If you don't learn from your mistakes, you're doomed to repeat them. That was exactly the concern of the German generals at the turn of the year 1939/40. The Wehrmacht had defeated Poland to the east with unexpected speed, and Commander-in-Chief Adolf Hitler was now pushing for a quick strike in the west.
But his military experts put the brakes on: In addition to the naturally worse weather in the winter months, they were particularly concerned that a situation similar to that at the beginning of the First World War could occur again. At that time the artillerymen of the imperial army fired six times as much ammunition as planned. The stocks, calculated for six months to a year, were therefore already running out in September and October 1914.
The leadership of the Wehrmacht feared the same for a war in the west. At least the postponement of the attack date to spring 1940 gave the industry time to fill up the magazines. But that would not be enough for the foreseeable future.
In the autumn of 1914, all armaments factories had switched to production in a three-shift system, and a specially created department in the Prussian Ministry of War was responsible for distributing the necessary raw materials. The Third Reich also needed something similar, economic mobilization, in order to be able to continue the war that had begun.
The administration responsible since August 1936 for making Germany “armed” through economic self-sufficiency and the accelerated expansion of the armaments industry, the authority for the four-year plan under Hermann Göring, had proved incapable. In the Polish campaign, the Wehrmacht had used about 4,500 tons of powder. But the production of 7,000 tons planned by Goering's officials in October 1939 was clearly missed with only 4,200 tons.
Even the promised increase to 10,000 tons per month within the next six months will not be achieved in the foreseeable future. In any case, the Wehrmacht High Command's demand for supplies was 20,000 tons a month - a good twice as much as the armaments industry had ever managed in the First World War.
At the turn of the year 1939/40, the "General Inspector for German Roads" Fritz Todt, who was also "General Plenipotentiary for the Regulation of the Construction Industry", proved to be particularly adept in the distribution struggles for the always scarce resources of material, but also of manpower . He defended his construction projects against the Wehrmacht's demands for discontinuation; at the same time his apparatus, the Organization Todt, took over many military construction projects.
In order to get the shortage under control, Hitler founded a new ministry on March 17, 1940, which was to be responsible for all armament issues from then on. From the outset, a coordination task was assigned to this administration: "In order to bring together all the bodies active in the manufacture of weapons and ammunition in the Greater German Reich and in the General Government for the occupied Polish territories for the highest performance," the dictator appointed the convinced National Socialist Todt as Reich Minister.
The trained civil engineer, who joined the NSDAP on January 5, 1923, had proven himself in party and state functions since Hitler came to power in 1933: He had put his stamp on both the construction of the Reich autobahn and the fortification programs for the East and West Walls. He should now also create in the armaments industry.
The dictator gave him a free hand. A “First Executive Order” followed three days after the decree on the formation of the Ministry of Armaments. Todt was "authorized to make all arrangements that are necessary to fulfill his duties". All responsible authorities are "bound" by his instructions.
However, this was a typical regulation in the “Führerstaat”: Hitler often gave competing officers conflicting powers and let them do their thing. Only in the event of a conflict did he intervene and make decisions, often at random. His method of rule left no room for factual compromise at the highest level.
Despite rejection by the Wehrmacht bureaucracy, Todt quickly pushed back the Army Weapons Office's claim to leadership in tank and ammunition production. He gave companies and their "managers" more decision-making power; the distribution of orders was ordered, engineers raised power reserves in the factories, and financial incentives rewarded increased production.
But Todt's measures were limited almost exclusively to army armaments. Because Hermann Goering, who, in addition to being responsible for the Four-Year Plan, was also Commander-in-Chief of the Air Force, defended Hitler's area of aircraft armament against the interventions of the new minister.
In addition, the once again unexpectedly rapid victories in Norway and especially against France apparently took the explosiveness out of the armaments problem: in the second half of 1940 and early 1941 it was mainly the Luftwaffe that fought, but hardly the army. And because his general staff conceived the attack on the Soviet Union, which had been concretely prepared since December 1940, as a "lightning war" from the outset, based on the experience of the Polish and Western campaigns, the armaments efficiency achieved seemed to be sufficient; Overcapacities were allocated to the Luftwaffe and the Navy.
A "lightning victory" against the Soviet Union proved to be an illusion after just a few weeks, and in early December 1941 the Red Army's winter offensive made it clear that far more supplies would be needed than previously calculated. Todt had failed; whether it was in itself or in the polycratic Third Reich remained open.
In light of this, his death in a plane crash not far from the Führer's headquarters at Wolf's Lair on February 8, 1942 sparked rumors. Before that, Todt had argued with Hitler, who dismissed his warning that Germany could not win a war against the Soviet Union and the United States at the same time. Albert Speer, Hitler's architect and perhaps his only friend, decided not to climb into Todt's machine just before take-off.
And Speer of all people became the successor to the armaments minister who had died in the accident. Formally equipped with the same powers, he was able to exert greater assertiveness because of his closeness to Hitler. In the two and a half years that followed, up to the autumn of 1944, the efficiency of industrial production increased considerably. There was also talk of the German “armaments miracle”.
There were several reasons for this. In fact, Speer and his staff of young, well-trained technocrats were responsible for many simplifications in mass production, such as the forced typing of components and weapons. At the same time, the new minister benefited from rationalization measures that Todt had initiated, but which simply took time. In order to illustrate the success of his measures, Speer finally resorted to a statistical trick and chose the particularly bad January 1942 as a reference point for the production figures.
First he was mainly army and then from 1943 navy, i.e. submarine armaments minister; the Luftwaffe, however, continued to organize its supplies on its own responsibility and with little efficiency. It was not until March 1, 1944 that the establishment of the "Jägerstab" (Jägerstabes) handed over the leadership to the Ministry of Armament.
In spite of all efficiency: The Third Reich, including all the industrial capacities in the occupied countries of Europe, could not even come close to keeping up with the economic performance of the USA alone. Added to this was the power of Great Britain, including the "long workbench" in Canada, India and other colonies, as well as the forced economy system in the Stalinist USSR. 1945 showed that wars are either decided quickly on the battlefield - or by economic power. At least, unless one of the two sides gets tired of fighting first.
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