Over the years, I’ve heard and participated in many discussions about when, exactly, Germany “lost” the war. It seems like everyone has an opinion on that moment in time when the fortunes of war turned against Germany, with every minute before that moment leading to victory and every minute after leading to defeat. Stalingrad, Alamein, Kursk, and Normandy all have mentions as that “moment” where the tables turned. I don’t think it is that easy. My opinion is that there were several moments that served to doom Germany’s chances in the war–some of them very early. Here is my take.
July 19, 1940: In a speech to the Reichstag, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler offered peace to Great Britain. At that time, Germany occupied half of Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Luxembourg, The Netherlands and large parts of France. The only remaining intact power with which Germany was at war was Great Britain. Hitler’s offer, much like an earlier offer in October 1939, was half-hearted at best. Indeed, at the time of his first offer, he was already planning to invade France, and at the time of his July 1940 speech, he had already determined to attack the Soviet Union. German forces, following the fall of France, seemed invincible, and large quantities of British weapons lay abandoned after the evacuation from Dunkerque. Yet Hitler’s “offers” were meant more for German public consumption than they were serious efforts towards peace.
It is unlikely that Great Britain would have agreed to any peace terms with Germany following the fall of France–especially as long as Winston Churchill was alive and influential. Yet, there were those in Britain who believed that Germany was ascendant and with some support and encouragement, peace in the Summer of 1940 might not have been completely impossible. Yet, Hitler believed he could defeat Britain and then turn his forces east. Hitler’s speech cracked the door, very slightly, for a peace that would have left Germany the most powerful nation in Europe. Instead of seeking to pursue peace, however, Hitler returned his attention to continuing the war and lost a chance to conclude the war favorably.
June 22, 1941: Having conquered Yugoslavia and Greece, successfully occupied Crete, and with a small armored force assisting the Italians operating in Africa, Germany faced few immediate perils. The Luftwaffe had failed in its efforts to destroy the Royal Air Force, but the British bombing campaign was in its infancy and German cities and infrastructure were mostly intact. On the morning of June 22, 1941, however, German forces attacked the Soviet Union along a broad front. An overconfident Hitler stated, “All we have to do is kick in the door, and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down.” Expecting a short war, the Wehrmacht was not prepared for sustained fighting against seeming endless supplies of Soviet soldiers. For almost four years, the brutal combat that followed on the
Eastern Front sucked up manpower and resources that Germany simply could not afford to lose. As the air war intensified in the west, and as Germany’s military fortunes turned sour in Africa, Italy, and Western Europe, the Eastern Front constantly demanded more men, more material, and more resources. Hitler had long coveted the vast territories of Russia and the Ukraine. It is doubtful that there was any person alive who would have been able to convince him to avoid war with the Soviet Union. Had he done so, the war in the west would have been more manageable, and war fatigue might still have brought Britain to the table for peace talks.
December 10, 1941: With German forces deep in Soviet territory, and with little threat of invasion in the west, Hitler had good reason to believe that the winds were still blowing in favor of the Axis. The surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor spurred him to declare war on the United States. War with the United States assured Germany’s eventual defeat. The combined industrial capacity of the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union dwarfed production of Germany, Italy, and Japan. The Untied States churned out weapons at a rate that German strategists could not contemplate. The coming year–1942–would begin with more victories for Germany. German forces occupied Tobruk, Sevastopol, and broad territories in the Ukraine, the Caucasus, and the Don River basin. But by the end of the year, the industrial capacity of the Allied nations began to show.
Men and materials stopped Axis advances at Stalingrad and Alamein. British, French, and U.S. forces landed in Algeria and Morocco. German territorial expansion had been halted. For the next two and a half years, Allied forces grew stronger while Axis forces weakened. German technology and industry continued to produce outstanding weapons, but there were never enough of them, and the men required to man them did so with less and less training. By the end of 1944, Allied forces stood on the borders of Germany itself. The final major German attempt to end the war on favorable terms was an attack through the Ardennes. It failed.
Truly, the best way to not lose a war is to not start a war. The German High Command recognized that a short war offered the best chance for a lasting victory. The Wehrmacht won a series of these short wars in Poland, and then in France, Denmark, Norway, and the Low Countries. Yet, with his attack on the Soviet Union and shortly thereafter his declaration on the United States, Hitler ensured Germany would no longer fight short wars. Instead, the nation would fight continuously for almost four years, during which time Allied bombing campaigns, massive Soviet offensives, and Allied invasions laid waste to the German nation and ensured complete Axis defeat.