould the Russians Have Beaten Germany by Themselves? (Istvan Simon, USA, 02/12/18 3:33 am)
World War II has been always of great interest to me.
I read a great deal about World War I as well, as terrible and pointless a war as any, with tens of thousands of the flower of Europe's youth killed monthly, needlessly and mercilessly in what was essentially a stalemate between the opposing forces, with the horrors of gas attacks, the terrible misery of trench warfare, the meat-grinding pointless assaults on the enemy lines defying machine gun fire by infantry, to move the front lines a few meters this way or the other. That the generals could not come up with something more meaningful is an indictment of the terrible lack of judgement and imagination of the military leaders on both sides.
No doubt the eventual defeat of Germany and the Versailles treaty created the conditions for Hitler's rise to power together with the Crash of 1929, which created a deep seemingly bottomless economic depression worldwide that was like the coup de grace on the fragile German attempt at democracy following World War I. So, all of these events were contributing factors to the genesis of World War II.
It is a shame that a man as crazy as Hitler was, as heartless, as full of hate, would have risen to the heights of popularity that he rose to in Germany. It is a cautionary tale about what desperation, a feeling of hopelessness, and a desire for revenge could bring to the nationalistic Germans. There are parallels to the election of the "America First" little lying tyrant, now in the White House, even more so, because the economic challenges in the US were nowhere even close to what the situation was in Germany. And yet this narcissist was elected. But not everywhere a madman was chosen as a response to the economic crisis created by the Depression. The United States reacted to the same conditions of desperation by electing Franklin D. Roosevelt, and we recovered not with wars and arms, but with productive investments.
Contrary to World War I, the generals were much more imaginative and competent in World War II. Legendary generals like Manstein, Rommel, Guderian, Montgomery, Patton, MacArthur, Bradley, Eisenhower, men of vision like Marshall, the extraordinary Soviet general Zhukov and many others fought valiantly and imaginatively on both sides. Tremendous technological advances happened during this conflict, motivated by the epic total fight for survival. Radar, flying bombs, jet airplanes, submarine warfare, and so on.
Germany's deliberate attack on civilians, terror bombing of cities, bombing of civilian targets, a strategy of merciless scorched earth led to the equally ruthless retaliatory bombings of German cities. World War II defied all previous boundaries on what was acceptable in warfare. This total lack of any humanity is what led to the gas chambers, the rape of Nanjing, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
I am not sure if it is productive or even possible to debate whether the Soviet effort was more or less important than the Western Allied effort against Hitler. How could one measure objectively such a question? How can one over-estimate the importance of D-Day? In my view D-Day clearly signaled the beginning of the end for Germany, and the inevitability of German defeat that would indeed come less than a year later.
JE comments: Germany's interwar depression came long before 1929, with the hyperinflation and despair of the early 1920s. We've probably exhausted our discussion on WWII's turning and tipping points, but how about this one? Versailles already set the stage for a rematch. Germany, a medium-sized country fighting against three empires, could never realistically win. So the turning point of WWII came in...1919?
Importance of US Lend-Lease in Soviet Victory
(Cameron Sawyer, Russia
02/14/18 12:29 PM)
Istvan Simon wrote on February 12: "I am not sure if it is productive or even possible to debate whether the Soviet effort was more or less important than the Western Allied effort against Hitler. How could one measure objectively such a question? How can one overestimate the importance of D-Day? In my view D-Day clearly signaled the beginning of the end for Germany, and the inevitability of German defeat that would indeed come less than a year later. "
Well, for anyone interested in economic and military aspects of WWII--how it happened, why it turned out the way it did--these are pretty important questions. Was D-Day important? Were the military efforts of the Western Allies important? They are fascinating questions, also.
I think the banal military facts show that D-Day was not important at all. The war was completely over by the summer of 1944, the Germany army was broken already, and D-Day had zero effect on the result.* The Western Allies were just grabbing their share of the spoils. The "beginning of the end" came not in 1944, but already in 1941, nearly four years earlier than D-Day. Likewise the campaign in North Africa: unless someone can show with facts some real strategic purpose of that Nebenschauplatz, the only effect that North Africa had on the outcome of the war was to tie up some German forces which could have otherwise been used in the main battles. This is in fact how most historians view North Africa. "Nebenschauplatz" in German; "sideshow" in English.
The military facts are not too controversial actually. What is more interesting to me is the economic side of it all, and the role the US played. Lend-Lease was clearly a huge factor in the ability of the Soviets to defeat the Germans, although only about 10% of materiel used by the Soviets came from Lend-Lease, and despite the fact that Lend-Lease materiel began to arrive in quantity only after the military side of the war was mostly decided. Stalin said that he could not have won without it, and I think we have to take him at his word--the Soviet position might have turned out to be as unsustainable as the German position was, without the advantages provided by Lend-Lease, with the Soviets unable to consolidate their gains after Stalingrad or to mount the huge offensive which was still required to finally throw the Germans out of the USSR.
The key benefit of Lend-Lease, of course, was not in the quantity of materiel supplied, but that the types of materiel supplied filled in gaps in Soviet productive ability and allowed the Soviets to concentrate their resources making those things which they were already set up to make. Thus we provided most of the trucks used by the Soviets, almost all of the aviation fuel, most of the warm boots worn by Soviet soldiers, and a great deal of the food they ate. (The famous Soviet Army tushenka was actually Spam!) That allowed them to concentrate on turning out huge numbers of tanks, artillery pieces, small arms, and other things which they produced so well. It was only 10%, but it would have cost them more than 10% of the other production in order to gear up to cover the shortfalls. I suppose the food must have been particularly important considering the devastation of Soviet agriculture in two phases--first in the 1930s with de-kulakization and collectivization, and then from 1941 as the Germans overran most of the best Soviet agricultural regions.
If we want to identify the main US role in the European theatre of the war, Lend-Lease is where we should look. The Western Allies never fought the main parts of the Wehrmacht on the ground, and what little fighting on the ground we did, occurred late in the war after the outcome was already clear. However, Lend-Lease did affect the outcome of the war, and also the Anglo-American bombing campaign. The bombing campaign did not have a great effect on German war production, but it diverted huge military resources which could otherwise have been used on the Eastern front. For example, more German antiaircraft guns were made during the war, than field artillery pieces. The morality of bombing innocent civilians is a separate question, but the effect on the war cannot be denied.
I just read a fascinating book by Walter S. Dunn Jr., The Soviet Economy and the Red Army, 1930-1945, https://www.amazon.com/Soviet-Economy-Red-Army-1930-1945/dp/0275948935 available free as PDF here: http://biblioteka.mycity-military.com/biblioteka/vathra/The%20Soviet%20Economy%20and%20the%20Red%20Army%2C%201930-1945.PDF
Dunn analyses one aspect of the Soviet war economy which I had not seen covered in this detail before, namely the role of US (and British and even German) technical assistance during Stalin's huge industrialization push during the 1930s. It is quite an interesting story how Stalin created a huge heavy industrial base almost from nothing in just a decade, and I had not realized that something like 70% of US and UK exports of machine tools during the 1930s went to the USSR, or that there were tens of thousands of American engineers working in the USSR setting up these factories. I had known that the GAZ plant in Nizhny Novgorod was set up by Ford as a copy of the River Rouge plant, but I had not known that the vast steel plant at Magnitogorsk, largest in the world at the time, was a copy of the Gary, Indiana plant and was built by American engineers, and there are dozens of other examples--apparently all or nearly all of the great number of large heavy industrial plants built in the 1930s in the USSR were built by Western firms.
Dunn's thesis is quite US-centric and probably exaggerates some things, but I find some of his arguments to be really persuasive. We know from the seminal work of Adam Tooze on the Nazi war economy (https://www.amazon.com/Wages-Destruction-Making-Breaking-Economy/dp/0143113208 ) that the Germans did not possess the economic resources, in any case, to pursue a large and long war, and that we typically overestimate the strength of the Nazi economy in our thinking about the war, but the sources of Soviet industrial strength are more obscure. I think there are a few good books in there still to be written.
As to the root of the conflict in the rise of Hitler, and how that can happen in an advanced country--I agree with Istvan. Parallels with Hitler are so overused that one hesitates to even hint at one, but the manner in which Trump was elected does remind one of how Hitler took power (by winning an election, let's never forget). It's a question of how evil popular impulses can work themselves out through democratic means, and how people may give themselves over to being manipulated by demagogues. I don't mean to say that Trump is another Hitler, and that he's about to launch another world war or another Holocaust, God forbid, but the political style and methods are chillingly similar.
A psychologist would certainly be able to explain the relationship between the deep personal insecurity of a particular type of tyrant, and how this makes it possible for him to find the way to channel the same deep personal insecurity of a large mass of the public. But that's not my field, so I'll stick to history and economics...
*German military history forums are full of discussions about “key
battles” and “key factors” in the outcome of the war--they enjoy these
discussions as much as we do. I haven’t seen either D-Day or El Alamein
mentioned even once. However, there are many mentions of Pearl Harbor--recognizing that bringing the US economy into the war made the war
fundamentally unwinnable for the Germans. German scholars name the same
three battles that we read about here--Moscow, Stalingrad, and Kursk--as the key ones. But there is also a lot of debate among the Germans
about whether the war was ever winnable in the first place. Someone
mentioned losing the “battle with our own stupidity,” as the key battle
in the war. There is a lot of debate about whether Hitler’s
interference with military decision-making played a key role. I read
persuasive arguments that winning Stalingrad and/or Kursk would not have
made it possible for an ultimate victory, and possibly not even
Moscow. And several people mentioned that if the war with the Soviets
had gone on much longer, the Germans might have expected the nuclear
weapons ultimately used on Japan, to have been used on them instead, a
truly horrifying thought.
JE comments: I had never considered "opportunity costs" the Soviets would have incurred to compensate for the food and trucks provided by the Americans. This could have drastically reduced their production of light machine guns, aircraft, and most importantly, the excellent T-34 tank.
(A happy Valentine's Day to WAISers, by the way! No better way to celebrate than with a good discussion of World War II.)