The Second World War Reconsidered


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.


Randall L. Schweller1 introduces an extremely useful definition of polar status:

To qualify as a pole, a state must have greater than half the military capability of the most powerful state in the system; all other great powers are classed as lesser great powers. In simple terms, my definition of a pole means that the combined strength of any two poles must be enough to defeat a third pole.

This is an intuitive definition. A system with a state so powerful that basically all other powers have to gang up against it to bring it to heel is best thought of as a unipolar system. Today, for instance, the six lesser powers – Japan, China, Russia, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom – together have enough power potential to bring the United States to heel and kick it out of Eurasia. Yet, Washington is the arbiter of world affairs. Part of the reason is geopolitical – states are threatened more by powerful neighbours than by far-away superpowers. Then there is the stag hunt dilemma, which makes cooperation extremely difficult to achieve. The strongest state is a very attractive alliance partner. Each state has an incentive to defect to the strongest power and reap the gains of being on the winning side. The strongest power can divide and rule, picking off its enemies one by one.

Consider a system with only three great powers (A, B, C). To analyze the distribution of war-making capabilities, we encode it numerically. So, a 3-2-1 is a system in which A is three times, and B is twice as powerful as C. According to Schweller’s definition, this is a bipolar system, as is 4-2-1, while 3-1-1 is unipolar. Note the difference between 3-2-1 and 4-2-1 configurations. In the first, the alliance BC can balance A, while in the second, A is so powerful that even BC cannot balance A. This definitional problem – a balance of power holds in 3-2-1 and all powers are important for the balance to hold so that it ought to be called tripolar – is ignored by Schweller. This actually strengthens his case since he imposes a stronger condition for tripolarity. Not only do we need A ≤ B+C (such as 3-2-1), he requires both B and C to be at least half as strong as A so that the first condition is trivially met.

Tripolar systems can range from uneven configurations that are nearly unipolar (4-2-2), to nearly bipolar (4-4-2), to hierarchical (4-3-2), and finally equilateral (4-4-4). Most tripolar systems display extreme instability. The least unstable configuration is a hierarchical one (4-3-2), where a balance of power may prevail for some time. Even here, any close alliance is extremely threatening to the isolated pole. The almost unipolar configuration, 4-2-2, is just waiting to degenerate into unipolarity. Similarly, the near bipolar one, 4-4-2, is likely to degenerate into a bipolar one (perhaps with A and B agreeing to divvy up C). Parenthetically, note that C would prefer not to help B defeat A, since otherwise it would be exposed to a vastly more powerful state alone. The dilemmas of alliance formation in tripolar systems are extreme.

Arguably, the most unstable tripolar system is an equilateral configuration such as 4-4-4. Here, any dyadic alliance prevails without a doubt. For each power, an alliance between its rivals is a virtual death sentence. This, the most unstable configuration of them all (tripolar or otherwise), was the configuration of the international system in 1938-1940. [See chart below.]


Power Rankings of Great Powers (1938-39)
Population and territory Economic strength Army Divisions Military capability Power weight Schweller Index* COW Index
United States








Soviet Russia
















United Kingdom
































*The Schweller Index is the percentage share of total great power capabilities listed in the column Power weight.

At this point, the United States is an economic giant but a military midget. The United States and the United Kingdom are primarily naval powers (of equal might) with just 10 and 16 army divisions respectively, compared to even the smallest standing army on the continent, France, with its 40 army divisions. Soviet Russia has an advantage in population and territory over all other powers. Germany is clearly the strongest military power.

It is clear that these indicators underestimate US power since the United States is essentially living in ‘splendid isolation,’ with her entire military might latent. Indeed, it was obvious to all powers concerned that the United States was the strongest state in the system. Hitler, in his unpublished second book written in 1928, noted the rise of the United States with alarm:

With the American Union, a new power of such dimensions has come into being as threatens to upset the whole former power and orders of rank of the States.

Both the Schweller Index and the commonly used COW Index show that the system configuration is unambiguously tripolar. The three polar powers are in a class of their own, together accounting for two-third of the war-making capabilities of all great powers. With percentage power shares in single digits, the lesser great powers – Japan, France, Italy, and the United Kingdom – do not matter much for the outcome of polar wars. The international system in 1938-41 effectively had an equilateral 4-4-4 configuration.

As noted above, in an equilateral tripolar system, the combined strength of any two poles overdetermines the outcome of war, irrespective of the alliance choices of lesser great powers. A major war eliminates the isolated pole, and the system degenerates to a bipolar one. This is basically what happened during the Second World War. The war was over when the United States entered into an alliance with Soviet Russia against Germany. With the elimination of the latter from polar status, the world became bipolar.

Hitler’s grand-strategy

Hitler’s geopolitical thinking was shaped by his conversations with Karl Ernst Haushofer, a geopolitical thinker of considerable talent. Hitler recognized that Germany was hemmed in by hostile powers on all sides and its position was precarious:

England, Russia and France are at present, militarily, the most threatening of Germany’s neighbours. Germany lies wedged between these States, with completely open borders. What is especially threatening thereby is that the western border of the Reich runs through Germany’s greatest industrial region.

Berlin, the Reich’s capital, is barely 175 kilometres from the Polish border. It lies scarcely 190 kilometres from the nearest Czech border, just as far as the distance between Wismar and the Stettin Lagoon as the crow flies. Thus this means that Berlin can be reached by modern aircraft in less than one hour from these borders. Hence France must be considered as the most dangerous enemy because she alone, thanks to her alliances, is in a position to be able to threaten almost the whole of Germany with aircraft, even an hour after the outbreak of a conflict.

He recognized the futility of Wilhelmine naval buildup:

The Land Army was really the German weapon, grown out of a hundred year tradition, but in the end our Fleet was only a romantic plaything, a parade piece that was built for its own sake, and which again for its own sake could not be risked. The whole benefit which it brought us is disproportionate to the terrible enmity with which it saddled us. If Germany had not taken this development, at the turn of the century we still could have reached an understanding with England, which at that time was ready for one. To be sure, such an understanding would have lasted only if had been accompanied by a fundamental shift in our foreign policy goal. Even at the turn of the century Germany could have decided upon a resumption of the former Prussian continental policy, and, together with England, prescribed the further development of world history.

To his credit, Hitler even realized the German failure to implement the Schlieffen Plan in 1904-05, when the Russian army was getting pummelled by the Japanese in Manchuria:

For Germany, any violation of the two power standard of necessity should have been a cause for a preventive war. For what would it have been easier to answer before history: for a preventive war in 1904, which could have defeated France when Russia seemed to be entangled in Eastern Asia, or for the World War which ensued from this neglect, and which required many times the blood, and plunged our Folk into the abyss of defeat?

Hitler’s plan for world domination was dictated by Germany’s geopolitical position. First, just as in the First World War, the campaign on the Western Front had to take place first because of the expected length of the campaign in the east owing to Russia’s ability to trade space for time. To avoid fighting a two-front war, France had to be knocked out of the war quickly before the campaign against the Russian bear could begin.

Second, in order to bring enough power to bear against Soviet Russia, either Great Britain had to be crushed by airpower followed by an amphibious landing, or, preferably, cowed into neutrality. The latter was preferred since an existential threat to Britain was likely to bring the United States into the war. For reasons outlined above, it was absolutely vital for the United States to be kept out long enough for the campaign in the east to reach a decision.

Third, Soviet Russia had to be destroyed as a great power. The Soviet State had to be pushed back beyond the Volga and reduced to buffer rump state between the German and Japanese empires. This was recognized to be the hardest part of the war. Soviet power was increasing rapidly. Since Soviet Russia had more power potential than Germany, the showdown had to happen while Germany still possessed the military advantage. It was this factor alone that dictated the timing of the Second World War.

Fourth, once Soviet Russia and Great Britain had been crushed, the plans for a hemispheric German empire would be put into effect. The Mediterranean was to be converted into a German lake, Africa incorporated into an informal German empire composed of vassal states, and the Middle East taken over from the British and reduced to tutelage. The Indo-Pacific component of the dismembered British empire was to come under the Japanese sphere of influence. Once Germany had incorporated the entire ‘Euro-African hemisphere’ and managed to exploit its war potential, it would be ready to take on the colossus in the Western Hemisphere. This was expected to take a considerable amount of time and Hitler did not expect this last fight for world domination to take place in his lifetime. It was a task for the next generation of Teutonic heroes.

The Second World War 

The plan called for the marshalling of powerful offensive capabilities. The key strategic innovation was the blitzkrieg. The German General Staff seized the opportunity opened up by mobile armour and created the Panzer corps, composed almost solely of tanks and supporting forces. Alongside a powerful fleet of ground attack warplanes (flying artillery), the German army was transformed into a formidable offensive force that allowed for the possibility of carrying out a strategic penetration. The goal of a blitzkrieg is to punch a hole through the enemy’s defences, avoid battle with major units and make your way straight to the enemy’s center of power in a bid to cripple the enemy’s ability to carry on fighting. In 1940, the strategy was executed near-perfectly in the West.

The Fall of France was effected in six weeks. Hitler’s one major failure was to halt forces away from Dunkirk and allow the otherwise doomed British expeditionary force trapped there to be evacuated. This was partly a gesture of ‘goodwill’ and partly nervousness on Hitler’s part. He figured that Great Britain could be persuaded by fear and inducement to back off from taking on the Third Reich once France had been eliminated and Germany swung east to confront the real threat to Germany’s existence. It was also a sign of Hitler’s botched micro-management of the tactical conduct of the war, one that would fatally undermine his bid for supremacy when the real war began on the Eastern Front.

With all of Western Europe under German occupation or tutelage, Hitler turned to his generals to decide on the timing and form of the campaign against Soviet Russia. The first problem was Britain’s refusal to come to any kind of settlement. [The British for their part could hardly allow a consolidation of German mastery over Europe. It would only be a matter of time before they too were brought under the Nazi boot.] Hitler preferred to crush Britain before attacking Russia, but airpower was proving incapable of subduing Britain, while a sea borne invasion was impossible as long as the Royal Navy ruled the waves. Also, the German military buildup was still going on – causing some war planners to urge delaying the attack till 1942. However, so was the Soviet armament program which created uncertainty about the optimal timing for the assault in the east. Moreover, the Americans were also mobilizing for war, raising the spectre of a US entry before Soviet Russia had been crushed.

At first, the German consensus was that the Soviet Union was too weak to resist the full might of the Third Reich, and that time was on their side for now. Increasingly, however, reports started filtering in about the true extent of Soviet military expansion. To his horror, Hitler and his military commanders realized that Soviet Russia was already on the verge of becoming stronger than Germany. Indeed, by early 1941, Russia had more tanks than the Third Reich. An alarmed Hitler ordered the military to strike as soon as possible.

Operation Barbarossa began in the summer of 1941. Impressive gains were made in the initial weeks. Between June 22 and July 16, German causalities numbered 102,588. In the same period, Soviet losses totalled 1,169,000. Russel Stolfi2 notes the situation in the Eastern Front in late July:

The July results, which can be equated with the preconditions for German victory, include deep penetrations and successful encirclements with massive casualties and damage inflicted on the defending Soviet forces. The Germans had achieved their first operational objectives – the seizure of advanced terrain for the final advance to Leningrad and/or Moscow, the destruction of the Soviet armies on the frontiers north of the Pripyat Marshes, and a deep drive into the Ukraine, with the concomitant pinning down of Soviet armies in the south.

In the middle of July 1941, the German armies stood intact with one-third fewer casualties than were suffered by German forces in France during a similar period of combat. The OKH looked forward to two to three weeks of physical rest and mechanical rehabilitation for the eastern armies and then to concentration of the recuperated capabilities of the armies on the seizure of Moscow.

The constituted operational armies of June 22, 1941 had been beaten, with nothing remaining to the Soviets but strong reserves of manpower and the potential for further ruthless expenditure of forces. But the pace of the German advance had been within a framework of operational agility which the Soviet command and staff were incapable of matching. The Soviets had not the time, space, weather, nor the military expertise to survive on July 16, 1941. Only the most desperate German error at the highest strategical level could save Soviet Russia.

He goes on to note the consensus among German military commanders for an offensive to seize Moscow, the nerve center of Soviet Russia. Every single German decision-maker wanted to take Moscow first, with a single exception. It was, unfortunately for Germany, the decisive one.

Hitler vacillated in the middle of July 1941, with victory in the east comfortably at his fingertips, and then made the most significant decision of the Second World War in Europe to deflect elements of Army Group Center into the Ukraine.

First, the motorized elements of the German armies had the mobility and striking power to have taken Moscow if seizure of the city had been the main effort of the Germans, instead of the drive east of Kiev. Time was a crucial factor and had Hitler, for example, assigned the armies in the east the task of attacking Moscow on approximately August 7, 1941, it seems probable, in the absence of prepared positions and constituted reserves, and in the presence of weather favourable to the Germans, that Moscow would have fallen by approximately August 28, 1941. Second, the factor of space figured in, as the German field armies showed their tactical superiority to maximum advantage in the vast space and gentle terrain of the Central Ukraine; the defending Soviet armies could neither move fast enough to escape nor stand and fight the Germans effectively enough to defeat them in the summer of 1941.

Hitler wanted to secure control over the Ukraine, the breadbasket of Europe, because he was certain that the campaign against Soviet Russia would take quite a long time and degenerate into a war of attrition. Underestimating the offensive potential of the eastern army, Hitler wanted to consolidate his gains. By the time the Ukraine was secured and Hitler ordered the Wehrmacht to take Moscow, it was too late.

By mid-October, however, rains in conjunction with cooler autumn temperatures, shorter overcast days, and reduced evaporation had become common and turned the unpaved roads of Russia and the surrounding countryside into impassable barriers for wheeled vehicles.

Stofi concludes,

…the Germans ran out of time near Moscow not through necessity but by choice. Months before the November crisis, the army leaders had demanded and the front soldiers had expected a  drive on Moscow. Hitler, for reasons which remain only partly comprehensible determined instead to seize the resources of the Ukraine and by that aberrant stroke threw the Moscow battle to the mercy of climatological chance in the late autumn of 1941.

Mearsheimer claimed that the Germans attempted a blitzkrieg against Soviet Russia. The diversion to the Ukraine demonstrated that the German offensive in 1941 was not a blitzkrieg. The Third Reich did not fail to crush Soviet Russia because of Hitler’s hubris, or the fact that Russia was working on interior lines of supply while those of the invading German divisions were stretched thin. Nor was it because Russia could trade space for time, although these last two factors would come into play later, as would the superior war potential of the Soviet Union. Ultimately, the colossus on the other side of the Atlantic would emerge from slumber and join the colossus on the continent to dismember the Third Reich.

In the final analysis, the German bid for supremacy failed due to Hitler’s own loss of nerve. Ironically, the hyperbolic leader of the “superrace” underestimated the offensive capability of the German war machine.

1 Schweller, Randall L. Deadly imbalances: Tripolarity and Hitler’s strategy of world conquest. Columbia University Press, 1998.

2 Stolfi, Russel HS. “Barbarossa Revisited: A Critical Reappraisal of the Opening Stages of the Russo-German Campaign (June-December 1941).” The Journal of Modern History (1982): 27-46.


One thought on “The Second World War Reconsidered

  1. Pingback: Did Hitler Have a Grand Strategy?

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