Wunderwaffe and the Myth of German Technological Supremacy

Tiger II - Wikipedia
A Tiger II tank.

Since the end of the Second World War, much has been made of German weapons and their purported superiority over their Allied counterparts. German planes are supposed to have been faster and better armed, German small arms possessed a higher rate of fire, German missiles revolutionized long-range warfare, and German tanks ruled the battlefield. Propaganda during the war has affected popular history and scholarship and only recently has the myth of German dominance begun to weaken in the general consciousness.

During the 1930s, German propagandists under Joseph Goebbels began creating the image of a mechanized and advanced German Army. While not an outright lie, some units were mechanized, it was an exaggeration. Most units used horses and wagons for transport and possessed relatively few trucks and half-tracks. The army only had a handful of Panzer divisions, and these were equipped mostly with Panzer I and II tanks which were inferior to their French and British counterparts. German small arms did generally have superior rates of fire, but this came with less durability and a far higher manufacturing cost. In the area of artillery, the vaunted German 88 mm gun was little suited to either anti-aircraft or anti-tank combat than the British 3.7-inch gun. The Luftwaffe under Hermann Goering continued the Weimar Republic’s development of advanced fighter planes, producing the famous BF-109 fighter and the Stuka dive bomber. While these planes were ahead of their time in 1939, by 1940 they were no better than their British counterparts. The BF-109 was difficult to fly and during the Battle of Britain, the Supermarine Spitfire matched it in overall combat performance. Of course, Germany was the first to field a jet fighter in larger numbers, the ME 262, but this lead in jet technology was more than made up for by America’s and Britain’s superior long-range bombers. Towards the end of the war, Germany developed several heavy tanks, the so-called “big cats,” which receive a great deal of attention. Broadly speaking, however, they were unreliable and fuel-intensive. Further, from a technological perspective, they were not more advanced than the American Patton tank or the British Centurion. However, those tanks were rightly viewed as too experimental and too expensive to produce in large numbers and ship over to the European theater. The Germans chose to use expensive and unreliable tanks and paid the price every time a Tiger was too heavy to cross a bridge or a Panther broke down and there were no spare parts to repair it. Finally, we often forget the many areas in which the Allies were ahead of the Germans. By the end of the war, the Allies had superior encryption and radar technology, and throughout the conflict, their industrial technology was far superior. And of course, the Allies developed the Atomic Bomb first, an achievement which outweighs any marginal German advantages in tank armor.

In the end, the Allies’ superiority in bomber aircraft, industrial technology, and communications at the very least matched what advantages Germany had in tanks and jet fighters. The popular consensus that Germany possessed superior technology and the Allies only beat them because of their far superior numbers is a result not of reality but of German propaganda and its influence on popular history. The belief in German superiority is harmful not only in that it is wrong but more importantly in that it serves to validate both the idea of German superiority and the effectiveness of the Nazi government. 

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