The Soviets compensated by tossing manpower and womanpower as much as possible at industrial problems. There were virtually no safety regulations in Soviet plants at all: high catwalks over molten metal without any guardrails on either side. They mass-produced weapons that were rough and ready, easy to mass-produce, maintain, and replace once they had been destroyed. Why spend a lot of time on it? The Soviets realized that when a tank went into combat it probably had the average lifespan of two or three days against the Germans. So how many bells and whistles do you really want to load onto that thing? And by and large there were no bells and whistles. They were designs that they liked and that they knew were good and they rolled them into victory, especially the T-34 tank, the best tank in the world in 1941. In its various upgrades it managed to remain competitive until the very end of the war. I think that’s the Soviet story.
Fascist powers were wedded to a kind of smash-and-grab economics. They would conquer a territory, enslave much of its inhabitants, take all of the raw materials, ship them back to Germany or use them on site. Both [the Japanese and German] economies worked on slave labor. If World War II had any beneficial impacts at all, it’s that it proved to the world that you cannot run a modern economy on slave labor. You have to have workers who are, if not eager, at least accepting of being at their post. Even the simplest machine requires some skill to use. The worker has to have some education, has to be fairly well fed, fairly well treated, perhaps the possibility of a promotion. I worked drill presses for three summers earlier in my life, and I did enough factory work to know that it is really tough stuff. Ill-fed slave labor chained to their drill presses aren’t going to get it done. I think that’s the story of the Fascist powers.
On the German side, they had wonderful designs. The Germans were magnificent engineers and they had always had that precision engineer reputation. In World War II I think they would have been better off sticking to a few basic designs and then mass-producing them as much as they could. They were always after the next prototype. In the course of the war, the Germans started with the Panzer I and II. The Panzer I had a couple of machine guns on it, not even a main gun. They built the Panzer III, the Panzer IV, the Panzer V (a good tank, the Panther), and then the Panzer VI (the famous behemoth, the Tiger). Six major designs. Throw in some other designs, the captured Czech tank that they got early before the war when they seized Czechoslovakia, the Panzer 38(t). And there are various others. By and large, the American Army fought the war with the Sherman. So while the Germans were going through those five or six major designs, the U.S. Army relied pretty much on the same tank, the M4 Sherman. It was lighter than the German tanks by the end of the war, but it could be mass-produced, it could be shipped to Europe (heavier tanks probably couldn’t have been in great quantities), and it had its own technology (the geo-synchronized turret that allowed the gun to be trained on the target even if the tank was moving). So when you throw all that stuff together, I think each of the powers had its own challenges.
My sense is that even if the Germans ran their war better, ran their economy better, didn’t try to enslave all the people they conquered, they would still have a hard time winning World War II. They were fighting a global war against powers with vastly superior resources, especially after 1941, with the Soviets in the east and where Hitler has declared war on the United States. At that point I think anything short of inventing a ray gun of some sort, or inventing nuclear weapons on their own, it’s pretty hard for me to imagine a German victory in World War II.
What do you think about Albert Speer’s so-called ‘armament miracle’?
Speer did a lot of things that any smart organizational head would do. He rationalized (in the economic sense in which smaller firms are absorbed by larger firms), he stopped the constant production of prototypes, and he gave favored contracts to larger firms. Those are all interesting and those are all worthy. At the same time we have to be honest: something Speer also did was greatly increase the use of slave labor. That was one of the reasons why he was put on the docket at Nuremberg. It wasn’t because he was just generally not a nice guy, but the economy was wedded to slave labor as virtually all of German manpower was becoming increasingly older and increasingly younger and increasingly being sent to the Front. Those factories are not going to run without slave labor in gigantic underground facilities. So if you want a picture of the German economy and the armament miracle of ‘43-’44, think of a subterranean factory at Mittelbau, the Dora factory: tens of thousands of slave laborers, like emaciated skeletons, practically chained to their drill presses banging out parts for one obsolete Me. 109 after the other. That’s the picture at the end of the war. I have nothing good to say about Albert Speer. There was rationalization and he did do a lot of sensible things economically, but once you are wedded to a regime that immoral it’s really hard to stay clean.
What were the lasting impacts of the U.S. war economy on the U.S. economy?
I think by and large the rationalization of the U.S. economy in 1940 led to the postwar economy of fewer and fewer small firms, fewer and fewer mom and pop stores, fewer and fewer family farms. It didn’t look obvious in the 1950s, but it looks pretty obvious today. We rationalized and realized there were extremely efficient ways to grow our food, make our clothing, and market goods and services. The end result is still a standard of living that is the envy of the world. Having rationalized family farms, more and more people seem to be doing what they wish to do in America, and when they have the chance to leave the farms and do other things with their lives, leave small towns and head to the cities, they do so. I think in some sense the rationalization of the economy gave birth to massive levels of urbanization and internal migration. Once people had begun working for themselves, women and African-Americans who were able to get some decent jobs in World War II, they were hardly willing to go back to sharecropping (in the case of African-Americans) if they could help it. Many of them didn’t, and so you had a vast internal migration that in many ways the creation of Modern America.
This article by Nicholas Varangis originally appeared on Warfare History Network and first appeared on TNI in August 2017.
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