Did Hitler Have a Grand Strategy?

I was thunderstruck when I read a comment at OTB to the effect that Hitler had no grand strategy. I think precisely the opposite is quite evident. Here’s one blogger’s thoughts on the subject:

Given the overwhelming coalition formed to thwart German ambition not twenty years before 1933, was Hitler mad to think that he had a shot at gaining mastery in Europe? Was his grand-strategy fatally flawed? Here are the salient facts about the German decision to go to war. Documentary evidence overwhelmingly shows that Hitler was firmly in control of German foreign policy; that he wanted to go to war to ensure German supremacy on the continent; that he made his plans clear to the Wehrmacht as soon as he assumed power in 1933; that the military brass shared his strategic vision (despite what they claimed at Nuremberg); and that Germany immediately began war preparations in earnest.

So the evidence supports the ‘intentionalist’ school – the Second World War was single-handedly precipitated by Adolf Hitler. However, it is one thing for a statesman to seize opportunities afforded by the system structure and geopolitical reality, and quite another to do so in defiance of the same. Did the structure of the system “shove” the Third Reich to act aggressively on the world scene? Did Hitler’s grand-strategy make sense? Could the Nazis have won the Second World War?

I argue that Hitler’s grand-strategy was firmly grounded in geopolitical realism, his war-plans were realistic, and mastery in Europe was an achievable goal for Germany. Moreover, the Second World War was a very close thing. Germany came within a hair’s breadth of achieving supremacy. Furthermore, I argue that the system structure “shoved” Germany towards making a run on the system. That is, instability was inherent in the inter-war system.

23 comments… add one
  • TastyBits

    The link is broken.

  • Thanks. Fixed.

  • Cstanley
  • TastyBits

    Bringing the US into the war was fatal. He probably should not have turned against the USSR, but I am not very familiar with his reasoning. Apparently, nobody ever learns that invading Russia proper is not a good idea.

  • As a matter of fact that’s what lead me to start thinking along the lines of this post, Cstanley. It was after I read this op-ed at the LA Times in which the author says that Putin is neither crazy nor Hitler but a schoolyard bully.

    That, in turn, lead me to recall a great joke which, unfortunately, only makes sense if you speak Russian (it creates an unlikely word for “schoolyard bully”, zaperepobyvayushchiy dvornik, using typical Russian word formation rules).

  • ...

    I still think that the overthrow of the Ukrainian government was unforeseen by Putin, that he seized the Crimean peninsula out of a combination of fear and opportunity, and that he’s trying to figure out where to go from here. In other words, I think this is a tactical mess with strategic implications.

  • ...

    I’d kind of like to know if the current US administration has a strategic of any sort beyond assassinating people with drones and overthrowing governments willy-nilly, because for the life of me I’m not getting it.

    (Supporting international financiers is taken as a given for any US government.)

  • Ellipsis:

    It’s difficult even to write about the Ukraine situation without implicitly taking sides on it. From the point of view of the present Ukrainian government the Ukrainian government wasn’t overthrown. From the point of view of the Russians what’s in Kiev isn’t the present Ukrainian government.

    From the point of view, I gather, of Western pundits, the demonstrators in Ukraine were freedom-loving liberal democrats. From the point of view of the Russians they were ultra-right wing Ukainian nationalist Nazis.

    My own view is that neither Russia nor Ukraine have the institutions necessary for liberal democracy, the only institutions strong enough to govern their countries are either criminals or military/KGB (or both), and the demonstrators were some combination of liberal democrats, ultra-right wing Ukrainians nationalists, and anarchists, with the anarchists probably providing most of the disruption.

    I don’t think we have a dog in the Ukrainian hunt in any but the most abstract of senses and that we should maintain a lower profile in the matter than we have to date. As in Syria, there are no good guys to root for.

  • I’d kind of like to know if the current US administration has a strategic of any sort beyond, etc.

    Well, of course they do. They want to win U. S. elections. They also want to receive higher incomes than they could by any means other than political influence.

  • ...

    It looked at the end as though the muscle for the final push in Kiev came from the “right wing” nationalists.

    I don’t have much of an opinion about the internal players in Ukraine. But I think it ludicrous to pretend the government wasn’t overthrown by violent means. If the protesters hadn’t broken the police lines and taken effective control of the main government buildings, I don’t think the President gets removed from office. But they did and he was. I don’t know enough, or care enough, to say whether those actions were justified or not. I state what I do because I think it is an accurate reflection of what happened.

    And it seems clear enough that this is what the Russian government believes happened.

    As for which side I’m on: I’ll take the rather novel position of being on the US side, and I don’t think we have a dog in this fight. But I do think it makes sense to stop poking a finger in the eye of the world’s other owner of a massive nuclear arsenal, much less to try and deliver a body blow. And counter to what usually gets reported here, I think we have acted very dishonestly towards Russia since the break up of the USSR. They have no reason to assume have anything other than their worst interests in mind.

  • ...

    Also, I think the reporting of this story in the USA has been abysmal. I remember one report (though unfortunately I don’t remember the outlet), showing a pic of the deposed President’s main residence, and someone hyperventilating to the effect that this was the most obviously palatial home of the most obviously corrupt foreign ruler ever. And that was nonsense, for anyone that remembers Ceacescu’s main residence, to name one.

    Not to mention that many, many homes here in the Orlando area put that one to shame. (Because of Florida’s lack of a state income tax, and our good weather, we have a huge number of extremely well paid professional athletes living here. Golfers most famously, but basketball players that are not on the local team and lots of MLB players as well as others. These guys live VERY LARGE.)

  • PD Shaw

    The linked piece is good.

    I’ve been surprised by the extent Hitler subordinated his radical racialist vision to first getting ready for war and second to avoid agitating the Americans into entering the war too soon. We only get the full Hitler beginning in late 1941.

    Hitler appears to have a blind spot for the Anglo-Saxons, whom he sees ultimately as racial allies. Its really hard to see this in hindsight, but see France.

    If Germany did not have an answer to conquering England, as in they needed boots on the ground, perhaps conventional wisdom is wrong, and Germany should have turned on the Soviets sooner.

    It’s possible that the Soviets outperformed anybody’s reasonable expectations at the time. I’m not sure this is a strategic flaw. In sports, a team develops a strategy and executes it and if they are talented and have a good strategy, might win nine out of ten times.

  • TastyBits

    About 2006, there was speculation and predictions about Putin’s plans for Russia. The consensus was that he was trying to put the Soviet Union back together. When I looked at a map of the areas they were discussing, it looked more like the Russian Empire. This makes more sense if you know Russian history. You reassemble the core – the Empire.

    The LA Times article makes the same assumption as everybody else. Putin is not an aberration. Putin is the norm. The Soviet Union was mostly a continuation of Czarist rule.

    The Czar was the supreme ruler. Everybody and everything was subordinate to him. The weak Czars may not have been able to enforce this, but the strong Czars could and did. If they had to crack a few skulls, they cracked a few skulls. The Soviets were a continuation.

    I realize that this is offensive to the civilized world, but reality often is.

  • michael reynolds

    Hitler had Mein Kampf, he did not have a grand war strategy. He dithered back and forth between taking on the Russians and taking on the Brits. Wasn’t sure whether he wanted to get in bed with the Japanese or not. Wasn’t sure whether or not to use the Italians. Wasn’t in any way prepared for the entry of the US, although he thought it was coming. Let himself be dragged into Africa by the Italians. When at last he invaded the USSR he insisted on a blitzkrieg style attack, in other words a shock and awe approach that relied on instant success with no provision for how to manage the much longer war that was inevitable.

    In his allocation of resources he had no significant long-range bombers, having gone all-in with medium-range and tactical planes. He had no plan for how to supply labor when he had drained all his manpower resources into the army, then hit upon forced or coerced labor, later going to slave labor, and yet starved his own work force to death.

    He had no economic plan in place for coping with conquered territories beyond an obviously absurd notion of sending German civilians in to occupy Poland and Russia, a plan almost no one in Germany was anxious to implement. No real idea for example of how he proposed to fuel his tanks once the Brits closed the Atlantic to him.

    The Germans actually knew their plans for world conquest had failed by the time they stalled out at Stalingrad and Leningrad. Before the Americans even landed a tank on foreign soil the Germans knew they were not taking over the world but were playing for negotiating leverage.

    So no, I don’t think he had anything that would rise to the level of strategy. He had tactics like salami-slicing the West, like pulling the old “ethnic Germans in danger!” routine, like Blitzkrieg, but there was no coherence, no notion of how it was all to come together to achieve his goals, which were themselves nothing but twisted romanticism and fantasy.

    But no coherence in terms of targets, no plan for how to cope with conquered territory, a mismatch between mission and materiel, a refusal to come to grips with the nascent superpower over the seas, invasions that are on again/off again, decisions made on whim or some dark inspiration . . . I don’t think it adds up to strategy, it adds up to some lucky improvisation early, followed by a long and desperate attempt to split the West from Stalin and have the Americans save him. Bizarre magical thinking.

  • Tim

    If anything, this should serve as a caution to having a ‘grand strategy’ that fundamentally changes the world around you.

    Often, reach exceeds grasp. Hitler coming “within a hair’s breadth” of winning actually meant that he, and almost all of his inner circle, ended up dead or in prison for long terms.

    Instead, it makes sense to have principles and take up ‘low-risk’ opportunities to advance interests; in the 19th century, this is largely the strategy pursued by Germany, for example, and with great success, throughout most of the 19th century.

  • TastyBits


    This an old tactic from the Cold War playbook. The new social media coup is the old military coup. Both are done to rid a country of an evil oppressive government. The “evil oppressive government” is determined by whomever is paying for the “spontaneous uprising”.

    If the government were so oppressive, how were the protesters able to overthrow their oppressors with little violence?

  • Michael Reynolds

    The thing is that Japan’s ‘strategy’ was so utterly stupid I think we tend to think Germany’s plan made sense. It did not. They didn’t come within a hair’s breadth of winning – not once they launched Barbarossa. Only Stalin’s early incompetence gave Hitler even a small chance. If your ‘strategy ‘ rests on the other side conveniently allowing entire armies to be surrounded it ain’t strategy it’s just dumb luck. If your strategy involves invading a gigantic and very cold nation with tanks that literally could not run in cold weather and do it all at the end of a thousand mile logistics line when you have no gas, that’s basically just stupid.

  • Ken Hoop


    The West was lost at Stalingrad.
    Now, there is only Eurasia!
    Against the Amer-Israel Empire!

  • Cstanley

    I’m curious about the context of that OTB comment.

    I think Michael makes some valid points about the deficiencies of Hitler’s strategy, but that is different than lacking strategy altogether. So which was the viewpoint expressed at OTB, that prompted this post?

    I think that a leader with expansionist goals is a threat even if he’s not likely to be successful. Hitler lost but not before causing millions of deaths.

  • PD Shaw

    Dugin: “The Western Russians who partly supported Hitler in WWII (Bandera, Shukhevich) possessed and still possess strong ethnic identity where the hatred toward Great Russians (as well as toward Poles to a lesser scale) plays a central role in this identity.”

    This basically amounts to recycling NAZI propaganda used to justify sending Jews to concentration camps “for their protection,” re-purposed as Soviet propaganda for cracking down on Ukrainian nationalists, who I’m not sure Dugin believes ever existed until twenty years ago or so.

    His attempt to draw a wedge between the Americans and their elites is also ham-handed. I think the Americans by and large believe that the Russians and Ukrainians would be better off with some sort of liberal democracy — the elites are more inclined to try to do something about it.

  • steve

    I would have to dispute the “within a hair’s breadth” idea. While the German Army had some great successes (fast OODA loop), as soon as he went East, he didnt have enough troops and supplies to manage the West. I dont think it was really all that close. I do think he had a grand strategy, just one with a lot of holes and assumptions in it. When your plan depends upon oil from fields hundreds of miles away held by the enemy, it is a bad plan.


  • Dave,

    I just finished reading the Richard Evans trilogy about Germany circa WWII The Coming of the Third Reich, The Third Reich in Power, and The Third Reich at War: 1939-1945.

    The series is worth reading. The writing’s not the best ever, but it’s more than competent. About a third of each book is bibliographical footnotes.

  • Ken Hoop


    PD Shaw, the American people no longer really believe in our own
    “liberal democracy” which has produced/culminated in the Obamanation.


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