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What Were Hitler's Major Blunders?

Hitler's blunders began with--and proceeded from--his  flawed strategic geopolitical vision. This was predicated on what he took to be the lessons of WW1. He felt that the Kaiser's bid to compete with Great Britain on the High Seas is what led to German defeat in that war. His conviction was that GB would not have involved themselves in the continental conflict had the Germans not challenged them at sea, thus making themselves a threat to the Empire. He concluded that had GB not joined in the conflict Germany, would have won the victory. Not only because the strength of Britain would have been denied to the French, but America would not have become involved either. Hitler would not make this mistake as his objectives were confined to Europe exclusively and he had no designs on her Empire, which he considered a positive force in world affairs.

Hitler had a two-pronged view of the challenge Germany faced in foreign policy. To (1) eliminate the threat of Soviet Communism, and (2) achieve for Germany its 'proper place' as the premier continental power. He planned to achieve these ends through a joint partnership with Great Britain, a nation which shared his fear and distaste of the Soviet regime.

Hitler's major miscalculation was in assuming that Great Britain would eventually join him in his plans, or, at the very least, tacitly acquiesce to the conquests taken on his road to a German-Soviet confrontation. When GB declared war on him three days after he moved on Poland, he was genuinely surprised.

This was one of the basic tenets of Hitler's foreign policy and he could never quite wrap his brain around the British refusal to go along with this reasonable conception. Hitler's 
Zweites Buch (often incorrectly referred to as the Secret Book, because it was never published for public sale) goes on and on about how this should be the basis of a long-term alliance between the two 'Aryan' nations. Hitler considered that this alliance would not only serve to preserve and strengthen the British Empire, which he actually considered to be a positive force in the world, but would allow Germany to finally achieve its rightful position of dominance on the Continent. He and his incompetent Foreign Minister could never quite believe that the British would sacrifice their Empire to stymie his own ambitions in Europe. Hitler considered such a thing to be so contrary to the self-interest of Britain that they would eventually acquiesce to this sensible reality. In the event, of course, they did not.

Hitler's foreign policy, which up until September 3, 1939 had proven to be brilliant, fell apart when this basic tenet--the alliance with GB--failed to become reality. Even though he subsequently managed a long string of conquests, the chance of his being able to keep and consolidate these gains was lost forever when the British refused to go along.

Below is some documentation--the testimony of Hitler's interpreter, Paul Otto Schmidt, is universally considered reliable--that confirms Hitler's "deluded optimism" until the last minute:

From the IMT testimony of Dr. Paul Otto Schmidt:

On the morning of the 3rd, at about 2 or 3 o'clock, the British Embassy telephoned the Reich Chancellery, where I was still present with the Foreign Minister in order to be available for possible conferences, to give the information that the British Ambassador had received instructions from his government, according to which, at exactly 9 o'clock, he was to make an important announcement on behalf of the British Government to the Foreign Minister. He therefore asked to be received by Herr von Ribbentrop at that time. He was given the reply that Ribbentrop himself would not be available but that a member of the Foreign Office, namely I, would be authorized to receive the British Government's announcement from the British Ambassador on his behalf. Thus it happened that at 9 o'clock in the morning I received the British Ambassador in Ribbentrop's office. When I asked him to be seated Henderson refused and while still standing he read to me the well-known ultimatum of the British Government to the German Government, according to which, unless certain conditions were fulfilled by Germany, the British Government would consider themselves at war with Germany at 11 o'clock that morning.

After we had exchanged a few words of farewell, I took the document to the Reich Chancellery. In the Reich Chancellery I gave it to Hitler, that is to say, I found Hitler in his office in conference with the Foreign Minister and I translated the document into German for him. When I had completed my translation, there was at first silence. And when I had completed my translation, both gentlemen were absolutely silent for about a minute. I could clearly see that this development did not suit them at all. For a while Hitler sat in his chair deep in thought and stared somewhat worriedly into space. Then he broke the silence with a rather abrupt question to the Foreign Minister, saying, "What shall we do now?" Thereupon they began to discuss the next diplomatic steps to be taken, whether this or that ambassador should be called, et cetera.

I, of course, left the room since I had nothing more to do. When I entered the anteroom, I found assembled there--or rather I had already seen on my way in--some Cabinet members and higher officials, to whose questioning looks--they knew I had seen the British Ambassador--I had said only that there would be no second Munich. When I came out again, I saw by their anxious faces that my remark had been correctly interpreted. When I then told them that I had just handed a British ultimatum to Hitler, a heavy silence fell on the room. The faces suddenly grew rather serious. I still remember that Goering, for instance, who was standing in front of me, turned round to me and said, "If we lose this war, then God help us." Goebbels was standing in a comer by himself and had a very serious, not to say depressed, expression. This depressing atmosphere prevailed over all those present, and it naturally lives in my memory as something most remarkable for the frame of mind prevailing in the anteroom of the Reich Chancellery on the first day of the war.

Another bit of documentation, in this case from Hitler's Foreign Minister:

From Ribbentrop's IMT Testimony:

The decisive factor [that started the war] was the English guarantee extended to Poland. I do not need to elaborate this point. This guarantee, combined with the Polish mentality, made it impossible for us to negotiate with the Poles or to come to an understanding with them. As for the actual outbreak of war, the following reasons for it can be given:

First of all, there is no doubt that on 30 and 31 August, England was well aware of the extreme tension of the situation. This fact was communicated to Hitler in a letter, and Hitler said that the decision must be made and a way of solving the problem found, with all possible speed. This was Chamberlain's letter to Hitler.

Secondly: England knew that the proposals made by Germany were reasonable, for we know that England was in possession of these proposals in the night of 30 to 31 August. Ambassador Henderson himself declared that these proposals were reasonable.

Thirdly: It would have been possible, therefore, on 30 or 31 August, to give a hint to Warsaw and tell the Poles to begin some sort of negotiations with us. This could have been done in three different ways: Polish negotiator could have flown to Berlin, which would have been, as the Fuehrer said, a matter of an hour to an hour and a half; or, a meeting could have been arranged between the foreign ministers or the heads of the states to take place on the frontiers; or else, Ambassador Lipski could simply have been instructed at least to receive the German proposals. If these instructions had been given, the crisis would have been averted and diplomatic negotiations could have been initiated.

England herself, had she wished to do so, could have sent her ambassador to represent her at the negotiations, which action, after what had gone before, would undoubtedly have been regarded very favorably by Germany. This, however, did not take place, and, as I gather from documents which I saw for the first time here, nothing was done during this period to alleviate this very tense situation. Chauvinism is natural to the Poles; and we know from Ambassador Henderson's own words and from the testimony of Mr. Dahlerus that Ambassador Lipski used very strong language illustrative of Polish mentality. Because Poland was very well aware that she would, in all circumstances, have the assistance of England and France, she assumed an attitude which made war inevitable to all intents and purposes.

I believe that these facts really are of some importance for the historical view of that entire period. I would like to add that I personally regretted this turn of events. All my work of 25 years was destroyed by this war; and up to the last minute I made every possible effort to avert this war. I believe that even Ambassador Henderson's documents prove that I did make these attempts. I told Adolf Hitler that it was Chamberlain's most ardent desire to have good relations with Germany and to reach an agreement with her; and I even sent a special messenger to the Embassy to see Henderson, to tell him how earnestly the Fuehrer desired this, and to do everything in his power to make this desire of Adolf Hitler's clear to his government.

All of the above--as well as the substance of Hitler's Foreign Policy as delineated in his 'Second Book'--convinces me that Hitler's "deluded optimism" was shared by his Foreign Minister, and both men were convinced by Munich that, in the end, Britain would "come to its senses" and not declare war. I am convinced that Hitler held out hope until the morning of September 3, 1939 that Britain would not take the chance of losing their Empire in opposition to Hitler's "reasonable" demands and in defense of Poland.

It was at this point that Hitler should have rethought his strategic intentions, taking into account continued British opposition to his aims. However, the weak nature of the response led him to believe that GB would eventually see the error of their ways, which he set out to do. After a pause to reload, he invaded France, easily conquering her while pushing the British into the Channel at Dunkirk, allowing the British to disembark a substantial portion of their forces. This is along the same lines, and part of a similar calculation, as allowing the French to maintain the Vichy portions of France. He wanted to demonstrate that his intention was not to conquer and control the West, but in fact to embark on his crusade in the East. He would have been perfectly satisfied if GB, at this point, had brought in a new government willing to negotiate either an alliance with him, or at least a policy of neutrality. This is what he expected would happen. Instead, Churchill was elevated to PM, making any such accommodation impossible. When this happened, even the bullheaded Hitler should have realized that his major assumption, British acquiescence to his plans, would not be forthcoming.

This was Hitler's first major blunder, and it led directly to all his subsequent blunders. Having been unable to bring the British to his side, he had two options available to him: (1) to conquer the British militarily through a cross-channel invasion, or (2) having failed that, abandoning his plans for further conquests in the East until such time as the strategic conditions made it possible to do so without running the danger of a two-front war. In the event, he went with option one.

However, the British proved to be far too tough of a nut to crack, winning the Battle for Britain and demonstrating that they were one nation Hitler would not be able to walk over. When the Luftwaffe failed to gain supremacy in the air, a prerequisite for invading by sea the world's #1 naval power, Hitler was again presented with options, three this time. He could (1) continue to strive for victory over GB until successful, embarking on a Mediterranean Strategy championed by some of his military minds, while taking the chance that Stalin's continuing buildup of his forces would put the chances for the success of Barbarossa beyond reach. Or he could (2) attack the USSR in the face of having to fight a two-front war. His only other option would have been to (3) abandon altogether his Eastern Strategy and maintain his alliance-of-convenience with the Soviets. It was at this point that Hitler made his first blunder: He chose option two, the most dangerous of the three open to him.

In the end, it was the two-front war that defeated him, as the Western Allies were eventually able to mount a cross-channel invasion from unconquered Britain while the Red Army bore down on the other front. After committing this major, strategic blunder, the others were of relatively minor importance. Including this blunder-of-all-blunders, the top five military blunders are:

1. Failing to conquer GB before opening the conflict on another front. See:
Why Did Hitler Lose The Battle of Britain?

2. Attacking the USSR without adequate intelligence as to her actual and potential strength.

While France had been easily conquered, Britian's refusal to give up, at that point, threw off his timetable, and presented Stalin with an opportunity that Hitler had not taken into account. Hitler and Stalin were both convinced that some sort of showdown between the two of them was inevitable, but neither were very prescient concerning the exact timing, and both made a series of dangerous miscalculations in the process. They were both right about one thing, and that is that neither could, to any degree, trust the other.

Stalin had calculated that the war in the West would progress along similar lines as what happened in WW1; a long, protracted stalemate devolving into trench warfare. This is what most observers expected, at the time, would happen. In this scenario of a WW1-type conflict, Stalin would wait until he had achieved full strength and then cut a deal with France and Britain. He would demand some degree of hegemony in the East in return for his turning on Hitler and pulling the West's chestnuts out of the fire. His Red Army would then move on a Germany weakened from prolonged conflict in the West, which is exactly what Hitler in his worst moments feared would happen anyway.

Hitler's relatively quick victory surprised everyone, and was certainly not an eventuality Stalin was immediately prepared to deal with. But continued British intransigence virtually equaled the imagined WW1-type standoff, and this lulled Stalin into a false sense of security, believing that Hitler would never be foolish enough to open a two-front war. However, Hitler decided that he needed a game-changer, and he mounted a strike against Stalin at least a year earlier than either he or Stalin anticipated.

3. Declaring war unnecessarily on the US, thus further broadening the conflict while gaining nothing in return from his Japanese 'Allies.' (Had he been able to talk the Japanese into opening a Far-East Front against the Soviets, it would have been a different story indeed.)

4. Dividing his forces in the USSR into a three-pronged thrust which failed on all three prongs. (He should instead have planned for a three-year offensive, with the objectives of each fighting year confined basically to the corresponding objectives of his initial three prongs, beginning with the Center Thrust to Moscow in the first year.)

5. Failing to foil the cross-channel invasion--the D-Day invasion of Normandy--that he knew was coming, thus bringing the two-front war home to the Reich.

6. Wasting valuable resources on the Holocaust, an endevour which hampered Hitler's war effort in a multitude of areas. See:
Was the Holocaust Detrimental to Hitler's War Effort?

Conclusion: All Six of these mistakes were extremely serious, and they all followed from Hitler's flawed strategic geopolitical vision as concerns the British. After his advances were spurned by the Britain's, he subsequently behaved much as would an unbalanced lover. His emotional response to the rejection of his affections had all the earmarks of a stalker whose frustration has turned homicidal. This sort of emotional behavior, whether indulged in by individuals or nations, is ultimately self-destructive, and it certainly proved to be so in this case.
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