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Teutonic military history of the 20th century was marked by tactical brilliance but undone by strategic incompetence.

The 20th century opened with an unprecedented flurry of technological and scientific advances. Among the nations at the forefront of those advances was Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s creation, the German Empire. The leaders of that state were confident Germany would advance from its position as the dominant European power to become the dominant world power. They were wrong; it did not. Instead, two great world wars, both instigated and pursued by the Germans, destroyed Bismarck’s creation and left Germany just another European state.

This turn of events, which played out over the first half of the 20th century, is directly tied to the effectiveness— and failures—of Germany’s military institutions. It is clear the Germans produced extraordinary military institutions. Indeed, on the tactical level, those institutions essentially invented modern ground warfare. But at the same time, Germany’s military leaders repeatedly proved incapable of thinking through the operational consequences of their tactical successes, much less the strategic and political implications of the conflicts on which they so readily embarked.

In short, the picture of modern German military effectiveness is one of battlefield brilliance mixed with myopic vision at the strategic level. That combination ensured that German defeat would do maximum damage not only to the Reich’s neighbors, but also to the German people themselves. At the Battle of the Marne in September 1914 and again at the Battle of Moscow in December 1941—early in each of the world wars—Germany had already reached the point where defeat was inevitable. Yet, tragically, the tactical competence of German military forces ensured each conflict would last another four years at terrible cost to all involved.

The toxic combination of tactical brilliance and strategic incompetence is readily apparent in the German army’s developing performance in the two world wars.

The armies that embarked on war in August 1914 were in most respects, except the technological, closer to the armies that fought at Waterloo than to those that fought in the climactic battles of 1918. In 1914 French armies had marched into machine-gun and artillery fire during the opening battles, leaving nearly 300,000 of their soldiers dead by the end of the Battle of the Marne.

The Germans displayed little more initial tactical proficiency than the French: At the Battle of Langemark in Flanders in late fall 1914, the Germans sent battalion-sized columns of ill-trained university students directly into the deadly fire of professional British infantry. In what they later termed the “Battle of the Innocents,” the Germans lost 30,000 soldiers out of 37,000 by the battle’s end—Adolf Hitler being one of the few survivors.

The invention of modern war at the tactical level began toward the end of the 1916 Battle of the Somme, a struggle renowned in the British mythology of the war for the disastrous loss of 57,000 soldiers on the first day. On that day the Germans suffered minimal casualties, but over the remainder of the 142-day campaign, under a rain of British and French shellfire, the Germans suffered losses they could ill afford. The “battle of materiel,” as they termed it, represented a serious drain on the German army from which it never fully recovered.

At this point in the war, the kaiser appointed the two generals who had commanded German armies on the Eastern Front—Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and his chief of staff, General Erich Ludendorff—to command the overall German war effort. Ludendorff immediately traveled to the Western Front to see what was actually happening. His trip involved visiting not only senior generals, but also the field commanders and troop leaders who actually understood the problems at the front. And as noted in his memoirs, he demanded those with whom he met speak their minds and not pass along something “made to order.”

What emerged from Ludendorff’s discussions was the realization that German commanders on the Somme were demanding that defending troops hold every square yard of trench. The result was that infantry found itself packed into frontline trenches, where British and French artillery simply butchered it. In reaction, Ludendorff’s general staff officers quickly developed the doctrinal concept of defense in depth. The Germans thereby invented modern defensive warfare, in which a thin skin of machine gunners held the front lines and increasingly strong defensive positions ensnared any enemy offensive. Moreover, since the bulk of the infantry remained deep behind the front lines, it was no longer within range of enemy artillery and could launch quick, decisive counterattacks. At the same time, German artillery could also withdraw and diminish the effectiveness of Allied counter-battery fire. The new defensive doctrine also emphasized decentralized, aggressive leadership by frontline officers and NCOs, who now could make decisions on the spot without waiting for orders.

What was particularly impressive about Germany’s tactical performance over the winter of 1916–17 was that it not only developed an entirely new approach to defensive warfare, but also managed to retrain its entire army in the new tactics by spring 1917—while under fire. Its defensive stance on the Champagne front ultimately thwarted a major French offensive in turn based on tactics that had worked well during the last stages of the November 1916 Verdun campaign, but were now fundamentally flawed in the face of the new German defensive system.

Based on that system of decentralized aggressive counterattacks, the Germans then developed modern offensive combined-arms tactics, which involved not only decentralized leadership at the front, but combined-arms exploitation of weaknesses in the enemy’s frontline defenses. By spring 1918, such tactics allowed the Germans to bring movement back to the battlefield in their great offensives and win a series of victories that were astonishing in comparison to the previous three years of static combat on the Western Front.

And yet, those tactical successes failed to bring the Germans victory in the war. Why? The failure to understand the political and strategic realities of the war in 1916 simply rendered German tactical effectiveness irrelevant: At the same time he set in motion the tactical revolution in 1916, Ludendorff was lobbying hard in support of the Imperial German Navy’s efforts to resume unrestricted submarine warfare, a move practically everyone but Ludendorff understood would bring the United States into the war.

With Ludendorff’s and Hindenburg’s support, Germany—which would help pioneer the development of the submarine despite starting World War I with barely 20 operational boats— resumed unrestricted submarine warfare in early 1917, and, sure enough, the United States entered the war in April. Barely a year later, American troops were arriving in France at the rate of approximately 250,000 a month, and those fresh American divisions would play a major role in cracking the German army. Ludendorff had based his opinion on the belief that “military necessity” should trump all other concerns, including strategic and political matters.

And there lay the great weakness of the “German way of war.” The emphasis on military necessity had led the Germans to use their Schlieffen Plan to invade Belgium, a move that ensured Britain would immediately enter the war. When they did, the British arrived on the flank of French armies in August 1914, preventing General Alexander von Kluck’s First Army from outflanking the French. They played a major role in the Battle of the Marne by entering the gap between the German First and Second armies and then defeated the German attacks in the Battle of Langemark, thus preventing the Germans from capturing the channel ports.

But the most important contribution the British made was to secure Allied control of the oceans, the global economy and America’s benevolent neutrality— major strategic concerns overlooked by the Germans. By 1916 the British army had grown to a force of more than 50 divisions, which, despite ham-handed leadership, hammered the Germans from 1916 on and eventually proved to be the crucial instrument in the Allied victories that shattered the German army.

German devotion to “military necessity” had contributed to a number of other crucial political and strategic mistakes early in the war. Fearful the French and Belgians might resort to guerrilla war, the Germans shot 6,000 Belgian and French civilians in response to incidents that in almost every case represented either legitimate resistance or cases of friendly fire. The German atrocities of August and September 1914 went a long way toward persuading the neutral Americans that Germany was beyond the pale.

The introduction of chemical warfare the following April intensified American outrage. There were ironies in Germany’s introduction of gas. For one, prevailing winds carried the gas back over German trenches. Also, gas masks were primarily composed of rubber, a raw material readily available to the Allies, but not the Germans, through war’s end. The sinking of the passenger liner Lusitania in April 1915, which augured the first phase of unrestricted submarine warfare, brought America to the brink of war; only Woodrow Wilson’s hedging delayed that strategic disaster for Germany.

Regardless, the German navy harbored its own strategic stupidity—it continued to wage a political campaign for the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare. Putting forth bogus figures of what its U-boats could achieve while ignoring the tonnage of neutral shipping available to the Allies, the German admirals carried their argument to the army and to Ludendorff— never one to deny the overwhelming importance of “military necessity.”

Confronted with the reality that Americans would begin to arrive in substantial numbers in 1918, Ludendorff rebuffed all suggestions of a peaceful compromise in which the Reich might abandon its conquests in the west to keep its eastern gains. Instead, he launched a series of tactical offensives, none of which had any clear operational goals. The result was exhaustion of his army and losses on a scale Germany could not sustain, but the Allies could. Nothing could make clearer the lack of strategic vision and understanding in the “German way of war.”

Historians have often argued that military institutions study the last war, and that is why they perform badly in the next. Few myths perpetrated by historians could be more misleading. In fact, those military institutions that honestly examine history can learn crucial lessons; those that refuse to heed the past pay a terrible price in the lives of their soldiers and, in some cases, their national existence. Here Germany’s case is particularly instructive, for while it did study those areas in which the armed forces had performed well, it largely ignored its greatest failings.

In 1920 General Hans von Seeckt, the sharpest officer on the general staff of the Weimar Republic’s Reichswehr, assumed the position of commander in chief. In the face of Allied demands that Germany drastically reduce the size of its army, von Seeckt placed the general staff in control of the officer corps. He also launched a massive lessons-learned initiative in which 57 committees collaborated on an honest and thorough study of the tactical lessons of World War I. Thus postwar German doctrine incorporated the lessons of decentralized, combined-arms exploitation, and in 1933 the general staff produced the doctrinal manual Truppenführung, which formed the basis for the great victories of 1940 and 1941.

But what the army—or the navy, for that matter—failed to examine were the strategic and political lessons of the conflict. Germany had lost World War I because it had consistently ignored the larger consequences of its military actions and consequently had ended up fighting all the other major world powers with only the ramshackle Ottoman and Hapsburg empires and Bulgaria as allies. The overall cause of Germany’s defeat should have been obvious. Yet, to have admitted that Germany’s defeat had arisen from strategic myopia would have been to admit military culpability.

Instead, the military—and indeed most Germans—still entranced by the victories of spring 1918, fastened on the myths that the army had stood unbroken and undefeated in the field, and that Jews and Communists had stabbed it in the back. The military also blamed the defeat and collapse on politicians, whom it had denied all responsibility for the conduct of the war until October 1918. Most of the generals believed Germany simply needed a leader, a führer, who could unite the population behind a future war while letting the military fight a conflict of “pure military necessity”—thus laying the groundwork for the same blunders that doomed Germany in the earlier war.

On Jan. 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler took power as the Reich’s chancellor. That was precisely what the German Wehrmacht—now comprising the army (Heer), navy (Kreigsmarine) and air force (Luftwaffe)—had wanted. Thus, the political naïveté of the generals played a crucial role in first bringing Hitler to power and then supporting his massive military buildup, which could have no purpose other than to fight another great world war. In fact, within the first week of his coming to power, Hitler made clear to his leading generals that his purpose in rebuilding the Reich’s military was not simply to revise the Treaty of Versailles, but to overthrow the existing world order.

Only in 1938 would there be a serious disagreement between Hitler and a handful of the army’s generals. At that point, having annexed Austria into the Third Reich, Hitler was about to launch the Wehrmacht against Czechoslovakia. The chief of the general staff, General Ludwig Beck, tried to rally leading generals against Hitler’s desire for military confrontation with the Czechs, as in his analysis the strategic situation was entirely weighted against the Reich. The great majority of the generals obdurately refused. Erich von Manstein, a future field marshal, urged Beck to support Hitler, as “so far he has always been correct over political matters.” The infamous denouement of the crisis was that British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain ceded Czech Sudetenland to the Nazis, Beck resigned as chief of staff, and Hitler achieved a great political victory over his external and internal opponents.

On Sept.1,1939, Hitler unleashed the Wehrmacht on Poland and set off World War II. His generals offered not the slightest peep of opposition; indeed, those of Prussian ancestry were delighted at the opportunity to destroy the Polish state. Germany’s strategy was now entirely Hitler’s province, with the generals simply his technicians of violence. The nine months that followed the conquest of Poland witnessed a string of astonishing German victories that evinced extraordinary skill at the tactical and operational levels, if not the logistical— at the outbreak of war only about 20 percent of the German army was fully motorized, with the majority of units still relying on horse-drawn transport.

Poland, Denmark, Norway, Luxembourg, Holland, Belgium and France fell like dominos. But then came the Battle of Britain, which suggested some glaring weaknesses in the German approach to strategy and operations. Put simply, none of the three German services displayed the slightest understanding of joint operations or the difficulties conquering the British Isles might entail. Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, chief operations officer of the Armed Forces High Command (the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, or OKW), suggested in a June 30, 1940, memo that crossing the channel should prove no more difficult than a river crossing. The Luftwaffe’s intelligence assessment of Britain’s air-defense system managed to get every major fact wrong except for the number of aircraft the Royal Air Force Fighter Command possessed. Not surprisingly, the Battle of Britain was a dismal failure not just for the Luftwaffe, but also for German strategy.

The German response to the difficulties Britain posed was not to reexamine fundamental assumptions, but instead to deny there was a problem. Given his ideological attitudes, Hitler’s focus almost immediately after the defeat of France had turned to the Soviet Union. But the army’s leadership had moved in that direction even faster than the führer. In early July 1940, Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch, the army’s commander in chief, and General Franz Halder, the chief of staff, had begun planning Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. Given the Luftwaffe’s focus on continental war, it is not surprising that its chief of staff, General Hans Jeschonnek, would comment upon the invasion of the Soviet Union, “At last, a proper war!”

Underlying the Barbarossa plan was Hitler’s ideological crusade to conquer the “Jewish-Bolshevist state” and implement the racial “cleansing” of Europe. From the opening days of the invasion, regular army troops actively and enthusiastically cooperated in the massacre of Jews and other “undesirables” along with Russia’s entire educated elite. Hitler’s political aim was to create a population of slaves to do their German conquerors’ bidding. As an order of the day, Panzer Group 4 commanding General Erich Hoeppner stated: “The objective of this battle must be the demolition of present-day Russia and must therefore be conducted with unprecedented severity.…In particular, no adherents of the contemporary Russian Bolshevik system are to be spared.” But that approach only served to destroy all possibility of politically undermining the Soviet Union’s rulers, as had occurred in World War I. Stalin’s regime, though hardly popular at home, was thus able to rally the Soviet people against an even more heinous enemy and fight a war of popular liberation.

If the strategic and political assumptions of Operation Barbarossa weren’t bad enough, the operational planning and execution were equally faulty. Operational excellence is not just a matter of battlefield execution, but also a matter of intelligence regarding the nature of one’s enemy and logistics. In the case of the former, Germany failed to grasp both the numbers and tenacity of its Soviet opponent. As Halder noted in his journal in early August 1941:

The whole situation shows more and more clearly that we have underestimated the colossus of Russia.…We have already identified 360 [Soviet divisions]. The divisions are admittedly not armed and equipped in our sense, and tactically they are badly led. But there they are, and when we destroy a dozen, the Russians simply establish another dozen.

Underlining the extent of Germany’s folly is the fact that logisticians had warned that the advance into the Soviet Union would outrun its supply lines by the time it reached two-thirds of the distance to Leningrad in the north, to Smolensk in the center and midway down the Don in the south. Halder’s warning went unheeded, while planners simply assumed their forces would destroy the Red Army in the border areas and then advance unhindered into the heart of Russia. In October 1941 the logisticians again warned that the army faced two crucial choices: either bring up heavy clothing and winter-weight fuels and prepare supply dumps appropriate to winter weather, or bring up ammunition and fuel to support the advance on Moscow. It’s not difficult to guess the choice German commanders made, nor the results: soldiers shivered in gabardine uniforms, while their vehicles’ gearboxes froze solid.

But the defeat in front of Moscow only exposed the operational and strategic failures of the campaign against the Soviet Union. Other strategic blunders soon followed. In the midst of the growing disaster on the Eastern Front, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and four days later, Hitler declared war on the United States before an enthusiastic Reichstag. While Hitler seemingly never bothered to consult his senior military leaders—many of whom he was firing for the troubles in the east—there is little evidence they would have advised an alternative course. The navy leadership, for one, had been urging Hitler to declare war on the United States since midsummer. When Hitler inquired of his military staff in East Prussia whether anyone knew where Pearl Harbor was, not a single officer could locate the base on the globe—astonishing strategic and geographic ignorance for people planning to conquer the world.

Intelligence failures were another major contributor to Germany’s ultimate defeat. For example, as the Allies successively broke Germany’s most important codes, its military hierarchy remained oblivious. In fact, the Germans were surprisingly ignorant of their enemies. The Soviets were able to disguise virtually every one of their major offensives from 1942 to the end of the war through the skillful use of deception operations; a key factor in their success was continued German contempt for those “subhumans” on the opposing side of the Eastern Front. Matters were no better on the Western Front, where the Allies executed a series of elaborate deception operations to convince the Germans the great French amphibious invasion would come at Pas de Calais. Even after the Allies fought their way ashore in Normandy, deception operations continued to persuade the OKW the main landing was yet to occur at Pas de Calais.

Well before the events of 1944, it should have been clear to Germany the war was lost. But the military leadership, its back covered by a regime that ensured the absolute obedience of its people, fought on to the bitter end. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, whom many German generals accused postwar of not understanding strategy, had astutely prepared for the Allied assault on the basis that if the Wehrmacht failed to stop the landing itself, the war was irrevocably lost. He was right; in fact Rommel had a far better grasp of strategy than did his critics.

World War II historian Gerhard Weinberg has best encapsulated the strategic comprehension of most German military leaders. He notes that their memoirs consistently followed the line, “If the führer had only listened to me…,” but that they failed to grasp what serious study of the war’s history and strategy surely suggested: “The war would have lasted another six months, and the Americans would have dropped the atomic bomb on Germany.”


For further reading, Williamson Murray recommends his own A War to Be Won: Fighting the Second World War, with coauthor Allan R. Millett, as well as A World at Arms, A Global History of World War II, by Gerhard L. Weinberg, and The First World War: Germany and Austria-Hungary, 1914– 1918, by Holger H. Herwig.

Originally published in the January 2010 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here