Otto von Bismarck was certainly a great politician, but you cannot place every single bit of German success squarely onto his shoulders. He created the final product, but he also had some great tools at his disposal.
Industrialization had finally begun to take off in the German speaking territories in the 1840’s to 1850’s, especially in his own Prussia. This gave him a strong economy. He also had the best military on the continent by far at his disposal. Albrecht von Roon successfully reformed and expanded the Prussian army.
Voltaire is thought to have said “Most states possess an Army, but the Prussian Army possess a state” which showcases the warrior culture of Prussia. Drawing on the support of the Junkers, who were the aristocratic warrior elite, and on the legacies of Frederick the Great, Roon was able to turn a good military into one that was probably the best in the world. This army was put into the hands of Helmuth von Moltke who was a brilliant strategist and reformer in his own right.
Bismarck’s brilliance came in his use of these tools to form a Prussian dominated German state. To do this, he basically had to do three things:
1.Begin to draw the German people together, awakening pan-German nationalism. He did this in the Second Schleswig War, by creating a conflict with Denmark. It’s more complicated than I would really want to get into here, but essentially Prussia and Austria jointly declared war on Denmark over a minor territorial dispute, which demonstrated Prussian strength and riled up the population to support unification.
2.His second step was to exclude Austria from the proposed German state. He did this by using disputes with Austria over annexed Danish territory. In the Austro-Prussian war Prussia’s new and improved army was led to a quick victory by Helmuth von Moltke. This is where Bismarck had a really good idea. Rather than push their luck, continue the war, and hope to gain more territory, Bismarck successfully pushed for a limited war. Prussia annexed Austrian Holstein and some Austrian allies, but more importantly, Austria agreed not to interfere in German affairs. This lead to the eventual creation of the North German Confederation.
3.Bismarck wanted to turn the strong but still loosely held together North German Confederation into a true empire. He also wanted to add the southern German kingdoms. He regarded war with France as a necessary prelude to German unification. He basically manufactured a political crisis involving a Prussian prince claiming the Spanish throne. The claim was withdrawn, but Bismarck managed to goad Napoleon the Third into declaring war by essentially insulting his envoy. The French declaration of war branded them as the aggressors in the eyes of all the Germans, not just the Prussians. The Bavarians, plus other south Germans, were drawn in on the side of the Prussians. The Prussian victory (brought about by that excellent Army) cemented their position as the center of Germany. The German Reich was declared in the immediate aftermath of war, creating a new continental power.
After Unification, Bismarck continued to act intelligently. In World politics, a balance of power does not always lead to peace, nor does an imbalance lead to war. After unification, Germany was universally regarded as the premier continental power.
Bismarck’s strategy was to isolate the only power with which they had poor relations, France. He managed to keep France basically without allies using his policies. He kept the League of the Three Emperors between Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Germany active as long as possible, and when that fell apart he signed the Reinsurance Treaty which assured neutrality between Russia and Germany. He also avoided challenging British naval supremacy, a policy not continued by his successors.
By not challenging Britain, they mostly maintained traditional British neutrality in continental affairs. But when what was clearly the strongest continental power began building a large fleet, the British lined up with France and Russia, setting up the alliance system that lead to World War 1. Bismarck knew that Germany’s limited coastline and numerous choke points would make challenging Britain directly difficult. When the new Emperor ordered a build up anyway, it led directly to a realignment of Britain on the side of France.
Operation Barbarossa was planned to carry out a swift land grab, with combat ending by Fall at the latest and pursuit following after. Hitler and the military commanders and staffs working under him generally agreed that the campaign’s casualties would be proportionately small (275,000 men according to Halder), the strain of combat on ammunition and fuel would be low after the first weeks, and the political system of the Soviet Union would be unable to handle such rapid defeats. Even before the air war over Britain was decided, the promise of swift and easy conquest of the Soviet Union proved too difficult to resist.
War with the Soviet Union began to be seriously discussed a month after France signed its armistice. General Fritz Halder, Chief of the General Staff of the Army, noted in his diary that on 22 July, 1940 Hitler made his intention to conquer and subjugate the Soviet Union clear to all his commanders; the day before had ordered the Commander in Chief of the Army, Walther von Brauchitsch, to begin developing plans to invade the Soviet Union. General Erich Marcks was selected to head this initial study.
From its inception the plan was marked by several assumptions and flaws. First, the vast distances of the Soviet Union, while noted, were not properly addressed or prepared for. Second the pervasive racism of German military and political leadership caused them to demean Soviet capabilities, technology, and leadership, leading in turn to the assumption that the war would be short and easy. Third, the rivalry between the two main German military bodies, OKW (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, High Command of the Armed Forces) and OKH (Oberkommando ders Heeres, High Command of the Army), led to friction, compartmentalization, and competition. The plan was as much about soothing egos and meeting racial expectations as achieving victory.
Marck’s initial concept representing OKH’s view, codenamed Operation Otto, was delivered to Hitler on August 5, 1940 and formed the basis for future variants of what would become Operation Barbarossa. His plan assumed that Moscow would be the campaign’s main objective that the war would last only “9 to 17 weeks”, and most importantly, that the Red Army’s 170 combat ready divisions, an inaccurate number, would be destroyed along the border west of the Dnieper River.
A second study, called the “Lossberg Study”, conducted separately by OKW called for a stronger focus on Ukraine and Leningrad, though Moscow would remain the central objective. It also was more concerned with the flanks of the Ostheer as it advanced into the interior of Russia than OKH’s proposal, concerns which would be repeated by Hitler later in the final plan. Though never presented to Hitler, it influenced subsequent planning by Goering and the Reich Ministry of Economics and from there likely reached his ears.
Halder presented OKH’s final plan, codenamed Operation Fritz, to Hitler on December 5, 1940, with the three objectives now being Leningrad, Moscow, and Kiev. The Red Army was assumed to be destroyed within 500 kilometers of the border within the first weeks of war, followed by a pursuit to the Archangelsk-Astrakhan Line.
On December 18, 1940, Hitler issued Fuhrer Directive 21, codenamed Operation Barbarossa, which was a synthesis of the past 3 months’ planning. In the final plan the Red Army was still to be destroyed near the border, with the assumption that future reserves could not be raised. Three Army Groups, North, Center, and South, would advance on Leningrad, Moscow, and Kiev, respectively. However, the plan stressed that while Moscow was the most important objective Army Group Center should be diverted to assist Army Groups North and South if they failed to seize their objectives. Rambling and vague, Directive 21 failed to resolve the disputes planning had opened and in fact was a plan only to defeat the Red Army, not the Soviet Union as a whole.
The planning for Operation Barbarossa was marred by a number of problems. Most importantly, logistics and the factor of space were never addressed; Martin Crevald in Supplying War notes that an absurd number of problems were swept under the rug, from fuel consumption to rolling stock. German planners also lacked a unity of command which led to a mixture of objectives and no clear focus. OKH and OKW had each had their own assumptions about what objective would achieve final victory, and forces were diluted along the Northern, Central, and Southern axis to achieve all of them; the Germans entered the campaign with only the vaguest idea of what success meant. Finally, racism towards Slavs caused the Germans to underestimate their opponents and ignore potential problems, maintaining confidence that ultimate victory could be achieved quickly and easily.
German planning for Barbarossa was confused and unrealistic, to the point of absurdity. Thus it’s impossible to look at Barbarossa vs Sealion from a rational standpoint as Hitler and his inner circle were driven by irrational assumptions in their decision to go to war. Adam Tooze uses the phrase “mad logic”, and I think that best sums it up; Barbarossa seemed like the best option within their own worldview, even if today its flaws are easily apparent to us.
Supplying War by Martin van Crevald
Operation Barbarossa and Germany’s Defeat in the East by David Stahel
Barbarossa: Planning for Operational Failure by John D. Snively
Operation Barbarossa: Hitler’s Invasion of Russia 1941 by David Glantz
The Wehrmacht: History, Myth, Reality by Wolfram Wette
The Strategy of Barbarossa by Austin C. Wedemeyer
Operational Logic and Identifying Soviet Operational Centers of Gravity During Operation Barbarossa, 1941 by Major David J. Bongi
Pictures like this make me think of this quote from Lord of the Rings:
You wonder what his name is, where he comes from, and if he really was evil at heart. What lies or threats led him on this long march from home, and would he not rather have stayed there… in peace?