Book Review: Why Germany Nearly Won: A New History of the Second World War in Europe by Steven D. Mercatante

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the author. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]

At first glance Why Germany Nearly Won: A New History of the Second World War in Europe is another of the rehashing’s of WWII in the East and West that have become so popular since the fall of communism in the 1990’s and the opening of previously closed Russian archives.  That first glance would be wrong.  Steven Mercatante has produced a very well written history of the war in the East that goes to the heart of why the Eastern Front is so important to World War II historiography. This reviewer has some issues with the work but overall it is an exhaustively researched book that presents an intriguing point of view.

The details first.  The book is fairly long at 408 pages and includes a fairly extensive bibliography although it appears that only secondary sources were used which disappoints me somewhat.  It is broken down into three parts which essentially cover Germany before the war, the war until D-Day, and the war after D-Day.  The book includes copious footnotes throughout that this reviewer, for one, appreciates.  The author has also posted a very extensive bibliography online at his personal website  Globe at War. The chapters flow logically from one to the other and are ordered chronologically making it easier to follow the progress of the war.

The book is written fairly well if a little overexcited at times.  I found the book difficult to read as the narrative was a little too breathless for my taste.  I would say that if every third adjective were removed the text would be much clearer and easier to read.  There is extensive use of hyperbole and the author brings the point up again and again of the criminal nature of the Nazi regime, often it seems only because he can, not because it contributes to the narrative.  I find it difficult to believe that any reasonably informed individual can be unaware of the Holocaust and it is redundant to continually pound the point home.  This is somewhat of a stylistic complaint though and if these instances can be ignored he does bring out some salient points. Those complaints aside, it is clear that the author has an almost encyclopedic grasp of the history of the war.  That is clear from the depth of his knowledge on the war’s conduct.  It is obvious that some deep research went into the preparation of the work.

Mr. Mercatante seems to be trying to claim that Germany could have won if Hitler had gone after strategic economic goals rather than attempting to annihilate the armies of his opponents.  His main argument is that the quality of the German army trumped the quantity of his opponents and he squandered his advantages by not solidifying Germany’s economic position in Europe soon enough, which allowed his enemies to improve the quality of their own militaries.  I don’t know that I necessarily agree with that thesis.

One of the points Mercatante makes again and again, which he seems to think supports his thesis, is the massive amount of punishment the Red Army continually took throughout the war and indeed, right up until the last days.  Total Soviet losses during the war amounted to roughly 29 million dead, wounded, and missing compared to Wehrmacht losses of roughly 14.5 million including their Hungarian, Romanian, and Italian Allies.  The Soviets lost approximately 14 times their pre-war strength during the course of the conflict while the Germans lost 4 times theirs.  Much is also made of production numbers for tanks, aircraft, and artillery/mortars.  Again, once the Soviets recovered from the evacuation of the Donetz Basin factories to the Urals in 1942 they out produced the Germans and had the additional advantage of copious Lend-Lease aid from the Western Allies.  It is the disparity in both human and machine capital and the consequent scale of losses on both sides that make the brute force argument for why Germany lost so appealing.  It is simple to make thew argument that German troops were qualitatively superior to their opponents and it is also true.  It is also true that despite this qualitative superiority, the Germans were never able to kill, wound, or capture enough of their enemy’s soldiers to drive them from the war.  Thus size was a deciding factor in the war’s outcome.  Not just size of the combat theater, but also size of the material and human resources available for the combatants to draw upon.

There is no doubt that the Germans were tactically and operationally superior to the Soviets almost throughout the war.  There is also no doubt that German equipment was generally of higher quality with some tank models being notable exceptions.  What is equally remarkable is that even when the Germans were equipped with inferior tanks, they still managed to inflict an uneven casualty ratio on the Soviets because of their tactical acumen.  This tactical superiority does not mean the Germans could have won.  The sheer vastness of the Eastern Front coupled with the seeming inexhaustibility of the Russian Armies meant that the Germans were indeed swallowed in Russia.

Mercatante rightly points out that the harshness of German occupation policy added up to a net minus in German combat efficiency by requiring the deployment of some German units behind the front.  This is especially so in the Ukraine where the Germans were initially greeted as liberators.  There are also several decision points that could be argued the Germans chose poorly.  Mercatante posits that the Germans should have sought to carve southern Russia away from the Soviets so that it could be exploited economically.  His contention is that the Northern portion of the front could have been held while southern Russia was consolidated giving Germany economic mastery that they could translate into physical and military dominance.

There are several factual errors in the book but two in particular that jumped out at me.  The first  error I noticed does not concern World War II except peripherally and it is his contention that Germany had an AFV program in World War I.  While that is strictly true, Germany did build twelve tanks during the war, they did not do so with any seriousness instead concentrating on infantry/artillery training and doctrine to break the stalemate of trench warfare.  The German tank program of WWI was a footnote rather than a building block for the future German development of armored doctrine.  Lastly, and this speaks to the effectiveness of German tanks in WWII.  In his conclusion he mentions that the Panther Ausf. D had an underpowered final drive.  The recently retired soldier in me that spent over twenty years on armored vehicles was left scratching his head wondering what an underpowered final drive is.  The final drive of a tank or AFV is the part that physically turns the track assembly.  It has no organic power, it is the mechanism by which the power from the engine is applied to the tracks through the transmission.  I think he meant that the final drive was poorly or even over-engineered leading to overheating and sheared drive sprocket teeth.  However, someone with little to no knowledge of AFVs might draw a different conclusion.  Problems like these were not uncommon with German tanks, which had more complex designs than did either Russian or American tanks.

In all, Why Germany Nearly Won: A New History of the Second World War in Europe is  an intriguing book and worth reading for the detailed description of the various campaigns of the war.  This reviewer has not read such a good campaign history in a long time and that alone was refreshing.  The thesis that the Germans almost won interesting and worth discussing.  In my opinion, Mercatante did not make his case but the individual reader should decide for himself.  I cannot wholeheartedly recommend this work on the merits of its thesis.  That being said, as an operational and strategic level history, the book is almost unmatched and that alone makes it a worthwhile purchase.

 

Given that this is the first somewhat negative review I have written and I like just about every history book I read, I gave the author the opportunity to rebut my review.  I have adjusted my review somewhat in response to his comments but my recommendation remains the same.  His rebuttal is below:

Patrick,
Thank you for the thoughtful review. I am flattered by the kind things you had to say about my work – particularly that it contributes to the scholarship on this subject as that was one of my primary goals in writing the book. In addition, thank you for the opportunity to respond. In deference to your much appreciated time I will keep my response brief.
First, it is quite alright that you do not agree with my conclusions as I welcome a healthy debate. In fact, that would be the one thing I would like to see more in your review in lieu of two issues you spend some time upon.
The first such issue, and my only real criticism with the review, is the time spent on discussing minor technical/factual errors that are not really germane to my thesis. There is no question that all errors should be expunged from the work, and sometimes it is the minor one’s that are so galling in that they undermine the credibility of the author. Unfortunately, ABC-CLIO (Praeger’s parent company) has refused to allow me to make such changes as they consider it not worth the expense (they would not even let me remove the title Field Marshal from Milch’s name when I was discussing his mid-1930′s era work in building up the Luftwaffe – as he was not as of that time a Field Marshal in rank so obviously I would love to excise that little oversight right out!). This is even more frustrating in as much as the first print run was small and I prepared a list of errors that I had found in the text that had escaped the initial review process – all in hopes that they would be corrected for the second print run. Instead, and with ABC-CLIO’s current stance, a well-scrubbed and hopefully error free edition of the book won’t be available until the UK publisher that just bought the rights to publish the book in the UK releases its hardcover version later this fall (as they were thrilled to see the more thoroughly edited version I had prepared following my first print run). Ironically, I know of several other authors who have battled the same process (including Robert Kirchubel who had similar problems with Osprey – though they allowed corrections for follow up print runs – and it seems that in general if an author does not get an entirely clean copy right the first time that the resources are not there for a second try; a whole another issue regarding the ever exciting publishing world). It is likely that you have run into similar issues with works you have published, and that most other historians who have published extensively will recognize these issues – hence their relatively minor status.
Accordingly, and though the majority of your readers are likely non-historians, I feel that the parts of your review where you debate the actual merits of my thesis are far more interesting. For instance, perhaps you could replace the paragraph spent on such errors with a more in-depth discussion regarding why you feel the war’s quantitative factors, such as your reference to the “the seeming inexhaustibility of the Russian Armies” was more determinative in deciding the war than the qualitative elements I focus upon. There are no doubt readers who think I have built a persuasive argument (as evidenced by the reader reviews posted on Amazon.com’s US site – no less the endorsements from the professional historians who state as such). On the other hand, there are readers who disagree and think that brute force won the war. You seem to side more with the brute force side and by expunging the minor quibbles with my book so that you can develop your brute force position further I think you build a stronger review for your own readers (some of whom may fall on one side, while others take the opposite position, and others yet remain undecided and are open to argument).
Finally, my only other criticism would be in response to this point you make: “There is extensive use of hyperbole and the author brings the point up again and again of the criminal nature of the Nazi regime, often it seems only because he cannot because it contributes to the narrative.  This is somewhat of a stylistic complaint though and if these instances can be ignored he does bring out some salient points.” I am not sure what you mean by this. However, my use of the word “criminal” or other such phrases to assist in describing various German military leaders is important and I think helps contribute to the scholarship on the war. This is for a number of reasons. One, is that the men whom I describe as “criminals” were just that – convicted as war criminals for their actions during the war. Thus, we lose something when we don’t point out this fact and only focus on their attributes. For instance, Manstein is an operational genius, almost nobody would dispute this, and few ever do. Instead this genius is often what is focused upon while ignoring the fact that, for example, during his command of the German 11th Army some of the war’s most heinous war crimes were committed either by his men or facilitated by his men in support of the local Einsatzgruppen and their ilk. Both Manstein’s leadership in the field and what happened behind the lines are germane to a complete understanding of the man, the Wehrmacht, and the regime whose crimes the Wehrmacht at best enabled and at worst participated in on a regular basis. But this may still not answer why it is important for me to remind the reader that for all their accolades many of Germany’s top military leaders were morally suspect at best. To that point I make the effort to better link the holocaust and military operations not only because the quest for Lebensraum driving Barbarossa was inherently genocidal in intent (and therefore that it is historically accurate to link the two), but because all too often casual WWII enthusiasts are not exposed to the horrific crimes of the Third Reich. Instead they read about, or look at pictures of, the cool-looking supposedly technically superior German equipment, or are entranced by the romantic notion of a brave band of men fighting to their death against hordes of enemy soldiers (as is so often the presentation of the Germans vs. Soviets), and take these ideas with them as they play their computer or board war games, build their models, and consume their WWII related media. As a result they end up romanticizing the Wehrmacht and that is something that I would very much like to see the casual military history enthusiast move away from. I hope you understand what I mean by all of this?
Once again, thank you for your time and the opportunity to respond. I hope my response was not too lengthy and has helped clarify some of the issues you were concerned about in your review – enough that you are able to more “wholeheartedly” recommend it? Otherwise I love engaging with “the other side of the hill” vis a vis the quantitative vs. qualitative adherents in explaining the Second World War’s outcome, and appreciate your intellectual honesty in granting the strength of my work where appropriate. After all it is debates such as these that continue to bring life to our understanding of what I consider to be the most important events in modern history.
All best,
Steven
  • http://www.writersofhistory.com Donald Baker

    Very interesting debate you guys have going here. World War II is not my area of expertise, but I have to side with Patrick here. The Germans never had a shot at victory, and most of the Nazi generals knew it by 1943. Rommel is usually mentioned as one who realized Germany was doomed very early on, but he was only one of many. The Eastern Front ended up being where Hitler sent generals and officers whom he distrusted or sought to punish. This would explain why many of them behaved criminally. I would surmise that many of them resorted to criminal acts as a way of regaining favor with Hitler, and by default, a means to escape their fate on the Eastern Front or as a release from their anger for being exiled to such a harsh fate. Regardless though, the German military, though qualitatively superior to the Allies (for most of the war), could not overcome the micromanagement of Hitler and its own tawdry internal politics with rival organizations such as the SS. The inexhaustible onslaught of the Red Army had a lot to do with it as well. Cheers.