The Second World War is probably the most interesting conflict in history. It was not just like any other war, fighting for some more land, or for glory. This was an ideological war. A war where the principle of eugenics and creating a master race were central to its strategy. It's therefore often called 'the good war’ because it really seemed to be good against evil. But it's important to understand that it was not easy for good to defeat evil, and that evil in this case very well might have won. Lucky for us they didn’t win, but why did the Nazis lose this war? What were the reasons for their defeat? In this post, we’ll look at the 4 reasons why the Nazis lost the Second World War, but to understand what happened we first need to look at what took place. How did the Nazis rise, and where did it all go wrong for them. Let’s find out.
How Nazi Germany rose
After the end of the First World War, Germany was devastated. The country was an economic disaster, mainly because of the very harsh demands posed on Germany as a result of the Versailles treaty, which stated that Germany owed France, Britain, and other countries reparations for starting the war. The German public was upset about this. Combined with the fact that the Weimar Republic, the government that was installed in Germany after the abdication of the Kaiser, was not performing well, the country was ripe for a change, and there was one man who would provide it. Adolf Hitler's National Socialist (Nazi) party quickly rose to power, he achieved this by promising the Germans that they would get work and that he would get the economy up again. There was tons of unemployment in Germany because of the economic issues, and Hitler promised to fix this and give everyone a job, the kind of job they’d get, however, was not what they expected. In opposition to the Versailles treaty, Germany started rebuilding their military. Other countries noticed this and wanted Hitler to stop, but he didn’t. Because they didn't want another war with Germany, they decided to go with the approach of appeasement where they told him okay, you can do this, but no further. And of course, every time Hitler went further.
The Second World War truly broke out when Hitler invaded Poland. He had already taken Austria, the Suddetenland, and a part of Czechoslovakia, and the British and the French simply let him do this in the hope he wouldn’t go further. The Allies were not stupid however and were afraid Hitler would go further, so they decided to set Poland as a tripwire. If Hitler would decide to invade Poland, we declare war on Germany. It didn’t take long for Germany to overstep their agreements again and for Hitler to burst into Poland with a German blitzkrieg operation.
On the other side of Poland, Stalin and his Russian Army also invaded Poland, splitting the conquered land 50/50 with Germany. The Germans and Soviets had signed a nonaggression pact which meant that they’d not go to war with each other. Although Hitler later broke this agreement when he initiated Operation Barbarossa, it made Stalin help with the invasion of Poland and made invading Poland easier for Germany.
When Poland was conquered, Hitler set his eyes on the other side of his border: France. In WW1, Germany also tried to invade France, but failed. Now Hitler wanted to make amends for this and invade France successfully this time, which he did. With their Blitzkrieg operation, the Germans went straight through the Ardennes, a terrain formerly believed impassable by tanks and artillery. The Germans proved however that it was possible and caught the French and British by total surprise. France surrendered within 6 weeks and Belgium and the Netherlands quickly followed suit. Now Hitler had the whole left flank of Europe under his control, and he could focus on bringing down his most dangerous enemy: Britain.
Because of its island status, England is extremely difficult, if not impossible to invade. With its strong navy, the river could never be successfully crossed by German ships, so they had to think of another plan to invade Britain. They came up with this: bombing important sites in Britain that were used for making war, and when Britain was weakened enough, they’d invade by boat.
Eventually, Hitler found out that this would not work, so he started bombing British cities like London, to destroy the morale of the British. This didn’t have the effect that he hoped it would, because these bombings would only strengthen Britain's morale, and played a crucial role in their decision to start bombing Germany too as retribution.
After he saw that Britain wouldn’t budge, Hitler ran impatient and made the worst mistake of the war: starting a 2 front war. Russia and Germany had signed a nonaggression pact, therefore Russia believed that Germany was friendly towards them. Little did they know that Hitler had planned an invasion of Russia all along, and believed the time finally to be ripe to initiate his invasion.
Stalin was flabbergasted when he heard that the Germans had invaded his country. (although he received numerous warnings from numerous different sources, some even including the exact date Hitler would invade)
At first, the invasion of Russia went spectacularly for Germany. They gained victory after victory, with the element of surprise working in their favor, and with the Russian army simply not prepared to defend itself. However, in one battle the whole tide suddenly shifted. Before it the Germans were invincible, but after, the Russians held the upper hand for the rest of the war. That battle was fought at the city of Stalingrad, a town where some of the most gruesome fighting in any war in history took place...
How Nazi Germany fell
Stalingrad was the turning point in the Second World War. Up till that point, Germany seemed invincible, they hadn’t suffered any major defeat yet, and to their enemies, it didn't look like they were going to experience one soon. So the Russian victory in the battle of Stalingrad did more than push the German soldiers back, it showed the Russians, and all the other allies, that Germany wasn’t invincible, and that they could win if they fought hard enough.
Stalingrad, a city on the left side of the river Volga, was totally destroyed because of all the fighting. In the rubble, snipers would find their perfect hiding spots, and people were simply killed in mass numbers. If you didn’t die at the start of the fighting, you’d eventually die of the devastating cold, which could reach below 40 degrees Celsius. The story was that Russian soldiers were considered Stalingrad veterans if they lasted more than 3 days. The average lifespan of a Russian soldier in the city was roughly 1 to 2 days.
Eventually, after many months of fighting, the Russians encircled and trapped the German troops in an operation called Uranus. The Germans were in a desperate situation, and the only sensible option at this point would be to surrender and hope that the Russians treated their POWs nicely (which they didn’t but it was their best option). Hitler wouldn’t have any of this. He ordered General Paulus, who was in command of the Stalingrad army, that he must fight on, and that surrender was not an option. If it came to it, he had to fight till the last man. This order came also as the result of Göring telling Hitler that he could supply the entrapped soldiers at Stalingrad with his Luftwaffe, which turned out to be completely false. He could get some supplies into Stalingrad, but only a fraction of what the German soldiers would need to survive.
Eventually, not seeing the use of fighting anymore, General Paulus surrendered, counter to the order of his Fuhrer. The battle of Stalingrad was lost, and little did they know, that at this point, the war was also already lost for Germany.
After Stalingrad, the German story was mostly one of retreat. They lost more and more ground to the Red Army. They were driven out of the Caucasus, an area that Hitler desperately needed for the oil to fuel his war effort. Eventually, at the battle of Kursk, Germany launched Operation Citadel, which could have worked and could have pushed back the Russians. But, because of Hitler’s orders to wait on the production of more tanks and materials, the element of surprise was lost, and the Russians had plenty of time to strengthen their defenses of the city. Because of this, the battle of Kursk ended up being a catastrophe for Germany and was thereafter only followed by hopeless losses until the Russians arrived at Berlin in 1945.
Europe's soft underbelly
At the same time the Russians were fighting the Germans on the Eastern Front, the Allies were coming up on the soft underbelly of Europe, as Churchill called it. After victories in North Africa at El Alamein and other battles, the Allies drove the Axis back into Italy.
The campaign in North Africa and eventually Italy, was mostly meant to weaken the German army and also to direct its forces south, so that an invasion at the beaches of France would be possible. Many believed the attacks in Africa and Italy to be unnecessary, but if you look at how many forces Hitler had to send to Africa and Italy, and thus away from the Western front, the battles in that soft underbelly turned out to be extremely helpful to the later invasion and victory over Nazi Germany.
An invasion of Normandy was planned before the African campaign but was simply not possible yet. The Germans were too strong, and the Allies had too little experience and material to assist an invasion. What the African campaign did, was give the American troops some much-needed war experience (because they didn’t have any), it distracted troops that could have been used on the western coast towards Italy, and it gave the British and Americans something to boost their people's morale, instead of doing nothing.
Eventually, after invading Sicily, and some tough fighting taking place at other places in Italy, the Allies arrived at Rome, liberating it the day before D-day.
The liberation of Rome however was more symbolic than strategic, because it didn’t have any military value, all the real value of the war effort would come at the beaches of Normandy.
As Churchill already stated in 1940, they would fight them on the beaches, and on June 5th, 1944, the day to fight them on the beaches finally came: D-day (the D standing for day as well, to emphasize the importance of the day). It was a risky operation, and the commanders were full of fear that it would fail, and what the consequences of that failure would be. They couldn’t fail, and luckily, they didn’t.
The invasion went extraordinarily well, partly due to a brilliant deception operation. There were fake bases built along the coast that would have indicated an invasion at Calais, instead of Normandy. Even General George S. Patton, one of the generals who was most feared by the Germans, was stationed there (mainly because of some earlier incidents that made Supreme Commander Eisenhower relieve Patton of his duties). The bases were complete with fake tanks (almost like balloons which you could blow up), and other fake equipment. This deceptive operation was so successful, that Hitler kept most of his forces near Calais, even after the invasion of Normandy, because he still believed the real invasion would arrive at Calais.
With the invasion going just as hoped for, the Allies began their march to Germany, but although everybody believed at this point that winning the war was now only a matter of time, the Germans didn’t go down without a fight. Fighting was still tough, and the Allies suffered numerous setbacks, most prominently at Antwerp, and in the Ardennes at the battle of the Bulge, but neither of these setbacks had much effect other than delaying the end of the war. With most of Western Europe liberated, it was time for the Allies to march into Germany. They wanted to get to Berlin, but they were not the only ones eager to get to the German Capital.
On the Eastern front, the Russians kept on defeating the German army and kept getting closer and closer to Berlin. These victories were costly though, because the Russians suffered more casualties in nearly every battle than the Germans would, but the Russians didn’t really care much about the individual lives, they cared about winning, and also, they cared about revenge. The German army had mistreated, abused, and brutally murdered a lot of Russians during their invasion, and the Russians knew about this. This made them even more motivated to fight and kill Germans as a way to avenge their people. This is most clearly exemplified in what the Russians did when they arrived in Berlin, which was to rape every woman they could find. Though this was, of course, horrible behavior, the Germans raped plenty of Russian women too, so they believed it to be simply payback, and either way, they didn’t consider Germans human anymore, they simply thought of them as beasts, and thus they were treated as such.
The Nazis eventually came to a brutal end. With Germany being invaded from both sides, Hitler declared Totaller Krieg (total war), which meant that every single person was now obligated to fight to defend Germany from its invaders. Women, children, handicapped men, everyone needed to fight. Of course, many simply surrendered because they saw that the situation was hopeless, but especially in Berlin, a lot of Nazi fanatics still fought on very bravely. Hitler’s idea of Totaller Krieg was simple. If the German Volk could not win over all of these other races that invaded them, it simply needed to perish. His philosophy of the Aryan race being superior turned out to be false, and with his strong belief that the superior race would win, he believed that his Aryan race was inferior, and thus unworthy of existence. In his eyes they were now not much better than the Jews or the Blacks, people he called inferior before and who he for that reason decided to exterminate.
With the Russians surrounding Berlin, and the rest of Germany in Allied hands, Hitler committed suicide in his bunker, and the Nazis unconditionally surrendered to the Allies. The war was lost, Germany was conquered, and Hitler was dead. Where did it all go wrong?
The 4 reasons for Nazi Germany’s downfall:
Hitler ignored the advice of his generals
Next to being Chancellor and eventually Fuhrer of Germany, Hitler also made himself Supreme Commander of the Nazi war effort. Every decision had to be approved by him and could also be overruled by him, giving him total control over how the war was fought. Making himself supreme commander was a combination of self-belief and arrogance. He believed himself to be a military genius because he knew a lot about war. He served in the First World War in the German army, though he didn’t see much fighting, and he was quite knowledgeable on many military affairs. And the thing was, that at the start of the war, Hitler was proved right. He indeed proved himself to be a military genius because he constantly won. Though this was very often a result of the ideas of his generals, and certain terrible risks that were taken being paid off at first, he kept on winning, and this kept on fueling his ego. After winning battle after battle, he believed he was never wrong, and that is where it went wrong for Hitler. His delusions of his genius and his invincibility made him less and less likely to listen to his general's advice, no matter how sound it was. One general said that when he was trying to convince Hitler of something, he seemed to listen at first, until Hitler himself started talking like the general didn’t say anything at all, with Hitler coming to the same conclusion as before the conversation.
Because he didn’t listen to his generals, he made some terrible errors that cost him the war. In addition, this also created resentment among his generals, which even led to some of them plotting multiple failed assassination attempts.
Take Stalingrad for example, the turning point of the war. Hitler believed it to be cowardly to just surrender, so he ordered his men to fight on. Even before the Germans were encircled and were almost certain to lose, he didn’t listen to the advice of his generals and just ordered his soldiers to fight to the death. Had he listened to his generals and ordered a retreat when it was still possible, the situation might have been very different, and the whole war might have gone differently. But, as we’ll see later on, Hitler saw a retreat as cowardly, so if he was in charge, he wouldn’t let that happen. It was stand or die.
Another example is that of the Battle of Kursk, also called Operation Citadelle. The Germans had the element of surprise, so if they had attacked Kursk in time, they could have overrun the Russian army and achieved a much-needed victory on the Eastern Front. Instead, Hitler ordered them to wait despite his general's advice, so that more tanks and equipment could be produced and shipped over, and the element of surprise was lost, and with that the battle of Kursk as well.
One of the best examples of Hitler's unwillingness to listen to his generals, and also his unfounded confidence in Herman Göring, is the evacuation at Dunkirk. When the Germans had trapped the over 400,000 English troops at Dunkirk, they could have wiped them out completely. The evacuation was still long away, and the British had nowhere to go. But instead of following the advice of many generals, to simply finish the job and march straight to Dunkirk, Hitler ordered a halt. He believed that the Germans should resupply their fuel and arms before marching off to Dunkirk, and Göring told him that the Luftwaffe could entirely wipe out the British army anyway (which it couldn’t). This decision gave Britain the crucial time they needed to make their miraculous evacuation work. Without this decision of Hitler, most of the British army would have been captured or killed, and the war would have probably gone quite differently. Instead, over 338,000 troops made it out, which Britain would use to fight against Germany later on.
Hitler's arrogance and unwillingness to listen to the advice of his experts led to the downfall of the Nazis the most. Had he listened to these generals, who often had very good ideas that could have worked, the war could have gone quite differently. Lucky for us, his arrogance blinded him from making the right decisions.
Hitler’s impatience (Fighting a 2-front war)
The reason often cited for Germany losing the First World War was that they were fighting a 2-front war. The Germans fought in France and Russia at the same time, something which made them unable to go all out on either one, and resulted in them losing the war.
It is often stated that the most important lesson people can learn from history is that no one learns the lessons of history, and Hitler was no exception to this statement. With examples of Germany losing WW1 because of fighting a 2-front war, and with other examples such as Napoleon fighting in Russia and Spain, Hitler could have known that fighting a 2-front war with his Germany would not pan out very well too. But, of course, Hitler and his Germany were better than all those who came before him, so he wouldn’t meet the same faith as them. So, when he was still at war with Britain, trying and failing to invade the island, he decided to go to war with Russia, despite having signed a nonaggression pact with them a couple of years before. At first, Hitler was proved right. He was better than those who came before him, and he was successful at fighting a 2 front war, but not for long. When the tide turned at Stalingrad, it became clear that the 2-front war was actually much more troublesome than expected. The biggest downside to fighting a 2-front war is that you can’t concentrate all of your efforts on one front, which means your front will be weaker than it could be thus giving the enemy, who is fighting a one-front war, a huge advantage. This is therefore what happened in Russia. The Russians could allocate all of their forces to fighting the Germans, while the Germans had to allocate a big portion of their troops to places like Africa, and a large amount of aircraft to attack London and to defend themselves against the British and American bombardments.
The war he declared on Russia was not really out of some strategic idea. Many of his generals found this idea to be terrible and believed it to be the reason they would lose the war (which it turned out to be). Barbarossa was driven almost fully by his ideological hate for the communists and the Slavic people, which he felt needed to be exterminated.
The thing was, Hitler didn’t need to invade the Soviet Union so soon. The Russians didn’t even prepare themselves one bit for war, mainly because they trusted the Nazi-Soviet pact. That means that he could have waited a couple of years even, in which he could have strengthened his military enormously, while the Russians would’ve probably not done much, which would have made a successful invasion of Russia much more likely. But, because he was impatient, he decided to attack Russia, in the middle of his invasion of Britain.
His impatience probably stems from the feeling he had that he would die young (which he would, but by his own hand). This meant that he believed that he should get this war over as quickly as possible, fulfill his mission, and leave this world as a hero. His impatience also resulted in declaring war on the United States after they declared war on Japan while having no obligation to do so, and most importantly, it made him start the war much earlier than planned. The plan was actually to start the war around 4 years later, which would have given Germany much more time to build up its military. Instead, the war started 4 years too early, and because of his impatience, he lost.
Stand or Die (Sunk cost fallacy)
When the end of the war was near, Hitler gave essentially the same order every time the Germans were losing: 'Stand or Die'. This order meant that the soldiers were not allowed to retreat or give up, they would fight, and they would win, or they’d die. Of course, more often the soldiers simply died, and a retreat would have at least saved some lives, but that was not Hitler’s orders.
His idea of never retreating, even in the most disastrous circumstances, came mostly from seeing a military retreat the same as a political retreat. He felt that retreating was a sign of weakness and incompetence, he felt like it was giving up, and although you can say a lot of things about Hitler, he was not a quitter and he didn't want to see himself as such.
But he didn’t realize that there are important differences between a military and a political retreat, and that retreats can even be strategically very valuable to an army. When you retreat, you can save many men, which you can then use to prepare another attack from a different position, which may work.
His loathing of retreating may, besides a political view, come from a common psychological bias. The 'Sunk Cost Fallacy' is a human bias that everyone has more or less. It means that when you have something, you are afraid of losing it, and even when you are losing it and everything seems lost, you still desperately try to hold onto that last bit that you still have. This is because you can’t stand the feeling of doing all of that effort for nothing. Doing all of this work to get something, and then giving it away without a fight. This is something that most people have with projects, that they know won’t work, but since they’ve come so far, they are not willing to give it up. Hitler had exactly the same phenomenon when it came to his project of war. He had gained all of this land in Russia, and he was not willing to give it up, no matter how wise it would have been to retreat, and no matter if they could’ve gotten it back later. Giving up land and retreating would feel like a loss of something he won, and that would in his mind not only hurt the war effort, but also his pride.
These 'Stand or Die' orders made sure that Hitler would certainly lose the ground, because the enemy was often simply much stronger, and much more willing to suffer. When such an order was given, it essentially meant certain death and defeat. He could’ve strategically retreated, which would have increased his chances of success, but because he couldn’t stand losing anything, retreat was not seen as an option. It was winning and living, or losing and perishing.
Ideology came before strategy
The Nazi party was mostly a party based on an ideology of hate. This is not how they came to power however, they mostly came to power because of their appeal to the working class and giving them jobs, not because of their antisemitism or anti-bolshevism. But, as it turned out, this ideology was the main driving force behind the Nazi regime and its war effort. This ideology was even more important to the nazis than strategy was, and often overruled strategically sound concepts for ideas that were better ideologically.
Of course, we have the most famous and horrible example of ‘The Jewish Question’ and the Nazis ‘Final Solution’ for this question. Their hate for the Jews and the idea they had that the world would be better off without them, led them to initiate what is now known as the holocaust, sending Jews off to concentration camps and gassing them in mass numbers. This, however, was strategically a stupid move to make within the war effort. The Jews that Hitler wanted to gas, could have made brilliant soldiers who could have died fighting for the German Reich instead of in a gas chamber. They also could have provided the Nazis with a couple million extra factory workers which they could have used to produce more arms for their war effort. They could have done all of this, and only really implemented their final solution after they had won the war. As horrible as it sounds, this could have worked, and they could have had a better chance at winning the war if their anti-semitism didn’t come before strategy.
The same concept goes for Hitler's decision to invade Russia and its ideological driving force. The Nazis believed that the Slavic people were ‘untermenschen’ (lesser people), who needed to be exterminated to make ‘room’ for the German people (lebensraum). Another thing the Nazis hated about Russia, was communism, which made them even more motivated to start exterminating people in the Soviet Union. This meant that when Germany invaded Poland, Russia, Ukraine, and other Slavic countries, they immediately started mass murdering its people. When the Germans entered Russia, often orders were given to murder as many Russian people as possible, not just soldiers, but citizens too. Many Slavic people were killed, shot in the head, or transported to camps and gassed. What happened to these people was truly horrifying, and strategically retarded.
What resulted from this attempted extermination of the Russian people, was a feeling of anger and a longing for revenge that came into effect once the Russians decided to fight back. Now they were not simply motivated by glory or defending their motherland, but they were also fighting for their lives and their family's lives, and they were fighting to not face a brutal death at the hands of the Nazis. This fighting spirit is what made the Russians fight so hard in such dire circumstances, and what made them accept the huge amounts of casualties that they took during the war (it is estimated that the Russians lost more than 11 million men).
If strategy was more important to the Nazis than ideology, the invasion of Russia could’ve gone quite differently. What Hitler could have done, is make friends with anti-Bolshevist people in Slavic countries, of which there were more than enough, and make them also fight for the Nazis to destroy the Bolshevist regime in Russia. They could have done this, taken over Russia, and then killed them all, and that could have worked. Instead, they went on terrible rampages against any town that wasn’t German, and this made sure that they wouldn’t get any support whatsoever from any Slavic people, which made their invasion of Russia that much harder. It would also probably have meant that if they didn’t start murdering every Slavic person right away, the Russian army wouldn’t have fought as hard or would have been willing to suffer as many casualties, which would have probably made the invasion of Russia successful too.
But of course, strategy wasn’t on top of the Nazi list. It always came after all of their ideological ideas. The Jews had to be exterminated first, no matter what happened to the war effort, and the same goes for the communists and all the other people deemed inferior by the Nazis. If the Nazis hadn’t fought an ideological war or would have left their ideological plans for after the war, they could very well have won it. The Nazi war machine was the most powerful force in the whole world at that time, and if they had combined this with sound strategy, it would have been unstoppable. Lucky for us, this is not what happened, and the Nazis put their ideology above strategy, resulting in their defeat. As Andrew Roberts concluded at the end of his book ‘The Storm of War’: “The real reason why Hitler lost the Second World War was exactly the same one that caused him to unleash it in the first place: he was a Nazi.”
High-ranking Nazis at the Nuremberg trials