Thursday, September 07, 2006

How Hitler Could Have Won World War II by Bevin Alexander

In this intriguingly titled book, Bevin Alexander offers some great theories about how Hitler pursued the wrong objectives or executed the wrong strategies in many cases where he could have achieved a potentially unassailable advantage. Here are a couple of examples:
  • The Suez Canal was a critical objective that Erwin Rommel and Erich Raeder recognized, but they could not convince Hitler. In fact, Hitler viewed the North Africa campaign as a political rather than military exercise -- his only objective was to toss Mussolini a bone to keep Italy in the war. Alexander posits that if Germany had secured the Suez Canal, the Mediterranean Sea would have become an Axis lake, the Nazis would have secured all the Middle East oil their war machine needed, and Hitler could have pressured the Soviet Union from the south instead of head-on from the west. This also would have impacted Britain greatly by severing the fastest route to colonial India. Yet even when Rommel achieved stunning victories with minimal forces, he could not persuade Hitler to spare a few divisions for a crushing blow against the British in North Africa.
  • Turning against Russia is generally cited as Hitler's worst mistake, but Alexander digs much deeper. He discusses Hitler's three objectives in Operation Barbarossa, noting that Germany only had the resources to accomplish one of them. It is a tribute to the leadership on the ground and the skill of German soldiers that Hitler came so close to attaining all three. Clearly if Hitler had concentrated on one, he could have achieved at least a commanding position if not outright victory. Also, though he hated communism, Hitler somehow failed to recognize how oppressed and unhappy many Russians were under Stalinism -- had he invaded as a liberator rather than as a conqueror, he could have gained the critical support of Russian civilians. Even after making these errors, Hitler had other opportunities to turn the tide in Russia, and Alexander looks at a few of those, too.
Unfortunately, many of Alexander's insights get buried in a difficult text overwhelmed with the dry details of troop movements. Instead of sticking closely to the title, this book is mainly a narrative of the European Theater with some emphasis on decision points where Hitler erred (he notes the Allies' bad decisions as well).

In fact, I cannot determine the audience for the book as written. My wife has an interest in World War II but not much background. For her, this book is just too hard to read. The battlefield actions of the 2nd New Zealand and 6th Panzer divisions are of little interest to her. I know a lot about the war (I was fascinated/obsessed with World War II as a ten-year-old -- as I've said before, I was a weird kid), but it doesn't appeal to me, either. I already know the basics of European operations, and frankly, I don't care to drill down to the division level (I actually fell asleep numerous times trying to plow through it). I wanted to read more about Hitler's decisions and their consequences. Lastly, a scholar would already know all the troop movements by heart, making much of the book redundant. So no one is really served by this regurgitation of the information contained in hundreds of books from the past 50 years.

It's a shame because the subject had great potential before Alexander buried it in unnecessary details. He could have created a much more readable, albeit slimmer, volume by concentrating on big picture what-ifs rather than plowing through minutiae with limited appeal.

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