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Germany’s ability to win the war

LAURENCE REES: So what you’re actually saying is that the Germans never really stood a chance in this war?

ADAM TOOZE: I think the common sense of most of the German scholarship on the Eastern Front is that Barbarossa was so wildly impractical and overoptimistic in its assumptions that its failure was very likely by early August. And its failure doesn’t, of course, mean that somehow the Germans will suffer an immediate defeat at that point, which is what they do suffer at Moscow in December 1941, which is why Moscow in December is no doubt an absolutely crucial turning point in the war. It’s the first battlefield defeat suffered by the German army in quite a long time, since the end of World War One, and it is spectacular in its effect. But what is foreseeable is that the logic of the German plan will exhaust itself already months before that. From August 1941 they’re having to make decisions which they know they really needed to avoid. They are no long able to avoid advance on all three fronts simultaneously. They have to give the Red Army breathing space because they themselves need time to re-equip. They lose the decisive initiative which they’d been able to command since earlier in the summer, and the German advance on the front gets narrower and narrower as the months wear on and the weeks wear on.

So one can, with reason, and there’s a long tradition of German historiography that points to this, see Smolensk as the point at which the balance in the struggle began to shift. The commitment of dozens of Soviet divisions to that battle takes the Germans by surprise and stops them in their tracks. It halts Army Group Centre and forces a fundamental debate within Germany about subsequent strategic priorities and they knew if they ever had to have that argument then the strategic logic of the campaign in the East was in question to say the very least.

LAURENCE REES: And this is three months into the whole war against the Soviet Union?


LAURENCE REES: It’s right, isn’t it, that by the summer of ’41 the Germans realise that industrially they can’t cope with the demands of the war effort?

ADAM TOOZE: Yes, the most extraordinary demonstration of that is the sort of train of logic in relation to the Luftwaffe’s planning which takes on spectacular new dimensions in the autumn of 1940 and the spring of 1941, directly as a response to the threat that they perceive as being imminent from the build up of British and American air strength. This immediately raises the question of how these aircraft were going to be supplied with rubber and air fuel, which leads to the spectacular planning for the I.G. Farben facility at Auschwitz, which by the end of the war is the single largest investment project ever undertaken by the Third Reich. The extermination camp facility there is dwarfed in its scale and implications by the investment they’re making of six hundred million Reichsmarks in the I.G. Farben plant that is just a few miles away.

But then the question is how do you feed the synthetic fuel plants with sufficient coal? And it’s obvious by the spring of 1941 that even if you’re going to synthesise your petrol, you’re not going to be able to supply enough coal to synthesise the quantity of petrol necessary to fuel the aircraft which you feel you’re going to need to fight the British and the Americans. So into the planning for Barbarossa goes this radical extension of the economic objectives of the Barbarossa invasion that, on strictly economic grounds, requires the prioritisation of the southern flank of the invasion. Even before the famous debate between Hitler and his military commanders in the autumn of 1941 this problem has already been pre-programmed by the train of logic on the economic side.

So by the summer of 1941 the Germans are calmly assuming that the southern flank of their offensive will reach as far not only as the Crimea, but the Caucasus by the end of 1941, so as to enable them by 1942 to bring on stream the oilfields of Baku, and what we now know as Azerbaijan, as a key element in the German strategic planning system. And the invasion to drive a prong of the German armed forces as far south as that, let alone to build the pipeline of the structure that will be necessary to extract the oil from there, is a scale and a dimension of military planning which the Germans are entirely remote from at this point, because the German army’s assumption is the war has to be won in the first 500 kilometres of this penetration.

So there’s a complete disconnect by the summer of 1941 between the economic and armaments programmes which are geared towards the long run war effort against Britain and America. This is assumed to be an attritional, strategic war waged in multiple dimensions by air and by sea and in North Africa on land. The specific planning for Barbarossa now just simply has to assume that it’s going to be like France: that it’s going to be over in a matter of weeks and it’s not going to cost very much in terms of manpower and equipment. And that contradiction explodes into the open in the autumn and reaches its absurd high point in December 1941 when the Germans simply decide that the situation is so irresolvable that they will declare a long Christmas holiday over 1941-42 to allow the armaments factories to somehow reconcile the different conflicting priorities, because there’s no other way, essentially, of making sense of the dilemma that they’ve backed themselves into.

They have to win the war in the East in a matter of weeks and the victory has to be on a scale which they don’t really even dare to spell out in military terms and yet is clearly documented in the economic planning. It has to go as far as the Caucasus, not just the Ukraine, and it needs to go there in the first phase of the offensive.

LAURENCE REES: It’s a fantasy.

ADAM TOOZE:  It’s, at that point, a complete fantasy, yes.

LAURENCE REES: But these are intelligent people.


LAURENCE REES: So how are intelligent people fantasising about something so important as a world war?

ADAM TOOZE: Well, they’re acting in the framework of a regime that has a massive momentum of its own. They believe in the possibility of a military victory. I don’t think one can exaggerate the significance of having defeated France in a matter of weeks. That’s the real obstacle to German world power. That’s the obstacle on which they failed in the late spring and early summer of 1918 when it looks like the Ludendorff Offensive at the last moment is going to snatch victory for the German army, and it slips away from them. The troops are too exhausted and there’s the 'stab in the back' and so on.

All of a sudden in the spring of 1940 they demonstrated the possibility of quite a different kind of history, and that’s the dream that they’re chasing in 1941. You’re completely right, there is no sense in which these different elements cohere, there is a kind of formal coherence to what’s going on. There’s a plan for everything, and each plan in its own terms makes a degree of sense, but there is no realistic strategic rationale at that level.