What Drove Germany To Two World Wars?

There is nothing that is human that is foreign to me. There is nothing Hitler did that is not inside of everybody. For instance, most people wish that their enemies would simply disappear. Israelis wish that Palestinians would simply disappear, just as many Europeans for centuries have wished that Jews would simply disappear. Different groups have different interests, and there is no safe mid-way point between being a subject nation and being a growing empire.

The strong take what they can and the weak suffer what they must. (Thucydides)

Every victimology contains a nationalism, every nationalism a victimology, and every nationalism contains the capacity for genocide. If Israel needed to drop nuclear bombs on its enemies at the cost of 100 million Arab lives to preserve its Jewish state, it would do so, as would any other nuclear country under attack. There is no limit to the number of outsiders that any group will kill if it needs to do so to survive.

States and people will do whatever is necessary to survive.

I’m finishing off John J. Mearsheimer’s classic, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics:

* Germany’s aggressive foreign policy behavior was driven mainly by
strategic calculations. Security was always a burning issue for Germany because of geography: it is located in the center of Europe with few natural defensive barriers on either its eastern or its western flank, which makes it vulnerable to invasion. Consequently, German leaders were always on the lookout for opportunities to gain power and enhance the prospects for their country’s survival. This is not to deny that other factors influenced German foreign policy. Consider, for example, German behavior under its two most famous leaders, Otto von Bismarck and Adolf Hitler. Although Bismarck is usually considered an artful practitioner of realpolitik, he was motivated by nationalism as well as security concerns when he started and won wars in 1864, 1866, and 1870-71. Specifically,
he not only sought to expand Prussia’s borders and make it more secure, but also was determined to create a unified German state.

There is no doubt that Hitler’s aggression was motivated in good part by a deep-seated racist ideology. Nevertheless, straightforward power calculations were central to Hitler’s thinking about international politics. Since 1945, scholars have debated how much continuity links the Nazis and their predecessors. In the foreign policy realm, however, there is widespread agreement that Hitler did not represent a sharp break with the past but instead thought and behaved like German leaders before him. David
Calleo puts the point well: “In foreign policy, the similarities between imperial and Nazi Germany are manifest. Hitler shared the same geopolitical analysis: the same certainty about conflict among nations, the same craving and rationale for hegemony over Europe. The First World War, he could claim, only sharpened the validity of that geopolitical analysis.” Even without Hitler and his murderous ideology, Germany surely would have been an aggressive state by the late 1930s…

The best way to determine whether an aggressor such as Japan or
Germany was engaged in self-defeating behavior is to focus on the decisionmaking process that led it to initiate war, not the outcome of the conflict. A careful analysis of the Japanese and German cases reveals that. in each instance, the decision for war was a reasonable response to the particular circumstances each state faced. As the discussion below makes clear, these were not irrational decisions fueled by malign political forces on the
home front…

Furthermore, even though Napoleon, Kaiser Wilhelm, and Hitler all lost their bids to dominate Europe, each won major battlefield victories, conquered huge tracts of territory, and came close to achieving their goals. Only Japan stood little chance of winning hegemony on the battlefield. But as we shall see, Japanese policymakers knew that they would probably lose, and went to war only because the United States left them with no reasonable alternative…

The German decision to push for war in 1914 was not a case of wacky
strategic ideas pushing a state to start a war it was sure to lose. It was, as noted, a calculated risk motivated in large part by Germany’s desire to break its encirclement by the Triple Entente, prevent the growth of Russian power, and become Europe’s hegemon. The precipitating event was a crisis in the Balkans between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, in which Germany sided with the former and Russia with the latter.

German leaders clearly understood that they would have to fight a
two-front war and that the Schlieffen Plan did not guarantee victory. Nevertheless, they thought that the risk was worth taking, especially since Germany was so much more powerful than either France or Russia at the time, and there was good reason to think that the United Kingdom might remain on the sidelines. 121 They almost proved right. The Schlieffen Plan narrowly missed producing a quick and decisive victory in 1914.122 As political scientist Scott Sagan notes, it was for good reason that the French
referred to their last-second victory near Paris in September 1914 as “the Miracle of the Marne.”123 Moreover, Germany almost won the subsequent war of attrition between 1915 and 1918. The Kaiser’s armies knocked Russia out of the war in the fall of 1917, and they had the British and especially the French armies on the ropes in the spring of 1918. Had it not been for American intervention at the last moment, Germany might have won World War I.1 24

This discussion of German behavior before World War I points to an
anomaly for offensive realism. Germany had an excellent opportunity to gain hegemony in Europe in the summer of 1905. Not only was it a
potential hegemon, but Russia was reeling from its defeat in the Far East and was in no position to defend itself against a German attack. Also, the United Kingdom was not yet allied with France and Russia . So France stood virtually alone against the mighty Germans, who “had an opportunity without parallel to change the European balance in their favor.” Yet Germany did not seriously consider going to war in 1905 but instead waited until 1914, when Russia had recovered from its defeat and the United Kingdom had joined forces with France and Russia. 126 According to offensive realism, Germany should have gone to war in 1905, because it
almost surely would have won the conflict.

Nazi Germany (1933-41)

The charge against Hitler is that he should have learned from World War I that if Germany behaved aggressively, a balancing coalition would form and crush it once again in a bloody two-front war. The fact that Hitler ignored this obvious lesson and rushed headlong into the abyss, so the argument goes, must have been the result of a deeply irrational decisionmaking process.

This indictment does not hold up on close inspection. Although there is no question that Hitler deserves a special place in the pantheon of mass murderers, his evilness should not obscure his skill as an adroit strategist who had a long run of successes before he made the fatal mistake of invading the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. Hitler did indeed learn from World War I. He concluded that Germany had to avoid fighting on two fronts at the same time, and that it needed a way to win quick and decisive military victories. He actually realized those goals in the early
years of World War II, which is why the Third Reich was able to wreak so much death and destruction across Europe . This case illustrates my earlier point about learning: defeated states usually do not conclude that war is a futile enterprise, but instead strive to make sure they do not repeat mistakes in the next war.

Hitler’s diplomacy was carefully calculated to keep his adversaries from forming a balancing coalition against Germany, so that the Wehrmacht could defeat them one at a time. 127 The key to success was preventing the Soviet Union from joining forces with the United Kingdom and France, thus recreating the Triple Entente. He succeeded. In fact, the Soviet Union helped the Wehrmacht carve up Poland in September 1939, even though the United Kingdom and France had declared war against Germany for having invaded Poland. During the following summer (1940), the Soviet Union stood on the sidelines while the German army overran France and pushed the British army off the continent at Dunkirk. When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, France was out of the war, the United States was not yet in, and the United Kingdom was not a serious threat to
Germany. So the Wehrmacht was effectively able to fight a one-front war against the Red Army in 1941. 128

Much of Hitler’s success was due to the machinations of his rivals, but there is little doubt that Hitler acted skillfully. He not only played his adversaries off against one another, but he went to considerable lengths to convince them that Nazi Germany had benign intentions. As Norman Rich notes, “To conceal or obscure whatever his real intentions may have been, Hitler dedicated no small part of his diplomatic and propagandistic skill. In his public speeches and diplomatic conversations he monotonously intoned his desire for peace, he signed friendship treaties and nonaggression pacts, he was lavish with assurances of good will.”

Hitler surely understood that the blustery rhetoric of Kaiser Wilhelm and other German leaders before World War I had been a mistake. Hitler also recognized the need to fashion a military instrument that could win quick victories and avoid the bloody battles of World War 1. To that end he supported the building of panzer divisions and played an important role in designing the blitzkrieg strategy that helped Germany win one of the most stunning military victories of all time in France (1940).30 Hitler’s Wehrmacht also won stunning victories against minor
powers: Poland, Norway, Yugoslavia, and Greece. As Sebastian Haffner notes, “From 1930 until 1941 Hitler succeeded in practically everything he undertook, in domestic and foreign politics and eventually also in the military field, to the amazement of the world.” If Hitler had died in July 1940 after France capitulated, he probably would be considered “one of
the greatest of German statesmen.”

Fortunately, Hitler made a critical mistake that led to the destruction of the Third Reich. He unleashed the Wehrmacht against the Soviet Union in June 1941, and this time the German blitzkrieg failed to produce a quick and decisive victory. Instead, a savage war of attrition set in on the eastern front, which the Wehrmacht eventually lost to the Red Army. Compounding matters, the United States came into the war in December 1941 and, along with the United Kingdom, eventually opened up a second front in the west. Given the disastrous consequences of attacking the Soviet Union, one might think that there was abundant evidence beforehand that the Soviet Union would win the war, that Hitler was warned repeatedly that launching Operation Barbarossa was tantamount to committing national suicide, and that he did it anyway because he was not a rational calculator.

The evidence, however, does not support this interpretation. There was little resistance among the German elite to Hitler’s decision to invade the Soviet Union; in fact, there was considerable enthusiasm for the gambit. For sure, some German generals were dissatisfied with important aspects of the final plan, and a few planners and policymakers thought that the Red Army might not succumb to the German blitzkrieg. Nevertheless, there was a powerful consensus within the German elite that the Wehrmacht would quickly rout the Soviets, much the way it had defeated the British and French armies a year earlier. It was also widely believed in
both the United Kingdom and the United States that Germany would
defeat the Soviet Union in 1941. 134 Indeed, there were good reasons to think that the Red Army would collapse in the face of the German onslaught. Stalin’s massive purges of his army in the late 1930s had markedly reduced its fighting power, and almost as if to prove the point, the Red Army performed badly in its war against Finland (1939-40). Plus, the Wehrmacht was a finely tuned fighting force by June 1941. In the end, Hitler and his lieutenants simply miscalculated the outcome of Operation Barbarossa. They made a wrong decision, not an irrational one, and that sometimes happens in international politics.

A final point about Germany’s two failed attempts at hegemony. Haffner wrote during the Cold War of the wide belief that it was “a mistake from the very start” for Germany to have attempted to dominate Europe.136 He emphasized how members of “the younger generation” in what was then West Germany “often stare at their fathers and grandfathers as though they were lunatics ever to have set themselves such a goaL” He notes, however, that “it should be remembered that the majority of those fathers and grandfathers, i.e., the generation of the First and that of the Second World War, regarded the goal as reasonable and attainable. They were inspired by it and not infrequently died for it.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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