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Yet what might have seemed a reach for another country’s army appeared achievable by the Wehrmacht, steeped as it was in a winner-takes-all tradition. Since the earliest days of the German state, a unique military culture had evolved, one that we can call a “German way of war.” Its birthplace was the kingdom of Prussia. Starting in the 17th century with Friedrich Wilhelm, the Great Elector, Prussia’s rulers recognized that their small, impoverished state on the European periphery had to fight wars that were kurz und vives (short and lively). Crammed into a tight spot in the middle of Europe, surrounded by states that vastly outweighed it in both manpower and resources, Prussia could not win long, drawn-out wars of attrition. Instead, it had to fight short, sharp wars that ended in rapid, decisive battlefield victories. Its conflicts had to be front-loaded, unleashing a storm against the enemy, pounding him fast and hard, and making him see reason as soon as possible.

This solution to Prussia’s strategic problem was something the Germans called Bewegungskrieg—the war of movement. It was a way of war that stressed maneuver on the operational level. It was not simply tactical maneuverability or a faster march rate but the rapid movement of large units—divisions, corps, and armies. Prussian commanders sought to maneuver their formations in such a way that they could strike the mass of the enemy army a sharp, even annihilating, blow as rapidly as possible. It might involve a surprise assault against an unprotected flank, or against both flanks. On several notable occasions, as in the Great Elector’s winter campaign against the Swedes in 1678–79 and Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke’s signal triumph over the French at Sedan in 1870, it even resulted in entire Prussian or German armies getting into their enemy’s rear, the dream scenario of any general.

The desired end was something called the Kesselschlacht: literally, a “cauldron battle,” but more specifically a battle of encirclement, one that hemmed in the enemy on all sides before destroying him through a series of “concentric operations.” This vibrant operational posture imposed certain requirements on German armies: an extremely high level of battlefield aggression and an officer corps that tended to launch attacks no matter what the odds, to give just two examples.

The Germans also found over the years that conducting an operational-level war of movement required a flexible system of command, one that left a great deal of initiative in the hands of lower-ranking commanders. It is customary today to refer to this command system as Auftragstaktik (mission tactics): the higher commander devised a general mission (Auftrag) and then left the means of achieving it to the officer on the spot. It is more accurate, however, to speak, as the Germans themselves did, of the “independence of the lower commander” (Selbständigkeit der Unterführer). A commander’s ability to size up a situation and act on his own was an equalizer for a numerically weaker army, allowing it to grasp opportunities that might be lost if it had to wait for reports and orders to climb up and down the chain of command.

While this way of war had served Germany well up to 1941, it had clearly come up short during Operation Barbarossa, and it would be easy to view Operation Blue as doomed from the start. The near-collapse of the previous winter had left scars that had not yet healed, and there is for the connoisseur a smorgasbord of unhappy statistics from which to choose.

For some, it might be the 1,073,066 casualties that the Wehrmacht suffered in its first nine months in the Soviet Union. For others, it might be the General Staff’s estimated replacement deficit of 280,000 men by October 1942, a minimum figure that was valid only if things went well and operations succeeded with relatively light casualties. The one hundred seventy-nine thousand horses lost in the Soviet Union in the first year were not going to be replaced anytime soon, and the loss figures for motor transport were equally dismal. An Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH) report in May found the figure at only 85 percent of the trucks required for the army’s mobile divisions of the spearhead. A report from the Army Organization Section warned that it was closer to 80 percent and those at the sharp end thought the situation was a great deal worse.

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