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In a recently completed 12,000-page work, German scholars take a long unblinking look at Nazi Germany in World War II.

One of the greatest projects ever undertaken in the field of military history began in the mid-1970s when Germany’s Militärgeschictliches Forschungsamt (MGFA),or Military History Research Institute, commissioned a comprehensive study of World War II from a German perspective. Thirty years, ten volumes, and more than twelve thousand pages later, Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg (published in translation as Germany and the Second World War) is complete. It stands as an indispensable work that has fundamentally changed our understanding of the Third Reich, the war it instigated, and the German people who fought it to a finish.  

The MGFA is institutionally part of the German military, and many of the series’ authors are MGFA employees. But they are also established scholars who have published extensively in their fields and collectively are a who’s who of post–World War II German military historians. In fact, the MGFA, an organization with the autonomy and independence to tackle such broad and sensitive issues, has no counterpart in the United States or Britain; in no sense is this series an official history. Nor was it intended as a conventional, operationally focused account of strategy, campaigns, and generals. Rather, it was conceived as a comprehensive presentation and analysis integrating political, social, economic, and ideological elements—the approach commonly known as the “new military history.” As the project developed, it expanded to address the reshaping of minds and behaviors by a regime committed to molding a new society as it waged total war.

Manfred Messerschmidt, the MGFA’s chief historian from 1970 to 1988, sustained the project’s autonomy despite periodic differences of opinion with the Bundeswehr and the work’s ever-lengthening timetable for completion (in part because of significant political and organizational changes wrought by Germany’s reunification). Fortunately, the project’s unusual longevity became one of its strengths, allowing a new generation of scholars to offer their perspectives, which particularly inform the series’ final two volumes on Germany’s development as a total war society.

Each of the 10 volumes consists of specialized studies by different authors. They are coordinated and integrated by an editor—who is usually a contributor as well—and he presents the volume’s general line of argument. Such a format invites entropy, but it is a tribute to the professionalism and collegiality of the MGFA that each section of a volume complements the rest, and that each volume complements the series. Sometimes, though, the work resembles a jazz group more than a symphony: one dispute led to a lawsuit between two contributors. Nevertheless, by any standards—particularly in a culture where memories are long and academic controversy is an art form— Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg stands as a model of voluntary intellectual cooperation.

The conclusions presented by the series have been anything but committee-bland. When the first volume was published in 1979, West German approaches to World War II were dominated by two principles: that the German people were, at worst, marginally complicit in the crimes of the Nazis, and that the German soldiers bore a “clean shield” as men fighting honorably for their country.

The first three volumes began reevaluating those shibboleths in the context of another theme recurring throughout the series: the Nazis’ ineptitude in waging war. In Volume I, Wolfram Wette demonstrates the connection of Nazism to the German mainstream—its appeal to militarism, racism, and nationalism; its promises of restoring a sense of community sacrificed to political democracy and economic competition. Wilhelm Deist brilliantly presents the Wehrmacht’s insufficient preparation for war as a consequence of ideologically conditioned blindness to the military limitations of even a rearmed Germany.

In Volume II, Klaus Maier and Bernd Stegmann demonstrate the shortcomings of German air and sea power, and write an excellent chapter on the Reich’s defeat in the Battle of Britain—a defeat that rendered the spectacular continental victories of 1940 ultimately sterile. In Volume III, Gerhard Schreiber focuses on Hitler’s failure to establish true alliances rather than satellite relationships in which Germany always maintained the upper hand. Stegmann’s analysis of the North Africa campaign, from German intervention to Erwin Rommel’s defeat in Operation Crusader, is shaped by a subtext on the operational risks of waging war on a shoestring.

It was with Volume IV, however, that the series made a comprehensive intellectual breakthrough—by ripping aside the Wehrmacht’s supposed insulation from the crimes of its masters and beginning a quarter-century’s rigorous investigation of this painful and controversial subject. Published in 1983, the volume depicts what amounted to a plundering raid on an unprecedented scale. Jürgen Förster and Rolf-Dieter Müller stress the essentially colonial nature of Nazi Germany’s intentions. Conquered Russia was expected to be a source of labor, food, and raw materials for an overstrained German economy. That meant ruthless, systematic exploitation. Among the strongest and surely the most impassioned sections of the volume are those in which Förster, a leading authority on the Wehrmacht’s internal dynamics, exposes its systematic complicity in and support for Hitler’s genocidal policies. Far from holding themselves aloof, generals and privates alike accepted and acted on Nazi proclamations of a war of conquest and annihilation. Ideology and propaganda, posits Förster, were translated into military orders and put into place with few detectable qualms.

Volume IV also explores Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of Russia. Two historians—Ernst Klink on the army and Horst Boog on the Luftwaffe—portray a Wehrmacht victimized by its own unrealistic expectations. The great initial victories did not destroy the Red Army and left too much of the Soviet state unswallowed. Hitler and his generals continued attempting to force a decision, as a stumbling man seeks to restore his balance by increasing his pace. Rolf-Dieter Müller presents a black comedy of errors behind the lines: of overlapping jurisdictions and contradictory programs, of nothing going right because nothing was planned. Operational superiority became a rapidly waning asset because it could not be sustained materially.

With Volume V, the focus on fighting fronts shifts to the organization and mobilization of the Reich’s war effort in Germany and the conquered countries. Part I of the volume was published in 1988; Part II appeared 11 years later. Each is more than a thousand pages long. Intellectually the most formidable of the series, Volume V establishes the centrality of total war to National Socialist ideology. A permanent struggle for existence and power was the essential means of transforming Germany and Europe on the Nazi model. At the same time, the history demonstrates beyond question that the Reich never took a coherent approach to waging such a war. Its contributors depict instead a bewildering farrago of uncoordinated, overlapping plans, and decisions that were anything but conducive to the mobilization and deployment of Germany’s limited resources.

In Part II, Rolf-Dieter Müller explores the disintegration of Germany’s economy and war-making capacity in the context of Albert Speer’s takeover of the armaments inspectorates in 1942. He credits Speer with overcoming the war economy’s confusions and contradictions, and giving production fresh emphasis. But the “armaments miracle” depended too much on one man’s personality and ambition. Hitler’s growing mistrust of a potentially overmighty subordinate led to challenges for control of diminishing resources. One result was an inability to replace material losses. Another was a growing technological backwardness that led to an emphasis on “miracle weapons.”

Worth particular attention in that context is Müller’s persuasive argument that weapons of mass destruction—chemical, biological, and nuclear—“were beyond what the dictator and his political system could cope with…the American atom bomb meant a breakthrough in modern warfare, one from which Hitler shrank.” It was arguably the only thing from which Hitler shrank during the entire war. Instead he pinned his faith on conventional breakthroughs like the V-weapons—and on production levels that a crumbling Reich had no possibility of sustaining.

Volume VI, published in 1990, played a critical role in reshaping German perspectives on the war. It fully integrated the Reich’s war into a global conflict previously overlooked or marginalized by a German-centered approach. No less significantly, the volume established 1942 to 1943 as the period in which it became clear to the Reich’s leaders—its military leaders in particular—that the war was lost.

In “Hitler’s ‘Second Campaign,’” Bernd Wegner traces the blitzkrieg’s erosion during the struggle for the Caucasus and Stalingrad in 1942, highlighting the weakening of the German military just as Britain and the United States were bringing their power into play. Horst Boog presents the increasingly bleak prospects of a Luftwaffe whose resources were stretched to the breaking point even before the Allies’ combined bomber offensive kicked into high gear. Werner Rahn describes the synergistic failure of the Kriegsmarine’s U-boats and surface forces to close the sea routes between the United States, Britain, and Russia. Here, too, Germany was unable to match the material capacity of its enemies with operational virtuosity, which proved in any event to be increasingly unsustainable. Reinhard Stumpf projects the consequences in his analysis of the transformation of the North Africa campaign to a drawn-out endgame by the spring of 1943. By then, the authors conclude, Germany’s leadership was “increasingly moving in a fantasy world…not infrequently against their own better knowledge.” The world paid a bitter price for the moral failure of “good Germans” in high places.

Volume VII is built around the Anglo-American counteroffensive against the Reich and stands out for its surprisingly glowing appraisal of Allied planning. Detlef Vogel’s analysis merits wide circulation as a corrective to the growing body of literature stressing the flaws and shortcomings of the Anglo-American effort. Vogel sharply contrasts the Allies’ systematic preparedness with German randomness and improvisation. The D-Day landings were a triumph of combined war. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower was able to strike balances among the interests of his subordinates and sustain the confidence of his political leaders. His broad front did not produce spectacular victories. It did bring about a relatively rapid German defeat at the cost of relatively low casualties—both major Allied objectives.

Vogel raises the key question of why German senior officers continued fighting in the west even though they knew it was senseless. His answer—that some wished to set the stage for an “honorable” defeat, others feared punishment for their deeds in the service of the Reich, and others by that time systematically disregarded wider military realities—is a study in professional corruption, which is developed in the next volume.

Bernd Wegner and a no less talented newcomer to the series, Karl-Heinz Frieser, carry the weight of the eighth volume, which focuses on the eastern front in 1943 and 1944. This was the period of the Wehrmacht’s greatest disasters, a time during which it became impossible for a rational soldier not to understand that the war was lost. The campaign nevertheless remains significantly neglected. Western literature, academic and popular, focuses on the run-up to D-Day and the subsequent operations. German literature is dominated at one end by the self-exculpatory memoirs of senior officers, and at the other by technical studies of armored vehicles and personal accounts of hand-to-hand combat against overwhelming odds.

Wegner and Frieser fill this gap in a thousand pages that combine some of the best operational analysis of World War II in any language, and some of the most perceptive perspectives on the German path to catastrophe in this series. Frieser takes the story from the Battle of Kursk through the “forgotten year” of 1943, with its “cascade of dramas and tragedies” that saw a definitive shift of the initiative to a Red Army whose growing operational effectiveness could only be matched locally, and then to the great Soviet victories of 1944: the destruction of Army Group Center, the rupture of the front, and the great retreat into Courland and Hungary.

Frieser’s analysis of the Battle of Kursk, incorporating fresh Soviet material, is alone almost worth the price of the book. He presents a battle that was more of a tactical standoff than is generally understood, but nevertheless was a strategic defeat that left German generals staring at their maps and left their men with a growing sense of hopelessness. He sustains both images in presenting the next 15 months as a series of case studies in improvisation, with an ever-dwindling material base and an ever-shrinking bag of tactical tricks, against the backdrop of Hitler’s obdurate refusal to accept an operational defensive. And Frieser’s narratives are so clear they can be followed with minimum dependence on the excellent maps.

Wegner provides the framework, initially by discussing Germany’s limited strategic options between Stalingrad and Kursk, particularly Hitler’s refusal to consider any kind of separate peace with any of his enemies. He wraps up the volume with a biting critique of the strategy of wishful thinking that Germany adopted in the final stages of a long-lost war—a strategy for downfall that radicalized and brutalized German war making at all levels. In these apocalyptic contexts the Allied campaign in Sicily and Italy is fortunate to receive 60 pages—good ones, but establishing by omission the marginality of the later Mediterranean campaign to Germany’s war.

Volume IX is another two-parter that, like Volume V, can be read separately. It focuses on German society in the Second World War. Its approach is “history from below,” emphasizing the experiences of ordinary men and women of the Reich on both the home front and battlefront. The work demonstrates that Hitler’s ultimate intention was not to win the war, but to remold German society fundamentally, dismantling its institutions and discrediting its heritage to make way for a New Order. The war merely forced his hand and stepped up his pace.

The concept of the Third Reich as a revolutionary society was not new, but Volume IX offered a degree of substantiation whose influence on academic and popular writing is still developing. Part I provides a comprehensive look at the propagandistic vision of a people’s community at arms, the charismatic rule of Adolf Hitler, and the free rein given to violence on both foreign and home fronts. The contributions here, particularly in Part II, demonstrate with startling clarity the exploitation and dehumanization that permeated the whole of German society, from the factories to the countryside. Anyone looking here for “good Germans” is in the wrong place.

Volume X, the final volume, upholds the standards of its predecessors. With old hand Rolf-Dieter Müller coordinating another team of young scholars, it, too, is published in two parts. The first focuses on the destruction of the Wehrmacht. The contributions are remarkably successful both in their research bases— material on the German collapse is still episodic—and in focusing on a common question: What kept men under arms in the final stages of a catastrophically lost war? Müller posits that the fate implied in the Allies’ demand for unconditional surrender could assume terrifying form to men who had seen—and participated in—the things done “in the name of the Third Reich.”

The Wehrmacht went out fighting and it went down hard. Like the German people, it neither saw nor sought an alternative. That is the theme and the subtext of Part II. At only 800 pages, it is a pamphlet compared to its fellows. Its contributors nevertheless address with little sympathy such still-controversial issues as the Allied treatment of German POWs, the postwar expulsion of Germans from eastern and southern Europe, the Red Army’s behavior once it crossed the German frontier, even the contentious issue of the morality of the Allied bomber offensive. The volume, and the series, ends by suggesting that Hitler had long been aware the war was lost and instead of a glorious final victory he sought a heroic downfall, a götterdämmerung he pursued until his suicide in 1945.

Of course, Hitler did not fight his war alone. Without moralizing, the young scholars of Volume X conclude that the Germans have internalized an important lesson: never again to make war independently, if indeed at all. But at the same time they establish the truth aphorized by playwright Carl Zuckmayer: “Whoever was the devil’s general on this earth, and who bombed the path for him, has to be his quartermaster in hell.”

As it draws to a close, Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg, a monumental project of exacting scholarship, comes as close as any single work can to describing, analyzing, and understanding a phenomenon that will continue to challenge reason as long as history is written and studied.


Originally published in the May 2009 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here