Rearming the Reich

Promoting programs to alleviate unemployment, rebuild the economy and socially unify the nation, Hitler devoted far less attention to strengthening national defense. Provisions of the Versailles treaty had reduced the German army to a 100,000-man force comprising professional soldiers with long enlistments. It possessed no armor, heavy artillery or chemical weapons. The treaty forbade Germany to maintain an air force. Following the London Ultimatum, the Allies banned production of motorized airplanes within the Reich. This drove Germany’s leading aeronautics firms Junkers, Dornier and Heinkel to continue aircraft development in Sweden, Switzerland and Russia. After World War I, the Allies had required the Reich’s navy to steam its modern surface fleet to a British port. Remaining with the navy, reduced to just 15,000 sailors, were six obsolete ships of the line, six small cruisers, twelve destroyers and twelve torpedo boats. There were no submarines.

In June 1919, French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau had stated, “German disarmament represents the first step toward multilateral reduction and limitation of arms.... After Germany has shown the way, the Allied and associated powers will follow the same path in complete security."108 Nonetheless, during the 1920s, France, Britain, the United States, Italy, Japan and the USSR had resumed a partial arms race, focusing on the expansion of naval and air forces. This breach of faith offered Germany the moral foundation to rearm in defiance of the treaty.

Thanks to the small size and limited weaponry of the German army, the country possessed virtually no armaments industry in 1933. The Germans had to conduct secret experimental development of armored vehicles, artillery and military aircraft, since it was still illegal. Though engineers re-tooled some factories for arms production, Hitler introduced proposals for international armaments reduction during the first two years in office. During 1933 and 1934, the Reich devoted less than four percent of the budget to defense. This was not even half the percentage spent by France, Japan and the USSR, which already maintained large arsenals.109

Germany was in a position to implement a massive rearmament program, had Hitler wanted it, by 1936. Factories were operating at nearly full capacity. The Reich possessed a modern, efficient machine tool industry. The USA and Germany controlled 70 percent of the international export market of this commodity, with minimal corresponding import. In fact, in 1938 Germany had 1.3 million machine tools in industry, twice the number of England’s.110 This circumstance, however, proved of little value to Germany’s armed forces because Hitler did not assign priority to the manufacture of military hardware.

Industry in Germany focused on housing construction, improving working conditions for labor, public works, consumer goods, and KdF automobile and ship-building programs. These projects consumed large quantities of materials such as metals, rubber and timber, and employed a significant percentage of skilled labor. Qualified tradesmen, engineers and technicians were unavailable for the arms industry. One German historian concluded, “In the six-and-a-half years until the outbreak of the war, the German economy achieved enormous success. But the result of these huge endeavors remained relatively small for the armed forces, in the face of demands from the civilian sector."111

One of Germany’s more famous public works, the Autobahn, was without strategic value, contrary to popular assumption. The general staff concluded that the expressway system would be too easy for enemy airmen to spot from high altitude in wartime, and motorized units using the autobahn, if strafed, would have no place to take cover.112 Few pre-war military formations were motorized anyway, and the army relied mainly on rail transport. In contrast to his senior army commanders, Freiherr von Fritsch and Ludwig Beck, Hitler fully recognized the tactical value of armor in future warfare. However, as to the expansion of this service branch, the attention he customarily devoted to parallel civil projects was again lacking. In the opinion of a renowned military analyst, Sir Basil Liddell-Hart, “He ultimately paid the penalty for not promoting it more emphatically."113

In November 1934, the Army Ordnance Department opted for the manufacture of a main battle tank mounting a 75 mm cannon. The army produced two lightly armored, under-gunned types, the Panzer I and Panzer II, for troop training during development of the combat model. In the interim, the army also introduced the Panzer III medium tank, which proved suitable for frontline service. The Panzer IV, the main battle tank contracted in 1934, was actually in the planning stage before Hitler took power. The first did not roll off the assembly line until 1936. During 1936 and 1937, the factory in Magdeburg manufactured just 35 Panzer IV tanks. In 1939, the number was 45.114In comparison, the German automobile industry produced 244,289 cars in 1936. During the final months of peace, the German army helped fill out its few armored divisions with Czech-built tanks it acquired when occupying Bohemia and Moravia in March 1939.

Production of other crucial ordnance suffered similar neglect. By the summer of 1939, German factories were turning out only 30 heavy field howitzers per month.115 The manufacture of all kinds of ammunition was so limited that when war broke out in September, the army only had enough stockpiled for six weeks of combat. The air force had a three-month supply of light and medium bombs and no reserves of heavier calibers. Considering that most weapons are a means of delivering projectiles to a target, an insufficient store of ammunition decisively influences their effectiveness.

Hitler used the armed forces first as an instrument of diplomacy. He told General Erhard Milch in 1938, “No one asks about whether I have bombs or how much ammunition I have. All that matters is the number of airplanes and cannons."116 During 1938, Germany produced less than one-sixth the munitions its plants would manufacture throughout the war year 1944. In the verdict of General Georg Thomas, chief of the Armed Forces Armaments Staff, “Germany went to war with completely insufficient economic preparations.... The enormous economic preparations that would have been necessary for a new world war were practically not even implemented."117

When Hitler assumed the chancellorship, his navy was significantly smaller than fleets of rival European powers. Between the end of World War I and 1931, German wharves laid keel on three new warships; during the same period France built 81.118 The Anglo-German Naval Agreement, concluded in June 1935, limited the size of the Reich’s surface fleet to 35 percent of Britain’s Royal Navy. At war’s outbreak over four years later, the German navy comprised just 17.5 percent of the tonnage of its nautical adversary; only half what was allowed. Shipbuilders had postponed the pre-war launching of Germany’s formidable battleships Bismarck and Tirpitz due to a shortage of steel.119 Simultaneous construction of the KdF liners Wilhelm Gustloff and Robert Ley, at a cost of over RM 50 million, continued on schedule.

Shipyards began fabricating submarines, or U-boats, around 1935. This weapon, potentially the most decisive in Germany’s arsenal, received a low priority. During 1937, the year work began on the Wilhelm Gustloff, the wharves launched just one U-boat. The Germans built nine the following year and 18 in 1939.120 Germany began the war with 22 boats capable of Atlantic sorties, of which only a third could patrol target areas at any one time.

Military commanders met with Hitler in November 1938 to discuss coordinating rearmament among the three principle service branches. One German military historian summarized, “The vague instructions as to how these as yet unspecified armaments objectives were to be realized over the next several years, do not suggest that Hitler at this time expected to be at war just three quarters of a year later."121 Between September 1937 and February 1939, German firms holding arms contracts filled only 58.6 percent of the orders.122 During 1938, barely nine percent of German industry produced military wares.123 The amount increased as the war approached, reaching around 15 percent by the end of 1939, though some estimates are slightly higher. England by contrast, spent 15 percent of her budget on rearmament in 1935 and 38 percent during 1938.124 The economist Dr. Anja Bagel-Bohlen concluded that the Reich’s “arms production in reality never received unrestricted priority in the economy as it appeared.... The German industry was in no way prepared for an extended confrontation with the enemy’s industrial potential."125

The German army lagged well behind other Great Powers with respect to manpower as well. In 1935, the French army numbered 655,000 men, Poland’s 298,000, and the Czech army 140,000. The Soviet Union had 885,000 men under arms. None of these countries were well-disposed toward Germany. Since the Reich had had no draft for the last 15 years, there were no reservists. These are militarily-trained men who return to civilian life, but can be recalled to active duty in order to rapidly expand an armed force in the event of war. France possessed 4.5 million, Poland 3.2 million, and Czechoslovakia 1.3 million reservists.126

Hitler concentrated Germany’s human resources on developing social programs for his people rather than on correcting the military disparity. In January 1933, the German army and navy totaled 113,523 personnel. By the end of the year, the roster rose to just 122,000. On March 21, 1935, Hitler reinstituted compulsory military service. The draft did not actually begin until October. The army added 200,000 more men, the navy 10,000. Another 20,000 joined the new air force, the Luftwaffe. The German economy had created 3.6 million new jobs by 1935. Military recruitment therefore made a small contribution to alleviating unemployment. The government in fact began increasing troop strength by transferring 56,000 policemen to the army. “The frequent argument that Hitler found the unemployed population work and bread solely through a massive build-up of the armed forces is untenable, when the actual statistics are examined,” the historian Ralf Wittrich observed. 127 Schacht confirmed this when he stated, “The elimination of unemployment in Germany... succeeded without rearmament."128

The American historian David Schoenbaum concluded, “In many respects...the National Socialists went to war with a peacetime economy rather than having created a war-based economy in peacetime."129 An in-depth study by professors William Langer and Everett Gleason stated, “Nazi military power and war production in 1939 were greatly overestimated by the democracies. There can now be little doubt that the Germans in 1939 were far from prepared for a long war on a large scale.. .war production was inferior to that of the combined British and French and they had very little in the way of reserves."130

Despite comparative unpreparedness, the German armed forces would conquer larger, better equipped armies during the early war years. The German army’s custom of training junior officers, down to squad leader, to exercise independent initiative in combat gave Hitler’s troops a decisive tactical advantage over the French, British and Soviet armies with their inflexible command structure. Adjutant Julius Schaub later wrote that he often heard the Führer complain to his closest associates, “This damned war has ruined all my’s wrecked everything, all of my grand plans for rebuilding."131 Hitler served in the infantry throughout World War I, and he was seriously wounded. His military service record states that he participated in 84 battles.132 It seems unlikely that a man who experienced first-hand the devastation, privations and pointlessness of war in such measure, could aggressively prepare the nation he fought for to precipitate a similar carnage, especially considering the secondary role he historically assigned to rearmament.

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