Were there endemic weaknesses which explain the defeat of the Third Reich? In the aftermath of the Second War, historians- their judgement clearer with the benefit of hindsight- have clamoured to give their accounts of why Hitler’s Third Reich was defeated, often pointing to structural failings within the state. Nazi Germany’s downfall was not inevitable, though, and indeed for over two years, between the summer of 1940 and autumn of 1942, the outcome of the war was far from certain.
Yet, just a few months later following America’s entrance into the war, defeat of the Axis was in sight. In order to properly assess the question, it is important to define two key terms. Firstly, the word ‘endemic’, which can be defined as “constantly or regularly found among a (specified) people, or in a (specified) country” , which leads onto the second term for discussion; ‘Third Reich’.
The concept that German people were ‘working towards the Fuhrer’ is widespread, with Hitler being viewed by historians from the Intentionalist school of historiography as the ‘Master of the Third Reich’ . Therefore, when I refer to endemic weaknesses within the Third Reich, I am referring not only to structural weaknesses such as a lack of resources, but also to weaknesses of Hitler himself as his was a highly personalised regime and without him there would be no state.
This essay will argue that whilst endemic weaknesses stemming from Hitler were clearly evident within Germany, it was the resources, resilience and strategy of the Allies which ultimately led to defeat of Third Reich. There is compelling evidence of “endemic weaknesses” within the Third Reich, and certainly the most common argument for why Germany lost the war is simply that it was overstretched. Hitler’s decision to fight a war on two fronts was a gamble.
It was widely assumed that if Germany did not win the war quickly its overstrained economy would collapse long before the economies of the British and the French with their investments and empires . Undoubtedly, Germany suffered oil shortages, difficulties in coal supply and a serious shortage of animal feed as they attempted to enact Hitler’s Grossraum policy but these were mainly as a result of the British blockade, suggesting that Allied tactics were crucial in the failure of the Third Reich.
Furthermore, as Overy rightly points out, the United States faced a war on three fronts- two of which were thousands of miles away from the security of the home country- which all competed with each other for resources and yet still came out victorious, suggesting that being overstretched on its own was not enough to defeat Nazi Germany. The key difference between Germany and America, however, was resources, and this is highlighted by Raymond Goldsmith’s argument that “Gross Domestic Policy won the war” .
Allied to economically weak states, Germany appeared to stand little chance against the combined industrial might of Britain, France and America with their ability to produce far greater amounts of weapons. In addition to this, Italy had imperial expansion aims of their own and their advance into Greece and Egypt was a damaging distraction for Hitler, delaying ‘Operation Barbarossa’, his grand assault on Soviet Union, in June 1941 . However, as Overy argued, China had a large economic product in the 1930s but this did not make it a significant warring state.
Furthermore, Germany had access to greater industrial capacity than Britain and the Soviet Union combined in 1941 yet was still unable to defeat either power. Clearly, resources alone were not enough to secure victory and so it can be argued that the desire to win was also crucial for the Allied victory. There is evidence in the form of letters and memoirs to suggest that some of Hitler’s key ministers, such as Udet , the head of the of Luftwaffe, Canaris the head of the intelligence service, and Todt the head of the armaments ministry all shared the same fatalistic view that Germany’s fate was sealed after America got involved .
This attitude was not contained within the Nazi elite, however, and the widespread anxieties of the general public were recorded by Gestapo informants across the Reich. Likewise, Japan’s defeat was, according to one senior naval officer, because the “Japanese were short in spirit”. Conversely, it has been argued that the Allies won simply because they had more to lose and therefore more to fight for, and that this will to win was, according to Overy, “inseparable from the ability to fight better”.
On the domestic front, fear of occupation, hatred of fascism and patriotism were just some of the reasons why citizens supported the war effort as the Allies were united by the conviction that smashing Hitlerism was a just cause. However, it is important to note that “World War II did not end with a whimper”. Indeed, the final battles of the war were some of the most bloody in the entire conflict, and so it would be too simplistic to argue that a lack of psychological resolve was the cause of Germany’s downfall, although the strength of the bond between the Allies was a major factor in their success.
Whilst Allied resources and the desire to succeed were not enough on their own to defeat the Third Reich, and Hitler’s haphazard military strategy and inability to adapt to new situations can certainly be viewed as evidence of endemic German weaknesses. In contrast, careful planning and tactics for all eventualities were key characteristics of the Allied war plan. Their use of long range missiles to destroy German industry forced Hitler to divert his air force away from the front to protect German assets, and ensured that the Allied air forces outnumbered German planes seventy to one in the invasion of France.
Meanwhile, the Soviet General Staff conducted a comprehensive review of how the nation made war in 1942 and the Americans had a ratio of eighteen personnel to every one serviceman at the front in the Pacific War , highlighting the importance the Allies placed on strategy. In contrast, under the direction of the Fuhrer, the German war plan appeared erratic and irrational as Hitler announced that the only options were to be “survivors or annihilated” . Both in Germany and Japan, a much greater emphasis was placed on combat than on logistics.
Meanwhile, Hitler’s prophetic conviction- fuelled by a personal vendetta against Communism- that beating the Soviet Union was “vital for Germany’s future” meant that Germany was drawn into a seemingly unwinnable war in an alien terrain. The Fuhrer’s unwavering refusal to negotiate with the Allies and his obsession with defeating Stalin meant that Germany’s war strategy lacked overall vision. Alternatively, historian A J P Taylor views Hitler as nothing more than a “gifted opportunist” when it came to foreign policy , although this also suggests evidence of endemic weakness in the Fuhrer himself.
Certainly, most of the failures of Nazi Germany discussed in this essay stem back to Hitler and his position as chief architect of foreign policy. Indeed, “this was his war” . The role of agents in the downfall of the Third Reich cannot be downplayed, and the current popularity of counterfactual history amongst historians such as Ferguson and Kershaw attests this. It was Hitler’s policy of Grossraum which lead Germany while maintaining his dogged determination to defeat the Soviet Union that led Germany to become overstretched.
Likewise, had Hitler not forged an alliance with Japan with the Tripartite Pact in 1940, there would be less likelihood of Pearl Harbour being attacked and America being drawn into the war so early on, which, as we have seen, was a key reason for Germany’s eventual defeat. Similarly, had Churchill not been appointed Prime Minister in May 1940, “the decision in the British Cabinet… might conceivably have gone another way- with unforeseen consequences” . Certainly, the role of agents cannot be overlooked when examining the defeat of the Third Reich.
Critics have argued that counterfactual interpretations are too speculative, but without Hitler there would not have been a Third Reich to be defeated. Equally, however, it is important to remember that the defeat of the Third Reich was brought about by a war, and that unpredictability is a key characteristic of war. Decisive battles such as the Battle of Stalingrad were won by a whisker, and factors such as human error, or even weather in the case of the battles on the Eastern Front were pivotal in deciding the outcome of the war. Indeed, Churchill even claimed that Providence had caused the Allies to win.
It is therefore futile ignore the role of chance in the defeat of the Third Reich, although I would argue that both German endemic weaknesses, be they economic, strategic, or weak leadership, and Allied resources, strategies and will power played a greater role in determining the outcome of the Second World War. Ultimately, I agree with Kershaw that “the unlikely combination of an indomitable Soviet fighting machine and limitless American resources and resolve finally ensured victory in both Europe and the Far East” , although I would add that the Allied war strategy was also pivotal in this victory.
Germany did possess many endemic weaknesses, most of which stemmed from the erratic foreign policy dictated by Hitler, but the involvement of America in the war from 1942 onwards was pivotal to their downfall, and therefore I believe that these external factors were more important than any internal failings in determining the outcome of the Second World War.
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