December 31, 2004

Why did Germans outfight Americans, man for man, in 1944-45?

Bloggers like Brad DeLong are up in arms that British war historian Max Hastings has a new book out making the point that the outgunned German army fought very well after Normandy.

The only problem is that Hastings is right.

The evolutionary psychologists Richerson and Boyd have written extensively about the reasons for the slightly greater man-for-man effectiveness of German soldiers in WWII (all else being equal, according to Dupuy, 100 German soldiers were roughly equivalent to 120 British or American soldiers).

This is not to denigrate the Yanks and Brits, who fought awfully well, especially compared to, say, the Italians. It's just when compared to the Germans that noticeable differences are apparent. It's like saying that Arnold Palmer wasn't quite as good a golfer as Jack Nicklaus: undeniable, but hardly an insult to Arnie. It's the same reason it's asinine to feel superior to the French for only going 1-2 against the Germans from 1870-1940.

Richerson and Boyd largely attribute the difference to the paradoxical fact that relationships between officers and enlisted men in the WWII German army were more egalitarian (and even quasi-democratic) than in the American army. You'll note that after Eisenhower, most of the Presidents for the next three decades were ex-Navy officers -- it's largely forgotten today in the nostalgic glow with which all aspects of the Greatest Generation are bathed, but enlisted US Army soldiers tended to return from WWII with much more resentment of stuck-up Army officers than Navy sailors came back with resentment of we're-all-in-this-together-boys Navy officers.

As evolutionary psychologists, Richerson and Boyd argue that the German army did a better job of reproducing the conditions conducive to small group cohesion and espirit de corps among hunting and raiding parties during the "era of evolutionary adaptiveness." One notoriously self-destructive technique used by the American army in WWII and Vietnam was to rotate new men into established units as individuals. The Germans, in contrast, had men who trained together fight together, and thus they stuck with their platoon mates better than the randomly assembled American units did.

There is no automatic reason a dictatorship should be better than a democracy at organizing an army in this more effective fashion. It was just an accident of history, partly having to do with Germany losing WWI and thus being more serious about reform, partly with the Versailles Treaty's limitation of the new German army to 100,000 men (so most of the enlisted men between 1919-1933 were seen by the high command not as cannon fodder but as officers-in-waiting, who would move up to officers when the hated Versailles limitation was overthrown), and partly because of Hitler's lower-middle class animus against the old aristocracy that wouldn't let him become an officer despite his four years of courageous service in WWI.

The U.S. Army learned a lot from having to fight the Germans and improved in the decades afterwards.

On the other hand, you could argue that an ideologically radical autocracy, like Hitler's (or Napoleon's), could be better at rooting out aristocratic mindsets among the officer class than would a more easy-going society with a representative government.

Certainly, Napoleon's troops tended to show higher espirit de corps than did the enlisted men from the aristocratic parliamentary country of Britain, in part precisely because Napoleon favored careers open to talent, allowing obscure soldiers to rise through their own genius to become Marshals.

Similarly, after Stalin murdered much of the established talent in the Soviet Union in 1937-1938, he had to become very open to promoting talents like Zhukov and Ustinov just to survive. Of course, over time a new aristocracy develops (e.g., Napoleon promoted his siblings to be submonarchs under him), and the late Soviet-style sclerosis sets in if the autocracy endures. So, a democracy is likely to have a better track record for meritocracy in the long run, but in the short run a ruthless autocrat can unleash a huge amount of untapped energy in his country, which helps explains how bad guys like Napoleon, Hitler, and Stalin can prove so frightening.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

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