Don’t get me wrong; I’m not here to make you sympathize with the Nazis. They were literally a hate group that committed murder on a national scale in addition to helping start and prosecute the deadliest war in human history. They were evil, so don’t let a title like “Underdog” garner them any sympathy. It’s the fault of the fascists that this war ever happened in the first place.
But, while the German military was one of the most feared and successful in the late 1930s and early 1940s, the Third Reich had a severe weakness that would hamper the military at any turn: economics.
We know, we know. It’s not a very sexy flaw, but industrial warfare relies on an industrial base, and I’m here to tell you that Germany’s industrial base was horrible. Its coal deposits were of mostly low quality and, more importantly, its oil deposits were limited and were much better suited for creating lubricants than fuels.
Not all oil is equal for all purposes, and German crude oil was waxy. It had few of the chemicals necessary for refining fuels, like diesel and gasoline. So while Germany was one of the top producers of iron and steel in the 1930s, often sitting at number two in the world, it relied heavily on imports to fuel its industry.
In 1938, Germany used 44 million barrels of oil. Only 3.8 million barrels of crude had been made in Germany, and the country was able to produce another nine million barrels of synthetic oil. Imports made up the difference, but many of those imports would dry up when the war started, just as the necessity of increasing war production demanded much more oil.
The Third Reich also needed additional access to cobalt, copper, and some other important minerals.
France and Britain, meanwhile, had large networks of colonies around the world that could send important resources back to the motherland. They had the navies necessary to keep those supply lines open everywhere but the Pacific, where Japan would hold sway. And, France and Britain could buy more oil from the U.S., the top producer at the time with up to 1 billion barrels per year.
When Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, Great Britain instigated a blockade of Germany. At that point, Germany could no longer buy oil from the U.S. But the Nazis had thought ahead, signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Soviet Russia in August 1939. For the time being, imports to Germany from Russia could keep the Nazi war machine going.
It was partially thanks to this imported oil that Germany was able to invade France and the Low Countries on May 10, 1940, and quickly roll across the country thanks to France’s stubborn belief that that the Ardennes was impassable to armored vehicles. France fell in mid-June.
This was, arguably, the high-water mark for the Third Reich in economic terms. Its industry was strong and undamaged by the war, it had seized vast swaths of Europe including Norway, France, and Austria, and its ally Italy was having some success in seizing resource-rich areas in North Africa.
And, on paper, Germany had ample access to the oil products of the world’s second largest producer, Russia. In theory, this made Germany a powerful force against Britain, its only real adversary at the time. America, the world’s top producer of steel and oil among other industrial and wartime goods, wasn’t officially part of the war. Germany appeared to be top dog.
Except, it wasn’t. Hitler planned to invade Russia, so counting Russian petroleum towards German needs only makes sense in the very short term. And Germany was reliant on Russia for 20 percent of its oil, even after Romania joined the Axis powers.
America, meanwhile, was clearly tying itself closer and tighter to Britain through policies like the expanded Cash-and-Carry in 1939, Destroyers-for-bases in 1940, and Lend-Lease in early 1941. As long as Britain didn’t fully surrender in 1940, it should be expected that America’s industrial might would continue to come down on the side of the Allies for the duration of the war.
This was especially true when it came to Destroyers-for-bases, since this resulted in America gaining bases and stationing troops on British territories around the world. Germany couldn’t possibly conquer Britain and consolidate the gains without entering conflict with the U.S.
So, if you look at this high-water mark of the Third Reich in 1940, but you place an asterisk next to Germany’s imports from Russia and added U.S. industrial output to the Allies, even with an asterisk, it’s clear that Germany was always underpowered against its enemies.
At its zenith, with its allies doing reasonably well, and with goods flowing into Germany like food from conquered France, aluminum and fish oil from conquered Norway, iron from Sweden, and oil from Romania, Germany still faced constant shortages of key war resources.
Meanwhile Britain, while it faced massive logistics challenges thanks to the sheer size and scope of its empire and alliances, was backed by the U.S. and its ability in 1940 to churn out more oil than the rest of the world combined as well as 34 percent of the world’s pig iron, one of the key ingredients for steel.
None of this is to say that the outcome of the war was determined before it was fought. The fascists brought World War II upon themselves, and it was thanks to the bravery and sacrifice of millions everywhere—from the Polish Resistance to British Royal Air Force to the Soviet Army to the U.S. Navy—that the fascist countries were stopped and defeated.
After all, if the Axis powers had successfully seized all those oil fields in Russia or North Africa, or if Germany had successfully invaded Britain in 1940, they may, may, have been able to win and consolidate their international gains. With the added power from conquered European, African, and Asian nations, the Axis powers might have even swallowed America.
So, we are duly grateful to all the veterans of World War II, but we should also thank our lucky stars for the miners, oil workers, farmers, and factory workers who made sure that the Allies were always better supplied than the Axis.