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Knowing Your Enemy in World War II

By Robert M. Citino 
Originally published under Front & Center Blog. Published Online: November 17, 2009 
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When in doubt, consult Sun Tzu.  "Know your enemy," the great ancient sage once wrote.

Good advice in wartime, I'm sure we'll all agree.  The longer I study World War II, however, the more I am convinced how little the antagonists knew about one another.  This is especially true for the powers whose aggression started the war, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.  Both powers were convinced that the western democracies were old, tired, and flabby.  Hitler was sure that once Germany had carved out an East European empire for itself, Great Britain and France would simply fall into line.  After all, the only alternative would be war to the knife, a life and death struggle for which he was sure they no longer had the will.  Likewise, all the smart voices in Tokyo felt certain that Japan could get away with something similar.  Singapore, Hong Kong, Indochina, the Dutch East Indies, the Philippines:  all were ripe for the plucking.  The feeble western empires in Asia would collapse, and young Japan would inherit the estate.  About Mussolini's insane notion that Italy could conquer and rule a modern-day Roman Empire, we will draw a merciful silence.

Perhaps the most wrongheaded notion of all was Hitler's belief that the Soviet Union, under the yoke of its "Jewish-Bolshevik" regime, was in such an advanced state of decay that that all it would take was one swift kick and "the whole rotten edifice of communist rule will come tumbling down," as he remarked in 1941 to staff officer General Alfred Jodl.

Similar negative stereotypes existed about the United States, as well.  The Japanese were certain that once they had set up their defense perimeter in the Pacific, the Americans would have no choice but to respect it.  After all, what U.S. president would willingly throw away the tens of thousands of young American lives it would take to penetrate that perimeter?  Frontal assaults on one fortified island after another?  Preposterous.  A commercial nation obsessed with material comforts would never be able to make the appropriate sacrifices. 
   
While Allied diplomatic and military intelligence services weren't perfect, and while the Allies powers had their own stereotypes and misconceptions about the Axis, I think we can identify one crucial Allied advantage:  their respective leaders had a much more realistic notion of what it would take to win the war:  total national mobilization, "blood, sweat, and tears," and a mountain of industrial production. 

The Allies knew their enemy. 

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23 Responses to “Knowing Your Enemy in World War II”


  1. 1
    Cap'n Dave says:

    I think it is better phrased "the allies eventually knew their enemy"

    It seems to me that the reason the Axis were allowed to get so far is that the Western Powers were so clueless about the true nature of the fascists during the years prior to 1939.
    It was a matter of course that the allies would quickly learn the nature of their enemy after having their asses handed to them for a couple of years. I think Hitler also had many of his assumptions about the allies reinforced (largely up until December 1941) by their poor performance.
    Not that it is particularly useful, but I think that had the Brits not been in the thrall of appeasement and opposed early German annexations, it is likely Hitler would have been disabused of his assumptions.

  2. 2
    Rob Citino says:

    Cap'n Dave–

    You're right–the Allies dithered in standing up to Hitler before 1939. My comments are directed more toward the actual war. I really don't think anyone in the Allied camp was underplaying the difficulty of beating the germans. It had taken four years last time, and it might well take even longer this time. In the Pacific, the distances alone precluded any sort of lightning victory over Japan.

    One more element to throw into the mix: once can make a pretty strong argument today that gives Chamberlain credit for undertaking rearmament, even as he is still criticized for being Mr. Appeasement.

  3. 3
    Bill Nance says:

    You can also see that these fundamental misunderstandings led to the strategic choices that eventually doomed Germany and Japan. Strategic assumptions lead you to different choices

    If Germany had realized that they would need to invade the UK in pre-war strategic planning, their pre-war build would have looked dramatically different, with a much greater emphasis on naval and air forces. Also, if Germany understood the SU better, Nazi commanders would have pushed much harder for Moscow in an attempt to cut the head off the monster than pawn grabbing in the Ukraine. Look at any book dealing with a fictional WW III from people in the strategic know (GEN Hackett's is probably the best). The only way to really defeat the SU was a political head shot.

  4. 4
    Luke Truxal says:

    Question to the comment board. Dr. Citino points out that the Allies went to total mobilization and in a sense they fought the war from a do or die stand point. With this in mind did the Axis force the Allies to a more do or die strategy and mentality? Hitler did force the Soviets to this strategy and philosophy, but did Hitler drive the western allies to the do or die strategy they were operating on? Did the allies during their pre-war planning plan for total mobilization or was it forced on them? Sorry that I have more questions than comments for this blog.

  5. 5
    Rob Citino says:

    Luke–

    Good question(s). I think a good strategist brings a LOT of questions to the table. More questions than answers, in fact. My take, FWIW: I think the Allies were thinking as much of the lessons of World War I (just 20 yrs in the past) as they were of Hitler. Beating "Germany," in other words, not simply beating "Hitler." And it was hard to think of an easy way to do that. Britain, low in resources, had a particularly hard time thinking its way forward. Hence things like Churchill's non-stop suggestions for a landing in Norway, or Greece, or anywhere that was peripheral. The US, for its part, had a pretty clear strategic idea: a landing in Western Europe. Putting it together in the real world, however, took YEARS.

  6. 6
    Bill Nance says:

    The Allies all had some form of total mobilization planning in the works in the inter war years. That's what general staff officers do. I'm pretty sure a plan to invade Canada is somewhere in the Pentagon, just hasn't been updated in a while.

    That said, you could see that the allies did not truly fully mobilize until really no other choice was left. The English and French had lots of divisions on line, but I wouldn't call either nation in a state of total mobilization in 1940.

    The Americans took a long time as well, but by 1941, I'm pretty sure the strategists realized it would take the full might of the US to make it happen. Of course you might argue that the US never did a TOTAL mobilization. In December 41, the Americans were thinking they would have to take on the full Wehrmacht as the SU really wasn't looking too hot then. The initial plan was for 200+ US divisions. A far cry from what was actually sent overseas. That said the navy and AAF were pretty big too.

  7. 7
    Rob Citino says:

    Bill–

    See Steve Ross's book a few years back on US War Plans. IN the 30's, the army had plans, as I recall, for an armored drive on WINNIPEG, of all places, if the US and Canada went to war!

  8. 8
    Cap'n Dave says:

    Here's my question, then a comment.

    How much did American awareness of the destruction in the USSR affect their mobilization plans?

    The component of Total Mobilization that seemingly is overlooked is the Public opinion mobilization. We all know that Hitler was working to unify German support with the help of Goebbels, but often forget that the British and American public were also being heavily propagandized by both sides in the late 30s. The debate was raging in both countries about if and how much commitment to make to Europe. If efforts had not been made early to prepare Americans for war, I don't think that FDR's speech on 8 Dec would have read the same way.
    I also argue that had the public of the US and UK been more amenable to mobilization and early intervention without provocation, the war may not have kicked off as it did. Hitler would likely have been kept in his box for much longer by early intervention. That said, it is probably better overall in terms of casualties that the war went the way it did. A full build up and then all out conflict seems like it would caused many more deaths.

    Along the mobilization line, it is interesting tho read about the efforts of the British to sway American public opinion in favor of intervention. C.S. Forester, Ian Fleming, David Ogilvy were all part of the covert UK effort in the US (it had the tacit approval of FDR). Perhaps the most interesting figure involved was Roald Dahl. Luke would probably really enjoy his story – and I don't mean the children's books.

  9. 9
    Bill Nance says:

    Well, as for the US awareness of the what was going on in the USSR, it significantly impacted the strategic choices facing the US. The initial plans, as mentioned, envisioned facing the full strength of the German Army. However, a number of factors precluded the US from fielding 200+ divisions.

    First, and most important to your question, the Soviets began, if not winning, at least stabilizing, so such a large force was no longer needed. One of the largest strategic assumptions in US strategic planning was that the bulk of the wehrmacht would be engaged in Russia.

    Second, the 200+ division plan came up against plans for a very large AAF and Navy. The Army's mobilization plan was not well synched with the AAC plan and the Navy plan (I know, doesn't speak well of US coordination in the early 40s)

    Third, industry made the case that it could not support a 200+ division army, plus the navy and AAF that the US wanted to build. Especially, not if the US was providing the level of material support to the rest of the Allies that it currently was.

  10. 10
    Matt-The-Sixteen-Year-Old-Pretentious-Bigot says:

    That's quite a farfetched notion. I'm referring to the 'antagonists' of war, that is. Not to say that I'm completely dodging the 'Knowing Your Enemy' aspect, but, in war, how can you ever be sure who the 'antagonists' and 'protagonists' are? Without love, truth cannot be seen. That was an amazing quote from a very special someone to me, You can interpret that however you'd like, however, what it basically means is that there is no way to properly judge 'truth' without seeing things from both perspectives. Sort of like you being at the top of a triangle. Because while the two opposing sides face each other, you're looking down at the two, taking both sides into account. So. That notion of there being 'antagonists' of war is completely speculation. Conjecture, if you will.

  11. 11
    Gun Guy says:

    So as the M1A1 like the best bolt action of what.

  12. 12
    Bill Nance says:

    Just don't feed the trolls. They get hungry and go away and look for their medication.

    As for mobilization just read that the US was estimating in Jan 42 that they would need 334 divisions. Considering that the US at the time had 36 divisions, that's quite a goal. Don't ever say that planners aim low.

  13. 13
    Matt-The-Sixteen-Year-Old-Prententious-Bigot says:

    In any event, here's my question. I realize that Hitler's amibitions were to rule over Europe and build up his army to eventually rule the entire world, with the notion that he and his army were invincible, or something to that effect. That part, I more or less understand. Here's where I'm stuck. Why did he attack Russia out of nowhere? What were his reasons? Why would you become a world-wide pariah, make so many enemies, and only have Italy and Japan to back you up? It doesn't make sense to me. Take into account that I'm a naive sixteen year old bigot, of course.

  14. 14
    Bill Nance says:

    Well, there's a lot on the subject. You might want to read a couple blogs back about Hitler's dark december. There's some good info in the comments section there.

    Also, if you look carefully at what Hitler was thinking overall, you could definitely make the argument that the SU was his overall objective, and that W. Europe was simply a necessary pre-cursor to that.

    As to why he went into Russia without taking out England first. Well, take a look at it from his perspective. What was England going to do? Cross the channel? With what army? Bomb his industry? OK, during the day – good way to commit suicide, at night – too innaccurate to be effective.

    For a reading list – Mein Kampf by good old Adolph himself
    A War to be Won – Murray and Millett
    A world at Arms – Weinberg

  15. 15
    Adam Rinkleff says:

    I hate to say it, but I really don't think Danzig was worth the cost of that war. I guess that makes me an appeaser, but given the dismal fate of the allies in 1940, I'm having a hard time believing that declaring war on Germany in September of 1939 was strategically sound. Meanwhile, I'm not sure that dividing East Prussia from Berlin was entirely rational. Admittedly, there were those who demanded that Poland deserved a port, but there are plenty of other landlocked nations, and meanwhile its particularly hard to justify dividing Germany into two. That's been tried twice in the 20th Century, and it simply doesn't seem to work.

    I'm not trying to say that Hitler wasn't a threat, or that nothing should have been done about him, but I really don't think the major lesson of the 20th Century is about the dangers of appeasement. Quite simply, Hitler wasn't created by appeasement. Even if Britain and France had decided in 1933 to spend a fortune on what would have then seemed like an irrational war against Germany, during which they could have marched on Berlin and executed Hitler… what good would that have done? Would it have solved anything, or would it just have embittered Germany further whilst plunging the world into a deeper economic crisis? Is anybody so naive as to think that executing Hitler would have magically stopped the fascist movement?

    Meanwhile, the fact of the matter is that the Treaty of Versailles was simply unreasonable. It doesn't matter whether Germany started WWI, or whether 'new research' demonstrates that Germany could have successfully paid the reparations. What matters is that millions of Germans were appalled and outraged at how they were treated during the 1920s. That resentment is what created Hitler, and any invasion of Germany in 1933 would have only served to foster additional resentment. It is simply naive to think that Germans would have been intimidated by an occupation in 1933, any more than they were intimidated by the French occupation of 1923.

    I hate to be a preacher, but many historical truths are only discernible to those who understand basic moral truths. For example, those who seek justice by punishing the guilty, will only create further resentment and hostility, and that is simply the way the world works. Psychologists have repeatedly demonstrated that negative reinforcement is counter-productive and ineffective. Thus, although I hate to be cliched, but there is a lot of truth in moralistic sayings about the karmic cycle of violence, and how an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.

    This is the real lesson of the 20th century, that punishing a nation for the crimes of its leaders, will only serve to encourage sentiments of revenge. There is an obvious lesson here for both criminal-justice and foreign-policy, although it is one which is tragically ignored. When we advocate sanctions and armed force against dictators, we may deter them in the short-term, but over the long 'duree' such actions will only foster resentment amongst the general populace. Yes, in 1933 the Allies could have stopped Hitler, but they would not have stopped fascism, and they actually would have encouraged it! I can't imagine anything which would have more inspired the fascist belief in violence as a tool of the state, than witnessing a foreign occupying force exercising such violence! Indeed, the French occupation of 1923-1925 did just that!

    Subsequently, in 1939, the Allies were clearly unprepared for war, and those bellicose politicians who declared war on Germany were foolish, because their nations were nearly destroyed in 1940. Therefore, in 1939 the Allies should have gladly and desperately offered to trade Danzig for Warsaw. Germany should have been freely allowed to occupy the Polish Corridor, although it should have perhaps been informed in no uncertain terms that further annexations would not be allowed. This may or may not have stopped Hitler, but that is not the point. If it had somehow prevented World War II, then that would have been just fabulous. Meanwhile, if it had not prevented a German invasion of Poland, it would have at least allowed the Allies a few more months to prepare their armies for war.

    Of course, I truly wonder whether Poland was worth a world war. This may offend those who celebrate Polish independence, but in the grand scheme of things I don't think anyone benefits from having major world powers fight six-year conflicts for the trivial sake of preserving the independence of a decidedly minor nation. I will happily make a similar statement about China… was Chinese independence really worth that war with Japan? I rather doubt that Japan could have ever maintained control of China, and so I also doubt that anything was gained from fighting to prevent Japan from doing something it wasn't capable of doing anyways. If the Allies had not gone to war with Germany and Japan, it is probable that those nations would have exhausted themselves in wars against Russia and China, and horrid as those conflicts would have been, they would not have been as disastrous as what actually occurred.

    This was the wisdom that Chamberlain understood. He saw that there was a flood of German (and Japanese) anger, some of it was justified, and some of it was not, but he correctly sought to appease that anger by making relatively minor concessions, in order to buy time for ongoing military reforms. Admittedly, none of this was sufficient, but at least Chamberlain saw the correct strategy. His mistake was that he did not appease Germany enough! Clearly, if he had 'known' the German people, he would have foreseen that Germany would inevitably demand control of the Polish Corridor. And if your military is unprepared for war, where is the wisdom in drawing a line which you cannot defend, and which your enemy is sure to cross?

    Ultimately, foreign-policy is like a game of chess, and sometimes you have to admit when you have been defeated. After World War I, the allies tried to play a game of harsh punishment, in order to break the German spirit and prevent Germany from ever becoming a powerful nation. They utterly failed in that impossible task, and they thus ensured that when Germany rose again, it would be a hostile power. This was all anticipated in 1919 by such economists as John Keynes, and there is therefore no excuse for why the Treaty was not more moderate. Subsequently, with the inevitable rise of a demagogue such as Hitler, the balance of power firmly shifted in Europe, such that the strategic retreat of appeasement was the only rational choice, no matter how unpalatable it may have been to the pride of those who sought British and French hegemony.

    In conclusion: In 1919, there was definitely something which could have been done to prevent Hitler, because there was no need for the Treaty of Versailles to be so harsh. In 1933, there may have been something which could have been done to stop Hitler, but there was simply no way that invading Germany would undo a decade of cruel neglect, and it would have been utterly impossible to justify such actions without the benefit of hindsight. The allied powers simply didn't have the force to invade every bellicose nation in 1933! The populace would have wondered why they should invade Germany, and not Italy, or Russia, or Japan, or Rumania? Finally, in 1939, the Allies declared war against a power which would overwhelm them in a matter of months. It was a decision based upon plenty of emotional rhetoric, but it was clearly not the correct decision.

    Quite simply, when you've enraged a monster which you created and which you are now unable to control, appeasement makes a lot of sense. Perhaps I'm a coward, but I would never voluntarily charge a German machine-gun, in order to preserve Poland's access to the sea. In 1939, when German troops moved east, Britain and France should have breathed a sigh of relief that the Germans weren't coming west. I hesitate to post this at all, because I know what manner of hyper-emotional opinion there is on this topic, but I would hate to see Americans let themselves make a similar mistake in the future. For some strange reason, Taiwan comes to mind. In 1945, the Americans could have ensured Taiwan's independence. In 1995, we probably could have had at great cost to ourselves. And in 2015? Will it be worth it?

  16. 16
    Luke Truxal says:

    Matt-The-Sixteen-Year-Old-Prententious-Bigot, Weinberg is a must read on that subject. Weinberg discusses this very issue. I believe it was Weinberg who said that since Hitler had driven the BEF off of the European Continent he felt that they had taken care of the British threat. Therefore, he felt that he could conquer Russia in a one front war which was true because the British did not have the man power to push the Germans out of France until the Americans arrived on the scene. To take a page from Dr. Citino's lectures Hitler's goal was the complete liquidation of the Soviet Union and their army. I hope I interpreted that correctly. Feel free to set me straight if I messed up Dr. Citino.

    Bill, Carl Spaatz thought that Allied bombers could bomb Germany into submission and that a land invasion was not necessary. He believed that a concentrated air offensive against the German oil industry could bring Germany to its knees. That's a totally different discussion which we can continue at 10 am tomorrow.

  17. 17
    Bill Nance says:

    True, Spaatz did believe that, but remember, Bbossa kicked off prior to the US entry. Even when the US did get into the war, the brits still stayed away from daylight bombing. They didn't have the manpower or industry to take the kind of losses the 8th AF did.

  18. 18
    Luke Truxal says:

    I was just pointing out that the theory was there not that it actually worked.

  19. 19
    Matt-The-Sixteen-Year-Old-Prententious-Bigot says:

    Weinberg, eh? Thank you. I'll make sure to read that. Is it on this site, or should I google it? Not to be annoying, or anything. Sorry. D:

  20. 20
    B. Horne says:

    I believe Luke refers to Gerhard Weinberg's 1995 masterpiece, " A World at Arms." It is not on the site–best sources would be a library or a bookseller like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Borders–a paperback version came out in 2005.

  21. 21
    paul penrod says:

    Yamamoto was the only Axis leader that had spent time in US and knew what made us tick. He was fully aware of what Japan was taking on when they planned to attack the US.– " I can run wild for 6 months, maybe a year, but after that…." After the Soviet bungling in Finland, Hitler misjudged their military and felt all he had to do was to "kick in the front door" Herman Goering dismissed US industry as "suitable for making Fords and Chevies" I think if it were possible to take Axis diplomats on a tour of the US industrial region in the Great Lakes Basin in 1938 it would have made them think twice. The key domino was France- had they hung on, Italy stands pat, Stalin doesnt have to appease Germany, Britain is less stretched out and the US can act strictly as the Arsenal of Democracy in Europe and aim it's combat power towards the Pacific. One commenter saying that Poland wasn't worth starting the war. Poland had been something of a loose cannon for the past 20 years-fighting Germany in Silesia in 1919, invading the Ukraine in 1920 and seizing the Tsechen region of the late Czechoslovakia in 1938. Perhaps Chamberlain saw Poland as a chance to engage the Germans in the east. He didn't think that it would be over in 5 weeks

  22. 22

    [...] "KNOW YOUR ENEMY?"  They don't seem to want us to do that.  I wonder why? Share [...]

  23. 23
    Larry C says:

    You obviously know very little about east European history.
    Poland did not invade Germany or start that fight. The Germans wanted to take back that part of Poland that they had taken in the partitions of the late 1790's. The population was Polish and that was a part of Poland that the Germans wanted for themselves. The Poles only defended what was theirs.
    On the eastern side, there was no invasion of the Ukraine. That portition of what is Ukraine today was what Stalin had taken from Poland after WWII. That was Polish terrritory for centuries and had a overwhelming Polish population. Poland only took what was their land before the Russians took it in the Partitions.
    Tsechen Was always disputed land and here is where it should have been negotiated rather than fought. However it takes two sides to negotiate.



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