Shattered Genius: The Decline and Fall of the German General Staff in World War II, by David Stone, Casemate Publishers, Havertown, Pa., 2012, $34.95
For all of Adolf Hitler’s fascination with military innovations—the V-2 missile, the latest tanks, blitzkrieg tactics—it is one of World War II’s great ironies, David Stone points out in Shattered Genius, that Hitler rejected what may have been the most useful tool at his disposal: the vaunted German General Staff.
A history of these senior officers might strike some as arcane and, likely, pretty dry reading. It’s not. Stone has crafted a highly readable story that artfully blends the general staff’s brief history with Germany’s, from the late 19th century through the end of World War II. The extent to which the German army held sway in German society at the turn of the 20th century, for instance, was a revelation. Stone’s in-depth analysis of the general staff’s post–World War I rebirth and its distaste for the Nazi government makes clear the anger that sparked two officer-led, unsuccessful attempts on Hitler’s life, the last of which led to its final emasculation.
The German general staff controlled all aspects of army operations—“the movement, quartering, engagement and mobilizing of the troops, and to warfare in general.” With its roots in the Prussian army, it was manned by Germany’s best and brightest officers. Few could ascend to its ranks. Of the 400 or so officers annually admitted to the war college for general staff training, only the top 10 or 12 were selected for staff employment.
The staff anticipated and meticulously planned for every contingency, often years in advance. For example, it first conceived a plan to fight and win a war on two fronts—against France and Russia—in 1871. The staff’s modern capabilities were perhaps best illustrated during Fall Gelb, the lightning 1940 thrust across the Netherlands and France that validated the overlapping blitzkrieg concept of air-land battle.
What the general staff failed to adequately prepare for—and, Stone writes, citing historian Walter Görlitz’s contention, what it could have avoided as late as 1938, when Hitler’s position was “not yet entirely secure”—was being shunted aside in favor of the ascendant Heinrich Himmler, the SS and the Gestapo. By making the armed forces an “entirely compliant tool” for implementing his foreign policies, Stone believes, Hitler was convinced the Nazi state could develop “in accordance with National Socialist policies and ideology, unconstrained” by the traditional military.
Had Hitler kept the general staff intact and in possession of its former power and responsibilities, Stone posits that it might have achieved a military victory for Germany. Conceivably, he says, it might even have “forestalled or limited” the range of Germany’s prewar territorial acquisitions and “might have proved instrumental in preventing the onset of a world war in 1939 and the consequent destruction of Germany by 1945.”
—William H. McMichael