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 “Blitzkrieg,” more than any other word, conjures up the pace of military operations during World War II. As soon as it is spoken, you can almost hear the clank of tank treads and the screech of Stuka dive bombers as they drive everything before them. Armed with this catchword, anyone can explain Germany’s startling victories in Poland and France in 1939 and 1940 and immediately be understood.

Given the seemingly effortless conquest of much of Europe, even today it is assumed by many that what happened in 1940 was the result of blitzkrieg, a revolution in waging war that was the brainchild of a handful of German leaders determined to demonstrate the capabilities of a Wehrmacht that had been restored to its former glories by the new Nazi regime. Historians, students and the media frequently refer to the Wehrmacht and its blitzkrieg armored campaigns of 1939-1940.

I.C.B. Dear and M.R.D. Foot’s monumental The Oxford Companion to World War II says that blitzkrieg (“lightning war”) is “a German word, now Anglicized, which has been attributed to Adolf Hitler, and was probably coined for intimidation purposes.” In Louis L. Snyder’s Encyclopedia of the Third Reich, blitzkrieg encompasses “military tactics inaugurated by Hitler and carried out by such combat commanders as General Heinz Guderian.” The online encyclopedia Wikipedia gives credit for the concept to German armored commander Guderian.

While the assumption is understandable, it is wrong. No German general ever titled a single tactical or strategic doctrine “blitzkrieg.” It does not appear in any Wehrmacht field manual, and when asked about the term’s origin, Hitler dismissively said, “The expression is an Italian invention; we picked it up from the newspapers.” Blitzkrieg, which is now defined by Webster’s New World College Dictionary as “any sudden, overwhelming attack,” was first used in the way it has come to be understood by Time magazine in its September 1939 issue covering the invasion of Poland (see story, P. 50). “This was no war of occupation,” the news magazine said, “but a war of quick penetration and obliteration— Blitzkrieg, lightning war.”

It was the conquest of France that really gave life to the current meaning of blitzkrieg. When the smoke cleared, it was difficult for soldiers on both sides to explain how a numerically and technically inferior force had been able to destroy one of the largest and most professional armies in the world in a matter of weeks. Reflecting on the triumph, Guderian said, “The success of the attack struck me almost as a miracle.”

The victors were as stunned as the vanquished. To explain it, Germany’s generals—many of whom according to Wehrmacht historian Karl-Heinz Frieser in his valuable book, The Blitzkrieg Legend: The 1940 Campaign in the West (Naval Institute Press, 2005), had opposed the idea of sending vulnerable armored columns deep behind enemy lines in the first place—saw what had happened as the dawn of a new era of warfare. They now began to believe in the blitzkrieg hype that was flowing from the Allied and Axis press. Seeing this as proof that their Führer, who had worked tirelessly to rebuild Germany’s armed forces, was a military genius who had devised this modern method of waging war to complement his dynamic new state, the Nazi leadership was all too happy to oblige the generals.

But their conclusion was fatally flawed. According to historian Robert Citino, World War II’s book review editor and the author of several books on the blitzkrieg and the German military: “There never was any such thing as blitzkrieg. The Germans rarely used the word, and never used it in any precise way. Rather, they spoke of Bewegungskrieg (the war of movement on the operational level)—high speed maneuver to achieve a decisive battlefield victory on the corps/army level. It was not new, but something very, very old—dating back at least to the time of the Prussian army under Frederick the Great. In any possible wartime scenario, Prussia (and later, Germany) would be facing enemies on all sides that outnumbered or out-produced it. If victory were not achieved early, then most German planners knew it would not be achieved at all.”

Maybe it’s unfair to criticize Germany’s generals for being a little carried away with their own success, but many historians now acknowledge that the outcome had more to do with history and the results of the last war than any military revolution springing from Hitler’s fertile imagination. Smug in their victory of 20 years before, French and British military leaders were firmly convinced that the strong defenses that had won them “the war to end war” would win the next one, too.

Lacking the manpower to fight the battle the Allies expected, the Wehrmacht had done what its predecessors had done for generations: It massed what it had at decisive points—gaining local superiority—to break open the front. It worked. France was defeated not by a methodically planned and flawlessly conducted lightning attack, but by a combination of a failed Allied defensive strategy, the proper application of advances in technology, the skill and professionalism of a German military that had been training in earnest—and luck. As Frieser makes clear, blitzkrieg was “a consequence, not a cause of victory.”

The silver lining, if you can call it that, to the cloud that descended over Europe following the German victories of 1939-40 is that the victors began to believe in their own invincibility. Assured that the Führer had devised a way to ensure cheap, rapid conquests, a year later Germany launched an invasion of the Soviet Union with a force incapable of conducting the prolonged war to follow.


Originally published in the March 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here