The Second World War has had a big effect on our collective cultural worldview. Even now, more than 70 years after it ended, a surprisingly large number of people are still obsessing over it and going over every last detail. Which is fine with me: I’ve always had an interest in history myself, especially military history, and I like to see people taking an interest in things that are older than their smartphone. I am a bit worried about the ways in which the war gets presented most of the time, though. Some important aspects get underemphasised, others get massively overemphasised, and this leads to an impression of the period which may make for great movies but doesn’t do much to reflect actual events. Perhaps as a result of this, recent years have seen a constant stream of people into discussions about history and a worryingly high percentage fall into a single category. You can identify them pretty easily: they’re the ones spouting some breathless and poorly-thought-out way in which the Nazis could have won, should have won, and would have won if only things went slightly differently. They’re so common that they have a special name.
And they really piss me off.
“From the Book of Revisionisms, the section on the Four Horsemen of the Wehrpocalypse:
And I saw, and beheld a white Schwalbe: and he that sat on it had a V2, and a Vampir was given unto him: and he went forth wundering, and to wunderwaffe.
And there went out another vehicle that was red, and a tank; and power was given to him that sat thereon to out-think the Allies at all turns, and by all means, that they should be encircled and destroyed; and there was given unto him immunity from logistical concerns.
And I heard the third vehicle cough, with a sound of honking. And I beheld, and lo a black barge; and he that sat on it had a sea-lion in his hand.
And I heard a voice in the midst of the four vehicles say, “A quart of turps for Allied soldiers, and three quarts for leaders; and do not damage the paint and the wine.” And I looked, and beheld a pale carrier: and his name that sat on it was Wank, and Screw followed with him. And power was given unto them over the mental capacity of the Allied Powers, to derp with paint, and with alcohol, and with blindness, and with the carriers of the Kriegsmarine.”
Yes, I know none of them are horsemen. That’s because the enthusiasts of the Wehrpocalypse like to pretend the German Army didn’t use horses very much. It doesn’t fit with the belief that…
“German technology was superior!”
Talking about the various German projects that could go into this category would require a whole other article. But the short version is that this is what happens when you only look at numbers on a page and ignore the context something is used in. A lot of the German designs were impressive examples of engineering hubris, which in some cases excelled at a particular aspect but were usually very poor in others. At the end of the war they had theoretical designs – the “napkinwaffe” – which tend to make people very excited and claim the Nazi’s were this close to having stealth bombers, guided missiles, flying saucers and so on. But these things don’t mean what you might think.
For starters, everyone was coming up with theoretical designs that might win the war for them. In the field of British wonder-weapons, for example, sanity is represented by the Tallboy bomb and batshit-craziness by the Grand Panjandrum. And that’s just a tiny sample of what one nation was doing – once you start looking at what the Americans and the Russians were up to, you can see that plenty of creativity was being wasted invested in the field. And the Germans weren’t slacking either (although they might have been over-compensating). The difference is that the Germans lost, so we got to see all their secret weapons. Some of them look pretty futuristic… but that’s not the same as being practical.
The truth is that most German designs were not that great. The most effective ones were generally comparable to those of other powers. But even they tended to be overly complex, unreliable, and very expensive. Most of the prototypes which people get excited over were poor to begin with, pushed even further from reality by the chronic shortages of strategic materials required for their construction. This meant the Germans never had enough of any of them. The Allies, on the other hand, generally managed to come up with designs that were considerably simpler to produce and maintain, but nevertheless performed just as well (fun fact: the T-34 was probably the best tank of the war, and as of 2014 was still in service in several countries).
But that doesn’t really matter, because…
“The Germans were military geniuses!”
Down at the tactical level the Germans were genuinely very good. Right up to the end of the war their NCOs and junior officers were tactically sophisticated and capable of putting up a fierce fight. And up until the end of 1941, they enjoyed an incredibly unlikely string of successes. How unlikely? Let me put it this way. They were rolling dice against their opponents every day. They needed a 5 or better every time just to stay in the game. They consistently rolled 6’s, while no-one else was able to get more than a 3. And that went on for over two years. Unfortunately, despite their tactical ability, the war was being won or lost at an entirely different level. Rolling dice doesn’t help if you’re actually caught in a game of chess. And chess… well, let’s just say the Russians have a reputation for being good at it.
The Eastern Front was where the German armies were defeated, inflicting 80% of the casualties Germany suffered and tying up a similar proportion of their total military capacity. It wasn’t simply a matter of hurling bodies at them either; by the end of 1942 the Soviets had recovered from the shock of invasion and had got their best generals in the fight. Their operational technique was good enough to drive the German armies back to Berlin, and after WW2 the US borrowed much of it for their military doctrine. It was the same in other theatres too. German pilots were some of the highest-scoring aces of the war, but they died with their squadrons instead of teaching a new generation of pilots. The Kriegsmarine did their best to close the Atlantic and prevent convoys reaching Britain, but their best wasn’t good enough. The German forces were consistently outperformed at the operational and strategic levels. Even their star players – like Rommel in North Africa – had to perform under crippling shortages of practically every vital resource.
And this is the cold calculus that underlies all of WW2. Logistics matter, in a way that the wehraboos cannot afford to accept. To win a war you have to have enough weapons and people to use them, the supplies they need, and get all this where it’s needed in time to be useful. The Germans couldn’t do it. While the US Army was sending its best and brightest into the supply services and the British began the war with the only fully mechanised military in the world, a German infantry division had ten times as many horses as it did trucks. Taking on not one, not two, but three of the world’s largest military and industrial powers under those circumstances was not military genius, it was suicide.
Not that you’ll hear the wehraboos accept that, of course. They would prefer to think about how…
“The Germans could have invaded Britain!”
Operation Sealion might be the single most discussed action of WW2 that never took place. After Germany had taken over most of Western Europe and defeated France, it looked for sure as if Britain would be invaded next. Everyone started preparing for it – the British by building defences and taking down roadsigns, the Germans by beginning a bombing campaign and collecting barges. Hindsight makes the case even more compelling. Britain was the only major power still fighting the Germans, and was the only thing standing between Germany and complete domination of continental Europe. If the British could be defeated, Germany could turn its undivided attention East. The possibilities would be limitless! In fact, there was only one small issue – Operation Sealion was impossible.
I don’t propose to take the plan apart step by step. Other people have done that at length, far more comprehensively than I have space for here. I’ll just say that the German plan is far from certain to succeed even without taking into account enemy action. Although calling it a plan is a rather grandiose term for “collection of half-baked ideas, formed in isolation and distressingly far from reality”. Just to pluck a random example, the invasion force was to include four thousand horses in the first wave. No thought was given to how the horses would get off the barges, or what they would do once they were ashore. These barges – river barges without engines, by the way, not intended for use at sea – would have less than a single trained sailor on each one, and their movements would be coordinated by shouting. Let me stress again that I am not making this up; this was the German masterplan for the invasion of Britain. It was probably a huge relief for everyone involved when the whole idea was called off, since it would have been a clusterfuck of epic proportions even if we wave a magic wand and remove the entire British military from the scene.
Which reminds me…
“No-one could do anything about this!”
This is the real crux of all the other wehraboo fantasies. The Germans can develop different technologies, employ different strategies, conduct different operations – and no-one ever responds, assuming they even notice. The successful implementation of whatever scheme has come up invariably requires their opponents – no slouches historically – to be drinking paint thinners and hitting themselves on the heads with hammers. It is teeth-grindingly infuriating to see this time after exasperating time, but the people breathlessly explaining how the master-race will win seem unaware of the issue.
So let’s get it out in the open: nothing occurs in a vacuum. Everything has consequences, frequently unpredictable ones. The Western Allies started using radar to hunt U-boats; the Kriegsmarine started putting radar-detectors on their U-boats. The Germans build bunkers that can’t be penetrated by bombs; the British build bombs that explode underneath the target and drop it into a huge crater. And so it goes, action and reaction. Real-life doesn’t have to make sense, that’s why it’s frequently stranger than fiction and why there are examples of nations acting in mind-bogglingly stupid ways. But these are the exception, not the rule.
On the alternate-history forum I frequent, this is described as a wank (although given how often it happens more extreme terms might be appropriate). And if you are wanking Nazi Germany, I would like to point out that plausibility, to say nothing of good taste, is not on your side.
There is no likelihood that this article will prevent wehraboos from being wehraboos, of course. The four horsemen of the wehrpocalypse cannot be stopped by an angry rant on a minor blog. Possibly nothing can stop them, and after the world ends one cockroach will turn to the other and start talking excitedly about how the Germans had stealth fighters during WW2. But we don’t have to give in to them either. And every time we swing our clue-bats at a marine pinniped as it lumbers and honks its way up the beach, we get a bit closer to a world free of wehraboos.
Question of the post: What subcultures of your interest areas make you angry? And why do they keep coming up?