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Cross of Iron: The Rise and Fall of the German War Machine, 1918-1945

by John Mosier, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2006, $27.50

John Mosier is certainly one of the more prolific recent authors of military history books. In 2001 he brought forth The Myth of the Great War, in which he suggested, among other things, that the 1916 Battle of Verdun was in reality a German success, and that only American intervention saved the British from the consequences of their own incompetence. This was followed in 2003 by The Blitzkrieg Myth, in which he takes to task just about every serious historian of World War II for a variety of alleged sins, while undoubtedly not bothering to read their works. Now Mosier brings us Cross of Iron, his newest tome on the German army. This book is so awful that it refutes the comment, often attributed to Vladimir Lenin, that quantity has a quality all its own.

What Mosier does here is to combine the errors of his first two books into one volume. He still maintains that it was only American intervention that saved the Entente Powers in World War I. Mosier’s evidence for this is a quote to that effect after the war by Paul von Hindenburg. Conveniently omitted is the fact that on August 8, 1918, the British routed the German defenses at Amiens with a massed tank attack, an event Erich Ludendorff termed “the black day of the German Army,” which also convinced him that the war was lost.

World War I, however, constitutes only a small part of the book. The vast majority of its pages are devoted to the interwar period and World War II. Like Mosier’s other work on blitzkrieg, there is very little here that is new. Perhaps his most interesting claim is that the German military establishment displayed traits of passive-aggressive behavior toward Adolf Hitler. That foray into group psychoanalysis notwithstanding, the rest of Cross of Iron is an oft-told tale that contains mostly conventional opinions on the German army.

Like his previous book, Mosier tries to present as new a great many ideas about the German military that have been better told elsewhere or have been superseded by more recent scholarship. A good example of the latter concerns Mosier’s reflections on the Luftwaffe. Mosier details the deleterious effect of Ernst Udet on the Luftwaffe’s development, a well-known story. Mosier clings to the dated notion that the Luftwaffe was subordinate to the German army. This ignores two generations of serious students of German air power, including Horst Boog, Klaus Maier, James Corum, Richard Muller, Joel S.A. Hayward and Adam Claasen, all of whom have produced well-documented works arguing that the Luftwaffe was much more than a secondary service. Mosier also fails to ask why, if the Luftwaffe was subordinate to the army, did the army demand that part of the Luftwaffe actually be subordinated to it? To answer this question, of course, Mosier would actually have had to read German air doctrine or the after-action reports of the army divisions in the Polish campaign, where the complaints about the Luftwaffe’s conduct were set forth in detail.

If one word can be used to describe this book, it would be “lazy.” The research for this book, if it can be called that, simply defines that word. Two examples of this concern the Spanish Civil War and the character of the German march into Austria. Mosier spends a number of pages elaborating on what Germany learned, failed to learn or should have learned in Spain. His major source for this is Basil Liddell Hart’s interview with Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma in The German Generals Talk. Mosier would have done much better to read the German army’s own weekly journal, the Militär Wochenblatt, nearly every issue of which during the Spanish Civil War contained major articles on the conflict, its conduct and the military implications for the future.

Likewise, in regards to the German move into Austria, Mosier contrasts the depictions of the march by Heinz Guderian and Winston Churchill. He correctly notes Churchill’s description of the march as being a debacle, but Churchill is hardly an authoritative source. Mosier would have done better to read the reports filed by the divisions that executed the march, which are quite explicit as to what happened. In this regard, one of the oddities of the book is that Mosier gives thanks to the National Archives in his acknowledgments. One has to wonder what the Archives staff did for him, because aside from one set of photographs mentioned in a note, there is no evidence that he actually read a single contemporaneous document before writing his book.

The secondary sources Mosier uses are mostly dated. Aside from a few recently published French works, and major figures such as Gerhard Weinberg, Mosier generally relies on very old sources. Thus, while still claiming that he is the first to examine the initial armored clashes between the Germans and French in Belgium, Mosier overlooks the fine work on these actions by Jeffery Gunsburg. Even more amazing is the complete omission of any mention of the excellent “semiofficial” history done by the historians of Germany’s Office of Military Historical Research (MGFA). This history now totals eight volumes, seven of which have been translated into English.

The end result of Mosier’s approach to research is a bad book. Most of what he says that is correct has already been told elsewhere and better. Too much of this work, however, is simply Mosier venting opinions that are not supported by the available evidence, such as his minimizing the contribution of the Red Army to Germany’s defeat in the war. Although Mosier can write decently, at times his prose does become a tad opaque. This, though, is evidence of the publisher skimping on a good copy editor. More problematic is the tone of the book, which might be described as careening from being overly self-confident to simply being smug.

Nevertheless, one must give Mosier his due. In the field of German military history, where bad books can proliferate like rabbits, the author has produced one so bad it overwhelms all the other bad books by its sheer overpowering awfulness. For this reason, Mosier wins the Friedrich Paulus Award, for the worst book in German military history.


Originally published in the March 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here