It took a world war to educate them all

Thursday, January 4th, 2018

The Second World Wars takes an unusual approach to its subject:

Hanson starts with the idea that the Axis powers were more or less destined to lose, then works backward to understand the reasons for their defeat. The book revolves around a question highly relevant to our own brewing confrontation with North Korea: Why, and how, do weaker nations convince themselves, against all evidence to the contrary, that they are capable of defeating stronger ones?

Hanson begins by putting the Second World War in a “classical context.” Although it was a high-tech conflict with newly lethal weapons, he writes, it still followed patterns established over millennia: “British, American, Italian, and German soldiers often found themselves fortifying or destroying the Mediterranean stonework of the Romans, Byzantines, Franks, Venetians, and Ottomans.” In many instances, military planners on both sides ignored the lessons of the past. Some lessons were local: it’s always been hard to “campaign northward up the narrow backbone of the Italian peninsula,” for example, which is exactly what the Allies struggled to do. Others were universal. Small countries have difficulty defeating big ones, because — obviously — bigger countries have more people and resources at their disposal; Germany, Italy, and Japan, therefore, should have been more concerned about their relatively small size compared to their foes. History shows that the only way to win a total war is to occupy your enemy’s capital with infantrymen, with whom you can force regime change. Hitler should have paused to ask how, with such a weak navy, he planned to cross the oceans and sack London and, later,Washington. At a fundamental level, it was a mistake for him to attack countries whose capitals he had no way to reach.

In terms of management and logistics, the Axis powers were similarly, and sometimes quite conspicuously, disadvantaged. Before the war, the United States produced a little more than half of the world’s oil; Axis leaders should have known this would be a decisive factor in a mechanized conflict involving tanks, planes, and other vehicles. (The Nazis may have underestimated the importance of fuel because — even though they planned to quickly conquer vast amounts of territory through blitzkrieg — many of their supply lines remained dependent upon horses for the duration of the war.) In general, Allied management was more flexible — British planners quickly figured out the best way to place radar installations, for example — while the Axis powers, with their more hierarchical cultures, tended toward rigidity. Axis leaders believed that Fascism could make up the difference by producing more fanatical soldiers with more “élan.” For a brief time at the beginning of the war, Allied countries believed this, too. (There was widespread fear, especially, of Japanese soldiers.) They soon realized that defending one’s homeland against invaders turns pretty much everyone into a fanatic.

In any event, Hanson shows that the Second World War hinged to an unprecedented extent upon artillery (“At least half of the combat dead of World War II probably fell to artillery or mortar fire”): the Allies had bigger, faster factories and could produce more guns and shells. “The most significant statistic of the war is the ten-to-one advantage in aggregate artillery production (in total over a million large guns) enjoyed by the British Empire, the Soviet Union, and the United States over the three Axis powers.” Russia, meanwhile, excelled at manufacturing cheap, easily serviceable, and quickly manufactured tanks, which, by the end of the war, were better than the tanks the Nazis fielded. Many Allied factories remained beyond the reach of Axis forces. There were a few possible turning points in the war: had Hitler chosen not to invade Russia, or not to declare war on the United States, he might have kept his Continental gains. Similarly, Japan might have contented itself with a few local conquests. But temperance and Fascism do not mix, and the outsized ambitions of the Axis powers put them on a collision course with the massive geographical, managerial, and logistical advantages possessed by the Allies, which, Hanson suggests, they should have known would be insurmountable.

The Axis powers fell prey to their own mythmaking: they were adept at creating narratives that made exceedingly unlikely victories seem not just plausible but inevitable. When the Allies perceived just how far Fascist fantasy diverged from reality, they concluded that Axis leaders had brainwashed their citizens and themselves. They began to realize that “the destruction of populist ideologies, especially those fueled by claims of racial superiority,” would prove “a task far more arduous than the defeat of a sovereign people’s military.”


The Axis countries lived in a fantasy world — they believed their own propaganda, which argued that, for reasons of race and ideology, they were unbeatable. The Allies, meanwhile, underestimated their own economic might in the wake of the Great Depression. They allowed themselves to be intimidated by Fascist rhetoric; justifiably horrified by the First World War, they wanted to give pacifism a chance, and so refrained from the flag-waving displays of aggression that might have revealed their true strength, while hoping, despite his proclamations to the contrary, that Hitler might be satisfied with smaller, regional conquests. “Most wars since antiquity can be defined as the result of such flawed prewar assessments of relative military and economic strength as well as strategic objectives,” Hanson writes. “Prewar Nazi Germany had no accurate idea of how powerful were Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union; and the latter had no inkling of the full scope of Hitler’s military ambitions. It took a world war to educate them all.”


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    “The Axis countries lived in a fantasy world — they believed their own propaganda, which argued that, for reasons of race and ideology, they were unbeatable.”

    I suggest that today it is the US and its allies that are living the lie. Your reference to the Korea crisis is a case in point. Every analysis I have read of possible war scenarios completely ignores the existence of both Russia and China and assumes they will give us a free hand on the Peninsula. In some analyses the assumption is tacit, but in others it is quite explicit. The analyses also ignore the internal politics of both Japan and South Korea. Substantial portions of both populations are adamantly opposed to any war in the region, and there are significant blocs of anti-American, pro-Communist people in both countries.

    If one takes into account all the real possibilities, then it is the US that is the weaker country in the Korean theater, and it is our own Deep State/neocon regime that is delusional.

  2. Albion says:

    “They soon realized that defending one’s homeland against invaders turns pretty much everyone into a fanatic.”

    Is this why the west, especially Europe, is beginning to react so much against the current ‘refugee’ invasion?

  3. Alrenous says:

    Cet animal est très méchant,
    Quand on l’attaque il se défend

  4. Alistair says:

    One major area of study in International Relations theory is war initiation, and why weaker nations start fights they should “know” they will lose?

    There are several competing hypothesis. Miscalculation and inaccurate information are one of them. The “weaker” nation doesn’t realise the depth of its disadvantage.

    It’s remarkable fact that during WWII none of the combatants had a really good idea of the GDP of the other powers! Allied estimates of German production were hazy at best (and usually flattered the Germans). German estimates of Allied production caused Hitler to have temper tantrums. Japanese estimates of US production….probably revealed a lack of Japanese Spirit in the researcher who needed to be sent to the front. Banzai!

  5. Graham says:

    Hanson’s thesis is strong, well-supported, and not as radical as all that. It is heavily supported in historical writing of the past 30 years at least, one way or another.

    I like to think of him, being a classicist as well as a modernist and with a good understanding of political language, as above the current jejune faddish use of the term “populist”.

    Have I correctly concluded that this excerpt is wholly from The New Yorker? That would make sense.

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