Steven D. Mercatante’s Why Germany Nearly Won presents readers with a fresh and enlightening argument that convincingly challenges conventional thought on the inevitability of Germany’s defeat in World War II primarily for brute-force economic or military reasons created when Germany attacked the Soviet Union and entered into a two-front war. This book challenges that conventional wisdom via three interrelated arguments. First, qualitative differences between the combatants proved more important in determining the war’s outcome than have the quantitative measures so commonly discussed in the past. Second, attacking the Soviet Union represented Germany’s best opportunity to win a war that, by commonly cited numerical measures of military potential, Germany never should have had even a remote chance of winning. Third, for reasons frequently overlooked and misunderstood, Germany came far closer to winning the war than has previously been recognized.
Mercatante is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Globe at War; a website focused on exploring World War II and which has subsequently established the author as a respected authority on the subject. The enthusiastic response to Why Germany Nearly Won, from within both academic and public history, reflects the value of its contribution to studies of World War II. The Historian commented that “Steven Mercatante makes a new and compelling case regarding how Nazi Germany lost the war” and Professor of History Dennis E. Showalter, based at Colorado College, stated that “Mercatante’s arguments and conclusions are certain to be debated. They are too well supported to be ignored.”
Steve was kind enough to answer some questions for the blog:
1. A number of your family members have been in the military, what part did this play in inspiring your interest in history and particularly of World War II?
I think it was significant. There are numerous examples I could provide regarding how but let’s take just one. Think about a very young child. Now imagine that child being given shiny, colourful medals to play with (my father and grandfather would give me the decorations they had earned in the service). For a child these are quite interesting trinkets, and of course as I handled them that led to questions about where they came from and what they were for…and that led to a further interest in World War II.
2. In contending a widely accepted theory based upon the inevitability of Germany’s defeat, were you nervous of what the response would be from academics and the public?
No – and here is why. I have been reading about World War II since I was very young. During these past thirty plus years of study I, of course, at first absorbed and accepted the conventional wisdom that the Axis, including Germany, were doomed to defeat from the get-go. This was because in large part because the Allies controlled the vast majority of the world’s territory, its population, and global economic output; which hence translated to immense military might.
Then, in the 1990’s I tracked with great interest the wealth of new information that has emerged from the Russian archives following the fall of the Soviet Union. This new documentation, though still leaving much unanswered, brought much needed clarity to the otherwise up to that point often vaguely described events on Germany’s Eastern Front (outside of certain exceptions such as the pioneering work of John Erickson). As I moved forward, and sought out ever more about the war, it became obvious to me that something was amiss in regards to the standard explanations as to the reasons for the outcome of the Second World War in Europe.
In short, the conventional wisdom that had evolved over time seemed to have constructed an overly simplistic, deterministic narrative for explaining one of history’s most complicated series of events – the Second World War in Europe. This narrative essentially reduced the war’s outcome to one easily explained as arising from the preponderant power produced by sheer Allied numbers; and for the most part found that once Germany decided to attack the Soviet Union and Barbarossa failed that it had essentially lost the war.
But this didn’t add up – so to speak – there was something not quite right. For instance, how did a quantitatively smaller, and often times technically inferior Wehrmacht (Nazi Germany’s combined armed forces), run circles around enemies with far more “brute force” strength in 1939-1942 but then lose the war in 1943-45 for reasons overwhelmingly attributed to brute force and mass. And obviously not everyone argued this. Take, for example, Richard Overy; who introduced other ideas for why the Allies won (but not the same ideas my work discusses in examining why Germany nearly won). I could list many more such questions raised and insufficiently answered by the conventional wisdom. But, for the sake of brevity the bottom line is that questions such as this led me to beginning a kind of epistemological study of the war to see if in fact what was conventionally considered the “truth” about the war actually matched up with the data. The outcome of this study then caused me to construct a qualitative vs. quantitative framework for analyzing the European war’s component events (with a focus on economic and military matters). This framework was one that I tested repeatedly against the best possible knowledge/data available about the war. The outcome of this study would ultimately develop into the three-pronged thesis for this book. A thesis which advances my belief that Germany very nearly did win the war – via coming extraordinarily close to securing the Soviet Union’s most important economic resources. This in turn could have fuelled a Nazi dominated European continent capable of effectively challenging the U.S. dominated North American colossus in either an enduring hot or cold war for global supremacy.
Because of the underlying research and methodology that led to my thesis (note that the thesis arose out of the study and not the other way around) I became confident that my overall ideas were worth exploring further and worthy of publication. What’s more, I felt like they were not only worth publication but stood up well against a conventional wisdom that even some modern historians, such as David Stahel, continue to parrot. Not incidentally, it is for these data driven reasons producing my thesis that I chose to organize this work in such a fashion as to lay out an overview of the entire war in Europe; with a heavy emphasis on analyzing the primary combatants in Eastern Europe (given that the war between Germany and the Soviet Union was the key to the Second World War’s outcome). From this overview I have interjected points gleaned from my qualitative vs. quantitative analysis into the best possible knowledge we currently have about the war as synthesized in my book. In this way a general reader can compare for themselves the actual facts/data against subsequent outcomes. From there the reader can decide for themselves if they find it plausible that “quality” had more of an impact on the war’s outcome than did “quantity”. And thus, if finding so, then the reader can decide from what is provided in this work whether or not Nazi Germany had an honest shot at securing its total dominance over Europe such that it could secure its existence as one of two global superpower’s; in effect winning the war. This book is actually an introduction into this conceptual framework that I have constructed for understanding the war in Europe and its outcome. Follow up studies will delve further into the nuts and bolts reasons why Nazi Germany, in spite of being grotesquely overmatched from a statistical balance sheet perspective, had everything it would need to secure Hitler’s Third Reich and challenge the U.S. for global supremacy.
I anticipate pushback, and welcome debate. However, regardless of my confidence in the strength of my findings, whether I am proven right or wrong is incidental. What is the point is that ultimately what emerges from this debate is the best possible knowledge (or to go back to the epistemological foundations of this study – “truth”) regarding why this extraordinarily important series of events in human history unfolded and ended in the manner which it did.
3. Which part of the book did you most enjoy writing and why?
I am absolutely fascinated by the 1941-45 war fought between Germany and the Soviet Union, so those aspects of my work were the most enjoyable.
4. While researching and writing this book you were and are also a practicing lawyer, did you find it difficult to balance both of these demanding tasks?
Yes, very much so. That is why it took me nearly ten years to research and write it. I couldn’t just take off for weeks or months and bury myself in various archives. That said, access to digital archives via the internet has made available a number of wonderful primary sources, as does the networking opportunities to share and exchange additional archival information that I otherwise lacked the means to explore.
In addition, I must say that my research stands on the shoulders of those historians who have had those opportunities. For instance, it leans on the reputations and credibility of men such as David Glantz, Richard Overy, Evan Mawdsley, Adam Tooze, Robert Citino – I could go on and on here. In terms of foreign language historians I would also like to single out Horst Boog, Jürgen Förster, Rolf-Dieter Müller, and their peers; historians who put together the fantastic series of volumes on Germany and the Second World War that I relied very heavily upon (along with David Glantz’s work) in doing research for this book. Without being able to trust in such historians honest and diligent efforts to disseminate comprehensive factual data about the war my work would have been vastly more complicated given the time constraints of my day job.
5. After studying World War II for three decades now, do you have any favourite events or moments and why?
The great armoured clashes of the war are undoubtedly my favourites (particularly those fought in Eastern Europe – perhaps because of their scale and importance to the war’s outcome). For some reason I have always been fascinated by tanks and other such armoured fighting vehicles. Furthermore, outside of the various Arab-Israeli wars there is really nothing that comes close to the Second World War for armoured enthusiasts.
6. In following a new line of investigation did you uncover any information that surprised you?
Yes. It is apparent to me that Germany had every opportunity to actually accomplish Hitler’s criminal goals in Eastern Europe. Germany did not have to fight a “perfect” war. This is an important point because many could argue that sure Germany was outnumbered but if anybody made all the right decisions all of the time they will of course have the chance to best even a much larger and ostensibly superior foe.
The scary thing was that Germany could have made the series of terrible decisions they made in terms of under-preparing their economy and military for meeting Hitler’s most emphatically stated strategic goal; attaining Lebensraum in Eastern Europe – and it did not matter. Had the Germans chosen differently in even a couple of countless strategic decision points they would have likely locked up the Western and Southern Soviet Union for Germany’s horrific and criminal purposes. For instance, even with the disaster as a plan and operation that was Barbarossa there was still no reason why a German military and civilian leadership (OKW/OKH/Hitler et al.) bumbling through mistake after mistake (making laughable the prevailing idea that Germany’s Second World War era General Staff operated on some level of genius) did not still have in their hands every opportunity in 1942 to secure the Soviet Union’s best economic resources for their own use. This would have also crippled the Soviet economy/Red Army and allowed Germany to truly exploit Europe’s vast industrial potential to match that of North America’s. To me this idea that Germany did not even have to fight all that well and prepare for war all that intelligently and that from 1939-1942 Hitler still nearly locked down the means to accomplish his goals is what is most shocking and chilling.
7. What, or who, encouraged your transformation from a history enthusiast to writing your own historical book?
There are a number of influences so I will single out just one. In 2001 I read a book that I enjoyed at that time, but, all the same, a book that I was utterly appalled by in terms of its ideas and arguments (How Hitler Could Have Won World War II by Bevin Alexander). In essence, Alexander’s book goes all in on the idea that Hitler should have focused his efforts on seizing control over the Mediterranean and Middle East and in doing so would have won the war. My research has found nothing to support this idea. Why Germany Nearly Won does take time to explain exactly why I think this idea completely misses the mark, and why I believe the Mediterranean theatre was actually a strategic dead end for Germany. What’s more, my next book will explore why I believe the Mediterranean theatre actually cost Germany the war – thereby fleshing out further arguments made in this book as to why Germany nearly won. Anyway, books such as this played a key role in really pushing me to test out my own ideas and then begin my own book – with my book being one that I very much wanted to, first and foremost and possibly as a reaction to Alexander’s book, positively contribute to what we know about World War II.
8. The focus of your book is on Germany, is there any particular reason why you were drawn to this country and it’s war effort rather than any of the other European participants?
It was Germany and their attempt to challenge the existing Anglo-American dominated global power structure that drove the war. What’s more my qualitative vs. quantitative analytical framework meant that that Germany almost had to be the book’s focus. In addition, don’t forget that I spend a healthy chunk of time analyzing the Soviet Union in this book – given its central role in defeating Nazi Germany.
9. Do you have any visions for how you would like the historiography of World War II to evolve because of the contribution of Why Germany Nearly Won?
As I mentioned earlier one of my hopes for this book is that it rekindles a debate that seems to simmer along in some small measure, but that never really challenges the existing conventional wisdom in any meaningful way. Again, my goal is not subversive. Instead I want this book to advance the best possible knowledge we have about the war, and better help people understand these important events in human history. I am not an ideologue wedded irrevocably to any one idea (remember I was at one time someone who felt the quantitative based “numbers game” for explaining the war’s outcome was plausible). That said I am not a relativist. I genuinely believe that my research points toward the best current understanding as to the war’s outcome. To that end, if follow up works other than my own pick up on its themes and ideas and further our knowledge along then that would be great.
10. Written on an often studied and well known subject, are there any facts that you think will especially surprise readers?
Yes. For one, I think readers accustomed to works explaining the deplorable state of the German Eastern Army after a few months of fighting in the Soviet Union (when compared to their original tables of organization and equipment and other such statistics describing the Wehrmacht on the eve of Barbarossa) will be surprised to see where its effectiveness came from and how much even after Barbarossa it held its destiny in its own hands – contrary to a conventional wisdom that at times holds Germany had lost the war even as early as August of 1941.
What’s more, it is surprising how much the Red Army, in spite of its immense size, was in no position to really drive events in Eastern Europe until fairly late in the war; and that even then its ability to hold the initiative had arisen primarily because of internal German decision making. From there, and as to the Red Army itself, it again was not its size that enabled it to drive Germany from the Western Soviet Union but a combination of elements that led to its success; elements which are not typically emphasized, and which this book explores. In addition, the text really delves into breaking down many popularly known as well as lesser known battles, plus technical issues, that even the well-informed reader will find either uniquely emphasized and/or explained from a novel perspective.
Available in the UK from April 2013: Why Germany Nearly Won, 9781612001630, £20.00, Hardback
Praise for Why Germany Nearly Won:
“Recommended all levels/libraries…challenges conventional wisdom about Allied success in Europe…an impressive operational overview…. Mercatante sees Operation Barbarossa as a turning point, nearly leading to Hitler’s hegemony in Europe.” – Choice Magazine
“Worth reading…much sound analysis…Mercatante…knows that the devil is in the details. To his credit, even those familiar with World War II scholarship will find here analyses of economic and technological matters that historians have often glossed over or mentioned only in passing.” – Michigan War Studies Review
“A thought-provoking book…counter[s] widespread arguments that brute force was the main reason for success in World War II….[Mercatante’s] case deserves to be heard.” – World War II Magazine