restricted access 6. Total War and the War of Annihilation
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139 6 Total War and the War of Annihilation The Changed Image of War The First World War is commonly viewed as the earliest manifestation of total war; the Second World War, as total war at its peak.The term “total war”refers to an all-out effort for the sake of war, that is, an entire society’s mobilization for war to the point of exhaustion. It means eliminating the boundaries of political war objectives, which carries the potential to destroy entire countries and populations. It means defining the war in ideological terms, dehumanizing the conduct of war, and using modern technology and science for military purposes. The conduct of total war from 1914 to 1918 acknowledged certain boundaries and,to some extent,respected traditional conventions and issues.The populations of some major powers were so overextended by the war that their social and political structures became dysfunctional, revolution occurred, and they did not survive the war. After 1918, traumatized by the industrialized character of the war—with its mass battles of modern armies of millions—some countries searched for new restrictions on war in keeping with international law. Others searched for the means and strategies to prevent the escalation of a future war. In Germany, many experts were convinced that any future war would necessarily lead to total war for Germany—that is,to a “fight for existence”as a people— for which they had to prepare themselves intensively. Hitler and his regime drew a large portion of their political ideology from this belief. The Second World War did not begin as a total war, although the entire world had expected it to. Only under the pressure of defeats and serious threats did the modern industrial societies turn to the tasks of equipping themselves for war, militarizing their civilian societies to the necessary degree, and preparing them for possible sacrifices. Contrary to earlier assumptions, the democracies proved they were not at all inferior to the totalitarian dictatorships. Moreover, they were in a better position to channel their energies toward the war and,once the battles were over, to quickly direct these energies back onto civilian paths. This was due to their ability to respond positively to pressure from below,to give in to demands for the inclusion of the “masses,” and to respond to the postwar expectations of soldiers and citizens. For Stalin and Hitler, in contrast, the war 140 hitler’s wehrmacht was a means to strengthen their dictatorships and transform society for the purpose of creating and selecting a “new” kind of human being. The modern mobile war was supposed to prevent the bloody mass battles of the static war of 1914–1918.At its foundation was a comprehensive mechanization , which greatly sped up military decision processes and opened new spatial dimensions. An important role was played by modern means of communication, which allowed the gathering of the quantities of information necessary to wage an industrial war and optimize leadership processes. The volume of war material created by industrial mass production, along with the mass army recruited by mobilizing society, could now be concentrated full force on the most urgent areas. As a result, enormous battles took place—battles that stood in sharp contrast to everyday life during war.But just as in earlier times,for most of the Wehrmacht soldiers, the war largely consisted of boredom and hard work. It was not until early in January 1942 that a long-standing static war was fought along individual sections of the eastern front,but it did not entail bloody frontal attacks such as in Verdun.Protracted,vigorous infantry battles in certain regions (Lapland, Kurland, Monte Cassino, Hürtgenwald) became exceptions. Battles for fortresses and support bases still lacked any great military significance . They obligated large numbers of German resources along the Atlantic Wall, for example, which made them unavailable for more decisive battles. The enormous expense of building bunkers and fortified lines reflected Hitler ’s “old-style thinking.” Furthermore, battles for large cities, which resulted in many losses, had more symbolic value than military significance. Stalingrad was almost completely captured, but then the attackers themselves were surrounded and destroyed. Similar heavy fighting developed in the battle for Budapest, the “Stalingrad on the Danube,” and again in Breslau and Berlin. A military action was considered successful when: the attacker prepared a systematic breakthrough battle with massive air support and superior concentration of resources, advanced using an armored wedge, employed motorized infantry in the deep area, conducted the...


Subject Headings

  • Germany -- Armed Forces.
  • Germany -- Armed Forces -- History -- World War, 1939-1945.
  • World War, 1939-1945 -- Germany.
  • Germany -- History, Military -- 20th century.
  • Germany -- History -- 1933-1945.
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