Review

Hitler's Generals

  • edited by Correlli Barnett New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1989, hardbound, 497 pages, index, photographs, $24.95. ISBN: 1-55584-161-9.

Reviewed by Robert Clive

In Hitler's Generals, an international team of widely-published historians explores the characters and careers of twenty-six leading German military leaders who translated Hitler's directives into the stunning victories of 1939-41 and who held out against overwhelming odds into the spring of 1945. These portraits weigh each man's military abilities, discuss his social and professional background, and depict how he reacted to the Fuhrer's personality and style of leadership.

A review of Hitler's role is included in Correlli Barnett's introduction. During the period 1939-40, Hitler was content with deciding matters of state policy. He played no role in the decisive victory over Poland, which, by the way, surprised many military analysts at the time -- including the British, French, and Polish leaders. Thereafter, Hitler took an increasingly active part in the direction of the Third Reich's military operations.

Hitler threw his support behind the innovators and gamblers among his top commanders. This was critical in the spring of 1940, when, on the advice of his navy chief, Admiral Raeder, the lightning occupation of Norway was accomplished a mere ten hours ahead of a combined Anglo-French invasion force. And, again, it was Hitler who overruled his own Army general staff, and ordered that General von Manstein's plan to cut through the Allied center to the Channel Coast be implemented, rejecting a replay of the Schlieffen Plan that had failed at the outset of World War I. It is noteworthy that the conservative Army leaders, represented by Brauchitsch and Halder, felt that Germany could not hope to do better than reach a stalemate in the West. Operation Sichelschnitt (Sickle-Cut) proved to be an unimagined triumph and appeared to mark Germany's victory in the war; during the last months of 1940, munitions production was actually scaled back.

Having defeated the Western Allies on the Continent, Hitler seemed to have no clear aim. The attack on Soviet Russia, viewed by an increasing number of historians as a preemptive strike, was launched without a guiding objective. The 1942 campaign, Fall Blau, likewise was marred from the outset by dual, conflicting goals. By the end of that year, Hitler had lost the initiative in the East and in the Mediterranean, where, with more support at the right time, the British could likely have been defeated.

The generals considered here are grouped in five categories: anti-Nazi Generals, including Fritsch, Beck, and Witzleben; the Staff Officers, among them Brauchitsch, Halder, Blomberg, Keitel, and Jodl; Field Commanders, such as Rundstedt (who advised Hitler to halt the Panzers outside Dunkirk during the Battle for France in 1940), Reichenau, Manstein, Kleist, and Kesselring; Battlefront Commanders: Rommel, Model, Paulus, Sepp Dietrich, and Manteuffel; and the Military Innovators, Guderian and Student, creator of the airborne armies.

A point that strikes the reader is how poor the Nazi security services must have been. In 1938 and 1939, conspiracies were undertaken to oust Hitler. Not only were opponents of Hitler appointed to key commands, but a number of them continued to hold positions of influence until late in the war.

It has been popular, starting with the Nuremberg trials, to criticize Germany's military leaders for obeying orders and not having overthrown Hitler. Yet, as one of the contributors to this volume, Field Marshal Lord Carver, reminds us:One must bear in mind that Hitler, who was undoubtedly democratically elected, retained popular support, certainly until the Anglo-American landings in France had achieved victory.

Without exception, the authors reject the notion that the German generals should have been judged guilty of crimes by the wartime victors. For example, in his essay on the paratroop General Kurt Student, General Sir John Hackett commends Student for his "measured and rational approach" to partisans, who engaged in terrorist attacks on the island of Crete, and elsewhere. Indeed, in this instance, it was the Greek king, who fled to Egypt on May 24, 1941, who was guilty of inciting his subjects:

... to use every possible means, not excluding assassination, to carry on unrestrained partisan warfare against the German occupation. Cretans, men of mountain and shore, can be very tough and also very cruel. Their actions, often against unarmed parachutists, included mutilation and nailing up on barn doors ... In spite of having signed the Hague Convention condemning partisan warfares the Greek government, it was claimed, had now deprived the civilian male inhabitants of Crete of any claim to non-combatant status.

One of the most tragic figures was Field-Marshal Ewald von Kleist. Commander of the principal Panzer forces in the Western offensive of 1940, it was Kleist who, in 1941, led the brilliant campaign that subdued Yugoslavia after the pro-Axis government was overthrown. Kleist fought with distinction on the Eastern Front. He actively sought to win over the ethnic minorities within the Soviet Union and succeeded in recruiting 825,000 volunteers from among the non-Russian populace to fight with the Germans, over the objections of Labor Plenipotentiary Fritz Sauckel and Gauleiter Erich Koch As his biographer, Professor Samuel Mitcham, observes, "Had Kleist's ideas been implemented throughout the east, they very conceivably could have changed the course of the war." At the end of the war, Kleist was turned over to the Yugoslavs, who sentenced him to prison as a "war criminal." Tito shipped him to Stalin in 1948, where he was charged with having "alienated through mildness and kindness the population of the Soviet Union." He spent the rest of his life in Soviet prisons, dying at Vladimir in 1954 -- the only one of Hitler's field marshals to die in Soviet captivity.Those who are curious about Germany's war effort will find much of interest in Hitler's Generals.


From The Journal of Historical Review, Summer 1990 (Vol. 10, No. 2), pages 248-251.