Cover image for Inside Hitler's High Command
Inside Hitler's High Command
Megargee, Geoffrey P., 1959-
Publication Information:
Lawrence : University Press of Kansas, [2000]

Physical Description:
xxi, 327 pages : illustrations, portraits ; 24 cm.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Central Library D757 .G339 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
Central Library D757 .G339 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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Challenging previous accounts, Geoffrey Megargee shatters the myth that German generals would have prevailed in World War II if only Hitler had not meddled in their affairs. Indeed, Megargee argues, the German high command was much more flawed than many have suspected or acknowledged. Inside Hitler's High Command reveals that while Hitler was the central figure in many military decisions, his generals were equal partners in Germany's catastrophic defeat.

Megargee exposes the structure, processes, and personalities that governed the Third Reich's military decision making and shows how Germany's presumed battlefield superiority was undermined by poor strategic and operational planning at the highest levels. His study tracks the evolution of German military leadership under the Nazis from 1933 to 1945 and expands our understanding of the balance of power within the high command, the role of personalities in its organizational development, and the influence of German military intellectuals on its structure and function. He also shows how the organization of the high command was plagued by ambition, stubbornness, political intrigue, and overworked staff officers. And his "a week in the life" chapter puts the high command under a magnifying glass to reveal its inner workings during the fierce fighting on the Russian Front in December 1941.

Megargee also offers new insights into the high command crises of 1938 and shows how German general staff made fatal mistakes in their planning for Operation Barbarossa in 1941. Their arrogant dismissal of the Soviet military's ability to defend its homeland and virtual disregard for the extensive intelligence and sound logistics that undergird successful large-scale military campaigns ultimately came back to haunt them.

In the final assessment, observes Megargee, the generals' strategic ideas were no better than Hitler's and often worse. Heinz Guderian, Franz Halder, and the rest were as guilty of self-deception as their Fuhrer, believing that innate German superiority and strength of will were enough to overcome nearly any obstacle. Inside Hitler's High Command exposes these surprising flaws and illuminates the process of strategy and decision making in the Third Reich.

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

One of the most persistent myths to come out of WWII is that the Third Reich failed because a militarily incompetent Adolf Hitler and a small circle of yes-men consistently overrode the professional judgment of the German General Staff. If Hitler had left his commanders to their own devices, the story goes, we might all be speaking German today. In this meticulously documented work (the result of a Fulbright grant), Megargee, a research associate at the U.S. Commission on National Security, does much to dispel this longstanding belief. Here we find Hitler cast in the unlikely role of scapegoat for a deeply flawed senior command, whose members staunchly supported the new authoritarian government but who could not even tell the Fhrer where Pearl Harbor was located on a map. The command, Megargee writes, hobbled the German military machine through a combination of arrogance and poor planning. One of its worst failings was the inability to evaluate and use vital intelligence information. This came to disastrous result after the ill-fated June 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union, code-named "Barbarossa," when the German army was dispatched "into the largest battle in history without anything more than the flimsiest information regarding its enemy." An immensely illuminating work that casts plenty of blame all around, this will surely provoke much discussion among historians and readers with an interest in the Third Reich. Photos not seen by PW. History Book Club main selection. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

After WW II, members of the German high command blamed Hitler alone for the defeat of the Third Reich. Megargee (Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies) reveals the lies and fabrications that the German generals created to cover their own guilt for the defeat of Germany. He proves that the German high command was a willing partner in Hitler's crimes. Megargee's book is a valuable study of the inner workings of the German high command, with particular stress on its failings in intelligence, logistics, strategy, and personnel. The author examines the development and the workings of the high command with special attention to the role that individual personalities played in the history of the high command. Megargee also focuses on strategy and operational decision making, but he does not deal with either the Luftwaffe or the Kriegsmarine. In a fascinating chapter he describes one week in the life of the high command as it undergoes the first major setbacks in the Russian campaign. Here is a brilliant picture of the inner workings as well as the failings of the German high command. Strongly recommended for every WW II collection in both public and academic libraries. K. Eubank; emeritus, CUNY Queens College



Chapter One The Roots of the German Command System The German high command did not simply appear out of a vacuum in 1933, of course. Hitler inherited the product of an evolutionary process that had been going on in the military for over a century. That product included structural, cultural, and intellectual elements, some understanding of which is essential in order to make sense of later developments. The structural element comprised a military bureaucracy that the Prussians had created in order to plan and direct military operations more effectively. The culture was that of the General Staff, which had emerged as a powerful institution in the nineteenth century and had come to dominate the army in the years after the First World War. Its patterns of behavior, its collective needs and ambitions, and its beliefs regarding war, authority, and staff work would shape the military's capabilities and intentions. Finally, the Germans arrived at their own unique ideas about military policy, strategy, and operations, ideas that would help to determine the nature and course of the Second World War. Together, the structures, culture, and ideas offered strengths and weaknesses, advantages and disadvantages. They inform the themes that dominate this work, for the simple reason that they largely explain the Third Reich's initial successes and ultimate defeat. THE STRUCTURE In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, some wag coined an aphorism that has proved irresistible to historians. As the saying went, Europe contained five perfect institutions: the Roman curia, the British Parliament, the Russian ballet, the French opera, and the Prussian General Staff. For all its hyperbolic catchiness, its significance actually comes from the kernel of truth it contains. In the case of the General Staff, this was the first bureaucratic body in history that developed military plans in peacetime and saw to their execution in war, and it had just played a critical role in the original unification of the German Reich. Another point worth noting is that, of the five institutions, the General Staff was by far the newest. The Prussians created it against the background of the political, industrial, and military revolutions that had been sweeping Europe since the 1790s, and its structure reflected other organizational models that emerged as the nineteenth century progressed. It would eventually become the dominant force in the German command structure, but only after a long and difficult series of bureaucratic battles. Thus two parallel structural trends emerged in the first century of the staff's history: the evolution of its internal organization and that of the larger Prusso-German command apparatus.     The origins of these trends go back at least to a series of memorandums that a Prussian officer, Christian von Massenbach, wrote as the eighteenth century drew to a close. He suggested that the state ministries of foreign affairs, war, and commerce consult with one another regarding means and objectives for war. A General Staff would draft war plans ahead of time, using the ministries' guidance, information on potential enemies and theaters of war, and expertise built up through systematic exercises and the study of military history. Some staff officers, meanwhile, would serve with troop units in order to gain practical experience and to advise their commanders. Massenbach's ideas gained some credibility during the wars against Napoleon, and by 1824 the General Staff had grown to twenty-nine officers in three sections, each of which had a different geographic area of focus.     The staff gained little in terms of authority or capabilities over the next thirty peaceful years, but changes began with the rise of Helmuth von Moltke to the position of chief in 1857. Among other things, he incorporated the telegraph and railroad into Prussian mobilization planning. His and the staff's performance in the Wars of Unification (against Denmark in 1864, Austria in 1866, and France in 1870-71) confirmed the utility of the bureaucratic system for planning and directing campaigns. The organization's size and authority grew steadily over the following decades. By 1914 the Great General Staff, as it was then known, comprised twenty-one branches, manned by over three hundred officers. Standardized working procedures regulated its activities and those of the staffs below it. Its officers had become a world-renowned military elite.     The bureaucratic order within the General Staff found no counterpart, however, at the policy and strategy levels above it, where ill-defined spheres of authority and bureaucratic competition were the norm. Until 1914 the competition centered on the person of the kaiser. Chancellors, war ministers, heads of military cabinets, chiefs of the General Staff, and other high-ranking officers of all sorts vied for the ruler's ear and for whatever independence they could create for themselves and their organizations. Under Wilhelm II, no fewer than forty army and eight naval officers had the right of immediate access to him. Administrative authority, including recruiting, armaments planning, and budgets, remained separate from command authority, which dealt ` with the military's organization, doctrine, and employment. There was no unified high command or system of committees that would allow policy makers and military strategists to consider the relevant issues within a structured environment. This organizational chaos was one of the root causes behind Germany's entry into war in 1914 and its subsequent defeat.     In the First World War the General Staff reached the peak of its power. Its wartime authority gave it control of operations and strategy from the start. Then in 1916, in the aftermath of massive losses that the Germans had suffered at Verdun and the Somme, Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and Lieutenant General Erich Ludendorff took over command and launched ambitious plans to centralize control of the German economy in the War Ministry and the General Staff, both of which they controlled. Thus began the so-called era of war socialism. The General Staff, which until this point had remained largely isolated from society, now had to somehow direct that society in order to obtain the men, equipment, weapons, and munitions it needed to prosecute the war. Soon the staff was involved with such diverse matters as industrial and food production, raw materials allocation, politico-military affairs, the press, films, and propaganda. In addition, Ludendorff had schemes in mind that would have involved the staff in every facet of German society, including education, housing, and even birth rates and the control of venereal disease. In the end, though, these plans came to naught; the war's problems did not prove amenable to organizational solutions.     The Versailles treaty of 1919 dictated that Germany abolish the General Staff, which the Allies saw as a font of Prussian militarism as well as a formidable planning organ. On paper this was a severe blow to the German command system. The reality was not quite what it appeared to be, however. The Germans kept the core of the General Staff, including planning, organization, and intelligence elements, in the guise of the so-called Truppenamt, or Troops Office, within the Defense Ministry's Army Directorate (Heeresleitung). Other elements, such as the military history branch, split off but remained in being under other agencies. With these organizations in place, the Germans could continue to carry out the same functions that the General Staff had performed before the war.     There was no denying the fact that, even in its disguised form, the General Staff had lost some of its former political power. The new republic's president, a civilian, was the commander in chief of the armed forces. A defense minister watched over the Army and Navy Directorates; he had to answer to both the president and the federal parliament, the Reichstag. The Army Directorate had its own chief (Chef der Heeresleitung), who supervised five offices, including the Truppenamt. So, from being a military dictator in all but name during the war, the chief of the General Staff had fallen to a position four links down in the chain of command--but, here again, the change was not so drastic as it appeared. For one thing, the republican government depended upon the army to maintain order; the General Staff, in the person of Lieutenant General Wilhelm Groener, had struck a bargain to that effect with the regime in the first hours after the latter's birth. And Hans von Seeckt, the chief of the Truppenamt from July 4, 1919, was able to oversee the transition to the post-Versailles era and ensure that the General Staff's influence, if less than in 1917, would still be greater than it had ever been before the war. Not only did he direct the General Staff's transition into the Truppenamt, but he also saw to it that General Staff officers would dominate the Reichsheer's officer corps.     Seeckt's influence increased when he became chief of the Army Directorate in 1920, and the extent of that influence signaled that the state's problems with its military command structure had not disappeared, even if that structure appeared more rational. Seeckt insisted that the Reichswehr remain outside of party politics, but he pursued his own policy initiatives and achieved surreptitiously what he could not gain through more legitimate means. He stubbornly resisted any form of political control, and he pushed the defense minister to the margins of policy formulation. After Seeckt left office in 1926, the balance of power swung back toward the Defense Ministry, but the basic fact of competition between the ministry and the Army Directorate had not changed. Not even the rise of a former General Staff officer--Groener--to the position of defense minister in 1928 eliminated the competition. The Germans had still not succeeded in parceling out authority in such a way that the government and the army could speak with one voice. In part this was an indication that structural changes are of only limited utility in eliminating discord within a bureaucratic system. Only a change in the culture of the General Staff could have improved the situation to any significant degree, and no such change was forthcoming. THE CULTURE Seeckt's success at giving the General Staff a dominant position within the small, exclusive Reichsheer officer corps meant that the staff's own particular culture, which was already a foundation stone of German officer identity, would continue to shape the army during the Reichswehr era and under the Nazi regime. That culture remained fundamentally unchanged from the 1890s onward, just when the later Wehrmacht's most influential members were entering service. It comprised a set of values and practices that gave the German army some of its greatest strengths and most telling weaknesses.     In the German army, and especially in the General Staff, officers were a functional elite. The system selected them on the basis of demonstrated qualities, which it then further refined: a balance of intellectual prowess and strength of personality. They learned to plan carefully, issue clear orders, delegate authority, and use initiative. The process by which the General Staff selected and educated its member officers was central in maintaining the staff's cultural continuity. An examination of that process reveals, first of all, a conflict between two fundamentally different approaches.     Since the process of professionalization began in the Prussian officer corps in the nineteenth century, a debate had been going on between those who believed that officers should develop their intellects and those who believed that moral factors were more important. By the second half of the century, the former group was clearly winning. Candidates for the officer corps faced stringent educational requirements, and those for the General Staff were even tougher. Gerhard Johann von Scharnhorst, the great military reformer of the Napoleonic era, had provided the initial impetus for this idea, but his educational reforms had not lasted. Moltke the Elder instituted a more rigorous, and long-lived, educational system in the late 1850s. Candidates had to attend the War Academy (the Kriegsakademie, which the General Staff controlled after 1872), perform acceptably during two years of probationary duty with the staff, and then participate in a staff exercise under the chief himself; only a select few passed all the hurdles.     Since Moltke's time, in keeping with their emphasis on professional education, the Germans had concentrated more and more on an intellectual, "scientific" approach to war. The social composition of the General Staff reflected this approach. The staff was a meritocracy in which the traditional source of officers--the nobility--steadily lost ground. By 1913 fully half of the General Staff's officers came from the middle classes. However, the traditional Prussian aristocratic values, which had dominated the officer corps for more than two centuries, did not die out, even in the minds of most "intellectual" officers. In keeping with those values, the army emphasized the need for "character" in its leaders. This was an ill-defined but important quality that would allow an officer to function effectively in battle, and it remained a consideration up through the Second World War. "Character" included such attributes as endurance, decisiveness, levelheadedness, drive, discipline, obedience, and loyalty.     A strong link existed between the debate over the relative importance of intellect and character, on the one hand, and the German understanding of warfare, on the other. In many respects that understanding essentially mirrored the ideas of the great military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, even though few officers had read his works. In Clausewitz's view, war is an inherently chaotic but not entirely random phenomenon, a "messy mix of order and unpredictability." That is, both laws and chance govern war, and "only those general principles and attitudes that result from clear and deep understanding can provide a comprehensive guide to action." Part of that understanding would have to come from study, Clausewitz knew; he was one of the original proponents of officer education. He also saw, however, that no amount of study could prepare an officer for combat completely. There are no hard-and-fast rules that can reduce war to a mechanical exercise, and so character would remain an essential qualification for an officer.     Thus the outcome of the debate over the relative merits of intellect and character represented a working compromise in which both remained important. In other words, the Germans believed that both intellect and character informed the "general principles and attitudes" that Clausewitz said could provide a guide to action. They eventually brought those principles and attitudes together under the heading " Kriegführung ": the conduct of war. The manual Truppenführung (Troop Command) characterized that symbiosis when it defined Kriegführung as "an art, a free, creative activity based upon scientific principles. `The lessons of Kriegführung ... cannot be treated exhaustively in a manual. The principles, such as they are, must be usable in light of the circumstances.'" An officer needed both intellect and instinct; he needed to be able to think and act. The manual explained, "The worth of the man remains, despite technology, decisive; his significance has grown with the dispersion of combat. The emptiness of the battlefield demands independently thinking and acting combatants who think over, then decisively and boldly take advantage of every situation, infused with the conviction that success depends upon them." The 1939 edition of the Handbook for General Staff Duty in War expanded upon the concept: The General Staff officer should possess strength of character and a sense of tact in the highest measure. Clear, creative thinking and logically consistent action; calm consideration; determined vigor; untiring capacity for work; firmness with himself; and physical health: these things must distinguish him. A comradely closeness with the troops and a never-resting concern for their needs belong to his foremost duties. He must feel the pulse of the troops in order to properly evaluate their capabilities when he advises his commander. His esteem among the troops is an unmistakable measure of his effectiveness. Foresighted vision in the uncertainty of war and the unbendable will to deny the initiative to the enemy should govern his thinking and his advice. Perhaps Moltke summed up the concept best, however, when he wrote, "Great successes presuppose bold risk-taking. But careful thought must precede the taking of risks."     Obviously the Germans expected a lot of their officers. Intellect and character are difficult to find, all the more so in combination. The General Staff did its best to screen for both as part of the selection process. Each applicant to the War Academy had to take an examination and also submit a letter from his commanding officer that would attest to the strength of his personality. For the successful applicants, the training and education at the War Academy attempted to develop their intellectual and behavioral attributes further. (The development of General Staff officers depended upon both education, that is, the imparting of specialized knowledge, and training, that is, the development of skills, habits, and attitudes.) The training aimed to instill common habits of mind, the ability to communicate clearly, and creativity within the framework of a standardized decision-making process. The goal was to develop a way of thinking, a Gedankengang, rather than a patterned response to a given situation. Some exercises specifically required officers to deviate from their orders, so that they would develop a sense of initiative. Following their time at the War Academy, the candidates entered into a probationary period with the General Staff, one of the goals of which was to see how well they could stand up to the stress of staff work--an essential element of "character." This double emphasis, on intellect and character, continued to mark General Staff selection, education, and training right though the Weimar era.     Several key principles and practices helped to define the culture of the Prusso-German officer corps and especially the General Staff. One of these was the practice of "command by directive," that is, the encouragement of initiative within a defined set of mission parameters. In the early nineteenth century, Scharnhorst and his co-reformer, August Neidhardt von Gneisenau, recognized that a senior commander could no longer be completely familiar with the situation that each of his subordinates faced, and so they promoted the idea that orders should indicate objectives while leaving subordinates the widest possible latitude in deciding how to achieve them. At the same time, they began training lower-ranking officers to exercise initiative in fulfilling the commander's intent, all the while maintaining close coordination with adjoining units and higher headquarters. Moltke made the practice standard during his tenure, and at one point he recorded some advice that later military leaders would have done well to heed: "The advantage that a commander believes he can achieve through continued intervention is usually only an apparent one. By doing so he takes over an activity that other people are meant to carry out, more or less destroys their effectiveness as well, and multiplies his own tasks to such an extent that he can no longer fulfill them completely."     In the First World War the Germans extended the "command by directive" principle by granting exceptional powers to relatively junior officers because of their demonstrated ability or knowledge of a particular situation. The wartime careers of two officers, Georg Bruchmüller and Fritz von Lossberg, illustrate how this principle worked. Bruchmüller, who began his war career as a major on temporary active duty and never rose above brevet colonel, nonetheless attracted the attention of a succession of superiors with his artillery tactics. By spring 1918 he had de facto control of all the artillery in Crown Prince Wilhelm's army group--a position that usually merited the rank of lieutenant general. Colonel Lossberg was similarly junior, but he was one of Germany's foremost experts on defensive warfare. He eventually became a sort of one-man fire brigade; the Supreme Army Command placed him as a corps or army chief of staff in whatever sector was in the greatest danger. Once there, he enjoyed a uniquely German kind of command authority: Vollmacht, the right to issue directives in a superior's name. Moreover, Lossberg stipulated that a commander on the scene of an enemy attack would have control of a reinforcing unit, no matter what the rank of that unit's commander. That innovation eventually became doctrine throughout the army.     Another uniquely German principle of command grew out of the practice of assigning staff officers to field commanders. The practice began in the early nineteenth century, with two goals in mind. One was to give staff officers a better understanding of warfare at the lower levels, so that their orders would not become unrealistic. The other was to use those officers, who shared a common outlook and education, to give the army command structure a degree of doctrinal uniformity that would not otherwise exist. In support of that second goal, the Prussians created the so-called principle of joint responsibility, which held that a chief of staff was equally responsible, along with the commander, for all command decisions. Therefore, a staff officer had a duty--not just an option--to voice any disagreement he had with his commander's plans and to record his objections in writing. This principle dovetailed with an informal staff network that paralleled the formal chain of command. If a staff officer was not satisfied with his commander's actions, he had the right to report his objections to the next higher chief of staff and, if necessary, all the way up to the chief of the General Staff himself. If the more senior staff officer agreed with the objection, he could enlist the aid of his commander to bring the subordinate commander into line. This system took on the name Generalstabsdienstweg (General Staff channel). Its goal was to "ensure the spiritual unity of the General Staff and enable it to assert its will against difficult or reluctant army commanders."     The principle of joint responsibility was a boon to both the Prusso-German army and the General Staff well into the twentieth century. The principle did not eliminate a staff officer's duty to obey his commander, who had the ultimate power of decision. In fact, historians who have addressed this issue agree that staff officers rarely recorded their objections or appealed up through the staff channels. The model for the relationship between a commander and his chief of staff was a marriage; they might not always agree, but they usually worked out their disagreements quietly and privately. However, the principle of joint responsibility did create a mechanism whereby the commander and his chief of staff could work out disagreements in an orderly fashion, and it helped ensure that commanders--many of whom were noblemen without extensive military training--would have access to alternative ideas, as well as reason to take them seriously. For their part, staff officers knew that their advice had to be sound, since they shared responsibility for the results. The principle also helped to bolster the power and independence of the General Staff as an institution by giving it a voice of its own within the army.     As the General Staff's values and practices informed those of the officer corps as a whole during the Wilhelmine era, the Prusso-German army gained some important strengths that carried over into the Reichswehr period and beyond. The dual emphasis on intellect and character provided the army with officers who were arguably better prepared for modern warfare at the tactical and operational levels than their counterparts in other states. Command by directive, Vollmacht, and the principle of joint responsibility made the Prusso-German army more flexible and proactive. No military culture is perfect, however; each has weaknesses to match its strengths. For the Germans, a certain narrowness of vision, a generous dose of hubris, and an overweening faith in the power of will combined to handicap them. They came to believe that their control over events was greater than it really was, that they could manage a war as they could a railroad timetable, and that they could overcome any obstacle through sheer force of character.     As was true for the Germans' strengths, their officer training and education system mirrored and promoted their weaknesses, especially the narrowness of their vision. As the General Staff evolved, the debate over intellect and character existed in parallel with another debate over the nature of the education that officers should receive. Originally that education was broad in scope. At the War Academy, for example, the course load in the 1860s and 1870s included a number of elective nonmilitary subjects such as literature, philosophy, general history, and the natural sciences. By the end of the century, however, the Germans had opted for a narrower selection of practical, technical studies; tactics, staff duties, and military history dominated the curriculum. Even the course terminology reflected the change in the school's mission: the term "art of war" (Kriegskunst) disappeared and "science of war" (Kriegswissenschaft) took its place. By the end of the nineteenth century the school's goal was to turn out technical specialists.     Military history played a fundamental role in restricting the officers' intellectual scope. At first glance it appears to have been only one subject among several in the War Academy curriculum, but its influence was pervasive. It provided the basis for the tactical classes that the officers took and was even the foundation for actual war plans. Its importance grew apace as officers with combat experience left the service in the decades after 1871. Moreover, the General Staff's historiographical methods were problematic. The staff contained a separate branch that specialized in historical studies. Its members were not trained historians but considered themselves qualified on the basis of their status as officers. Their version of history was narrowly technical; they focused almost exclusively on infantry tactics and commanders' actions while omitting any broader context. They also forced the wars about which they wrote into an artificial framework that emphasized the superiority of the attack over the defense and of moral over material factors.     In fairness to the Germans, no army developed a culture in the late nineteenth century that prepared it completely for the industrial mass warfare of the twentieth. And the German system did have advantages in flexibility and tactical proficiency that many others did not. Still, the German approach contained the seeds for truly cataclysmic errors. The Schlieffen Plan, with which Germany entered the First World War, is the classic case in point. Count Alfred von Schlieffen served as chief of the General Staff from 1891 to 1905. He was a narrow technical specialist whose plan attempted to remove any opportunity for flexibility or initiative. He rejected Clausewitz's emphasis on the unpredictability of war, as well as Moltke's dictum that "no plan of operations can look with any certainty beyond the first meeting with the major forces of the enemy." His conviction was that modern, mass armies could be--indeed, had to be--controlled centrally. In a perversion of "command by directive," Schlieffen defined exact objectives and strict timetables for all the armies in the attack. When the Germans attempted to implement the plan in August and September 1914, all of the potential problems with such control became real. After the resulting debacle, the Germans returned to a more flexible command system--but their overall approach to war continued to be narrowly mechanistic, and they still tended to rely upon force of will to make up for any material problems. These attitudes would color the political, strategic, and operational debates that would take place within the Reichswehr. THE IDEAS In the Reichswehr era, the General Staff's institutional culture and intellectual background interacted with Germany's strategic situation and the experiences of the First World War to produce a vision of the future. Naturally, there was not a consensus on every point, and debates on some issues never died down completely. In general, however, German officers shared a common intellectual framework, and so they tended to differ only on less important subjects. They retained a desire to see Germany become a world power, and they regarded the army as a key to fulfilling that desire, even if they sometimes disagreed on how the army would carry out its role. The intellectual climate they created proved to be the perfect environment for National Socialism and for the outbreak of a second great conflagration.     Two points found ready acceptance among most General Staff officers in the interwar period. The first of these was that, in any future conflict, the General Staff would be the only body qualified to make decisions on military strategy and operations. As such it would have the dominant voice in any decision for war or peace, and, once war was declared, it would run the war as it saw fit, without civilian interference. The roots of these views went back at least as far as Moltke the Elder. Clausewitz had written that politics must exert a constant influence upon the conduct of war, since the latter had to serve the former's purpose. Moltke, on the other hand, insisted that politics would come into play before and after a war, but that the requirements of military operations must determine the army's actions while the conflict is in progress. Moltke and Bismarck fought bitterly over this idea during the war with France in 1870-71, and only Wilhelm I's personal intervention settled the dispute--in Bismarck's favor. After 1890 that triumverate was gone, and with it the ability to properly balance military and civilian spheres. Chancellors after Bismarck studiously avoided involving themselves in the General Staff's plans, even when those plans had clear strategic implications, and Wilhelm II was unwilling or unable to insist on a coordinated planning process. Thus, for example, no fewer than three chancellors knew of Schlieffen's plan of campaign for the west, but none of them believed he had the right to question its strategic assumptions. After the war, the Weimar regime proved much more willing to take an active role in strategic affairs, but powerful elements within the Reichsheer did all they could to bypass the government's prescriptions.     The other idea that General Staff officers held dear was that another war was inevitable; indeed, that it would be the only way in which Germany could revise the Versailles treaty and regain its rightful place in Europe. A Defense Ministry document of April 1923 stated that Germany could win its freedom, national independence, and economic and cultural rejuvenation only through war. Lieutenant Colonel Kurt von Schleicher, chief of the Political Department in the Truppenamt at the time, backed that up in December by detailing the military leadership's goals: "1. Strengthen state authority; 2. rehabilitate the economy; 3. rebuild a military capability; all are prerequisites for a foreign policy that has the goal of creating a Greater Germany." In May 1925 another ministry document stated bluntly: "That Germany will in the future have to fight a war for its continued existence as a people and state is certain." A Truppenamt memo of March 1926 was more specific. It defined the following goals of German policy: the reoccupation of the Rhineland; the return of the Saar, the Polish corridor, and Upper Silesia; and the elimination of the demilitarized zone. The struggle to achieve these goals would, the Truppenamt predicted, lead to conflict with France, Belgium, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and perhaps Italy. The eventual goal was to reestablish Germany as a continental power first and then to claim a position as a world power.     The General Staff's easy acceptance of war as a tool with which to alter the strategic balance in Europe demonstrates that Germany was suffering from a dearth of capable strategic thinkers. The German military clung to the idea that it could, achieve strategic goals through operational victory in short, intense wars, much like the Wars of Unification. In so doing, the planners showed little understanding of their adversaries' capabilities or motives. Their ideas reflected a "continental view" that equated strategy with operations and did not take proper account of global power relationships. These intellectual trends were hardly new. Schlieffen had based his entire plan upon them, as his breezy dismissal of Britain's potential showed. The General Staff went on to implement Schlieffen's plan, in spite of clear evidence that the war would be exactly the kind of long affair that Germany could not afford. The Verdun offensive of 1916, the decision to launch unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917, and the complete strategic bankruptcy of the 1918 spring offensive all add weight to the argument that Germany's leaders had lost touch with the strategic realities of the modern world.     Defeat is sometimes enough to spark fundamental reform within a military system; this had been the case in Prussia after its loss to Napoleon in 1806. The First World War, for all its horrific impact, did not create a like effect in Germany. This was true because the General Staff developed a set of explanations for the defeat that missed the most important issues. The military's leaders did not examine the strategic assumptions that Germany had made before the war began, nor did they question the wisdom of Germany's strategic direction after the war settled down into stalemate. Instead, most General Staff officers came to believe that Germany had lost the war because of a combination of other factors: operational mistakes, mostly connected with the battles at the Marne and Verdun; failed domestic policies; conflict between the army and the home front; and the lack of a strong centralized command.     The key element in that belief structure was the myth of the "stab in the back"; in this version of events, the government (and particularly the Jews) had failed the fighting men, first by not unifying German society behind the war effort and then by concluding a treasonous truce when the army was still capable of fighting. The myth fulfilled two functions. First, it kept the General Staff's hands clean when people began looking for a scapegoat. This was the goal of Groener's policies in the closing days of the war; he made sure that the General Staff maintained a safe distance from the armistice negotiations. Second, the myth allowed the General Staff to avoid facing up to the consequences of its actions. Here the motive was unconscious but no less real. The General Staff was simply not prepared to question its own strategic assumptions.     Thus Germany's military leaders missed the opportunity to learn the true lessons of the Great War, lessons that might have saved their nation untold misery in the decades ahead. They gained no understanding of global strategy or the relation of ends to means. Instead, the military embraced war as the sole solution and set about finding ways to do it better next time. In doing so, the army focused on three areas. The first, predictably, was the interplay of new weapons, tactics, and operational concepts that might break the stalemate of trench warfare. The second was psychological warfare and its application in maintaining public morale. The third was the organization of society for war. "Total war" became the General Staff's model. Future wars would target all the sources of enemy strength, not just military forces. There would be no difference between combatants and noncombatants. All the resources of the nation would therefore have to be linked in a fight for survival. The effort would require an authoritarian government, but one that would accept the General Staff's primacy in military matters. The keys to success in the next war would be total mobilization, central direction, and rapid operational victory.     In setting these grand goals, however, the German military faced something of a problem. The Treaty of Versailles had left Germany with such a small army that it would have trouble fighting Poland, never mind France, as the Truppenamt's own exercises demonstrated. Therefore, the planning and theorizing went forward on two levels. On one level, the military assumed that Germany would one day rearm, and so some planning went forward based on that eventuality. In the meantime, the search began for a military policy, a force structure, and a strategy that would allow Germany some measure of security in the short term. Both of these lines of thought recombined, in turn, in a debate over the shape of any future war. Everyone agreed that Germany could not win a war of attrition. The question was, what alternative remained? Opinions varied widely, but in the end the military chose a course that deepened its strategic troubles as well as placing it in a dangerous political position.     Seeckt, who served as chief of the Army Directorate from 1920 to 1926, believed that the answer to Germany's strategic dilemma lay in a small, highly professional, highly mobile force. He drew on his experiences on the eastern front in the First World War, where smaller but more effective German forces had defeated larger Russian armies. He maintained that a smaller force could overcome the limitations of positional warfare through rapid, surprise attacks. In his scheme, the human spirit, plus technology, would prevail over greater numbers. The old mass army was immobile, Seeckt maintained; it could only crush its enemies by sheer weight. His force would strike quickly and decisively to disable the enemy's mass of men. Seeckt's ideas fell partly into the realm of fantasy, however, in that they required a military force that Germany could not build while the Versailles treaty was still in effect. When the French put his notions to the test by occupying the Ruhr in 1923, the Germans were helpless. And in the meantime, other, differing schools of thought were appearing.     Some officers, especially Werner von Blomberg and Joachim von Stülpnagel of the Truppenamt, considered Seeckt's ideas to be hopelessly out of date. They argued for a strategy that would focus on a nationalist war of liberation of the kind Germany had used against Napoleon. In their vision, armed citizens would carry out a guerrilla war against any invading army. This "people's war" would leave much of the country in ruins, but, in theory, the invader would be vulnerable to a counterstroke by even a small force. After Seeckt's departure in 1926, Blomberg and Stülpnagel tried to implement their ideas, but they ran into insurmountable problems. Their plans depended upon two preconditions: the ability to prepare the country for war ahead of time, especially in a psychological sense, and the formation of a counterstroke force with a strong armored component. Both these prerequisites proved impossible to fulfill because of the Versailles treaty's restrictions and a lack of political will and financial resources within Germany. Moreover, a 1930 study established that a "people's war" was unlikely to succeed, given the nation's circumstances.     Groener, who served as defense minister from 1928 to 1932, and his deputy, Schleicher, both opposed Seeckt's ideas as well; their proposals--starting from a different premise entirely--were the most reasonable that anyone put forward in the interwar period. Seeckt had insisted that a military buildup had to be the first priority, since no country could hope to rebuild its economy if it lacked power on the international scene. Schleicher countered that the economy had to come first, since that would provide the basis for rearmament. Both he and Groener agreed on a more internationalist approach than Seeckt had in mind. When Groener became defense minister, he took the first steps to put German military planning on a realistic footing; he insisted that political goals had to match military means if Germany was to consider military action. He stipulated that there were some situations in which Germany could not hope to defend itself, and therefore in those cases the only answer was to avoid conflict. According to his view, war between France and Germany was unlikely, since both depended upon American financial assistance. Support from the United States could be used in the meantime to finance rearmament, without the need for budgetary redistribution within Germany. In the event of an invasion by Poland--which Groener considered a possibility, since Poland was not tied into the international system to the same extent as France--German forces would conduct a fighting retreat and prepare a counterstroke that would prompt intervention by other powers and force a peace, Germany would come out on top in the negotiations that would follow, he said, because it was more important economically than Poland.     Most members of the officer corps wanted no part of such plans. Because their military culture lacked a strong appreciation for the subtleties of strategy, they could not properly evaluate international power relationships and, hence, German opportunities. At the same time, they still believed that they and only they should direct the nation in its preparations for, and conduct of, war. They had defended that principle for generations, and they were not going to give it up now. They looked upon war as inevitable, especially given the aggressive goals that they--and much of the civilian leadership--wanted to pursue. They saw that the status quo, in the form of the hundred-thousand-man army, would never allow them to win that struggle, or even to defend German territory. International cooperation, as Groener and his supporters pursued it, seemed to have hit a dead end by 1930. That conclusion led the military leaders to promote rapid rearmament, followed by a war they would direct, a war that would bring together all the nation's resources in support of a series of lightning-fast operational victories. That was the only solution they could see.     Having reached this conclusion, however, the military faced a major problem: it constituted a "secondary system" within German politics and society, that is, it could support policy but not dictate it. As long as a republican government ruled Germany, the military's choices were severely limited. That situation changed after the world economic crisis and attendant political collapse struck Germany at the end of the 1920s, thus destroying Groener's efforts and helping to bring Hitler into power. The officer corps had long favored the rise of an authoritarian regime that would preserve the military's power and provide the requirements for modern, total war; now, it seemed, they had what they wanted. From Hitler's statements in Mein Kampf, the services could assume that he would strive for dominance on the Continent. In a meeting with the leading generals on February 3, 1933, and in his other statements, Hitler called for rearmament, the reinstitution of the draft, withdrawal from the international security system, and the revision of the Versailles treaty. Certainly, these statements gave the military no grounds for complaint. In fact, most officers favored an alliance with the Nazis in 1933.     This, then, was the situation when the Nazis seized power. In the course of the previous century the Germans had created a bureaucratic structure--the General Staff--that could plan, organize, and direct military operations in a consistent, uniform way. At the higher levels, however, bureaucratic competition and confusion had been the norm; in the recent past, competition between the General Staff and the War Ministry had contributed to problems in policy and strategy formulation. That competition would continue. Behind the strife in the upper levels and the efficiency at the lower levels lay the intellectual and cultural norms of the General Staff. The members of that organization considered themselves to be the only people who were qualified to make decisions on military affairs; but their views of politics, strategy, and the nature of modern warfare itself were seriously flawed. Moreover, they were about to put themselves at the disposal of a man who, they believed, would give them the resources and independence they needed to make Germany a dominant power on the Continent. That was exactly what Adolf Hitler wanted them to believe. Copyright © 2000 University Press of Kansas. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

Forewordp. ix
Prefacep. xiii
List of Abbreviationsp. xix
1. The Roots of the German Command Systemp. 1
2. Expansion and Debate, January 1933 to November 1937p. 17
3. Converging Trends, November 1937 to March 1939p. 37
4. The Onset of War and the Initial Victories, March 1939 to June 1940p. 67
5. New Directions, New Problems: June 1940 to June 1941p. 87
6. Military Intelligence and the Plan of Attack in the Eastp. 102
7. Logistics, Personnel, and Barbarossap. 117
8. The System at Work: A Week in the Life of the High Commandp. 142
9. The Last Grasp, 1942p. 170
10. A Command Divided Against Itself, January 1943 to July 1944p. 192
11. Collapse, July 1944 to May 1945p. 212
12. The German High Command: An Assessmentp. 230
Appendix A Note on the Documents and Translationsp. 237
Notesp. 239
Bibliographyp. 299
Indexp. 315

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