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Adolf Hitler used the creation of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht to complete his subjugation of the German General

Staff. This move put much of the decision making in his hands and eventually led to the defeat of the German army. N O V E M B E R 2 013 ARMCHAIR GENERAL 25

Hitlers offensive in the East not only began the greatest clash of arms
much longer preparation period before fighting a general war. Beck attributed Hitlers aggressive plans to poor military advice caused by the General Staff s eroding influence, and he likened the High Command situation Hitler had created to anarchy. In 1938, Beck warned: If the current anarchy becomes a permanent condition, then the future destiny of the Wehrmacht in peace and war, indeed the destiny of Germany in a future war, must be painted in the blackest of colors. Beck resigned in August 1938 and spent the next two years contemplating a coup against Hitler. However, Hitlers string of bloodless triumphs had made him so popular that any plan to overthrow him and the Nazi regime at that time was unrealistic. (See Hitlers Bloodless Triumphs, 1935-39, p. 27.) When general war in Europe did break out as a result of Hitlers decision to invade Poland in September 1939, the German militarys rapid defeats of Poland, Norway, Denmark, France, Belgium and the Low Countries only further convinced Hitler that he, not the General Staff, could best command. However, even the stunning May-June 1940 campaign that defeated French, British and Belgian armies was marred by Hitlers command decision, the effect of which was to keep Britain in the war.

However, it was not a lack of nationalist ardor that prevented Minister of War Werner von Blomberg, a serving field marshal of the General Staff, to oppose Hitlers ambitions; rather, it was Blombergs concern that the German army was far from prepared for war. Similarly, Foreign Minister Konstantin von Neurath and Commander in Chief of the Army Colonel General Werner von Fritsch advised caution until the German military machine could be made fully ready. But within months all three men would be purged. In early 1938, what became known as the Blomberg-Fritsch Affair erupted. Both high-ranking officers were exposed to public humiliation when Blombergs new wife was revealed as a former prostitute and Heinrich Himmlers SS created false claims that Fritsch had a hidden homosexual past. Hitler cynically used the Blomberg-Fritsch scandals to manipulate the resignations of both officers. In effect, Hitler accomplished a coup that re-

DUNKIRK The invasion of France and Belgium, following General Erich von Mansteins masterful plan that lured British and French armies into Belgium and then cut them off with a panzer-tipped sickle cut through the Ardennes, saw the General Staff and Hitler fully concordant with one another. Here was an example of the military thinking in which Hitler had a real interest: bold tactical maneuvers that were a far cry from the static trench warfare he had endured in World Hitler (seated, far left), pictured here with fellow German soldiers during World War I, served in War I. Yet in the May 27-June 4, 1940, Dunkirk Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment No. 16 on the Western Front and was twice decorated for evacuation, 200,000 British Expeditionary Force service. His experiences in the trenches cast a shadow over his future military decisions. (BEF) troops and 140,000 French soldiers escaped across the English Channel to Britain as a moved from the military the two most prominent stumbling blocks to direct result of one of Hitlers most fateful military decisions of the war. his aggressive plans. Bluster is the term historian Ian Kershaw ascribes to the claim Hitler made the most of this opportunity by creating the OberkomHitler later made that he had purposely spared the BEF by approving mando der Wehrmacht (OKW) a new supreme command of Gera halt order stopping German panzers from advancing and annihimanys armed forces and placing a reliable lackey, General Wilhelm lating the trapped Allied armies. However, the halt order had little to Keitel, at its head. Throughout 1938, a clean sweep of generals opposed do with Hitlers good will, and instead should be seen as a product of to Hitlers plans occurred (at least 70 were removed from command his last-minute vacillation and overall lack of certainty about how best or transferred) and effectively the General Staff was Nazified. The to press home an advantage. Although Army Group A commander effect of these actions was to concentrate huge decision-making power General Gerd von Rundstedt and 4th Army commander General Gnin Hitlers hands. Battlefield initiative, within the parameters of overall ther von Kluge had cautioned Hitler that the unexpectedly rapid Gerobjectives, had been the key to German successes since 1870. But in a man advance across France had exhausted the troops and that the stroke Hitlers actions in 1938 killed one of the most important attribterrain before Dunkirk was unsuitable for tanks, Hitler held the final utes of the German army its ability to function effectively without authority. He approved the fateful halt order on May 24. excessive centralization. Another factor influencing Hitlers decision to approve the halt There still remained a few generals, such as Chief of the General order was that Luftwaffe chief Gring had promised that the BEF Staff Ludwig Beck, who opposed Hitlers plans; yet their main objeccould be destroyed on the beaches from the air. The Luftwaffes subtion at that time continued to be that the German military needed a sequent inability to destroy the BEF was due to greater than expected 26 A R M C H A I R G E N E R A L N O V E M B E R 2 013


in history, but also led to his final victory over the General Staff.
resistance from the Royal Air Force and Grings lack of thorough preparation. Yet this was a perfect example of the looming crisis that would engulf Hitlers command of the war: the hasty and ill-judged replacement of General Staff planning by the Nazi ideology-inspired musings of enthusiastic amateurs. Gring would time and again make exaggerated promises about the efficacy of German airpower over Britain and Russia; but by the time the shortcomings in the Luftwaffes capability were revealed, it was too late. When Hitler returned to Berlin following the defeat of France, the ecstatic response from the German people and his near universal popularity was a clear signal to his generals that his position was unassailable. To Hitler it was also a clear validation of his role as the embodiment of the German peoples will and as a historic figure touched by providence. With Hitler already supremely assured of his own military vision, his risk-taking command style took its most decisive leap forward after the fall of France. However, the 1940 French campaign can hardly be thought of as Hitlers personal triumph, but rather as Mansteins brilliant plan vigorously executed by bold operational commanders. Indeed, Hitlers intervention prevented the victory from being decisive by allowing the BEF to escape and Britain to fight on. Hitlers next fateful command decision to invade the Soviet Union raised his risk-taking to the highest level yet and demonstrated the final eclipse of strategy by ideology.

Hitlers Bloodless Triumphs, 1935-39

A string of unopposed victories sent Adolf Hitlers popularity soaring with the German public and stifled opposition within the military: MARCH 1935 Institution of compulsory military conscription and creation of Luftwaffe (air force), Kriegsmarine (navy) and army panzer divisions (all violations of the 1919 Versailles Treaty). MARCH 1936 Remilitarization of the Rhineland. MARCH 1938 Anschluss (annexation) of Austria. OCTOBER 1938 Occupation of Czechoslovakias Sudetenland (result of the September 1938 Munich Agreement). MARCH 1939 Seizure of remainder of Czechoslovakia.

BARBAROSSA LEFT: This 1930s German political poster features images of President Paul von Hindenburg and Hitler toyed with launching Operation Bar- Adolf Hitler along with the slogan The Marshal and the Corporal ... Fight With Us For Peace barossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, in late and Equality. Hindenburg appointed Hitler chancellor of Germany in January 1933. 1940 but was persuaded by the General Staff to RIGHT: Hitler appointed Gen. Wilhelm Keitel, one of his trusted lackeys, as head of the newly postpone it until summer 1941. His offensive in created Oberkommando der Wehrmacht in 1938. the East not only began the greatest clash of arms in history, but also led to his final victory over the General Staff. The folly of Hitlers risky strategy of launching the war in the East Although the late 1930s had been a crucial period in Hitlers efforts was exposed by the stiff resistance and surprising resilience of the Red to dominate the General Staff, he decisively won that struggle in the Army, the vast distances and huge area the German army had to conwinter of 1941 with the German army at the gates of Moscow. quer, and the severe Russian elements (the immobilizing quagmire The invasion began on June 22, 1941, and although huge areas of from autumn rains followed by savage winter conditions). By the bethe western Soviet Union were overrun, by late autumn Barbarossa ginning of December 1941, a deadly combination of factors had led had failed to achieve most of its key objectives. Foremost among these inexorably to a collapse of German military capability on the very outfailures was the inability to defeat the Red Army completely. Despite skirts of the Soviet capital: Barbarossas delayed start (moved from crushing successes, it had not destroyed all Soviet field armies and mid-May to June 22); Hitlers disinterest in swiftly moving on Moscow many more were being created from the USSRs seemingly inexin the campaigns crucial opening weeks; overextended supply lines; haustible manpower reserves and as long as Soviet forces remained and exhausted troops and worn-out panzers. to fight on, Barbarossas ultimate success was in jeopardy. The backThe unexpected Soviet counteroffensive launched on December 5 bone of the Soviet state had not collapsed as Hitler had confidently and led by Red Army divisions transferred from Siberia and the Far predicted, and the Nazi extermination of Soviet Jews, previously an East demonstrated a huge failing in German intelligence and resulted afterthought, suddenly took center stage. in a decisive battlefield setback for German forces. Yet Hitler used his N O V E M B E R 2 013 ARMCHAIR GENERAL 27


Hitlers disastrous command of the German military had destroyed

February 1943. Adolf Hitler (second from right) and a few of his generals look at maps during a briefing at the headquarters of Army Group South near Saporoshje, Ukraine. Hitlers ideological beliefs combined with his weakening of the General Staff proved to be a recipe for disaster during World War II. Pictured with Hitler are Field Marshal Erich von Manstein (third from left), Gen. Theodor Busse (behind Hitler), and Gen. Kurt Zeitzler (far right).

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the initiative-based, decentralized decision-making apparatus.

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Realistically, the hope that assassinating Hitler would lead to

itary commanders is this: Hitler believed his generals to be fools and mediocrities whom he dismissed and belittled, but whom he never suspected might plot to assassinate him; Stalin realized his generals were indeed very useful and very skilled, and he simply waited until the war was won to arrest, dismiss or demote them (notably Zhukov, whom Stalin considered too popular). From December 1941 onward, Hitlers enemies in the General Staff as well as those in civilian and intelligence circles again began to discuss the possibilities of removing the Nazi dictator. However, only after mid-1944 did circumstances arise offering the plotters a credible chance of successfully overthrowing him.

generals reaction to the Soviet counteroffensive to complete his total victory over the General Staff. When Chief of the General Staff Franz Halder and 4th Army commander Field Marshal Gnther von Kluge began an unauthorized withdrawal of German forces in the face of surging Soviet armies, Hitler was outraged. The idea of a withdrawal was alien to the seasoned trench fighter. He understood war from the perspective of a corporal and demanded martyrdom, heroic self-sacrifice and suicidal patriotism from the German soldier in the interests of the wider goals of National Socialism. Hitler was convinced that ideological zeal alone could win the day and that the real source of weakness stemmed from generals who

OVERLORD AND VALKYRIE By 1944, Hitlers personal command of Germanys armed forces had produced a series of disasters on the Eastern Front when, on June 6, the Western Allies opened a second front in France with Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy. Since Hitlers disastrous command of the German military had by then destroyed the initiative-based, decentralized decisionmaking apparatus, field commanders responsible for Atlantic Wall defenses in France lacked the freedom of action necessary to react immediately to throw Allied invaders back into the sea. (See What Next, General? in the September 2013 issue of ACG.) May 1940. British and French troops await evacuation by the Royal Navy at Dunkirk. Hitlers Moreover, Hitlers centralization of intellidecision to approve a halt order on May 24, 1940, allowed the British Expeditionary Force gence analysis greatly aided the effectiveness of to escape and Britain to fight on. the Allies massive effort to deceive the Germans (Operation Fortitude) as to the location and timlacked the commitment to or belief in Nazi political doctrine. He dising of the invasion. Hitler, who had insisted that he have an unprecemissed several senior officers, notably Field Marshal Walther von Braudented role in interpreting signals decrypts, fell for the Allies deliberate chitsch, commander of the German army. Hitler forbade all misdirection that the main invasion would land at Calais. His insiswithdrawals of German units on December 20, 1941, and insisted that tence that a cross-Channel invasion would come at Calais blinded him the German army fight to the last man if necessary. He later argued to other possibilities and staff officers who disagreed were mindful that his no retreat order prevented a full-scale rout by the Soviets. to keep their opinions to themselves. The success of D-Day, achieved His claim has some merit, although it eventually proved to be but a initially by a relatively vulnerable and comparatively small force of postponement of inevitable German defeat in the East. 156,000 Allied troops, was the result of German paralysis created by The danger for the German army after December 1941 was that Hitlers ideological and egomaniacal personal command. without Brauchitsch the last barrier between it and direct operational In the critical first weeks after the Allied landings, Hitler continued control by Hitler was gone that month saw the final emasculation of to direct overall strategy from Germany, but with little understanding the General Staff. The disaster at Stalingrad a year later (August 1942of the realities of the fighting progressing in Normandy. The success February 1943) should be seen in this context. The largely unnecessary of Overlord, however, gave the anti-Hitler plotters a renewed sense of destruction of German 6th Army on the Volga was a disaster almost urgency to strike before the dictator led Germany to total defeat. Opcompletely of Hitlers making. The scale of the catastrophe and the eration Valkyrie, the plan to assassinate Hitler and open negotiations diminution of the General Staff are not coincidental; one is a product with the Allies to end the war, was put in motion. Key plotters included of the other. Once again, Hitler allowed ideological priorities to take Beck, General Henning von Tresckow, General Friedrich Olbricht and precedence over sound strategic thinking. Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg. Like Hitler, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin distrusted his military comRealistically, the hope that assassinating Hitler would lead to nemanders. Unlike his Nazi counterpart, however, Stalin realized that he gotiations with the Allied Powers was the stuff of fantasy. Since U.S. would be far more likely to survive the war if he allowed his competent President Franklin D. Roosevelts announcement at the January 1943 commanders, such as Georgi Zhukov, Konstantin Rokossovsky and Casablanca Conference that only unconditional surrender by the Axis Ivan Konev, to fight the war for which they had trained. Perhaps the Powers would be accepted, there had been little chance of a negotiated key difference between Hitler and Stalin when evaluating them as milpeace, with or without Hitler. Moreover, in 1943 the British and 30 A R M C H A I R G E N E R A L N O V E M B E R 2 013


negotiations with the Allied Powers was the stuff of fantasy.

July 1944. Members of the German High Command, including Hermann Gring (in light-colored uniform) and Martin Bormann (left), survey the damage at Hitlers headquarters bunker, aka the Wolfs Lair, where plotters detonated a bomb in a failed attempt to assassinate the Nazi dictator. Americans issued a joint statement promising punishment for all Germans involved in the mass murder of Europes Jews. That put senior German officers and officials on notice that Allied retribution would not be limited to Hitler alone and gave them a compelling incentive to distance themselves from him. Although on July 20, 1944, Stauffenberg successfully planted a bomb near Hitler inside his East Prussia field headquarters, the resulting explosion merely injured the dictator. After the failed coup, Hitlers retribution was swift and deadly. Thousands of military personnel and civilians were arrested over the ensuing weeks and months, and nearly 5,000 were executed (including Olbricht and Stauffenberg on July 20) or forced to commit suicide (Beck on July 20 and, although apparently only peripherally involved in the plot, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel on October 14). The massive scope of Hitlers retaliation effectively destroyed organized resistance to his dictatorship for the remainder of the war. The effect on Germanys military leadership was that it further degraded battlefield effectiveness a field commanders fervid commitment to Nazi ideology triumphed over military skill and professional competence. The most egregious example is Hitlers January 25, 1945, appointment of SS chief Himmler whose military experience consisted of non-combat service in a World War I reserve battalion as commander of Army Group Vistula on the Eastern Front. Himmlers predictably incompetent military command proved too disastrous even for Hitler to countenance, and he replaced Himmler with General Gotthard Heinrici on March 20. ENDGAME Hitlers victory over the General Staff ensured Germanys defeat, arguably as early as December 1941 when Operation Barbarossa failed at the gates of Moscow. However, in December 1944 Hitler guaranteed that the Third Reichs days were numbered when he overruled the advice of the General Staff for the last time and launched the Ardennes Offensive. Using most of Germanys remaining mobile reserves of troops and panzers in a desperate gamble through the Ardennes to seize Antwerp, the Battle of the Bulge (December 16, 1944-January 25, 1945) epitomized Hitlers personal command of military operations it achieved some tactical success, but from the outset was a strategic dead end. Just over three months after the battle ended, Hitler was dead by suicide in his Berlin bunker and Germany had surrendered unconditionally to the victorious Allies. Perhaps the most telling statement regarding Hitlers effectiveness as a military commander is the fate of Operation Foxley, a British Special Operations Executive (SOE) covert plan to assassinate the Nazi dictator. In 1944, SOE decided to abandon Foxley upon realizing that a post-Hitler restoration of the German General Staff would present the Allies once more with highly effective, professional battlefield leadership. SOE judged that Hitlers continued handling of the war was one of the Allies most important advantages.
Nick Shepley is a British writer and historian specializing in 20th-century conflict. He is the creator of the Explaining History series of e-books and regularly writes at on a wide range of modern historical themes.


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