Book Review – The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy

I have mentioned several times that the books that I have been reading about WW2 are no longer ones that, as Lex Green so aptly put it, have the usual arrows pointing toward the Volga, Normandy and Berlin. Most books that I have been reading are very narrowly focused and are about a single phase of the war, such as a person, place, weapon, or similar items. Reading books that specialize in certain aspects on a very minute level is helping me put together the larger events in a much more interesting way. Reading about Barbarossa is one thing, but reading about the partisan resistance, or the role of animals in that operation is quite another.

Along these lines, I have just finished up a book by Adam Tooze called The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy. This book is about WW2 from an economic point of view. The book doesn’t really talk about generalship, tank tactics, or anything else military except in economic terms.

This book is simply outstanding. The beginning portions in particular are very dense and will require a basic understanding of economics to comprehend. I had to re-read several portions, especially in the first two hundred pages. Carl, who recommended the book to me, is an expert in economics and admitted to me that he even had to re-read portions. That aside, after you immerse yourself in this book you are in for a real treat and will learn a lot.

Too many times students of WW2 like myself tend to think of things happening in a vacuum. As an example, I knew that the Germans stormed across Europe in 1939 and 1940, but gave very little thought that this massive army didn’t just “appear”. The German economy had to be managed very effectively for them to be competitive on the world stage.

It was fascinating how the German economic minds managed their production in the thirties, all the while trying to escape from under their war reparations. In detail it is discussed how these minds bashed each other on how to manage their currency, trade, and raw materials.

Also interesting are many predictions by those close in Hitler’s circle of people that once the US got into the war on the side of the Allies all was lost. Germany simply could not produce enough of everything for long enough. After reading this book I can say with relative certainty that even if D-Day had failed, eventually the Allies would have prevailed, simply from the numbers involved. Not to mention Berlin would have been nuked, but that is certainly grist for another post.

Tooze also makes the point that the Allied bombing effort did in fact have serious consequences on the German war effort. This has been a point of debate lately in certain military historian circles. Tooze asserts that if the Allies would have kept on bombing the coal rich Ruhr and targets on the already crippled Reichsbahn that the German coal (and corresponding, steel) industries would have been crippled to the breaking point. It was very interesting to read about how closely related the coal and steel industries were. Again, I had no idea of this relationship these two industries had, and Tooze does a very good job explaining how the steel industry and coal industries were intertwined. To summarize a fairly complex topic in a few words: no coal = no steel (at least in this time period).

Also detailed are the exchanges between industry and the SS. The SS was very proficient at providing labor, but the industries and the agriculture ministries were not efficient at all providing food for the labor that was given. Sadly, people are simply treated as numbers and work units – there are harrowing stories about the low caloric intake that workers, especially POWs and other less desirables received. These discussions about the labor are not pleasant to read. Converting humans to work units is a messy business. But the real sad story is that these conquered peoples were treated as products, not humans.

It is fascinating to read how Germany was constantly struggling to provide certain items from the early thirties all the way through the end of the war. Things on this list include fuel products, steel, copper, food in all forms, and other metals.

I really don’t want to give away too much of the book, but I will say in summary that this book is outstanding. Even though the subject matter is dense, the book is easy to read and keeps you interested all the way through.

If you are like me and are interested in aspects of WW2 that don’t have anything to do with the same old subjects like Barbarossa, Market Garden or Anzio, get this book. You will be glad you did.

Cross posted at LITGM.

48 thoughts on “Book Review – The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy”

  1. “…the Allied bombing effort did in fact have serious consequences on the German war effort.”

    Richard Overy is very clear on this in his book Why the Allies Won, a book I very highly recommend. The argument that the aerial bombing was pointless is part of the overall leftist propaganda campaign to discredit the allies and reduce Churchill and Roosevelt to the same level as Hitler. I say “leftist” but certain paleocons are doing the same thing, such as Pat Buchanan, a man I used to respect. Some revisionist attempts are so far off the mark they cannot get much traction. I hope this is one of them.

    You have sold me on Tooze. I want it.

  2. I felt that the premise of the book also made the invasion of Soviet Union less of a wild gamble than an essential part of the Nazi economy. They why the economy had evolved from the 30’s required plunder and expansion to prop it up.

  3. ElamBend – correct. The book spends a lot of time on that subject and it is very interesting.

    Lex – You won’t be sorry if you pick this one up. The Allied bombing effort is gone over fairly well although it isn’t one of the main topics of the book. The falling coal production numbers tell the tale – those who feel that the bombing effort didn’t have any ramifications will be challenged by the coal production (and hence, steel production) numbers provided in the appendixes.

  4. You summarize the relationship between coal and steel as “no coal = no steel.”

    That’s what I learned as a kid, but I must confess that some time has passed by, and I haven’t kept up with the steel industry. Are they making steel without coal now? How are they doing it?

  5. The myth that allied bombing had little effect in WWII began with the overselling of bombings effect during and shortly after the war. The overselling during the war resulted from a honest overestimate of bombing damage caused by the inherent difficulty of measuring the true impact of bombing in a seal off hostile country. The overselling after the war was dishonest and driven by a desire of the air corp to be a separate service in the form of an air force. Politicians also liked the idea because air power was cheaper. They tried to create the idea that conventional air power alone could have won the war. Throw nukes into the picture and it was a dead certainty that air power could overwhelm any force.

    When post-war assessments of bombings effect became public in the 60’s a lot of people took the mere reduction of the effectiveness of bombing and drove it to the other extreme in saying that it had virtually no effect at all. However, the gap between the real and inflated effects was not large enough to justify such a leap. Bombing had a major effect just not as big as an effect as claimed.

    Coal is still used extensively in steel production. Its major function is to provide carbon for the bessemer process. The coal is heated to drive off all the volatile elements and leaving just pure carbon behind. This is called coke. The coke is mixed with iron ore and heated. The carbon combines with the oxygen which leaves the iron free (simplistically FE02 + C->FE +CO2). It also integrates carbon into the iron which is useful for making steel later.

    I don’t think that coal has been used as a primary heat source for steel production for over 50 years but I could be wrong about that. In principle, one could use any source of carbon, such a plant matter, to make coke but the low water content of coal makes the production of coke from it a near self fueling process. The energy cost of making coke from wet plant matter would be much higher.

  6. Steel is made from iron ore and carbon (Steel contains a small percentage of carbon, and the carbon reduces the iron oxide to iron metal). Coal (or, more properly, coke, which is a form of coal that has been pre-roasted to remove elements other than carbon) is generally used as the carbon source (in addition to its use as an energy/heat source, as Dan suggests). While this can be done with petroleum or natural gas, coal is the cheapest and easiest way, especially if you’re Germany in the early 1940s, which was even more chronically short of petroleum than it was coal (and the natural gas under the North Sea wouldn’t be discovered for decades). In fact, Germany was making much of its gasoline from coal rather then from petroleum because of the shortage.

  7. “Germany was making much of its gasoline from coal rather then from petroleum because of the shortage.”

    I worked on a case once where there was a witness who had been a teenager in Germany. He claimed that he and his classmates had been taken out of technical high school and sent to work for Krupp in the Ruhr. He said that they had a plant that made liquid coal extract that worked well as a fuel for vehicles. He also said that at some point very late in the war, Allied bombers pulverized the plant. He also claimed that a few weeks later, when the Allied ground troops arrived, they cordoned off the plant, and right behind them were a bunch of civilians who began questioning everyone and gathering documents and taking pictures, etc. He said these guys were from Royal Dutch Shell. He also claims that they took every scrap of paper on the site. He also claims that he has been watching all these years to see if anyone (Shell in particular) would patent the process that Krupp was using. No one has. He had tried unsuccessfully to replicate it himself.

    An interesting tale. Take it or leave it as you wish. They guy was fairly credible and had no reason to lie to me.

  8. Interesting to speculate about a failure of D-Day. The atomic bomb was still a wild card as far as Roosevelt was concerned — I don’t think the US would have made its success the core of their war plans in 1944. The main reason for an Anglo-American invasion was to keep Stalin from makig a separate peace with Hitler, and a failure of D-Day might have pushed him in that direction. The other interesting question is whether the invasion of southern France would have been cancelled after a D-Day failure, and what would have been done about the forces in Italy. After a D-Day failure, the Germans would have been free to move the bulk of the reserved forces from Normandy to Italy to try to dislodge the Allied forces there — that might have succeeded. Subsequently they would have been available for the Eastern Front, which would have slowed the Soviets down and made a separate peace more inviting to Stalin.

    Would the Anglo-American alliance have kept going after a separate Soviet-German peace? Especially because then the Communists in the media and unions would have turned anti-war. Hard to say. There would have been a lot of sentiment to conclude a separate peace and put all US forces into the Pacific, going after Japan.

    Well, we’ll never know.

  9. Turing coal into liquid fuel has a long established track record. Its technically very feasible but its current cost is high. As with most alternative fuel sources, no one wants to invest in an alternative fuel source when history shows that high oil prices never high enough long enough to make such an investment worthwhile. For example such an invest in the time period of 1980-83 would have been wiped out when oil prices crashed in late ’83.

  10. Dan,

    If you are interested in the economic history of WW2, check out these books.

    The Economics of World War II : Six Great Powers in International Comparison (Studies in Macroeconomic History) by Mark Harrison

    “A comparison of the military economies of the UK, USA, USSR, Germany, Japan and Italy. German reliance on autarky & loot and American lend lease integrating the Allied economies were surprises.”

    The Soviet Economy and the Red Army, 1930-1945 by Walter S. Dunn

    “A pricey but worthwhile book on the Soviet military economy & production. It helps to explain the effect of lend lease on the Soviet war effort and supply system.”

    A War To Be Won: Fighting the Second World War by Williamson Murray

    “Murray and Millett’s tour de force on WW2 draws on their earlier MILITARY EFFECTIVENESS books to paint a picture of the war from the level of economics & grand strategy through military operations.”

    Brute Force: Allied Strategy and Tactics in the Second World War by John Ellis

    “John Ellis’ masterful book on Allied economic and military production superiority and their often hamfisted use of it. Out of print but available via Amazon’s book service.”

    They are all from my ” Listmania! list” over on

  11. I can vouch for the Ellis book. It is very good. However, Richard Overy’s brilliant book Why the Allies Won expressly challenges Ellis’s conclusion that Allied victory was “inevitable” due to overwhelming economic strength. Overy makes the case that World War II was a much more “near run thing” than many people realize, I believe convincingly. Ellis should be read critically.

    I have the Harrison and Murray books on the shelf and have looked at them. Both look good, though Harrison looks dry.

  12. Lexington,

    Overy was flat wrong about the Japanese economic plight versus the USA and only slightly better regards Germany.

    Check out the USN versus IJN carrier totals here, that are based on the US Navy losing every CV it had Midway and the IJN losing none:

    To quote the summary:

    “In other words, even if it had lost catastrophically at the Battle of Midway, the United States Navy still would have broken even with Japan in carriers and naval air power by about September 1943. Nine months later, by the middle of 1944, the U.S. Navy would have enjoyed a nearly two-to-one superiority in carrier aircraft capacity! Not only that, but with her newer, better aircraft designs, the U.S. Navy would have enjoyed not only a substantial numeric, but also a critical qualitative advantage as well, starting in late 1943.

    All this is not to say that losing the Battle of Midway would not have been a serious blow to American fortunes! For instance, the war would almost certainly have been protracted if the U.S. had been unable to mount some sort of a credible counter-stroke in the Solomons during the latter half of 1942. Without carrier-based air power of some sort there would not have been much hope of doing so, meaning that we would most likely have lost the Solomons. However, the long-term implications are clear: the United States could afford to make good losses that the Japanese simply could not. Furthermore, this comparison does not reflect the fact that the United States actually slowed down it’s carrier building program in late 1944, as it became increasingly evident that there was less need for them. Had the U.S. lost at Midway, it seems likely that those additional carriers (3 Midway-class and 6 more Essex-Class CVs, plus the Saipan-class CVLs) would have been brought on line more quickly. In a macro-economic sense, then, the Battle of Midway was really a non-event. There was no need for the U.S. to seek a single, decisive battle which would ‘Doom Japan’ — Japan was doomed by it’s very decision to make war.

    The final evidence of this economic mismatch lies in the development of the Atomic bomb. The Manhattan Project required an enormous commitment on the part of the United States. And as Paul Kennedy states, “…it was the United States alone which at this time had the productive and technological resources not only to wage two large-scale conventional wars but also to invest the scientists, raw materials, and money (about $2 billion) in the development of a new weapon which might or might not work.” In other words, our economy was so dominant that we knew we could afford to fund one of the greatest scientific endeavors in history largely from the ‘leftovers’ of our war effort! Whatever one may think morally or strategically about the usage of nuclear weapons against Japan, it is clear that their very development was a demonstration of unprecedented economic strength.”

  13. “In a macro-economic sense, then, the Battle of Midway was really a non-event.”

    That may be true, but wars are not fought in a macro-economic sense. If they were we would have won the Vietnam war in about two weeks.

    Midway was about many things beyond mere tonnages of ships lost. It was about the destruction of finite and irreplaceable Japanese aircrews, the loss of momentum and a sense of inevitable victory by Japan, the sense that the USA had turned the corner. Morale, political will, etc. play a part. Now flip it. What if Yamamoto had sunk all our carriers and captured Midway Island? That “macroeconomic non-event” could have led to a shift away from “Germany First”, a redirection of Lend Lease aid away from Britain and Russia to China, a huge Democrat defeat in the congressional elections of 1942, with unknowable consequences for the way the war was prosecuted. They may have stopped funding the “speculative and wasteful” Manhattan Project … .

    War is only in part an economic phenomenon. That is more true than ever now, but it was also true even during World War II, which was largely determined by economic factors.

    Clausewitz tells us that wars are a combination of the intelligence of the political leadership, the will and emotional commitment of the people, and the creative power and skill of the military leadership. Each of those factors can outweigh and prevail over mere numbers of shells, unless the conqueror is willing to kill everybody, which the USA has usually not been willing to do even when it had the means.

    Overy’s point, as I remember it, is not that Ellis’s numbers are wrong. Nor is it the case that the specific example of these figures about aircraft carriers are not correct. They are. The point is that it took political will, public fervor, and military leadership to direct all that economic might toward a successful outcome of the war. The Germans had strengths in all of those things, and might well have made much more of their economic potential, both in their own country and in the conquered lands.

  14. Lex,

    Adm Yamamoto of the IJN disagreed with you in 1939-44.

    And he was hidden by the IJN senior with the Home fleet, to keep him from being assassinated by IJA fanatics, for saying so at the time.

    >Now flip it. What if Yamamoto had sunk all our carriers and
    >captured Midway Island? That “macroeconomic non-event” could
    >have led to a shift away from “Germany First”, a redirection of
    >Lend Lease aid away from Britain and Russia to China, a huge
    >Democrat defeat in the congressional elections of 1942, with
    >unknowable consequences for the way the war was prosecuted.
    >They may have stopped funding the “speculative and wasteful”
    >Manhattan Project …

    American Lend Lease was effectively shut off in Dec 1941 through 1942 to arm American Pacific forces at the expense of Russia and Britain. America did not really get a “Germany first” military production posture until after Operation Torch in 1943.

    The fall back position for American strategy after a loss at Midway was to do a long range siege of Midway by aircraft and submarine to gut the Japanese merchant fleet and burn the IJN’s reserves of oil.

    The Hawaiian Islands were to be garrisoned by Marine fighters and dive bombers while the Army Air Force flew P40 & P-38 escorted B-17 raids on Midway.

    The only thing that would have changed is the “theater of attrition” between Japan and America’s Air and naval forces — the Midway-Hawaiian Island Theater rather than the Solomon’s — it would not have changed the final result.

  15. Trent, I don’t think we disagree very much. I am aware that Yamamoto and others knew that the USA was an economic colossus compared to the USA. A conventional war between the two powers was almost certain to lead to a Japanese defeat. In the very good book Japanese Destroyer Captain there is a scene where the captains of most of the Japanese Navy’s ships are gathered for a meeting onboard Yamamoto’s flagship and told that Japan is about to go to war with France, the Netherlands, the USA and the British Empire all at once. The response was stunned silence. Not just the senior leadership, but every thoughtful officer, knew it was a mad undertaking.

    However … .

    We cannot take Japan in isolation. It was part of an alliance. Events on the other side of the world could have prolonged the Japanese war by starving it of resources, or shortened it by devoting more resources to it. Those decisions would have been political ones, and they would have been made in light of actual events at the battlefront, and the public perception of those events. The specific case you describe, the military contingency plans for a Midway defeat, cannot be viewed isolation, either. The political fallout from a Midway defeat could have derailed the steps you describe, i.e. no resumption of Lend Lease to the anti-German forces, etc.

    Generally, of course, and stipulated, a larger economy meant victory, eventually, in a 20th century conventional war.

    However, how that economic power is used, and how effectively, is a political, military and even cultural question.

    Ellis, a good writer, focuses on raw numbers. Overy, also a good writer, puts other things into the scale. Ellis is basically correct. Overy is, I think, even more correct. Ellis says, the Axis had no chance. Overy says, the war was closer than many people think it was. Overall, I think Overy is closer to the truth.

    As an aside, I was actually shocked to see that Gerhard Weinberg, in his recent (good) book Visions of Victory: The Hopes of Eight World War II Leaders says that there seems to be some support for the old rumor that the Germans and Russians actually had one or more secret meetings in 1943, at which Molotov himself may have been present, to discuss a possible negotiated end to the war.

    The diplomatic dimension to the war must also be considered. The USA was good at building and maintaining coalitions. The Germans were terrible at it.

  16. “…an economic colossus compared to the USA.” Should be compared to Japan, of course.

  17. Trent and Lex – I think both of you will enjoy Tooze’s book – my takeaway was that Germany was doomed from the start since they simply couldn’t produce enough stuff (hey, I am a simple guy). Even with the addition of France, the Netherlands, Austria, Czech and Belguim they couldn’t compete.

    A chance to “win” would have been a quick kill in Russia. In fact, Tooze asserts that this was the main reason they went in – the fact that Hitler had no other option but to do it now or never. And don’t forget Hitler’s ideology. On p. 666 we have part of a summary by Tooze on one of the reasons why Hitler widened the war in 1941:

    “The astonishing defeat of France in the early summer of 1940 had promised to change everything. But in fact the Wehrmacht’s spectacular victory did not solve Hitler’s fundamental stratgic dilemma. The German navy and air force were too weak to force Britain to the negotiating table. The competitive logic of the arms race continued to apply in 1940 and 1941. Rather than surrender to Hitler’s will, Britain proved willing to go to the point of national bankruptcy before being rescued by lend-lease. And thanks to its comparatively abundant foreign reserves and American assistance it could mobilize a far larger percentage of foreign resources than Germany at this critical point in the war. In Berlin, by contrast, once the euphoria of victory had worn off, a considerable disillusionment set in over the economic viability of Germany’s new Grossraum. Conquering most of Western Europe added a drastic shortage of oil, nagging difficulties in coal supply and a serious shortage of animal feed to Germany’s already severe deficiencies. The populations of Western Europe were a vital asset, as was their industrial capacity, but, given the constraints imposed by the British blockade, it was far from clear that these resources could be effectively mobilized. Unless Germany could secure access to the grain surpluses and oil of the Soviet Union, and organize a sustained increase in coal production, continental Europe was threatened with a prolonged decline in output, producitivity and living standards. Added to which, Roosevelt had launched his own spectacular rearmament program within days of Germany’s breakthrough at Sedan. The strategic pressure on Hitler to pre-empt decisive American intervention in the war can only really be appreciated if we do full justice to the scale of the Anglo-American effore from as early as the summer of 1940. In this respect, the truly vast discrepancy between Anglo-American aircraft procurement and Germany’s relatively insignificatn outsourcing to France and the Netherlands is very telling. it was an imbalance that was not lost on Goering and the German Air Ministry.”

  18. “Japanese Destroyer Captain” is a very interesting book. One passage I remember…

    While still a naval cadet, the author (Hara) fell in love with a prostitute. He was informed by his superiors that to marry such an individual would destroy his career, and broke off the relationship.

    The madam told the girl that (since she had spent time with the author without being paid for it) she had to “repay” a huge debt for the value of her own time, condemning her to wage slavery for a long time to come.

    The girl told Hara that their romance had been the high point of her life, and that she had no regrets.

    Truly heartbreakig.

  19. David, I recall that passage as well. Hara’s book is good not only as a war memoir, but as a picture of Japanese society in the first 1/3 of the twentieth century.

  20. An interesting trivia tidbit:

    The UK debt to the US stemming from WW-II was finally paid off in the beginning of 2007 (or 06.. i’m losing track of time)

  21. Lex,

    Dan’s passage pretty much sums up the German Strategic position, economically.

    I’ll also add the following:

    The German General Staff’s “strategic planning” for the war in Russia was escapist fantasy.

    The whole reason the Germans broke off the “Battle of Britain” in 1940 was they could not continue it and have the fuel reserves for Operation Barbarossa in 1941.

    The Germans lacked the resources, particularly in terms of fuel, to win the war in Russia in a single campaign. They had to plan a two year campaign as a minimum and fully mobilize the German economy to do it.

    Hitler would have none of that.

    The German economy did not begin mobilizing for WW2 until 1942 due to internal German politics — Hitler did not feel he could call on Germans to sacrifice enough to maintain his power — and German economic growth from 1938-1942 was fueled by loot from conquered nations.

    It was only the loot from Czechoslovakia that powered the German economy through the war with France. Point in fact, a large fraction of the tanks the Germans used to conquer both Poland and France were Czech built vehicles designated PzKpfw 35(t) and Pz 38T tanks by the Germans.

    The Germans had a classic case of an autarkic national economy with Keynsian economic overheat, due to their Government spending programs.

    The Germans had to take Czechoslovakia in 1938 the way Japan had to fight in Dec 1941 due to the American oil embargo.

    The failure of will in the West by British PM Chamberlin is what destroyed the British empire more than anything else.

    The Germans would have beated the Western allies air forces all hollow in a 1938 fight, then both their German Army and air force would have run out of fuel, and the German economy would have collapsed, as the fighting lasted more than a few weeks.

    The Germans in 1938 were almost completely out of foreign currency reserves to buy fuel from the Rumanians.

  22. Trent, I agree with all of this. “The German General Staff’s “strategic planning” for the war in Russia was escapist fantasy.” Marin van Creveld’s Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton has an excellent discussion of this point.

    Despite all of it, though, the Germans went very far indeed.

    “The failure of will in the West by British PM Chamberlin is what destroyed the British empire more than anything else. The Germans would have beated the Western allies air forces all hollow in a 1938 fight, then both their German Army and air force would have run out of fuel, and the German economy would have collapsed, as the fighting lasted more than a few weeks.”

    Interesting. I am not so sure how this would have played out, but your scenario sounds plausible. However, I do not know if anyone at the time had any appreciation for it. The German leadership probably discounted logistical questions, though there was probably some oberst in the bowels of the general staff who was tearing his hair out since no one would read his assessments.

    A non-economic aspect you do not mention is that the German Army plotters were going to try to assassinate Hitler in 1938 rather than go into a general European war they were not ready for. I read a review of The Oster Conspiracy of 1938: The Unknown Story of the Military Plot to Kill Hitler and Avert World War II by Terry Parssinen, in the Australian Defense Force Journal, which sounded convincing. Yet more reason to condemn Chamberlain’s appeasement.

  23. Lex,

    The Germans had the ME-109 is wide spread service and the British did not have either the Spitfire or Huricane.

    The British, OTOH, had oil and the ability to get more, while the Germans did not.

    The Aerial TO&E at Munich in 1938 — minus the Britsh — is at this link below:

    This is the best information I can find on-line with quick google searches on the issue of the Spitfire in 1938:

    “The second of the RAF’s modern eight-gun monoplane fighters, the Spitfire, entered service with No 19 Squadron based at Duxford some nine months after the first Hurricanes had been delivered to No 111 Squadron at Northolt. Commanded by Squadron Leader Henry Cozens, No 19 began to exchange its Gauntlet biplanes for Mk I Spitfires when K9789 arrived on 4 August 1938.

    At the time of the 1938 Munich Crisis, No 19 was the only squadron to possess any Spitfires at all. The second unit to receive Spitfires was No 66 Squadron, also at Duxford, which acquired K9802 on 31 October 1938. Thus, by the end of 1938, the RAF had two fully-equipped Spitfire squadrons with 100 per cent reserves. By the outbreak of war on 3 September 1939, Spitfires equipped nine squadrons – Nos 19, 66 and 611 at Duxford, Nos 54, 65 and 74 at Hornchurch, No 72 at Church Fenton, Nos 41 and 609 at Catterick and No 602 at Abbotsinch. Additionally, No 603 Squadron was in the process of replacing its Gladiators at Turnhouse. A total of 306 Mk Is had been delivered of which 36 had been written off in training accidents.”

    Essentially, the Germans had the Spitfire outnumbered better than 8 to 1 with Me109 in 1938 and the British had not yet beat he manufacturing issues with the Spitfire.

    Williamson Murray ‘s “The Luftwaffe, 1933-45: Strategy for Defeat” and “The Change in the European Balance of Power, 1938-1939: The Path to Ruin” are where you need to go on the subject.

  24. Trent, this is consistent with the view one sometimes reads, that Chamberlain was buying time with Munich, looking to a day when Britain’s air defenses, including the Spitfires, would be ready. The 1930s were an era when it was generally believed that “the bomber will always get through”, and that the damage they would do would be catastrophic — much worse than what actually happened, as bad as that was. So, Chamberlain is seen not so much as a dupe, but as a hardnosed realist who did not want to challenge the Germans until the home islands had some kind of adequate defense against air attack.

    As I said, I don’t know if Chamberlain or his military advisors were able to see the scenario you lay out, of German resource and financial failure leading to military collapse, by going to war in 1938. When the eventually did go to war in 1939, they seemed to be hoping for some such outcome, but it did not happen, or not nearly fast enough.

    Politically, I do not think Chamberlain could have sold the British people, or his own cabinet colleagues, on the prospect of a protracted war in which the British will have obsolescent armament in the early phase, and will lose the early battles badly, and only win when the economic resources of the Empire are brought to bear over months and years. Of course, that is pretty much the war they ended up with. Faced with that prospect, they probably would have said “try to cut a deal with Hitler”, which is pretty much what happened. A good picture of the mind of the pro-Chamberlain political forces is in the diaries of Chips Channon. There was no way Chamberlain could have taken Britain into a war in 1938. Again, the political aspect was predominant here, whatever the macro-economic picture should have told the decision-makers. They either would not or could not see it. They thought they had options with Hitler where there really were no options. Churchill, who saw that early, had his own political baggage, and was neither liked nor trusted.

  25. I don’t think that you can realistically think that the British would have started a war with Germany or taken the war to them in 1938-9. I do think that they were buying time to build up air defenses. Remember, when France / Britain had the strategic initiative in 1939 (when Germany was overrunning Poland) it was generally referred to as the “Phony War”. Basically there wasn’t will power to take on the Axis until their backs were to the wall, and even then large parts of their Allied cohorts (the French) fought semi-sporadically.

    The other item that the book makes clear is that capitalism / market economies were under siege at this time in the world. The Depression still had its grip on the USA / France / Britain while Germany seemed to be booming under re-armament (although as the book points out this was often propaganda). On the other side the communists were rising and in some ways it was no joke; after all the Soviets did much (most) to beat Hitler in the end. Spain was a battle between the fascists and the communists… it was a given in that era that capitalism was on the retreat.

    When France fell in 1940 and the western allies the only significant democratic / capitalist countries were those of the British empire and the USA, and Britain was in dire straits, indeed, and the USA was to have its darkest moments in 1941-2 prior to Midway.

    We forget how near run it was in the end… even though the Germans / Japanese played like mad gamblers with their economies they made it a long way…

  26. Lex,

    The important thing here was the will of the Czech government and military to fight. They both wanted to.

    The French would not support the Czechs without the British and Chamberlin wiffed. Instead, the British and French fed to Hitler’s beast the body that would power the beast to eat Poland and France.

    Remember that the German Army’s logistics broake down DURING THE ADMINISTRATIVE ROAD MARCH INTO AUSTRIA.

    The Czechs had fortifications on the German border and were armed with the very tanks that over ran Poland and France.

    The German Army in 1938 would have behaved more like the Soviets in Finland than the Germans in Poland. They would have still won a war with the Czechs due to their air superiority, but both the German military and German economy would have been chewed up because the Czechs would have not gone down quickly.

    More importantly, the Germans would not have gotten the Czech war machine and treasury intact. Without those, neither the Blitz of Poland nor the Fall of France would have happened for lack of German arms.

  27. Trent, I agree with all of this, though I think the Wehrmacht would have done better than the Soviets in Finland, just because of the much greater level of basic skill dispersed throughout the Army.

    The German breakdown going into Austria was a shock and an embarrassment, and an opportunity for self-criticism and lessons learned. All part of the buildup to open warfare. The Germans learned from it, but other countries seemed not to be aware of it.

    Here is the interesting questions. If it appears pretty clear to us now that supporting the Czechs was the right thing in 1938, given all we now know, why was it a political impossibility for Britain in 1938?

    The main reason is that we know what came next. The Brits still hoped to avert a war that involved them, and were very seriously mistaken in thinking that was possible. If they could have magically known that they were going into a catastrophic, lengthy war of attrition, then keeping the Czechs in the fight and starting sooner than later would have looked wise. The move from “normalcy” to a major commitment to a major war is a huge step, especially for the Anglospheric countries, which have tried to minimize exposure to continental conflicts and benefit from the exhaustion of continental combatants during major wars. The Clausewitzian trinity was not yet mobilized. The political leadership, element 1, was not there yet. The national will, element 2, was not yet there. In fact, the politicians were surprised when the public mood suddenly turned when Hitler overran the rest of Czechoslavakia. The public read taking the Sudetanland as reasonable appeasement, but beyond that, tearing up the Munich deal, the public actually outpaced the political leadership in their assumption that war was coming and was necessary. Of course, the third element, the military elementl, was far from ready. The British were famously less well prepared for Continental warfare in 1939 than in 1914, and as we have noted, the air defenses were not yet ready.

    It was over-determined that the British would not go to war for Czechoslavakia.

    It would be interesting to know what assessment, if any, was made of the importance of the Czech trove of cash and weapons to the German war effort. I don’t think anyone on the French or German side even took this into consideration. But others may know better if anyone considered these factors.

  28. Another way to encapsulate this conversation: A macroeconimic reality that is unknown or misunderstood or concealed will (usually) determine the outcome of a conventional conflict, but it will not, because it cannot determine the decision to engage or not to engage in the conventional conflict.

  29. Lex,

    The take over of the Rheinland gave Hitler the political and institutional support in Germany to take over Austria.

    The body and finances of Austria made the Czech take over possible.

    The Czech take over’s body and finances made the conquests of Poland and France possible.

    It was all plainly visible at the time.

    Churchill was cast into the political wilderness at the time for saying the politically incorrect, but as transparent as the emperor’s new suit reality, that Germany was rearming for war.

    Going from one percent GDP in 1933 to 30% GDP in 1939, while cutting of non-war related imports, was also plainly visible even to bad intelligence agencies.

    France could have fired a rifle single shot and the German Army would have bugged out of the Rheinland take over.

    The will for even a minor show of force among the Western elites was missing. That is why in the end they lost so much.

    I wonder is the same questions will be asked 30 years from now of the current American leadership about a nuclear armed Iran.

  30. “It was all plainly visible at the time.”

    I am not sure it was as plain looking forward as it is looking back.

    Who it would be directed against was also an open question.

    Generally, though, you are absolutely right. The Third Reich did not hide what it was doing, and was brazen and ruthless. Confrontation and resistance were called for and were not forthcoming. The French and British were terrified of re-fighting World War I, which they won. The Germans, who lost, were fired up for revenge and a rematch.

    How much analogy to Iran is there? We currently have unilateral assured destruction against Iran, if necessary. We see a weak, unpopular government, a decrepit economy, a restless and unsatisfied population. The potential for a new, more sensible regime with reasonable goals is not off the table. Iran is nowhere near the threat the Third Reich was, along any axis. Or so I see it.

  31. Lex,

    You are being extremely short sighted & narrow WRT Iran and it’s nuclear break out.

    The contagon of large scale nuclear proliferation and it’s effects on the world economy are completely ignored buy the powers that be.

    The post ISO container terrorist nuke world will see massive security based trade barriers that will contract the world economy over 40% if 100% physical inspection is required of every ISO container after it passes every national border.

    And after we see a city destroyed by such an attack, you will see just such a security regime in Democratic countries.

  32. And after we see a city destroyed by such an attack, you will see just such a security regime in Democratic countries.

    It won’t be one city. It will be 10 cities. And that will end transoceanic trade.

  33. A nuclear attack by terrorists will be a world-transforming event, certainly.

    I may be short-sighted. As you note, the powers-that-be are even more so.

    The one thing we could certainly do, that we are not is, make clear to states which are potential sponsors of nuclear terrorism that we will destroy them if an attack occurs. I blogged about that. I don’t see anyone who is in power, or likely to be in power, suggesting doing even that much. I certainly do not think there is any chance that the USA will actually attack Iran, for example, though the Israelis might do so. Bush cannot do it, since he no longer has anyone’s support for anything, and President Obama will certainly not do it.

    I am not sure such an attack would work. We did not know much about Saddam’s alleged WMD program. The Iranians no doubt have concealed much of what they have, as well. An attack may lead to an acceleration of the program, and the detonation of a nuke to deter future attacks. Short of attacking Iran with nuclear weapons and destroying the country entirely, we probably cannot prevent Iran from getting a nuke.

    I tend to think deterrance can hold against even radical regimes. It held against Stalin and Mao.

    If I am wrong, we will all find out. But for now a more proactive strategy is not even on the table, realistically, so far as I can see.

  34. Vince P,

    The most likely next use of a nuclear device is as the start of a 3rd world coup.

    Islamabad disappearing in a nuclear flash takes out Musharef (sp?), Pakistani Army HQ and most of the loyal Army units and the ISI at a stroke.

    We may well see Tehran go that way first via an intramural Mullah factional fight.


    South Africa built 10 Fission tactical nukes in 10 years, for $300 million, using 300 people, in total secrecy.

    Other Western nations can build nukes faster and cheaper, with less secrecy. For example, Japan can be a nuclear power larger than France in three years given a sufficient military and political threat.

    The possibility of a mass break out of nuclear proliferation in the Muslim world is already impacting weapons procurements in the West.

    Spain is buying Tomahawk missiles for its F100 frigates.

    See this:

    Spain Goes Long

    June 10, 2008: Spain is arming its largest warships with long range weapons it had long insisted it would never use. Maybe not, but Spain is buying 20 U.S. RGM-109E Block IV Surface Ship Vertical Launched Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles, plus five sets of control equipment. Spain will use the Tomahawks in its four F-100 class frigates. This Tomahawk weighs 1.2 ton, is 18 feet long, has a range 1,600 kilometers, getting there at a speed of 600-900 kilometers an hour, flying at an altitude of 50-100 feet and propelled by a jet engine generating only 600 pounds of thrust. Accuracy is on a par with JDAM (about 30 feet).

    The 6,000 ton F100 frigates have Aegis radar systems (controlling Standard and Sea Sparrow missiles), and 48 Mark-41 vertical launch cells for missiles. The ships also carry eight Harpoon anti-ship missiles, a 127mm gun, and a short-range anti-missile defense system. Each F-100 costs about half a billion dollars. These ships entered service between 2002-2006. The F-100s could also be equipped to use the anti-missile version of the Standard missile, but Spain has denied any interest in that, so far.

    Consider the implications of that given the fact the US Army was building fission devices that fit in 550lb, 11 inch dia. artillery shells in the mid 1950’s.

    The next thing to look for is for the Spanish to buy into ship based anti-ballistic missiles for the F100’s.

  35. >I tend to think deterrance can hold against even radical
    >regimes. It held against Stalin and Mao.


    Deterrence theory assumes (a) rational actors and (b) central control of the nukes.

    Iran’s Mullahs are neither all rational nor are all the tools of the Iranian state under centralized control. Their diplomats have stated the latter to American & Iraqi diplomats numerous times and asked us if we could please kill their nuts for them.

    The spread of such devices to regimes that are not rational actors requires regimes that are rational to pre-empt or risk losing everything at the hands of the irrational regimes.

    What is going on now is a classic pre-WW2 style Western elite failure of will in the face of an irrational actor.

    Perhaps we will get lucky with this.

    I am not counting on it.

  36. “The spread of such devices to regimes that are not rational actors requires regimes that are rational to pre-empt or risk losing everything at the hands of the irrational regimes.”

    Unless the current Israeli rehearsals lead to a US-assisted attack on Iran, there will be no preemption on Bush’s watch. There is zero chance that Obama will preempt. There is effectively zero chance that some other power will do so.

    The USA used up all its preemption juice in Iraq. Looks like we shot our one bullet at the wrong target.

    I am not so sure the mullahs are irrational enough to invite the annihilation of themselves and their families. The people who run terrorist suicide campaigns do not send their own kin out to die, they find some other chumps to do it. That is why we need a clearly articulated threat, so that whatever deterrance we have is in play.

    I agree that the Iranian capacity to control the nukes they will soon have is troubling. Maybe we can get the Chinese and Russians and Indians to work with them to establish safeguards. Those countries are all cordial with Iran.

    These are certainly very dangerous times. And we are about to get a novice Commander in Chief to run the show.

  37. Lex,

    Olmert will do nothing.

    Bush will do nothing.

    And we will see American freedom as we know it disappear after a mushroom cloud blooms.

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