Share This Article

Was it Hitler? Or the overrated German General Staff?

After the Second World War ended German dreams of world conquest, many of the Third Reich’s generals wrote self-serving, exculpatory memoirs depicting themselves as military professionals who had had no connection with Nazi ideology. They had offered Adolf Hitler, they said, sage military advice, which he had consistently spurned—to the detriment of the war effort. But a closer look at the historical record reveals a German high command fraught with internal feuding, poor intelligence, confused strategies, and no global vision—a far cry from the invincible German behemoth the world had feared. M Dysfunction in the German high command is evident as far back as the invasion of Poland in September 1939. While Hitler remained mostly detached from the detailed planning for the invasion, his senior army leaders enthusiastically embraced the idea of smashing Poland, which they regarded with deep loathing, largely because the newly created Polish nation contained much territory that had been German before 1914. Still, they apparently did not expect Hitler to charge Heinrich Himmler and his SS with exterminating Poland’s elites and concentrating Poland’s Jews in ghettos. Once they became aware of SS atrocities, several senior generals—including Colonel General Johannes Blaskowitz, commander of the military occupation of Poland—complained to Berlin. It was the only time in the war that would happen, and for obvious reasons: Blaskowitz received a severe reprimand for his political naïveté from the army’s commander in chief, Colonel General Walther von Brauchitsch. Blaskowitz was nonetheless allowed to continue to serve to the end of the war, but unlike some of his contemporaries, he would never be promoted to field marshal.

Ironically, the conquest of Poland placed Germany in a serious economic and strategic position. The British blockade bit deeply into the German economy, while the Germans found their neighbors unwilling to export to the Reich without hard currency payments in return, little of which the German treasury possessed. Hitler determined to solve his economic problems by launching an offensive in November 1939 into the Low Countries and France, the conquest of which would bring access to far greater sources of raw materials. The OKW (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, or armed forces high command) issued orders to that effect in early October. The result was an explosive argument between Hitler and the army generals, one of the most serious in the history of the Third Reich. Historians have interpreted the blowup as a disagreement over the timing and planning of operations, but it was nothing of the sort. Leading generals, notably Brauchitsch and the chief of the General Staff, Franz Halder, wanted to delay a western offensive because they were concerned about the performance of their regular and reserve units during the military operations in Poland. They were working to incorporate lessons learned there into a massive training program to correct the deficiencies.

Weather intervened on the side of the generals: An early and exceptionally cold winter delayed, then ended, the possibility of a German offensive before the following spring. By that time the training program had rectified the weaknesses that had been evident in Poland, and the generals had come up with a far more innovative plan for the invasion of France and the Low Countries: Their forces would break through along the Meuse rather than drive through the Low Countries to the Somme. The generals’ plan was a great success. After piercing the Allied line and crossing the Meuse at Sedan and Dinant in mid-May, the Germans pushed on to the Channel coast, flanking and trapping the British Expeditionary Force and much of the French army’s left wing. Then, while they were still south of the Allied forces at Dunkirk, German units received a halt order. After the war the great panzer general Heinz Guderian claimed, along with other generals, that Hitler was entirely responsible for the order. Yet his own war diary indicates he had requested a halt for “rest and refit,” so that his armored force would be ready for the move to defeat the remainder of the French army. The subsequent escape of the British from Dunkirk was largely due to the failure of the German military to recognize that the sea is a highway, not just the end of land.

In the short term, though, the victory over France ensured that Germany could go on to fight a long war, as it now had access to a vastly increased economic and raw material base. But that victory also reinforced Hitler’s belief that he was a military genius, an idea that his acolytes in the OKW delightedly encouraged. With the signing of the armistice that resulted in Vichy France in late June 1940, Hitler and his generals believed they had essentially won the war. As Alfred Jodl, the OKW’s operations officer, noted, the “final victory of Germany over England is only a question of time.”

The last two weeks of June 1940, Hitler visited World War I battlefields and engaged in a triumphant whirlwind tour of Paris. Yet the Germans’ situation was not as favorable as they believed: They had squandered the limited resources of their navy, the Kriegsmarine, on the strategically dubious invasion of Norway and ongoing operations there. The navy’s strategic ineptitude was underlined in the summer of 1941, when Grand Admiral Erich Raeder and Admiral Karl Dönitz, commander of U-boats, tried to persuade Hitler that the Third Reich should declare war on the United States for purely tactical reasons, to allow their U-boats a wider scope for attacks on Britain’s vital sea lines of communications. Evidently, they simply ignored the vast economic potential of the United States.

Meanwhile, instead of wrestling with ways to beat the British, the Germans focused on celebrating their defeat of France. When it finally dawned on them that the British were not going to quit fighting, the senior military leaders quarreled over how to finish off Britain. Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, head of the OKW, described an amphibious assault on the British Isles as nothing more than “a river crossing.” Army plans called for a 90-mile assault area—nearly twice the area the Allies would target in June 1944 and a task far beyond any capabilities the German navy possessed, even if there was no opposition from the Royal Navy. The Kriegsmarine itself suggested such a small landing area that the German attacking forces would have had no chance of success.

Both services did agree that no landing would be successful without Luftwaffe air superiority. But the Luftwaffe was not up to the task. Its intelligence capabilities were appallingly bad; its initial assessment of the RAF and Fighter Command was wrong in nearly every respect, except for the number of fighters the British possessed. The Germans also failed to understand that British radar formed the eyes of an integrated air defense system. With no clear intelligence picture, German efforts at strategic bombing—which were superior technologically and conceptually to those of the British and Americans—floundered from one target set to another. Hitler had little confidence in either the Luftwaffe’s air campaign or in Operation Sea Lion, the code name for the amphibious assault on Britain, and he hardly participated in their planning.

Indeed, even as the Luftwaffe was fighting the Battle of Britain, Hitler’s attention was consumed by dreams of conquest in the east. The army, however, had beaten him to the punch. In the summer of 1940 the new field marshal, Brauchitsch, and General Staff chief Halder had begun planning for an invasion of the Soviet Union. Two reasons appear to have driven their decision: They did not want the focus of military effort to shift to the navy and the Luftwaffe, which a major offensive against Britain would do; and the Communist enemy was clearly in their sights. At the end of July, they met with Hitler, who made clear his desire to settle matters with the Soviets by spring 1941.

Hitler maintained that desire until the campaign was finally under way in June 1941. The Soviet invasion had the enthusiastic support of both the army and Luftwaffe, the latter delighted to abandon its costly campaign against the British for what its leaders regarded as an easy opponent. As the Luftwaffe chief of staff Hans Jeschonnek exclaimed, “At last a proper war.”

Though the army was put in charge of planning Operation Barbarossa—the campaign against the Soviet Union—Hitler almost immediately interfered, at times distorting the planning processes but doing little to counter the worst aspects and assumptions in the army’s approach. The generals and Hitler all assumed the war against the Soviet Union would be short: They discounted the political stability of Josef Stalin’s regime and firmly believed the masses of “subhuman” Russians, controlled by their Bolshevik-Jewish rulers, would be unable to mount an effective resistance against the Wehrmacht.

Hitler and his generals also agreed about another aspect of the invasion: This was to be a racial-ideological war to exterminate Russia’s Jewish population and enslave its Slavic population. Special SS battalions, the Einsatzgrüppen, were to undertake many of the initial atrocities, but the army’s senior leaders were fully apprised of the activities of these groups. And Hitler made it clear to army leaders that they were charged with providing logistical support and whatever additional help was needed to round up Jews and other undesirables for slaughter. Throughout Operation Barbarossa, army commanders cooperated enthusiastically with the SS in perpetrating crimes that heralded the “Final Solution.”

The other major mistakes in logistics and planning for the east- ern invasion had nothing to do with Hitler but were entirely within the army’s province. In July the army’s geographic section informed German planners that the industrial center of the Soviet Union had shifted far to the east from where it had been in pre–World War Russia. Over 40 percent of the Soviet military-industrial complex now lay in the Urals or beyond. That simple fact alone should have suggested that the Soviets were capable of prolonged resistance, yet it apparently did not.

German logistical planning was also woeful. By the fall of 1940, after a series of studies and war games had been undertaken, it seemed clear that the German spearhead of panzer divisions would get only two-thirds of the way to Moscow and Leningrad and barely past Kiev before they would run into substantial logistical difficulties. The army planners simply dismissed that warning with the assumption that the Wehrmacht would destroy the Red Army in the border areas and the Soviets would quickly collapse. Thereafter, German forces would be able to march swiftly into the depths of Russia without requiring significant logistical support. Although railroads were crucial to any resupply efforts, German railroad repair crews, needed to convert the Soviet gauge tracks to German gauge, received the lowest priority among the units moving into the Soviet Union.

To complicate planning even further, the choice of Russian targets remained in dispute: The German army’s initial plan focused on Moscow, the Soviet capital, but the OKW, reflecting Hitler’s desires, argued for drives on Leningrad as well as on Ukraine. Instead of choosing where to focus the German effort, General Staff chief Halder obfuscated.

In simple terms, the final German plans involved smashing into the Soviet Union to see what would turn up, an echo of Erich Ludendorff’s Michael Offensive in March 1918. The German plans for the invasion had no strategic direction and scant operational focus. The clearest evidence of high-level confusion was the fact that Colonel General Erich Hoepner, commander of Fourth Panzer Group, remained unclear during the first week of the campaign about whether his main mission was to protect the left flank of Army Group Center in its advance on Smolensk or to lead Army Group North’s drive on Leningrad. As a result, he did neither.

By the end of July, with the German advance finally under way, its problems became clear. In early August Halder noted in his diary:

The whole situation makes it increasingly plain that we have underestimated the Russian colossus, who consistently prepared for war with that utterly ruthless determination so characteristic of totalitarian states….At the outset of the war we reckoned with about 200 enemy divisions. Now we have already counted 360. These divisions indeed are not armed and equipped according to our standards, and their tactical leadership is often poor. But there they are, and if we smash a dozen of them, the Russians simply put up another dozen. The time factor favors them, as they are near their own resources, while we are moving farther and farther from ours.

After the Second World War, German generals argued that the 1941 “August pause” resulted from the arguments over where to advance. Their considered military advice, they claimed, had been to move on Moscow, but Hitler had wanted a drive into Ukraine. Those arguments did occur but had little to do with that so-called pause. The reality was that the German logistical system could barely bring forward sufficient fuel and ammunition for Wehrmacht troops to fight the next day’s battles, much less build up the supply dumps required to sustain an advance into the depths of Russia. In July, as the Halder diary suggests, a series of ferocious counterattacks by the Red Army’s reserve formations had broken on German spearhead units. These reserve formations were badly equipped, ill trained, and often badly led. They had suffered terrible losses yet had managed to inflict heavy casualties on the Germans.

At this point the Germans should have reexamined their basic assumptions, their overall strategy, and the operational situations they faced. They did nothing of the kind. Hitler had neither the background nor the inclination to do so in view of his increasing belief in his invincibility, and the army leadership was no more perceptive about the need to rethink Barbarossa’s original assumptions. The operation continued, with Hitler winning the argument to focus on Ukraine. Sufficiently resupplied to go on the offensive, the Second Panzer Group, driving from the north, and the First Panzer Group, driving from the south, trapped more than 600,000 Soviet soldiers in the great Kiev encirclement of September 1941.

This tactical success further whetted the appetites of the generals as well as the führer for an advance on Moscow, even though it was already autumn. Operation Typhoon, the drive on Moscow, began in early October. Fourth Panzer Army moved south from Leningrad, while Second Panzer Army moved back north and joined Army Group Center. Meanwhile, the warnings from the despised logistical experts were clear. The army faced two choices: Wait until the supply system brought up winter uniforms, winter-weight oil, and reserves of ammunition and fuel for the coming trials of winter, in case the advance into the depths of Russia stalled; or continue its advance on Moscow with the logistical system supporting the heavy fighting. In the latter case, the system would not be able to prepare for the rigors of the Russian winter.

What should have tipped the balance for the first choice was that Russia was about to begin the period known as the rasputitsa, when autumn rains would turn roads to mud. Then, within the month, cold temperatures would solidify the mud—which brought its own problems. The German military had experienced all of this in the First World War, so what was about to happen should not have surprised the Wehrmacht’s senior leaders. Yet it did.

After winning a series of impressive victories and capturing another 600,000 Soviet soldiers in the opening week of Operation Typhoon, the German advance slithered to a halt in a sea of mud. For the next month German mechanized formations struggled forward at scarcely a mile a day, hardly the pace that panzer division leaders had come to expect. Matters began to improve in mid-November, when temperatures dropped below freezing and frozen roads made travel somewhat easier. At a meeting of the chiefs of staff of the army groups, Halder commented that the drop in temperatures would now allow the resumption of the drive on Moscow—and perhaps it would not snow until mid-January. In response, the warnings from the Wehrmacht’s logistical experts were even clearer than they were at the end of September: The army would be almost completely unprepared for winter if the advance on Moscow continued. Thus, the generals were fully and repeatedly apprised of looming dangers. Had they warned Hitler, there is little doubt that he would have ordered them to push on. But they delivered no such warnings because they were as eager as he was for the advance to continue.

Their folly became evident in early December 1941. Exhausted German troops, short of ammunition and equipped only with summer-weight oils and fuel and gabardine uniforms, ran into a reinvigorated Red Army in front of all three German army groups. At Rostov, less than 100 miles from Ukraine’s border, the Soviets had stopped the advance of Army Group South; in front of Leningrad, Army Group North had come to a shuddering halt; and in front of Moscow the Red Army’s counteroffensive threatened to destroy Army Group Center. These crushing defeats sparked a major row between the führer and his generals. Brauchitsch was fired, as were the three army group commanders—Field Marshals Gerd von Rundstedt, Wilhelm von Leeb, and Fedor von Bock—and a number of army commanders, including Heinz Guderian. Hitler also issued a “stand fast” order that prohibited any retreat. The German forces on the Eastern Front barely hung on over the terrible winter and on several occasions came close to breaking. While Hitler’s order probably saved the army from utter collapse, he would remember the army’s survival through that brutal Russian winter as a notable success.

Along with his purge of army leadership in December 1941, Hitler ordered a major reorganization of the Wehrmacht. He named himself army commander in chief in addition to his duty as the Wehrmacht’s overall commander. The army’s high command now found itself limited to operations on the Eastern Front, while the OKW became responsible for the Mediterranean and defense of the coast of Western Europe. No overall authority aside from Hitler was responsible for the Reich’s war effort against what was now a global coalition.

That global coalition had coalesced when Hitler made the foolhardy decision to declare war on the United States four days after the attack on Pearl Harbor—with no input from his military. Had he asked for their advice, there is every indication they would have concurred. The Kriegsmarine’s leadership had pushed for a declaration of war on the United States the summer before, while the Luftwaffe and army, largely uninterested in the U.S., would probably have deferred to the führer. That general lack of interest in and knowledge about the nature of a global war became obvious after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor: When Hitler asked his commanders, including his naval officers, where the American navy base was located, not a single one knew.

The bifurcation of German strategy into an Eastern and Western war thoroughly compartmentalized the thinking of senior military leaders. By putting himself in charge and otherwise decentralizing command, Hitler ensured that only he could connect the strands of an increasingly complex and threatening situation. There was some muttering among senior army generals in favor of a more unified approach to Germany’s strategic challenges, but for the most part the top generals were content to wage their particular wars in isolation. Only General Erwin Rommel understood the larger issues, and he was largely ignored.

As Robert Citino has made clear in his insightful book Death of the Wehrmacht, the 1942 campaign seasons in the east and the Mediterranean began with enormous successes for Germany, because the Wehrmacht was allowed, without interference, to dictate the form operations took. In the East the Eleventh Army won a series of victories over the Soviets in Crimea, devastating their forces on the Kerch Peninsula and taking the great fortress port of Sevastopol. At the same time Rommel administered a crushing defeat to the British in north Libya then swiftly captured the strategic coastal city of Tobruk.

But from that high point in the summer of 1942, German fortunes went downhill. Logistics proved the fatal weakness of German military operations, exacerbated by their pervasive overconfidence in their ability to dominate opponents. Operation Blue, the German drive into the steppes of Russia, had neither focus nor objective. Was it supposed to inflict another series of major defeats on the Red Army? Capture Stalingrad? Cut off oil supplies to Soviet forces? Capture the oil fields of the Caucasus? Hitler surely added to the confusion by repeatedly changing his focus, but Halder and the army high command failed to bring clarity to that operation.

In North Africa Rommel continued the German drive east beyond Tobruk in an attempt to knock the British out of Egypt. But the iron law of logistics had stalled his forces at El Alamein. Rommel’s attempt to restart the offensive collapsed under British firepower in September 1942. His new opponent, the future field marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, declined to follow up that tactical victory and instead continued to reequip and retrain British forces. Then in late October Montgomery launched a massive attack against Rommel in the Second Battle of El Alamein. Instead of engaging in a battle of maneuver, Montgomery used his superior air and artillery firepower to grind the German forces to dust. Recognizing the inevitable, Rommel ordered his battered forces to retreat—until a preemptive order from Hitler to stand fast further exacerbated the damage.

For Axis forces in the Mediterranean, matters went from bad to worse. On November 8, 1942, Anglo-American forces landed in Morocco and Algeria, threatening Italian and German forces from the west. Rommel urged an immediate abandonment of North Africa in view of enemy superiority in air and naval power, a reality he had experienced firsthand. Instead, Hitler, with the support of the OKW and Field Marshal Albert Kesselring—overall German commander in the Mediterranean and one of the most overrated commanders in the Second World War—made plans to occupy Tunisia, first with paratroops then with extensive reinforcements by sea. Hitler and Kesselring argued that such a move was necessary to keep Benito Mussolini’s Fascist regime from collapsing, but both also discounted Rommel’s concerns over the air, naval, and ground forces that the Allies could bring to bear on the Tunisian bridgehead. Hitler and Kesselring thus committed a sizable force to an Allied trap. When defeat came in May 1943, Allied POW camps were filled with the remnants of Rommel’s Army Group Afrika and the massive German reinforcements that had flooded into Tunisia. The Luftwaffe also suffered heavy losses in its attempts to fly supplies and reinforcements into the Tunisian bridgehead.

While matters were collapsing in the Mediterranean in autumn 1942, an even greater disaster to German arms developed on the Eastern Front. The Sixth Army’s drive had petered out deep in the Caucasus, without capturing the vital oil fields, and on the outskirts of Stalingrad. But Hitler had become enamored of the idea of taking Stalin’s city, and a series of assaults pulled more and more German units into Stalingrad, where fierce urban combat bled them white. Hitler was the main culprit behind the assault on Stalingrad, but he heard few alternative suggestions from his senior officers.

The German failures and reversals on the Eastern Front precipitated another major internal fight between Hitler and his senior military staff, and he fired a number of commanders as well as Halder. What none of the Germans saw coming—not Hitler, not the German intelligence services, not the senior generals—were the two massive blows that the Red Army was about to deliver to their troops on the ground.

On November 19, 1942, Operation Uranus struck the flanks of the German Sixth Army as it was attempting to batter the Soviets out of what was left of Stalingrad. Six days later another massive offensive, Operation Mars, attacked the Rzhev salient outside Moscow in Army Group Center’s sector. The first quickly surrounded Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus’s Sixth Army. The second failed completely—a major Soviet defeat—but Stalingrad more than made up for Rzhev. While Luftwaffe commander in chief Hermann Göring promised that the Luftwaffe could keep the trapped German forces supplied (it couldn’t), the army generals had no clear idea how to break through to relieve Paulus and his troops—or what the next step should be if they succeeded.

Hitler’s miscalculations again contributed mightily to a disaster, but German intelligence was also at fault; it had failed to pick up information on the Soviet buildup in the Stalingrad area. For the remainder of the war, Soviet deceptions managed to hoodwink Wehrmacht intelligence on the location of major Red Army offensives. This failure had nothing to do with Hitler, although it was one more sign that the army officer corps, from top to bottom, had accepted Nazi ideology about the “subhuman” nature of the Slavic peoples.

Once the Sixth Army was trapped in Stalingrad, its defeat was inevitable. There was no coherent German strategy for the Eastern Front except to hang on. Wehrmacht field marshal Erich von Manstein pushed for a blow against the Soviet’s Kursk salient, about 300 miles south of Moscow, but that was a bad idea from the beginning—and Hitler made it worse by postponing the effort until July 1943. The Battle of Kursk brought a total of 3 million men, 8,000 tanks, and 5,000 warplanes into play, but Hitler’s delays had allowed the Soviets time to build up armor, personnel, and defenses that far exceeded German forces. Even as the German offensive collapsed in the face of superior enemy power and preparedness, Manstein urged its continuance. So much for the strategic competence of Manstein, reputedly the Wehrmacht’s greatest strategist.

The defense of the Western Front in 1944 is another indication of the extraordinary weaknesses in Ger- man military planning and understanding of the issues facing the Reich. Once again, there were divergent views among German leaders as to how to defend Fortress Europe against the impending Anglo-American assault. On one side stood the aging field marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, who argued that it was impossible to hold the beaches and that the Wehrmacht should conduct a flexible defense of the Reich’s frontiers.

On the other side stood Rommel, who believed that Germany had to stop the Allied invasion on the beaches or the war would be lost to Anglo-American logistics and air power. Should the Western powers establish a lodgment on the coast of France, he argued, they would win the battle of the buildup while hindering German efforts to replenish forces and supplies. Rommel nearly won that argument. As late as mid-May 1944, he urged that the 12th SS Panzer Division be moved to Carentan, where it might well have had a disastrous impact on the Allied landings. But Hitler overruled Rommel. Then, in the early morning hours of June 6 as the invasion began, Hitler’s OKW aides refused to awaken him with the news. Thereafter, Fortress Europe was lost.

In those last years of the war, Hitler had often overruled his generals on decisions ranging from global strategy to local operations. Yet the record shows that most top generals offered few effective alternatives. Their overconfidence in German might and tactical brilliance led to a pervasive dysfunctionality that crippled the Reich’s ability to fight a war on multiple fronts. The old lessons in flexibility, surprise, and command initiative that had long propelled the German military forward (see “The Birth of German Militarism,” page 30) seem in World War II to have been lost on Hitler and his high command.


Williamson Murray has taught military and diplomatic history at Yale, Ohio State, all three U.S. military war colleges, West Point, and Annapolis. He is the author of numerous books on war and strategy, including Successful Strategies: Triumphing in War and Peace from Antiquity to the Present (May 2014).

Originally published in the July 2014 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.