German Military Strategy in World War II


This paper will seek to answer the primary research question: How effective were the Germans at applying specific aspects of the MILS514 analytic framework to strategy-making during their blitzkrieg warfare and invasion of central Europe from 1939 – 1941.


The Germans use of the Nine Variables – Elements of Strategy aided them with great success at the beginning of the war from 1939 – 1941, and the failure to accurately access (and implement) the Nine Constants – Five Criteria of Effectiveness of the MILS514 analytic framework to their strategy-making process from summer 1940 on, which produced a series of failures that led to their defeat by Allied forces in 1945. This defeat would indicate that incorporating the Nine Constants – Five Criteria of Effectiveness with the Nine Variables – Elements of Strategy is essential to the strategy-making process.

Concise Description

During the first part of WWII, Germany aimed to secure German territory and increase German influence, much like their ambitions that led to WW I in 1914. How Germany was going to accomplish this was to initiate a military tactic known as blitzkrieg. This blitzkrieg strategy gave them the ability to overwhelm and defeat most of Europe from 1939 to the beginning of 1940. Their means was to utilize their military to execute this blitzkrieg attack that gave them much success in conquering most of Central Europe. However, Germany’s ambitions to defeat Great Britain in the West and Russia in the East proved more feasible academically than physically. With their extended lines in the Russian front, Britain’s naval superiority, and the United States adding to the war effort in Europe, this placed Germany in a prolonged war that they could not sustain. Had the Germans balanced the elements of their blitzkrieg strategy with criteria that would measure its effectiveness, World War II would have had a different outcome.

Literature Review

After establishing the research questions and hypothesis, it is essential to provide a more thorough analysis of the proposed strategic situation. In the first part of World War II, the German military tactics primarily revolved around increasing the scope of influence and securing the nearby territories. The military conflicts during this period can be roughly classified according to the geographic areas of tension, including the operations in Poland, France, Britain, and the Soviet Union (Epstein 2015, 123). As a result, the Third Reich utilized various strategies and was highly successful in increasing the scope of influence in Western Europe (Epstein 2015, 130). Germany continually advanced its military forces from 1939 until they encountered significant resistance in 1940-1941 in the face of the Britain and Soviet Union (Stahel 2009, 153). Ultimately, the first part of World War II is associated with vast success on the west front and the strategical failure on the east front. Thus, it is essential to conduct a thorough examination of Germany’s military strategies in the period from 1939 to 1941 to apply the analytical framework.

Beginning of the War and Poland Invasion

Since the beginning of World War II, Hitler’s strategies were significantly impaired by unexpected circumstances. On 23 August 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union signed a non-combat treaty, which is commonly known as Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (Semenova & Winter 2019, 3). The agreement should have ensured the separation of Central Europe between the two nations and allowed Germany to advance in the region without hindrance (Mitrovits 2020, 17). In other words, the primary purpose of the treaty was to allocate the German military campaign on the west front, and it worked according to the plan until 1941 (Epstein 2015, 124). On the other hand, Stalin hoped to avoid the direct confrontation with Germany and make necessary preparations in the meantime (Epstein 2015, 124). Arguably, this pact and allocation of time for the Soviet Union to prepare its defenses were one of the strategic miscalculations by Germany. Nevertheless, regardless of the hidden motives, the non-combat agreement allowed Germany and the Soviet Union to overwhelm Poland with relative ease.

The Poland invasion is generally recognized as the initial point of World War II. Germany advanced its military units on the Polish territory on 1 September 1939, and the Soviet Union assisted them in the attack on 17 September (Mitrovits 2020, 17). Ultimately, Poland was conquered within a month, divided its territories between Germany and the Soviet Union (Mitrovits 2020, 17). One of the factors explaining the success is the military strategy of blitzkrieg, which can be translated as “lightning war” (Epstein 2015, 125). This tactic generally implies the rapid advancement of overwhelming military power, frequently consisting of air forces, tanks, and infantry (Epstein 2015, 125). While there was a significant shortage of mechanized warfare units in the German army, the number advantage and the element of surprise allowed the Nazis to overwhelm the Polish forces (Epstein 2015, 126). Ultimately, the Third Reich and the Soviet Union occupied Poland within a month and annihilated any units that could potentially form a resistance. The vast success demonstrated the effectiveness of the chosen military strategies and reassured Hitler in the upcoming victory in the war.

Western Europe

The confidence of the German army grew exponentially as the Third Reich advanced further in Western Europe. The Nazi forces – also known as Wehrmacht – conquered Denmark and Norway within several months in the spring of 1940 and secured necessary material supplies (Epstein 2015, 130). A global war requires extensive funding and resources; therefore, German officials prioritized the strategic preparation before attacking the Soviet Union. As a result, Denmark was forced to provide large quantities of dairy products, meat, and other stock to Germany (Epstein 2015, 131). Having recovered the resources, the Third Reich continued its advances and occupied Belgium, Luxembourg, Holland, and France (Shepperd 1996, 7). France demonstrated significant military resilience and attempted to push back the Wehrmacht advances from the borders. Nevertheless, the experts argue that the superior German tactics, including blitzkrieg, exemplary coordination, and focusing on the weak points of the Allied armies, allowed the Third Reich to overcome France despite the gap in military technologies (Epstein 2015, 132). As a result, the Nazi army took control of most of Western Europe, recovered the resources, and was confident in the upcoming success of the war.

The last obstacle before attacking the Soviet Union was Britain. In the summer of 1940, Germany controlled the European land empire; however, the necessary allocation of military forces to the east borders would leave the west front vulnerable (Epstein 2015, 134). Therefore, Hitler decided to attack Britain first but significantly underestimated the military capabilities of the country. As a result, the under numbered Wehrmacht was pushed back by the British forces, and Hitler postponed the invasion of Britain on 17 September (Epstein 2015, 135). The Third Reich decided to focus on the Soviet Union invasion instead and allowed Britain to pressure the west front. Ultimately, the Nazi army achieved immense military success from the beginning of the war until summer 1940; however, consequent operations against Britain were the first sign of military focus deviation and transparently demonstrated the incorrect priorities of Wehrmacht.

The Soviet Union and Operation Barbarossa

The failure on the west front did not hinder Hitler’s ambitions and obsession with the lands of the Soviet Union. Having occupied most of Western Europe with relative ease, Hitler assumed that the Soviet Union was unable to develop a formidable resistance. Nevertheless, similar to the confrontation with Britain, the Third Reich encountered significant opposition, which might also indicate a lack of thorough military strategies (Epstein 2015, 136). Hitler proposed the invasion of the Soviet Union – commonly known as Operation Barbarossa – during the military conference on 3 February 1941 (Stahel 2009, 1). The plan included a short-term military campaign during the summer of 1941 to mitigate the obstacles of supply chains and unfavorable climate conditions (Stahel 2009, 2). As a result, Germany invaded the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, which was relatively surprising due to the implication of a two-front war for Germany (Epstein 2015, 137). Ultimately, it was also one of the reasons why Operation Barbarossa failed.

Nevertheless, the beginning of Operation Barbarossa was comparatively successful due to the rapid blitzkrieg advances. Furthermore, Stalin was continually rejecting the possibility of the German invasion and delaying the defensive preparations of the Red Army (Semenova & Winter 2019, 8). As a result, Wehrmacht achieved several definitive victories in Minsk and Smolensk, advancing closer to Moscow (Epstein 2015, 137). At the time, the German officials were confident in the success of the operation; however, the Red Army proved to be much more resilient contrary to Hitler’s expectations. As a result, the focus on the short-term campaign hindered the Nazi military strategies. Similar to the operations in Western Europe, Wehrmacht emphasized the rapid blitzkrieg as the core strategy and had no backup plan for a prolonged confrontation (Epstein 2015, 138). Ultimately, the lack of preparation divided the opinions of the German military generals on what to do next and transformed Operation Barbarossa into a full-scale war.

At present, the military tactic of Operation Barbarossa is a controversial topic, and many experts argue concerning the effectiveness of selected approaches. For instance, some historians criticize Hitler for missing the opportunity to take control of Moscow in 1941 and halting the blitzkrieg advances (Stahel 2009, 19). Similarly, some experts emphasize the extensive amount of structural flaws of the German army, including logistics, lack of technological research and mechanized units, and movement of the troops (Stahel 2009, 23). As a result, the conflict between the two superpowers evolved from a short-term military campaign, which was initially planned by Hitler, to a long-term war, which Germany was unprepared for (Stahel 2009, 23). The structural flaws, lack of preparation, and incorrect assessment of the adversary power significantly hindered the progress of the Nazi army and eventually led to its defeat.

Research Findings

Having examined the major principles of the Third Reich’s military strategies by reviewing relevant literature, it is critical to conduct a more thorough analysis by applying the analytical framework. As mentioned briefly before, regardless of the methods’ brutality, the German military campaign in 1939-1941 demonstrated the vast effectiveness of the chosen tactics. Consequently, the success of the first part of the war can be explained by the analytical framework of Nine Constants and Nine Variables. The former proposes four dimensions of success and five criteria for effectiveness (Platias & Koliopoulos 2010, 18-21). The latter comprises four elements of strategy and five common strategic variables. This methodology is critical to the current work and is presented below:

Four Dimensions of Success (Platias & Koliopoulos 2010, 18-21):

  • International environment assessment;
  • Identification of the ends;
  • Allocation of resources;
  • Domestic & international legitimacy.

Five Criteria for Effectiveness (Platias & Koliopoulos 2010, 18-21):

  • External fit;
  • Relation between means and ends;
  • Efficiency;
  • Internal coherence;
  • Durability to mistakes.

Four Elements of Strategy (Yarger 2006, 107-111):

  • Means;
  • Ways;
  • Ends;
  • Risk.

Five Common Strategic Variables:

  • Geography;
  • History;
  • Culture;
  • Economics;
  • Governmental systems.

According to the hypothesis, the German military generals comprehensively evaluated the Nine Variables of strategy, which allowed them to undertake successful missions in Western Europe in 1939-1941. However, the consequent confrontation with Britain and the Soviet Union demonstrated the inability of the German army to accurately assess and implement the Nine Constants. Ultimately, the current paper focuses on the two periods of World War II, namely, from 1 September 1939 to summer 1940 and from summer 1940 to 1942, and evaluates the effectiveness of the implemented military strategies based on the proposed analytical framework.

Nine Variables and Early Stages of World War II

As mentioned briefly before, the nine variables concern the elements of strategy and strategic variables. According to Art Lykke, the former regards objectives, courses of action, resources, and risks (Yarger 2006, 111). On the other hand, strategic variables concern external factors, including geography, history, culture, economics, and politics, which must also be taken into consideration for military planning. Arguably, the Nazi army utilized both frameworks to their advantage, which allowed them to achieve immense military success in the period from 1 September 1939 until the end of spring 1940.

Elements of Strategy

Regardless of the situation, the elements of strategy, such as objectives, courses of action, resources, and risks, constitute the core part of the military approach. Similar to any operation, objectives and instruments are the core factors of planning that determine the effectiveness of the chosen framework. In the case of World War II, Germany utilized the said principles to its advantage and ensured early success in the war.


Despite the cruelty of the implemented approaches, Hitler’s objectives were relatively simple-minded. The primary purposes of World War II were to expand the German territories through war, annihilate people of lower statuses, such as Jews and Slavs, and ensure “Lebensraum” (Epstein 2015, 123). Lebensraum – which can be translated as “living space” – was the euphemism for German global domination and the prevalence of Aryans in Europe (Epstein 2015, 123). Furthermore, several experts argue that Hitler’s objectives also included the establishment of superior imperial power, similar to the practices achieved by other European countries before (Epstein 2015, 144). Ultimately, the ambitious goals of the German government and the prevalence of nationalism movements in the country implied the notorious brutality of the soldiers. The declared objectives significantly assisted Hitler in creating an army particularly cruel to people of lower statuses and races, which, in turn, increased the efficiency of blitzkrieg.


Consequently, instruments constitute another strategic element, which is crucial to warfare. According to Lykke, this factor – which is also known as ways, strategic concepts, or courses of action – determines how the military power achieves its objectives (Yarger 2006, 111). In the case of the German advancement in Western Europe, the primary instrument was the military strategy of blitzkrieg. As mentioned before, this concept generally refers to the rapid advancement of combined military forces on the enemy territory to strike a decisive blow to vital strategic positions. The speed of the strategy allowed the Nazi forces to penetrate the adversaries’ defenses without enabling them to mobilize their troops. Furthermore, blitzkrieg combined with the cruelty of the German soldiers (specifically against Poland and the Soviet Union) created a sense of terror and inflicted panic in the enemy’s forces. As a result, this strategy allowed Germany to occupy most of Western Europe within months and was one of the core reasons for Germany’s early success in the war.


Furthermore, Germany implemented an intelligent strategy of supply recovery via both occupation and diplomacy. At the time, Germany was still receiving economic support from the Soviet Union as a part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Additionally, the occupation of Denmark and Norway allowed Germany to recover the provision and gain additional resources. According to the framework of nine variables, means refer to both tangible and intangible resources (Yarger 2006, 111). From these considerations, Germany successfully implemented the vital part of strategic elements and ensured that it had the necessary resources to continue the war. Furthermore, the prior success in Poland had significantly increased the confidence of the German army and, specifically, Hitler. As a result, the intangible resources, such as victorious achievement and trust in the just cause of the Nazi racist doctrine, also positively influenced the effectiveness of the chosen strategies.


Among the four elements of strategy, risks are arguably the weakest point of the German military tactics. Many operations, including blitzkrieg in Western Europe or warfare at the British coastline, were perilous maneuvers. While the strategies were generally successful in 1939-1941, Hitler frequently did underestimate his adversaries and ignored the necessity of backup plans. For instance, the vast emphasis on blitzkrieg in Western Europe was ultimately an effective strategy; however, Germany had no reliable support strategy in case it failed. It was particularly noticeable in the confrontation with the Allied forces in France. Namely, the combined forces of France, Britain, and Belgium had a technological advantage and parity in numbers; therefore, the military strength between the Allied forces and Germany was relatively equal (Epstein 2015, 132). Ultimately, the risky blitzkrieg and superior territorial knowledge allowed the Nazi armies to occupy France; however, Germany could have been dragged into a prolonged conflict had the Allied forces better strategies and higher morale,

Elements of Strategy Overview

As seen from the evaluation, Germany successfully implemented objectives, means, and resources in its military strategies. The three elements positively influenced the effectiveness of the approach and designated the success of the country in the early stages of the war. Furthermore, while risks were arguably the weakest point of Hitler’s strategies, the implementation of blitzkrieg combined with the ferocity of the German troops had not failed in the period from 1939 to summer 1940. Therefore, the lack of backup plans was mitigated by the overwhelming strength of the military strategies and allowed Germany to occupy most of Western Europe within nine months.

Nine Constants and Failure of Wehrmacht

Having discussed the impact of nine variables on Germany’s success in the first part of World War II, it is essential to examine the factors that led to failure in the consequent conflicts. As mentioned before, Germany’s advances were significantly obstructed by Britain and the Soviet Union from the summer of 1940 to 1942. The nine constants, specifically, incorrect assessment of risks and low strategic resiliency, can explain the failure of the military strategies.

Dimensions of Success

Platias and Koliopoulos emphasize four primary dimensions of success, and, arguably, international environment assessment and incorrect allocation of resources were the core miscalculations of the Nazi army. The downfall of Wehrmacht began in the summer of 1940 due to the incorrect evaluation of British forces and Hitler’s unsubstantiated determination. The German general was confident that Britain would surrender in a similar manner to other countries in Western Europe and did not allocate a sufficient quantity of troops and mechanized units (Epstein 2015, 135). The historians remark that Hitler was obsessive with the lands of the Soviet Union and annihilation of Slavs and wanted to save as much military power as possible before commencing warfare on the east front (Epstein 2015, 134). According to Platias and Koliopoulos (2010, 19), this strategy is a classic example of grand strategy failure due to incorrect assessment of threats and the resources needed for success. Ultimately, the German government failed to evaluate the international environment accurately, which led to failure on the west front in the summer of 1940.

Consequently, the German government repeated these mistakes on the east front as well. While the Nazi army led relatively successful military operations from 22 June 1941 to the end of summer 1941 due to the element of surprise, the drawbacks of the strategy became transparent in autumn 1941. The failure of the initial blitzkrieg operation to occupy the Soviet Union split Germany between the confrontation on the west and east fronts. In other words, Germany did not finish their advancement in Britain and decided to occupy the Soviet Union first; however, the Soviet Union was much more resilient, contrary to Hitler’s expectations. As a result, the incorrect assessment of military power, threats, and resources made Germany wage wars on two fronts in a prolonged conflict, which the Nazi armies were unprepared for.

Identification of Ends and Domestic Legitimacy

Nevertheless, it is vital to mention that Germany implemented the other two dimensions of success, such as identification of ends and domestic and international legitimacy, considerably well. The German government had clear objectives and identified the means to achieve them while also sustaining the propaganda on the domestic level to receive support from the society. Nevertheless, despite the relative success in these domains, the incorrect assessment of the international environment and overconfidence led to failures on both west and east fronts from summer 1940 to 1942.

Five Criteria for Effectiveness

Consequently, Platias and Koliopoulos emphasize five criteria for effectiveness, which can be used to evaluate the grand military strategy. Among the factors, including external fit, the relation between means and ends, efficiency, internal coherence, and durability to mistakes, the former is subjectively the weakest point of Germany’s strategies (Platias & Koliopoulos 2010, 20). Therefore, it is critical to conduct a thorough analysis of the strategic resilience of the Nazi army to evaluate the effectiveness of the chosen military approach.

External Fit

External fit generally refers to the political place of the military power in the international arena. While the domestic political environment was relatively beneficial for Germany’s military tactics due to active Nazi propaganda, the cooperation of Britain, the Soviet Union, and, consequently, the United States significantly hindered Hitler’s plans. In other words, Germany had failed to accurately assess the international political environment, participating in combat on both west and east fronts, while neglecting the threats from the United States. In this sense, Germany did not implement the external fit criterion accurately.

Relation Between Means and Ends

Consequently, the relation between means and ends regards the correlation between objectives and resources. As mentioned briefly before, initial Germany’s mistake in this regard was to significantly underestimate the British military power, essentially allowing them to pressure the west front. Hitler allocated few resources for the British invasion, which, in turn, separated the warfare into two fronts and eventually led the Nazi armies to defeat (Epstein 2015, 135). According to Platias & Koliopoulos (2010, 20), it is a classic example of overextension – a common strategic failure, where the capabilities of the selected armies do not match the political commitments. In other words, Germany had failed the correctly assess the military strength of Britain and the Soviet Union, which led to unfavorable outcomes.


Efficiency is the third criterion of military strategies and determines the cost-benefit advantages of the selected approach. One of the reasons for blitzkrieg’s success was the rapid advancement, which resulted in short military campaigns and decisive victories. Nevertheless, blitzkrieg is not a perfect strategy, specifically, due to the high costs of the approach (Epstein 2015, 132). For instance, during the occupation of France, Germany lost approximately 30% of its aviation (Epstein 2015, 132). As a result, the strategy was highly successful since Germany was able to overwhelm the Allied forces in France despite the parity in numbers. However, the cost-benefit efficiency of blitzkrieg has its disadvantages, and the campaign could have failed had the Allied forces been more coordinated.

Internal Coherence

The fourth criterion for the effectiveness of military strategies is internal coherence, and it generally refers to the structural integrity of warfare. The failures of Germany in regard to this criterion are most evident after the initial attacks of Operation Barbarossa. After the German generals acknowledged the endurance of the Red Army, they had to rebuild the supply chains and structural movement (Stahel 2009, 23). Ultimately, Hitler planned to overwhelm the Soviet Union in one short-term campaign, and the failure to do so significantly damaged the internal coherence of the strategy.

Strategic Resilience

As mentioned before, most of the German maneuvers were associated with high risks while paying little consideration to backup plans. In this sense, the strategic resilience of the military campaign was close to zero, and any deviation from the proposed plan would inflict severe human and financial losses. After the initiation of Operation Barbarossa, Germany emphasized rapid blitzkrieg as the core and only strategy; thus, the Nazi generals were not prepared for a prolonged conflict (Stahel 2009, 24). Furthermore, the deviation from the initial plan inflicted panic among the German officials and significantly hindered the consequent advancement into the territories of the Soviet Union (Stahel 2009, 24). This period of confusion allowed the Red Army to mobilize the troops and organize fortified defenses, which ultimately stopped Hitler’s war of annihilation. As a result, while Germany was relatively successful in regard to other criteria of effectiveness, strategic resilience was a massive miscalculation, which, arguably, led the Nazi forces to defeat in 1945.


Based on the analytical framework, the results confirmed the proposed tentative hypothesis. The analysis proved that the German army followed the principles of strategic decision-making, including the emphasis on means, ways, objectives, and risks, during the 1939-1941 period. Furthermore, the extensive territorial awareness and structural propaganda increased the efficiency of blitzkrieg and allowed Germany to achieve a number of decisive victories in Western Europe. However, Hitler and the Nazi generals inappropriately evaluated the nine constants of strategic decision-making, which led to a series of failures both on the west and east fronts from summer 1940 until 1942. The analysis demonstrated that the lack of strategic resilience was one of the core flaws of the German military tactics and eventually led to the defeat of the Nazi forces in 1945. Therefore, the conducted analysis confirms the validity of the proposed tentative hypothesis.


The current paper discussed the early stages of World War II from the perspective of the analytical framework of nine constants and nine variables. The analysis transparently demonstrated the effectiveness of the German military strategies from 1 September 1939 to summer 1940, indicating the awareness of the generals concerning means, ways, objectives, and risks of the war. Consequently, the examination of nine constants also revealed some of the miscalculations of Hitler and Nazi generals regarding resource allocation and inaccurate evaluation of the international environment. Arguably, these factors significantly obstructed the military campaign in 1940-1942 and eventually led to the defeat of Nazi forces in 1945. The results of the analytical framework application align with the generally accepted assessment of Germany and World War II, thus, proving its significance. Ultimately, the proposed analytical framework was highly effective in evaluating the German military strategies in the period of 1939-1942.


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Platias, Athanassios and Constantinous Koliopoulos. 2010. “Chapter 1: Grand Strategy: A Framework for Analysis.” In Thucydides on Strategy, 1-21. London: Hurst.

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