Adolf Hitler knew his history. He knew that one of the world’s greatest military geniuses, Napoleon, was defeated when he invaded Russia. Hitler knew that his Nazi generals strongly advised against opening a second front in 1941 when Germany had not yet subdued England. Yet he invaded Russia anyway. Why?
It is too easy to say Hitler was a madman, that he was crazy. As historian John Lucas notes, such an evaluation actually lets him and us off the hook. If we can dismiss him as insane, we don’t have to look inside him and see what also might be inside us.
At first it looked like Hitler was right. His blitzkrieg swept through western Russia, quickly swallowing hundreds of miles of territory on three fronts. Russia’s defeat looked imminent. But then winter and overextended supply lines ground the Nazi army to a halt. Hitler had been so certain of a quick victory that he didn’t even supply his soldiers with enough proper winter gear.
Why was he so overconfident? As M. T. Anderson’s Symphony for the city of the Dead (see here) reminds us, Hitler thought the Slavs were an inferior race (pp. 4, 184). Of course they would fall to the superior Arians. His racism
also caused him to deal brutally with the conquered farmers of western Russia. After decades of horrific treatment by Stalin, the Ukrainians and Cossacks welcomed the Germans as liberators. But Hitler forced them to give over even more grain than Stalin had, and so starved them. Many others were forced into Nazi industrial labor. As a result, Hitler gave up a massive, ongoing source of food for his own people and army. Why? These farmers were subhuman, fit only for slavery or death (p. 240).
Hitler’s racist attitudes also caused a huge brain drain. The best and brightest of the Jews (along with all the rest) either fled to Western countries or were killed in concentration camps. These could have been a great human resource in the German war effort. As it turned out many Jewish scientists provided strategic help to America and Britain that helped defeat Germany.
War and history are complex, and many factors contributed to Hitler’s motivations and to his demise. But one key to his overconfidence and ultimate defeat was his racist views that saw certain groups as inferior and only worth killing, enslaving or removing from the country.