Editor’s Note: The following is the fourth and final installment in a series of excerpts adapted from Victor Davis Hanson’s new book The Second World Wars. It appears here with permission.
Throughout history, conflict had always broken out between enemies when the appearance of deterrence — the material and spiritual likelihood of using greater military power successfully against an aggressive enemy — vanished. From Carthage to the Confederacy, weaker bellicose states could convince themselves of the impossible because their fantasies were not checked earlier by cold reality. A stronger appearance of power, and of the willingness to employ it, might have stopped more conflicts before they began. Put another way, deterrence in the famous formulation of the 17th-century British statesman George Savile, 1st Marquess of Halifax, meant that “men are not hanged for stealing horses, but that horses may not be stolen.”
But once thieves were not hanged and more horses were indeed stolen, who is strong and who weak became confusing, and the proper recalibration that pruned rhetoric and posturing from knowledge of real strength returned only at the tremendous cost of a world war. Hitler’s Mein Kampf — “the new Koran of faith and war,” according to Winston Churchill — was in truth a puerile rant that gained credence only through German rearmament and aggressiveness, at least before Stalingrad. After that battle, Hitler was no longer read widely and was only rarely heard by Germans, as the ambitions of the Third Reich waned and Nazi Germany was exposed as far weaker than its enemies and led by an incompetent strategist. The prewar reality was that Russian armor was superior to German. Inexplicably, the Soviets had not been able to communicate that fact, and in consequence lost deterrence. Hitler later remarked that had he just been made aware of the nature of Russian tank production, and specifically about the T-34 tank, against which standard German anti-tank weapons were ineffective, he would never have invaded the Soviet Union. Maybe. But it took a theater war in the East that killed over 30 million people to reveal the Soviets’ real power. Accordingly, leaders and their followers are forced to make the necessary readjustments, although often at a terrible price of correcting flawed prewar impressions. In the case of the timidity of the Western democracies in 1938–1939, General Walter Warlimont explained Hitler’s confidence about powers that easily could have deterred Germany: “(1) he felt their [the Allies’] Far Eastern interests were more important than their European interests, and (2) they did not appear to be armed sufficiently.” What a terrible cost ensued to prove Hitler wrong.
Only after the disastrous battles of Leipzig (1813) and Waterloo (1815) did Napoleon finally concede that his armies had never been a match for the combined strength of Russia, Prussia, Austria, Sweden, and England. Had all those states combined in a firm coalition a decade earlier, Napoleon might well have been deterred. Churchill without much exaggeration said of Hitler’s military agenda, “up till 1934 at least, German rearmament could have been prevented without the loss of a single life. It was not time that was lacking.”
By any fair measure, Germany in 1939 — in terms of the number and quality of planes, armor, manpower reserves, and industrial output — was not stronger than the combined French and British militaries — or at least not so strong as to be able to defeat and occupy both powers. The later German–Italian–Japanese axis was far less impressive than the alliance that would soon emerge of Great Britain, America, and Russia — having only little over a third of the three Allies’ combined populations, not to speak of their productive capacity. After all, the United States by war’s end in 1945 would achieve a wartime gross national product nearly greater than that of all of the other Allied and Axis powers combined. In sum, 60 million dead, 20th-century totalitarian ideologies, the singular evil of Adolf Hitler, the appearance of V-2 rockets, the dropping of two atomic bombs, the Holocaust, napalm, kamikazes, and the slaughter of millions in Russia and China seemed to redefine World War II as unlike any conflict of the past — even as predictable humans with unchanging characteristics, fighting amid age-old geography and weather patterns, continued to follow the ancient canons of war and replayed roles well known from the ages.
Why the Western world — which was aware of the classical lessons and geography of war, and was still suffering from the immediate trauma of the First World War — chose to tear itself apart in 1939 is a story not so much of accidents, miscalculations, and overreactions (although there were plenty of those, to be sure) as of the carefully considered decisions to ignore, appease, or collaborate with Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany by nations that had the resources and knowledge, but not yet the willpower, to do otherwise.
Excerpts from The Second World Wars:
— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.