Conversation with Gerhard Weinberg: What We Still Have to Learn about the War | HistoryNet MENU

Conversation with Gerhard Weinberg: What We Still Have to Learn about the War

8/14/2018 • World War II Magazine

Gerhard Weinberg is one of America’s leading historians of World War II. In 1958, while examining the large trove of captured German documents held by the United States government, he discovered the typescript of Hitler’s unpublished sequel to Mein Kampf. Weinberg is professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author of Visions of Victory and Hitler’s Foreign Policy 1933–1939.

It’s now more than sixty years since the end of World War II, but are there still important questions about the war that remain unanswered?

Yes—one category is issues about which there is a lot of information but differing views. For example, in the First World War the Japanese were on the Allied side, and Japanese naval units were in the Mediterranean helping fight against German submarines. One would have thought that the officers on those ships, as they rose in the Japanese naval hierarchy in the interwar years to important positions, might have remembered the importance of submarine warfare against commerce and antisubmarine warfare’s importance for the protection of commerce. Yet these were subjects that simply vanished from the Japanese naval leadership.

The irony of it all is that because the Germans could not persuade the Japanese that submarines could sink merchant ships, they sent German submarines to bases provided by the Japanese in Malaysia so that German submarines could operate in the Indian Ocean. Now this is about as idiotic an allocation of scarce resources as one could possibly imagine.

What’s your own explanation for this?

My explanation is that individuals in the top leadership became so fixated on their projects that reality, easily accessible and available and in no way secret, was not allowed to intrude. I’ll give you a very dramatic example. As you know, the notion of an attack on Pearl Harbor was that of Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto. In the last paper exercise in his headquarters, one of the things that was “accomplished” was the sinking of the aircraft carrier Yorktown. There wasn’t an officer in the room who had the moral courage to say, “But Your Excellency, how can we sink the Yorktown in Pearl Harbor when we know it’s in the Atlantic?” Even the bravest Japanese pilot it seems to me would have difficulty sinking in the Pacific an American aircraft carrier known to be in the Atlantic. That the top people and those under them in the Japanese naval and army hierarchy had all the physical courage there’s no doubt. But nobody, to my knowledge, had the moral courage to put this kind of thing in front of those in charge.

Are there examples of actions by the German leadership that are equally a puzzle?

With all their differences, the Germans and Japanese were very much alike in one area. Every time the Germans became suspicious that the Allies might be breaking their codes, they came finally to the conclusion that because they could not break into Allied electronic random substitution codes, by definition the more stupid people on the Allied side couldn’t be doing it to them. The Japanese, when they became suspicious and when the Germans in fact warned them, again came to the identical conclusion: anything we can’t do, those dumbbells on the other side most certainly cannot do.

So some decisions that seem inexplicable may reflect just arrogance.

Yes, the arrogance factor is simply colossal. Let me give you an example from the winter of ’44–’45. Why do the Germans launch their last major reserves against the Americans, in what we call the Battle of the Bulge? The answer it seems to me is very clear. The American home front is perceived by the Nazi leadership as so weak—a strange mixture of morons, various nationalities, and the whole thing controlled allegedly by Jews—that if there is a heavy blow at the front that really rocks American armies, then the whole system will fall apart. Now, to us today, this sounds crazy. But people make decisions based on what they believe. From the outside this is 100 percent nonsense. But people very often believe 100 percent nonsense, and act on it.

This parallels your argument about Hitler—that what seem to most people as mad or illogical in his actions actually are no surprise when you read his own words.

We’re talking about someone who had a set of beliefs, and articulated them in writing and in speeches. He was prepared to be opportunistic in implementation, and in picking the timing of what he would do. But in terms of basic planning, armaments productions, atrocity decisions, he operated, I would argue, essentially coherently. Now his basic premises and aims—conquest of the globe and a demographic revolution on it, and Ger many to do it all—that basic premise is crazy. But my point is that, if that’s what you want to do and you really believe it, then it follows among other things very early that you’re going to have to fight the United States. So right after the planning for the war against Britain and France, in 1937 out go the orders for an intercontinental bomber to fly to the U.S., drop bombs, and fly back to Germany.

Now, this plane doesn’t fly; I’m not arguing that this was practical; all I am arguing is that to understand why resources are allocated and decisions are made we have to look at what does the decision maker think he is doing.

It seems almost a cliché to say that Hitler’s ambition was to “take over the world,” but according to your own research that’s really not far off the mark, is it?

No, no, no, it’s entirely correct. And he made no bones about it. One of the people who had been in jail after the failed 1923 coup attempt [by the Nazis] in Munich went off to what was then the Dutch East Indies, and in 1927 Hitler’s then secretary [Rudolf] Hess wrote him a long letter to fill him in on what was going on back home. And in the letter, of which there is a copy in our National Archives, he explains both the organizational plans and principles of the Nazi Party and also the foreign policy aims— in which he talks about German control of the world. The “best” power will control the world, he says.

Whenever I cite this, editors ask me, “Isn’t the date wrong? Shouldn’t this be 1937, not 1927?” But Hess understood— after all, Hitler had dictated his Mein Kampf to him, he was as close to Hitler politically as anybody could be. So there is a sense of this from the very beginning.

What other kinds of historical puzzles remain from World War II?

Another category is where we don’t know enough because the relevant records haven’t been accessible. The most important single example of this is the whole area of Soviet intelligence and code breaking. We know that the Soviets allocated more resources to spying on the Allies than to spying on their World War II enemies, but to what extent were they breaking British and American codes, to what extent were they breaking German codes before Stalingrad (when they undoubtedly captured enough Enigma machines to do it thereafter)? These are things about which we know next to nothing. And the sad thing is that these materials are rapidly deteriorating and unless they are made available soon they will never be utilized by anybody.

So historians are in a race against time before these documents literally crumble to dust?

This is one of my steady refrains. All countries in World War II made the deliberate decision to allocate resources to things that they considered more important than record keeping. So World War II paper tended to be among the worst that could be produced. Unless records are microfilmed, which gives you something like seventy-five years, the material simply, physically disappears.

Interest in World War II among the public seems to be only growing. But at the same time we read complaints of universities slighting the study of military history. Why is that?

I frankly would say we have two trends more or less simultaneous. We have a massive public interest, a fascination. On the other hand we have, I think as part of the heritage over the arguments over the Vietnam War, a sense that military affairs and military history are not something that respectable academics should be particularly interested in. There are many exceptions. But there are lots of academics who have this rather negative view.

And there is one further aspect in the academic world which can’t simply be forgotten. And that is that the likelihood of a department of history at any university today having a veteran of the armed forces on the staff is very low. Most of them, like myself, have retired or died.

Ironically, the public interest you mentioned is also reflected in student interest. The big classes on campus in history departments are classes on the Vietnam War, on the Second World War, surveys of American military history. The students are interested. And that, I would suggest, is part of this wider public interest. Our classes here are filled.


Originally published in the July/August 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here

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