Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
2013-082
11 October 2013
Review by Geoffrey K. Krempa, The University of Tennessee
Shattered Genius: The Decline and Fall of the German General Staff in World War II
By David Stone
Philadelphia: Casemate, 2011. Pp. 424. ISBN 978–1–61200–098–5.
Descriptors: Volume 2013, 20th Century, World War II Print Version

No serious historian any longer holds the now thoroughly debunked view of the German army's leaders as apolitical professionals who resisted Hitler and the Nazi leadership as best they could. Over the past two decades, scholars have demonstrated that the general staff in fact supported the authoritarian National Socialist government and its aggressive policies and espoused a political ideology based on Nazi aims and ambitions. In short, the general staff actively conspired in Nazi crimes.[1] It was Hitler's army, commanded by Hitler's willing generals, that conquered most of Europe in two years and held off the Reich's enemies for another three in an ideological war of annihilation. The myth of a talented, ambitious, but politically naïve officer corps drawn unwillingly into war and ruin by a megalomaniac was a postwar construct designed to mitigate the military leadership's complicity in war crimes and dissociate the general staff—and the armed forces as a whole—from the National Socialist state.

Unfortunately, historian and former British army officer David Stone has in his latest offering resurrected this bogus image of the German high command, whose "progressive demise … and … eventual downfall … between 1939 and 1945" resulted, he argues, from its "passive acquiescence in a pact with the perverse devilment of National Socialism and Adolf Hitler" (7, 22). We are asked to believe that Germany's military leaders entered into this "opportunistic but unholy alliance" to regain "a measure of their traditional status," an ambition Hitler eagerly obliged (22). Ultimately, it proved to be an inequitable arrangement. Progressively reduced to a tool "by which Nazism would achieve its ideological and strategic destiny," the army leadership increasingly opposed the Nazi regime (344). This resistance culminated in the July 20th (1944) plot to assassinate Hitler, which in turn precipitated "the final fall" of a "remarkable but … ill-fated organization" (21, 7).

Stone contends that "the seeds of the Götterdämmerung [of] these sometime masters of the German warrior class" were sown well before the rise of the Third Reich (8, 38, 21). After Helmuth von Moltke's expansion of the general staff in the mid-nineteenth century, the army high command wielded great power, prestige, and influence in both the armed forces and the Prusso-German state hierarchy. In its primary function as a war-making body, Stone writes, the high command traditionally served "as an apolitical counter-balance to any undesirable or destabilizing influences" within Prussia and later Germany, always acting in "the best interests of the nation" (344). The general staff, exemplifying the venerable traditions of Prussian martial excellence established by Friedrich II, August von Gneisenau, Gerhard Scharnhorst, and Carl von Clausewitz, managed the movement, quartering, mobilization, and engagement of troops and formations. But it also exhibited a dangerous, ultimately fatal, lack of political acumen. This was apparent before and during the First World War in its blinkered focus on the purely military aspects of its mission—"political considerations were secondary or of no importance" (36). This uncoupling of the military from the political accelerated after Germany's defeat in 1918 and in the ensuing period of political instability, and left staff officers "distanced from any real awareness or comprehension of the malign political influences and undercurrents that would emerge … a few years later" (44).

The Treaty of Versailles and the postwar "active de-politicizing" of the army under Johannes Friedrich "Hans" von Seeckt, combined with its tepid support for the Weimar government and a desire to "restore its former capability, power and prestige by any means possible" go far, Stone argues, to explain the relative ease with which the high command later reached "an accommodation with Hitler and the National Socialists" (44, 41–42). Forced into the background by the peace settlement, the general staff, under the guise of the Truppenamt (Troops' Office), occupied itself with "maintaining the best traditions and qualities of the Prussian general staff … of former times," eschewing any direct involvement in Weimar-era political processes (51). This caused "a political vacuum … at the very time when the NSDAP found itself well placed to fill that vacuum" (55). The National Socialists' avowed goals—rearmament, reintroduction of conscription, nullifying the Versailles treaty, overcoming the peril of communism, and restoring German greatness—resonated so deeply with the officer corps that "the Nazis' intended constraints on civil liberties and their openly anti-Semitic policies … were of little consequence, being an acceptable price to pay" (56). Senior officers like Generals Walther von Reichenau and Werner von Blomberg believed the army could curb the excesses of National Socialism, while using Hitler and the Nazis as a "means to an end" (65). But, by 1935, "they had already lost control of [the] movement and … the man at its head" (65).

This mismatch between "the traditionalist ideals of the army and the ideological imperatives of the Nazi Party" became increasingly stark after Hitler's assumption of the chancellorship in 1933 (81). Intent on recovering "its status, power and authority," the general staff "attracted the attention of … Nazi leaders who viewed … [the] organization as a potential threat" and "could not countenance [an] … alternative power-base in Germany" (68). Requiring a "compliant tool" to further his own policies, Hitler sought "to weaken the traditional and long-standing system of command and control at the highest levels" of governmental and military authority "so that the Nazi state could … develop in accordance with National Socialist policies and ideology unconstrained by the traditional German values, loyalties and traditions embodied in the army's officer corps" (69). The formation of the OKW (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht) and the dramatic expansion of the SS (Schutzstaffel) under the direction of Heinrich Himmler marginalized the general staff, enabling the Nazi leadership to "centralize and extend its direct control over all the significant institutions of state" (115). By 1938, Stone notes, it was clear to staff officers that the "long-standing concept of military co-responsibility for the actions of the army and the good of the nation … was no longer viable" in an "authoritarian 'leader state'" (76, 87).

The general staff nevertheless resolutely sought to "return to the principles propounded by Helmuth von Moltke almost a century before" in order to "influence, modify or forestall" Hitler's increasingly "aggressive intentions" and save Germany from disaster (86, 98–99). In the lead-up to the reoccupation of the Rhineland in 1936, the staff warned that the army was ill-prepared for a military response by France; during the Czech Crisis in 1938, it stressed that likely French, British, and possibly American countermoves "logically [made] a German attack on Czechoslovakia a 'non-starter'" (103). Having failed to dissuade Hitler from aggression against Czechoslovakia, the general staff began plotting to overthrow him and his National Socialist regime. This was forestalled, however, by Benito Mussolini's last-minute intervention and the subsequent diplomatic resolution of the crisis at the Munich Conference. This "was a missed opportunity of historical significance, … the first and last chance" for the high command to take "effective action against Hitler" (114).

Once war began in 1939, the general staff faced "the uncomfortable truth" that it "had all but lost its traditional ability to influence the course of strategic events" both military and political (137). Overwhelming and comprehensive victories against Poland, Denmark, Norway, France, and the Low Countries—all popularly attributed to Hitler's "brilliant strategic acumen"—dampened the appetite for resistance in the officer corps (163). These early successes calmed staff officers' anxieties about "the perilous course upon which Nazi Germany had embarked" and renewed hope that "victory for the Fatherland" would restore "the army's traditional primacy and status within the nation" (163).

The Reich's mounting defeats after 1942 brought a resurgence, Stone writes, in the military resistance to the Nazi leadership (163). Initial schemes were rather tame: during the Battle of Stalingrad (Aug 1942–Feb 1943), retired chief of the general staff Ludwig Beck urged that "every army field marshal" should come together "and demand Hitler's resignation" (271). In the wake of the Stalingrad disaster, "resistance planning … focused firmly upon an assassination of Hitler" (273). The July 20th plot, carried out by Claus von Stauffenberg and others at the Wolfsschanze (Wolf's Lair), Hitler's Eastern Front headquarters, marked the high command's final bid to become once again the guarantor of Germany's best national interests. Henceforth, it would remain "largely impotent and … acquiescent" to the Nazi leadership (13, 311).

This interpretation of the significance of the July 20th plot and its aftermath as the logical and "inevitable" outcome of an organization "fundamentally at odds" with the Nazi regime, creates a teleological "vanishing point" (9, 15)—in Helmut Walser Smith words, "a focus of research that structures the whole image"[2] of a work, "establishing central questions and deciding the scope of what counts."[3] For Stone, "what counts" is the general staff's acts of resistance to the Nazi regime. But these were exiguous, isolated, and rare. The July 20th attack was neither the pinnacle of the general staff's activities in service to the Fatherland nor the result of any "divergence of aims and objectives" between the high command and the Nazi regime (9). Staff officers overwhelmingly sought to work with, not against, Hitler; they were National Socialism's accomplices, not its opponents. To claim that the general staff's actions "ran contrary to those of Hitler and the National Socialist" government is to grossly exaggerate the importance of an outlier event and repeat a long discredited postwar apologia (344).

Stone's effort to resuscitate "the image of a clean Wehrmacht"[4] requires him to overlook the high command's well-documented complicity in National Socialist crimes and the fact that claims about the military's putative disengagement from the "political realities" of Nazism "provided a convenient excuse for army commanders at all levels frequently to overlook or distance themselves from the excesses carried out in the name of National Socialist ideology, such as the wholesale killings of Jews, Red Army commissars, gypsies and others by the SS-Einsatzgruppen on the Eastern Front" (345–46).

The Wehrmacht was an active participant, not a mere accessory, in German atrocities committed in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union; it even developed "significant drives of its own"[5] in Serbia and Belarus in the Nazi regime's ideological war of extermination. The notion that "the military pursued its own war," while "the murder of Jews was the 'dirty business' of the SS and its Einsatzgruppen" stems from the official history of the Wehrmacht's experience on the Eastern Front and postwar histories that disconnected the German military from the Holocaust and the Second World War's ideological component.[6] Omer Bartov has shown that "the army as an institution formed an integral part of rather than a separate entity from the [Nazi] regime,"[7] its staff officers issuing Nazi propaganda and even intensifying the National Socialist political message.[8] Stone downplays this collaboration by the general staff, contending that its officers' "traditional character and military culture [meant] … there was really little alternative but to carry out the orders and directives issued by the Führer and the Nazi government, however unpalatable or perverse" (350, 124).

Stone even suggests that a "culture of duty, honor, loyalty and obedience," epitomized and made "sacrosanct" by the "unequivocal" language of the Führereid (Hitler Oath), absolves the general staff of any moral or criminal responsibility for its wartime activities:

for the good German soldier, when all about him was chaos, the overriding thought that might guide and sustain him was his duty of loyalty and obedience, as set out in the oath. Irrespective of whether he lived or died, if he carried out his orders to the best of his ability then his duty was done and his honour secured. Humanitarian, legalistic or other extraneous considerations were largely irrelevant. No matter how technologically advanced or modernized the army of the Third Reich might have been, this concept remained fundamental to the way in which its officers and soldiers had conducted themselves in peace and were now required to do in war. Little wonder, then, that many of the German officers charged with war crimes and eventually arraigned at Nuremberg after the war based their defence upon the fact that they were simply carrying out orders. (125)

Gerhard Weinberg has definitively exposed the hollowness of this argument, pointing out that the same military leaders had shown little compunction in abrogating their earlier and likewise "sacred" commitments to the Weimar constitution—"it was considered desirable, even honorable, to break this oath as often as possible."[9]

Equally problematic is the assertion that, but for Hitler's meddling, "the general staff would at the very least have prolonged the war" or perhaps brought "the conflict to a somewhat different conclusion" (354). This ignores the inconvenient truth that the Wehrmacht's fighting retreat in the East protracted and even accelerated the Holocaust in the last months of the war.[10]

David Stone's attempt to rehabilitate the general staff's reputation is lacking in original research and reliant almost entirely on the self-exonerating accounts of German generals and badly outdated secondary works. His one-dimensional portrayal of the Wehrmacht leadership trumpets the few positive aspects of the organization's experience while glossing over or deleting the abundant negative ones. Both scholarly and general readers will be much better served by Geoffrey Megargee's accessible, well argued Inside Hitler's High Command.

[1] See, e.g., Wolfram Wette, Die Wehrmacht: Feindbilder, Vernichtungskrieg, Legenden (Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer Verlag, 2002), Geoffrey P. Megargee, Inside Hitler's High Command (Lawrence: U Pr of Kansas, 2000), and Omer Bartov, Hitler's Army: Soldiers, Nazis, and War in the Third Reich (NY: Oxford U Pr, 1992).

[2] "The Vanishing Point of German History: An Essay on Perspective," History and Memory 17 (2005) 272.

[3] The Continuities of German History: Nation, Religion, and Race across the Long Nineteenth Century (NY: Cambridge U Pr, 2008) 6.

[4] Wette (note 1 above) 288.

[5] Ibid. 257.

[6] Ibid. 229, 257. In many ways, Shattered Genius is a rehash of arguments made in Walter Görlitz, Der deutsche Generalstab: Geschichte und Gestalt, 1657–1945 (Frankfurt a.M.: Frankfurter Hefte Verlag, 1950).

[7] Bartov (note 1 above) 10.

[8] Ibid. 129, 130, 137–38.

[9] A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II (NY: Cambridge U Pr, 1994) 482.

[10] Cf. the withering response to Andreas Hillgruber's Die Zerschlagung des Deutschen Reiches und das Ende des europäischen Judentums (Berlin: Siedler, 1986).

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