In the four months from July to December 1940, Hitler had strange swaying in relation to the final German strategy – unsure which way he should take, hesitant, indecisive, even weak. He even seemed to take suggestions into consideration during his political efforts to Franco, Marshal Petain, Mussolini and the Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov, which stood in contradiction to the war in the East.
Inside the leading structure of the Third Reich there was little opportunity to hold discussions about alternatives and ruling, in difference to other government bodies. Everything was geared towards Hitler, who was indeed influenced by various standing closer personalities, but the final decision he met alone and just announced this decision to his surroundings.
The armed services of army, air force and navy were not working together, but rather beside each other. From the commander of the Luftwaffe, Göring, none stand-alone proposals was ever too expected.
Only the Navy had alternative ideas and plans for further course of the war against Great Britain. These were aimed to the control of the Mediterranean with the capture of Gibraltar and the Suez Canal, as well as the control of the Canary Islands in the first phase and later the possession of the major oil fields in the Middle East.
Hitler agreed with this Mediterranean strategy, in principle, too. But he depended on it to the outcome of the negotiations with Mussolini, Franco and Petain. He was aware that it would not be easy, they all to satisfy. Balancing the conflicting interests he admitted cynically, was ‘only possible with a grandiose fraud.’
These ideas about the orientation of the German war effort to the Mediterranean fit well with the ideas of the Foreign Office, where Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop, demanded the formation of a ‘continental block’ – as a powerful alliance against Great Britain and possibly the United States. He promoted a global alliance with the participation of the Soviet Union and Japan.
Of course, the implementation of such a great strategy based on major diplomatic breakthroughs. To bring it more specifically: on Hitler’s ability to conclude agreements with the leaders of Spain, Vichy France, Italy and possibly also with the Soviet Union and Japan.
And this is the reason, where everything failed.
For some time Hitler agreed to these aspirations of Raeder (Navy), Warlimont (Wehrmacht) and Ribbentrop (Foreign Ministry), for which this ‘Mediterranean Strategy’ represented an alternative to the attack on Russia. However, for Hitler it seemed merely a prelude to indemnify the back of Germany before it came to the final encounter with the Soviet Union, which in his eyes both inevitable and alone had the potential to decide the final victory. Therefore, he never looked at this strategy as a final goal.
This partly explains why his diplomatic efforts, which he undertook in talks with Mussolini, Franco and Petain in October, were so unproductive. The talks revealed that Hitler could not satisfy Spain without to push France to the head, and he could not come to meet France, without angering his ‘friend’ Mussolini.
He had to find out at his meeting with Mussolini in Florence on 28 October 1940 that the Italians have additionally attacked Greece and have thus taken a further sharp stick in the spokes of the military cooperation between the Axis powers. In addition, Mussolini Greek adventure – what Hitler internally called ‘bottomless stupidity’ – meant, that the Italian offensive in Libya had to be postponed and consequently the deployment of German troops in North Africa and the advance to the Suez Canal. There were also to realize the first clear signs from Hitler, that he distrusted henceforth the military capabilities of his Italian partner.
Already on the way back Hitler had informed Jodl and Keitel from the High Command that the war against Russia now must take place in the following year.
Apparently hit by these setbacks in creating the ‘continental block’, Hitler was confirmed in his earlier view that the attack on the Soviet Union was the only way to ultimate victory.
When the Soviet People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs, Molotov, traveled to Berlin for talks with Hitler on November 12 and 13, the German strategy was, however, always not yet been finally determined. On the same day on which the talks began, Hitler’s most important order to the Armed Forces was, to prepare planning the capture of Gibraltar and other objectives of the ‘Mediterranean Strategy’.
And the most significant finding of Hitler was at the end of the message: ‘Political meetings with the aim of clarifying Russia’s attitude for the next time, have been taken.’
However, Molotov’s visit led to discomfort by Hitler, as well as the situation in the Mediterranean now developed skeptical, that he saw himself confirmed in his ideas and resorted to the strategy that he had favored in the summer: the attack on the Soviet Union.
Soon after Hitler sent his aides to look for a place for a field headquarters in East Prussia. On 5 December 1940, he told Brauchitsch and Halder, to prepare the army for an attack on the Soviet Union in late May next year.
On December 18, his formal order of which was called ‘Operation Barbarossa’ was set. It gave the explicit aim, ‘even before the conclusion of the war against England to crush the Soviet Russia in a quick campaign’.
Although the attack on Russia fit with Hitler’s ideological conviction, but for the exact definition of the date, strategic considerations were the reason: It was assumed that the US would be ready in 1942 to enter war on the side of Great Britain. It was thus clear that the time was working against Germany.
Thus, since Hitler could not finish the gambling for the world power on his own terms and time, and the opportunities in the longer term were against Germany and since there was no ‘exit clause’, he could just – as always – take the next bold step forward. ‘Barbarossa’, promises Hitler, will ‘befall like a hailstorm over Russia, and the world will hold its breath’.
It was insane, but it had a method.
See also Part I: Why Hitler attacked Russia ?