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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Five Decisions that Cost the Axis World War II

What led to this?

Many folks weigh in on what the Axis leaders did wrong during World War II. The inevitable answers are:
  • Hitler Invading Russia;
  • Hitler Declaring War on America;
  • Germany losing an army at Stalingrad to no purpose;
  • Germany losing an army in North Africa to no purpose (more men and equipment than at Stalingrad, in point of fact);
  • Germany not taking Moscow in 1941.
Believe me, put those down on your exam essay and you will get good points from your professor. It is "the list" for people who don't really understand anything about the war. If you want the common view, there it is. No need to keep looking. Write it down and memorize it.

The order changes, but invariably any list by an "expert" will include at least three of those decisions in their own list of "decisive mistakes." It is all about invading only the right countries or securing this or that victory at the right time.

Personally, whereas others would put invading the Soviet Union at the top of the list, I would put the 11 December 1941 declaration of war on the U.S. first. Without that, the United States would have been distracted by its new war with Japan, and so aid to Britain could have been expected to stabilize or even slightly weaken. Regardless, that decision turned the western front from a glorified nuisance to an outright liability for the Third Reich. Hitler spent the rest of the war preoccupied with potential landings around the vast periphery of his empire even as his General in Russia cried out for the numerous divisions sitting idle until mid-1944 in France and (always idle) in Norway.

Well, get prepared for something a little different. I am not going to include any of those in my list. At heart, every single one of the decisions listed above was tactical in the broadest sense. The list below is more strategic and insidious in its ramifications.

Hitler stares out over Prague

I am not saying that the decisions that always make the rounds such as those listed above were not all extremely important and wrong-headed blunders. They were - in spades. However, almost anyone discussing Axis "mistakes" really misses the forest for the trees and mistakes the tactical for the strategic.

First things first:
Sending an army or army group this way or that or winning or losing this or that carrier engagement made absolutely no difference in who won World War II.
Unless and until you agree with that statement, you do not really understand what was really going on during World War II. You are mistaking the tactical for the truly strategic.

I know, what an arrogant statement, what a calamitously bull-headed thing to say, what a complete buffoon he must be to go against what every other learned idiot out there says over and over and over again.

I intend to prove below what I just wrote, to your satisfaction. If not, well, you get your money back.

The Axis could have stayed in business over the long term, even after some of the mistakes listed below, but not the way it was being run. It needed a change of management before 1940, because the ones in charge had no idea what they were up against. In a single word, they became afflicted with the worst possible disease for a conquering people:
World War II is a story of overconfidence destroying real opportunity. Of course, there would have been no Axis but for the way it was being run, but that's getting a little too cute. Germany, Japan and the other could have been in precisely the alliance they found themselves regardless of any changes suggested below, only with better weapons, fewer vulnerabilities and better concentration of power. Note that these are all decisions with direct military consequences regardless of what else they may affect - and the Axis needed a complete re-tooling if it were to stand any chance of winning.

But the Axis did stand a chance of winning. It had all the tools it needed. It frittered them away one by one.

In no particular order - for every one put the noose around the Axis leaders' throats - here are my choices for "top bone-headed decisions that cost the Axis victory in World War II."

Germany fails to Exploit its Pre-War Advantages

Last Chance to Correct This: Early 1940

This is kind of a broad and vague topic, but it is of immense importance to the outcome of the war. This category is much more important than losing an army in this location or that or declaring war at this point in time versus later or never.

Germany was far ahead of the Allies in several critical fields prior to World War II. They were years, maybe decades ahead of the Allies in the following areas:
  • Jet aircraft development;
  • Helicopter development;
  • Missile design;
  • U-boat design;
  • Advanced aircraft design;
  • Theoretical physics.
They also were at least comparable to the British in radar development and piston-powered aircraft development, but never exploited those areas to the extent it might have made a difference. The German advantage in the chemical field is undeniable and could have played a much more important role than it did.

The Germans had a jet aircraft, the Heinkel He-178, flying in 1938. They also had a good, workable jet fighter design ready to go by spring 1940 - before the Battle of Britain. German test pilot Hanna Reitsch was demonstrating working helicopters to the western press in 1938. German U-boats were extremely capable and getting better all the time, though their torpedoes admittedly needed some work. Werner von Braun was working with the army to develop missiles, then an esoteric subject, into practical weapons delivery systems. European scientist had all the theoretical knowledge and raw materials they needed to develop an atomic bomb. But none of that ultimately mattered, because none of it was pursued with the necessary vigor.

five decisions world war two
The He-280, which could have been ready by the Battle of Britain given more German focus on jet engine development.

None of these were pursued to the point of developing war-winning weapons, at least in time for them to make a difference, for a variety of reasons.
  • U-boat production and development was stunted by a bone-headed German decision to concentrate on a surface navy - apparently to impress the British at the instigation of Admiral Raeder, who had a kindergarten-level understanding of realpolitik - that never could have challenged the Allied navies under even the most optimistic scenarios;
  • Helicopter development continued sporadically during the war, but the Nazis never realized the full potential of this massively useful tool as weapons, and in fact barely used them at all except for propaganda purposes;
  • The story of the He-280 jet fighter prototype is absolutely mind-boggling in how a promising weapon can be completely eviscerated through sheer lack of interest;
  • The Horten brothers were a full 40 years ahead of the rest of the aviation world with their stealth technology - that doesn't happen very often, and it is no exaggeration - but it was not recognized until too late;
  • Hitler scared off all the top European scientists with his absolutely insane racial policies.

The U-boat fiasco bears special mentioning, since almost nobody else ever talks about it. Kaiser Wilhelm had fancied himself a great sailor because he was a huge fan of Admiral Mahan's 1890 book about seapower, which argued that only states with great navies could become Great Powers. Thus, he ratcheted up German spending on a surface navy that never was truly competitive with the British Navy but vastly heightened war tensions. One can make a pretty decent argument from the literature that the Anglo-German naval race beginning in 1898 led to World War I, which led to World War II. The one quote that stands out from the end of World War I is from the Kaiser, who, upon learning of the revolt of the sailors at Kiel in October 1918, exclaimed, "I no longer have a navy!" Well, that and an army and a country and a lot of other things, but he was obsessed with the Imperial Navy.

Hitler was a product of World War I, and one can draw a direct line from the majority of his military decisions and what had happened during World War I. The idea of a nation being a great power without having a powerful navy, well, that flew against everything that the Kaiser had believed in and what Hitler also believed. So, Hitler easily succumbed to Raeder's incredibly stupid rationale for building a surface fleet - that this would guarantee peace with Great Britain because the British only respected nations with fleets or some such crackpot nonsense - and diverted shipyards and scarce steel to build vulnerable battlecruisers that the British quickly neutralized when war broke out. Germany began World War II with only the same number of U-boats on station around Great Britain that it had had in 1918 - 18. in fact - which was the moment of England's greatest vulnerability. The Kriegsmarine finally got around to building hundreds more of advanced designs, but by then it was too late, as the Allies had developed effective counter-measures.

five decisions world war two
A potentially war-winning Type XXI U-boat - if available two years earlier

If Nazi Germany had fielded a hundred or more U-boats from 3 September 1939, it conceivably could have starved the British out of the war during 1940 or 1941, before Operation Barbarossa even got on the agenda. With Great Britain out of the way, all of Hitler's other adventures could have had much different endings.

Even as late as 1942, progress by a really determined programme of U-boat construction could have turned the tables. The revolutionary Type XXI U-boat would have swept the seas of the Allied convoys and completely prevented the buildup of forces in England that led to D- Day in June 1944. As it was, the Germans did complete 118, which would have been enough two years earlier - but only in the closing months of the war when it was far too late.

By 1943, when advanced designs started coming along, it was too late.

Winston Churchill always listed the U-boat menace as his greatest worry during the war. The Germans' crackpot decision to build surface ships neutered Germany's huge advantage in that deadly field of combat from the outset.

Synthetic Oil

A German non-decision that really was understandable, but could have made a huge difference had it been implemented, lay in the construction of synthetic oil plants earlier and in greater numbers. Hitler knew all along that the true Achilles Heel of his empire was lack of oil. "My Generals understand nothing of economics," he said at one point, and he was absolutely correct. Hitler did not use the word "oil" at that point, but that must have been what he was thinking about. He seemed to be the only one in the Nazi hierarchy who understood this, besides perhaps Goering (in charge of the four-year plan and who was the only one concerned about actually getting oil out of the Caucasus conquest).

If anyone tries to tell you that Hitler had no strategic vision, they are dead wrong. His choices show a consist pattern of heading for the oil, and the inability to trade with those who had oil due to the war blockade was the true stake in the Nazi heart. "For Hitler, oil is spelled in capital letters," German General Heinz Guderian once said, as if that was just something to be accepted as one of Hitler's wacky peculiarities. The Generals just didn't get it.

The Romanian alliance was hugely important to Germany not because of the Romanians' prowess on the battlefield - they generally caused more problems than they solved - but because virtually the only indigenous oil production in Nazi Europe was located in Romanian fields such as Ploesti. Blindly assuming that this would be enough oil for the Wehrmacht (it never was) and that it would last forever (it didn't) was a fatal mistake, one among many others. That Germany got away with Romania as its only source of oil for so long is astonishing. That lack of oil ultimately crippled the Nazi war effort and undoubtedly shortened the war was virtually inevitable.

Let's restate that: oil won the war for the Allies. That, and lots of soldiers sacrificed on battlefields across the USSR and remote islands in the Pacific, but it was the oil that put them there and fueled the planes defending them and tanked up the fleets transporting and supporting them.

The Nazi 1942 offensives that failed tantalizingly close to their objectives were pointed straight at the oil fields that Hitler needed. Are you looking for any kind of reasoning behind the otherwise mystifying German high command decisions that year? That is it. While the Generals were wringing their hands about capturing Moscow, Hitler knew that there wasn't any oil there - so who really cared about capturing just another city in a country that spanned seven time zones? Instead, he headed south. It's fascinating that he actually did capture major oil fields in the Caucasus, but they had been wrecked by the retreating Soviets and Hitler could not hold them long enough to get them producing again.

Jet Engine Development

He 178
This He 178 jet aircraft flew in August 1939.

But despite the lingering and festering oil problem, the oil at hand was sufficient if used to its maximum potential. One easy decision that could have completely changed the course of World War II lay in the hands of the Luftwaffe. Hitler didn't even need to get involved in this, so it can't be blamed on him. The decision is this:
Launch a Manhattan-style project to develop one reliable jet engine fast.
When you look at the German jet fighter programme, you have to wince over and over at the neglect and the mindlessness. The jets kept getting pushed back time after time because the engines were not working right - but that was a matter of straightforward engineering. Basically, the years 1940-1944 were completely wasted in terms of jet aircraft development because the jet manufacturers dithered around. Funding was cut, and nobody cared at all about the jets until the Generals suddenly woke up after the huge 1000-bomber raids of 1943 and realized that their piston-driven 1930s-era Messerschmidts and Focke-Wulfs were hopelessly outnumbered and, worse, outclassed. There was no reason the Jumo 004 could not have been ready two or three years earlier than it was.

five decisions world war two
The Jumo 004 on the Me-262

When the will finally was there, in late 1944, the designers got entire jets from the drawing board to the airfields in only two months. It was too late. If they had focused on one jet engine design, the Jumo 004 or whatever else they could come up with, and worked it to death until it was ready in 1940 or 1941, everything in the air would have been different. While that alone might not have been sufficient to alter the course of the war, it sure would have made a difference.

Germany was Behind Technologically Where it Counted

Probably the most conclusive mistake underlying all of this was not creating a fertile environment for the top European scientists. World War II was a dead end for the Axis no matter how many Russian cities they captured and how many barren islands the Japanese occupied because of this. Germany wound up pinning its hopes on superior technology after scaring all of its top scientists away - what kind of sense does that make?

five decisions that lost the Axis World War II
A German V-2, which could have made a difference - with an effective warhead

The Axis had some pieces of the puzzle, but not the entire set. They had the single best delivery system of World War II - and nothing worthwhile to put in it. Toward the end, they were putting concrete and rocks and propaganda pictures in the warhead. They had solved half the equation - but not the whole thing.

At some point, the Allies were going to drop The Bomb on the Axis - a bomb designed pretty much completely by emigre European physicists - and that is exactly what happened. Germany, in a sense, lucked out by surrendering a few months before Fat Man was ready. Anyone who thinks that the Axis would have won anything lasting by occupying Moscow and Stalingrad and Suez and Midway or even Hawaii and pretty much anywhere else outside of the continental United States is completely and utterly deluding themselves for that one reason alone. Not pursuing that avenue - the nuclear avenue, one completely abandoned midway through the way due to lack of talent - was the biggest mistake of all. But it resulted from all the top minds of Europe except a few like Werner Heisenberg (who may have been closer to solving that problem than people think) scooting for safety overseas.

The last chance to go all-out and try to win the war via technological means was early 1940. Time was all-important, every single month, every single week, every single day was absolutely critical. The Germans had to be pursuing this from the very earliest stages of the war or they were lost. And, as it turned out, they were lost.

five decisions that lost the Axis World War II
Albert Speer in 1943

Strangely enough, this is the only one of these five decisions which the Nazis seem to have had second thoughts about and took actual steps to correct. When, on February 8, 1942, Minister of Armaments and Munitions Fritz Todt died in a plane crash shortly after taking off from Hitler's eastern headquarters at Rastenburg, Hitler appointed his peacetime architect, Dr. Albert Speer, to take his place. Speer, who had been scheduled to fly with Todt but cancelled at the last minute, hesitated, but Hitler commanded it. Speer turned out to be an absolutely brilliant choice, praised by both sides for his technical skill in ramping up German war potential. He managed phenomenal feats of manufacturing which are difficult to appreciate and largely due to slave labor, raising weapons production straight into 1945. However, despite the fact that he assembled fleets of jet fighters and advanced Type XXI submarines and had them ready to go by war's end, simply having the weapons was not enough: they needed to be worked up and the men trained to use them. Germany also had lost its raw materials such as Rumanian oil before the advanced weapons were ready. Speer's appointment was exactly two years too late for Germany.

Hitler Invades France


Last Chance to Correct This: May 9, 1940

The decision to invade France in May 1940 is never challenged. Everybody considers it the greatest of Hitler's wacky inspirations of tactical genius, intuition and luck. The Wehrmacht rolled in its single most dramatically successful campaign.

It wasn't successful at all. Invading France was absolutely the worst decision Hitler could have made, and the one disastrous decision he made that was one of free-will and largely unrelated to extraneous events (aside from the invasion of Poland, another disastrous miscalculation but one that could have been overcome, and which did at least have some potential benefits, such as the strengthened alliance with the USSR). The smart decision was to not invade. This is where Hitler truly lost World War II in a standard military sense.

Yes, I can see you rolling your eyes, but bear with me. This is not just me trying to be different for the sake of being different. It all boils down to actual consequences.

France was woefully unprepared for war, and it wasn't getting any readier. Its weapons were few and mainly obsolete, though it did have some cutting-edge examples in all categories - fighters, tanks and small arms. More importantly, its strategy for prosecuting the war was non-existent - the French never launched an attack against the Germans when such might have been extremely profitable and successful if they had the proper weapons. Instead, the French sat the war out until they were invaded, and then largely sat out the occupation, and then took a seat at the victor's table.

five decisions
The Maginot Line underground, with barely any presence above ground - you can practically feel the dread of casualties in the whole framework

The French had spent all their money on fortresses about 300 years after static defenses had gone out of style. It was the single most misguided example of non-productive spending in the history of warfare. Since France was woefully weak in mobile weaponry, the Germans never had to fear an attack from that direction. At worst, the Nazis faced an endless stalemate if they could not overcome the Maginot Line and the French somehow defended their weak northern flank, especially given British weakness at that point on land.

Face the facts: the Allies prior to the invasion of France were only going through the motions. Nobody's homeland was threatened, and it was all becoming "live and let live" despite sideshows in the air and at sea. Hitler himself is said to have told the French and British privately that if they wanted to prosecute a "phoney war" for the sake of appearances against him, he wouldn't hold it against them. The whole thing could gradually fade away. That is precisely what was happening, with the "phony war" becoming a standing joke - until Hitler stupidly attacked.

five decisions
3 April 1940 - only a month of the phony war left, and nobody looks too concerned

Germany should have waited. The French were unwilling and unable to attack past the Maginot line, and the British had no land routes to attack Germany. If France or Great Britain attacked through Belgium and Holland, they would have turned world opinion against them - and besides, the Germans were lying in wait and would have cut their attack in 1940 to ribbons and then waltzed into Paris. The war as it was being conducted was fizzling out through lack of interest, and Germany could have had years longer to develop their jet aircraft and rockets.

Instead, the quick invasion and defeat of France incited the British and American public and scared just about everybody else half to death.

It was a fateful decision that looks terrific because of the victory, but it basically was occupation of a military vacuum and ultimately raised the stakes beyond the point where Germany could respond.

The last chance to correct this was the day that Hitler unleashed his panzers through neutral Holland and Belgium, through the Ardennes and in the north. Hitler had issued stop orders at the very last minute before. He could have done so again. Instead, this time he punted, and sealed his fate.

Hitler Refuses to Ally with the Soviet People

Andrey Andreyevich Vlasov or Wlassow (Russian: Андрéй Андрéевич Влáсов, September 14 [O.S. September 1] 1901 – August 2, 1946) was a Russian Red Army general who collaborated with Nazi Germany during World War II.

Last Chance to Correct This: August 1942

It is undeniable - except by Soviet partisan historians - that the Ukrainians were extremely ready to throw off the yoke of Soviet domination. It is claimed that pictures of Ukrainian women welcoming invading Wehrmacht troops as liberators by hugging them and giving them food were all staged. Perhaps - but there were an awful lot of such pictures. Later events suggest they weren't all staged.

five decisions decided World War II
Ukrainian women welcoming advance German riders

In fact, many Ukrainians later joined forces with Hitler. This is extremely under-reported in the history books because it serves basically nobody's agenda. It also happened solely on the eastern front, and that always has been an area that western historians have been very weak in understanding and recounting. A lot of information only became available after the fall of the Soviet Union, and intuition tells me there is a heck of a lot more there buried deep in files under the Kremlin.

Motivations in the East are always murky, with good appearing bad and vice versa. However, facts are facts: Stalin had hammered the Ukrainians before the war, killing the Kulaks and many others, and millions of Ukrainians were ready to give a little bit back. All they wanted was a little encouragement.

five decisions decided World War II
Some claim these were all propaganda pictures."Hitler, the Liberator". Men of the SS Cavalry Division Florian Geyer share flyers, posters, calendars and anti-bolshevik pamphlets to the Ukrainian population. Imagine how you might feel if Stalin and the NKVD were no longer breathing down your neck.

But Hitler stupidly didn't encourage them.

General Andrey Vlasov, commander of the Soviet 2nd Shock Army, was captured in one of the last true German tactical successes on the north end of the Eastern front, near Demyansk south of Leningrad. After the encirclement and complete destruction of his army, he tried to sneak away dressed as a woman, but was caught by village elders hiding out in a barn. His career in the Soviet Army was over due to both the defeat and being captured, but he secretly didn't like the Soviets very much anyway. While born near Novgorod in Russia, he had spent a lot of time serving in the Ukraine, come to like the people there, and he was quite ambitious.

Vlasov ultimately led an army of liberation composed of Soviet defectors against the Soviet Union. Hitler never gave Vlasov enough real authority, though Himmler (a bit more realistic about the actual military situation than his boss) was all for helping him. By late 1944, when the Germans finally realized their error and began giving Vlasov real troops and authority, it was much too late because all of the Ukrainian conquests had been lost. In the last days of the war, Vlasov (remembered by Russians as a "foul traitor" akin to Benedict Arnold, they like to spit when saying his name) was fighting both the Soviets and the Germans. He wanted to free the Ukraine, not serve Hitler, but the Wehrmacht was the only tool available. The Soviets captured him, and you can figure out the rest.

Cossacks collaborators in the service of the Wehrmacht

Hitler's Generals/Field Marshals such as Ewald von Kleist repeatedly and forcefully advised Hitler to form an alliance with the peoples of the occupied territories - Ukrainians, Georgians, local tribesmen in the Caucasus and so forth. Even a hard-core Nazi like General Walther von Reichenau, who only missed out on the joy of Stalingrad by dying of a heart attack, left that behind as his recommendation. That was extremely unusual, as the Generals were loathe to challenge the Fuhrer, and it was a factor in Hitler firing Kleist in March 1944. Hitler outright refused to arm the conquered peoples and instead considered his enemies sub-human and unworthy of self-governance, trash to be abused and at best tolerated.

As the Soviets recovered territory, they took the opposite tactic. They conscripted every able-bodied man they came across, gave them a rifle and immediately put them in the front lines. Many late-war Soviet offensives were launched by men that a year earlier had been behind German lines and ready to fight - for anyone that put them in that position. Sure, a huge majority were cut down by the Germans because they were untrained, inexperienced and badly armed - but they softened up the German defenses for the real Red Army soldiers. Callousness to innocent human lives for tactical advantage was not a trait reserved to the Germans.

five decisions decided World War II
Paul Ludwig Ewald von Kleist was a leading German field marshal during WW2. He led army group formations until his dismissal, with Manstein, at the end of March 1944 for being too opinionated. Kleist was captured by U.S. forces in 1945 and in 1948 he was turned over to the Soviets - which was somewhat unusual, suggesting the Soviets wanted him really badly and gave up something valuable to get him. Kleist died in Vladimir Prison in 1954, the highest ranking German officer to die in Soviet captivity. Of note is the ironic fact that Kleist was charged, among other things, with "alienating, through friendship and generosity, the peoples of the Soviet Union." He, and not Manstein, was the German General they feared the most, and with good reason.

After the war, the German Field Marshal the Soviets zeroed in on was von Kleist. Kleist had commanded the forces in the Caucusus (Army Group A), where hatred for the Soviets was at a fever pitch. Kleist, normally by-the-book and a big rules follower, uncharacteristically kept pleading with Hitler to accommodate the native peoples and give them something to help out. Hitler refused. Kleist did what he could, and the Wehrmacht's performance in the Caucasus was notable better than farther north, but he only had so much latitude. The Soviets found this attitude particularly dangerous - it was the Achilles Heel of their entire aggregation of disparate peoples - and sent Kleist straight to a Gulag - his "crime" being attempted disaffection of the Soviet people. He was the only German Field Marshal to die in Soviet captivity.

If anyone ever asks you, "Who was the best General of World War II," you can respond, "Ewald von Kleist," explain the facts - and nobody can legitimately deny that you are correct.

The last chance to correct this was in August 1942. Vlasov was on board by then, and the offensive in the south was rolling along well - though with all sorts of signs of underlying strain apparent only to the German Generals themselves. Once the Germans ran into the Stalingrad roadblock in September 1942, who would win the war came back into doubt. An appeal to the Russian people would only work so long as Germany appeared to have the upper hand and the momentum toward victory. By September 1942, the crest of the Nazi wave, that advantage was lost.

This was not just a moral failing on Hitler's part - it cost him the war in the East.

Hitler Scares Off the Brainiacs

five decisions that cost the Axis world war II

Last Chance to Reverse This: February 1933

It cannot be overstated how important the brain drain out of Europe was during the 1930s. When you look at the accomplishments of the scientists and trained craftsmen that fled from persecution and relocated to England and America, you see what a foolish decision it was to scare them off.

In order to retain Europe's top talent, Hitler needed to stop his persecution of people. His virulent hatred against Jews scared just about anybody else. Take away the whole Jewish issue, and the war becomes a more straightforward nationalistic affair. While some, like Einstein, might still have defected, others might not. The Germans weren't that far away from some huge breakthroughs in physics and related disciplines, a nucleus of truly brilliant scientists could have made a difference in all sorts of fields in which the Germans held huge pre-war advantages.

five decisions that cost the Axis world war II
Albert Einstein taking his citizenship oath in New Jersey court in October, 1 1940 

Here are just two areas that could have turned to Germany's advantage if Germans and others who fled Naziism (of course they worked with very capable Allied scientists and were bankrolled by Allied governments) had stuck around:
  • The atomic bomb;
  • Cracking the Enigma codes.
Those were enough, don't you think? To anyone who says, "nobody could have known" about the atomic bomb potential - sure they could have. Albert Einstein was all over the idea of an atom bomb even before Hitler invaded Poland. All Hitler or the other Nazis had to do was talk to the top scientists and try to understand their concerns and get them working for the Reich instead of against it. Instead, they engaged in pointless and counter-productive purges.

five decisions that cost the Axis world war II
Albert Einstein and Charlie Chaplin, 1931

It is common to state that Albert Einstein was completely through with Europe upon the accession of Hitler to power at the end of January 1933. That may be true. However, a little known fact is that Einstein and his wife actually returned to Europe in March 1933. He had been teaching in California, but arrived in Antwerp on 28 March 1933 intending to travel on to Germany. During the trip, he learned that the Nazis had raided his cottage and confiscated his sailboat. That was the last straw for the Einsteins - they immediately handed in their German passports at the local embassy. If they had been intending to do that all along, they would never have bothered making the long journey from California in the first place. It was the decisive moment.

After that, Einstein talked all the top European physicists with only a few exceptions to join him in America, and that was that. A more accomodating policy on the part of the Nazis may not have kept Einstein around - but it might have had some influence on the others, who then could have viewed Einstein as just some silly old paranoid fool to be ignored.

five decisions that cost the Axis world war II
On the 5th September 1941 'The Jews and France' exhibition opened in Paris - depicting the Jews as a criminal race responsible for all of France's problems. It's scary just looking at it from 70 years on - imagine the impact at the time on scientists who were mobile and could work for anyone. And this sort of thing had been going on for a decade already.

The Nazi persecution of people like Einstein drove him away, and other scientists like him. He later signed the 2 August 1939 letter to Franklin Roosevelt that set in motion the Manhattan Project that developed the atom bomb. That's a pretty big consequence.

Yes, this means the Nazis would have had to be nicer people. No holocaust. No pogroms. No firing squads. Hey, do you want to win the war or do you want to....

Go figure.

Japan Attacks... South

Japanese working on their huge scale model of Pearl Harbor

Last Chance to Reverse This: December 6, 1941

The Japanese blunder of attacking Pearl Harbor was of a different magnitude than that of Hitler attacking Russia because the Japanese had a clear choice and a range of possibilities - and out of all of them, the Japanese high command chose the single one that would seal the fate of the entire Axis and get them all hung. Whereas the Wehrmacht could conceivably have been much more successful (at least on the defensive after 1942) in Russia than was the case in the absence of even more enemies, the Japanese attacks brought the United States into the war - and that could not be overcome. The vast resources of the United States colossus, and that nation's (under-appreciated) corralling of South America into the war effort against the Axis - was just too much. The Japanese heedlessly stomped on the toe of a giant and unleashed a massive response, and that was all it took to ultimately ruin the Axis.

There were several separate blunders in this one, but we will count them together as one. Japan did not have to attack the United States, Great Britain and the Netherlands in the Pacific. They certainly did not have to attack them all at once. And they did not have to attack them at all to help the Axis cause!

Japanese troops marching to Khalkin Gol

Negotiations were going on in Washington up to the last minute. The Japanese government, however, had been taken over by warlords excited by easy victories in China. Through sheer ignorance of American capabilities they felt invincible - but all the warning signs were there.

Strangely, they completely shrugged off their lone defeat at Khalkin Gol by Soviet General Georgi Zhukov in 1939 as some kind of aberration. That battle was a half-hearted affair, and a full-scale invasion of the Soviet Union could have been much, much more successful. However, the small tactical defeat suffered at Khalkin Gol appears to have been a factor in scaring the mighty Imperial Japanese Army away from attacking the country that later invaded Japan for its own benefit - the Soviet Union - and instead turning it south to take on the "weak" Americans and British.

So that forgotten battle changed world history.

General (later Marshal) Zhukov (right) won what may have been the most influential an decisive battle of World War II before the war even officially started. 

Germany had no influence over Japan's decision to attack the United States and others. In fact, accounts that appear to be genuine recount that Adolf Hitler and the rest of the German high command were completely taken by surprise when the Japanese commenced hostilities. The Japanese ambassador in Berlin was pro-Axis, but he apparently didn't know about the attack in advance, either. It was a decision akin to Benito Mussolini's decision to attack Greece without talking to anyone else through sheer arrogance. The result also was the same - catastrophic due to the new enemies (partisans in the Balkans were a major annoyance to the Germans throughout the war) gained to no true strategic purpose.

five decisions that defeated the Axis
Adolf Hitler, Joachim von Ribbentrop and others greeting Japanese diplomats

From this bizarre decision flowed the Axis defeat on all fronts. If Japan had not attacked, Hitler never would have declared war on the United States, which brought the Americas into the European war and sealed his fate. In fact, Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, in one of his rare moments of lucidity, supposedly cautioned Hitler against joining Japan in their war against the U.S because his view of the treaty was that there was no requirement to do so. However, Hitler (wrongly) felt bound by his alliance with Japan to help out (he had a peculiarly over-legalistic mind at the strangest times), and there doesn't seem to have been much thought behind the decision to declare war against the United States (which, incidentally, was uncharacteristic of Hitler - it was the only time he declared war without himself attacking first). It is kind of poignant (and darn good for the Allies) that Hitler only honored purely moral agreements (Ribbentrop was right, the treaty with Japan did not require him to declare war on anyone under the circumstances because Japan had not been attacked) at the worst of times (as in joining Japan in a war against the USA), and also gleefully violated written ones that helped him at the worst of times (as in attacking Russia). Those two decisions together really sealed his fate, but the one regarding the USA was the real killer and flowed immediately from the Japanese attack.

One consideration that made the attack slightly useful to Hitler is that the Japanese attack also potentially served to weaken the British (though that turned out to be true only in the shortest of terms) and he was overjoyed to have some help against them. Hitler also was looking for a short-term distraction from the shocking Soviet counter-offensive before Moscow that had just broken out days before. Yes, that is how Hitler thought - the short-term press impact was all-important, the political impact always trumped the long-term military considerations with him. It was all a tangled, extremely deadly sequence of rotten fruit for the Axis that all dropped from the poisoned tree of the Japanese decision to head south.

Let's backtrack for a moment. The Japanese had a range of options: they could have attacked as they did, against the Americans, British and Dutch; they could have done nothing and suffered in silence while continuing their operations in China; they could have just attacked, say, the Dutch, or the Dutch and the British, without attacking the Americans; or, they could have attacked north.

five decisions that defeated the Axis
Japan had many troops in the north and great strategic possibilities

What should the Japanese have done? Well, almost anything else would have been better than what they wound up doing. They could have simply stayed neutral and continued their depredations in China, an invasion that was going astonishingly well and which the West barely noticed. The annoying catch to that was that there wasn't any oil there.

They also could have simply left French Indochina as the pushy Americans wanted and thus perhaps have gotten their oil back that way - Indochina was hardly a major strategic asset. It is conceivable that the Americans would have agreed to let the Japanese remain in China, at least for the time being. However, entranced by the chimera of the offensive power of their fleet, and greedily eyeing the raw materials to their south, and wanting to take advantage of the colonial powers' difficulties in Europe, the Japanese struck almost everyone all at once - and destroyed themselves and their allies by heading the wrong way.

The second-best choice for Japan would have been to attack, but not south. North was the right direction. The Japanese easily could have attacked with their huge Manchurian army, biting off the Soviet coastline extending north from Vladivostok through which the Soviets were being supplied from the United States. The Soviets were distracted and fighting for their lives, opening another front would have been catastrophic for them. The Imperial Japanese Navy was perfectly capable of performing the limited task of serving as flank protection and capturing the few key Soviet ports in the East, the Soviet fleet in the East was virtually non-existent. The Imperial Japanese Navy also had pleasant memories of defeating the Russian fleet in 1905.

The Enigmatic Richard Sorge

Attacking the USSR to the north and west would have helped Germany immensely. Von Bock's Army Group Center was on the doorstep of Moscow, and General Guderian was starting to close a pincer around the city from the southeast. The man who saved the day for the Soviets was not some General or Marshal or airman or army - it was one Richard Sorge in Tokyo.

Although Sorge was a German national and a Nazi party member, he spent part of his childhood in the Soviet Union and was a committed communist. Due to his politics (and presumably what he was being paid), he later began spying for Moscow. In 1933, at the Soviets' behest, he moved to Japan as a correspondent for the Frankfurter Zeitung.

Sorge was no angel. He was known for his womanising and heavy drinking. However, Sorge was also an astute political observer whose insights brought him respect, and ultimately, high-level access inside the German embassy. He became a personal aide to German ambassador to Japan Eugen Ott, a position that gave him an excellent vantage point on Nazi policymaking. He was privy to vital information about the German war machine. Embassy staff in backwaters were great sources of intelligence throughout the war, incidentally, such as the famous Cicero case in Turkey.

It was while working with Ott that Sorge learned of Hitler's intention to unilaterally revoke the non-aggression pact with Moscow and invade the Soviet Union from the west. This was news of cosmic importance to world history, and Sorge quickly forwarded it onward to Moscow. Others also were warning Stalin of German intentions, including both Great Britain and the United States, and the German ambassador in Moscow is said to have remarked that anyone travelling by train from Germany to the USSR could not help but notice the massing German formations.

Stalin remained unconvinced, probably in part because Hitler was privately assuring him that everything was cool and Germany would be insane to invade (which had the legitimacy of being absolutely correct). Sorge, though, had a great deal of credibility due to his position. While the Soviets did not fully believe even Sorge at first, it made them ready to act when Sorge told them he had learned Japan did not intend to invade Russia from the east, preferring to concentrate on winning territory in resource-rich Southeast Asia. This meant that Japan would be occupied elsewhere and unable to attack the USSR as well.

Going on the Sorge data, Stalin held his breath, took a chance and transferred 17 Siberian divisions - half of his strength in the Far East - that knew how to fight in the cold. He had Marshal Georgi Zhukov commit them to a counterattack at the gates of Moscow which sent the Nazis reeling. It was the decisive decision of World War II, second only to Pearl Harbour itself.

For his pains, Sorge was disavowed by the Soviets after the Japanese busted his spy ring. The Japanese executed Sorge in 1944, perhaps the most deserved (from the Axis perspective) execution of the entire war.

Japan also would have sealed off a major supply route through Vladivostok by which the Americans supplied the Soviets with trucks, raw materials, food and weapons throughout the war (on Soviet merchant ships). This supply route was hugely important: by 1944, as Soviet troops became far more mobile than German troops because of their huge supply of GMC trucks. The route remained open throughout the war because the Soviets were never at war with Japan until August 1945, so Soviet-flag vessels could transport goods right under the noses of the Japanese fleet.

Finally, attacking the Soviets would have given the Americans no reason to commence hostilities. It was a two-fer of immense importance to subsequent world history, and the Axis came out the loser on both ends.

five decisions that defeated the Axis
The Battle Of Tsushima, 1905, a huge Japanese victory over Russia

The Japanese should have known better. They had defeated the Soviet fleet off Korea in 1905, but the thought never seems to have occurred to them to join Hitler in finishing off the Soviet Union first while it was still possible. Instead, they opened a completely new front that was non-supportive to their allies' efforts, which was tantamount to dividing your forces as Hitler later did at Stalingrad. Moreover, it was against a new enemy that some of the more thoughtful Japanese leaders, such as Admiral Yamamoto (who had lived in the United States), knew was inherently more powerful than Japan. It was the single most fateful decision of the war, borne of a variety of bone-headed manifestations of arrogance, over-confidence and sheer, unadulterated stupidity.

The Japanese did have reasons for attacking South. Their main objectives appear to have been:
  • Oil;
  • other US sanctions, including the US freezing their assets;
  • Greediness;
  • Race.
The Axis, as mentioned above, badly needed oil. Japan was as badly off as Germany due to the U.S. embargoes flowing from the China military operations. Without oil, the Japanese war machine was neutered, and they knew it. President Roosevelt had signed legislation in July/August 1941 which froze Japanese assets and effectively cut off about 85% of its oil imports - and Japan had no domestic oil resources. The Japanese negotiated with the US, but they would not agree to withdraw from their extensive gains in China - which was about as unrealistic as expecting the Germans to withdraw from Poland, which had been Great Britain's demand in September 1939. The Allies were nothing if not consistent.

FDR's sanctions against Japan were high-risk maneuvers that led to US entry into World War II through a highly predictable chain of events. Whether they "succeeded" or "failed" depends upon your interpretation of what outcome he really sought. While Pearl Harbor was a military and humanitarian nightmare, it also can be seen by cynical historians as the key link of perhaps the single most successful backhanded political gambit of the 20th Century, executed brilliantly by master politician and strategist Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The oil was to the south, thus, the Japanese went where the oil was. The Japanese war machine certainly needed oil. But heading for the oil at the expense of challenging U.S. (and residual British and even some lingering Dutch) military might was just plain stupid. It was a completely bone-headed decision that brought down upon themselves a highly foreseeable rain of bombs and ruin. Worse was that they essentially had been suckered into it. President Roosevelt, according to some, finally got exactly what he had wanted since 1939: US entry into the war on the side of Great Britain. The sanctions were an elegant way to wave a later-forgotten red flag in front of an aggressive bull.

five decisions world war II
This classic Australian war poster sums it all up.

Let us not forget that the Japanese high command also was greedy and pigheaded. They saw the fertile lands to the south and felt that they could encircle China quite easily. Nothing good could come of attacking north, they felt - there was no oil there, it froze solid during the winter, so what was the point? Great Britain was occupied with Germany, while the US had never taken too much military interest in the western Pacific. They were right that pickings in the south were ripe for the taking... for a while.

five decisions world war II
Participants of the Greater East Asia Conference. Left to right : Ba Maw, Zhang Jinghui, Wang Jingwei, Hideki Tōjō, Wan Waithayakon, José P. Laurel, Subhas Chandra Bose.

An understated element in the Japanese decision to attack south was racism. This is rarely mentioned except in passing in the history books, perhaps because it is so distasteful and was so abjectly unsuccessful. The Japanese saw the Europeans and Americans in control of territory they felt was the rightful province of Asians. There was Japanese propaganda of an extremely vile anti-Western nature that has never received much notice in the West.

The Japanese never attempted to invade any territory that was not overwhelmingly populated by people of Asian/Indian derivation (though they did have long-term designs on Australia that were quickly frustrated) - which is not to excuse their aggression in any way, shape or form. It simply illustrates that they were trying to subjugate other Asians, and the Western lands were outside their scope of ambition. It was all about race, proving they were top dog among surrounding Asians who they considered inferior.

The Japanese also tried to support various ethnic self-rule organizations, such as those championed by Ba Maw and Indian firebrand Subhas Chandra Bose. The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, the Japanese attempt to enlist the peoples of the conquered and (hopefully for them) soon-to-be conquered lands, received a lot of propaganda support but was a non-starter. Nobody was buying it, the Japanese certainly were no better as overlords than the Westerners who at least tried to be fair about things at times and were not simply exploiters. As a last gasp try at victory, the 1944 Japanese offensive against Imphal and Kohima in northern India was aimed at inciting an Indian racial uprising against the British, but it failed. There were no signs of a general Indian mutiny (that came after the war) and the offensive failed miserably as a result.

All these efforts came back to haunt the Japanese. People in the region may not have liked the Westerners, but sometimes it is better to be under the thumb of people who are vastly different than of your neighbors who you've known all along and now are strutting about as if you are somehow less than them. The ordinary Joe is not as inherently racist as the Japanese elite thought, at least not so much as to naturally favor Japanese domination to that of European control. This miscalculation was an important philosophical underpinnings for the decision to attack south, and not north, and helped bury the Axis leaders, just as Hitler's insane racist policies was doing in the West.

five decisions cost Axis World War II
Admiral Nagumo - a talented officer who set in motion the Axis defeat

The last chance to correct this strategic error was December 6, 1941. Admiral Nagumo in Kido Butai was running under radio silence and waiting for a recall order. Admiral Yamamoto was sitting in his battleship Yamato in Tokyo Bay waiting to send it to him. The Imperial Japanese command was waiting for an order to send the recall to Yamamoto.

It never came.

Tojo and his militaristic cronies had made their decision for war in November, when they sent off the fleet, and now only had to do nothing for disaster to ensue. It did. Things might just have turned out differently if an affirmative order to strike Pearl Harbor had been required. Leaving it on auto-pilot, where the attack would inevitably happen with nothing further having to be done or thought about, was the biggest nail in the Axis coffin. Emperor Hirohito technically could have commanded a recall right up until the last minute, but he didn't. And so it goes.

So What Was the Decision that Mattered Most?

five decisions cost Axis World War II
A fatal day for Germany: the ovation for Hitler from the Reichstag after declaring war on America, December 11, 1941, Hermann Goering above and behind him.

While the Japanese decision to attack south was horrendously stupid and catastrophic for their civilization, it had even greater consequences for world history. That decision led directly and inexorably to true global disaster for the Axis and the triumph of Western capitalism allied incongruously with Soviet communism. Stalin got away with his extremely dangerous troop transfers: the Red Army won its counterattack and thereby saved Moscow, which was never threatened again. Hitler played his somnambulistic part and joined Japan in the grand Roosevelt trap by gratuitously declaring war on the United States on 11 December 1941. That continued the chain of events leading to Axis catastrophe that was as inexorable as an arrow speeding toward its target.

Imagine a truck speeding down the highway. It hits a huge, unexpected pothole and careens off the road down a steep cliff. An investigator gets to work, and to start, he asks a rescue worker, "What happened?" The entirely accurate answer is, "The truck drove off the cliff and fell 400 feet, killing the driver and destroying the truck." The investigator marks it down on his form, then finds the local sheriff and asks him essentially the same question, "What went on here?" The answer is, "The truck hit a pothole, the driver lost control, and it crashed." Two completely different answers that describe the same crash, but focus on completely different events - and both are completely correct.

In our little example, the truck going off the cliff was Hitler's decision to declare war on the US. That soon killed the Axis as surely as the truck hitting the ground. However, the pothole was the Japanese decision to attack south. Which was more causative, more significant, more decisive to the chain of events that led to the catastrophe that transpired to the truck and its driver?

Wrenching out of context Hitler's decision to declare war on the US and calling that declaration the decisive error of the war is as wrong as saying that someone who is hit by a speeding train died because his heart stopped. It is technically true... but it completely misses the true causation. Hitler knew he needed allies against the overt and covert (US) coalition against him. He also had overblown confidence in Japanese military might, whose leaders talked the kind of tough game that he liked (Japanese ambassador Oshima was particularly militaristic) and had, after all, conquered much of China with extreme savagery. A huge distraction to the US - which he already considered to be fighting him - in a vast ocean area that would require immense logistics was quite appealing, and he wanted to do anything he could to help. In addition, he thirsted for revenge against Roosevelt for tacitly siding against him.

Finally, if he did not show support for his distant Asian ally, Hitler's allies closer to home might start looking over their own shoulders, especially considering the unexpected and disturbing resistance of the Soviets before Moscow. Remember that first and foremost Hitler was a politician, not the warlord that so many depict him as, and he consistently worried more about the political ramifications to his actions than military ones.

Hitler thus was bound to join the Japanese in their war as part of a chain of immutable events, the 'Great Clock' of Leo Tolstoy. Pearl Harbor was the decisive moment of World War II and, indeed, modern history. Hitler's empire came crashing down around him not because of what he did in December 1941, but because of the deadly chain of events arising from that fateful Japanese decision to attack south on 7 December 1941.


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