Hitler further diminished the stature of the General Staff by choosing a comparatively junior officer, Lieutenant-General Kurt Zeitzler, as Halder’s successor.
Zeitzler was born in 1895, one of the younger generals. He was the son of a Protestant pastor, had been an infantry subaltern in the Great War, and had transferred to the tank arm in 1934. He had by no means a typical General Staff background, but had struck Goring as a sound Nazi, was very energetic, and was undoubtedly able.
In 1938 as a lieutenant-colonel on the O.K.W. planning staff under Warlimont, Zeitzler prepared the draft of ‘Fall Grun’ the invasion of Czechoslovakia. In 1939-40, promoted colonel, he commanded an infantry regiment and then performed excellently as Chief of Staff to XXII Corps and to von Kleist’s Panzer Group. In this capacity, as Liddell Hart noted, ‘It was he who found a way to solve the problems of supplying armoured forces during long-range advances and rapid switches…. Zeitzler was an outstandingly resourceful organizer of strategic moves, with an exceptional grasp of what could be done with mechanized forces’. Later, in Russia, ‘His brilliant staff work in organizing and maintaining the panzer drive through the Ardennes and on through France, in 1940, had been excelled in the complex series of manoeuvres called for in 1941—when Kleist’s panzer forces had first swerved down through the Ukraine towards the Black Sea, to block Budenny’s retreat across the Bug and the Dnieper; then turned about and dashed north to meet Guderian and complete the vast encirclement round Kiev; then been switched south again, on to the rear of the fresh Russian forces that were attacking the German bridgehead over the Dnieper at Dneipropetrovsk; and, after producing a Russian collapse here, had driven down through the Donets Basin to cut off the Russian forces near the Sea of Azov. As Kleist emphasized to me, in paying unstinted tribute to his Chief of Staff, the biggest problem in “throwing armies about in this way” was that of maintaining supplies….’
From early 1942 he was Chief of Staff, Army Group ‘D’, covering the Channel Coast and the Low Countries. In this admittedly rather tame backwater he showed his customary enthusiasm and vigour, so that he was nicknamed ‘General Fireball’. He spent a lot of time organizing the defences of the West for von Witzleben and von Rundstedt, but he was necessarily losing touch with the war in Russia by the time he took over Haider’s post with the rank of general of infantry.
For some time Zeitzler trod carefully. Hitler had thought to overawe a man who at the beginning of 1942 was still only a major-general. Göbbels noted in his diary for 20 December 1942: ‘The appointment of Zeitzler has done a lot of good. Zeitzler has introduced a new method of work at G.H.Q., clearing away everything except essentials. This has relieved the Führer of a lot of detail, and everything doesn’t depend upon his decision. . . .’ But gradually Zeitzler proved to be less pliable.
In January 1943, he tried, without success at first, to persuade Hitler to evacuate the 100,000 men who looked like being trapped at Demyansk. Eventually Hitler gave in and in February a successful evacuation was carried out. On 14 February 1943 Hassell recorded: ‘Even Herr Zeitzler, Hitler’s new Chief of the General Staff, now sees what is going on and has summoned up enough courage to resist idiotic orders. For two days he did not appear at the staff meetings and in this way put across his own ideas. . . .’ And on 28 March 1943: ‘It is tragi-comic that Zeitzler, of all people, should show the most courage, that is, of course, in purely military matters; otherwise he is obedient…’
Zeitzler had his first major difference of opinion with Hitler over Stalingrad. When the Russians started to counter-attack, he thought Paulus’s 6th Army should be withdrawn immediately. This led to the start of frequent friction with Hitler. In November 1942 Zeitzler was behind Jeschonnek in trying to get the Stalingrad airlift called off. Jeschonnek did not believe the Luftwaffe could airlift the 700 tons of material per day necessary to maintain the defence of Stalingrad. Nor did Zeitzler. Zeitzler told Hitler and Goring, on 24 November, ‘The Luftwaffe just can’t do it’. This of course put Göring’s back up, who retorted, ‘I can manage that. . . . ‘ Zeitzler then lost control and shouted, ‘It’s a lie!’ Hitler intervened, and said that he was obliged to believe Goring. As General Blumentritt observed later, ‘When the outcome proved the truth of his warnings, the Führer became increasingly hostile to Zeitzler. He did not dismiss him, but he kept him at arm’s length’.
Zeitzler tried to reorganize the system of command in the East, when he saw what evil effects Hitler’s direction of the Russian campaign was having. Under his plan the C-in-C Eastern Front would have complete independence of action—doubtless he envisaged von Manstein or von Kluge in that position. Keitel was to be dropped, with some respected general of strong character put in his place. The O.K.H. and O.K.W. Staffs were to be fused into one combined Staff for the whole Wehrmacht, with the S.S. also under its control. Naturally such proposals aroused opposition, not least from Hitler, who would have become little more than a military figurehead; and they did not, in fact, get very far. Even so, Göbbels recorded on 9 March 1943: ‘The Führer continues to be very well satisfied with Zeitzler, who is at present his most effective assistant in the conduct of the eastern campaign. Keitel plays only a very subordinate role. . . .’ Yet it was the opinion of Colonel-General Heinrici that Zeitzler ‘had only a very slight influence’ on Hitler, and of General Westphal that he was Chief of the General Staff’in name only’.
Zeitzler was by nature an impulsive and hot-tempered man. In his later days he often lost his temper with Hitler, and on several occasions offered his resignation, but had it refused.
Zeitzler was no great strategist, but he was a very gifted organizer, and given a free hand he might have made a respectable job of his high position. As things were, it was virtually meaningless. He showed great enthusiasm for Operation Citadel, the 1943 Kursk tank offensive, which led to some angry arguments with Jodl. While he managed to get Hitler’s agreement to tactical withdrawals from dangerous salients on the Moscow and Leningrad fronts, he could never get general permission for a strategic withdrawal. He did not, of course, get any help from Keitel or Jodl. He failed in April 1944 to get Hitler to countenance the evacuation of Sevastopol, where Schörner was in trouble. In July 1944 after the collapse of the German Armies on the Upper Dnieper, he urged the withdrawal of Army Group North in the Baltic States before it was encircled. Hitler’s refusal led to another flare-up and another rejected resignation. Finally, in the bitter atmosphere of the July Plot, Zeitzler went sick and was succeeded on 21 July by Guderian.
Zeitzler was deprived of various privileges of his rank by Hitler, and then discharged from the Army without the normal right to wear uniform, a victim of the universal suspicion after the Plot—with which he had had absolutely no connection. One cannot help feeling that Zeitzler would have been far happier—and far more successful—had he been given an Army to command.