Introduction: Here's a misconception about World War II that I think is harmful and I don't see refuted often enough.

Misconception: In 1941, Hitler was sitting pretty with most of Europe conquered and no huge difficulties on the horizon. Then, due to his megalomania and bullshit ideology, he decided to invade Russia. This was an unforced error of epic proportions. It proved his undoing, like that of Napoleon before him.

Rebuttal: In hindsight, we think of the Soviet Union as a superpower and military juggernaut which you'd be stupid to go up against. But this is not how things looked to the Germans in 1941. Consider World War I. In 19171918, Germany and Austria had defeated Russia at the same time as they were fighting a horrifyingly bloody war with France and Britain - and another devastating European war with Italy. In 1941, Italy was an ally, France had been subdued and Britain wasn't in much of a position to exert its strength. Seemingly, the Germans had much more favorable conditions than in the previous round. And they won the previous round.

In addition, the Germans were not crazy to think that the Red Army was a bit of a joke. The Russians had had their asses handed to them by Poland in 1920 and in 19391940 it had taken the Russians three months and a ridiculous number of casualties to conquer a small slice of Finland.

Nevertheless, Russia did have a lot of manpower and a lot of equipment (indeed, far more than the Germans had thought) and was a potential threat. The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was obviously cynical and the Germans were not crazy to think that they would eventually have to fight the Russians. Being the first to attack seemed like a good idea and 1941 seemed like a good time to do it. The potential gains were very considerable. Launching the invasion was a rational military decision.

Why this matters: The idea that Hitler made his most fatal decision for irrational reasons feeds into the conception that evil and irrationality must go hand in hand. It's the same kind of thinking that makes people think a superintelligence would automatically be benign. But there is no fundamental law of the universe which prevents a bad guy from conquering the world. Hitler lost his war with Russia for perfectly mundane and contingent reasons like, “the communists had been surprisingly effective at industrialization.”

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19 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 12:24 PM

I don't think invading Russia was a bad decision per se, the problem is invading Russia during the winter which is what should have been learnt from Napoleon, who's army was destroyed by the winter, not by the Russian army. There was a long distance to cover to Moscow, and Germany should have attacked around the start of spring, not 22 June (Napoleon attacked on 24 June). If that was not possible during 1941, they should have waited till 1942.

More irrational was Hitler's decision to order troops at Stalingrad not to retreat, saying roughly "Too many German lives have been lost to retreat now" which is very much sunk cost bias. For that matter, the decision to prioritise Stalingrad was made because of the name. True, capturing the city named after the Russian leader would have damaged morale, but this is a political argument, which Hitler may have overestimated because his expertise was in politics. Perhaps actually trying to capture the oil fields, while more mundane, would have been a better objective?

Towards the end of the war, Britain had a plan to assassinate Hitler, but chose not to put it into action partially because Hitler was acting irrationally and whoever succeeded him would perhaps have been a better military leader.

I thought the reason to keep Stalingrad was because of it's gatekeeper status to the southern oil fields, which Germany desperately needed ?

Stalingrad was an important strategical objective in that theater, but the Germans focused on it to the exclusion of all else, which is why they got encircled.

+1 for a novel/interesting original post.

I agree the idea that evil/irrationality go hand-in-hand is a commonly held, but silly idea. In a similar vein I see people thinking the line between good/evil is distinct and clear-cut throughout history. If we believe it was a clear distinction historically, it should follow the distinction would be clear today. And who is evil today? Our political opponents, of course (/s).

Not to suggest there weren't better/worse sides in the past, however, I recently read this book 'Human Smoke,' which is a collection of news paper clippings from the 1920s-1940s. It's incredible how a few years before WWII Churchill was gassing and decimating colonialist towns for disobeying imperial mandate. It is only one data point, of many, to show that this idea that good = rational, morally upstanding, our side. Bad = evil, irrational, crazy, their side. Is a vast oversimplification.

PS: Your post also reminds me of War and Peace, where Tolstoy makes the argument that attributing Russia's defeat of Napoléon as due to some grand strategic brilliance is nonsensical, and the reality was more mundane (One example, a combination of bureaucratic slowness leading to retreat, luckily paired with a colder than usual winter).

Tolstoy makes the argument that attributing Russia's defeat of Napoléon as due to some grand strategic brilliance is nonsensical,

Choosing to abandon and burn Moscow, while perhaps not strategic brilliance, seems like an impressive willingness to make sacrifices.

an impressive willingness to make sacrifices

The Russians are absolutely outstanding at this :-/

Yeah, fair enough. Everything I know about that event comes from War and Peace and Wikipedia, so I won't argue on any specific ground. Tolstoy's bigger argument that there were lots of hidden, but crucial aspects, that determined the war, at the time, went against the traditional view of the time that it was all a function of Great Men. Or at least that's the impression I have.

Everything I know about that event comes from War and Peace

Username checks out.

Yes, a hundred times yes.

I argued here that Hitler's true irrationality was the attack on France, which he had no rational reason to suspect would work:

Another aspect to consider is that Hitler had spent the decades leading up to the war declaring the Soviet Union to be an existential threat and noisily pre-committed to a massive seizure of Eastern European land. He dedicated an entire chapter to the topic in Mein Kampf. So Hitler had perhaps already tied his own hands before he even came to power.

and noisily pre-committed to a massive seizure of Eastern European land

Funnily enough, Stalin totally didn't believe him :-/

I always felt Hitler gets a bad rap for the June attack. How was he to know that Japan would attack the USA in December?

Given Pearl Harbor happening in December, then sure, optimal play would obviously not be to assault the USSR. You got to bunker down in Europe and make peaceful noises.

But if Japan doesn't attack the USA and bring them into the war, you want to fight Stalin NOW, before he becomes strong. Russia has watched your work in France avidly, and they have seen their own struggles in Finland, Poland. They know their vulnerability, and are working to patch it. If you give too much time you won't be able to beat them anymore.

Once Japan throws the game with Pearl Harbor the rest is just tactics, and while there are better lines than those pursued historically there are none (barring nukes) that let Germany lick the Earth.

The decision you're talking about was indeed fatal, but "most fatal?" Hitler tried to kill all of Albert Einstein's people, with the result that Einstein wrote a letter to the President explaining the idea of nuclear weapons.

Yes, but Hitler was defeated without needing nukes, so I don't see how, um, very very indirectly causing the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a "most fatal" decision.

the Germans were not crazy to think that they would eventually have to fight the Russians.

In my model they absolutely were, because evil and stupidity do not always go together. Stalin was a rational psychopath who kept every promise he made to a foreign power. (If he believed or cared about Communist ideology at all, he thought it rendered war against another major power redundant and foolish.) He thought Hitler was the same, to the point of not listening to anyone who said otherwise, and finding the truth shocked him into paranoia.

finding the truth shocked him into paranoia

There is a bit of a problem with this theory in that Stalin's paranoia was very visible starting from 1934 and, arguably, it peaked in 1937.

I had in mind some specific remarks by Stalin, but let's say Hitler's invasion had no such effect.

What makes you think he was paranoid before this? His mass-murders didn't stop him from dying in his bed at an advanced age, nor from forcing the Soviet people to defend him and his power from Germany. He could easily have enjoyed killing people. On what grounds would you call his behavior irrational?

Define terms. Do you use the word "paranoia" is its clinical meaning? as a shortcut for "he values his safety much more than lives of others"? and how does irrationality play into this? For one thing, without the purges of 1937, the Russian army would have been much more capable in 1941.

The Red Army clearly sucked at invading, but defending turned out to be a lot easier - all they had to do was just keep fighting.