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Authored by Dr. Samuel J. Newland. | December 2005
Since the early 1940s, the students of military operations in general, and from the United States in particular, have studied German military operations. While some of these studies have dealt with the wars of the imperial era, particularly the Wars of German Unification (1864- 71), much more study has centered on the wars waged by the Third Reich from 1939-45. From these studies, lessons have been extracted, and military doctrine has been influenced. Regrettably, however, as the German way of war has been studied, too often those studies have focused on the tactical or the operational levels of war. The exploits, the victories of German operational leaders such as Erwin Rommel, Heinz Guderian, and Eric von Manstein have been traditional favorites. And while the Germans have clearly influenced warfare on this level, even the casual observer should have noticed that the Germans fought two major wars in the 20th century and lost both of them, the second with disastrous consequences. Thus the question emerges, What was wrong with the oft-studied German way of war?
A significant factor in their military failure can be laid at the top with both their civilian and military leadership. For while the Germans have excelled tactically and operationally, they have exhibited significant weaknesses in developing achievable goals for their nation and appropriate strategies for achieving these goals. In the time that stretched from the beginning of the 1860s until the end of World War II, Germany only had one brief period when it could bask in the glory of the European leadership it so desired. That brief period was from 1871 until 1889 when Otto von Bismarck was Chancellor. Following Bismarck (and Chief of the German General Staff Helmuth von Moltke), the German record of setting achievable goals and developing and following logical strategies is poor.
This Letort Paper is designed to explore these issues and provide an overview of the development of Germany as a nation and German military thought in the 19th century. It examines the origins of modern German military thinking and the concepts promoted by some of Germany?s key military and political leadership.
It emphasizes that, if a nation is unwilling or incapable of designing logical strategies, tactical and operational victories in the field will come to naught.
From Thomas Carlyle to Martin Van Creveld, Prussian-German Prowess has attracted more than its share of homage from soldiers and military historians alike.
Holger H. Herwig1
This Letort Paper is written to examine the claimed German ?genius for war,? whether it exists and, if so, at what levels. This question has long intrigued the author who is, by his academic education and major interest, a German historian. Beyond the writer?s own intellectual curiosity, the question has significance for the U.S. Army. Consider, for example, that since the end of World War II, the U.S. Army has expended considerable energy studying the German way of war. These studies include numerous publications produced at Fort Leavenworth, as well as such impressive projects as the multiple interviews and monographs completed by German officers from 1945 to 1954, working in cooperation with Headquarters, U.S. Army Europe. These Army studies cover a profusion of topics from strategies and campaigns in all theaters where the German Army fought during World War II, as well as obscure topics such as the utilization of canines by the German Army. They also cover the full spectrum of warfare from theater level operations to anti-partisan operations in the Balkans and Russia.
Despite the passage of some 60 years, German doctrinal concepts such as A uftragstaktik and examples of battles and campaigns are still studied at military educational institutions, and some are included in U.S. Army doctrinal and instructional materials. The title of Colonel T. N. Dupuy?s Book, A Genius For War . . ., seems to best sum up the rationale for many military writers? fascination with German military practices.2
The fascination with German military prowess is not just a ?military thing,? a fascination by soldiers about other soldiers. Indeed, serious historians, pseudo historians, and military buffs have added, seemingly weekly, to the bulk of studies on the Army fielded by the Third Reich, causing the shelves of respectable military libraries to creak from the sheer weight of these publications. The intrigue with the successes, leadership, and tactics of the German Army also has been shared by the military establishments of other nations, providing a student of German military history who wishes to achieve proficiency in this field of study with a daunting task.
In addition to the literature of the past 50 years, mainly focusing on the military of the Third Reich, publications continue to emerge on the German conduct of World War I, the Wars of Unification, and the wars fought by Frederick the Great and his immediate successors. In particular, the history of the National Socialist State and military doctrine, as well as its impact on political processes and the leadership ability of key senior German officers, continues to intrigue students of the military art. This fascination shows no signs of abating.
This paper is designed to explore German military practices and their origins, and analyze the weaknesses in the 19th and early 20th centuries of Prussian/German military thought. It emphasizes the importance of national political and military leaders responsible for higher levels of strategy, developing logical and sequential plans and strategies. The first 80 years of Germany?s existence indicate that, no matter how proficient a nation?s forces are on the battlefield, if senior political and military leaders have not done solid strategic planning and have not developed achievable goals, the efforts of its military forces will likely fail to produce the desired results.
Although many militaries have attempted to analyze the competencies of the German military and even emulate some of them, particularly on the operational level of war, too often the failings of the German Army have not been studied properly. Most military authors recognize any number of German capabilities on the tactical and operational levels of war. Conversely, during the 20th century, the Germans have employed their forces in two major World Wars and, despite their well-documented capabilities, have been defeated, the second defeat being an overall calamitous event for both the nation and its citizens. This causes students of military history to ask, what was missing? How is it that a nation that has dominated 20th century military thought has been unable to win its wars? Or stated another way, if there is, in fact, a German genius for war, why didn?t it produce victories rather than defeats in the wars of the 20th century?
Many authors have studied this issue and attempted to identify German shortcomings. Popular military historian Kenneth Macksey concluded, though the Germans had ?many admirable attributes, talents and skills . . .,? that ?Germany?s military methods so widely respected were overshadowed by arrogance, excess, rigidity of mind, bullying, and a blindness to the lessons of history.?3 Geoffrey P. Magargee took a more balanced approach. Looking at the postwar German officers? assertion that Hitler had bullied them into impossible military campaigns over their protests, Magargee stated:
Hidden below that superficial argument, however, lies the Germans? fundamental inability to make sound strategic judgments. This was a problem with deep historical roots that, at the very least, stretched back to Schlieffen and the senior officers and officials of his era. With almost no exceptions, the Nazi-era military and government were devoid of people who could correctly balance means and ends in order to come up with a realistic strategic plan.4
Whether one totally agrees with his assessment, Megargee has highlighted an important fact. Most of the flaws in the German way of war were evident before 1914, long before Hitler?s entry into military affairs. The flaws are thus ones of considerable duration and have origins in the imperial period, rather than in the tragic National Socialist era. Adding to the misunderstanding, many students have been ?taken in? by the memoirs, the interviews of senior German officers who, after World War II, claimed that the German Armed Forces were robbed of many of their rightful victories by Hitler?s interference in everything from strategic to tactical decisions. This postwar revisionist line by key German generals would lead one to believe that most of the flaws in the German way of war were tied to the National Socialist era and Hitler?s interference in military matters.5 In fact, this writer?s research indicates that from 1870-1945, four significant problems existed within the German political/ military system. All deserve careful examination by serious students of the military art.
First, from the mid 1860s, German military thinkers planned for and relied on the concept of a short, speedy victory to achieve their major goals. Planning for the short war acknowledged that Germany?s warmaking capabilities would not likely support long wars of attrition. And the concept of short, speedy decisive wars was based largely on the experiences of 1864-71. Despite this recognition, twice in the 20th century, Germany became involved in lengthy attritional conflicts, both producing disastrous results for that nation.
A second problem deserves careful consideration. If a country?s political and military leadership has not engaged in the necessary strategic planning and established achievable objectives, no matter how tactically or operationally proficient that country?s military is, successes on the battlefield likely will be squandered. In short, military victories are not enough and should not be viewed in isolation! Obviously this problem is not exclusively a military issue since a nation?s national security strategy normally should be developed through the political system with military input. When this does not occur, there is a serious disconnect. As succinctly described by Major General, a.D., Christain O. E. Millotat, ?Sheer military virtuosity cannot compensate for the lack of political direction and National Strategic objectives.?6
Third, and closely related to the previously-mentioned problem, from the early 1890s until 1945, the military leadership consistently intruded into the political side of the German national security process. In part, this was due to the political leadership systematically failing to develop a logical national security strategy. The military leadership, particularly members of the famous (or in the opinion of some, infamous) General Staff, intruded into the political realm and, in essence, developed political as well as military priorities for the German government. With their excessive involvement in this important process, most of the solutions to Germany?s strategic problems appeared resolvable by the use of the military, rather than the political instrument of power.
Fourth, in a closely-related problem, the history of Germany from the beginnings of the Second Reich (1871) through the Gotterdamerung of the Third Reich7 shows an inability to recognize the value of using multiple elements of power to achieve the nation?s goals. The writer acknowledges that this descriptor, elements of power, is rather recent terminology.8 Conversely, for generations many political and military leaders have recognized intuitively that alternate methods exist to achieve a nation?s political goals other than through wagingwar. As the ancient Chinese philosopher of war, Sun Tzu, stated, ?. . . Those skilled in war subdue the enemy?s army without battle. They capture his cities without assaulting them and overthrow his state without protracted operations.?9 In Germany, however, even though the political element was often used?whether it was chicanery on the eve of the Franco-Prussian War, negotiations on the eve of World War I, or at Munich ? a distinct tendency on the part of the Germans was to gravitate, all too quickly, to blunt coercion and to ignore all but the military element of power. In particular, once conflicts started, the other elements of power were pushed aside unceremoniously, and the Germans all too quickly pursued their goals by using almost exclusively the military element of power.10 War was viewed as the professional domain of the military, and the military seemed to ignore the concept that a nation can, in fact should, use concurrently or simultaneously several elements of power to achieve its goals.11
1.Holger Herwig, ?The Prussian Model and Military Planning Today,? Joint Forces Quarterly, Spring 1998, p. 67.
2.Colonel T. N. Dupuy, A Genius For War: The German Army and General Staff, 1807-1945, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc. 1977.
3.Kenneth Macksey, Why the Germans Loose a War: The Myth of German Military Superiority, London: Greenhill Books, 1996, p. 228.
4.Geoffrey P. Megargee, Inside Hitler?s High Command, Lawrence: University of Kansas, 2000, p. 232.
5. For example, see B. H. Liddell Hart, The German Generals Talk: Startling Revelations from Hitler?s High Command, New York: Quill, 1975; and of course a classic in this line of thought, Eric von Manstein, Lost Victories, Chicago: The Regency Press, 1958.
6. Oberst i.G. Christain O. E. Millotat, Understanding the Prussian-German General Staff System, Carlisle Barracks, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 1992, p. 42.
7. This term, Gotterdamerung, is normally used to describe the catastrophic collapse of the Third Reich in the late spring, 1945. This term was taken from Richard Wagner?s Der Ring des Nibelungen, a favorite of Hitler?s. The opera ends with an orgy of destruction, similar to what happened in Berlin in April 1945.
8. For those who are unfamiliar with the concept of elements of power, a good primer is Hans J. Morgenthau?s book Politics Among the Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace, New York: Knopf, 1968. Morgenthau found that there were elements that were relatively stable, and then there were those that were subject to change. Application of these elements of power is the means to achieve national goals. Currently the key elements of power that are recognized are economic, political, military, psychological, and, most recently, informational. The fault with the Germans appears to be that they had a distinct tendency to gravitate to the military, ignoring/overlooking the others.
9. Michael Handel, Sun Tzu and Clausewitz Compared, Carlisle Barracks, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 1991, p. 21. Even more pointedly, Sun Tzu stated: ?For the Emperor to resort to violence was an admission that he had failed in his own conduct as a sage pursuing the art of government. The resort to warfare, wu, was an admission of bankruptcy in the pursuit of wen, the arts of peace. Consequently it should be a last resort and it required justification both at the time and in the record.? P. 23.
10. The author readily acknowledges a notable exception to this statement. Chancellor Otto von Bismarck willingly used the military element of power from 1864-71 in order to unify Germany. Conversely, once his basic goals were achieved, the chancellor consistently avoided war and through diplomacy, and at times chicanery, defused crises and forsook the military element of power.
11.This is in contradiction to the concepts promoted by the preeminent 19th century German thinker Carl von Clausewitz, who stated, ?. . . We also want to make it clear that war itself does not suspend political intercourse or change it into something entirely different. It is essential that intercourse continues irrespective of the means it employs.? Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Sir Michael Howard and Peter Paret, trans. and eds., Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984, p. 605.