The German Army, 1933-1945

The dilemma of personal conscience in an immoral state is perennially fascinating, and no more vivid historical example of this dilemma exists than the history of the German people under Nazism. To what extent were the Germans responsible for the evils of the Nazi state? To what extent was the German leadership responsible? The latter question, especially, seems pertinent and arresting, since neither the mass exterminations at home nor the brutal wars abroad would have been possible without the help of thousands of the elite at the heads of large industries, enormous bureaucracies, powerful armies. In The Germany Army, 1933-1945: Its Political and Military Failure, Matthew Cooper grapples with the reaction of the German army leadership to the advent of Hitler and their dilemma in following his increasingly insane commands.

At the beginning, Hitler’s leadership gave no cause for alarm. The army and Hitler enjoyed a period of mutual admiration that lasted from 1933 to 1938 when Hitler, distrustful of his generals’ judgment, made himself Supreme Commander. In 1941, when Field Marshall von Brauchitsch ceased to be Commander-in-Chief, Hitler became Commander-in-Chief as well. From this time on, Hitler took over more and more of the operational command of his armies—until his generals were little more than puppets responding to the tugs of his mind. It was the Führer who decided to attack the Soviet Union, to stand at rather than withdraw from Stalingrad. It was Hitler who made the numerous military decisions which led to disaster in both the East and the West. The generals’ opinions constantly poured forth and were persistently ignored. Hitler, in fact, insisted on directing his armies in detail. For instance, in 1941, during the invasion of Russia, Hitler ordered:In the northern sector of the Eastern front the main attacks will continue between Lake Ilmen and Narva towards Leningrad, with the aim of encircling Leningrad and making contact with the Finnish Army. . . . the intended thrust by Panzer Group 3 against the high ground around Valdi will be postponed until armoured formations are fully ready for action. . . . Estonia must first of all be mopped up by all the forces of the 18th Army. Only then may divisions advance toward Leningrad.

By 1945 this interference with army operations had progressed further. Hitler ordered:1. Commanders-in-Chief, Commanding Generals, and Divisional Commanders are personally responsible to me for reporting in good time: a. Every decision to carry out an operational movement. b. Every attack planned in divisional strength and upwards which does not conform with the general directives laid down by the High Command. c. Every offensive action in quiet sectors of the front, over and above normal shock-troop activities, which is calculated to draw the enemy’s attention to the sector. Every plan for disengaging or withdrawing forces. d. Every plan for surrendering a position, a local strong point, or a fortress.

Such progressive interference on the part of Hitler is usually justified on the grounds that he was a military genius who in the face of the opposition of his pusillanimous generals forged his new weapon, Blitzkrieg, or lightning war, utilizing the highly trained, well-equipped, motorized German army to win quick victories in the West. Matthew Cooper is concerned with destroying that myth, with showing that Hitler was not a military genius, did not have a new method of war, or a well-equipped army.

Standard German military practice emphasized Vernichtungsgedanke:the total destruction of the enemy’s forces, not by means of relatively slow, costly frontal attacks, but of swift decisive blows from the flanks and the rear. Victory was seen to be in strategic surprise, in the concentration of forces at the decisive point, and in fact, far-reaching concentric encircling movements, all of which aimed at creating the decisive Kessel schlachten...

(The entire section is 1623 words.)


Library Journal. CIII, September 1, 1978, p. 1633.

Times Literary Supplement. October 20, 1978, p. 1206.