To avoid being arrested for evading military service in Austria-Hungary, Adolf Hitler left Vienna for Munich in May 1913 but was forced to return–then he failed the physical. He volunteered for the Bavarian army the following year and served during all of World War I on the Western Front. His experiences in the fighting affected his thinking about war thereafter.
After World War I, Hitler came to control the National Socialist German Workers Party, which he hoped to lead to power in Germany. When a coup attempt in 1923 failed, he turned, after release from jail, to the buildup of the party to seize power by means that were at least outwardly legal. He hoped to carry out a program calling for the restructuring of Germany on a racist basis so that it could win a series of wars to expand the German people’s living space until they dominated and exclusively inhabited the globe.
He believed that Germany should fight wars for vast tracts of land to enable its people to settle on them, raising large families that would replace casualties and provide soldiers for the next war of expansion. The first would be a small and easy war against Czechoslovakia, to be followed by the really difficult one against France and Britain. A third war would follow against the Soviet Union, which he assumed would be simple and quick and would provide raw materials, especially oil, for the fourth war against the United States. That war would be simple once Germany had the long-range planes and superbattleships to fight a power thought inherently weak but far distant and possessing a large navy.
Once Hitler had come to power in 1933, German military preparations were made for these wars. The emphasis in the short term was on weapons for the war against the western powers, and for the long term, on the weapons for war against the United States.
In 1938 Hitler drew back from war over Czechoslovakia at the last minute but came to look upon agreeing to a peaceful settlement at Munich as his worst mistake. When he turned to the war against France and Britain, he could not persuade Poland to subordinate itself to Germany to ensure a quiet situation in the east; hence, he decided to destroy that country before heading west. He was determined to have war and initiated it on September 1, 1939. To facilitate the quick conquest of Poland and break any blockade, he aligned Germany with the Soviet Union, assuming that concessions made to that country would be easily reclaimed when Germany turned east.
Hitler had originally hoped to attack in the west in the late fall of 1939, but bad weather–which would have hindered full use of the air force–and differences among the military led to postponement until the spring of 1940. During that interval, Hitler made two major decisions. Urged on by Admiral Erich Raeder, he decided to seize Norway to facilitate the navy’s access to the North Atlantic and did so in April 1940. Urged by General Erich von Manstein, he shifted the primary focus of attack in the west from the northern to the southern part of the force that was to invade the Low Countries. They might then cut off Allied units coming to aid the Belgians and the Dutch.
The new strategy at first appeared to work when the Germans in a few days broke through the French defenses and, within ten days, reached the Channel coast behind the Allied forces. Ordering their air force to destroy the cut-off Allied units, the Germans first wanted to turn south to prevent the buildup of a new defensive line, a decision on which the German commander, Gerd von Rundstedt, and Hitler agreed. As it became clear that many Allied soldiers might escape, the direction of the armor was reversed again, but too late to halt the evacuation of much of the British Expeditionary Force and many French soldiers. The thrust southward in early June 1940 brought a swift collapse of remaining French resistance, and this complete victory gave Hitler an aura of triumph, which assured him the enthusiastic support of almost all of Germany’s military leaders, especially as he systematically tied them to himself by generous promotions and a system of mass bribery.
Because it looked as if this war was over, Hitler and the military began planning for the wars against the United States and against the Soviet Union. On July 11, the resumption of construction of the navy to defeat the United States was ordered; by July 31, after first hoping to invade the Soviet Union in the fall of 1940, Hitler, on the advice of his military staff, decided to attack in the east in the late spring of 1941.
As Britain refused to accept defeat, Hitler planned to combine three measures to knock it out of the war: the German air force would destroy the country’s capacity to defend itself; there would be an invasion if Britain did not surrender; and the expected quick defeat of the Soviet Union would remove that country as a possible source of aid for Britain and, by ending any danger to Japan’s rear, encourage that power to move in the Pacific and tie up the United States.
Hitler wanted Japan to join in the war with Britain and promised to join Japan in war with the United States if that was thought necessary by Tokyo, assuming that this would be the other way for Germany to acquire the navy for war with the United States. A short campaign in the Balkans was to secure what he believed might be a vulnerable southern flank; the last step in this, the airborne seizure of Crete, proved so costly that the Germans attempted no major airborne operation thereafter.
The German invasion of the Soviet Union, begun on June 22, 1941, seemed at first to work as planned but quickly ran into trouble. The initial blows, which were supposed to bring the Soviet Union crashing down in a few weeks, did not have that effect. Thereafter, the question always was which sector to attack and whether to retreat. In this, Hitler was at times at odds with some generals, but others always took his position. As the war turned increasingly against Germany, disagreements became more frequent. Hitler still expected to win while some generals were trying to find a less messy way of losing. None advised against going to war with the United States. For the 1942 offensive in the east, Hitler and his military leaders agreed on striking in the south; this project ended in disaster at Stalingrad. A new major offensive in 1943 not only ended in defeat at Kursk but also was followed by the first successful Red Army summer offensive.
When retreats were advocated, Hitler was always concerned about the loss of mat[eacute]riel that could not be hauled back, about the need to reconquer whatever had been given up, and about shorter lines, which released Red Army units for new offensives. Some generals, Erwin Rommel and Walther Model, for example, occasionally acted without or against orders to pull back and were not punished. Others were sent home to collect their monthly bribes in retirement.
As Hitler saw increasing danger from the western Allies, he relied more on Admiral Karl D[odie]nitz to hold them off by submarine warfare. When that effort was blunted in 1943, he both supported the building of new types of submarines and geared strategy on the northern portion of the Eastern Front to protection of the Baltic area, where new submarines and crews could be run in. Enormous resources were also allocated to new weapons designed to destroy London. It was Hitler’s hope that the Germans could drive any Allied troops who landed in the west into the sea and then move substantial forces east in the interval before any second invasion. When this plan failed, Hitler turned to holding all ports as long as possible, to hamper Allied supply lines and to prepare for a counterstroke that would defeat the western Allies. This counterstroke, the Battle of the Bulge, would then provide the opportunity to move forces east after all.
As the Allies closed in on Germany, Hitler increasingly hoped for a split in the alliance he had forged against himself. He believed Germany had lost World War I because of the collapse of the home front and therefore assumed that establishment of a dictatorship and the systematic killing of all Jews would guarantee victory this time. When the end was near, he married his mistress and then committed suicide with her.
The term “Hitler’s War,” sometimes attached to World War II, is accurate at least to some extent; obviously, only the massive energies of the German people, harnessed to his will, made the war possible and made it last so long. But there cannot be any doubt that in harnessing that energy to extraordinary projects and horrible crimes, Hitler placed his stamp on that war and on the twentieth century.
The Reader’s Companion to Military History. Edited by Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker. Copyright © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.