From the Summer 2010 issue of MHQ
Hitler’s Greatest General
By Mungo Melvin. 648 pp. 16 color maps. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2010.
Reviewed by David T. Zabecki
No major biography of Field Marshal Erich von Manstein has appeared in English until now, though he was the greatest German general of World War II—and probably the greatest of all the war’s leaders. Rodion Malinovsky, the Soviet Union’s top military leader during 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.” Yet Manstein has never achieved the cult-figure status of the self-promoting Erwin Rommel, who was nowhere near Manstein’s match as a planner or operational-level commander.
In recent years, Manstein’s reputation has been hurt by solid scholarship debunking the myth that the German Wehrmacht fought a “clean war,” the fiction that it had little to do with the widespread atrocities carried out by the SS and its intelligence service, the SD. Following the war, Manstein fought to sustain that myth, first as the lead defense witness in the Nuremberg trials of the German General Staff, and later when he was prosecuted for war crimes at Hamburg.
The General Staff was acquitted, but Manstein was convicted on 8 of 17 charges. Sentenced to 18 years imprisonment in 1949, he was released early, in 1953, for medical reasons and went on to become one of the intellectual leaders in the rebirth of the German Army, today’s Bundeswehr. Ironically, though Manstein and others promoted a myth when they defended the Wehrmacht as “clean,” that myth persuaded the world that Germany could be trusted to rebuild its military—a decision that would pay dividends in the Cold War.
Manstein: Hitler’s Greatest General, by Maj. Gen. Mungo Melvin, is a long-overdue analysis of this German field marshal who served such a bad cause so well. Few authors are as qualified to write this book as General Melvin, one of the foremost thinkers in the British Army. Fluent in German and a graduate of the Bundeswehr’s Command and Staff College, he has directed the British Army’s Strategic and Combat Studies Institute and managed the Higher Command and Staff Course at the Joint Services Command and Staff College. No armchair theoretician of warfare, he served as the G-3 plans officer of the British 1st Armoured Division during the Gulf War in 1991. Most significantly, the Manstein family granted General Melvin greater access to Manstein’s personal papers—including family photos never before published—than any historian to date.
General Melvin paints a compelling yet unflinching portrait of one of the military geniuses of the 20th century. It is a balanced analysis that places Manstein squarely within the context of his times. As Melvin 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.”
Far from an exercise in hero worship, the book analyzes with equal scrutiny Manstein’s military successes and failures. Manstein’s “sickle cut” (Sichelschnitt) plan for the 1940 invasion of France, his capture of Sevastopol and the Crimea in 1942, and his devastating counterattack at Kharkov in 1943 are studied in staff colleges to this day. Balanced against those triumphs, however, are Manstein’s missteps, including his inability to relieve the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad in early 1943 and to enunciate “a clear operational idea that balanced the two competing imperatives of seizing terrain and defeating the enemy’s forces” at Kursk later that year. Perhaps Manstein’s greatest mistake was his failure to recognize that as the war progressed, the Red Army and its commanders climbed a very steep learning curve to become skilled and dangerous opponents.
General Melvin’s assessment of the moral and ethical dimensions of Manstein’s relationship with Hitler is fascinating. The two men had little use for each other personally. However, while Manstein argued with the führer over policy and even tactics, he never considered supporting the plot to overthrow the German dictator. As Manstein often said later, “Prussian field marshals do not mutiny.” Still, though he refused to join the conspirators, the field marshal did not betray them. That in itself is a significant piece of doublethink.
More questionable is Manstein’s insistence that he personally knew little or nothing of Germany’s crimes until after the war. At Nuremberg he was confronted with an order he signed on November 20, 1941, stating, “The Jewish Bolshevik system must be wiped out once and for all.” His only response: “I must say that this order escapes my memory entirely.”
General Melvin concludes that Manstein was “neither a Hector nor an Achilles.” He was one of history’s most gifted military commanders, yet also belonged to the misguided and doomed generation of German officers that claimed and even believed they fought for Germany, not Hitler and National Socialism. Nonetheless, Manstein deserves to be remembered and studied, for his story has much to teach us today, both militarily and morally.
David T. Zabecki, a retired army major general, is an honorary senior research fellow at Britain’s University of Birmingham.