OnLine of Departure

Subscribe to Line of Departure

OnLine of Departure Support

Wargames by Jim Werbaneth




Supplements and Player's Aids



©2021 Jim Werbaneth


December 19, 2021

By Jim Werbaneth

No figure influenced the twentieth century quite like Adolf Hitler, and no man has been examined from as many angles.  The first and most obvious is as a genocidal monster, and the Holocaust was the centerpiece of a regime that saw the liquidation of European Jewry as a primary goal.  There is no understanding Hitler without grasping the wholesale murder.

Hitler the conqueror looked east, seeing lebensraum for the Germans in the lands inhabited those whom he considered subhuman.  Under his eye, the Wehrmacht brought most of Europe under its heel.

There was Hitler the failed artist, the down and out outsider who rose from a Viennese garret to the most important man of the century, then fell to a broken mess in the bunker; even then he toyed with the architectural models of Albert Speer's vision of Berlin rebuilt into Germania.  With the Soviet artillery pounding at the ceiling, Hitler was still the artist, viewing Berlin, Germany and tomorrow the world as his mad canvas.

Secondarily there were many Hitlers; Hitler the animal lover (who still tested his cyanide first on his beloved dog), the prude, the vegetarian, the occasional life of the party, the garrulous conversationalist who would stay up until dawn talking with old cronies.  Despite the best efforts of the Nazi propaganda machine to portray him as a man alone, brooding over destiny, Hitler could be amazingly social.

Hitler the strategist.  That is the one that fascinates history enthusiasts, just as Hitler the mass murderer repels them.  Yet they are connected, as the German military machine built by the Nazis provided the tools by which Hitler tried to inflict his ideals of death and conquest on the world. 

There are some enduring popular visions of Hitler, in various guises.  Except for a few bigoted revisionists with bad intent, and perhaps the occasional actor with too much tequila in his blood, we all accept the perception of Hitler as a man evil enough to willfully murder six million Jews, then go out and play with his dog.  Hitler screams, either in a calculated rage to mobilize a crowd, or in an insane rage at either a perceived slight or a military disaster beyond his ability to absorb.  That view obscures the fact that Adolf Hitler could joke, smile, talk in a normal tone of voice, and order asparagus without putting the waiter to death when it shows up cold.

One image of Hitler, indeed one personality within the Führer, gets far less attention, even less than that of the Nazi social butterfly.  That is of Adolf Hitler, compulsive gambler.

It sheds light on him as a strategist, and why as a military commander, the conqueror who dominated his era proved to be an abject failure in the end.  When they build the Military Screw Up Hall of Fame, there will be an Adolf Hitler Wing, and much of the reason was because he exhibited the characteristics of a degenerate gambler.

His political career began in earnest with a gamble, the Beerhall Putsch, and it was one that he would lose.  Even so, Hitler gained a tight coterie of blood comrades, and a blood myth,  so that the failure stood him in good stead through the years; perhaps seizure of the Bavarian state government would not have worked out quite as well.

Once in power, he spent the 1930's in a long series of endeavors, high in return but high in risk.  The reoccupation o the Rhineland was a win, betting against the event that Allied, and especially French, resistance would turn it into a humiliating defeat.  The Anschluss, the absorption of Austria in the Reich, was another gamble, which could have been an even bigger defeat had the Austrians, backed by an ally or two, resisted with force.

Czechoslovakia was the biggest, chanciest venture to date.  Success would grant Germany still more important territory, make Czechoslovakia vulnerable to further demands (it was eventually taken over bloodlessly, through pure intimidation), and make Germany the arbiter of central Europe.  But should Britain and France live up to their treaty obligations to the Czechs, and have their integrity beat out their terror of armed conflict, then Nazi Germany would have a war for which they were better prepared than their prospective enemies.  Thus Hitler could look at the capitulation of the British and French with disappointment; he got the Sudetenland, and then the rest of Bohemia and Moravia, while Slovakia split off into a supine German ally.  But there was no war, not yet.

Finally, the Western Allies did stand up, over Hitler's aggression towards Poland.  By then, one could argue it was too late; the Führer had had a pretty good run.

More gambling followed the commencement of hostilities.  Hitler bet on a plan, brilliant on paper, to beat France in a quick campaign; it worked.  After a long air campaign that might or might not have ended with a German invasion of Britain (his intentions remain opaque even today), Hitler engaged in the biggest gamble of them all: Attacking the Soviet Union.  It was the two-front war, which Bismarck had warned about, and with good reason.

Many of Hitler's gambles could be described as calculated risks, if one were a little charitable.  Operation Barbarossa was little of the sort; it was betting the future of his regime, of Germany, of Europe everything, on a conflict with the largest country, with the largest army, lead by a dictator just as ruthless as Hitler himself.

All the while, Hitler bet on progressive military technology and doctrines.  He supported men such as Rommel and Guderian against more infantry-oriented, traditional means of waging war.  Under the Nazis the tank found its niche, as did airpower and the paratrooper.  Only the Soviets displayed a level of imagination comparable with that of the Nazi military, and even then Stalin pulled the plug through a series of bloody military purges.  Soviet mechanized warfare was forestalled by the purging of its champions, especially Marshal Mikhail Tukachevsky.

Hitler bet, repeatedly, and he won.  Repeatedly.

Many years ago, I was taught something very important.  It was that the worst thing that could happen when you gamble for the first time is not that you lose at the table; it is that you win, and the bigger that you win, the worse the outcome.

The reason is that the gambler feels that early success can be repeated, even at will.  It might be through his superior skill, a particular danger in poker and blackjack, the games in which skill plays the greatest role.  Or it could be that Lady Luck could make a return visit.

With Adolf Hitler, it was both.  He believed in his own genius; the World War I trench runner was smarter than all the professional officers in his headquarters.  As evidence, he could point to the fact that he was right, at least in the beginning, when more cautious military professionals gave him advice contrary to what turned out to work.

He also acquired an inordinate belief in his luck, as part of Providence.  His survival through the assassination attempt of 20 July 1944 cemented that, as though he needed any more proof.

By then however, events were no longer going Germany's way, to put it mildly.  Hitler's early luck had gone sour, as the Allies closed the ring on the Reich, and bombed its cities day and night.  By July 1944, it was clear to any rational observer that the Third Reich was in a terminal state.  It was going to be worn down to defeat by the superior material resources of the United States, United Kingdom, and Soviet Union.

Hitler could not see that, however.  He believed, right to the end, that his luck was going to turn, that Providence would smile on him.  Maybe Germany would be saved by wonder weapons it had no means of producing, armies that existed only in name, or by some stroke of brilliance on his part.

That can be found in the conception of the Battle of the Bulge.  It was a "Big Solution," an overly ambitious plan that wagered scarce mechanized forces in terrain and weather ill-suited for mechanized warfare.  Faith in Providence is seen in his reaction to the death of Franklin Roosevelt.  In Hitler's mind, it was reminiscent of the timely death of the Empress Elizabeth of Russia, which removed her country from the Seven Years War and thereby saved Prussia at the moment of most acute crisis.

However, no so much miracle was going to happen.  Hitler's run at the tables peaked in 1940 with the Fall of France, and then went into a swift decline.  By 1944, the deficit was such that no amount of capital, no bet on Kursk or the Bulge, could save him or Germany.  Still, he kept a gambler's hope for a change in fortune that lasted right up until he put a bullet through his head.