The Importance of the Strategic Level: Germany in the Second World War

This article was originally published by The Strategy Bridge.

Adolf Hitler during a conference with officers on the Eastern Front, March 1943. From left to right in the middleground: Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, General Richard Ruoff, Adolf Hitler, General Kurt Zeitzler, and Field Marshal Ewald von Kleist (Wikimedia)


It is widely agreed that there are three levels of war. From the general to the local, they are the strategic, operational, and tactical levels. Strategy, simply defined, is the alignment of means and ways to accomplish a political end. Strategy is about obtaining success from war through a clearly defined theory of victory. Each level of war is essential to obtain this success, and are all equally important.

Germany in the Second World War provides an illustration of why the strategic level is essential. This article will detail some of the strategic mistakes Germany made during the conflict to illustrate how a lack of good strategy decisively contributed to the doom of the Third Reich.

Ideology and Strategy, or Ideology Over Strategy?

Ideology can strongly impact strategy. While ideology is not necessarily damaging to strategy in and of itself, it can lead to dangerous decisions and situations. Indeed, ideology must be balanced with objective and rational assessments about one’s own situation and forces, along with those of the adversary—strategically, operationally and tactically—so it does not damage the strategic art. The Third Reich failed to achieve this balance.

Arguably, the main flaw of German strategy in World War II was that it rested heavily on ideology and neglected objective elements that could have helped better assess the general situation. Indeed, ideology plagued strategy to the extent that the Germans sought to achieve extremely difficult goals and that the decision-making process was heavily affected by it.

German strategic thought in this conflict, mainly embodied by Adolf Hitler, led to a strategy of apocalypticism in which Germany was guided by Nazism and locked into a death match with its enemies—in particular the Soviet Union. War was no longer a traditional policy tool; as Michael Geyer relays: “National Socialist war established and maintained order in a limitless expansion of violence…Strategy was no longer instrumental but was ideological in its direction and opportunist in its methods.”[1]

Because of its ideology, Germany waged what Geyer called an apocalyptic war. Its goals were extreme and not the product of any sort of objective analysis.[2] Rather, Germany’s strategy partially stemmed from an ideology favoring a vision of the world influenced by racial competition.[3] The strategy meant to accomplish such goals tended to be based on inspiration rather than geopolitical calculation.[4] Indeed, the conquests of the Third Reich were in part based on a constructed, so-called “historical necessity of struggle for territory and resources between different races and cultures.”[5]

Hitler’s policies were consequently not guided by any sort of sound method or principle of strategy.[6] Rather, they were afflicted by “self-deluding racialism.”[7] “Rationally formulated grand objectives” were not part of the German strategy, which was rather shaped by a “series of gambles.”[8] For instance, while operation Barbarossa—the invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22nd, 1941—was partially the product of classic strategic considerations, according to Richard Overy “its rationale [lay] ultimately in the ageless struggle between civilization and barbarism, culture and primitiveness, [then] expressed respectively by National Socialism and Bolshevism.”[9]

The period best illustrating how Nazi ideology perverted its strategy might be 1944-1945. Even though German defeat was most likely predictable by 1944 and almost certain by 1945, the Third Reich “clung to its original concept of apocalyptic war.”[10] Instead of surrendering to preserve the German people, Hitler preferred to keep fighting. This decision made even less sense strategically, since as soon as January 1942 he had stated that if the German people could not win the war, then it should disappear.[11] On March 19th 1945, still stubbornly refusing to admit defeat, he emitted his “Nero Order” to destroy anything that could be used by the enemy.[12] According to Albert Speer, Hitler then did not care about the future of the German people anymore; they had lost and showed their inferiority to their enemy.[13]

This shows the Reich did not think like a traditional government concerned primarily with the preservation or survival of their country or regime. Quite the opposite, Hitler considered that German defeat would be redemptive and purifying.[14]

Failing to Pick the Right Way to Meet the Sought Ends

Destroying the Enemy Armed Forces Does Not Guarantee Victory

Another problem of dogmatism is how German armed forces predominantly sought to destroy their enemies on the battlefield, but the German leadership was unable to turn tactical victories and operational dexterity into strategic success. Already in 1937-1938, Chief of the General Staff General Ludwig Beck repeatedly criticized younger officers for simply maximizing the use of weapons, and complained at their apparent lack of integration of operations within a larger strategy.[15]

Indeed, the German way of war in the Second World War was similar to the one used in the previous conflict, which included the concept of Gesamtschlacht (total or complete battle). Inherited from Alfred von Schlieffen before 1914, Gesamtschlacht sought to combine multiple battlefields and engagements into one integral operation to create a final and decisive battle.[16] The Germans considered war as a unique strategic sequence of annihilation (Vernichtungsstrategie, strategy of annihilation) comprising three phases: mobilization, deployment, and Gesamtschlacht.[17] This process aimed to create an envelopment of the enemy before destroying them or having them surrender, and do so for each enemy of Germany until victory was achieved.[18]

Consequently, strategic maneuver depended on tactical results. Therefore, if Germany failed to obtain victory by the mere destruction of their enemy’s military power, the only strategic option was then to be on the defensive, because the Germans could not or would not conceive of anything different.[19]

Naturally, Germany could still obtain strategic successes, in Europe in 1939, 1940 and 1941, before the invasion of the Soviet Union, for example. But these successes were possible in part because the Germans were not only able to use their preferred method—destroying major parts of the enemy armed forces—but also because they had the capacity to occupy entire countries. However, when these two elements were hard to accomplish, the German way of war had difficulties turning tactical successes into strategic effect.

General Heinz Guderian, one of the most prominent practitioners of the “Blitzkrieg,” in Bouillon, Belgium during the German offensives in Western Europe on May 12th, 1940 (Das Bundesarchiv/Wikimedia)

The fights against the United Kingdom and the United States, but especially against the Soviet Union, demonstrate this. Indeed, Blitzkrieg and Gesamtschlacht were not good ways of defeating enemies who enjoyed geographic advantages preventing total occupation—in these cases, an island, the Atlantic Ocean, and immense strategic depth—and who had the will to keep fighting despite initial and even crushing defeats.[20]

Failure to recognize that this framework was not necessarily appropriate against the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Soviet Union was a strategic mistake. German strategists failed to conceive a way to defeat their enemies other than by defeating major parts of their armed forces and occupying their entire country if they refused to surrender. The Germans failed to recognize that the mere accumulation of tactical successes and operational dexterity would not necessarily translate into strategic effect.[21]

Doctrine Must Be Adapted to the Environment

The second element of this strategic mistake is that the Reich used its armed forces the same way regardless of the environment in which they fought. In a sense, Germany made the same mistake as Napoleon: it relied on a doctrine and means that worked best in much smaller theaters with good logistic resources, good road networks, and temperate weather. The mere change of scale between the European Western and Eastern theaters significantly impacted the conduct of operations, and should have affected German strategic planning before the start of Barbarossa.[22]

German troops struggling in the Russian “rasputitsa,” March 1942 (Das Bundesarchiv/Wikimedia)

Indeed, the vastness of the Soviet Union alone meant that German operational ways could not necessarily be adapted. In 1939 and 1940, there were approximately 400 kilometers from the German border to Warsaw, and 300 kilometers from the German border to Paris. In 1941, there were about 1,000 kilometers from the German-controlled Polish border to Moscow; the distance more than doubled or tripled, compared to the Polish and French campaigns.

Operational Inadequacies, Strategic Mistakes

While these elements denote mistakes that manifested at the operational level of war, they reveal a serious, underlying strategic mistake. Germany failed to realize its operational doctrine was not necessarily adapted to achieve its strategic goals, and failed to adapt it to the context. In this sense, the way was not adapted to the end, and strategy is about finding the appropriate means and ways to fulfill the ends.

Failing to Learn from History

One long standing strategic flaw is the failure to learn from the mistakes of the past. In the end, Germany committed similar mistakes to those it committed in France in 1918, believing the mere accumulation of tactical victories would ensure strategic success.[23] Such thinking actually worked at the beginning of the war, when the enemies of Germany did not have the initiative, their territory was small enough to be fully occupied, they had not yet fully mobilized their industry, and when German tactics were overwhelmingly better than theirs.

The main leaders of the alliance against the Axis powers at the Tehran Conference, November 28th, 1943. From left to right: Joseph Stalin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill (U.S. Signal Corps/Wikimedia)

The second major failure concerns coalitions. Germany lost the First World War, in part, because it faced a strong, well-coordinated, and effective alliance supported by greater aggregate resources and a more efficient industrial base with larger manpower.[24] The Third Reich lost the Second World War, in large part, because it refused to acknowledge the exact same. Indeed, instead of staying at war only with the United Kingdom and attempting to maintain a status quo or finish it off before pursuing its expansion, Germany, within only six months, declared war on two states, both with powerful industries, larger populations, and a plausible reason to align in common cause. Notwithstanding these strategic considerations, the Soviet Union had an immense strategic depth while the United States had the Atlantic Ocean, placing them both effectively out of German reach under the principle of Gesamtschlacht.

A Lack of Good Industrial and Economic Strategies

Finally, another strategic mistake concerns German industry and economics. Germany failed to create effective industrial and economic strategies to support its military ambitions. This mistake partially finds its source in the political structure built by Hitler. His power rested on complex equilibriums and fragile political alliances between Nazi dignitaries, military leaders, and business circles.[25] This way, Hitler was able to consolidate his power, but at the price of considerable friction.[26] Consequently, German dignitaries were working independently from each other without having an overview of the general situation, which only Hitler had.[27] Therefore, the civilian sector was fragmented, which made it hard to mobilize and coordinate industry.[28]

Such a fragmentation was illustred by the fact that several Nazi leaders were each managing industrial empires.[29] For instance, Heinrich Himmler, the head of the Schutzstaffel (SS), created his own SS economy and opposed a centralized economic and industrial decision-making process.[30] Because of such tensions and the fact that the Nazi state prevented any kind of counterpower from existing, the efforts of those who tried to better organize the German war effort, such as Albert Speer, were impeded.[31] This fragmentation worsened pre-existing disorder and inefficiencies.[32]

Minister of Armaments and War Production Albert Speer (on the right, wearing a Nazi armband) and Field Marshal and Air Inspector General Erhard Milch (in the middle) observe the demonstration of a new kind of ammunition, October 1943 (Das Bundesarchiv/Wikimedia)

Other issues existed, as well. For example, technological research and development efforts were disorganized and were not prioritized based on the need or nature of the project.[33] This was partially due to the German military doctrine, which sought decisive battles and planned on achieving victory by combining tactical skill and weapon performance. Consequently, Germans tended to look for absolute performance in weapons, rather than a performance that was good-enough for the task they were meant to accomplish.[34] Such a method, combined with a lack of a qualified workforce, long production periods, and in particular a lack of raw materials, proved to be ineffective and counterproductive.[35]

Consequently, Germany was overall unable to devise appropriate industrial and economic strategies. This necessarily and negatively impacted the conduct of the war, especially as the enemies of the Reich possessed relatively more efficient economies and mobilized industries.[36]

In War, Good Strategy is a Constant Need

Germany in the Second World War instructs that good strategy is essential to winning wars. The Reich ignored several principles of strategy that led to its doom. Such principles are simple and maybe even obvious, but forgetting or ignoring them as Germany did can have disastrous consequences.

Germany ignored the fact that policy and strategy almost always must be “somewhat flexible and adaptable to the changing circumstances of context.” As Colin S. Gray states, “Good enough policy and strategy should always be ‘work in progress,’ at least to some modest degree.”[37] Indeed, Germany failed to adapt, notably when facing the Soviet Union. It ignored the Clausewitzian principle that war is by essence dialectic; the enemy has a say in the matter, and as long as they refuse to admit defeat, even if it seems inevitable, tactical victories are unlikely to translate by themselves into strategic success.[38] Because of its ideological, apocalyptic strategy, the Third Reich refused to reconsider its strategic objectives and the ways used to accomplish the sought ends. This was evident regarding the Soviet Union, when Germany should have realized its operational art would not be able to achieve their strategic ends. In this regard, German strategy was inflexible.

At times, Germany also picked the wrong way to achieve the desired ends. Indeed, strategy requires paying “the closest attention…to the material feasibility of chosen operations.”[39] The Third Reich frequently failed to do so. Not only that, Germany did not know how to adapt to achieve strategic victories if its main way to do so—destroying the enemy military power via annihilation—proved inadequate or impossible. Furthermore, tactical excellence and operational dexterity must be directed via a realistic strategy. What ultimately matters are the political consequences of battles wrought by operational art, rather than their immediate material and tactical outcome.[40]

This case study shows that strategy must also observe history and learn from it. As shown, the Third Reich failed to do so. Moreover, this case illustrates strategy is not only military strategy. It must include several other tools—economics and diplomacy as a minimum—to maximize the chances of achieving the desired policy objective(s). Furthermore, such tools mutually reinforce each other. Germany overprivileged military strategy, and neglected industrial and economic strategies.

Germany in the Second World War showcases that a guiding strategy with a clear theory of victory framed toward realistic political goals is a constant, non-negotiable need in war. Regardless of the character of warfare, strategy will always be essential to achieve the desired outcome. Nowadays, lack of good strategy might reflect the image of Western democracies failing to achieve meaningful goals in unconventional conflicts abroad. However, it must not be forgotten that this also applies to conventional conflicts between states operating entire armies, including total wars. The body count strategy failed in Vietnam, but it also failed on the German Eastern front in World War II.


The Third Reich excelled at tactics and was probably, from an operational perspective, at least adequate overall. After all, Germany achieved impressive victories in Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, France, Yugoslavia, and Greece. In these cases, German operational art did manage to achieve strategic effects. The local environments and contexts were good fits for its preference for annihilation.

However, when the main operational way was not adequate to meet its strategic ends—in other words, when the geographical and industrial contexts did not allow for total destruction or occupation and their enemies resolved and were able to keep fighting despite initial defeats—Germany was stuck and unable to innovate. Recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of its own strategic preference, the choice for variants of certain forms of operational art belongs in the strategic realm. German strategy should have taken these into account and realize that when the local context was right, Blitzkrieg could pay off; but if it was not, achieving strategic goals might prove much harder with dogged adherence to the same.

When looking at the different German levels of war, what mostly doomed Germany is its ideology-inspired, apocalyptic, and unrealistic strategy. The Third Reich’s flawed strategy led it to declare war on both the Soviet Union and the United States; fail to recognize that its operational ways were not necessarily appropriate to obtain its strategic ends; stubbornly refuse to capitulate when defeat was most likely; and prefer total destruction over limited defeat.

[1] Michael Geyer, “German Strategy in the Age of Machine Warfare, 1914-1945,” in Makers of Modern Strategy: from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, ed. Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986),583-84.

[2] Ibid., 573.

[3] Ibid., 582.

[4] Ibid., 583.

[5] Richard Overy, The Origins of the Second World War, Fourth edition, Abingdon, New York: Routledge, 2017, 40.

[6] Geyer, “German Strategy in the Age of Machine Warfare, 1914-1945,” 583.

[7] Overy, The Origins, 94.

[8]  Geyer, “German Strategy in the Age of Machine Warfare, 1914-1945,” 575.

[9] Overy, The Origins, 41, 88; Peter Longerich, Hitler, trans. Tilman Chazal, Caroline Lee, Caroline Lelong and Valentine Morizot, trans. ed. Raymond Clarinard, Éditions Héloïse d’Ormesson, 2017, 701, 721 (translated in English under the title Hitler: A Biography and published by Oxford University Press in 2019).

[10] Geyer, “German Strategy in the Age of Machine Warfare, 1914-1945,” 574.

[11] Andrew Roberts, Leadership in War: Essential Lessons from Those Who Made History, New York: Viking, 2019,89.

[12] Longerich, Hitler, 750; Claude Quétel, La Seconde Guerre mondiale, Paris: Perrin, 2015, 237.

[13] Longerich, Hitler, 750.

[14] Richard Overy, Why the Allies Won, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996, 315; Longerich, Hitler, 945-46.

[15] Geyer, “German Strategy in the Age of Machine Warfare, 1914-1945,” 571, 572.

[16] Benoist Bihan, “L’Allemagne a perdu la guerre à cause d’Hitler,” in Les mythes de la Seconde Guerre mondiale, ed. Jean Lopez and Olivier Wieviorka (Paris: Perrin, 2015), 385; Geyer, “German Strategy in the Age of Machine Warfare, 1914-1945,” 532.

[17] Bihan, “L’Allemagne,” 385. For more onsuch concepts, see for example Michael Geyer, “German Strategy in the Age of Machine Warfare, 1914-1945,” in Makers of Modern Strategy: from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, ed. Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986); Terence Zuber, Inventing the Schlieffen Plan: German War Planning 1871-1914, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 386.

[20]  Note that the term “blitzkrieg” is used here for simplicity and clarity purposes. This word is more of a constructed term to designate the general way the Germans were attacking in the Second World War rather than a well-defined, official doctrine. For instance, see Karl-Heinz Frieser, trans. ed. John T. Greenwood, The Blitzkrieg Legend: The 1940 Campaign in the West, Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2005.

[21] Geyer, “German Strategy in the Age of Machine Warfare, 1914-1945,” 591.

[22] Martin Motte, Georges-Henri Soutou, Jérôme de Lespinois and Olivier Zajec, La mesure de la force : Traité de stratégie de l’École de guerre, Paris: Éditions Tallandier, 2018, 256-57.

[23] Geyer, “German Strategy,” 591.

[24] See for instance, William Philpott, War of Attrition: Fighting the First World War, New York: The Overlook Press, 2014; Michel Goya, Les vainqueurs : Comment la France a gagné la Grande Guerre, Paris: Éditions Tallandier, 2018.

[25] Bihan, “L’Allemagne,” 381. For an illustration of such relationships, see Jean Lopez (editor), Nicolas Aubin, Vincent Bernard, Nicolas Guillerat, Infographie de la Seconde Guerre mondiale, Paris: Perrin, 2018, 44 (translated in English under the title World War II Infographics and published by Thames & Hudson in 2019).

[26] Jean Lopez (editor), Nicolas Aubin, Vincent Bernard, Nicolas Guillerat, Infographie de la Seconde Guerre mondiale, Paris: Perrin, 2018, 44.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Bihan, “L’Allemagne,” 381.

[29] Benoist Bihan compares this structure to medieval fealties, hence the word “lords” here.

[30] Quétel, La Seconde Guerre mondiale, 237.

[31] Ibid.; Bihan, “L’Allemagne,” 384.

[32] Bihan, “L’Allemagne,” 382.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid., 383.

[35] Ibid., 384.

[36] Ibid., 382.

[37] Colin S. Gray, Strategy and Politics, New York: Routledge, 2016, 64.

[38] Motte, Soutou, de Lespinois and Zajec, La mesure, 74.

[39] Gray, Strategy and Politics, 65.

[40] Ibid., 70.