The Soviets, to help take the pressure off the Americans in the Ardennes, stepped up the timetable for their own offensive. Along the front from Hungary to the Baltic, Soviet advances shattered the German line. By mid-February, the Russians had reached the Elbe, less than fifty miles from Berlin. Hitler shifted his reserves from the west to the east, counterattacking in Hungary. But gains were few, and the German counterattacks were quickly overwhelmed by broader and heavier Soviet offensives. Vienna fell on 13 April. Stalin’s armies were poised for their final offensive toward the Nazi capital.
In the west, the Allies unleashed a series of offensives designed to bring their armies into position along the entire length of the Rhine. By early March, they had succeeded, taking ever-larger formations of Germans prisoner. By late March, the Allies were across the Rhine in the British sector in the north and in the sectors of the First and Third American Armies. Within a week, the Americans encircled the Ruhr and, with it, an entire German army group. In late March and early April, Allied forces began a race across Germany. Eisenhower, for sound political and military reasons, decided not to drive toward Berlin.
On 16 April, the Soviets began their final offensive, comprising two fronts driving for Hitler’s capital. By 25 April, the Russians had surrounded Berlin. Hitler committed suicide on 30 April, and by 2 May, the Russians had extinguished resistance in the city. On 7 May, Admiral Karl Dönitz, Hitler’s successor, surrendered. The Second World War had come to an end in the European theater.
The western democracies had triumphed, but only through their alliance with Stalin’s Soviet Russia—a regime no better, and arguably worse, than Hitler’s Germany. The fate of Poland symbolized that pact with a devil: Poland was not liberated, but exchanged the domination of Germany for that of the Soviet Union. Stalin retained his ill-gotten gains in eastern Poland, and the Allies compensated the Poles with new territories in the west. These territories were cleared of their German inhabitants in a regimen of ethnic cleansing that put millions of Germans on the roads of Eastern Europe, and approximately two million of these refugees perished. The alliance was such a marriage of convenience that even before Hitler had spared the world his further presence, the British and Americans were already quarrelling with the Russians. By the spring of 1946, contentiousness had taken on crisis proportions, and the Cold War had begun. For the next half century the former Allies confronted each other along the Iron Curtain, which stretched from Stettin on the Baltic to Trieste on the Adriatic.
But the very fact that a cold war followed the “hot” war of 1939–1945 reveals the most important element that lay behind Allied victory. Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union, despite very real differences, had forged an effective military alliance. Such coalitions are rare in the annals of history. And there can be little doubt that in the absence of such an alignment the outcome of the war could have been disastrous.
Nevertheless, Allied victory did not come cheaply. The Second World War was the most destructive conflict in the history of humankind. Deaths, military and civilian, totaled in the tens of millions. Scores of cities lay in ruins. As Allied armies marched into central Europe, they discovered unbelievable horrors. Over eleven million European civilians died in German death factories, nearly six million of them Jews swept up from the corners of the new German empire in a genocidal effort to achieve a “final solution” to the “Jewish question” that guided Nazi policy. If Verdun symbolized the tragedy of the First World War, Auschwitz epitomized the tragedy of the second.
In retrospect, it is tempting to conclude that the effective Allied coalition was itself sufficient to secure success. Combined, Russia, the United States, and Great Britain outproduced Germany in every military category. But quantity, while important, was itself no guarantor of victory. Excepting the Polish campaign, early on the Germans were usually outnumbered and won nonetheless. Ultimately, all the production in the world could not have defeated the Wehrmacht unless that output had been applied judiciously and effectively.
At the level of grand strategy, the Allies demonstrated clear superiority. Whatever their early mistakes, they planned for the long war they fought. The United States, despite the post-Pearl Harbor debacle and public desire to refocus the American war effort in the Pacific, stuck to its prewar Europe-first strategy, rooted in the correct assumption that Nazi Germany posed the far more serious threat than Japan. That the Allies enjoyed a production advantage in the final stages of the war was no accident: it was a planned outcome. Few leaders in Moscow, London, or Washington held illusions about the costs or the length of the war.
In the strategic realm, there can be little doubt that the Allies were much wiser than their Axis counterparts. Generals such as Eisenhower may never have commanded a unit in battle, but they possessed the diplomatic and management skills to wage coalition warfare effectively on an oceanic and continental scale. A general with Eisenhower’s background would never have risen to such a position of prominence in the German army, but then Eisenhower would never have waited until the campaign in Tunisia was concluded before considering his next move to Sicily, in the fashion that the German generals in the spring of 1940 thought no further than the immediate defeat of France. Even Soviet strategic military planning after 1942 was more thoughtful and analytical than that of the Germans.
At the operational level, the Germans excelled, but their advantage eroded gradually and was often undermined by poor strategy. By midwar, the Allies often displayed operational excellence. Russian operations during 1943 and 1944 demonstrated an evolving level of skill and appreciation of the realities of war, including the tactical limitations of the Soviet army. The Russians made the most of their numerical superiority, but numbers had not guaranteed victory in 1941 or 1942. They did so between 1943 and 1945 because of an improved level of operational effectiveness.
Tactically, the Germans retained their superiority until the end of the war. But here, too, the German advantage declined as the war progressed, and Allied tactics improved as their armies learned from experience much of what the Germans had learned from study during the 1920s.
In the air, the Germans lost the initiative earlier than they did on the ground. During the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe and the industrial base upon which it was built displayed their limitations. This failure was central to the Axis defeat. German combined-arms doctrine envisioned close cooperation between ground and air elements. When the Germans lost the initiative in the air, in 1942 in the west and 1943 in the east, they lost a fundamental component of their military machine. While Allied doctrine for close air support never became as effective as that of the Germans, the Anglo-American air forces excelled in interdiction and the isolation of the battlefield.
In the realm of strategic air warfare, the Germans were at a disadvantage. By 1942, faced with a protracted struggle, the Luftwaffe lacked the capability to retaliate. Geography was a major factor: even possession of a bomber comparable to the B-17 would not have allowed the Germans to strike distant American factories. But the Germans possessed the means to develop a fighter force capable of defending the Reich. The Battle of Britain had demonstrated that successful air defense was possible. But lack of strategic direction, and technical and administrative incompetence and mismanagement, assured German defeat in the air.
Nazi Germany lost the war because it failed to continue the pace of innovation so evident in the 1920s. The Nazis, during their twelve years in power, were unable to build on the strategic, operational, and tactical inheritance of the Reichswehr. In April 1945, they were still relying on Enigma coding machines that the Allies had learned to read six years earlier. Blitzkrieg was in many ways nothing more than the addition of steel tanks to an existing combined-arms doctrine that had employed cardboard substitutes. The Germans developed their air doctrine primarily before the advent of Hitler. In the strategic realm, Hitler and his generals failed to look beyond the defeat of Poland and France, as envisioned almost two decades earlier by Seeckt, until it was too late. In 1944 and 1945, operationally and tactically on the ground, in the air, and at sea, the Germans were often doing things the same way that they had done them in 1939 and 1940. The same could not be said of the Allies.