America, Russia, Britain, and Germany: Second World War Mobilisation in Global Perspective

Editorial Note: On 22-23 June 2017, the Second World War Research Group held its annual conference on the theme of ‘When East meets West: The Second World War in Global Perspective’. Over the coming weeks, we will be posting entries written by some of the conference’s presenters.


Dr Werner is a Post-Doctoral Researcher at the Leibniz University Hannover. He holds a PhD from the University of Leipzig and his research interests are German history in the 20th century, regional and social history, and comparing studies on war mobilisation. His current project focusses on spatial and regional planning in Germany from the 1930s to the 1960s.

The ability to mobilise economic, social, and human resources has always been crucial to society’s capability to win a war. In the historiography, ‘mobilisation’ is usually understood as a top-down process with a clear hierarchy of order, command, and obedience. I would argue that our understanding of mobilisation should be more complex. The ability to mobilise entire societies for war has always been a multi-layered process, and we should discuss perspectives to integrate social, cultural, and political aspects of mobilisation into a broader, more precise picture of the Second World War. Comparing different players and their abilities – and limitations – to mobilise men and resources can help us to find this picture.

Mobilisation includes all a regime’s measures to convince players who own strategic resources that they should put these resources at the disposal of the war effort. Such measures aim at players on the central, regional, and local level. Mobilisation can thus be analysed as a complex of social dynamics including communication processes, feedback from the regions, and a promise of participation. Additionally, war mobilisation had been used to legitimise the political and social conditions of warring societies.

 Far from claiming to be complete, my argument focuses on two aspects of mobilisation during the Second World War: First, the personal-institutional dynamics of centralising impulses, and second, the strategies to integrate spaces and to motivate regional players.

To understand the first aspect, the personal-institutional dynamics of centralising impulses, we should concentrate on the conflicting impacts of centralisation. All warring countries created institutions to centralise and coordinate the war effort. However, how effective were the measures to centralise social and economic control? How did the objects of these measures react and subsequently interact both with higher authorities as well as among themselves? This seems the crucial question of war mobilisation when we define it as a social and communicative process.

The governments of the United States, the Soviet Union, and Germany reacted to mobilisation problems spontaneously by creating new institutions. The authority of these new committees depended on the personal trust of the respective political leader to single persons. In the different countries, appointed ‘mobilizers’ all had the confidence of their leaders in a decisive moment. As a result, they all earned authority in newly created institutions to push the war efforts – in Germany Fritz Todt and especially his successor Albert Speer, Donald Nelson and James Byrnes in the United States, and Nikolai Voznesensky in the Soviet Union.

 The success of these ‘mobilizers’ relied on their ability to undermine traditional – or at least established – administrative competencies by ignoring the danger of disrupting the administration’s ability properly to function on a long-term basis. Moreover, they expanded their influence by relying on the same principle of personal trust and administrative circumventing that was the basis of their position. Finally, they often depended on fragile personal trust and the ability to overrule or circumvent existing institutions without destroying them.

 We can see that ad-hoc measures of war mobilisation were a common phenomenon throughout all the political systems. Its effectiveness depended on its respective ability to reach out for regional players who had to transform the – sometimes contradicting – orders into practical politics.

 This leads us to the second aspect, the strategies to integrate spaces and to motivate regional players. The importance of regional players for the economic transformation and the war effort in the Second World War was key for all belligerent countries. While, for instance, the US government searched for incentives for smaller companies to engage in war production, initiatives of imaginative regional entrepreneurs proved crucial. In York, Pennsylvania, members of the local Manufacturers Association developed the ‘York Plan’ in the fall of 1940. Under this plan, smaller local companies organised their workforce, tools, and material to meet large production orders and government contracts. No doubt, the prospect of impressive margins often motivated this kind of grassroots initiative. However, the ability to provoke constructive participation in different regions was an essential part of war mobilisation.

 For the British Empire, preserving and developing the infrastructure, foremost the securing of ship routes, under war conditions, was crucial. Integrating the entire Empire into the British war effort depended on reliable overseas players. These examples bring the need to incorporate spaces to our attention. It was an essential part of war mobilisation to cover distances, to motivate far away players, and to inspire trust or obedience over thousands of kilometres – or miles.

 The term ‘polyocracy’ – meaning ‘rule by many’ – long dominated the academic discussion of the German war mobilisation. It focussed on the subversive and decomposing aspects of Hitler’s regime for the state and its limited ability to organise war mobilisation. Especially the regional and local authorities in Nazi Germany were seen as mere henchmen without any independent input into the German war effort. Recent studies put greater stress on the importance of lower authorities up to the point of a relative independence inside the framework that was set by the central government. Both the regional party leaders – Gauleiter – as well as the regional administrative officials often developed imaginative measures to strengthen the German war capability, even during the ‘total war’ after 1943.

 The district administrations in Germany – or Gaue – that replaced the German federalism in 1933 based on the regional party structures functioned as effective structures for mobilisation. This argument does not neglect the fact of competing persons, institutions, and authorities in Nazi Germany. However, we should carefully consider both the destructive and the mobilising aspects of Nazi power struggles. Central and regional functionaries could serve Hitler willingly while simultaneously expanding their range of power. For example, by offering regional authorities, entrepreneurs, and military officers limited influence, the Armament Ministry under Albert Speer could bind them persistently to the highly centralised mobilisation plans. Thereby the ministry guaranteed the mobilisation and its central role in it at the same time up to the spring of 1945.

In the last ten years, historians have discussed the relevance of the contemporary term Volksgemeinschaft– meaning ‘community of the people’ – as an analytical concept. It could – as supporters of this approach argue – explain the ‘release of social thrust’ in Nazi Germany like no other term. The mixture of social promises and the prospect of prosperity motivated and mobilised millions of ordinary Germans to accept the expulsion and exclusion of ‘enemies of the people’ and to fight a murderous war against the world.

Starting from this observation, Nicolas Stargardt in his book The German War draws a picture of a German war society that could mobilise itself even under extremely unfavourable circumstances. Moreover, Stargardt described an important and indeed mobilising form of ‘participation’ when he reflected that:

 Germans did not have to be Nazis to fight for Hitler, but they would discover that it was impossible to remain untouched by the ruthlessness of the war and the apocalyptic mentality it created.

 The main obstacle to new productive analytical perspectives seems to be an assumed exclusiveness of the different approaches. They should not be regarded as mutually exclusive but as complementary to one another. While broader concepts of ‘mobilisation’ focus – of course not exclusively – on structures, institutional frames for decisions, and communication between different levels of administration, the concept of Volksgemeinschaft strongly consider processes of social adaptation and the importance of promises for the war effort of the German society. Finally, the latter concept looks explicitly at the willingness of millions of Germans to get mobilised for destructive and criminal war aims.

 Furthermore, there are promising approaches that can bring differing perspectives closer together. Arthur Marwick exemplified four dimensions of war that cover the social and economic influences of war and war mobilisation on societies. These dimensions emphasise the potentials and limits of comparing war mobilisation. While the destructive and the psychological dimension are almost self-explanatory, the other two have important analytical consequences as well. First, the test dimension refers to the fact that war ‘brings new stresses, offers new challenges, and imposes new necessities.’ People and institutions need to adapt, and this need produces impulses for social and institutional innovations. Second, the participation dimension covers the fact that total war involves increasingly ‘the participation of hitherto underprivileged groups’ who ‘tend to benefit from such participation.’

 As Marwick said, the comparison of democratic societies does not lead to ‘a series of statements about the problem of organizing society for total war which could have any universal validity.’ The inclusion of dictatorships into the comparison of strategies, conditions, and consequences of war mobilisation makes it even more complicated. However, the comparison enables us to draw a more precise picture of the specific social dynamics and motifs for each political system than what is possible in isolated examinations of the individual societies in question.

Image: Tiger at the Henschel plant is loaded onto a special rail car, via Wikimedia commons

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s