Saturday, April 25, 2015

Should the Low Countries Have Fought World War II?

Should the Low Countries have fought World War II? Obviously, that is a somewhat silly question. They had no choice. They were attacked, invaded and occupied so it is only natural that they would resist and fight to liberate their lands and populations from foreign domination. However, one of the requirements of a “just war” according to the School of Salamanca (building on the works of St Thomas Aquinas) is that it is just to fight a war of self-defense as long as there is a reasonable possibility of success. Otherwise, to do so, would be a futile sacrifice of life that would be immoral. Not a few people would look at the vast disparity in the military capabilities of the Kingdoms of the Netherlands, Belgium and the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg compared to Nazi Germany and conclude that there was no reasonable chance of success, that any resistance would be futile and thus it was wrong to fight and the Dutch, Belgians and Luxembourgish should have simply submitted peacefully to German domination. After all, we can see with the benefit of hindsight how overwhelming the Nazi blitzkrieg was; Luxembourg was occupied in a day, the Netherlands surrendered in four days, Belgium in eighteen.

Dutch East Indies colonial troops
Yet, there is more to it than that. In the First World War, the Belgians resisted fiercely and, indeed, the Germans never managed to conquer quite all of Belgium. In World War II, even after their homelands were conquered, the Netherlands and Belgium carried on fighting. Dutch forces made a significant contribution to the war against Japan in the Dutch East Indies and colonial troops from the Belgian Congo participated in the Allied conquest of Italian East Africa. Even tiny Luxembourg was not left out of the eventual Allied counter-attack in Europe. None of these countries ever expected to be fighting alone. Regardless of what neutrality pacts they had in place, the only powers that any of these countries could reasonably expect to face hostilities from was France or Germany and in all probability they themselves would not be the target. None would certainly be isolated. If, for some reason, France invaded to get at Germany, they could count on German support whether guaranteed or in any way obligated or not. As did happen, when Germany invaded, they had the support of the French, and eventually the British, in the overall struggle that ensued.

Field Marshal Montgomery & Dutch Prince Bernhard
On their own, neither the Netherlands, Belgium or Luxembourg could hope to defeat the Germans. However, they did not need to be able to in order to have at least a reasonable chance of success (still not considerable, but at least “reasonable”). Going back to the First World War, the only reason to strike the Low Countries was because the low, flat terrain offered a faster route to France for the Germans than to attack directly across the heavily fortified French frontier. Of course, in that conflict, as it turned out, the Germans did extremely well against the French on the Franco-German border even when greatly outnumbered. However, this overall strategic situation meant that neither the Dutch nor the Belgians would have to defeat the Germans outright but rather simply be able to offer enough resistance so that any gain in time that was to be had by advancing through the Low Countries was eliminated or even simply severely mitigated for the Germans. This would make conquering these countries unfeasible even if still totally possible. It was possible for the Low Countries to at least defend themselves sufficiently so that an invading power, while being able to conquer them, would gain no advantage from doing so and thus would choose to avoid them or, if determined to attack, at least be held off long enough for assistance from stronger powers to arrive to assist.

Belgian Congolese colonial troops in Ethiopia
It is rather bewildering that this logic could be lost on those who would argue that any resources devoted to defense for the Low Countries are resources wasted. They have hardly been the only ones to adopt such a strategy. Canada, for example, previously had defense plans in the event that war broke out with the United States. These were made in the Twentieth Century when, obviously, in isolation, there is no doubt that the United States could easily roll over and crush Canada with little trouble. Yet, Canadian resistance would not have been futile as they could conceivably have held off American forces long enough for the British to bring in support from the U.K. and across the empire, along with what was, at that time, a Royal Navy that was stronger than that of the United States so that such resistance could have been offered that any attack on Canada would not have been worth the cost. Likewise, when the Japan Self-Defense forces were first organized, a “shield and sword” strategy was adopted as part of the alliance with the United States. Originally, this was aimed at the possibility of Russian aggression. Today, the overall strategy has not changed but with China as just as if not more likely adversary. The Japanese Self-Defense Force acts as the shield and the American military as the sword, offering sufficiently fierce resistance to delay a Russian or Chinese attack until the massive strength of the American armed forces can be brought to bear to destroy the invader. This is not significantly different from the strategy the Low Countries did or could have adopted prior to both World Wars.

Dutch troops on guard, 1939
The reasons for the swift defeat of the Low Countries must be understood on a case by case basis. Little Luxembourg actually did have a defense strategy seemingly based on that above, with a series of roadblocks and iron gates to slow an invading army until help could arrive, but it was not pursued fully and, when the attack came, the small military corps was confined to barracks. There was little to no resistance to speak of. For the Dutch, too much trust had been put in the notion that Germany would respect Dutch neutrality as they had in the first war. The Netherlands could have made itself a much tougher nut to crack if proper resources had been devoted to the military and if defense plans had been taken more seriously. Even as it was, even surrendering after four days of fighting, the Dutch had held out three days longer than the Germans expected. They could have held out much longer if the army and air forces had not been so neglected by the government and if defensive flooding had been enacted sooner. The hope of neutrality also prevented the establishment of sophisticated plans for allied cooperation and so no significant help could reach Holland in time. Likewise, in the Dutch East Indies, naval defenses could have been stronger and the colonial forces on land had a mentality based almost completely on providing internal security rather than repelling a foreign invader due to the fact that the Dutch never considered any other regional power an enemy that would wish to attack them.

Belgian troops at the start of war
The Belgians, of course, had the most recent experience at fighting a world war. King Leopold III himself had served in the trenches with the small but tenacious Belgian army in the brutal Flanders sector. Defense was taken much more seriously in Belgium, in fact the Belgians had, along with the French, invaded Germany in the Weimar era due to the Germans not being prompt with reparations payments. However, more was obviously still needed in making Belgium fully prepared for another war but it is easy to see why this was lacking. The country had been devastated in the First World War and naturally the priority was in recovering from that. There were also those that thought, or at least hoped, that such an invasion would never happen again, a sort of ‘lightening cannot strike the same place twice’ mentality. The events of the last war had also forced Belgium to abandon neutrality and the kingdom was firmly in the Allied camp. Yet, that was a camp that hardly presented a united front.

Belgian troops in retreat
Relations with Britain and France were very close and the Belgian and Italian monarchies had been linked by the royal marriage of Princess Marie Jose to Prince Umberto of Piedmont, heir to the throne of Italy. However, when Hitler began to seem a menace, the alliance seemed to come apart. Mussolini was angered at having stood alone against Hitler in the first Nazi attempt to grab Austria and later the French and British pushed Italy into the German camp by sanctioning Italy over the war in Ethiopia. There was further alarm when Britain came to a naval agreement with Nazi Germany so that it seemed France and Britain were isolating Italy and reconciling with Germany rather than the reverse. Belgium, not unreasonably, began to lose faith in the Allies to oppose Hitler and so decided, at the last minute, to try going back to the previous policy of neutrality. King Leopold III announced this policy change in 1936 and the following year Hitler pledged to respect Belgian neutrality in any future war -a promise he had no intention of keeping of course. When the war started, defenses were strengthened and Belgium was by far the most militarily powerful of the Low Countries (in fact, the Belgian army was four times larger than the British army sent to France, which goes to show how woefully unprepared the British were if nothing else).

Belgian troops in the field
However, it was too little, too late. Belgium held out longer than the Netherlands and even the Germans remarked about how well the Belgians fought but the neutrality policy had left them quite ill-equipped for serious conflict. There was also poor coordination with the other Allies when the attack on Belgium came so that, in a reverse of the strategy outlined above, it was the Belgians who were basically sacrificed to buy time for the British to retreat from the continent amidst a rapidly crumbling French war effort. The Belgians did not trust the French (partly because of the Franco-Soviet pact that existed prior to Stalin cozying up to Hitler), the Maginot Line was not extended across Belgium because of Dutch-Belgian neutrality and the British, in whom the Belgians placed most of their hopes, had subordinated their own forces to the French whose plans proved to be almost totally ineffective against the ultimate German onslaught. Because of the policy of neutrality, there were no meetings between the French, British and Belgian military leaders prior to the war to make detailed plans for cooperation and, as a result, their forces were poorly coordinated. In the end, Belgium held out for 18 days before the King, seeing the French coming apart and the British about to abandon the continent, decided to save the lives of his remaining soldiers and surrender. He felt the war was over, the Allies defeated and, given the situation at the time, such a view is totally understandable.

Queen Wilhelmina with U.S. President Roosevelt
Obviously, there were numerous reasons for the lack of readiness that led to the Low Countries being so swiftly defeated in the German blitzkrieg to the west. There is also the rather significant fact that the German armed forces comprised a fantastic fighting machine. Putting aside the regime that was giving them orders, the military itself performed with great ability and would have been an extremely formidable opponent for even the most militarily robust nations on earth. They more than once were able to handily defeat the Russians and Americans as well as the French and British so that is clearly a very large part of this equation. However, the Low Countries were not wrong to resist the German invaders to the utmost. The only possible exception is Luxembourg and tiny Luxembourg really didn’t try to resist, knowing that it would be futile. The same was true for Denmark. The Danes, had they better prepared themselves, could have made more of a fight but, as it was, they were pretty much powerless to resist and so they didn’t. For the Dutch and Belgians, however, they were at least capable of making the Germans work hard for their victory and had different decisions been made, would have been able to have done better still. It doesn’t mean that they could have stopped the Germans cold but given what weaknesses they did have and what strengths (though squandered) the Allies had, they could have mounted a defense of their countries that would have, at the very least, had at least some chance of success.

1 comment:

  1. Kurt von Schuschnigg is often portrayed as a coward for not resisting Anschluss even without Mussolini to back him up again at Brenner. However, the guys who were shot by Nazis, presumably Austro-Fascist or Christian Social too, when Russian Army approached, for doing same thing but with acts that could be considered treasonable to presumed legitimate Nazi régime, are being honoured to this day for resisting Nazis.

    Modernity has a logic reminding me of "Liberal Logic 101" - go figure!


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