How did the Nazi's have enough soldiers to conquer most of Europe?
October 14, 2022 6:35 AM   Subscribe

After watching Ken Burns' US and the Holocaust I'm left wondering how the Germans had enough loyal soldiers to invade and hold so many territories.
posted by captainscared to Society & Culture (22 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
Best answer: If you want a detailed answer, you may want to ask on /r/AskHistorians.

In general terms, though, you don't need that many soldiers to conquer a country. You just need to be able to overthrow its government or force it to surrender, at which point you can maintain your occupied territory largely with the quisling government's security forces (along with some percentage of your own garrison troops). In this process the psychological impact of your invasion means more than the raw number of troops you have--if you can convince a substantial enough number of decisionmakers in the country you're invading that there's no point in resisting further or that there's something to be gained from collaboration that outweighs the risk, you're golden. And other countries falling like dominoes around you is a powerful psychological motivator.
posted by derrinyet at 6:43 AM on October 14, 2022 [1 favorite]


Part of the answer is that it wasn't sustainable -- they mobilized a very high percentage of their male population and couldn't maintain that indefinitely. I came across this article recently, which has a high-level overview of comparative mobilizations and might be a starting point for your question.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:00 AM on October 14, 2022 [2 favorites]


It helps a lot to read the history of Germany and the redrawing of borders after WWI. There was in fact a German Revolution in 1918, but history classes never taught us that since they were too busy focusing on the Russian Revolution. The German states were still arguing, Austria and Hungary were adjusting to their new borders big time (read about how Vienna was literally starving because Hungary had been growing all the food), and the invasion of Austria was seen by many as just retaking what had been theirs. To give one example.

Also, they didn't hold their territories for very long. Hilter told the soldier to stand in the freezing cold in Stalingrad and die, and they did. When you run out of soldiers, you have a problem.
posted by Melismata at 7:01 AM on October 14, 2022 [3 favorites]


Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany is an excellent book and may give insight on how the whole nation was mobilized over time. It was a gradual process (or slippery slope) rather than a single moment to gain "enough loyal soldiers to invade and hold so many territories."
posted by zeikka at 7:38 AM on October 14, 2022 [5 favorites]


You just need to be able to overthrow its government or force it to surrender, at which point you can maintain your occupied territory largely with the quisling government's security forces (along with some percentage of your own garrison troops). In this process the psychological impact of your invasion means more than the raw number of troops you have--if you can convince a substantial enough number of decisionmakers in the country you're invading that there's no point in resisting further or that there's something to be gained from collaboration that outweighs the risk, you're golden.

Germany also struck without warning and went bugnuts in a lot of its invasions, so the countries being invaded didn't have time to mobilize an effective defense.

Also, I wouldn't discount the anti-Semitic, anti-Communist, and anti-radical sentiments in a lot of other countries at this time. This may also have swayed people to his side (kind of like how so many seemingly-ordinary people hold their nose and side with Trump simply because he's ostensibly supporting one of their own pet causes).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:55 AM on October 14, 2022 [11 favorites]


Best answer: Also, I wouldn't discount the anti-Semitic, anti-Communist, and anti-radical sentiments in a lot of other countries at this time.

This isn't my area of expertise, but from what I do know, I think EC is on to something here.

Keep in mind that Germany and Austria either controlled or had recently lost control of most of the continent already. The Hapsburg Empire nominally controlled nearly all of Eastern Europe at the turn of the twentieth century, from Poland to the Balkans, and it wouldn't have been hard to find people in those areas still sympathetic to German rule. This was, after all, Hitler's logic for annexing the Sudetenland. It's not hard to imagine that a bunch of people in Eastern Europe, both German and not, found post-Hapsburg independence messy and wished for a return to a perceived "good old days".

The rest of the continent was either allied with Germany (Italy, Finland), ostensibly neutral (Spain, Sweden, Ireland), tiny (Benelux), or sparsely populated (Norway). That really just leaves France, Russia, and the UK, and Germany only conquered one of those three. And while Germany defeated France in part due to superior force, local collaborators of the type EC mentioned played a big part as well, especially after the original conquest.
posted by kevinbelt at 8:25 AM on October 14, 2022 [6 favorites]


While your question is asking about German military resources and strategy, I just wanted to add that I found the series A French Village to be a really illuminating exploration of the mundane choices and psychology of collaboration, without which the Germans couldn't have done what they did.
posted by ojocaliente at 9:04 AM on October 14, 2022 [2 favorites]


I think part of the issue is that our definition of what a citizen/nation has changed from that era to our modern one, and this period of conflict in Europe is what drove many of those changes. As noted, many of these 'conquered' nations were really just states full of people who were not particularly nationalistic or invested in the particular leaders of that state. For example, if the leader of your country switched from one prince to his cousin, how invested are you really going to be in that difference, if you are just some regular person.

Most of the history of the era I learned was based on just the UK, France and the US, which were atypical, and I realize now intended to install a Whig construction of historical progress to emphasize nationalism.

Another factor is that both Italy and Germany had only recently unified as nations themselves: the Risorgimento in Italy was mostly set by 1871, but partly in flux until after WWI. That was the same year as when Germany formally unified, and a big question from the start was if Austria would be part of all that. One of the main drivers of the German unification was the success of their modernization, or Realpolitik, into what is arguably the first modern nation state. And a significant factor was Prussia's military might and the myth they promoted about themselves. It was a period of great political upheaval in Europe.

In addition to the anti-Semitic, anti-Communist, and anti-radical I would suggest that German anti-Catholic efforts would also have found sizable support across much of northern Europe.

Finally, I think a key factor in keeping populations from turning against their German occupiers is that the Germans controlled much of the supply of food. Germany was not self sufficient, and they implemented what was just frankly called The Hunger Plan. The intention of the plan was to starve as many Russians as possible and favor western & norther over eastern Europeans. Tens of millions of deaths were anticipated. There was famines in German controlled Greece, Netherlands, and Poland only skirted total disaster with a good crop saving them from an estimated 3 million deaths.
posted by zenon at 9:04 AM on October 14, 2022 [7 favorites]


Best answer: I have not seen the Ken Burns doc so apologies if these points are already mentioned in it.

-In terms of getting soldiers, the Nazi party heavily targeted the youth - the Hitler Youth program eventually became compulsory in 1936. It was more or less like the Boy Scouts (Hitler was a big fan of the founder of the Boy Scouts), and it served as a useful pipeline to enlistment.

-Like Melismata and others have pointed out, some of the territory - Sudetenland/Austria - spoke "German" (put in quotes since what counts as a dialect is political/arbitrary) and so there was little resistance there. And then Poland, while definitely not welcoming Nazi rule, was a relatively new nation, and was a bit of a political mess at the time (this is an oversimplification).

-WWI was rough on much of Europe. The UK and France had no desire to get into another war. During WWII Spain and Italy were fascist and either supported or at least did not oppose Hitler. Other countries were small and not that significant. So when Hitler started expanding, the UK/France/etc. essentially just told him to stop, and took him at his word when he said he would. It was only after Germany and Russia essentially collaborated in splitting up Poland that the Allies put their foot down.

-I imagine the documentary must go into this a bit, but the Nazis were generally pretty popular because of the whole "Socialism" part of Democratic Socialism. Post-WWI was rough economically on most Germans, the Nazi party provided a scapegoat (Jews, Commies, etc.), and during their early years of control there were signs of the economy recovering - it wouldn't last and then WWII was a disaster for Germany's economy, but the economic upswing lasted long enough to make enough people believe the Nazis would be good for the country. And there were numerous programs and initiatives that made for good PR directed at the common man, so to speak.

-As zenon pointed out above, the Nazis had a "reason" for expansion - it was sold to the German public as necessary for the future survival of Germans to get more farmland.
posted by coffeecat at 9:12 AM on October 14, 2022 [8 favorites]


I imagine the documentary must go into this a bit

Not this documentary -‌- its focus is the US, not Germany. For the latter, see the PBS Rise Of The Nazis from a couple years ago. Unfortunately it looks like you must pay to see it, now.
posted by Rash at 9:32 AM on October 14, 2022 [2 favorites]


remember also that Communism was not some imaginary bogeyman or kum-ba-ya "let's share" idea. Stalin's Bolsheviks had carried out enormous, savage massacres of civilians in all the countries they had gained control of during the 20s and 30s -- ironically often targeting exactly the same intelligentsia layer that the Nazis eventually mopped up. ("Intelligentsia" included people like stamp collectors and anyone who spoke a foreign language.) (The lists for these massacres had been drawn up by locals working for the Communists.) And that's not even counting the mass murder of millions by famine that the Communists engineered in Ukraine. And there absolutely were Communist agents active in Germany as well while the Nazis were coming into power.

It wasn't until recently reading about the Communist massacres in the East that I came to understand that for many Germans, the choice wasn't between Nazism and staying home to mind their own business. It was between Nazism and Communism. And since Nazism played beautifully with the ancient antisemitism that had been endemic to Christianity since the council of Nicaea, and also they'd torture and kill you and your children if you didn't sign on, it all came together in a compelling way.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:38 AM on October 14, 2022 [7 favorites]


remember also that Communism was not some imaginary bogeyman or kum-ba-ya "let's share" idea. Stalin's Bolsheviks had carried out enormous, savage massacres of civilians in all the countries they had gained control of during the 20s and 30s -- ironically often targeting exactly the same intelligentsia layer that the Nazis eventually mopped up. ("Intelligentsia" included people like stamp collectors and anyone who spoke a foreign language.) (The lists for these massacres had been drawn up by locals working for the Communists.) And that's not even counting the mass murder of millions by famine that the Communists engineered in Ukraine. And there absolutely were Communist agents active in Germany as well while the Nazis were coming into power.


No offense here - but this is such a simplistic description of the geopolitics of Europe at the time that its actually wrong, and it doesn't answer the original question. Kudos to the OP for asking an intriguing question, but be careful of agendas in historical accounts (conscious or otherswise).
posted by RajahKing at 9:49 AM on October 14, 2022 [6 favorites]


Best answer: One thing that hasn't appeared yet (or did and my eyeballs passed right over it because dumdum) is that it wasn't just Germans. Substantial numbers of troops were Hungarian, Romanian, Bulgarian, and others.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 9:49 AM on October 14, 2022 [4 favorites]


Right, there were Communists in Germany, but the Nazis effectively exaggerated their threat. A good example is the Reichstag fire- exactly who was behind it and why they did it is still debated, but using it as evidence the Commies were a major threat was a key part of the Nazis gaining authoritarian rule.
posted by coffeecat at 10:30 AM on October 14, 2022 [1 favorite]


One thing I haven't seen mentioned - in Poland at least, the Germans implemented a thorough and complex plan to exterminate elites and reduce the population to ill-educated manual labour. The success was mixed (AB Aktion on one hand, the entire Polish shadow government and administration and active military of the Armia Krajowa on the other), but it was very much a targetted campaign of other than military means - concentration camps, requisition of just about everything from food to art to all means of production, closing down all educational institutions other than the first few grades of primary school, random arrests and torture and spying and pressganging. Famously Donald Tusk's grandfather was conscripted into the Wehrmacht directly after being imprisoned as a dangerous Polish activist. Basically the Nazis implemented a terror state even more strict than their domestic one, with extra random violence where you never knew if the soldier you passed in the street wouldn't turn around and shoot you.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 10:57 AM on October 14, 2022 [1 favorite]


The French more or less ran their own occupation. The civil service and (within limits) the police stayed in place, reporting to Nazi top bosses. Vichy France was (nominally) not even occupied at all for several years.
posted by MattD at 11:07 AM on October 14, 2022 [1 favorite]


Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany is an excellent book and may give insight on how the whole nation was mobilized over time. It was a gradual process (or slippery slope) rather than a single moment to gain "enough loyal soldiers to invade and hold so many territories."

I reread this last year and it is quite good; just be aware that there are at least 3 out-of-nowhere homophobic assertions about the relative weakness of parts of the Nazi Party bc of prominent gay Nazis.
posted by rhymedirective at 11:58 AM on October 14, 2022 [1 favorite]


I think the short answer is that enough people in enough of the countries had their own reasons for not wanting to resist the occupation. One thing I haven't seen mentioned is the Munich Agreement where what was then Czechoslovakia was basically forced by its neighbors and the UK and France to sacrifice itself to the Germans in exchange for "peace in our time". Slovakia remained nominally sovreign but its extensive defenses had been rendered moot and the country was occupied without a shot. What choice did they have, fight off Germany, (now annexed) Austria, Hungary, and Poland all at once?
posted by wnissen at 12:05 PM on October 14, 2022


I'd underline kevinbelt's answer: Germany only conquered part of Europe. It was allied with Italy and later Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Finland. The annexation of Czechoslovakia and Austria were accomplished by political chicanery rather than war.

Quite a few victims were small compared to the Axis and could hardly resist alone: the Benelux countries, Denmark, Norway, Yugoslavia, Greece. That left only two sizeable opponents, France and Poland, and each was only partly conquered. (Southern France reorganized itself as a German ally, and Stalin grabbed the other half of Poland.)

A good history of WWII will probably answer most of your "how they did it" questions. For what it's worth, no one was really prepared for blitzkrieg. The French certainly weren't, they were preparing to re-fight WWI. The anti-German forces were also not cooperating closely... that's one reason we have NATO today.

If you add up raw population and exclude Russia (not yet in the war) and Britain (whose expeditionary force barely got in the way), it was about 161 million Axis vs. 103 million conquered nations. That is not at all the whole story, but population figures do mattter, and correlate with production capacities.
posted by zompist at 9:53 PM on October 14, 2022 [1 favorite]


To follow up on zompist's answer: most countries in Europe were strongly pacifist after WWI, and even those who had substantial armies, like Poland and France, had not modernized them. So part of the German succes was their army's modernity at the time and the Blitzkrieg strategy. Denmark was run over in a day, and much larger Norway in two months, then the Netherlands and most of France in a week. the Benelux countries surrendered without fight. Most countries had Quisling governments, Denmark had an elected government until 1943. There was terror against the populations, in response to resistance activities, but in the first year, the resistance was poorly armed and unorganized, so not a huge factor, and the responce accordingly lighter.

Germany and the Sovjet Union had a non-aggression pact until 1941 when Germany broke it, so that kept the whole eastern front safe until most of the continental European countries were under German control, and as some have mentioned above, Germany had allies within Europe, such as Italy.

When the war against the Sovjet Union began, hundreds of thousands of conscripts and volunteers from the occupied countries joined the German army.

One might wonder what would have happened if the Germans had not invaded the Sovjet Union, and the Japanese hadn't bombed Pearl Harbour. But at least for the Germans, conquering the western countries in the Sovjet Union was the main goal all along, so that speculation doesn't really make sense.

Hitlers basic theory was that Germany needed more "Lebensraum", because it couldn't feed itself, and that Lebensraum was to be found in Poland and in the former Pale of Settlement, which were still inhabited and farmed by millions of Jews and obviously Slavic peoples who were also seen as less human (and the plan was to massacre them after the Jews). For young men from farming backgrounds who didn't feel comfortable in modern urban life, this seemed like a good plan. And in fear of communism, and succesfull Blitzkrieg operations and it looked even better. So in the first years of the war, there was a huge popular backing for Hitler, and thus enthusiastic recruits for the army in both Germany and some occupied countries.
posted by mumimor at 3:32 AM on October 15, 2022 [2 favorites]


Mechanized warfare is a really good force multiplier as well. Good tanks, planes, armored transports and things like motorcycles and trucks can really up the efficiency of an army. Logistics can't win a war by itself, but you can't win without it. And Germany had very much built that kind of army, designed to attack hard and fast and knock down slower and less prepared opponents.
posted by Jacen at 7:49 AM on October 15, 2022 [1 favorite]


To add to the answers here, I think the answer is "legitimacy."

You don't need to force people to do what you want with soldiers, if what they see as the legitimate government of their country is friendly to you.

Many of the governments installed by the Nazis had more legitimacy among the governed than we like to admit after the fact. A lot of countries just surrendered, and rule by Nazi friendly governments was considered unfortunate by many, but not an ongoing military occupation. French troops who escaped to Britain largely just went home when the chance was offered. De Gaulle was pretty much a nobody, not even recognized by Roosevelt, until he started building support in the French colonies after allied forces liberated North Africa.

The only places that the Nazis themselves really had to worry about truly militarily occupying rather than legitimately installing a government friendly to them were places like Norway, Poland (but only the Western half) and Greece. (And apologies if I missed any) These are places where the government never officially surrendered, and so Nazi installed puppet governments were easily seen as not the legitimate government.

And this with the full support of Italy and support from the more right wing across the rest of occupied Europe.

Norway is not very populous, probably had ~3 million people, and Germany stationed a ton of troops anyway there because it was an obvious site for a British landing in Europe, and they were still getting their nuclear research and recruiting stationed bombed. It's likely that they would have need only almost as many troops to actually maintain control.

The Axis were already losing control of parts of Greece by 1943, and had to retreat not long after the invasion on D-Day meant their forces in Western Europe were needed for actual fighting.

Poland, well...Poland was in the bad position of being divided up between two much larger states, and resistance movements there had to contend with having a lot of the German military parked there to face the Soviet forces which weren't particularly inclined to aid said resistance because they wanted to militarily occupy Poland for themselves.

I mean, so in summary, the Axis didn't need a real occupation force in most "occupied" territory, and then often only in places they already needed massive numbers of troops for conventional military reasons, and the one place they didn't as much, Greece, proved to be difficult to maintain control of and a massive drain on their resources.
posted by Zalzidrax at 10:22 AM on October 15, 2022 [4 favorites]


« Older What are some oils/creams to help fade a neck scar...   |   Quality subreddits featuring positive content... Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments