HOW HITLER LOST THE WAR
German documents and witnesses make it clear that the Fuhrer’s intuition upset long-term plans
L S. B. SHAPIRO
Maclean’s War Correspondent
BERLIN—The late August night was pleasant and starlit. Berliners, in their gay summer finery, thronged the Siegesalles and listened to the music of gypsy violins, carried on the breeze from cafés in the park. The ornate old Kaiserhof Hotel, across the street from the gleaming new Propaganda Ministry, was ablaze with lights and distinguished uniforms.
Not many hundred yards away Hitler paced the carpeted floor of his huge office in the Chancellery. Every now and again he paused by the French windows that opened on his private park, and gazed at the stars that twinkled on the still water of his pearshaped pond. Suddenly the doors leading from the great hall of the Chancellery were flung open and across the 20 yards of carpet to the Fiihrer’s outsize marble-topped desk walked six uniformed men. They were Goering, Goebbels and Ribbentrop, Generals Keitel and Jodi and Admiral Raeder.
Orderlies immediately closed the French windows and withdrew. The meeting that was to determine the fate of the Third Reich was about to begin. For this was August, 1939.
This is not the opening scene of an imaginative scenario on the beginning of the war. It is fact. Wo no longer have to wonder what was happening in Berlin’s inner councils while the world waited and trembled in 1939, or during the yenrs of struggle that followed. The German history of this war is an open book. Even the shades of reasoning that crossed Hitler’s mind and influenced his High Command have been fully revealed to us.
For the first time in modern war a nation has been defeated and occupied so completely that its highest surviving leaders have fallen into our hands, together with their documents and stenographic records of every important conference. This is a war historian’s dream come true; its like has never before occurred. After the last war we had to wait until Ludendorff published his memoirs to discover how the conflict appeared from the Berlin angle, and even then we learned only what Ludendorff chose to tell us. This time Germany’s highest ranking survivors have talked, individually HIUÍ collectively, like frantic, frightened witnesses. Their stories have been checked one against the other and cross-checked against the mountains of documents we have uncovered. Now the German story is complete, with its hopes and its failures and the reasons for both.
We have it from Goering and Doenitz, from Jodi and Rundstedt, from Ribbentrop and Kesselring. We return therefore to Berlin in late August, 1939, and trace from that point the most curious, terrifying and inept war a great modern nation has ever fought.
The meeting in the Reichschancellery on that particular evening resulted in the final decision to attack Poland, preparation for which had long been made and troop movements completed. It was not essentially a military conference, because the generals knew, with mathematical precision, how they could annihilate Poland according to a careful schedule. Most of the meeting was confined to dialogue between Hitler and Ribbentrop, and as a result the generals were given clearly to understand that the Polish campaign was not a war hut merely an incident.
Hitler wound up the meeting with an exposition of long-range policy. The Polish “incident” would he the first phase of a carefully staggered drive to the East. Eventually Russia would he the enemy and the grand prize. Aside from precautionary forces in the West the High Command could ignore the AngloFrench threat. The Rritish were ideologically and militarily unprepared and the French were so divided by graft and intrigue that they would not dare declare wer. Hitler concluded by cautioning his generals to prepare each step as carefully as they had
the Polish incident; they would have ample time between incidents; there would be no formal war for many months, if not years, and then only against a weakened and isolated Russia.
From this meeting emerged the first German military success and the first political failure. The High Command had prepared well; Poland was annihilated exactly on schedule. But Ribbentrop had judged with tragic ineptitude. Poland was not an incident; it was war—formal war with Britain and France.
Immediately the Polish incident was complete Hitler tried stubbornly to mend Ribbentrop’s fences. Declining to accept the alteration in his careful plan, he broadcast to the world, imploring Britain and France to accept the fait accompli and to call off the war. He ranted and threatened, hut to no avail. Reluctantly he summoned his High Command and instructed them in October, 1939, to shelve the staggered plan for a drive to the East and to revise the Schließen plan for a drive to the West.
A stormy meeting took place in the Chancellery in January, 1940. On the plan for an invasion of Norway there was complete agreement, but on Hitler’s suggestion for a blitz thrust through the Sedan Gap there were grave misgivings by the High Command. Jodi and Runstedt pleaded that Germany was not prepared to defeat the French and British Armies in 1940; that Hitler should make another attempt to call off the war, or at least postpone major operations in the West for an additional year. But backed by Goering and Ribbentrop and goaded by the stars and his intuition, Hitler instructed that the plan go forward. He himself designed the hammer blow of
10 Panzer divisions on Goering’s assurance that Germany would have domination of the air.
On such uneasy ground dawned May 10 and the fateful campaign in the West. It was a triumph for Hitler’s intuition and military instinct. No wonder he danced like a hoy, in the Forest of Compiègne, as he awaited the French surrender emissaries. His hammer blow had worked like a charm; he had won the campaign with one tenth the casualties and in a quarter the time he himself had estimated would he necessary. The High Command was vastly impressed, thereafter it, too, believed—for a long time—in his divine role.
But in the ecstasy of easy victory two cardinal errors were overlooked—two errors which planted the first seeds of eventual defeat. The first error was committed toward the end of May. With the French forces reeling back in disorderly retreat and the British Army bottled up at Dunkirk, Rundstedt begged Hitler to forego the temptation to drive immediately deep into France. Instead he wanted the full Panzer forces to converge on Dunkirk.
He argued that Paris could be occupied a little later in the campaign; that the urgent necessity of the moment was to annihilate once for all the whole British Army at Dunkirk. Hitler summoned Goering and asked his advice. Goering laughed off Rundstedt’s suggestion with the remark: “Use your armies to
occupy Paris and force a French capitulation. Leave the British Army to my Air Force. My fighters and fighter bombers will grind the English into the sands. Not a British soldier will come off the beaches of Dunkirk alive.” Continued on page 44
How Hitler Lost the War
Continued from page 14
Hitler accepted his counsel. The magnificent German Army drove deep into France and left only covering forces to bottle the British, while the Luftwaffe was to tear them to ribbons. The Luftwaffe didn’t. The Dunkirk evacuation succeeded. Thus—error number one.
Error number two was again Goering’s responsibility. By August it became clear to Hitler that Britain was not going to surrender. The High Command had already gathered in the Channel Ports all available German, Belgian, Dutch and French canal barges. Intelligence sources indicated that Britain was in no position to I withstand an invasion. The German I High Command was divided on its \ immediate policy.
The Generals Disagree
Some generals argued for prompt invasion; others, fearful of the British Home Fleet and knowing that canal barges do not make effective landing craft, cautioned Hitler to await Luftwaffe domination of English skies. Goering threw his support to the waverers. He promised to smash the RAF by Sept. 15. Thus—error number two.
An invasion—even in canal barges— might well have been successful in August. The Luftwaffe failed in its
September blitz, and then the weather turned bad.
In autumn of 1940 something happened in Berlin to divert Hitler’s attention from the task of starving, propagandizing and terrorizing England into surrender. Col-Gen. Jodi tells what thus was:
“As military briefer to the Führer, I traced for him each day’s development on his map. Starting in October, 1940, I transferred to the Führer information 1 was getting daily about a developing situation on our Eastern Flank. The Soviets were bringing up massive forces to positions along the demarcation line in Poland. By December,
1940, our information was becoming alarming and the Führer was becoming greatly concerned. According to our information, Soviet dumps and troop movements could only be interpreted as foreshadowing an attack in the East.”
Leaving to the Todt fortifications and Doenitz’s submarines the task of preventing Britain from launching an adventure in the West, Hitler turned his attention to Russia. In January,
1941, he made his decision that Russia must be attacked.
Again his High Command demurred; they would need two more years to prepare a task force capable of occupying and administering the vast Russian territory. They argued that military victory was not enough; that the machinery for organizing the conquered lands was beyond the current capacity of Germany to provide. Hitler
neither appreciated nor understood the precise, cautious attitude of his advisers. He went into a tantrum and ordered the attack prepared for May. It was not until June 22 that the offensive was launched. Once more he demonstrated that his immediate policy was instinctively right—but also that it operated without regard for the far future.
Russia Was Hitler’s Gamble
Having accepted full responsibility for the gamble in Russia, Hitler now assumed a dominating position over his High Command. He sought and often accepted his generals' advice on tactics but seldom on strategy, and never on policy. For instance, in the summer of 1941—with Pearl Harbor on .schedule and with the need for conquering the British Middle East so that his strategy could take full advantage of Japanese plans—he organized his Afrika Corps on a full-scale basis.
Once again there was a stormy meeting between Hitler and the old-school German generals. Rundstedt, representing the orthodox generals, declined to accept command of African operations. He laid down two prerequisites to any ambitious adventure in Africa. The first was that Spain should be drawn into the war and the Mediterranean sealed off at Gibraltar. His second was that Malta must be conquered. Hitler discarded the first suggestion because Spain was loath to enter the war, and he was unable to implement the second because Germany had no naval strength in the Mediterranean.
“We cannot depend on the Italian Navy in any offensive operation,” he informed his generals point-blank.
He therefore passed over Rundstedt and appointed Rommel to the task of conquering the Middle East.
From this point on Hitler became commander-in-chief of German forces in practice as well as in theory. His intuition was running wild, and the influence of the High Command on his decisions growing smaller. He discarded generals who opposed his will and appointed Nazi faithfuls in their places.
“In 1942 and 1943 Hitler was in complete personal control of all operations,” Jodi testified. “The rest of us were helpless to influence his unorthodox, headlong methods.”
From this circumstance flowed a series of errors which petrified the German staff officers as they looked on in dismay. While Hitler instituted a policy of full-scale attack in Russia and lost divisions by the score, he confined Rommel to a minimum of troops and air support. In June, 1942, Rommel was on the verge of success in Egypt; had Hitler provided him with 200 additional planes and one extra division the Germans might have smashed through to Alexandria, and linked with their comrades in the Russian Caucasus. But the allocation of forces was Hitler’s greatest problem and his weakest talent. German staff officers believe that for lack of a single division in Egypt he lost the campaign and probably the war.
Then came Alamein and Stalingrad. The tide of Allied victory was in full flood. In August, 1943—after the Allied demonstration of force and precision in Pantelleria and Sicily— Hitler knew the war was irretrievably lost unless he could revolutionize his methods and weapons. It was then that he called together German industrialists and inventors and commissioned them to draw to the fullest on their resources and imaginations. Meanwhile he laid down on all fronts a policy of slow retreat expensive to the enemy in
time, men and material— particularly in time. There was to be no offensive until the new weapons were devised and put into production.
The race for time and new weapons and how Hitler lost it is old history, too obvious for repetition. The new testimony of Goering and Rundstedt traces a pattern of frustration from then on to the end.
Let us hear how Goering anticipated defeat:
“When I saw for the first time your fighter planes operating as protection for your daylight bombers over Berlin, I knew at once the greatest crisis of the war had arrived. We had not foreseen this development. I went immediately to Hitler and insisted that the fullest priority must be given to our jetpropelled aircraft, which alone could have saved the air for Germany. Hitler was stupid. He had no conception of the technique of air war and interfered foolishly. I could not explain to him that pilots have to be trained in new tactics for jet planes. He insisted that pilots could simply step from one plane to another without additional training. He overruled our technical experts and put models into production that were utterly worthless. The confusion was immense. It was hopeless.”
On the ground Rundstedt was a helpless witness to the debacle:
“We expected the assault on France either in April, 1944, or August. Your assault in June took us somewhat by surprise. It was by Hitler’s decision that we were to oppose your forces on the beaches. I insisted that we should withdraw our troops from the beaches and adjoining territory and fight well inland once your lines of communications had been stretched. Assuredly, they must be stretched. Hitler overruled me. We attacked everywhere without plan or system. Perhaps the most stunning blow came in August, when Hitler ordered the counterthrust to cut off the Americans at Avranches. He was absolutely confident the attack would succeed. When it failed he was astounded and depressed.
“But Hitler continued to believe in the V weapons. He never lost hope that by these methods he could stabilize the front and open the way for a political effort.”
Fuhrer’s Last Fling
The Ardennes offensive was Hitler’s last fling. At his bidding Rundstedt undertook the attack with the greatest misgivings. The objective—as we suspected at the time—was to cut through to Antwerp and pocket all British and Canadian forces in Holland. The intention was to cripple the Western Allies for a minimum of six months, during which time Hitler believed he could come to terms with Russia.
• On the second day of the Ardennes offensive Berlin knew it was hopeless. The Americans had withstood the power and surprise of the attack. Whatever small success followed was useless. The offensive had to be a complete success or nothing. Then Zhukov launched his offensive in the East and Hitler resigned himself to final defeat.
This, then, is Germany’s history of the war, and it poses one supreme question:
If Hitler had not assumed command, could German generalship have won the war?
I have asked this question of dozens of German staff officers. Collating all their replies, we come down to this:
“If Hitler had not assumed domination of the High Command. Germany
would not have waged war in 1939. She would have waited perhaps three more years, during which her initial advantage would have been compounded manyfold. Then she would have had a supreme opportunity of winning the
war and the whole world as well.” Hitler’s impatience created the errors that enabled us to win. The German people know this. They have learned the lesson of patience. Next time they will win—if we allow them a next time.