Book Review: Shattered Genius: The Decline and Fall of the German General Staff in World War II
Jim Cobb gets an inside look at the minds that waged the greatest war the world has ever seen.
Author: David Stone
Publisher: Casemate Publishing, 2012.
The German General Staff has been an icon of military proficiency since 1812. Members of this staff set the standards for training, cartography, strategy, tactics and logistics that other armies copied. Their unique Auftragstaktik (mission oriented tactics) established tactical innovations and flexibility that remains unsurpassed. David Stone asks the question of why this institution failed so badly in the end during 1939 – 1945. His book contains a storehouse of facts and insights but ultimately does not close the issue.
Stone finds seeds of failure in the genesis of the new general staff. The Versailles Treaty not only limited the German armed forces but also abolished the General Staff. The General Staff was replaced by the Truppenamt (troop bureau) headed by General Hans von Seeckt. To circumvent the Versailles Treaty, Seeckt created a skeleton of the old establishment by dispersing training and staff appointments to military districts, making contacts with paramilitary groups and by holding maneuvers in the Soviet Union. Realizing Germany could never win a positional war, he encouraged experiments in mechanized warfare. His most glaring error, as Stone points out, was to distance the army from the government. Seeckt’s isolation from the democratic republic deprived the army of intelligence that could have allowed it to anticipate events and prepare for them.
Such events would have included the machinations that put Hitler in power in 1933. The officer corps was divided by their opinion of the Nazis: some—Jodl and Keitel—embraced them, a few saw the danger and formed a core of resistance, but most were ambivalent—admiring the promise of stability and an increased military but found the domestic policies repugnant. All agreed, however, in the concerns over Ernst Roehm’s SA. This branch of the Nazi Party had grown to over a million strong, equipped with arms, light artillery and armored cars. Roehm advocated that the SA be the equal of the army. Therefore, army officers had no scruples about providing the SS with arms and transport in the decapitation of the SA during the “Night of the Long Knives” in 1934. Due to their isolation from Nazi inner circles and naiveté, they did not see that they were helping to create a far more dangerous threat in the SS.
David Stone points to two events in 1935 as watersheds for the future of the General Staff. The first was the conversion of the Reichswehr into the Wehrmacht. The Wehrrmacht has been used as a synonym for “army” but it was actually an overarching staff containing the OKH (army), OKL (air force) and OKM (navy). Notable for its absence from this command structure is the Waffen-SS, although its units could be subordinated to army operational control.
The second event was to mandate that soldiers swear a personal oath to Hitler. Stone claims the oath was anomalous. However, German soldiers had sworn an oath to a king or a kaiser for centuries. The oath to the constitution of the Weimar Republic was the anomaly. Older officers were more comfortable with the new oath even though it would present a hurdle as the resistance to Hitler grew.
Hitler’s territorial ambitions came to the fore in 1936 –1938 with the re-occupation of the Rhineland and the Anschluss with Austria. The General Staff protested both moves, claiming the Wehrmacht was unready to undertake any operation. When both operations succeeded bloodlessly, the General Staff lost prestige while aggravating the growing tension between the officer corps and Hitler. Hitler acted by ousting the Minister of War, General von Blomberg, and his successor, General von Fritsch, on trumped-up moral charges. General Beck, Chief of the General Staff, was obviously the next target.
Hitler strengthened his hold on the armed forces by creating the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW) in 1938, ostensibly as a direct liaison between him and the Wehrmacht. Given the German armed forces’ explosive growth, OKW could have served well as a coordinating body but was really a tool in Hitler’s game of playing groups off against each other.
1938 also marked the first real attempts by the General Staff to remove Hitler. The saber rattling against Czechoslovakia was very unpopular with the German public and the General Staff was loath to tangle with the Czech fortifications and superior tanks. General Beck secretly urged vainly for all superiors to resign in protest. General Franz Halder then developed a very workable plan to seize and arrest Hitler. All affected generals, including the Berlin police, were on board but the fatal flaw was the trigger for the operation—the order to invade Czechoslovakia. The General Staff’s continued isolation hid the fact that the Western powers capitulation on the issue was a fait accompli even before Munich. The enormous boost in Hitler’s popularity over another bloodless expansion made another such gambit impossible.
The order for a plan to invade Poland was no surprise, and OKH developed one while timidly protesting. The Polish success continued to expand Hitler’s popularity while at the same time increasing the reputation of the General Staff’s timidity. When Hitler called for operations in the West the General Staff dusted off the Schlieffen Plan, ignoring General Erich von Manstein’s alternative of a thrust through the Ardennes. Manstein’s plan was resurrected by Hitler when a forced landing handed the older plans to the Belgians. Meanwhile, the navy and Luftwaffe carried out the Denmark and Norway campaign with little aid from OKH.
Manstein’s Sichelschnitt campaign into the Low Countries and France worked so well that Hitler became nervous and, in the first instance of personal interference, ordered the drive on Dunkirk halted. Following France’s surrender, a cross-channel invasion was ordered but the army and navy couldn’t settle on a workable plan. The Luftwaffe’s failure to gain air superiority over the Channel rendered such an operationmoot. Hitler then ordered OKH to draw up plans to invade the Soviet Union. The General Staff accepted this with uncharacteristic enthusiasm and developed Operation Otto.
The original Operation Otto called for an advance from the Baltic to the Black Sea with Moscow as the primary objective. Hitler intervened and had two Panzer groups from Army Group Center split off to Army Group North and South after the first reached a pause line along the Dvina-Dneiper river line. A month before the invasion, he made Leningrad the primary goal with Moscow the secondary. The plan was renamed Barbarossa. Pre-invasion planning was further disrupted when Hitler gave OKW sole control over the sideshows in North Africa, the Mediterranean and the Balkans, giving OKH responsibility for the East. This move meant that a three-way struggle over resources would develop between OKH, OKW and the Waffen-SS.
Despite these planning disruptions, Barbarossa went well. Army Group Center had a clear path to Moscow in August until Hitler ordered two Panzer groups toward Leningrad. When that attack stalled, Moscow became the primary objective; but rain, cold and bad logistics doomed this effort. In one of the many failures of German intelligence during the war, the Soviets transferred hundreds of divisions undetected from Siberia to Moscow. The ensuing counter-attack devastated the Germans and generals asked to withdrawal to defensive positions. Hitler responded with the first “Stand Fast” order. Generals such as Bock, Rundstedt and Guderian protested vigorously but were sacked; Hitler assumed personal control of OKH. Stone agrees with the generals’ opinion that the “Stand Fast” order was an unmitigated blunder while ignoring other historians’ suggestions that defensive positions were too far away.
The German armed forces still had the offensive power to launch Operation Blue in 1942. Supported by the General Staff, the operation’s original goal was the Caucasus oil fields with a secondary attack on Stalingrad. Midway through the operation Hitler assigned Stalingrad equal priority, assuring that neither goal would be achieved and the destruction of the Sixth Army. Kursk, the following year, was fought over the General Staff’s ever weakening objections and the exhaustion of German offensive capabilities on the Eastern Front.
Growing since Barbarossa, civilian and military resistance to the Nazis bloomed after Stalingrad. Bombs were the weapons of choice as physical assaults were suicidal. At least two bomb plots failed after 1942. With the Normandy landings more general staff officers ignored their oath to Hitler and Operation Valkyrie, led by Colonel Klaus Graf von Stauffenberg, was developed.
Stone goes into great detail on the July 20, 1944 failed assassination attempt. He rightly criticizes it as bumbling and ill-coordinated. Its aftermath saw the officer corps decimated and the General Staff effectively sidelined the rest of the war, although this had little impact on the Ardennes Offensive in December.
Shattered Genius characterizes the German General Staff as a body whose professional proficiency was negated by its political naïveté and moral confusion. Stone ascribes these weaknesses, correctly in most cases, to Hitler’s machinations. Some readers will raise questions that are harsher. Why did the intelligence departments continually miss Allied moves? Why did the General Staff not have a “Plan B” for the logistical problems many anticipated in 1941? Given their religious backgrounds, why did so many officers let their oath to Hitler trump other vows? Why did soldiers who would sacrifice themselves on some nameless hill not do so to eliminate Hitler?
Stone also implicitly degrades Allied strategy. His biggest complaint is that Roosevelt’s “unconditional surrender” statement at the 1943 Casablanca Conference limited the German resistance’s latitude of action. One can only wonder what terms Stalin, the voters of Britain and the US would accept at the time.
Stone’s book is packed with maps, organizational charts and a glossary. The work is solid and delves into the heart of an extremely complex subject. David Stone should be congratulated on producing such an accessible and vivid description of how a proud institution can fall.
Review written by: Jim Cobb, Staff Writer
About Jim Cobb
Jim Cobb has been playing board wargames since 1961 and computer wargames since 1982. He has been writing incessantly since 1993 to keep his mind off the drivel he dealt with as a bureaucrat. He has published in Wargamers Monthly, Computer Gaming World, Computer Games Magazine, Computer Games Online, CombatSim, Armchair General, Subsim, Strategyzone Online and Gamesquad.