Hitler’s Undoing! Part II

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Hitler had always had a tendency to over-emphasize the power of the will to master difficult situations, and this made him disinclined to admit that space and time and the strength and morale of the enemy impose limits upon one’s military capabilities. In the grim winter of 1941-2 Halder, Chief of Staff of the army, complained, ‘The ever-present under-estimation of enemy capabilities is gradually assuming grotesque forms. One cannot any longer speak of serious work. Cranky reactions to the impression of the moment and complete lack of appreciation of the judgements of the command organization and its capacities give this “leadership” its characteristic stamp.’ When the war turned, these tendencies became more pronounced, and Hitler began to demand exertions of his troops that they were incapable of making and should not have been asked to make. In his mind, the moral factor now became the key to victory, and he expected his armies to demonstrate their unbroken will by refusing to yield ground to the enemy even if he appeared to possess   overwhelming superiority in strength. Hitler was eventually to devise a theoretical defence of this view, his ‘wave-breaking doctrine’, which held that positions that refuse to yield serve, even when   they have been encircled and bypassed by the enemy, as a means of distracting his energy and slowing his momentum. But essentially his attitude was irrational at base, resting on the belief that one could overcome reality by refusing to admit its existence.

The counter-arguments of the army staff officers, who had been trained to base their decisions upon a weighing of finite data, he   rejected impatiently with contemptuous remarks about ‘high-nosed   Junker empty-heads full of intellectual sterility and cowardice’ and ‘intellectual acrobats and spiritual athletes’. He said once late in the war:

Originality is something like a will-o’-the-wisp if it isn’t based on steadfastness and fanatical tenacity. That’s the most important thing in all human existence. People who only get fancies and ideas and that sort of thing but   have no firmness of character and don’t possess tenacity and steadfastness   won’t accomplish anything, despite all that. They are adventurers. . . . One can make world history only when, in addition to a good head, an active   conscience, and an eternal watchfulness, one has a fanatical steadfastness, a power of belief that makes a person a warrior to the very marrow.  

A principle that had justified itself on the strategic level in the   winter of 1941-2 could not do so in tactical situations in the last years of the war, but merely imposed upon individual units in critical   situations an operational rigidity that was self-defeating and frightfully costly in human life. Hitler’s refusal to permit the Sixth Army to break out of the ring that held it at Stalingrad was not based on any   belief that it was still capable of fulfilling its mission (Hitler surely never put any stock in Goering’s confident boast that the Luftwaffe could keep the army supplied) but rather on a conviction that the psychological effects of a retreat upon friend and foe alike would be intolerable. One of General von Paulus’s subordinates wrote at this time, ‘To remain where we are deliberately is not only a crime from a military point of view but a criminal act as regards our responsibility to the German nation.’ This was true, for Hitler’s decision condemned 300,000 officers and men to death, or would have done had not Paulus, when more than half of his command had been destroyed, decided–to Hitler’s considerable consternation and rage –to surrender. Casualties, which any responsible commander worries about all the time, never seem to have concerned Hitler for a moment. When he was told of extremely high losses among   junior officers in an operation just concluded, his only comment was: ‘But that’s what the young people are there for.’

In 1944 and 1945 Hitler’s insistence upon steadfastness took increasingly extreme forms, and the army commanders’ authority to make local decisions or to dispose of their resources as they saw fit   sank progressively. This reached its most bizarre expression in the first stages of the Normandy campaign when Rundstedt, the commanding general in the west, had no control over his armoured   support but had to negotiate for it with the OKW. Hitler seemed to want to fight all of the battles from his own bunker and to make tactical decisions for all units on all fronts, reducing his commanding generals, as one of them said bitterly, to the status of ‘highly paid N.C.O.s’. The penalties suffered by commanders who surrendered or ordered withdrawals on their own initiative in order to save their troops from certain annihilation were barbarous. The commandant of Königsberg, General Lasch, capitulated in April 1945 when his   position had become untenable and most of his garrison were dead or wounded. He was immediately condemned in absentia to death by   hanging; his culpability was extended to his family; and his daughter, who was serving in the army as a staff assistant, was arrested.

It is worth asking whether this demand for unyielding determination was sustained by any real confidence on Hitler’s part that the war could still be won after the reverses of 1942 and 1943.   Certainly there was little in the reports from the fighting fronts to   justify such a feeling. By January 1944 the Red Army was pressing   forward along a line that ran through the recaptured cities of   Smolensk and Kiev with a strength that now exceeded that of the Germans opposing them by 5,700,000 to 3,000,000 as well as a strong   superiority in tanks and guns, while in the west the Allies had   established their first European beachheads at Salerno and Reggio and were about to make another landing at Anzio. Hitler had admitted the gravity of the situation in an order of 27 November 1943, supplementing his Directive no. 51 of 3 November, in which he focused attention on the possibility that a more critical front might soon open in France. ‘The struggle for the existence of the German people and the future of Europe,’ he now wrote, ‘is reaching   its culminating point. To throw all the reserves of strength that the   Great German Reich can muster into this final struggle is the demand of the hour. The striking force of our Wehrmacht has suffered greatly in the battles of this summer, especially in the east.’

In a meeting with his staff on 20 December the Führer intimated that, if an Anglo-Saxon invasion attempt were repulsed, the situation in the east would improve; if not, Germany would have lost the   war. But the prospect was not sufficiently daunting to make him listen to those among his ministers who wanted him to anticipate the inevitable by seeking a separate peace with the Russians and, when the Normandy landings came in June 1944, and all the arts of Rundstedt and Rommel failed to contain them, he made no attempt to draw the logical consequences of this. He seems to have gone on   hoping that the tide of war might still be reversed by the introduction of new weapons–the rocket bombs that had been developed in the laboratories in Peenemünde and the jet plane that   Messerschmitt was developing–and, when the speed of the Allied advance frustrated these expectations, he convinced himself that a repetition of the blow that he had struck through the Ardennes in 1940 would return the initiative to his hands and restore the German army’s prestige and reputation for invulnerability. ‘I haven’t the slightest intention of surrendering,’ he told Speer as plans for this offensive reached completion, ‘Besides, November has always been my lucky month, and we’re in November now.’ Despite the fact that he could muster only 32 divisions, a force that, by any rational calculation, was inadequate to attain the objectives he set, it was characteristic of him that he should have rejected the more modest goals suggested by his staff and insisted on an all-out drive to Antwerp, the fall of which, he believed, would have a kind of avalanche effect and spread mounting panic through the opposing host.

Even the failure of that gambler’s throw (which was launched, not in his lucky month after all, but in December) did not deprive him completely of hope. There was always the possibility that the enemy   coalition, in which signs of internal, friction were unmistakable, would disintegrate before it accomplished its purpose. In January, when the Russians had reached Warsaw and were headed for Tilsit, with its uncomfortable memories of a historic capitulation and partition, Hitler asked his circle, ‘Do you think that deep down inside the English are enthusiastic about all the Russian developments?’, and he seemed to agree when Goering answered, ‘They certainly didn’t plan that we should hold them off while the Russians conquer all Germany. If this goes on, we will get a telegram in a few days.’ But the telegram never came, and Hitler was forced at long last to admit that the game was played out. On 22 April 1945, when he told Jodl that he was resolved to remain and die in Berlin, he added: ‘I should have made this decision, the most important of my life, in   November 1944 and should never have left the headquarters in East Prussia.’

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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