Excellent Review. Might not some of the problems mentioned have been due to 'ideological' prejudices overriding other, or more even, common sense thoughts ? Just a question.
According to the review, the book stated that the Germans achieved "few operational successes... from 1914 to 1945". What then is the definition of an operational success? On the face of it, the Germans won a large number of battles and campaigns in both world wars. As for only winning because of "serendipity or enemy mistakes", the ability to recognize and exploit enemy mistakes and to take advantage of lucky breaks is a component of operational excellence. Later in the review it states that Poland 1939 and France 1940 were merely "ordinary victories"; thus they were not really "operational successes"? Recent scholarship has shown that the French campaign, at least, was much less of a walkover than previously believed. Indeed, per the title of a book making that argument, the German conquest of France was a strange (extraordinary) victory not an ordinary victory.
If the German Army from 1914 to 1945 did not exemplify tactical and operational excellence, what would tactical and operational excellence even look like? Yes, the Soviets in 1944-45 were operationally excellent, but paid a much higher blood price than the Germans for their victories.
Sounds like a very interesting revisionist take on the German "way of war," embraced so enthusiastically by the US Army late in the last century. I have to agree with James Perry that the author (according to the reviewer) seems a bit too willing to discount many of the undeniably great operational triumphs put up by the Reichsheer and the Wehrmacht in its two losing efforts during the 20th century. That these operational triumphs were more than cancelled out by catastrophic strategic blunders does not render them unworthy of appreciation, in my opinion. The sources of this operational excellence -- initiative at all levels of command from generals down to corporals, realistic training based on continuous and remorseless "lessons learned," and senior officers leading from the front -- certainly ought to have prompted emulation. Indelible images come to mind, e.g., Generals Guderian and von Rundstedt (the corps and army group commanders) standing together at the Meuse River bridge in Sedan observing a critical phase of the great breakthrough in May 1940. One wonders, were any Allied generals anywhere near the front as it was being ruptured?
As an aside, we might also wonder how long this tradition of operational excellence persisted in the Bundeswehr. A friend, a career US Army officer from the 1970s to the 1990s, had majored in modern languages in college and spoke fluent German. During his two tours in USAREUR, late 1970s and late 1980s, he was often employed in a liaison capacity with the Germans during NATO joint exercises. After returning from his second tour in 1989, he commented to me that "the Germans aren't the Germans anymore."
I've not yet read the book but based on the review (and Groß's background) it is clear that a sharp distinction is being drawn between the strategic, operational, and tactical levels of war, with the focus on the operational level. In this view, an "operational" success means essentially what it did to Schlieffen: "annihilation" (Vernichtung) of the enemy's strength through encirclement (Kesselschlacht). Schlieffen disparaged "ordinary victories" — in which one merely pushes the enemy back and inflicts roughly proportionate casualties — on the grounds that Germany could never win wars on that basis.
A classic example is provided by the opening campaign in the west in 1914, which was supposed to be a gigantic Kesselschlacht leading to the destruction of the French army. In my book, The Plan That Broke the World, I analyze the operational aspects of this campaign and show that there was no prospect of success, regardless of the ability of the German commanders, in the absence of German capabilities for operational-level mobility, supported by commensurate operational communications and intelligence. German forces were better provided in this regard in World War II than in World War I, but still inadequately so.
Groß's book is on my list and I look forward to reading it. I appreciate the review, which seems to give a clear idea of the book.
Somehow my reply to James Perry’s response to my review didn’t get posted last weekend, but no harm: Ralph Hitchens, William O’Neil and Michael Geheran (via MiWSR) have kept the thread going. As a couple of these gentlemen have pointed out, Gross’s criticism of German operational art during the world wars was not that they failed to create many beautiful arrows across the map of Europe from 1914-42. But this is not how Germans evaluated “great operational triumphs.” Those generals and staff officers in the mold of Schlieffen, that is to say – most of the cohort of the world wars, were constantly striving for a Cannae or super-Cannae. Merely shoving around enemy armies didn’t cut it: West 1914, East 1915, 1917, Poland 1939, East 1942. In the case of Gross, his book represents a German’s criticism of his own military tradition as judged by its own war of annihilation frame of reference.
A further point I made in my review, not mentioned by the other three, is the failure of the German general staff and especially it chiefs, from 1914-45. I believe this bears reemphasizing.
Two personal observations. To address the anecdote of Hitchen’s friend: During REFORGER 1981, I served as a liaison officer from my battalion HQs (1-33 Armor, I too spoke German) to the 15th Panzer Brigade, to which we were attached. I sat in the commander’s APC with him and his chief of staff (XO) as we (they!) planned this or that maneuver. I was just a 1LT (S2), totally outclassed by two colonels in gray – both in terms of rank and skill. By skill I mean outside-the-box thinking compared to US commanders and S3s I’d observed (and my Bde S3 had been MAJ John “John Boy” Abrams). In other words: those Germans WERE still Germans!
Also, a friend of mine who now teaches military history at USMA, read my Gross review and told me how instructors there still encounter beaucoup cadets who continue to believe that the German military of the world war era was the be all, end all. I was there at the German military panel during 2012 SMH conference in DC when Prof. Kuehn said to all assembled (incl. Weinberg, Herwig, Megargee, et al), “Hi, my name is John and I’m a Wehrmachtaholic.” The rest of us replied, “Hello, John!” Most of us grew up watching Walter Cronkeit narrate “20th Century,” reading Ballantine Books, building Revell models, playing SPI games, etc. Those days are gone, we overrated the German military of the world wars, deGaulle’s comment at Stalingrad notwithstanding.
Hi, I’m Stephen W. Richey and as long as we’re doing gut-wrenching confessionals as members of German Army Admirers Anonymous, I might as well join in. When I was in my adolescence, I played the board game “Panzerblitz” with a passion, always playing the German side of course. Does anyone else remember the thrill of watching your little playing pieces that bore the silhouette of a Tiger tank entering the edge of the game board? At this moment, it would take me about a minute to retrieve my original boxed copy of Panzerblitz from where I store it upstairs in my house. My favorite book in adolescence was _Panzer Division: The Mailed Fist_ by Kenneth Macksey, “weapons book No 2” of the Ballantine World War II series. I just now retrieved it from its place of honor on my bookshelf. I have put a clear acetate adhesive cover on it to preserve it through the years of my life to come. Damn, in 1968 it cost only a dollar. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, every year at Christmastime, “NBC Saturday Night at the Movies” would present, in two parts, “Battle of the Bulge.” Yes, yes, that’s probably the most egregious big budget World War II movie ever made. But at the age of thirteen, I was enthralled by the “Panzerlied” singing sequence. Just like Dr. Kirchubel, I enjoyed grooving to the song “Roads to Moscow” by Al Stewart. At this moment, proudly displayed atop the windowsills and bookcases in my house, are twenty 1:32 scale die cast models of Tiger tanks, one in each camouflage scheme. Three of my Tiger Is that are painted in LAH livery bear the turret numbers 205, 222, and 007, the three turret numbers made famous by Michael Wittmann. Oh for shame and oh for sorrow, when I was a boy, I fantasized about clanking down a dusty road in the Ukraine, waist high in the commander’s hatch of my Tiger, Knight’s Cross glistening at my throat.
A necessary corrective on my excessive panzerlust is that when Dad was a U.S. Army G.I. in World War II, he came within a few miles and a few hours of becoming a victim of Kampfgruppe Peiper. Notwithstanding that fact, Dad always enjoyed watching “Battle of the Bulge” with me and reading John Toland’s _Battle: The Story of the Bulge_ to me. A key point here is that whenever Dad spoke about the Germans to me, he did so with words of respect.
It’s time to get more intellectually serious in this narrative.
When I was a cadet at West Point in the early 1980s, one of my history professors was then Captain Tim Lupfer, author of the seminal book _The Dynamics of Doctrine: The Changes in German Tactical Doctrine During the First World War_. Captain Lupfer was one of my coequally favorite top four professors at West Point, all of them, no surprise, being military history instructors. It would be superfluous to point out that I received straight “A”s in all their classes.
It’s time to come to my main point.
Also when I was a cadet at West Point, I wrote an essay titled “Auftragstaktik, Schwerpunkt, Aufrollen: The Philosophical Basis of the AirLand Battle.” My essay was published in the May 1984 issue of _Military Review_ magazine. Obviously, my essay is a glowing paean to the magnificence of the German Army in both World Wars at the *tactical* and *operational* levels of war. But even when I was a young cadet, I had enough sense to state the following caveat at the beginning of my essay, which I quote here verbatim: “That the Germans eventually lost both World Wars is the fault of a national leadership which twice tried to take on almost the whole world at once. The achievements of the German Army at the tactical and operational levels remain objects of admiration.”
To echo the comments made above by smart people, if Tannenberg in 1914, Caporetto in 1917, the overrunning of France and the Low Countries in 1940, the dazzling maneuver dances of Rommel in the desert, and the enormous encirclements in the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941 are *not* brilliant pieces of operational and tactical art, then what in the bleeding heck are they? Yes, yes, of course, the Germans were doomed the instant they conceived (not once but twice) the strategically insane notion of taking on every great power in the world at the same time while shackled to weak, inept allies who were more hindrance than help. But, to hammer the point, this self-destructive insanity of the Germans was an insanity at the *strategic* level of war. Yes, of course, for the love of America and its people, we must not catch the fatal German disease of winning battles while losing wars. We must be infinitely times more strategically smart than the Germans. But—I still assert as vigorously as I did when I was a cadet that we would do well to emulate some aspects of the German model of tactics and operations.
Stephen, Thanks so much for giving Tim Lupfer a great plug...although we now know that Brusilov had as much to with solving the dilemma of breaking through World War I defenses as much as did Georg Bruechmuller et al.
But Lupfer's stuff is great and still used to a great extent by us here at CGSC (us includes probably several folks you know or even taught at West Point). For those on H-WAR who do not know, Lupfer's magnificent monograph is here:
[note, this website has recently changed, so if you use it, the paths and links are different now than they were last week--thank you US Army, in love with change for change's sake!!}
That said---about the German Army--having shared an office with another former army captain, Jonathan M. House, for three years has caused me to revise my opinion on the DeutschesHeer's operational excellence. Excellent short term, but not long term or even midterm, particularly in those operationally tedious areas of intelligence (especially opintel) and logistics. Rommel seemed not to understand the relationship between sea lines of communication and culmination, for example--until too late. Thank God Frederich Ruge wrote about it after the war--but who reads naval history (uh oh, I am off on one of my rants).
Typhoon was a magnificent achievement--Bryansk and Vyazma and over half a million prisoners (soon to die of criminal neglect) of the second Soviet strategic echelon. But...those kesselschlachten led to strategic culmination, and unlike Napoleon a culmination shy of Moscow. As we know, capturing Moscow don't mean crap to a Tsar Alexander or a Stalin. Just sayin'--and thanks for the personal touch, Stephen, about your Wehrmacht neurosis, I too am a recovering Wehrmacht-a-holic.
best, John (T. Kuehn, Ph.D.)
I don’t know if I can compete w/ Stephan Richie when it comes to word count, but I can thank him for adding to my trip down Memory Lane, in particular, his reference to Al Stewart, who I neglected to mention in my earlier nostalgic litany!
I agree, we can now consider many German maneuvers during both WWs excellent examples of operational and tactical skill. I appreciate big and little Cannaes at Kiev 1941, Gazala 1942, etc as much as the next guy. I intentionally left these (and a couple others) off the list of ordinary victories in my earlier post. And yes, there are aspects of the German military (and Napoleonic and Soviet and…) the US could, possibly should, adopt but plenty we shouldn’t. The Germans are worthy of some respect, but certainly not adolescent adoration (more below).
But Schlieffen would not and Gross did not consider these victories consistent with German operational tradition. Perhaps that’ll be the last whack on this particular horse carcass, and we can drag away the unfortunate beast.
Part of our new, mature evaluation of the 20th century German military must include correcting Cadet Richie’s 1980s judgment that “national leadership” (which I assume means Hitler, Goering, and other Nazi dilettantes) caused the country to lose two WWs, while giving the Generalität a pass. Beyond Hitler’s lapdogs Keitel and Jodl, before the shooting in WWII even started, Generals Blomberg, Brauchitsch, Halder, Reichenau, Thomas and many others drank the Kool-Aid. Even Beck was OK with wars of conquest – so long they were on his schedule.
But Hitler had his own time plan. In the summer of 1938, Beck’s frustration with Nazism and fear of an early war boiled over. He stood up, sort of like Iron Mike at Ft Benning, and said “Follow me [to resist]!” and smartly moved out. But he turned around to see that he was all alone. Not a single senior general agreed or would act. A month later his shadow successor, Halder, sat boohoohooing in his office as Mussolini’s offer to mediate in Munich wrecked any excuse for unified Wehrmacht resistance. This is the same Halder who made a postwar cottage industry of blaming dead guys for all of Germany’s failures, and probably won the US Army’s “Civilian Employee of the Year” award more than once in the late’40s and '50s. He couldn’t herd the cats of the general staff, make Dunkirk or Moscow or Stalingrad work, etc...but he sure could write revisionist history.
German generals of WWII aren’t the only ones whose feet need to be held to the fire. No national leadership forced Falkenhayn to attack Verdun or Ludendorff to conduct his 1918 Offensives. Likewise, the WWII German navy came up with its lame tweak of the failed WWI strategy without the help of any national leadership. These flatliner trends didn’t stop in 1945, either: Gross demonstrates how 1950s Bundeswehr generals wanted to play fast-and-loose with the eastern half of West Germany to recreate another 1943 Dnepr bend. D-U-M dumb.
At least the Wehrmachtoholism of us graybeards had its limits. Here I have to risk invoking Godwin’s Law and walk the knife’s edge between history and news. The recent events of Charlottesville prove many other, younger Americans can’t make the distinction between the Nazi Party and German army. Just because James Mason and James Coburn look good in Feldgrau, doesn’t make Nazism any less repulsive and terrible.
Likewise, Charlottesville and other similar events prove something interesting about Americans and their military history. We can be awfully forgiving of rebellion and treason, as well as genocidal murder. And sorry, George Patton Jr, but Americans also love a loser – especially if they’re risk-taking underdogs, all the more so if there’s also a generous shot of Bill Murryesqe razzle dazzle.
Word count? Rob Kirchubel
I need to expand on what I said above about studying military history under then Captain Tim Lupfer, and his fellows, while I was a cadet at West Point. That was during the early 1980s when the U.S. Army was in a state of intense intellectual ferment as _FM 100-5, Operations_, was being totally thrown out and rewritten from zero to elucidate the radically new (for the U.S. Army) doctrine that came to called "AirLand Battle." It was an exciting time to be young and to be studying the Art of War at West point where some of the fine minds who were driving the new doctrine were teaching. It was also when the vogue for things German was at its peak in the U.S. Army. Deep analysis of Wehrmacht/Waffen SS tactical doctrine when fighting Soviets was the main mental activity of the time. This era coincided with the time that kids like me, who had grown up playing "Panzerblitz" and memorizing the words to the "Panzerlied," had left home to become officer cadets. It was heady stuff and I inhaled all of it with gusto.
Thanks to the Lt. for this commentary. Do not feel so alone now, agreeing with Rob, if I might; do think the Germans are/were overrated. For now.
Overrated by whom and how? People often compare armies as a whole and in that someone might have overrated the Germans as they clearly lost the war.
However, there were aspects of the German army which were vastly superior - as for example the officer selection and education system.
Other aspects - like the strategic planning - sucked big time.
Thus, I believe a more nuanced approach is in order other than ' The Germans'.
Gross book is excellent. I was fortunate to get one of the first copies. Bear in mind though, and I only emphasize the point as it has been made before - that the post-Wehrmacht Bundeswehr officers tend to be very critical towards their ancestors in grey.
Would be happy to hear how the Germans of WW I and Nazi's of WII were regarded as underrated.
What made their performances and tactical decisions as well as operations better; overrated means giving credit were it was not due for performances and professionalism not proven would think.
Would agree their strategic level was abysmal. What education system indicates better choices of officers, education, training and selection ? How was it superior to any others ? Winning battles is better ? Losing wars is better ? Am willing to hear about what was better than what they found opposing them. And Thanks, discussion is valued.
Dear Dr. John, Dr. Rob, Dr. Wyatt, and Dr. Jörg, thanks hugely for your comments that have been both kind and illuminating!
My comments for this iteration will address two topics:
1. What could/should Ludendorff have done differently in the spring of 1918? Enormous numbers of German troops had just been freed up from the Eastern Front for transfer to the Western Front, the French and British gave indications of tottering on their respective brinks, the Americans were known to be on their way but how long or short a time it would take for them to make an impact on the battlefield was impossible to predict, and, the Germans had just instituted a radically new doctrine for tactics in the offensive which seemed to offer the best chance yet of finally breaking the trench deadlock. Given all that, what course would have better served Germany than desperate Hail Mary lunges toward the Channel coast behind the British lines and Paris behind the French lines?
2. I will be so bold as to anticipate what Dr. Jörg may say in reply to Dr. Wyatt. I respectfully invite everyone’s attention to my essay titled “Proposals to Select and Train Junior Officers” which appeared in the December 2016 edition of _Army_ magazine.
Here’s the link: https://www.ausa.org/articles/proposals-select-and-train-junior-officers
My essay agrees strongly with Dr. Jörg that the system the “classic era” German Army employed to select candidate junior officers and to train those candidates for the conduct of war at the small unit tactical level was arguably the best such system the world has seen. Here’s the most condensed summary of my essay I can manage: The classic German Army’s system for selecting and training officer candidates displayed a degree of resource investment, rigor, intensiveness, and ruthlessness in its culling process that no other army has matched with the possible exception of the Israeli Army. The German process required officer candidates to first experience service as enlisted soldiers, serving alongside the masses of ordinary enlisted soldiers they aspired to someday lead. Only upon successful completion of a tour of duty as officer-candidate-earmarked enlisted soldiers did the officer candidates begin their officer training proper. Their training required multiple trips back and forth between the classroom and troops in the field. In times of war, the officer candidates served tours as provisional junior leaders *in combat*, which they had to complete successfully (and survive) before they were accepted into their units as full-fledged lieutenants. Every effort was made to ensure that officer candidates served their field time in the exact same units in which they would eventually serve as full-fledged lieutenants. This methodology enabled regimental commanders in the field to quite literally “grow” and nurture their own future lieutenants from initial selection to commissioning. The admirable result of the German system was that in their army, there was *no such thing* as a clueless newbie lieutenant who went to pieces in his first experience of combat and who had to be rescued by his crusty old platoon sergeant. This last bit is, of course, a constantly recurring trope of Hollywood war movies, a trope of which I am heartily sick and tired. Where the German officer development system failed catastrophically was its failure to develop its grand strategists with the same care it developed its small unit tacticians.
MAJ (Ret.) Steve
the German officers were educated with a civilian standard and added to that an overdose of military history and tactics.
The cadets were selected on the basis of leadership capabilities for commissioning.
At West Point a cadet would be separated from the academy if he failed mathematics while still having high grades in leadership. Such a thing was impossible and incomprehensible at a German officer school. A German cadet could basically fail every class except, leadership, tactics and military history (if the grades were high) and would still be commissioned. Thus culturally the German Army expected different things from its officers.
In addition, already at the cadet schools they were taught to lead in the vein of Auftragstaktik (what the American Army calls 'Mission Command'), a command philosophy that allowed for rapid decision making while leaving the task to the creativity of the subordinate.
The German officer were taught to follow guidelines and principles while they had the greatest latitude in making their decisions. Thus, very few things were set in stone in the German officer education. The word doctrine barely was ever used in German officer schools, regulations or private correspondence.
In addition, the German officer needed to shine on every occasion to win promotion. Even the commissioning was difficult as the officer aspirant had to pass two schools and do regular duty as an NCO in a regiment with real soldiers before even considered for commissioning. At West Point a cadet had to survive the hazing (outlawed at German schools) and 'cooperate and graduate' and he was commissioned already. He had not seen a single regular private until then.
The aspects covered above show that German officers were differently educated, selected, commissioned and promoted. The outcome was an individual who usually strived in the chaos of war, made devious and surprising plans and was able to execute them with great rapidity. As you will note such an education and selection mechanism does not necessarily make better strategists but superior tacticians. It also does not place any constraints on the individual which explains the atrocities which were committed by German officers during WWII.
(The full story is in my book _Command Culture_)
As prior indication, have been wanting to return to this discussion concerned with WW I, II and the performances of German military. Stephen Richey asks the question, what could Ludendorff had done different in 1918 ? Would like to suggest, parts of the answer can be found in texts previously mentioned under volumes by Cyril Falls and Col. T.N. Dupuy, both of whom make some presentations for events that took place in 1918 demonstrating the inadequacies to German military operations, plans and strategy.
Operationally, it is acknowledged, Ludendorff's plans were tactically 'brilliant'. Yet, also, as prior discussion mentioned, 'strategy' failed. So, what could have Ludendorff done different. Lacking the ability, talent and training to provide this level of achievement, perhaps nothing. Yet, his charge was to win the war once given overall command.
One thing he might have done different, was worked with Bethmann-Hollweg, instead of sabotaging his peace efforts and there by sustained a negotiation whose outcome could not be predicted. Another, those sheer speculation, tried some sort of combination of tactical plans different than those he selected or attempted a much larger breakthrough with much larger forces. Such results, though they may now be possibly examined on computer models for predictions of outcomes, still would not necessarily explain nor determine Allied decisions and outcomes which did take place and are discussed by both authors in their volumes.
Have read many works over the decades, still not all the materials available. Have not included here materials from Strachen either which may wish to go back and reread now. Yet, would suggest, the larger points about 'tactical' genius do not substitute for winning the war, nor give enough of an answer; battles alone, do not as we know comprise total answers. Ludendorff, whether he realized it or not, saw his German war machine as decimated as the Allies thru his 1918 attacks. Though he realized Germany did not have resources nor manpower for a prolonged and drawn out war, his concentrations and operations still did not carry enough weight to bring about either the Channel approach nor collapse of Paris in defeating British, French and even early American participation in these battles. His resources from the Russian collapse did not prove decisive.
There is however an most interesting observation about differences in the German traditional military training v. West. This idea of officers serving in the ranks before promotions to officer status does strike a quite different approach from the Western. There may be merit to this approach; not being a product of the military academies, an inside view is not included but other ideas about equality, democracy and individual liberty contained within the needs of a military system not given to class differences could be explored, If nothing else the German system did present in WW I the old class system of society swept away in the main by WW I. WW II, is quite another story. As a war of attrition Ludendorff does seem to realize his odds were those of a losing cause as results did show.
As to German military education system, the whole arguendo of Dupuy's book goes to his examination of how the German General Staff education and organization did bring forward institutionalized military brilliance; a system lost after WW I by the political infusion of a political disease for an entire nation. Admittedly this is a generalized view but attempting to write here on these specifics may not prove beneficial.