B. H. Liddell Hart’s Strategy has been a classic since the first edition appeared in 1954. In this work the British military theorist condenses his study of armed conflict into a rapid survey of twenty five centuries. While each example is interesting in its own right, such as the seldom studied campaigns of Belisarius or the Duke of Marlborough, I found his detailed analysis of Hitler’s rise and fall to be particularly striking.
It is incorrect to think of Hitler, says Liddell Hart, as a despotic blunderer. He was a masterful strategist who honed his skills in the struggle for political control. Hitler understood the concept of the “indirect approach” that Liddell Hart champions. According to this theory, one achieves victory by attacking along the line of least resistance (or least expectation). From his accession to power in 1933 into the early war years, the Nazi leader appreciated the value of defeating an enemy through psychological means, often through bloodless coups, as in Austria and Czechoslovakia. In terms of battlefield engagement, he used the indirect approach most skillfully in the French campaign where his panzers attacked from an unexpected direction and cut the allied armies in two. The fall of France in 1940 represented the summit of the Nazi leader’s power. Yet as Strategy points out, it also revealed the paucity of his grand strategic vision that would ultimately undermine the Third Reich.
At the outset of the conflict Germany had succeeded in the psychological field by playing on the fears of appeasers and pacifists. Hitler knew, as Liddell Hart says, that if an opponent’s “will to resist could be paralysed, killing was superfluous.” Yet it on this same moral battleground that he lost in the long run. The more Hitler conquered, the more precarious his power became. From a strictly military point of view, the occupation of so much territory tended to disperse German forces thus making a counter-attack easier on many fronts. Furthermore, as the Nazis spread over Europe “bringing misery without securing peace, they scattered widespread resentment.” The only thing Hitler could offer other peoples was enslavement or extermination. Now bent on pure domination, he adopted the crude and “direct” policy of total war. His armies were no longer committed to low cost campaigns and quick victories but bloody head-on assaults—the most unsuccessful form of strategy—and a gradual war of attrition that he could not afford.
When Liddell Hart outlines his strategic maxims at the end of the book is clear that Hitler failed in the very first one: “Adjust your end to your means.” This means choosing your goal rationally and not “biting off more than you can chew.” The German dictator (like Napoleon before him) was fighting an essentially unwinnable war because he never clearly defined his objectives short of the impossibility of defeating every major power arrayed against him or persuading them to accept Nazi domination of Europe—a thought that was morally unacceptable. As Strategy states: “Force can always crush force…. It cannot crush ideas.”