The Nazi dictator’s victory over the German General Staff led to battlefield defeat.
Shortly after the end of World War II, Lieutenant General Hasso von Manteuffel, one of Germany’s most skilled field commanders, was asked for his assessment of Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler’s military competence. According to Donald Grey Brownlow’s biography Panzer Baron, Manteuffel revealed: “Hitler had read a lot of military literature, and was also fond of listening to military lectures. In this way, coupled with his personal experience of [World War I] as an ordinary soldier, he had gained a very good knowledge of the lower level of warfare – the properties of the different weapons; the effect of ground and weather; the mentality and morale of troops. He was particularly good in gauging how the troops felt. I found that I was hardly ever in disagreement with his view when discussing such matters. On the other hand, he had no idea of the higher strategical and tactical combinations. [Hitler] had a good grasp of how a single division moved and fought, but he did not understand how armies operated.”
Manteuffel’s comment about Hitler’s knowledge of the “lower level of warfare” is particularly telling, because much of the outcome of World War II in Europe rested on the result of a power struggle for control over strategy between the former World War I corporal and the vaunted German General Staff. The victory of Corporal Hitler over the General Staff was a triumph both of ideology over military theory and, as Manteuffel imparts, of tactics over strategy.
HITLER VS. THE GENERAL STAFF
Hitler’s domination of his generals and, most important, his subjugation of the General Staff was a process that began in 1934 and concluded in 1941. To a great degree, Hitler’s experiences in World War I fuelled this effort – the struggle and defeat in that war was the seminal event of his life. Indeed, the trenches cast a long shadow over many of the senior figures in the Nazi Party, which by 1933 was dominated by a cabal of former World War I junior officers and non-commissioned officers. Yet these men had very limited experience of military operations above the company level, let alone the realm of grand strategy and operations of massive armies controlled by the General Staff.
Hitler’s rise to political power, however, was aided by his association with Germany’s two most famous World War I General Staff officers: General Erich Ludendorff, who was active in the Nazi Party until the failed Munich “Beer Hall” putsch in 1923; and Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, who as Germany’s Reichs-president appointed Hitler chancellor in January 1933 (although Hindenburg looked upon Hitler with distaste, partly because of their political differences and partly due to his antipathy toward upstarts from the lower ranks). Yet neither Ludendorff nor Hindenburg was by that time actively involved in the German army, which until 1933 had little interest in Hitler and his Nazis.
The Nazis were outsiders when it came to their dealings with the army and the General Staff; each side viewed the other with suspicion and caution. Hitler, however, won over many in the army when, from June 30-July 2, 1934, he purged the Sturm Abteilung (the Nazi Party’s paramilitary “Brown Shirts”), whose alarming growth had threatened the army’s primacy and independence. As a result, he managed to extract from the army a loyalty oath sworn to him by all military personnel. All ranks were now bound by their honor to give “unconditional obedience” to Adolf Hitler. This was a hugely significant step forward in his gradual domination of the General Staff. Yet a later coup in 1938 was perhaps even more significant.
Hitler began planning for his new European war in earnest in 1936. He appointed Hermann Göring to head the office of Plenipotentiary of the Four Year Plan to speed up preparation for war, and in 1937 he conducted a number of meetings during which he explicitly stated the urgency for a war of plunder. In response, senior figures in the War Ministry and on the General Staff began to voice grave misgivings about Hitler’s ambitious plans.
However, it was not a lack of nationalist ardor that prevented Minister of War Werner von Blomberg, a serving field marshal of the General Staff, to oppose Hitler’s ambitions; rather, it was Blomberg’s concern that the German army was far from prepared for war. Similarly, Foreign Minister Konstantin von Neurath and Commander in Chief of the Army Colonel General Werner von Fritsch advised caution until the German military machine could be made fully ready. But within months all three men would be purged. In early 1938, what became known as the Blomberg-Fritsch Affair erupted. Both high-ranking officers were exposed to public humiliation when Blomberg’s new wife was revealed as a former prostitute and Heinrich Himmler’s SS created false claims that Fritsch had a hidden homosexual past. Hitler cynically used the Blomberg-Fritsch scandals to manipulate the resignations of both officers. In effect, Hitler accomplished a coup that removed from the military the two most prominent stumbling blocks to his aggressive plans.
Hitler made the most of this opportunity by creating the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW) – a new supreme command of Germany’s armed forces – and placing a reliable lackey, General Wilhelm Keitel, at its head. Throughout 1938, a clean sweep of generals opposed to Hitler’s plans occurred (at least 70 were removed from command or transferred) and effectively the General Staff was “Nazified.” The effect of these actions was to concentrate huge decision-making power in Hitler’s hands. Battlefield initiative, within the parameters of overall objectives, had been the key to German successes since 1870. But in a stroke Hitler’s actions in 1938 killed one of the most important attributes of the German army – its ability to function effectively without excessive centralization.
There still remained a few generals, such as Chief of the General Staff Ludwig Beck, who opposed Hitler’s plans; yet their main objection at that time continued to be that the German military needed a much longer preparation period before fighting a general war. Beck attributed Hitler’s aggressive plans to poor military advice caused by the General Staff’s eroding influence, and he likened the High Command situation Hitler had created to “anarchy.” In 1938, Beck warned: “If the current anarchy becomes a permanent condition, then the future destiny of the Wehrmacht in peace and war, indeed the destiny of Germany in a future war, must be painted in the blackest of colors.” Beck resigned in August 1938 and spent the next two years contemplating a coup against Hitler. However, Hitler’s string of bloodless triumphs had made him so popular that any plan to overthrow him and the Nazi regime at that time was unrealistic.
When general war in Europe did break out as a result of Hitler’s decision to invade Poland in September 1939, the German military’s rapid defeats of Poland, Norway, Denmark, France, Belgium and the Low Countries only further convinced Hitler that he, not the General Staff, could best command. However, even the stunning May-June 1940 campaign that defeated French, British and Belgian armies was marred by Hitler’s command decision, the effect of which was to keep Britain in the war.
The invasion of France and Belgium, following General Erich von Manstein’s masterful plan that lured British and French armies into Belgium and then cut them off with a panzer-tipped “sickle cut” through the Ardennes, saw the General Staff and Hitler fully concordant with one another. Here was an example of the military thinking in which Hitler had a real interest: bold tactical maneuvers that were a far cry from the static trench warfare he had endured in World War I. Yet in the May 27-June 4, 1940, Dunkirk evacuation, 200,000 British Expeditionary Force (BEF) troops and 140,000 French soldiers escaped across the English Channel to Britain as a direct result of one of Hitler’s most fateful military decisions of the war.
“Bluster” is the term historian Ian Kershaw ascribes to the claim Hitler later made that he had purposely spared the BEF by approving a “halt order” stopping German panzers from advancing and annihilating the trapped Allied armies. However, the halt order had little to do with Hitler’s good will, and instead should be seen as a product of his last-minute vacillation and overall lack of certainty about how best to press home an advantage. Although Army Group A commander General Gerd von Rundstedt and 4th Army commander General Günther von Kluge had cautioned Hitler that the unexpectedly rapid German advance across France had exhausted the troops and that the terrain before Dunkirk was unsuitable for tanks, Hitler held the final authority. He approved the fateful halt order on May 24.
Another factor influencing Hitler’s decision to approve the halt order was that Luftwaffe chief Göring had promised that the BEF could be destroyed on the beaches from the air. The Luftwaffe’s subsequent inability to destroy the BEF was due to greater than expected resistance from the Royal Air Force and Göring’s lack of thorough preparation. Yet this was a perfect example of the looming crisis that would engulf Hitler’s command of the war: the hasty and ill-judged replacement of General Staff planning by the Nazi ideology-inspired musings of enthusiastic amateurs. Göring would time and again make exaggerated promises about the efficacy of German airpower over Britain and Russia; but by the time the shortcomings in the Luftwaffe’s capability were revealed, it was too late.
When Hitler returned to Berlin following the defeat of France, the ecstatic response from the German people and his near universal popularity was a clear signal to his generals that his position was unassailable. To Hitler it was also a clear validation of his role as the embodiment of the German people’s “will” and as a historic figure touched by providence. With Hitler already supremely assured of his own military vision, his risk-taking command style took its most decisive leap forward after the fall of France. However, the 1940 French campaign can hardly be thought of as Hitler’s personal triumph, but rather as Manstein’s brilliant plan vigorously executed by bold operational commanders. Indeed, Hitler’s intervention prevented the victory from being decisive by allowing the BEF to escape and Britain to fight on.
Hitler’s next fateful command decision – to invade the Soviet Union – raised his risk-taking to the highest level yet and demonstrated the final eclipse of strategy by ideology.
Hitler toyed with launching Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, in late 1940 but was persuaded by the General Staff to postpone it until summer 1941. His offensive in the East not only began the greatest clash of arms in history, but also led to his final victory over the General Staff. Although the late 1930s had been a crucial period in Hitler’s efforts to dominate the General Staff, he decisively won that struggle in the winter of 1941 with the German army at the gates of Moscow.
The invasion began on June 22, 1941, and although huge areas of the western Soviet Union were overrun, by late autumn Barbarossa had failed to achieve most of its key objectives. Foremost among these failures was the inability to defeat the Red Army completely. Despite crushing successes, it had not destroyed all Soviet field armies and many more were being created from the USSR’s seemingly inexhaustible manpower reserves – and as long as Soviet forces remained to fight on, Barbarossa’s ultimate success was in jeopardy. The backbone of the Soviet state had not collapsed as Hitler had confidently predicted, and the Nazi extermination of Soviet Jews, previously an afterthought, suddenly took center stage.
The folly of Hitler’s risky strategy of launching the war in the East was exposed by the stiff resistance and surprising resilience of the Red Army, the vast distances and huge area the German army had to conquer, and the severe Russian elements (the immobilizing quagmire from autumn rains followed by savage winter conditions). By the beginning of December 1941, a deadly combination of factors had led inexorably to a collapse of German military capability on the very outskirts of the Soviet capital: Barbarossa’s delayed start (moved from mid-May to June 22); Hitler’s disinterest in swiftly moving on Moscow in the campaign’s crucial opening weeks; overextended supply lines; and exhausted troops and worn-out panzers.
The unexpected Soviet counteroffensive launched on December 5 and led by Red Army divisions transferred from Siberia and the Far East demonstrated a huge failing in German intelligence and resulted in a decisive battlefield setback for German forces. Yet Hitler used his generals’ reaction to the Soviet counteroffensive to complete his total victory over the General Staff. When Chief of the General Staff Franz Halder and 4th Army commander Field Marshal Günther von Kluge began an unauthorized withdrawal of German forces in the face of surging Soviet armies, Hitler was outraged. The idea of a withdrawal was alien to the seasoned trench fighter. He understood war from the perspective of a corporal and demanded martyrdom, heroic self-sacrifice and suicidal patriotism from the German soldier in the interests of the wider goals of National Socialism.
Hitler was convinced that ideological zeal alone could win the day and that the real source of weakness stemmed from generals who lacked the commitment to or belief in Nazi political doctrine. He dismissed several senior officers, notably Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch, commander of the German army. Hitler forbade all withdrawals of German units on December 20, 1941, and insisted that the German army fight to the last man if necessary. He later argued that his “no retreat” order prevented a full-scale rout by the Soviets. His claim has some merit, although it eventually proved to be but a postponement of inevitable German defeat in the East.
The danger for the German army after December 1941 was that without Brauchitsch the last barrier between it and direct operational control by Hitler was gone – that month saw the final emasculation of the General Staff. The disaster at Stalingrad a year later (August 1942- February 1943) should be seen in this context. The largely unnecessary destruction of German 6th Army on the Volga was a disaster almost completely of Hitler’s making. The scale of the catastrophe and the diminution of the General Staff are not coincidental; one is a product of the other. Once again, Hitler allowed ideological priorities to take precedence over sound strategic thinking.
Like Hitler, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin distrusted his military commanders. Unlike his Nazi counterpart, however, Stalin realized that he would be far more likely to survive the war if he allowed his competent commanders, such as Georgi Zhukov, Konstantin Rokossovsky and Ivan Konev, to fight the war for which they had trained. Perhaps the key difference between Hitler and Stalin when evaluating them as military commanders is this: Hitler believed his generals to be fools and mediocrities whom he dismissed and belittled, but whom he never suspected might plot to assassinate him; Stalin realized his generals were indeed very useful and very skilled, and he simply waited until the war was won to arrest, dismiss or demote them (notably Zhukov, whom Stalin considered “too popular”).
From December 1941 onward, Hitler’s enemies in the General Staff as well as those in civilian and intelligence circles again began to discuss the possibilities of removing the Nazi dictator. However, only after mid-1944 did circumstances arise offering the plotters a credible chance of successfully overthrowing him.
OVERLORD AND VALKYRIE
By 1944, Hitler’s personal command of Germany’s armed forces had produced a series of disasters on the Eastern Front when, on June 6, the Western Allies opened a second front in France with Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy. Since Hitler’s disastrous command of the German military had by then destroyed the initiative-based, decentralized decision-making apparatus, field commanders responsible for Atlantic Wall defenses in France lacked the freedom of action necessary to react immediately to throw Allied invaders back into the sea. (See What Next, General? in the September 2013 issue of ACG.)
Moreover, Hitler’s centralization of intelligence analysis greatly aided the effectiveness of the Allies’ massive effort to deceive the Germans (Operation Fortitude) as to the location and timing of the invasion. Hitler, who had insisted that he have an unprecedented role in interpreting signals decrypts, fell for the Allies’ deliberate misdirection that the main invasion would land at Calais. His insistence that a cross-Channel invasion would come at Calais blinded him to other possibilities – and staff officers who disagreed were mindful to keep their opinions to themselves. The success of D-Day, achieved initially by a relatively vulnerable and comparatively small force of 156,000 Allied troops, was the result of German paralysis created by Hitler’s ideological and egomaniacal personal command.
In the critical first weeks after the Allied landings, Hitler continued to direct overall strategy from Germany, but with little understanding of the realities of the fighting progressing in Normandy. The success of Overlord, however, gave the anti-Hitler plotters a renewed sense of urgency to strike before the dictator led Germany to total defeat. Operation Valkyrie, the plan to assassinate Hitler and open negotiations with the Allies to end the war, was put in motion. Key plotters included Beck, General Henning von Tresckow, General Friedrich Olbricht and Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg.
Realistically, the hope that assassinating Hitler would lead to negotiations with the Allied Powers was the stuff of fantasy. Since U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s announcement at the January 1943 Casablanca Conference that only unconditional surrender by the Axis Powers would be accepted, there had been little chance of a negotiated peace, with or without Hitler. Moreover, in 1943 the British and Americans issued a joint statement promising punishment for all Germans involved in the mass murder of Europe’s Jews. That put senior German officers and officials on notice that Allied retribution would not be limited to Hitler alone and gave them a compelling incentive to distance themselves from him.
Although on July 20, 1944, Stauffenberg successfully planted a bomb near Hitler inside his East Prussia field headquarters, the resulting explosion merely injured the dictator. After the failed coup, Hitler’s retribution was swift and deadly. Thousands of military personnel and civilians were arrested over the ensuing weeks and months, and nearly 5,000 were executed (including Olbricht and Stauffenberg on July 20) or forced to commit suicide (Beck on July 20 and, although apparently only peripherally involved in the plot, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel on October 14). The massive scope of Hitler’s retaliation effectively destroyed organized resistance to his dictatorship for the remainder of the war.
The effect on Germany’s military leadership was that it further degraded battlefield effectiveness – a field commander’s fervid commitment to Nazi ideology triumphed over military skill and professional competence. The most egregious example is Hitler’s January 25, 1945, appointment of SS chief Himmler – whose military experience consisted of non-combat service in a World War I reserve battalion – as commander of Army Group Vistula on the Eastern Front. Himmler’s predictably incompetent military command proved too disastrous even for Hitler to countenance, and he replaced Himmler with General Gotthard Heinrici on March 20.
Hitler’s victory over the General Staff ensured Germany’s defeat, arguably as early as December 1941 when Operation Barbarossa failed at the gates of Moscow. However, in December 1944 Hitler guaranteed that the Third Reich’s days were numbered when he overruled the advice of the General Staff for the last time and launched the Ardennes Offensive. Using most of Germany’s remaining mobile reserves of troops and panzers in a desperate gamble through the Ardennes to seize Antwerp, the Battle of the Bulge (December 16, 1944-January 25, 1945) epitomized Hitler’s personal command of military operations – it achieved some tactical success, but from the outset was a strategic dead end. Just over three months after the battle ended, Hitler was dead by suicide in his Berlin bunker and Germany had surrendered unconditionally to the victorious Allies.
Perhaps the most telling statement regarding Hitler’s effectiveness as a military commander is the fate of Operation Foxley, a British Special Operations Executive (SOE) covert plan to assassinate the Nazi dictator. In 1944, SOE decided to abandon Foxley upon realizing that a post-Hitler restoration of the German General Staff would present the Allies once more with highly effective, professional battlefield leadership. SOE judged that Hitler’s continued handling of the war was one of the Allies’ most important advantages.
Nick Shepley is a British writer and historian specializing in 20th-century conflict. He is the creator of the “Explaining History” series of e-books and regularly writes at www.explaininghistory.com on a wide range of modern historical themes.
Originally published in the November 2013 issue of Armchair General.