Gerhard Paul Gross. The Myth and Reality of German Warfare: Operational Thinking from Moltke the Elder to Heusinger. Ed. David T. Zabecki. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2016. 464 pp. $49.79 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8131-6837-1.
Reviewed by Robert Kirchubel (Purdue University)
Published on H-War (July, 2017)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
Farewell to German Operational and General Staff Excellence
One does not need to be an expert on the German military to know the conventional wisdom: its strength through 1945 was not strategy, but operations and tactics. Gerhard Gross repeatedly validates the first part of that assessment; however, he also completely demolishes the “operational expert” trope. As he proves with countless examples from both world wars, the few operational successes achieved by the Germans from 1914 to 1945 came mainly because of serendipity or enemy mistakes, and not from doctrine, planning, or genetic martial excellence. Gross takes to task dilettante German strategists after Otto von Bismarck and a long line of incompetent chiefs of staff who followed the elder Helmuth von Moltke. Along the way, he highlights the well-known competition of war ministers (and its later Oberkommando der Wehrmacht incarnation) versus chiefs of staff, with the added dimension of a third power center, willful and independent-acting senior field commanders. He catalogs fanciful, unrealistic thinking at both strategic and operational levels, plus numerous examples of disconnects (“disharmony”) between theory and practice, or planning and execution, in the German army’s leadership.
Chapter 1, “Definitions,” provides an orientation on key concepts and terms. These definitions are useful because of the cultural differences among potential readers and limitations of the German language: depending on context, Vernichten can mean “render combat ineffective” or “racial extermination.” More to Gross’s point, German army leaders and thinkers frequently did not agree on the meanings of their own terms, and he describes several lively debates over terminology and meaning. Chapter 2, “Factors and Constants,” likewise clarifies German understanding of time, space, and competing forces. Here, perhaps “misunderstanding” is more accurate. From before German armies violated Belgian neutrality in 1914 until the final Battle of Berlin in 1945, German military history is a great litany of cluelessness, ignorance, and self-deception concerning these three factors.
Chapter 3, “The Beginnings,” introduces the great Moltke. Gross tells us he was a serious student of the French Revolution and Napoleon. He mastered the emperor’s technique of march dispersed and fight united. But he also “separated war from politics” (p. 43). Not only did Motlke therefore mislearn a great lesson of the French Revolution, which set the standard for combining politics and the military, he also hamstrung generations of German officers with this bad advice. The field marshal also exempted soldiers from strategic thinking (granted, in his day Bismarck could do that): more bad advice. Ultimately this legacy more than cancelled any benefits accrued from Moltke’s improved general staff, C2, use of railroads and telegraph, etc.
Chapter 4, “The Sword of Damocles,” brings the discussion into the twentieth century. Kaiser Wilhelm II was a game-changing, transitional figure; gone was the common purpose of his grandfather, Bismarck, Moltke, and Albrecht von Roon. Gross guides us through near-constant debates regarding all three levels of war, now finally including civilians like the historian Hans Delbrück. Participants in these debates cherry-picked Alfred von Schlieffen and the younger Helmut von Moltke’s ideas to support any argument. Those pushing for limited wars concentrating on the operational level came out on top, with long-term negative effects on both world wars. Throughout the army, “pure” operations trumped considerations of logistics, intelligence, occupation policies, etc. Gross writes that in another common German failing, Schlieffen’s plan only addressed the expected destruction of the enemy’s forces, so was inadequate to deal with the inevitable fog of war: the unanticipated “miracle on the Marne” or a long war in general. But since any serious questioning of the general staff’s plans—Schlieffen’s or Moltke’s—would have challenged the German army’s core, both were accepted almost unconditionally.
Any German WWI successes in the west were relegated to the status of Schlieffen’s dreaded “ordinary victories.” Similarly, Gross does not consider the German’s high point in the east, Tannenberg, a great exemplar of operational skill since it was an extemporaneous defensive victory. The vaunted duo of Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff could not follow up Tannenberg with the ultimate goal of all German operations: an encirclement battle of annihilation. By 1918, the only strategy Ludendorff could come with was “all or nothing” total war. His spring offensives were a series of Flucht nach vorn tactical break-ins (not breakthroughs) uncoordinated by any sort of overarching operational theme. Results were predictable.
Chapter 6, “Old Wine in New Wineskins,” is Gross’s discussion of the post-WWI blame game and pre-WWII attempts at applying poorly understood lessons learned. The German tendency to personalize both victory (Hindenburg, Ludendorff, August von Mackensen) and defeat (Moltke, Alexander von Kluck, Erich von Falkenhayn) meant doctrine and techniques themselves underwent little scrutiny. Gross covers the 1920s debates over small mobile forces versus mass insurgencies, as well as the 1930s debates over motorization. The real hero of the chapter, and largely an unsung hero of 1914-19, was Wilhelm Groener, one of the few subjects of Gross’s analysis to understand strategy, both at home and abroad.
Chapter 7, “Lost Victories, or the Limits of Operational Thinking,” shows what Gross calls the “reharmonizing” of plans and capabilities (ways and means) during Adolf Hitler’s early victories. With the blitzkrieg, Germany tackled the problems of breakthroughs and motorization, although not those of logistics, intelligence, etc. There was less strategy than a generation before, and what strategy the Third Reich had was limited to exploiting enemy missteps. Poland 1939, was relegated to ordinary victory status. So too was France 1940, thanks to an additional disconnect exposed at Dunkirk: the general staff versus Hitler and willful operational commanders. The German military had a year to apply lessons learned during the western campaign to Barbarossa, but mainly because of “victory disease,” could not or would not. Gross catalogs the well-known tensions between Hitler and his generals over their eastern strategy, although he writes that the generals eventually grudgingly came around to the Führer’s way of thinking. Barbarossa, “a sequence of Cannaes,” looked good superficially, but suffered from a long list of fundamental problems that Germany never solved.
Throughout the book, Gross levels withering criticism at Franz Halder, and by extension, both other generals and the underlying system guiding Germany in WWII. Starting with the defensive battles around Moscow in late 1941 and accelerating at Stalingrad a year later, however, Hitler reclaims his position as the main villain so common in WWII histories. His insistence on a rigid WWI-style defense wrecked the generals’ chances for a win or draw. Gross also falls into the trap of overstating the importance of Erich von Manstein’s winter 1943 Backhand Blow; by extrapolation, he argues that a defensive mega-Backhand Blow at Kursk would have materially altered the course of the Nazi-Soviet war. It is all downhill that summer, however, as Hitler shifted Germany’s main effort to Italy and then France. By the summer of 1944, German operational art has degenerated to the point where Operation Lüttich by two hundred AFVs at Avranches (a tactical pinprick by 1940-42 standards) passed for an “operational” counterattack. By now Halder was long gone, but subsequent chiefs of staff barely rate mention. Likewise, the Soviets, who by 1943 in both operations and strategy had advanced from student to master, are marginalized by Gross.
In chapter 8, “Operational Thinking in the Age of the Atom,” Gross discusses the early years of the Federal Republic and the Bundeswehr. The leading generals, mainly from the west and with little experience fighting the Red Army, hope to wed German operational expertise (already discredited by Gross) with demonstrated superior Allied strategy. These “briefcase” generals with little or no operational command (but who are also relatively unsullied by eastern atrocities), fought to keep their new “tolerated junior partner” army from becoming mere irradiated cannon fodder. However, once again the strategy-operations disconnect emerged, showing that in a hundred years the Germans had not really learned that much after all. Bundeswehr generals flattered themselves imagining a modern Backhand Blow flexible defense, playing fast-and-loose with the eastern half of the Federal Republic, when political strategy would never allow such flexibility.
The Myth and Reality of German Warfare is a critical analysis of a major force in Western and international military history. Gross’s main contribution is depriving the German military of its operational expert laurels. He pulls no punches when describing German crimes of omission (strategic-operational disconnect or institutional autism and blindness) and commission (atrocities or favoring foraging over modern logistics). The book could have used some stronger editing: the WWII chapters seem disorganized, with Gross repeatedly coming back to Barbarossa regardless of what theater or year he is writing about, while Manstein becomes Eric (p. 200) and Ian Kershaw becomes Robert (p. 239). Like many Bundeswehr officers, Gross is too eager to overlook Ludwig Beck’s severe limitations. Unfortunately, he also frequently falls into the trap of calling Prussian-German generals “apolitical,” when quite obviously they were anything but (if he wants to say they were “political incompetents,” I would agree with that). A key lesson of Gross’s is that in the massive learning competition of warfare, the Germans were relative flatliners. Only after losing two global “poor man’s wars” did they get the clue. With all of small Germany’s liabilities, ably described by Gross, it is too bad that it took the nation so long to learn that its success would come, not from fighting the world, but from doing business with it.
. When I was stationed in Germany in 1981, the commander of the US VII Corps, Lt. Gen. Julius Becton, was relieved for merely suggesting that NATO might only halt the Warsaw Pact at the Rhine.
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Robert Kirchubel. Review of Gross, Gerhard Paul, The Myth and Reality of German Warfare: Operational Thinking from Moltke the Elder to Heusinger.
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