Last night, I was talking to my Uncle Carl.
Oh, he’s not actually a relative. You probably know him by his last name: Clausewitz, author of the imposing 19th-century tome, On War. It’s just that I turn to him so often that he seems to have become part of my family. When it comes to analyzing World War II—or any war for that matter—Carl von Clausewitz is the master, and he never lets me down.
The other day I was pondering Germany’s decisive loss in World War II. The Germans certainly brought some impressive military qualities to the table. Panzers! Stukas! Meticulously crafted operational plans! Their early victories shocked the world: Poland, Norway, France, the Balkans, the airdrop on Crete. The opening months of Operation Barbarossa saw the German Wehrmacht inflict the mind-boggling total of four million casualties on the Soviet Union’s Red Army.
You all know the ending: the most smashing defeat in military history.
So, as always, I dial up Uncle Carl. He smiles and reminds me of an obvious fact. “War,” he tells me, “is the continuation of politics by other means.” War is a political act, in other words. If your political aims are defective, out of whack with your resources, or unrealizable—or all three—then all the tanks and aircraft you can muster are probably not going to get the job done.
This is the Germans’ core problem in World War II. Despite the fighting qualities of the Wehrmacht, its pioneering skill at mechanized warfare, solid generalship, and millions of soldiers willing to die for the cause, the German failure ultimately comes down to politics.
Hitler isn’t fighting a “normal” war. He’s not seeking tactical advantage, a favorable treaty, or a greater share of the world’s resources. He says it over and over again: he is fighting a war to annihilate his enemies worldwide. He is willing to starve fifty million civilians in the conquered Eastern territories to achieve his goals. He intends to enslave those whom he despises as “lower races” or “subhumans.” And, of course, he is obsessed with exterminating the Jews altogether, wherever he finds them. What drives him is blind hatred, not a deliberate strategy.
A war fought for nothing less than global domination, however, inevitably brings forth global opposition. Soon, Germany is locked in mortal combat with the world’s greatest land power, a resurgent Soviet Union; the world’s greatest empire, Great Britain; and, finally, the world’s financial and industrial giant, the United States. Hitler’s monstrous political aims create the most formidable military coalition in history, an anti-German “Grand Alliance,” as Winston Churchill called it.
The coalition isn’t completely cohesive. Churchill doesn’t see eye to eye with Stalin, and Roosevelt has views that sometimes give Churchill heartburn. One thing unites them: their mutual loathing of Hitler. Together, the three powers can generate enormous military power. It’s enough, first, to withstand German attacks, then to create a strategic stalemate, and finally to launch offensives. Hordes of men; mountains of tanks, planes, and shells; and high-volume industrial economies grind the Third Reich into powder. The lesson: violence begets violence, usually more than you bargained for initially.
But of course, Uncle Carl knows all about that. He has another classic line in On War: “War is an act of violence to compel our opponent to do our will.” During World War II, Hitler unleashed the violence—but by the end, it was the Allies who were doing the compelling.
Need help with a World War II issue? Just dial up Uncle Carl. He’s always happy to help. ✯