In my book, Admiring the Goose-steps: How Hitler Succeeded in Intimidating the World Powers (Hamilton Books, 2007), I described how Hitler rebuilt the German Army and took command of it. The article by Nick Shepley included important explanations of how Hitler commanded his armies into an unprecedented military defeat. As I did with the article about the Blue Division, I would like to share some additional trivia that further illuminates this often-debated subject.
- In spite of his actions in the trenches of WWI that brought him two Iron Crosses, Hitler was denied the next rank “for lack of leadership qualities,” as his superior, a Jewish lieutenant, put it. Years later, when he was Fuhrer, Hitler was still accorded little respect from military commanders, who didn’t hesitate to treat him with a superior attitude even after they had made their oath of allegiance directly to him. His generals considered him to be not only an outsider (also he was Austrian), but also an ascetic corporal who refused to enjoy a good cigar or a glass of tasty wine. While he did have a few “yes-generals,” armchair commanders like Jodl and Keitel, Hitler continually faced the opposition of the “vons,” the Prussian generals, who had a low opinion of Hitler as a competent commander-in-chief and felt that he could have used even one year in a military academy in order to understand strategic and tactical concepts for large scale operations. Indeed, Hitler based his orders on intuition and his belief in his lucky star as he sent his legions to fight in all cardinal points, from the Northern Sea to the Sahara Desert.
- Hitler’s mistrust of his generals went so far that “to change a sentry on Russian front needed approval from Berlin.”
- During his many purges Stalin reduced the Soviet military leadership by half, but renewed it with reliable commanders. Distrusting his generals, Hitler tried to do the same. He was renowned for his quick promotions that produced officers obedient to him alone — but their fanatically-devoted actions did more harm than good to their troops.
- To Hitler, the war was too important to be left to his generals. Indeed, in spite of all their protests and gloomy predictions, Hitler proudly pointed to the initial blitzkrieg of 1939-1941 that had stunned the world and demonstrated to his generals who was entitled to be in charge of the war and ensure a final victory: the Fuhrer.
- It is well known how Hitler achieved power relying on the “triumph of the will” over the German people. He tried the same ambitious Fuhrerprinzip with the soldiers on the front line, and it worked up to a point. But when they were outnumbered and outgunned, or freezing to death, his fighters died without serving any purpose.
- By ordering his troops to hold the conquered land “to the last bullet and last man,” Hitler refused to approve orderly retreats with minimum casualties that would have exhausted the enemy and allowed the Germans to carry out victorious attacks.
- Two mammoth military mistakes were at the root of Hitler’s hellish defeat: a) letting almost 450,000 defenseless allied soldiers evacuate from France to England in 1940, and b) not conquering Moscow in the first months of the war. He still believed that the British would join in his crusade against Soviet Russia, as he was convinced that Stalin was already defeated.
- But Hitler’s worse decision was to believe that the many nations allied to Germany and forced to fight in his war could be reliable partners with military capabilities. One by one, the allies-of-convenience abandoned the Nazi camp and joined the Soviets in their offensive toward Berlin.
- By choosing Berlin as his base, even though it was situated in the middle of tank-friendly open terrain with no obstacles, Hitler could not stop some 40,000 Soviet tanks and heavy cannons from invading Germany. Thus, Hitler sealed his personal end and the end of his lost war.
- Despite the lack of respect from his generals and his own lack of military expertise, Hitler managed to be a strong Fuhrer and the Wehrmacht supreme leader throughout the six-year war. His Third Reich collapsed not from internal revolution, like all previous empires, nor because its soldiers refused to fight, as often was the case in history. Hitler’s war machine was crushed by superior allies’ manpower, outgunned at all levels and left without sources of food, weapons, and ammunition, while German cities and civilians were the target of savage non-stop carpet bombing. Hitler could not control that, nor could his generals.
Published in Armchair General Magazine
January 2014 Web Mailbag
© Ion Grumeza 2013