A narrative of the origins and development of the German war machine from the end of World War I through the Allied defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945
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About the Author
A former film critic and member of the Camera d'Or jury at the Cannes Film
Festival, John Mosier is currently a professor of English at Loyola University, New Orleans. His background as a military historian dates from his role in developing an interdisciplinary curriculum for the study of the two world wars, a program funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. He lives in Jefferson, Louisiana.
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Cross of IronThe Rise and Fall of the German War Machine, 1918-1945
By Mosier, John
Henry Holt and Co.Copyright © 2006 Mosier, John
All right reserved.
Introduction: Truth and Error
The truth must be repeated over and over again; because error is repeatedly preached among us, and not only by individuals, but by the masses. In periodicals and cyclopedias, in schools and universities--everywhere, in fact, error prevails, and is quite easy in the feeling that it has a decided majority on its side. Often, too, people teach truth and error together, and stick to the latter.
During the First World War, the German army was astonishingly successful. British and French gains of territory were generally measured in meters, German gains in kilometers. As late as spring 1918, the Germans broke through the British and French lines on the Western Front, driving a series of wedges between the British and French forces and coming to within seventy kilometers of the heart of Paris. These achievements are all the more impressive because German losses were substantially fewer than those of the Allies.
In writing about the First World War, Winston Churchill observed that although the Allies did poorly on the battlefield, their propaganda was remarkably successful in covering up their losses of men and territory and in spinning every incidentinto a seamless account of triumph, an observation also made by British prime minister David Lloyd George in his memoirs.2 For the first three years of the war, the Allies rationalized their lack of progress by claiming that German victories came at a heavy price: German casualties were much higher than Allied ones. As that assertion slowly eroded in the face of investigations made by the French government, the numbers shifted: casualties were roughly equal.
After the armistice, the last claim, aided considerably by a pacifist campaign against war, became an established fact: the war on the Western Front had been an inconclusive, bloody stalemate. The Allies were finally victorious in the fall of 1918, the legend went, because the British beat the Germans on the battlefield, while, back at home, Germany was driven to the brink of surrender by the success of the blockade. This, too, was a largely British triumph, and although London had allies, it was the British who beat the Germans and forced them to surrender.
Like all great legends, the one about the Great War gave comfort to the survivors, nurturing their illusions. It justified the behavior of the governments concerned, and, by demonizing the Germans, it insulated their postwar treatment against a small but growing chorus of critics. Morally, ethically, philosophically, Adolf Hitler seemed the proof that his nation's detractors had been right. The case was closed.
After June 1940, however, these legends abruptly came back to haunt Germany's foes. If the Allies had indeed been victorious in 1918, why had they been beaten so quickly in 1940? One legend thus demanded another, and in the aftermath there was no shortage of ingenious explanations of Hitler's takeover of western Europe. Nobody, then or now, seemed much concerned about the philosophical implications of the rationalizations. But each story, each explanation, no matter how artful or reasonable, came down to the same premise: it empowered Hitler and enfeebled his enemies.
The first step in understanding the rise and fall of the German military, then, is a difficult one. It requires us to discard the seductive myths of the First World War and replace them with a more complex reality in which the Germans are seen to be enormously successful on the battlefield. They were better in 1940 because they had been better in 1914.
Although this idea is hard for many historians to accept, the facts have always been there, the most significant one being the casualty exchange ratio. During the war, André Maginot and Abel Ferry analyzed the casualty figures and came to the conclusion that the Allies were not winning the war of attrition, that French and British soldiers were not dying in fewer numbers than their German adversaries; a decade later, Churchill studied the final reports of the combatants and came to a more drastic conclusion.3 Recently, Niall Ferguson and I, working independently of each other, have established that the ratio of German soldiers killed to Allied soldiers killed approached 3:1 and was certainly 2:1.4
So the first question this book answers is this: Why were the Germans so successful?
Their triumphs were not a function of better equipment, novel concepts, brilliant senior commanders, or the feebleness of the enemy soldiery. When I began studying the German military and the world wars in 1969, I accepted the traditional paradigm and taught it to my students. Germany's achievement was a resounding tale of great captains like Erwin Rommel and Heinz Guderian, marvelous technological innovations (jet planes and guided missiles), and startling developments like the blitzkrieg. The Third Reich lost mostly because it was finally crushed on the battlefield by the Soviet Union, which not only bore the brunt of the fighting but was primarily responsible for the victory. There were two other factors as well: the combined Anglo-American air and land offensives, which stretched the Wehrmacht past the limits of endurance, and the fact that the leader of Germany was a madman whose decisions fatally crippled the machine.
Like the British legends of the Great War, very little in these standard accounts is true. The Wehrmacht's superiority in combat was not a function of better equipment. As chapters 4 and 5 make clear, German matériel was mostly inferior to that of its adversaries. Nor, as I explain in chapter 11, was the country ever able to produce enough supplies. Canada probably produced more trucks than Germany did.
Nor were the victory years of 1939-41 the result of some radically new concept of warfare. The blitzkrieg is such a wonderful notion that it is not likely to die, even though it hardly existed and certainly does not characterize the German army of 1939-40.5 In the eighteenth century, scientists attempted to explain the process of combustion by arguing that flammable materials all contained a substance that made them burn. This substance, which was odorless, colorless, and otherwise not amenable to detection, was called phlogiston. Blitzkrieg is the phlogiston of modern military history.
But legends have provenance not just because they are remarkable stories. They also endure because they provide us with easy answers to basic questions. The great advantage of the old story of the German army was that it offered clear answers to two implicit questions of some importance. On the one hand, it explained why the Wehrmacht was so good: great leadership, impressive weaponry, startling new tactics.
In strictly military terms, the truth is both simpler and less satisfying. The superiority of the Wehrmacht on the battlefield derives almost exclusively from intangibles such as leadership, doctrine, and institutional memory.
Superior leadership is difficult to measure. As I explain in chapters 1 and 2, however, we can quantify three significant factors that have a distinct impact on leadership. Historically, German officers existed in greater numbers and were much better educated than their counterparts in other nations. The selection process after 1918 ensured a high level of competence in the officer corps that would direct the military in the next war. The weakness of this process was that it yielded a group of able tacticians but sacrificed the traditional diversity of the German officer corps. The new leaders were great captains but lousy generals, one reason why Hitler found them easy to manipulate.
The other reason for German success is that the military built on its achievements in the Great War. In chapters 1 and 2, I show how these superior doctrines emerged, why they were retained in the army's memory, and why they were universally ignored by Germany's once and future opponents. Briefly: the Allies started believing their mythical accounts of the Great War. Because they had beaten the Germans in battle, there was nothing they could learn from the losing side. In reality, not only had it been the other way around, but the Germans themselves believed that they had been victorious and had been cheated by the maneuverings at the war's end. That seems to me to be pretty much the case, even though it is still resolutely denied by most historians.
The mention of Hitler leads to a major theme in this book, one which differentiates it from some of the fine work that has been done on the war. The early victories of the Wehrmacht did not happen because of a purely military superiority. In large measure they came about because of Hitler's evil genius and the incompetence of the governments opposing him. The fact that Hitler was a supremely wicked man should not blind us to the fact that his judgments were generally shrewd, and nowhere more so than in foreign policy and military strategy. This observation contradicts the cherished beliefs of many biographers. But I believe that chapter 6 establishes a clear pattern of the moves that essentially led to the checkmating of the Allies even before the shooting started, in September 1939.6
Complementing this theme is another: an analysis of the claims made by the surviving generals, whose testimony has too often been taken at face value and never questioned. The dominant conclusion that emerged from the interrogations of Hitler's generals was that had he only listened to them, they might well have won the war. But even the most cursory scrutiny of their claims suggests that Hitler, although a supremely wicked man, was a better strategic thinker than any of his subordinates.7
Hitler was both more rational and far shrewder than is generally allowed. Many people, I think, will find this idea hard to swallow. Reflection, however, suggests that my portrait makes him considerably more evil than the conventional depictions of him. Madmen are generally thought to be less accountable for their actions than the sane.
As I said earlier, the chief benefit of legends and myths is that they provide us with convenient answers to apparently intractable problems. In the legendary war, Germany's downfall results mostly from Hitler's mad pride, which led him to attempt to conquer the world, notably the Soviet Union, and was matched only by his interference in the direction of the war.
This tale provides us with a great explanation of why, if the Wehr-macht was so good, Germany lost the war. But it is nothing more than a tale. As chapters 8, 9, and 10 demonstrate, there was nothing irrational about Hitler's decision to attack Stalin, nor did it lead inevitably to Germany's defeat. I used to believe that the war was won on the Eastern Front, and taught the concept to my students. I don't think the facts support the case. Once we strip away the veneer of pro-Sovietism that coats every account of Stalin and the Red Army, what stands revealed is a tottering edifice presided over by a man whose paranoid brutality was exceeded only by his military ineptitude.
Had the United States not entered the war at the end of 1941 and mounted a series of massive invasions of Europe (and North Africa) in 1943-44, there would not have been, in my view, any reason why the Third Reich would not have prevailed. Arguments to the contrary ignore the battlefield impact of what would have essentially been a 50 percent increase in German combat strength had the Wehrmacht not been forced to deploy troops all over western Europe to confront the American assaults.
In my account of the First World War, I remarked that the intervention of the United States was decisive in tilting the war to the Allies. This claim brought down a firestorm of criticism from British reviewers and their American fellow travelers. I should remark in passing that the more I look at the matter, the more cut-and-dried it seems: were I to write The Myth of the Great War again, I would make the argument much stronger.
Be that as it may, I do not see how anyone can assert that the Second World War was not basically won by the United States, with only minimal help from an exhausted and overstrained Britain. So Hitler's decision to declare war on the United States after Pearl Harbor is probably his one great military error. In Chapter 11 I explain why this was so, and why he made the decision. At bottom, it all came down to Hitler's philosophy of the world, his belief in the power of the great man over the soulless industrial state.
If there is one consistent thread that runs through accounts of the rise and fall of Hitler and the National Socialist state, it is that their only philosophy was a corrosive racism and hate mongering. It was a tenet that allowed Hitler to justify the murder of millions of innocent people. The failure of the Allies at Nuremberg to deal adequately with Hitler led to a situation in which many people who should have known better declared that all or most of the excesses and atrocities of the war were committed by Hitlerite fanatics.
The traditional German military observed the rules of war, the surviving generals claimed, and to a surprising extent they have been believed. But as I explain in the penultimate chapter of this book, the facts are otherwise. Although the senior officers in the army and the air force may not have realized the scale of mass murder Hitler ordered, it is impossible to argue that they were unaware of the crimes German soldiers under their command committed against their uniformed opponents. Although these seem insignificant when weighed against Hitler's fourteen million civilian murders, they constitute clear examples of unambiguous criminality. Each case contravenes the rules of war as understood and practiced by the German army for centuries. Those actions started long before the brutalities of the Eastern Front.
The crimes and the German conduct of the war are more closely related than most people suppose. The decisions Hitler made during his last months become explicable in the light of earlier mass murders; there was no chance that the global conflict could end without trials for war crimes. One reason the Germans fought on so stubbornly was that many of them had much to fear if they surrendered outright.
Hitler's insistence on murdering the Jews played a major role in the Third Reich's crusade. But here again, the situation is far more complicated than has traditionally been thought. As chapter 3 explains, the contingent of officers of Jewish origin was surprisingly large when Hitler came to power. The National Socialists immediately tried to purge the military of Jews. To the extent they succeeded, they weakened the armed forces. Despite the rhetoric and the killings, however, men of Jewish descent continued to serve in the military, right through the war and at high levels. That the Wehrmacht was not as racially pure as it is often depicted--one of the many bizarre paradoxes of the war--is not simply another weird fact about the National Socialists. Rather, the conflict between Hitler and the military on this issue, and the passive-aggressive behaviors it triggered, became the model for their future struggles.
In my view, these behaviors explain much of what was going on in the German high command, revealing why the survivors could claim disobedience and defiance even though they did nothing whatsoever about the crimes that were being committed after September 1939. As to the notion of Hitler as a meddling madman and his generals as unwilling sufferers: I would suggest not only that he was not but that the leadership of the Wehrmacht was every bit as culpable in his atrocities as the fanatics of the Sicherheitdienst and the Einsatzgruppen, to whom the majority of killings of the innocent are justly ascribed.
Although there was a war at sea as well as in the air, both lie outside the scope of this narrative.
The story of the Luftwaffe, for example, is basically that of a tactical air force, so it has been easy to fold it into this volume. Germany never intended to have much of a strategic air force; the British and the Americans had strategic bomber forces and used them. As the bomber barons and the airpower apostles have it, the air war was a separate war, and they go so far as to attribute the collapse of the Third Reich almost entirely to the bombing campaigns. In my view, this idea hardly stands scrutiny; in any event, the Germans never developed a parallel doctrine.
As to war at sea, the chief contributions of the Kriegsmarine in the Second World War were two. Before the fighting started, Germany's attempts to get around the restrictions of the Versailles Treaty gave rise to the idea that the basis of its supremacy in 1939 was two decades of systematic cheating on naval design. This notion, still widely believed, confuses intentions with results. In key areas nothing much was achieved, and although German naval design was first-rate, Germany entered the war with a minuscule surface fleet and a short-range, coastal defense submarine force. The surface fleet was fatally wounded in the Norwegian campaign, and even though the submarine war in the Atlantic captured the popular imagination, its effect on the outcome of the war was less than imagined. Admiral Erich Räder's brilliantly successful Norway campaign was the only decisive contribution made by the navy, and one with only limited results.
Thoughtful readers may disagree with my conclusions--as they may disagree with Winston Churchill's belief that all the leaders of the Third Reich should have been taken out and shot at the end of the war (I cheerfully plead guilty to this opinion as well). Germany was, by 1939, a country where wickedness was rapidly becoming a way of life; it was controlled by a man who was planning to murder millions of his fellow human beings and enslave uncounted millions more. And Hitler had plenty of willing helpers. None of these circumstances should blind us to Germany's military accomplishments. On the contrary, they should remind us that the wicked are often enormously successful.
Copyright © 2006 by John Mosier
Excerpted from Cross of Iron by Mosier, John Copyright © 2006 by Mosier, John. Excerpted by permission.
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