Why did most of Europe just lay down for Germany at the start of WWII?

I’m reading my way through this book about WWII. This book focuses almost exclusively on the military and political strategies of the war. It’s an excellent book so far and you can get it really cheap at B&N on the bargain rack if you like.

Anyway I’m only about 100 pages in (700 page book) and Germany has just rolled into France. Liddell does a great job explaining the strategic aspects of the campaigns but the thing that really sticks out at me so far is just how fast most of Europe rolled over for Hitler.

Let me see if I absorbed what I’ve read so far (I’m really bad at dates and memorization so forgive me if I mix stuff up here:

Britain pretty much handed Germany Czechoslovakia in a “if we give him something over there he will leave us alone. Peace at last!”. They seemed to do this VERY quickly.

Then Germany decides to take Poland, with Russias backing. Britain says “No way we’ll stop you” but never really came to the aid of Poland.

Finland falls to Russia.

Germany takes Norway, almost on a fluke it seems.

Then Denmark.

Then they roll through Belgium.

Finally France (thus far in the book).

Now, France seemed to fall victim to sound military strategy in the distraction caused by the attack on Belgium. The rest of the countries, except Poland, seemed to just roll over and play dead pretty much as soon as Germany came knocking.

Why was this? Liddell states many times that Germany was outnumbered and could have been taken down numerous times early on but no one put up the tough fight needed to do it.

Was it the awe of German tanks? The Luftwaffe? What were these countries more afraid of than losing their sovereignty? The whole thing reads, militarily any way, like most of Europe just gave up before the fight even began.

I do have alot more of the book to read and the answers are probably within but I’m curious what the SDMB perspective is.


Actually, please let me know if I am misunderstanding what I’m reading. DID Europe lay down for Germany as it seems so far?

An utter unwillingness to face the domestic political consequences of war.

Most people didn’t think the only choices were fighting Germany or surrendering to Germany. They figured there was a middle ground of negotiating with Germany - offer Germany something that was less than the cost of war or surrender.

Several countries did fight Germany when they were finally attacked, including Poland and Belgium.

WWI left much of Europe in ruins, both literally and figuratively. They kinda sorta would have preferred to avoid that happening again not even 30 years later.

Germany was a big country, with a wealth of resources and a large modern, mechanized military force. Many of the other European nations were smaller with fewer resources, less domestic raw material to devote to military endeavors. Their military forces were mostly small, clunky, underequipped, devoted mainly to ceremonial functions and domestic defense.

Poland made a heroic but futile fight…they had soldiers on horses going up against German tanks and it was a slaughter. Among the allied powers, only England and France, and to a small extent Belgium had overseas “empires” and the standing armed forces to defend them, and powerful enough to stand up to the German war machine. Spain and Italy of course, were strong enough to be contenders, but Italy joined up with Germany and Spain stayed neutral. Switzerland had an effective army, small but tough enough to enforce their neutrality and make the Axis think twice about the cost of occupying.

France was beset with internal squabbles and not in good shape to fight a war, although the Free French put up a good resistance to the occupation and fought with the allies in other places. In Holland, there was initial resistance to the German invasion, but their army was so puny and unprepared that the Germans pretty much just rolled over them. In both Holland and Norway, plucky civilians kept up a campaign of insurgency and harrassment throughout the occupation that nearly drove the German occupation forces to distraction.

Poland, as you said, put up quite a fight. Denmark quickly decided that its army was too small and disorganized to resist. Both Norway and the Netherlands expected that their neutrality would be respected and were taken utterly by surprise. Belgium had decided as a matter of policy to to prepare for a German invasion in fear that that would be seen as a provocation and launch the attack.

Also, don’t forget about 10 million+ Jews who gave up without any resistance.
Can you imagine how many millions of German police/military would have been shot dead attempting to arrest jews if the tens of millions of German/Polish/Danish/Belgium Jews took up arms for their own self defense as modern day Isreali citizens do today?

They’d have been slaughtered, just in their homes instead of at camps. Modern day Israeli citizens aren’t trying to fight their own government, so that analogy doesn’t work at all. How well has fighting back worked for the Palestinians?

And yes, I know that the Israeli government isn’t as bad as the Nazi one, that’s part of my point. The Palestinians have suffered pretty much a one sided stomping-on from a government that is far more restrained than the Nazis were.

The OP is trying to cover two different things - one, the futile attempts to negotiate with Germany in the years leading up to WWII, and secondly the poor fight put up initially by nations invaded by the Nazis.

The first problem was largely a lack of will heavily influenced by the devastation of WWI. As for the second, most of the nations referenced in the OP were small and could not be expected to put up much of a fight (Poland was hit by juggernauts on two sides). The successful German invasion of Norway partly reflected bad military planning on the part of the Allies. France, in addition to reaping the results of its failure to stop Hitler as far back as the Rhineland occupation in 1936, depended too heavily on its fortifications and suffered also from bad planning.

Ethnic groups generally do not maintain armies and fortifications, and in fact are discouraged by their governments from doing so.

Probably. The difference, there, though, is that, like the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising fighters found out, it’s damn satisfying to take some of the bastards with you.

True. I’m just saying that expecting a bunch of unorganized civilians to hold off the military power of an especially ruthless industrialized nation is a bit unrealistic. And IIRC Susanann in the past has expressed just that as a workable plan, she’s a big fan of the idea that the Second Amendment somehow prevents tyranny.

You have to understand the politics of Europe at the time. First of all France as a nation was pyschologically scared by the damage of WWI. Europe was in a depression, well not quite true. Both the USSR and Nazi Germany and to a lesser degree Italy were working quite well.

Germans didn’t care for Nazis at first. In fact if you follow German elections as the economy got better the Nazis lost seats. It’s only the more the Germans economy tanked that the Nazis got more seats. Once in control, military spending started their economy, while the rest of Europe sank.

Hitler start out by demanding areas that were basically German and had been seperated at WWI. Why would anyone fight if Germany was demanding Czechoslavakia give back areas that are full of Germans. In fact the Poles at the same time took part of Czechoslavakia that had Poles in it. Even today, we seperated Kosvo from Serbia, as Kosovo, while historically Serbian is full of Albanians today.

France built the Maginot Line which was considered impregnable, and probably was, too bad the Germans went around it.

This was the first problem. The Dutch had kept out of WWI and the Belgians refused to co-operate with France fearing German demands (Part of Belgian is German speaking even today)

So this left the Maginot Line incomplete. The French had a choice of building the line all the way to the ocean and abandoning the Dutch and the Belgians. The British / French knew the low countries would come running for help, at the first sign of German aggression, and this was a key factor in the French decision not to take the Maginot Line to the Atlantic.

France had been ruined in WWI and if they had to fight Germany again they had every intention of fighting it on Belgian, Dutch or German soil.

France and Britian could’ve helped Czechoslavakia, but had no realistic way to help Poland. Only the Soviets could, and the Poles wouldn’t let them cross over Polish lands. So the guarantees given by the French and British were valid on paper only.

The Nazis / Soviet Pact was genius. It scared the West and it bought time for the Soviets to rebuild their forces.

Italy was way overestimated by the West as well. Indeed a few token forces from France were more than a match for the Italians who invaded as the Germans were invading in the north of France.

German basically rolled over a bunch of weak countries, and did it quickly. The Fall of France even surpised Hitler. He expected it to cave but not nearly so quickly. France was totally demoralized to begin with and when the British refused to send more land troops the popular slogan was “the British will fight to the last Frenchmen.”

Also remember the time frame, yes Hitler was a bad guy, but dictators were common then. In fact the Chicago Tribune, basically said, “Yes, France fell, but it fell in the 1870s and it’ll come back again.”

The fact was when Hitler went up against a determained and strong country like the UK or USSR, he was toast. He did OK but even without the USA, the best Hitler ever could’ve achieved was a stalemate.

The Soviets would’ve retreated to the Urals and could’ve fought for decades and the UK had their Navy and colonies to go on fighting for decades. Germany entered the war with rationing. You don’t win wars by starting with rationing. And slave labor will only get you so far.

You should check out the Axis Forums for a full indepth discussion of WWII and they cover all periods of history as well

The only countries that rolled over for Germany were the ones who had little choice, like Denmark.

There’s a huge difference between not putting up a fight and getting your ass kicked. Poland, for instance, got its ass kicked; they were invaded by the two greatest land powers on the face of the earth. But they put up a ferocious battle. Frankly, I think it’s impressive they lasted a month. 16,000 Germans were killed invading Poland, which is a hell of a lot of people. In less than five weeks the Germans lost four times as many men as the USA has lost in Iraq.

Similarly, France did not roll over; they were soundly, utterly defeated by a brilliantly executed campaign. It was certainly a STRATEGIC disaster by the Allies, but not some sort of unwillingness to fight. 27,000 Germans were killed.

A little of the above. Most of the news that everyone would have gotten would have came from film news reels, news papers and radio. I dont think the average person was mentally geared to think victory over the germans if they invaded.

The average person would have seen news reel footage of the spanish civil war and probably concluded that vast fleets of bombers striking from the sky, potential poison gas attacks would have given anyone pause.

The governments themselves, were probably betting on their alliances for the main bulwark of defense, given that the WW1 conflict was static and they had enough time to organize some sort of mutual defense, and add some rose tinted glasses to nations that thought neutrality would see them through.

But judging from some of the other posts here, I am wondering where everyone got the impression that Europe was ravaged in WW1.


The answer is that they did fight and lost very quickly. The Germans perfected a new form of warfare, mechanized warfare that they called blitzkrieg (lightening war) that quickly overwhelmed opponents who had never seen it. By the end of the war when all the combatants were using those techniques it was much slower. The Poles attacked tanks with horse cavalry and lost. The Germans cut through the French defense lines and were in their rear in a matter of days.

The new mobile and mechanized warfare made static defense lines utterly obsolete.

Coordinated air, ground, sea attacks from mechanized forces require enormous resources and coordination and they are utterly devastating. Only major military powers can afford to train and equip such forces. Such expense is one of the reasons why war against a major power does not happen except through guerrilla warfare type means.

You can’t underestimate the initial power of Germany’s Blitzkrieg tactics. Germany basically took modern mechanized warfare tactics up against a bunch of countries that had no way to counter them. Even the French were constantly caught by surprise by the speed of the German army’s movements. The Germany army cut through supply lines, communication lines, encircled opponents, and in general just wreaked havoc on the battlefield.

Also, the Germans gained air superiority almost immediately just about any place they went into. Most other air forces initially had nothing that could compete with the modern German fighters. The Poles fought very well with the planes they had, but the Polish air force was wiped out as a fighting force within two weeks. After that, Germany owned the sky, and that conferred a huge advantage.

France fell because the Germans simply outmanoevered them tactically and strategically, and the speed of the German Forces’ advancement into France and the French military’s seemingly complete inability to counter them led to the Vichy regime capitulating rather quickly.

In addition to what others have said, don’t forget initially the allies were not organized. It wasn’t like Czechoslovakia, Poland, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, and France fought as a unified military against Germany. European nations fought, and fell, alone. Early on, even when multiple countries troops fought in the same place (EG Dunkirk), it was mostly two separate armies vs a common enemy.

So even though it is all part of WWII and the events are related to each other, it’s might be best to view it as a bunch of small wars strung together. It wasn’t until later that the allies really began coordinating plans, resources, and troops with each other. Even then, much of the coordination was that the US provided assistance instead of being a frontline partner for much of the war.

“The Poles attacked tanks with horse cavalry and lost.”

This was German propaganda. Poland still had cavalry but they were more intended as mobile infantry:


“The incident became notable as reporters visiting the site soon after saw the dead bodies of horses and cavalrymen which lead to false reports of Polish cavalry attacking German tanks. Nazi propaganda[3] took advantage of this…”


When did this happen? Finland fought fiercely against the Soviet Union. We lost in the end and had to pay huge sums in war reparations and to cede large territories. But of all the nations the Soviets invaded during WW2, Finland was the only one that managed to keep it’s independence.

One other factor was that the other major powers made the mistake of assuming that Hitler wouldn’t lead Germany off a cliff. A rational ruler might play hardball to annex the German-speaking parts of Czechoslovakia, but wouldn’t dare risk annihilation by invading Russia. So when Hitler did invade Russia it came as a complete surprise.

Basically, the foolishness of Hitler’s plans in the long run actually helped him in the short run.