Guderian: Panzer Pioneer or Myth Maker?
By Russell Hart. 146 pp. Potomac Books, 2006. $13.95.
Except for the glamorous Erwin Rommel, no German general is better known than Heinz Guderian. His memoir, first published in English as Panzer Leader (1952), became a bestseller in the United States. As with Rommel (and, for that matter, Wernher von Braun), Americans at that Cold War moment were eager to embrace heroes from the German side of World War II, and Guderian’s attractions were self-evident. For one, he had fought the Russians, our ally-turned-archenemy. For another, he could make a plausible case that, eastern front commander or not, he was not a mass murderer.
But it wasn’t only his memoir that made Guderian a legend. Historians used his words to shape a conventional wisdom, which runs something like this: This great pioneer of the tank invented blitzkrieg in the 1930s. He followed that up with a brilliant career as a field commander in the early war years, especially in Poland and France. Later, as he rose to the top of the German military hierarchy, he desperately tried to talk some sense into Adolf Hitler, resisting the führer’s increasingly inane decisions and standing foursquare against the murderous racial policies of the Third Reich. In the postwar era of crises and threats, he was the epitome of the “good German,” a dedicated professional who had done his duty to his country and was untainted by the Reich’s crimes.
As Russell Hart shows in this fine new book, the conventional wisdom about Guderian is wrong—and stands as a rebuke to generations of historians, including noted scholars like Basil Liddell Hart and Kenneth Macksey, about the potential snares of drawing on such a source uncritically.
Basing his book on a great deal of recent research by authors like Geoff Megargee and James Corum, Hart stays mercilessly on target. Far from being the inventor of blitzkrieg, Guderian was just one among many tank experts in prewar Germany. Ernst Volckheim, a World War I tank commander, and Col. Oswald Lutz, Guderian’s superior officer, were just as important as Guderian to the eventual development of the panzer forces. But their personal approach was dramatically different: they worked to advance the cause of the tank with tact and circumspection. They understood the value of armored force but argued that it had to operate within a combined arms environment, in which the infantry, artillery, and air power would all be equal partners.
Guderian, on the other hand, was a tank fanatic who made strident claims for his branch, seeing tanks as a miracle weapon that could win modern battles single-handedly and demanding an ever-greater share of increasingly scarce Wehrmacht resources. Guderian’s greatest success, in fact, may have been in how completely he alienated superior officers and rival services alike.
And so it goes with the entire Guderian myth. Hart portrays the great German victories in Poland and France as intensive team efforts, not the byproducts of Guderian’s genius. Indeed, Hart demonstrates that Guderian was a very uneven commander. Very much like Rommel in the way their legends have obscured the less pleasant truths about them, Guderian drove his men and tanks well beyond their limits of endurance; he regularly disobeyed orders whenever he felt like it; and, although he was a skilled offensive commander, he was completely at sea when the situation turned and he had to hold a defensive position.
Then there are his moral claims. Hart convincingly shows that far from being a good soldier and model antiNazi, Guderian was utterly loyal to the Reich; the truly gargantuan bribes he received from Hitler to the very end of the war cemented him to the regime—and, not coincidentally, made him one of the Wehrmacht’s wealthiest officers. A single payment in the spring of 1942 amounted to 1.25 million marks—more than fifty years’ salary for an officer of Guderian’s rank. He even received a vast estate in occupied Poland; its rightful owners had, of course, been booted out into the cold. And while there are no concrete examples of Guderian ordering massacres in the East, the facts are clear: his troops carried them out with gusto and with little attempt to hide them. It is hard to imagine that he did not know of the atrocities taking place under his command. Indeed, the silence in the general’s memoir on the subject “strongly suggests Guderian’s acceptance of such brutality,” in Hart’s words.
Not surprisingly, Guderian’s version of his role in the anti-Hitler movement is also highly embellished. The conspirators did contact him to see if he would cooperate, but he preferred to play footsie with both sides while he waited to see who came out on top. When Hitler survived the July 1944 “bomb plot,” Guderian eagerly presided over the kangaroo “honor courts” that handed down death sentences for dozens of his fellow officers.
How does a figure this disreputable become a legendary white knight? Looking over his own research and analysis, Hart argues that Panzer Leader became the key source for credulous historians with Cold War agendas and beliefs. He points out the obvious: like all memoirs, Guderian’s was a “self-serving and distorted” version of events, and so he took personal credit for all the victories, denied any responsibility for all the defeats, and invented fierce arguments with Hitler that apparently never took place.
Over time, history tends to debunk all heroes. Some books tarnish their subject, and some knock the bust clear off the pedestal. Hart’s lasting achievement is how he turns Guderian’s legend into Humpty Dumpty: after this book, no one could put it together again.
Originally published in the October 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.