The German Way of War
From the Thirty Years’ War to the Third Reich
Robert M. Citino
Death of the Wehrmacht
The German Campaigns of 1942
Robert M. Citino
Since the earliest days of the German state, a unique military culture had evolved, a German way of war. Its birthplace was the kingdom of Prussia. Starting in the seventeenth century with Frederick William, the Great Elector, Prussia’s rulers recognized that their small, relatively impoverished state on the European periphery had to fight wars that were kurtz und vives (short and lively). Crammed into a tight spot in the middle of Europe, surrounded by states that vastly outweighed it in terms of manpower and resources, it could not win long, drawn-out wars of attrition. From the start, Prussia’s military problem was to find a way to fight short, sharp wars that ended in a decisive battlefield victory. Its conflicts had to unleash a storm against the enemy, pounding it fast and hard.
The solution to Prussia’s strategic problem was something the Germans called Bewegungskrieg, the “war of movement.” This way of war stressed maneuver on the operational level. It was not simply tactical maneuverability or a faster march rate, but the movement of large units like divisions, corps, and armies. Prussian commanders, and their later German descendants, sought to maneuver these formations in such a way that they could strike the mass of the enemy army a sharp, even annihilating, blow as rapidly as possible. It might involve a surprise assault against an unprotected flank, or both flanks. On several notable occasions, it even resulted in entire Prussian or German armies getting into the rear of an enemy army, the dream scenario of any general schooled in the art. The goal was Kesselschlacht: literally, a “cauldron battle,” but more specifically a battle of encirclement, one that hemmed in enemy forces on all sides before destroying them through a series of concentric operations.
This vibrant and aggressive operational posture imposed certain requirements on German armies: an extremely high level of battlefield aggression and an officer corps that tended to launch attacks no matter what the odds, to give just two examples. The Germans also found over the years that conducting an operational-level war of movement required a flexible system of command that left a great deal of initiative in the hands of lower-ranking commanders. It is customary today to refer to this command system as Auftragstaktik (mission tactics): the higher commander devised a general mission (Auftrag), and then left the means of achieving it to the officer on the spot. It is more accurate, however, to speak, as the Germans themselves did, of the “independence of the lower commander” (Selbstandigkeit der Unterfiihrer). A commander’s ability to size up a situation and act on his own was an equalizer for a numerically weaker army, allowing it to grasp opportunities that might be lost if it had to wait for reports and orders to climb up and down the chain of command.
It wasn’t always an elegant thing to behold. Prussian-German military history is filled with lower-level commanders making untimely advances, initiating highly unfavorable, even bizarre, attacks, and generally making nuisances of themselves-at least from the perspective of the higher command. There were men like General Eduard von Flies, who launched one of the most senseless frontal assaults in military history at the battle of Langensalza in 1866 against a dug-in Hanoverian army that outnumbered him two to one; General Karl von Steinmetz, whose impetuous command of the 1st Army in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 almost upset the entire operational applecart; and General Hermann von Francois, whose refusal to follow orders almost derailed the East Prussian campaign in 1914. Although these events are nearly forgotten today, they represent the active, aggressive side of the German tradition, as opposed to the more thoughtful, intellectual approach of Karl Maria von Clausewitz, Alfred Graf von Schlieffen, or Helmuth von Molkte the Elder. Put differently, these hard chargers in the field tended to elevate the strength of the commander’s will over a rational calculus of ends and means.
Indeed, although Bewegungskrieg may have been a logical solution to Prussia’s strategic problem, it was hardly a panacea. The classic illustration of its strengths and weaknesses was the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). Frederick the Great opened the conflict with a classic front-loaded campaign, assembling an immense force, seizing the strategic initiative by invading the Austrian province of Bohemia, and pounding the Austrian army in front of Prague with a series of highly aggressive attacks. Unfortunately, he also pounded his own army in the process. When the Austrians sent an army to the relief of Prague, Frederick attacked it too, at Kolin. It may have been his own fault, or it may have been due to an overambitious subordinate commander (a general named, of all things, von Manstein), but what Frederick intended as an attack onto the Austrian right flank turned into a frontal assault against a well-prepared enemy who outnumbered him 50,000 to 35,000. The Prussians were mauled and retreated in disarray.
Frederick was now in serious trouble. The Austrians were resurgent, the Russians advancing, if ponderously, from the east, and the French moving on him from the west. He retrieved the situation by some of the most decisive victories of the entire era. First he crushed the French at Rossbach (November 1757), where another ambitious subordinate, the cavalry commander Friedrich Wilhelm von Seydlitz (who, like Manstein, would also have a namesake general in World War II), played the crucial role, actually maneuvering his entire cavalry force across the march route of the French army. Then, at Leuthen in December, Frederick’s keen gift for operational maneuver resulted in the whole Prussian army dramatically appearing on the perpendicular against a weakly defended Austrian left flank and a shocked Austrian high command. Finally, in August 1758, he warded off the Russians at Zorndorf, a murderous and close-fought battle that saw him march his entire army clear around the Russian flank to attack it from the rear.
Frederick had saved himself, for the moment, with classic examples of short, lively campaigns. But with his enemies refusing to make peace with him, the overall situation remained dire. The alliance facing him was huge and had many times his own number of men, cannon, and horse. His only way out now was to fight from the central position, holding secondary sectors with small forces (often commanded by his brother, Prince Henry), rushing armies to whatever sector appeared most threatened in order to bring the enemy to battle there and crush him. Even while Prussia sat on the overall strategic defensive, however, the army’s task was to remain a well-honed instrument of attack. It had to be ready for pounding marches, aggressive assaults, and then more pounding marches. It couldn’t destroy Frederick’s adversaries, either singly or collectively. What it had to do instead was to land such a hard blow against any one of them-France, let us say-that Louis XV might well decide that seeking another round with Frederick wasn’t worth the money, time, or effort, and therefore decide to drop out of the war. It wasn’t an easy mission for the Prussian army, especially because the incessant attacks it launched in the first two years of the war had dulled its edge, with casualties among the officers and elite regiments being especially high.
Prussia fought all its succeeding wars in similar fashion. It opened them by attempting to win rapid victories through the war of movement. Some, such as the October 1806 campaign against Napoleon, misfired horribly. Here the Prussian army deployed aggressively, far out on a limb to the west and south. It was an ideal spot to initiate offensive operations as Frederick the Great might have conceived them. Unfortunately, Frederick was long gone, his generals were in many cases well into their eighties, and they were now facing the Emperor of the French and his Grande Armee, two forces of nature in their respective primes. Prussia paid the price at the twin battles of Jena and Auerstadt. It was Bewegungskrieg of a sort. Unfortunately, all of the Bewegung was performed by the French.
Other Prussian campaigns succeeded beyond their commanders’ wildest dreams. In 1866, General Helmuth von Moltke’s dramatic victory at the battle of Koniggratz essentially won the war with Austria just eight days after it began. The main action in the war with France in 1870 was similarly brief. Prussian troops crossed the French border on August 4 and fought the climactic battle of St. Privat-Gravelotte two weeks later. Major operations in this war ended with an entire French army, and the emperor Napoleon III, bottled up in Sedan and smashed from all compass points simultaneously, perhaps the purest expression of the Kesselschlacht concept in history.
The year 1914 was the major test for the Prussian (and now the German) doctrine of making war. The opening campaign was an immense operation involving the mobilization and deployment of no fewer than eight field armies; it was the brainchild of Count Alfred von Schlieffen, the chief of the General Staff until 1906. Like all German commanders, he had set a general operational framework (usually labeled, incorrectly, the Schlieffen Plan). What he most certainly did not do was to draw up any sort of detailed or prescriptive maneuver scheme. That, as always in the German way of war, was up to the commanders on the spot. The opening campaign in the west came within an inch of winning a decisive operational victory. The Germans smashed four of France’s five field armies, nearly trapping the final one at Namur. They came far closer to winning the war than historians have generally assumed, but eventually came to grief at the battle of the Marne in September 1914.
The failure at the Marne was the decisive moment of World War I. For German staff officers and commanders alike, it felt as if they had returned to the time of the Seven Years’ War. All the ingredients were there. There was the same sense of being surrounded by a coalition of powerful enemies. There was the same sense that the army would never be as powerful as it had been before the bloodletting of that first autumn. Its new commander, General Erich von Falkenhayn, went so far as to tell Kaiser Wilhelm II that the army was a “broken instrument” incapable of winning any sort of annihilating victory. Most problematic was the locking of the western front into trenches, barbed wire, machine guns, and a solid wall of backing artillery. This was no longer mobile Bewegungskrieg, but its exact opposite, what the Germans call Stellungskrieg, the static war of position. With both armies hunkered down in trenches and hurling shells at one another, it was by definition a war of attrition, and that was a conflict that Germany could never win.
Even now, however, there was a sense that Germany’s only hope lay in driving one of its opponents out of the war. Although the Germans did indeed become experts at defensive war, warding off a nearly constant series of Allied offensives, they also launched repeated offensives of their own, attempting to restart the war of movement that German officers continued to view as normative. For the most part, these offensive operations targeted the Russians, although there were huge offensives in the west in both 1916 (against Verdun) and 1918 (the so-called Kaiserschlacht, or “Kaiser’s battle,” of the spring). There were also large-scale offensives against the Romanians in 1916 and the Italians at Caporetto in 1917. It is significant that the post-1918 professional literature of the German army, the weekly Militar- Wüchenblatt, for example, spent almost as much time studying the Romanian campaign, a classic example of a rapid Bewegungskrieg, as it did the much larger campaigns of trench warfare in the west. Those four long years of trench warfare exhausted the German army and eventually ground it down, but they did not change the way the German officer corps viewed military operations.
It should be clear by now that the Wehrmacht’s situation after 1941, ringed by powerful enemies who vastly outnumbered it, was nothing particularly new in German military history. There were unique aspects of this war, such as Hitler’s vast plans for European and world empire, his racialism and eagerness to commit genocide, and the willing participation of the Wehrmacht itself in the crimes of his regime. On the operational level, however, it was business as usual. The Wehrmacht, its staff, and its officer corps were all doing what the Prussian army had done under Frederick the Great and what the Kaiser’s army had done under generals Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff. Until the end of the war, it sought to land a resounding blow against one of its enemies-a blow hard enough to shatter the enemy coalition, or at least to demonstrate the price that the Allies would have pay for victory. The strategy failed, but it certainly did its share of damage in those last four years, and it retained enough sting to the very end to give British, Soviet, and American commanders alike plenty of premature gray hairs.
Although launching repeated offensives in order to smash the enemy coalition failed in the end, no one at the time or since has been able to come up with a better solution to Germany’s strategic conundrum. A war-winning strategy? Not in this case, obviously. The optimal one for a Germany facing a world of enemies? Perhaps, perhaps not. An operational posture consistent with German military history and tradition as it had unfolded over the centuries? Absolutely.