Was Nazi War Production Inefficient?

‘Nazi War Production in the Years 1939–45 was Essentially Inefficient.’
How Far Do You Agree with This View?

Note: One of my duties in the various places where I teach is to show students how to write essays – something most young people are not nowadays taught to do. What I like to do in class is to choose a question at random, discuss possible approaches, and then dictate an answer one paragraph at a time. Some of these answers are very short. Some are just notes. Some amount to small dissertations. In this latter case, the students take turns at looking on-line for the information we decide is needed. It they cannot find it, I show them how to change the structure of what has already been written, or to strike out in a new direction.

It is a “writing masterclass” approach that makes use of my own strengths, and is often a welcome alternative to formal teaching. It fills up a long morning session. Everyone learns something, and the more attentive will improve their final grades by at least one step.

Here is an example of the finished product. Do not take it as a statement of personal opinion. It is an answer produced for a specific question, and it bears in mind what a possibly unknown examiner will appreciate, and what can be written to incorporate the sources found in class. SIG

PS – If anyone wants to engage my services as a teacher of these skills, please click on the image to the left. Though they are my niche subjects, Greek and Latin are not my exclusive focus as a teacher. I do much else besides.


Germany began the Second World War at a structural disadvantage. Compared with Britain and the Allies, it had limited sources of oil, iron, rubber and other vital raw materials. In the previous war, it had partly offset the British naval blockade by importing through Denmark and Holland. In this war, it conquered those countries, and they were subject to the same tight blockade.

Some steps were taken to remedy this disadvantage by developing new technologies that allowed oil to be extracted from coal and steel to be made from inferior ores. However, initial direction of the war economy was given to Herman Goering, who was idle and incompetent and a fantasist. In 1944, for example, he suggested to Albert Speer that railway engines could be made from concrete. In 1940, he was replaced by Fritz Todt, another poor organiser.

Add to this the essentially chaotic nature of Nazi rule. The German civil service was politicised, and numerous competing bureaucracies were created. These had no detailed control, but were told to “work towards the Fuhrer” – that is, to guess what Hitler might want and try to do it. This was a good system for carrying through the internal revolution of the 1930s, but no good for creating and managing a war economy capable of beating Britain, America and Russia.

In this sense, I agree with the statement in the question. But there is another way to look at the question. A system is ultimately efficient or inefficient according to the purpose for which it exists. What were the purposes of Nazi war production?

In 1939, Britain switched to a centrally-controlled total war economy. For the British, this would be a repeat of the Great War. Civilian production was severely limited. Rationing was introduced. The idea was to turn the British economy into a tap pouring out unlimited numbers of tanks, aeroplanes and shells for a new Western Front. This was achieved with impressive results.

German strategy, on the other hand, centred on the blitzkrieg – a sudden and overwhelming stab with limited but adequate resources. This worked very well in 1939 against Poland, and in 1940 against Norway, Holland, Belgium and France. By 1941, Germany was master of most of Europe, without formal rationing of food and with continued production of Dresden china and clocks.

The system could have worked well against Russia. Had the invasion started in April rather than in June 1941, the Germans could have taken Moscow and Leningrad. The Soviet State would have been shattered and in little position to start fighting back from remote positions in Central Asia. Sadly for Germany, Hitler felt obliged to help Mussolini out in Greece, and the invasion of Russia was begun just too late.

From 1942, the Germans realised that blitzkrieg war was no longer appropriate, and began copying the British model of economic management. Albert Speer was put in charge of this. He turned the whole area of occupied Europe into an early version of the European Union, and made lavish use of women and slave labour in his new factories. Here are some figures to show his success:

1941194219431944
Tanks3,7366,05812,22819,665
Combat aircraft8,72912,01119,24134,614

With Speer in charge, German war production continued to rise till just a few months before the end of the War – despite British and American carpet bombing of German industrial centres. This never matched British, let alone American or Soviet production. But, after Stalingrad, Germany was on the defensive, and defence needs fewer resources than attack.

It might have been enough to force the Allies to negotiate. The plan was to make Western Europe impregnable to invasion from Britain, and to disrupt British and American preparations with bombing and rocket attacks, while holding back the Russian advance. The problem was that the rockets were not available in sufficient numbers while they might have made a difference. So too the jet aircraft and other weapons the Germans were inventing. Once the D Day Landings had poked a hole in the Western defences, the structural disadvantages mentioned above made Germany’s defeat inevitable.

To conclude, Nazi war production was neither “efficient” nor “inefficient.” It was largely adequate for its purpose in the two periods of the war. The blitzkrieg model failed for the exogenous bad luck of an attack on Russia too late in the season. The later model failed because the new weapons that might have made a difference were developed too late to make that difference. In the final analysis, war is a matter of luck, and the Germans were unlucky.

Points to note: Pick on the meaning of “efficiency.” Divide the German war effort into two periods. Memorise the statistics for tank and aeroplane production. If not this, be aware that production “rose substantially after Speet took over.” Facts are important as supports for analysis. But you will gain few marks simply from being able to reproduce tables of statistics. Emphasise the exogenous – ie external – factor of luck. Emphasise that the Germans were not obviously headed for total defeat until the middle of 1944.