Editor’s Note: The following is the second in a series of excerpts adapted from Victor Davis Hanson’s new book The Second World Wars. It appears here with permission.
Starting wars is far easier than ending them. Since the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC) between Athens and Sparta and their allies, winning — and finishing — a war has been predicated on finding ways to end an enemy’s ability to fight, whether materially or psychologically. The Axis and the Allies had radically different ideas of how the wars of World War II would eventually conclude — with the Allies sharing a far better historical appreciation of the formulas that always put a final end to conflicts.
Not even Napoleon had declared war in succession on so many great powers without any idea how to destroy their ability to make war, or, worse yet, in delusion that tactical victories would depress stronger enemies into submission. Operation Sea Lion, Germany’s envisioned invasion of Britain, remained a pipe dream — and yet it offered the only plausible way to eliminate Britain from the war that Hitler had started. Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, then head of the Kriegsmarine, repeatedly warned Hitler that an amphibious invasion of Britain in 1940 was quite impossible. After explaining why the German navy was unable to transport hundreds of thousands of troops across the Channel, Raeder flatly concluded, “I could not recommend a landing in England.” After the war, Field Marshal General Wilhelm Keitel agreed that the military was not up to the task and was relieved that Hitler finally conceded as much: “I very much worried. I fully realized that we would have to undertake this invasion with small boats that were not seaworthy. Therefore, at that time I had fully agreed with the decision of the Fuehrer.” The invasion of Russia, codenamed Operation Barbarossa, would prove a rerun of the early successes of blitzkrieg in precisely the one theater where it would be nearly impossible to conduct it effectively — an operation that Raeder in hindsight claimed to have opposed, desperately but vainly advising Hitler that “under no circumstances should we go to war with Russia.”
War’s eternal elements — a balance between powers, deterrence versus appeasement, collective security, preemption and preventive attacks, and peace brought by victory, humiliation, and occupation — still governed the conflict. As was true in most past conflicts, the publics in Axis countries, regardless of the odiousness of Fascist ideology, supported the war when Germany, Italy, and Japan were deemed to be winning. Even the liberal German historian Friedrich Meinecke was caught up in the German euphoria following the sudden collapse of France in 1940: “And to have regained Strasbourg! How could a man’s heart not beat a little faster at this? After all, building up an army of millions in the space of only four years and rendering it capable of such achievements has been an astonishing and arguably the greatest and the most positive accomplishment of the Third Reich.” The classical Greek historian Thucydides, who so often focused on the Athenian public’s wild shifts in reaction to perceived battlefield victories or defeats, could not have captured any better the mercurial exhilaration at the thought of decisive military success.
War’s eternal elements — a balance between powers, deterrence versus appeasement, collective security, preemption and preventive attacks, and peace brought by victory, humiliation, and occupation — still governed the conflict.
The same asymmetry was true at sea, especially in the Battle of the Atlantic. The Allied leadership made operational changes and technological improvements of surface ships and planes far more rapidly than could the U-boats of the Kriegsmarine. America adapted to repair and produce aircraft carriers and train new crews at a pace inconceivable in Japan. The Allies — including the Soviet Union on most occasions — usually avoided starting theater wars that ended in multi-year infantry quagmires. In contrast, Japan, Germany, and Italy respectively bogged down in China, the Soviet Union, and North Africa and the Balkans.
The importance of the classical geography of war is also unchanging. Ostensibly the Mediterranean should not have mattered in a 20th-century war that broke out in Eastern Europe. The nexus of European power and influence had long ago shifted far northward, following the expansion of hostile Ottoman power into the western Mediterranean, the discovery of the New World, the Reformation, the British and French Enlightenments, and the Industrial Revolution. But the Mediterranean world connected three continents and had remained even more crucial after the completion of the Suez Canal for European transit to Asia and the Pacific. The Axis “spine” was predicated on a north-south corridor of Fascist-controlled rail lines connecting ports on the Baltic with those on the Mediterranean. Without the Mediterranean, the British Empire could not easily coordinate its global commerce and communications. It was no wonder, then, that North Africa, Italy, and Greece became early battlegrounds, as did the age-old strategic stepping-stones across the Mediterranean at Crete, Malta, and Sicily that suffered either constant bombing or invasions.
British, American, Italian, and German soldiers often found themselves fortifying or destroying the Mediterranean stonework of the Romans, Byzantines, Franks, Venetians, and Ottomans. Gibraltar still remained unconquerable. Without a viable plan to attack it on land and from its Iberian rear, the Axis gave up taking the fortress, as had every aggressor that had coveted it since the British annexation of 1713. That Germany and Italy would try to wage war on the Mediterranean and in North Africa without serious attempts to invade Gibraltar and Malta is a testament to their ignorance of history.
Still other classical precedents were forgotten. Western military history showed, but was apparently again dismissed by Allied planners, that it was often difficult to start a campaign northward up the narrow backbone of the Italian Peninsula. What usually started in Sicily petered out in mid-peninsula, given the ease of defense in the narrow mountainous terrain of the Apennines with seas on both flanks. Hannibal and Napoleon alone seemed to have believed that Italy was best conquered from the north rather than the south. Nor had Europeans ever had much success trying to attack Russia from the west. Despite the grand efforts of Swedes, French, and Germans, the expanses were always too wide, the barriers too numerous, the window of good weather too brief — and the Russians were too many and too warlike on their own soil. Planes and tanks did not change those realities. Germany’s problem in particular was that its two most potent enemies, Britain and Russia, were also the hardest to reach. While Germany’s central European location was convenient for bullying the French and Eastern Europeans, its British and Russian existential enemies enjoyed both land and sea buffers from the vaunted German army.
The Allies were surprised that Hitler staged two invasions through the Ardennes in southeast Belgium. But in addition to the examples of World War I, the critically located rough terrain had been a nexus for passing armies since it was first mentioned in Caesar’s Gallic Wars and later became a favorite campaign ground of Charlemagne. Invading a united Britain historically had also usually proved a bad idea. Not since the Romans and William the Conqueror had any military seriously tried an amphibious landing on the British coasts. Far more easily, the British and their allies — from the Hundred Years’ War to World War I — landed troops on the Western European Atlantic coastline, which, being longer, was harder to defend and not often politically united. Motor vehicles and bombers did not reinvent the military geography of Europe during World War II.
After the age of Napoleon, no southern European power on the Mediterranean was able on its own to match northern European nations. World War II was again no exception. Italy was the first of the Axis to capitulate. The Iberians wisely stayed out of the war. Greece was easily defeated by the Germans. North Africans were largely spectators to lethal European warfare taking place in their midst. Turkey remained neutral for most of the war. If World War II was fought across the globe, its ultimate course was still largely determined by northern European states and their former colonies in a way that was true of all European wars since the late 18th century.
— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.