Book Review: Manstein, by Mungo Melvin

Manstein: Hitler’s Greatest General, by Mungo Melvin, Thomas Dunne Books, New York, 2011, $37.50

This is the first American edition of Maj. Gen. Mungo Melvin’s comprehensive biography of World War II German Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, originally published in Great Britain in 2010 to widespread critical acclaim. A Russian edition is scheduled for 2012—not surprising, considering that Marshal of the Soviet Union Rodion Malinovsky, the Red Army’s key field commander in the latter part of the war, once said: “We considered the hated Manstein our most dangerous opponent. His technical mastery of every, and I mean every, situation was unequalled.”

Few World War II historians would object to the designation of Manstein as Germany’s greatest operational commander and strategic planner of the time, but the general public scarcely remembers his name. He has long been overshadowed by other German field commanders, particularly Erwin Rommel, the beneficiary of much blind hero-worship. Yet, of the two, Manstein remains the focal point of far more strategic analysis at military staff colleges. His Sichelschnitt (sickle cut) plan for the 1940 invasion of France, his 1942 capture of Sevastopol and the Crimea, and his devastating counterattack at Kharkov in 1943 are among history’s most brilliant examples of operational maneuver warfare.

One reason for the erosion of Manstein’s reputation has been recent historical research showing just how deeply complicit the Wehrmacht was in the Holocaust and other crimes of the Third Reich. Although Manstein himself was never a member of the Nazi Party, and he and Hitler personally detested each other, the field marshal nevertheless signed orders on the Eastern Front that facilitated the atrocities carried out by the SS and the SD security service.

With this first-ever major biography of Manstein, Melvin takes a big step toward returning him to proper perspective. As the author notes, “Somewhere between the operationally gifted commander, respected by friends and foes alike, and the individual whom modern critics vilify on account of his association with war crimes, lies the ‘real’ Manstein.” Without descending into hero worship, Melvin does a superb job of bringing to life this great captain of modern military history who served a bad cause so well. This book is simply one of the best and most important military biographies to appear in the last 25 years.

—David T. Zabecki 


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