Editor's Note: Although written in 1988, much of this essay still stands and seems appropriate as we celebrate a series of World War II anniversaries.
Adolf Hitler, ex-lance corporal of the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry 1914-1918, trench runner, survivor of twelve battles on the Western Front, three times wounded, five times decorated, and recipient of the Iron Cross First Class, frequently remarked that he knew more of war than his generals.1 More often than not, when he said this, he spoke the exact truth. His early commanders, who had been staff officers or gunners during the debacle of 1914-1918, had never been in the trenches. From miles behind the lines, they had planned offensives, directed artillery, and debated strategy. Few had seen the carnage which their orders wrought. Few had lived through the perils of front-line combat.
The Great War had been one of men against machines, an unfair combat in which men died without seeing who killed them and killed without seeing who they killed. A generation died to prove that human courage could not overcome the machine. Hitler saw all this at first hand, and he thought he saw a way out. His remedy was a change in tactics, armor plating, and newer, more destructive machines.
Hitler went to war in 1939 confident that he had mastered modern warfare. In the end, again, it was the machine that won. Hitler was dead. Europe, or much of it, was in ruins. Japan, the Pacific islands, Burma, North Africa, and a hundred other places all were laid waste. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were radiating, smoking ruins.
The world saw, but it did not understand. It still followed Hitler's remedy for the evils of industrial warfare. New tactics, stronger defenses, and machines whose destructive power would come to rival that of Nature itself. Hitler would have understood all too well.
The post-war world, however, was different from that of 1919. At long last it had begun to see, however dimly, that Hitler's remedy would not work in the long run. It established the United Nations; its ideology held that the most destructive weapons were not to be used but to be held in readiness, thus preventing war. But weapons, new and old—the tank, the rifle, the rocket, the artillery shell—grew and became mightier, until their power dwarfed anything that Hitler could have imagined. 35 million people died in wars between 1945 and 1987, all killed by traditional weapons.2
None of this was surprising. National leaders had searched for years for a weapon so terrible that it would make them invulnerable, thereby making war unimaginable and preventing it—but on terms favorable to them. Gunpowder had killed millions, but it had failed to settle the matter of war. The rifled musket had brought new horrors to the battlefield, but it, too, had failed. Rifled artillery had failed. Aerial bombardment, the tank, poison gas, even the atomic bomb, had been invented and used in combat and failed. War had become more dangerous, but no one had the ultimate weapon. The fighting went on.
The nations had failed to see the obvious: what one person could invent, another could copy. And what one person could copy, yet another could improve, so that the spiral of destruction went ever upward. Within the spiral itself, there was no solution to the problem of war.
There was, moreover, a complicating factor that had been unknown before. The nations feared not only each other, but the ghost of Adolf Hitler himself. There is a sense in which the whole vexing problem of the post-war European military balance is the legacy of Hitler. Hitler rebuilt Germany into a great military power. His expansionist policies led to the 1939-1945 war. His attack on the Soviet Union led to 20 million deaths. His death camps killed more than 10 million people.
Hitler's maniacal destructiveness brought a new kind of demon into our thinking about history, so that U.S. policymakers can now speak of a Soviet Blitzkrieg across Central Europe. That Blitzkrieg was not Hitler's invention, that it does not really apply to Soviet tactical plans, and that it would be difficult to achieve in central German terrain3 does not matter. The ghost of Hitler is at work. The use of the term conjures up visions of Hitler's attack on a virtually defenseless Poland or, even more terrifying, the Fall of France in 1940. It implies that Soviet leaders, however reasonable they may seem, are in reality half-mad and waiting for any sign of Western indecision to launch their assault. The Soviets, who call World War II the Great Patriotic War, are equally bemused by the ghost of Hitler.
This is a curious situation. The rise of Hitler, the war that followed, and the end of the Third Reich occurred more than forty years ago. Like all historical events, they were unique and unrepeatable. Yet Hitler's malign influence goes on, making the search for international accords more difficult, helping to keep Europe thirty minutes away from nuclear devastation, poisoning the atmosphere in other parts of the world.
Because Hitler's methods were so ruthless and his atrocities so unspeakable, he has also become a kind of touchstone for moral debate. One of the standard questions asked of conscientious objectors is whether they would have fought Hitler. This, it is assumed, is the litmus test of true pacifism. One who would not have fought Hitler surely would not fight anyone. And one who cannot answer this question must surely be hesitant about his or her convictions.
It is a difficult question indeed—but not a very useful one. Hitler has been dead for over four decades. No one could fight him now. No one can change the history of his rise or the events that followed. One can speculate that different policies might have prevented Hitler's rise; many people do. One can also speculate—as the conventional wisdom sometimes has it—that the Allies could have stopped Hitler by "firmness" before he became a serious threat.
No one really knows. Nor does a person applying for conscientious objector status today know, whatever he or she may thin, what he or she would have done about Hitler in 1941 or 1942. Even the firmest advocate of military strength does not really know, for such knowledge is impossible. Just as one cannot go back and rewrite the Treaty of Versailles, so one cannot project oneself back to 1941 and make the moral choice one would have made then.
What we can ask—and it is the only useful question—is what the lessons of Hitler's rise and fall may be. The conventional answer to this question is well-known. Hitler's rise, the conventional wisdom teaches, proves that we must be prepared for any military threat. It proves that without military strength we will be insecure and vulnerable to attack by monomaniacs who understand only strength.
The difficulty with the conventional answer is all around us. We have sought security through military strength, and we are less secure today than at any time in world history. The recent Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty has, perhaps, lessened the danger somewhat; but it affects only a very small percentage of nuclear weapons, none of them the strategic weapons which, if launched, will spell our doom. It is not only Europe but the world itself that is thirty minutes from nuclear destruction.
The lesson of Hitler's rise is, I suggest, the opposite of the conventional wisdom. Hitler and the Third Reich were possible precisely because the nations sought security through military power. World War I and its aftermath helped to create the conditions for his rise to power. He believed in, manipulated, and fed on dreams of military glory which, in less malignant forms, were common among the nations of the world.
Hitler's remedy for the horrors of trench warfare was not different from that proposed by advanced military thinkers of the time. It was, indeed, copied from them whole cloth. Blitzkrieg was based on the thinking of two British military historians, J. F. C. Fuller and B. H. Liddell Hart. It was to be the ultimate solution to the problems posed by the industrialized slaughter of the trenches.
The Allies did not adopt Hitler's Blitzkrieg tactics between the wars, but they, too, had sought the ultimate solution to war in better and more destructive weapons. On paper, the French Army was actually more powerful in 1940 than the German Army. British air war doctrine was dominated by the heavy bomber, which some interwar thinkers held was the ultimate weapon. None of these weapons prevented the debacle; none made the nations which held them invulnerable.
The irony—which Hitler himself probably would not have understood—is that in his thinking about national security, Hitler was very conventional. He was ruthless, monomaniacal, psychopathic, mad, but he shared with other national leaders the assumption that the solution to the problem of security was more and better weapons.
Hitler's "Thousand Year Reich" died with him. His legacy lives on. Overcoming it will be difficult. We can begin to do so when we understand that the conventional wisdom will no longer do. There is no military solution to the problem of war. That way lies only death.
Copyright (c) 1988 by Robert A. Seeley.