Cover image for Strange victory : Hitler's conquest of France
Strange victory : Hitler's conquest of France
May, Ernest R.
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First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Hill and Wang, 2000.
Physical Description:
viii, 594 pages : plans ; 24 cm
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D802.F8 M34 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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A dramatic narrative-and reinterpretation-of Germany's six-week campaign that swept the Wehrmacht to Paris in spring 1940. Before the Nazis killed him for his work in the French Resistance, the great historian Marc Bloch wrote a famous short book, Strange Defeat, about the treatment of his nation at the hands of an enemy the French had believed they could easily dispose of. In Strange Victory, the distinguished American historian Ernest R. May asks the opposite question: How was it that Hitler and his generals managed this swift conquest, considering that France and its allies were superior in every measurable dimension and considering the Germans' own skepticism about their chances? Strange Victory is a riveting narrative of those six crucial weeks in the spring of 1940, weaving together the decisions made by the high commands with the welter of confused responses from exhausted and ill-informed, or ill-advised, officers in the field. Why did Hitler want to turn against France at just this moment, and why were his poor judgment and inadequate intelligence about the Allies nonetheless correct? Why didn't France take the offensive when it might have led to victory? What explains France's failure to detect and respond to Germany's attack plan? It is May's contention that in the future, nations might suffer strange defeats of their own if they do not learn from their predecessors' mistakes in judgment.

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Conventional wisdom has held that the defeat of France in just six weeks was the result of German military superiority, poor French military leadership, and the divisiveness and moral rot that permeated the Third Republic. Harvard historian May, in a provocative and engrossing work, provides persuasive evidence that each of these factors has been given unjustified credence. In fact, in most areas, the French army was superior to the German in manpower and equipment. The "defeatism" that supposedly infected French political leaders has been exaggerated. Even the oft-ridiculed Maginot Line could have served as an effective defense. Why, then, did the Germans win such a devastatingly rapid and "strange" victory? Essentially, May asserts, the French were outthought and outgeneraled at the tactical level. At several critical points, disastrous decisions by French field commanders undermined sound strategic planning. Military and history buffs should find this work especially attractive, but the smoothly flowing narrative and avoidance of overly technical jargon will allow general readers to appreciate this fresh look at an old controversy. --Jay Freeman

Publisher's Weekly Review

The book's title inverts Marc Bloch's classic Strange Defeat because, for Harvard historian May, it is the German victory that requires explanation. In this provocative analysis, May argues that the French and British defeat in 1940 was a consequence of neither moral decay nor military ineffectiveness. In the late '30s, the Wehrmacht was still a network of improvisations, by no means the formidable instrument of later mythmaking. After Poland had fallen, Hitler demanded an immediate attack on France, and his generals balked; an "encounter battle" in central Belgium was what the French expected and were prepared to fight. Instead, the Germans famously developed an alternate design, based on a thrust through the Ardennes. May argues convincingly that a major factor in the offensive's reorientation was the German army intelligence service's justified conviction that the French and British high commands would respond slowly to a large-scale surprise. More than enough evidence was available to turn French and British eyes to the Ardennes in the spring of 1940. But since 1933, May argues, generals and politicians on both sides of the English Channel had failed to read German intentions and German decision-making processes. Instead, they sacrificed thought to habit, and put unexpected events into preconceived models. This well-written book, suitable for general readers as well as specialists, offers no easy counterfactuals, no check lists for future guidance, but it illustrates the importance of common senseÄits presence and its absence. (Aug.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Thirty-one years after Alistair Horne's classic World War II history, To Lose a Battle: France 1940, May, a prominent and prolific historian, has produced a detailed study of how Hitler was able to defeat France in just six weeks of blitzkreig warfare. He now offers a slightly different analysis of how a weaker Germany could defeat a stronger France despite Allied military superiority and risky German gambles. Deflating conventional wisdom, May argues that French and British forces outnumbered and outgunned the invading Germans and that Allied leadership was not paralyzed or afflicted with a defeatist attitude, as many others have claimed. He even asserts that skeptical top German generals had argued with Hitler against attacking France. Instead, May believes that the Germans simply outfought and outthought the Allies at the tactical level. He also credits several dangerous but accurate German assumptions of how their enemy would react when faced with rapidly changing tactical scenarios. Much of the narrative is focused on German and Allied preparations for war, with only a third of the book dedicated to the actual conduct of the battle for France. May's prose is scholarly but accessible and flows nicely, so the complex prelude and opening weeks of World War II are easy to follow and understand. Recommended for public and academic libraries.DCol. William D. Bushnell, ret., USMC, Sebascodegan Island, ME (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

For generations the French defeat in 1940 shaped the historiography of WW II. The images of technologically advanced Aryan supermen defeating an effete and exhausted West, saved only by the brute masses of the Red Army and American technology, are rooted in the "sixty days (May-June 1940) that shook the West." More recent research--the works of Eugenia Kiesling and Robert Doughty come immediately to mind---has significantly altered this perception. France had, for example, more and better-quality tanks than the much-lauded panzers. May (Harvard) has provided the best single analysis of this epochal campaign, integrating archival work (especially in the field of intelligence) with an outstanding synthesis of the most recent scholarship. The result is a balanced and effective portrait that illustrates just how "strange" the German victory was. The campaign was lost not to better technology, but to Allied bureaucratic failures in such areas as intelligence, and by the personal intervention of Hitler, who reoriented the German attack away from a repetition of the Schlieffen Plan and toward the bold and disorienting stroke through the Ardennes. Important for all collections and all levels of readership. G. P. Cox; Gordon College



Chapter One ORDERS "The Führer already said in my hearing on September 29 [1939], this offensive [against France] could well cost him a million men, but also the enemy, who cannot bear it." -- Diary of Ernst von Weizsäcker, October 17, 1939 "Prolonged conference with the commander in chief [Brauchitsch] on the overall situation: commander in chief: Three possibilities: attack; wait and see; fundamental changes." -- Diary of General Franz Halder, chief of staff of the German army, October 14, 1939 Anyone with a taste for old movies can visualize the scene. It is late afternoon, Wednesday, September 27, 1939. What is already being called the Second World War is entering its fourth week. Berlin is a city no longer at peace but not yet at war. Heavy five-liter Horch and Mercedes limousines with wide running boards roll along the Wilhelmstrasse. On their gull-wing fenders flutter miniature flags with white-circled black swastikas on bright-red backgrounds, the symbol of the Nazi state. At the old Chancellory, they turn into the narrow, dead-end roadway fronting the courtyard of the New Chancellory. The giant white building, just nine months old, looms over the old limestone-block Chancellory next door as, in his imagination, Chancellor and Führer Adolf Hitler looms over predecessors such as Frederick the Great, the eighteenth-century monarch who made Prussia a great power, and Otto von Bismarck, the nineteenth-century chancellor who transformed Prussia into the German Empire, the most powerful state in Europe from 1871 until the end of the Great War in 1918.     The passengers leave their limousines. Army generals are in field gray with glistening black boots; air-force officers wear pale blue, naval officers blue-black. Every chest is spangled with medals. Up marble stairs, through massive Corinthian columns, past huge gilded statues of Aryan athletes, the visitors walk through seventeen-foot-high bronze doors flanked by guards wearing the black uniforms and black boots of the Nazi Schutzstaffel--the SS. The five-hundred-foot-long entry hall has a polished marble floor which Hitler has left uncarpeted because he relishes seeing dignitaries slip and fall. At the far end, doors open on an oversize reception area, beyond which is Hitler's four-thousand-square-foot study, characterized by Life magazine as the "biggest private office in the world."     Beside the study doorway stand other SS troopers. Each has Hitler's name braided on his left sleeve, on his helmet a white death's head, and on both lapels the emblem of the Hitler bodyguard. Inside, above the doors, a mural depicts the Virtues--Wisdom, Prudence, Fortitude, and Justice. Over a fireplace, not quite so out of place, hangs an oil portrait of Bismarck. Hitler's huge desk is ornamented, even more appropriately, with an inlay of a sword emerging from its scabbard.     One can imagine Hitler standing in front of this desk this early-autumn afternoon. Northern light streaming through the high windows silhouettes him. He is of medium height and slender, though with the beginning of a paunch. Previously, his standard costume had been the brown uniform of the Nazi Party's now largely ceremonial Sturmabteilung--SA, or storm troopers. Now he has on a simple field-gray uniform, which he has vowed to continue wearing until the war is over. Except for a swastika armband and the Iron Cross he won as a front-line soldier in the last war, he is without decorations. His brown hair slants down over the left side of his forehead, matching in color the brush mustache which, for foreign cartoonists, has become his emblem. (Hitler grew and kept the mustache to distract from his too-large nose.) One can imagine him nodding to the arrivals, gesturing them to seats, tossing his head, then beginning to speak. It was his custom to speak softly at first, then to let his voice and emotions rise in tandem.     Those in attendance include the commanders in chief of the armed services: General Walther von Brauchitsch for the army; Field Marshal Hermann Göring for the air force; and Admiral Erich Raeder for the navy. Brauchitsch is slight, rigidly erect, with a handsome face that is beginning to sag. Göring, almost comically fat, is stuffed into a white, gold-trimmed uniform of his own design and has a Crusader's sword at his waist. He has natural dimples and a set smile but, above it, small, malicious, pale-blue eyes. Raeder is squarely built but wide-bottomed, like one of his cruisers. The most detailed notes are taken by the army chief of staff, General Franz Halder, who has cropped hair, wears rimless spectacles, and, out of uniform, might be taken for a schoolteacher rather than a soldier.     Less than four weeks earlier, on September 1, German armed forces had invaded Poland, and France and Great Britain, after demanding a ceasefire and German withdrawal, had declared war. All the men gathered in Hitler's study had feared that French armies would march against Germany. At the time, German defense forces on the Western front had been feeble. Their commander, General Wilhelm Ritter yon Leeb, had warned Brauchitsch that he could do little to stop French troops from walking in and taking over the Ruhr River Valley. A 1,280-square-mile area less than forty miles from Germany's western border, this valley included cities such as Essen, Dortmund, Duisburg, and Bochum, where a large percentage of German heavy industry was concentrated. Hitler, who had gone to the Polish front on the Amerika , a special twelve-car double-locomotive armored train, had opened every morning's meeting in the train's command coach by asking, "What's new in the West?" Brauchitsch had said to his staff, "Every day of calm in the West is for me a gift from God."     Apart from a noisy show of force on the border with Germany and some leaflet dropping, France and Britain had done nothing. Meanwhile, the Germans had thrown more than a million and a half soldiers and almost two thousand aircraft into a campaign aimed at the quick and complete defeat of Poland. In the first few days, German bombers had decimated the small Polish air force and disrupted life in the Polish capital, Warsaw. From then on, German planes made it difficult for Polish forces to move either by road or by rail.     A German Army Group commanded by General Fedor von Bock attacked from the north. After breaking through Polish lines, its two armies turned south to envelop Warsaw. A corps under General Heinz Guderian, composed primarily of armored divisions and supported by air-force dive-bombers, stormed northern Poland, not stopping until it reached Brest, more than a hundred miles west of Warsaw. A second Army Group, commanded by General Gerd von Rundstedt, meanwhile struck from the west and southwest, closing in on central Poland like the lower jaw of a wire-cutter.     Just a week before the start of the war, Nazi Germany had astonished the world by signing a nonaggression pact with the communist Soviet Union, supposedly its mortal ideological enemy. This pact had ensured the Soviet Union's not joining France and Britain in declaring war. The commitment made by Germany to obtain this result became apparent when, on September 17, four Soviet armies marched into Poland from the east. Germany and the Soviet Union soon afterward agreed on a partition line, and, for the time being, Poland disappeared from the map.     Though the Polish army mounted a briefly successful counteroffensive, it was soon overwhelmed. During the second week of the war, Brauchitsch and Halder had felt able to begin transferring some forces to Leeb in the West. As early as September 12, Brauchitsch said to one of his aides that he could now "nip in the bud any attempt by the enemy to invade German territory." He and Halder began to plan for recruiting, training, and equipping forces with an eye to a possible offensive against France in 1941, if the war was still going on. They drew up orders for partial demobilization so that skilled workers could go back to their factories. On an assumption that any fighting in the West in the next year or two would be defensive, they also planned to "demotorize" some infantry divisions that had fought in Poland, thus conserving both vehicles and fuel.     Göring's air staff had returned to planning a bomber force that would be large enough by 1942 for a strategic air campaign against Britain. Raeder, who had advised Hitler that a serious effort to blockade the British Isles would require three hundred submarines and that Germany currently had only fifty-seven, wanted raw materials diverted from both the army and the air force so that, in a year or two, the navy could play a decisive role in a war. The military chiefs lined up in front of Hitler were all looking forward to a very long period of, at most, defensive warfare.     Halder's notes show their gradual discovery of the different message that Hitler had in mind, for Hitler described the victory over Poland as giving Germany only a temporary advantage. "All historical successes come to nothing when they are not continued," he said. "Great victories have little enduring luster." He attributed the French and British inaction to weakness, which would not last: "The enemy adjusts. After the first engagement with an enemy, even bad troops get better."     For the present, said Hitler, France held back because England would not yet "bear enough of the cost in blood." That would change when British troops arrived. Learning from the Polish war, the two enemy powers would strengthen their anti-aircraft and antitank defenses, and that would make another quick German victory increasingly difficult. Therefore, Hitler concluded, Germany should take the offensive against France now. "The sooner, the better," Halder recorded his saying. "Do not wait for the enemy to come to us, but rather immediately take the offensive ourselves.... Ruthless methods. Once time is lost, it cannot be recovered." After being dismissed by Hitler, the generals and admirals made their way back to the courtyard of the New Chancellory. The staff cars of Brauchitsch and Halder went down the Wilhelmstrasse and around Belle Alliance Platz, with its sixty-foot-high Peace Column, put up just one century earlier to celebrate the twenty-five-year peace following what was remembered by Germans as their war of liberation and by other Europeans as the last of the Napoleonic Wars. The route went out of the city along the Berlinerstrasse, passing first industrial suburbs and then farmland still green with late cabbage rows and beanstalks, where, between stands of linden, maple, and oak, Holstein and Jersey cows grazed in high grass.     The destination of Brauchitsch and Halder, about twenty miles from Berlin, was a huge fenced-in army-training facility neighboring the village of Zossen. The grounds had barracks, stables, vehicle-weighing stations, a large recreation center, and fields for sports, parades, and maneuvers. They also had sugarloaf-shaped structures mounting anti-aircraft guns, near which stood two large A-shaped buildings mistakable, at a distance, for ski chalets.     Built on marshland, these A-shaped buildings had to be approached across wooden planks. They contained offices and living quarters. But their north doors gave admission to elevators that descended sixty feet downward and opened onto long, steel-walled corridors lined with insulated cables and broken at intervals by airtight steel doors. These corridors led to a warren of offices, communication centers, and service and storage areas. Under the code name "Zeppelin," this was the army high command's supposedly bomb-proof, gas-proof quarters for wartime. (It was sufficiently well built so that, throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union would use it as a command post for its armies in East Germany.) Brauchitsch and Halder had moved there six days before the attack on Poland.     Early in the afternoon on the day following Hitler's order for an early Western offensive, Halder gathered some key officers of the general staff in his office, a Spartan pine-paneled room with barracks furniture. He directed these officers to analyze possibilities for an offensive against France. If his own diary account is trustworthy, he himself made a strong case for such an offensive. He said that Hitler hoped France and Britain would agree to some negotiated settlement, but if not, Germany would face the reality that time worked in favor of the enemy. Even with the Western front being reinforced by troops transferring from Poland, France and Britain could still seize the Ruhr Valley if they made a determined strike. Since the two powers had only recently begun to modernize their military forces, they would grow progressively stronger, and their prospects for success would improve. Hence, said Halder, the general staff needed to develop a contingency plan for a possible German offensive to be launched as early as late October, seeking to take as much territory as possible in the Netherlands and Belgium and conceivably in northern France, with a view to providing defense in depth for the Ruhr and gaining coastal bases for air and naval operations against the British home islands.     Halder asked General Kurt yon Tippelskirch, head of the general staff's intelligence directorate, and Lieutenant Colonel Ulrich Liss, chief of Tippelskirch's Foreign Armies West branch, for a quick, rough estimate of enemy numbers and materiel and of fortifications in the Netherlands and Belgium. He asked General Karl Heinrich yon Stülpnagel, head of the general staff's plans-and-operations directorate (and effectively his own number two), to outline a plan based on Tippelskirch's estimates of likely enemy forces and of German forces that could be shifted quickly from the Polish front to the West. He allowed less than two days for this work. Suspecting a negative reaction to the very idea of an offensive, he closed the meeting by emphasizing: "Extreme urgency to obtain basic data for a thorough discussion with the Führer about what is possible. No reservations or hesitations."     When the group assembled again on the morning of Saturday, September 30, the reports all discouraged even thinking of an offensive in the West any time soon. General Eduard Wagner, the army's chief supply officer, confirmed the conclusions of General Georg Thomas, who headed the economic section in Hitler's own armed-forces staff, that the Polish campaign had sapped Germany's reserves of fuel and ammunition and that Germany lacked the industrial base, particularly in chemicals and steel, to produce adequate quantities of gunpowder or artillery shells before 1941. Noting that about half of Germany's tanks had broken down or been disabled in Poland, General Adolf von Schell, who was in charge of motor transport, predicted that most of these tanks would still be out of action at the end of October. In any case, only the newer-model tanks--Panzer IIIs and Panzer IVs--had a hope of standing up against French and British tanks and antitank guns, and they could not come on line in any numbers until much later in the year, if then.     Tippelskirch, the intelligence chief, and Liss, his expert on Western armies, ticked off obstacles to a successful offensive against the Low Countries and France. For one, Belgium had a respectable army and some of the strongest fortifications in Europe. For another, France and Britain had sixty divisions on the French-Belgian border, eighteen of which were mechanized or motorized and could quickly come to Belgium's rescue. Stülpnagel and his operations staff, having already analyzed on their own the possibilities for a German offensive in the West, reported that there was no way in which it could be conducted with any prospect of success before 1942 at the earliest.     Anticipating negative reports from the general staff, Halder and Brauchitsch had already put their heads together to outline arguments that might persuade Hitler to change his mind. They agreed to point out to him the extreme vulnerability of the Ruhr Basin. They would explain that, though fast-moving German tank formations with air support had had success in Poland, they could not be equally effective in the West, where the terrain was different and the opposing forces would be much better equipped, trained, and led. Tanks moving into Belgium or France would encounter concrete fortifications, deep trenches, and steel barricades, none of which had existed in Poland. German tanks would become sitting targets for French and British bombers and for the thousands of artillery pieces arrayed along the French and Belgian frontiers. Moreover, the days were getting shorter. The weather was becoming more unpredictable. These factors would hamper ground operations and make air operations more and more chancy. Still, if the offensive were postponed even to 1940, Brauchitsch and Halder proposed to point out, the German army would not only have time to build up supplies and to train recruits but would also have significant numbers of Panzer IIIs and IVs and, among other things, new mortars capable of firing poison-gas shells. With their brief thus assembled, Brauchitsch and Halder arranged to see Hitler.     When Hitler's armed-forces high-command staff gave him advance notice of what the generals planned to say, he reacted with rage. He was already angry, because some generals had raised questions about his orders systematically to murder or enslave Jews in occupied Poland. His personal aides saw him pacing his private quarters in the Chancellory, fulminating against army officers who lacked faith in their own soldiers and were afraid of the French and British. Though he had agreed to see Brauchitsch and Halder, he gave them only the briefest of audiences. Dismissing their arguments almost out of hand, Hitler said that he intended to offer France and Britain a chance to retract their declarations of war but that, if they declined to do so, his position would be "absolute resoluteness" for an early offensive.     Returning to Zossen, Brauchitsch and Halder began to make some token preparations for an offensive in the West. For practical purposes, their planning focused on making ready to counter an Allied offensive. When the chief of the naval staff asked Halder if he was thinking of reaching the Belgian coast, where the navy wanted bases, Halder told him that such notions were "utopian."     Brauchitsch and Halder continued to hope that Hitler could be persuaded to change his orders. To gather additional arguments, they consulted General Leeb, whose Army Group was still the only one holding down the Western front. Leeb told them that most of his troops were not ready for anything but position warfare. They might fight if attacked, but not otherwise. Though Leeb's chief of staff, Lieutenant General Georg von Sodenstern, had a slightly higher opinion of the troops, he warned that the German army as a whole was crippled because of France's overwhelming superiority in artillery, which had been the decisive weapon in earlier wars. General Wagner, the chief supply officer, came in with a calculation that the army had only enough ammunition for one-third of its divisions to conduct operations for two weeks. From other sources, Brauchitsch and Halder learned that Göring and his senior staff officers doubted the air force's capacity to wage offensive operations before the spring of 1940. Of planes committed in Poland, 564 (almost 30 percent) had been lost or seriously disabled--and this against an enemy with a small air force and minimal anti-aircraft artillery.     On October 6, Hitler made his promised speech proposing that the Allies retract their declarations of war. He said that there were no direct issues between Germany and the Western powers. Germany had no designs on France or Britain. But the price of peace would be French and British acquiescence in Germany's control over all Central and Eastern Europe. Brauchitsch had said hopefully to Leeb and Sodenstern that Hitler's preparations for an offensive might just be part of a big bluff intended to bring the Allies to the bargaining table. According to Adolf Heusinger, then in the operations section of the general staff, all the junior officers at Zossen expected Hitler somehow to patch up a peace with the Western powers. Now it was evident that this expectation was wrong. Quick, uncompromising responses from Paris and London guaranteed that the war would go on.     On October 10, Hitler ordered Brauchitsch and Halder to appear in his office at 11 A.M. For most of the two previous nights, he had kept his two secretaries awake taking dictation. When the generals appeared, he had in hand a fifty-eight-page manuscript, which he proceeded to read aloud. His principal points were as follows: 1) If France and Britain were forced to give battle, they would be defeated. Germany was stronger, no matter what Halder's intelligence officers told him, for France was weaker than it appeared to be. France's population was smaller than Germany's, and France could not or would not lose millions of men in battle again as in 1914-18. Faced with a Germany prepared for war to the death, French leaders and the French populace would lose heart and give up. (A week later, Hitler would say casually to a senior official in the Foreign Ministry that this offensive could well cost him a million men, "but also the enemy, who cannot bear it.") 2) Belgium could be disregarded. Belgian defenses would collapse almost at a touch. 3) If the British Expeditionary Force tried to rescue Belgium, it could be cut off before it reached Antwerp and would have to retreat. 4) Even if France and Britain could rally and defend the French frontier, Germany would be in occupation of the Low Countries and would have a base for bombing Britain. 5) When Germany mounted an offensive, Italy would join, forcing France to fight on a second front, for Italy's Fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, Hitler asserted, was only "waiting for the suitable moment to take the plunge." 6) It was important to act soon, because there was no Eastern front. In return for the eastern half of Poland, the Soviet Union had agreed to stay out of the war. The Soviets could be counted on to remain quiet for a time, but not forever. 7) The army could manage this offensive even given some critical shortages if it used primarily small-caliber ammunition, deployed tanks only in open country, bypassed urban areas, and swept forward on a broad front but with concentrations at particular points of vulnerability. Hitler made only one concession to the generals. The timing of the offensive would depend, he said, on readiness for combined armor-air operations such as those that had been successful in Poland.     On the day after the Chancellory meeting at which Hitler first called for an early offensive, Halder's diary recorded that he and Brauchitsch had spent the evening in "talk regarding [our] stand on the subject set forth at the Führer conference." After their first failed effort to change Hitler's mind, the two generals again devoted the evening to "prolonged conversation ... about our stand on the Führer's plans in the West." A few days after sitting through the reading of Hitler's long memorandum, Brauchitsch and Halder had another very long talk. Halder recorded in his diary: Prolonged conference with the commander in chief [Brauchitsch] on the overall situation: commander in chief: Three possibilities: attack; wait and see; fundamental changes. None of these three possibilities offers prospects of decisive success, least of all the last, since it is essentially negative and tends to render us vulnerable. Quite apart from all this it is our duty to set forth military prospects soberly and to promote every possibility for peace.     The language in Halder's diary entries has to be understood against the long history of the army in Germany, and against the shorter but eventful history of the army's relations with Hitler since the advent of the Third Reich.     When Brauchitsch and Halder talked to each other of what "stand" they should take toward Hitler, they did so with assumptions they shared as generals in the German army. For them, the army was the nucleus of the nation. Duty therefore demanded not only preservation of the army but preservation of its pre-eminence among German institutions. As possible models for their action in 1939, they could look back at predecessors--Friedrich Wilhelm von Seydlitz in the eighteenth century; Yorck von Wartenburg in the early 1800s; and Wilhelm Groener in 1918, at the Great War's end.     Seydlitz symbolized obedience by the soldier to the head of state. The roots of Germany had been in the kingdom of Prussia, which, as recently as the mid-1600s, had been only a collection of properties scattered across Northern Europe from the Baltic Sea to the Rhine River. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Hohenzollern dynasty had created a Prussian state, primarily by forming and using an outsize army. The fact that more than 80 percent of all royal revenues went to the army accounted for the often quoted observation by the Marquis de Mirabeau that Prussia was not a state with an army but an army with a state.     Then, as later, the Prussian army was noted for its discipline. King Frederick the Great likened its workings to the machinery inside a watch. He laid down as a principle that his soldiers should be more afraid of their own leaders than of the enemy. "If a soldier ... so much as sets foot outside the line," he ordered, "the non-commissioned officer standing behind him will run him through with his bayonet and kill him on the spot." The king's commands were as if from God.     Seydlitz, the first of possible models for Brauchitsch and Halder, had been Frederick's foremost cavalry commander. At the battle of Kunersdorf in 1759, during the Seven Years' War which Prussia waged against Russia and Austria in 1756-63, Seydlitz was ordered by Frederick to charge Russian and Austrian forces half again stronger than Prussia's, and entrenched to boot. Seydlitz warned the king that the charge would be disastrous. When Frederick repeated the order, Seydlitz obeyed, even though the result was as he had predicted and he himself was killed.     Yorck symbolized service rendered by soldiers guiding their head of state. During the wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon between 1793 and 1815, the Prussian army had gained some independence. In 1806, in the battles of Jena and Auerstädt, Napoleon had routed the Prussians, and, as an English campaign historian writes, a "perfect epidemic of surrender set in amongst the higher commanders," while the Prussian people "welcomed the conquerors as deliverers, and turned their own soldiers, even the wounded, away from their doors." With Napoleon occupying Berlin, Prussia seemed destined to survive, if at all, as a dependency of France.     Prussia's rescue from this threat was remembered, especially by German soldiers, as primarily an accomplishment of its officer corps. With little help from the ruling Hohenzollern monarch, a small group of reformers began to build a new Prussian state and Prussian army. The new army embodied and symbolized Prussian nationhood. The reformers redesigned recruitment to make service a duty associated with citizenship--not, as previously, a fate akin to being enslaved. Imitating France, they opened the officer corps to nonaristocrats. Moreover, the army put a premium on brainwork and began the practice of attaching to every commander a staff officer experienced in planning and preparing campaigns. When Napoleon began to founder after his failed invasion of Russia in 1812, this new Prussian army proved able to defeat a French army in battle and to participate in victories culminating in Napoleon's surrender at Waterloo in 1815.     Yorck's role in these events had been to sign, at the very end of 1812, the Convention of Tauroggen, which effectively allied Prussia with Russia against France. Yorck had not done this on orders from the then Prussian king, who would almost certainly have chosen for Prussia to remain Napoleon's puppet. Yorck had not been a reformer--he had even protested the notion that Prussian officers should be required to be able to read and write--but he nevertheless presented his king with a fait accompli.     Afterward, into the late nineteenth century, when Brauchitsch and Halder were cadets, German school textbooks insisted that Yorck could not have acted on his own in 1812. Nationalist historians hypothesized that oral instructions had been given authorizing Yorck to act against his monarch's written orders. Yorck, wrote historian Heinrich von Treitschke, "would never have thought of setting himself against the king's will." Yet during the Great War, when the generals-to-be of 1939 were lieutenants, captains, or majors, the army high command, headed by Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff, assumed dictatorial powers more in place of Kaiser Wilhelm II than on his behalf, largely because it had become evident that the Kaiser could not manage a war. In light of current events, Yorck came to be recognized as having acted on his own and done what the king should have done. He, along with Hindenburg and Ludendorff, became a model of the soldier doing for the statesman what the statesman should have done for himself.     General Groener exemplified the soldier who went one step further and took control of the state. In 1918, when both the Western front and the German home front began to collapse, Groener succeeded Ludendorff. At Spa, in November 1918, he told Kaiser Wilhelm II that the officer corps no longer felt bound by its oath to him. "The personal oath of loyalty," he said, "is now just a notion"--" nur eine Idee ." Thus deserted, the Kaiser surrendered his legal powers to Marshal Hindenburg, abdicated, and went into exile. Groener negotiated with the civilian chancellor of Germany's new republic what both men characterized as "an alliance." The army would protect the republic from radical revolutionaries. Apart from exacting an oath to the new Constitution, the republic would leave the army to rule itself. When Brauchitsch and Halder used the phrase "fundamental changes" to describe one option they had vis-à-vis Hitler, they probably had in mind the example of Groener at Spa.     In the German officer corps of the 1920s and 1930s, it was accepted truth that the army had always been the soul of the nation. General Hans von Seeckt, who headed the army staff during the first of these decades, wrote an essay, published in 1928 as "The Army in the State," which asserted that the army had evolved beyond its earlier bonding with monarchy: "Drawing men from all sources and stations, the army embodies the manifest national unity of the state and serves as one of the strongest clamps holding together the national edifice.... The army serves the state, only the state; for it is the state." An eminent Frankfurt jurist, writing on the army and the state in 1938--five years after Hitler came to power--echoed Seeckt, writing, "The basic political order springs from the structure of the military establishment."     A majority of the German army's senior officers in 1939 were Prussians. Those who were not, like Halder, a Bavarian, had the traditions of the Prussian army equally fixed in their minds. They had studied the career of Seydlitz. Whenever they visited Hitler, they passed a bronze statue of him in the Wilhelm-Platz, just opposite the old Chancellory. They also had before them the models of Yorck at Tauroggen and of Hindenburg and Ludendorff later, taking decisions into their own hands. And they had the model of Groener at Spa, saying that the higher interests of the state required "fundamental changes." Copyright © 2000 Ernest R. May. All rights reserved.