Last time out we began a discussion of a seemingly insignificant event. Near the end of May 1944, Monsignor Jozef Tiso, the wartime leader of Slovakia, paid a visit to Adolf Hitler at the latter’s headquarters in East Prussia–the famous Wolf’s Lair. Tiso was one of Germany’s minor allies, along with Antonescu of Romania, Pavelic of Croatia, Mannerheim of Finland, Horthy of Hungary. Although none of them ruled great powers, collectively they were playing an increasingly important role in keeping the manpower-strapped Wehrmacht in the field. Hitler’s schedule in 1944 contained a parade of such meetings. As the operational situation deteriorated, the minor Axis powers needed nearly constant cajoling to keep them in the war.
We have an interesting recollection of the May 1944 meeting from General Adolf Heusinger, the wartime chief of the Operations Section of the General Staff. According to his account, special orders had come down from on high, specifying that the maps prepared for Tiso’s briefing should not disturb the Slovak leader too much (“sie soll ihm nicht zu grosse Bedenken bereiten“). By May 1944, the Wehrmacht was on the run in the Ukraine and in the Baltic region, and the Soviets were deep in the planning cycle for one of the greatest offensives of the war, Operation Bagration, aiming at the destruction of Army Group Center. In the west, the Allies were on the verge of Operation Overlord, the greatest amphibious operation of the war, and perhaps of all time.
Given that ugly picture, the need to draw soothing maps for Tiso took on a special urgency. What to do? Telling the truth was politically unacceptable, but an outright lie would be too tough to sell.
The answer was to alter the maps slightly. Staff officers rendered the German defensive positions in thick lines on the map, while representing the Soviet armored spearheads with thinner, lighter strokes. “That way,” Heusinger wrote, the situation “wouldn’t appear so dangerous” (“Dann sieht es nicht so gefährlich aus“). After all, “thick” should be able to hold off “thin,” right?
Some officers raised objections. Was it really correct to fool Tiso in this fashion? Wouldn’t it be better to lay things out as they actually were, so that he could make a more informed judgment about the danger facing Slovakia?
You can probably guess the answer to their questions. They were told that the Führer wanted it this way. Political reasons. And politics were Hitler’s business, not the purview of the General Staff. For a planning cell that rarely ventured above or beyond the operational sphere into the realm of strategy, it was the only answer they needed. Anyway, they had already done something quite similar the last time Antonescu visited headquarters.
Still, doubts lingered among some of them, and here the story turns interesting. Heusinger has one staff officer warning everyone to be careful, declaring that this arrangement was a “double-edged sword” and thus a dangerous thing. It was a rose-colored image, he said, “and you have to be clear about that.”
I’ve thought a lot about that warning. This was, after all, an officer corps that was by now clinging to smaller and smaller vestiges of hope. Wonder weapons that might turn the tide for Germany at the last moment. Some miraculous turn of events that would allow the Wehrmacht to defeat the invasion in the West that everyone knew was imminent. A falling out between the western allies and the Soviet Union, unnatural partners at best. Something–anything.
And that’s why I think, just perhaps, that there were some people in that room–even the most hardened and experienced military planners–who looked at Tiso’s maps, with those big, bold, defensive lines and apparently weak Soviet spearheads, and who actually took some comfort in them. Human beings have been deceiving themselves for a long, long time, and not all of them were working in the Wolf’s Lair.