Hitler’s mistakes

During Yom Hashoah there were many movies about the WWII period, including “Valkyrie,” “Downfall,” “The Wannsee Conference,” etc. This set me to thinking about Hitler’s early successes. I remember when I was a schooloboy arguing with my friends over whether or not Hitler was a military genius. Yes, we all judged him to be irretrievably evil, but were his military successes early in the war a sign of his military genius. Certainly he took advantage of the naievete and unpreparedness for war of the western democracies. But, given that he never rose above the level of corporal during WWI, was it expecting too much that he could also be a natural military commander?

What in fact were Hitler’s mistakes that led to his ultimate defeat, notwithstanding the fact that he had a huge army, excellent weapons and great generals at his disposal?

1. His major mistake was to attack Russia on the eastern front in June, 1941 in Operation Barbarossa. This was due to his arrogance, the kind of arrogance that leads someone to believe that he is invincible, that he can overrule his generals time after time and always be right. After suffering a defeat by the RAF in the “Battle of Britain” and not being able to invade Britain, he turned his attention to Soviet Russia. But, Germany did not have the industrial and military capability to wage all out war on two major fronts. Stalin was taken by surprise, partly because no serious military analyst would have advised this attack and he disbelieved his intelligence sources warning him of the attack. Also, by delaying the attack and being held up by Russian resistance, Hitler’s forces were completely ill-equipped to fight a winter campaign in the Russian hinterland. The Russians had plenty of space into which to withdraw, leading Hitler’s armies into a trap. Ultimately, the attack on Russia more than anything else spelled doom for the Third Reich.

2. In the Battle of Britain, the fact that the German fighters did not have the capability to protect their bombers all the way to Britain and back spelled defeat for the German bombing campaign. The RAF spitfires were excellent and maneuverable and their pilots were brave and resourceful. Leaving this Battle in the hands of Field Marshall Goering was a huge error, he was incapable and incompetent. Goering allowed the bulk of the British and French armies to escape Dunkirk in May, 1940 to fight another day. Losing the Battle of Britain from July-October, 1940, was indeed the beginning of the end for Hitler, although at the time few realized that. When the Luftwaffe transferred its attention from airfields and military installations to civilian targets, including the major cities of Britain, this was a major mistake. Instead of crippling the RAF who were on the point of collapse, this gave them breathing space to recover and although civilians were killed, the morale of the British people was not broken, on the contrary they rallied to the cause. (Similarly, when the Allies bombed German cities, although the massive destruction undoubtedly led to the fall of Germany, industrial production under Albert Speer, Min. of Armaments, actually increased during the bombing campaign.)

3. The major success of the German “blitzkreig” was the traversal of the Ardenne forests in 1939 to outflank the Maginot Line that defended France. Although Hitler claimed that this was his idea, actually it was proposed by tank commander Gen. Guderian. Hitler’s order to stop Guderian’s panzer divisions before they reached Dunkirk, and also the order to stop his tanks when they had taken Smolensk and were poised to continue to Moscow, were major errors.

4. The distraction during the war of using perhaps a million men involved in the campaign to eradicate the Jews of Europe undoubtedly reduced the capacity of the German forces to wage war. After the Wannsee Conference of Jan, 1942, huge resources were put into construction of the camps, rounding up the Jews of Europe, transporting them to the camps and guarding them. Although this campaign was a major war aim of the Nazis, if they had used Jewish labor more efficiently and then won the war, they could then have totally eliminated the Jews at their leisure.

5. The Germans were perhaps not aware of the Japanese secret attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec 7, 1941. This was a major mistake in that it gave Pres. Roosevelt the excuse to declare war not only on Japan, but also on Germany. Once fresh American troops began flooding into Britain and then into the European theater of war, the end for Hitler was in sight. Also, no German strength could have defeated the revived industrial power and manpower of the Russians.

6. In the battle for Stalingrad, 1942-3, Hitler showed characteristic disdain for the lives of his soldiers. He ordered Gen. Paulus to remain in position and fight to the last man, when a strategic withdrawal could have saved many German soldier’s lives to fight again. As it was, Paulus was forced to surrender and his remaining forces were taken captive as POWs and many of them perished in Siberia.

7. The main tank battle of WWII, the Kursk salient in July 1943, was won by the Russians because the Germans failed to realize that they were being surrounded in a huge pincer movement by Russian tank forces. This loss led to the ultimate defeat of the Germans on the eastern front.(Note: these are my list of Hitler’s mistakes, anyone can come up with a completely different listing.)

Although in retrospect the defeat of Germany now seems inevitable, Hitler’s victory seemed very close in 1941-2. He occupied most of Europe, his military had not received any major defeats, and he was in an expansionist mode. It was only the loss in the Battle of Britain in 1940 that stymied his plans in the west, followed by the American-led invasion of D-Day in 1944 and the defeat of his Panzer divisions in the east, culminating in the battle of Kursk in 1943, that doomed his campaign for German domination.

About the Author
Jack Cohen was born in London and has a PhD in Chemistry from Cambridge University. He moved to the US and worked at the National Cancer Inst. and then Georgetown Medical School. In 1996, he Moved to Israel and became Chief Scientist of the Sheba Medical Center. He retired in 2001 and worked as a Visiting Professor at Hebrew University Medical School for 5 years.