Memorandum Dictated in 1946 by General Alfred Jodl on Hitler’s Military Leadership

[General Alfred Jodl, former Chief of the Operations Staff of the High Command of the Wehrmacht, dictated this memoir, which he entitled “The Influence of Hitler on the Leadership of the War (Brief Reflections on Hitler as a Strategist),” to the wife of his defense counsel while he was a prisoner at Nuremberg—excepting the last two paragraphs. These he dictated later to his own wife, after he had been sentenced to death. The tone of the addendum, which his wife transcribed from shorthand, is understandable in view of the sense of indignation Jodl felt.

[Anyone attempting to write the history of Alfred Jodl’s life will find it difficult to penetrate the mask of the general who was condemned to death by the International Military Tribunal and executed by hanging on October 16, 1946. He felt constrained—if I understood him correctly—to wear this mask by virtue of the ethos he had grown to accept as an officer, and out of respect for the Chief of State whose failings he perceived far better than others, but whose positive gifts—as this brief memoir demonstrates—he still acknowledged even in the cell in which he awaited execution. That Alfred Jodl, at the bottom of his heart, no longer believed in victory after the winter campaign of 1941-1942, and certainly not after Stalingrad the following winter, has already been mentioned. His tragedy was that he felt morally obligated, as a matter of official responsibility, not to divulge what he thought. Consequently, he moved sharply against anyone who arrived at the same conclusion. To General Walter Warlimont, his closest associate, he once said, in response to a skeptical remark, that Warlimont really belonged in a concentration camp.

[To grasp the full implications of Alfred Jodl’s role is to perceive the frightful fate of those discerning General Staff officers who felt duty bound to be loyal to their Chief of State and Supreme Commander, who saw through and despised him as an autodidact but at the same time were fascinated by his “sixth sense,” and in the end were condemned before the world as his accomplices.

[Jodl’s relationship with Hitler will be made clear by a passage that a General Staff officer, who was assigned to Führer Headquarters in 1945, wrote during the winter of 1945-1946 (before Jodl’s death sentence was pronounced): “Jodl was not one of the people who crept before Hitler. He spoke his mind openly, bluntly, and often in very harsh terms. But what he said did not get through. The very first time I heard him briefing Hitler it was clear to me that Jodl did not have the slightest illusions about the real situation. He saw things objectively and clearly. He also gave the unmistakable impression, often in an almost cynical fashion that he made no effort to suppress, that so far as operational ability was concerned, he regarded himself superior to Hitler. His stance in regard to Hitler was occasionally even pedantic. But he thereby also revealed clearly that he was convinced he was preaching to deaf ears. He did not allow himself to be put upon. He occasionally went so far as to put Hitler in the position of having to acknowledge that either he himself or else Jodl was an idiot. Hitler would not take him up on it. Everything Jodl said simply bounced off him with no visible effect. I was told that earlier Hitler had had a great deal of confidence in Jodl and consequently also in the Operations Staff of the OKW. But during the battles in the Caucasus, Jodl had once visited Field Marshal List, who in Hitler’s opinion had failed, and when he returned to Führer Headquarters he defended him against Hitler. Thereupon Hitler lost confidence in him and also broke off all personal contact with the entire OKW Operations Staff, with whose leaders he had often previously eaten. The only reason Jodl was not relieved at that time was that Hitler was concerned that any successor he could find would be even more ‘unreliable.’ “]

Among the many concepts more often used than understood is the word “strategy.” Almost everyone knows it, almost everyone uses it, but many would have nothing to say if they were asked: “What is strategy, then?” People speak of it because they know or sense that the success or failure of strategy in war decides their fate also. Thus it concerns everyone directly, and everyone sees it much more clearly than he does the operational problems of battle. To judge or criticize the latter [i.e., tactics] is something people enjoy doing—even the officer corps, in fact, insofar as it does not belong to the General Staff. That is strange. Whether an attack should have been mounted sooner with weaker, or later with stronger forces, whether strength should have been concentrated on the right or the left wing, whether one should have broken through rather than encircled, or perhaps not even have attacked at all, whether the other fronts could have been weakened still further, whether one should have remained on the defensive, have ordered the troops to attack in order to pin down the enemy, or perhaps even have had them withdraw behind a sector of the battle front—these are all problems of military leadership, specifically operational ones, which even the carping critics tend to avoid. For in order merely to speak on these matters, one needs military maps, data concerning one’s own and the enemy’s strength, the condition of the troops, their equipment and armament, and their supply of munitions. But these are secrets that remain hidden in the files and charts of the General Staff, and even if they should later find their way into works on military history, they would never provoke a public controversy to the same extent as the strategic plans and problems of the war. The manner in which operations are conducted is regarded by everyone as a specialized scientific matter, no different than medical discussion of new methods of surgery.

The protective curtain of a clandestine science is drawn around tactics, with an impenetrably secret terrain surrounding it, so that no one will be able to find his bearings who in the course of a diligent life has not combined theory and practice in the auditorium and on maneuver, preparing himself to walk these tortuous paths. But in strategy everything appears simple and direct. Is it not obvious and self-evident to every layman that Hitler should not have attacked Russia, because Russia was stronger than we believed it to be, and because defeat was therefore inevitable? Has the frightful catastrophe that Germany suffered not provided irrefutable proof? In these terms, it does not seem difficult to describe the essence of strategy. But it is not so simple to analyze the basic elements and colors in this picture, which must be done in order to put together this seemingly uncomplicated and self-evident picture with its endlessly complex technological details.

Clausewitz could still define the concept of strategy very simply by saying that it is the teaching of the use of battles for the purposes of the war. The concept has remained, but what it comprehends has changed. Ever since war began to assume an ever more total character, that is, ever since it relentlessly drew the entire state, with all its functions, together with every citizen, regardless of occupation, sex, or age, into its orbit, the strategic leadership of war has developed into so universal a function that it has come to include every aspect of state leadership, thereby exceeding the limits of purely military responsibilities. Thus we see—in this war for the first time—how the concepts of “strategy” and “warlord,” which once were identical, began to subdivide. No longer did we see any soldier who led the war as a whole, but only military operations. Roosevelt and Churchill, Hitler, Stalin, and Chiang Kai-shek were the strategists of this war, and—more or less heeding the advice of the soldiers standing at their side—they intervened as warlords only indirectly in the actual conduct of military operations. Only in Japan, which in this respect simply had not kept pace with the times, did the military machinery fight its way to political power and lead the country—though divided and without a strong political hand—in a war that was waged not as a means of politics, but rather with politics being made to serve as handmaiden of war. The reader should have a clear picture of this transformation before we go on to consider in greater detail Hitler’s influence on the war, on the campaigns, and on the individual battles. Otherwise we cannot confront the question that has been posed again and again: How was it possible for the German military leaders and professionals to permit a layman and former corporal of the First World War to dictate to them the prescription for victory and defeat? Those who pose this question have not yet adequately understood what strategy in the modern sense is all about.

I believe it is necessary to define the concept in the following terms: Strategy is the supreme leadership activity in warfare. It comprehends foreign and domestic policy, military operations and economic mobilization, propaganda and popular leadership, and must harmonize these vital aspects of the war effort in terms of the purposes and the political goal of the war. Only when the concept of strategy is understood in such terms is it clear that no general but only a statesman can be a strategist, though this does not preclude the possibility that both functions may be united in one person, as was the case in China.

Hitler was a statesman. He was a dictator. He was Supreme Commander of the Wehrmacht and since 1941 Commander-in-Chief of the Army as well. He had unleashed the war, and it was up to him and no one else to lead it. He did in fact lead the war. It was Hitler who gave the order in the spring of 1939 to prepare military plans for the attack on Poland. No soldier could know whether the attack would take place, whether it would be provoked or unprovoked, a war of aggression or of defense; for even a politically defensive war could be waged by Germany—given its central position and the constant prospect of a two-front war—only as a military offensive. When the propaganda machine began to run and mobilization on the Polish border was ordered, all the leading soldiers were indeed quite clear about the operational questions confronting them, but the political, the strategic remained for them a veiled secret. Had Hitler himself not implied and even stated in his addresses that he confidently expected to reach a settlement with the West? Was the mobilization backed by a serious determination to attack Poland, or was it only a means of exerting pressure for negotiation, as had been the case in 1938 with Czechoslovakia? Was this hope not confirmed when, on August 26, 1939, the ordered attack was halted? The details of the struggle of the Great Powers to preserve the peace were unknown to the Commanders-in-Chief and their staffs, with the exception of Göring.

If there is anything that clearly demonstrates the revolutionary character of Hitler’s method of leadership, it is that he did not concede to his military working staff, the OKW, and within it, the Operations Staff, the role of strategic adviser. All attempts I undertook in this direction failed. Hitler was willing to have a working staff that translated his decisions into orders which he would then issue as Supreme Commander of the Wehrmacht, but nothing more. The fact that even men like Frederick the Great would have their own thoughts and decisions tested and re-examined against the often contrary ideas of their generals made no difference to Hitler, who resented any form of counsel regarding the major decisions of the war. He did not care to hear any other points of view; if they were even hinted at he would break into short-tempered fits of enraged agitation. Remarkable—and, for soldiers, incomprehensible— conflicts developed out of Hitler’s almost mystical conviction of his own infallibility as leader of the nation and of the war. To reflect individually on the dozen or more decisions that determined the course of the war would be psychologically and historically tempting, but that cannot be the purpose of this sketch. The man who succeeded in occupying Norway before the very eyes of the British Fleet with its maritime supremacy, and who with numerically inferior forces brought down the feared military power of France like a house of cards in a campaign of forty days, was no longer willing, after these successes, to listen to military advisers who had previously warned him against such overextensions of his military power. From that time on he required of them nothing more than the technical support necessary to implement his decisions, and the smooth functioning of the military organization to carry them out.

Quite apart from Hitler’s arbitrarily dictatorial methods, there is the question of the position taken by senior military leaders regarding his individual decisions. These varied. Unanimous rejection, unanimous agreement, or divided counsel followed each other as in every war and under every regime. But it was always Hitler whose restless spirit would first cast its spotlight into the dark future long before the eyes of his military staff were able to perceive anything tangible or threatening in that darkness—with one single exception: the occupation of Norway. The danger that threatened our war effort if England had been able to secure bases in Norway and thereby block the sole reliable exit from the North Sea to the Atlantic was perceived first by the navy. But—as in the case of all ideas he himself had not conceived—Hitler was initially skeptical and hesitant, until in January 1940 he seized the initiative and ordered the most daring of solutions, once there could no longer be any doubt about the threatening intentions of England.

Let us leaf further, however, in the great memories which at some time in the future will form a book on Hitler’s strategy. First we come upon the decision to attack in the West. The Commander-in-Chief of the Army [General Walther von Brauchitsch] did not want to do it. To remain on the defensive on the border and along the Westwall, letting the war go to sleep, was his desire, his contribution to peace, which he sought to cloak behind military reasons, particularly the inadequate preparation of the army for so gigantic a task. Not all leading soldiers shared this opinion and belief, but it was the prevailing opinion in the High Command of the Army. Hitler ordered the attack through Belgium and Luxemburg, later also through Holland. One has to use time, he said; it works for no one automatically, but only for him who makes good use of it. And he decided to attack in the course of the very same winter. The generals all objected; there was not a single one who did not warn against it. But it did them no good at all. Only the weather god was harder than Hitler, denying us the needed period of clear freezing weather. It was necessary to wait until the dry spring. May 10, 1940, was correctly chosen. Hitler staged his breakthrough via Maubeuge toward Abbeville. He had overruled the General Staff’s thought of a broad encirclement [through Belgium, as in the Schlieffen Plan] by initially careful but then increasingly tenacious and unhesitating intervention in the operational leadership. Once more Hitler’s will triumphed and his faith proved victorious.

First the [enemy] front collapsed; then Holland, Belgium, and France collapsed. The soldiers were confronted with a miracle. They were still amazed when Hitler gave the order to prepare for the invasion of England. Eight weeks earlier they would have regarded this order as the vagary of a madman. Now they applied themselves with faithful zeal to the work, careful and confident, exploring every dubious improvisation. But by September the British air force had not been subdued. Goring was skeptical; Raeder was cautious; in the Army High Command they were confident; Hitler wavered. He shared the army’s belief that England could be beaten in a short time as soon as one was well established on the island. But whether the landing would succeed depended upon nautical imponderables which were strange to him. Perhaps this strategic decision was the only one in the course of the war in which Hitler let himself be counseled. The warnings of the Commander-in-Chief of the Navy together with an evaluation of the situation that I prepared for him decided the issue. The attempt to land in England was abandoned. Hitler turned toward the Mediterranean in order to strike at England there. But before doing so, he took a firm grip on the equipping of the army, which—all too slow, bureaucratic, and backward—had long been a thorn in his side. “The soldier should fight; that is his job. Everything else civilian specialists understand better.” He created the Ministry for Weapons and Munitions under [Fritz] Todt, leaving only the building of airplanes and ships with the air force and the navy. From then on Hitler determined the monthly quota as well as the direction and scope of all production of weapons and munitions down to the last detail. All the Operations Staff [of the High Command of the Wehrmacht] had to do was to give him the exact figures: inventory, utilization, and production during the previous month. But beyond this, Hitler’s astounding technical and tactical vision led him also to become the creator of modern weaponry for the army. It was due to him personally that the 75-mm anti-tank gun replaced the 37-mm and 50-mm guns in time, and that the short guns mounted on the tanks were replaced with the long 75-mm and 88-mm guns. The Panther, the Tiger, and the Königstiger [i.e., Tiger II] were developed as modern tanks at Hitler’s own initiative.

But let us return to the chronological sequence of strategic decisions. There was a military breathing pause. Political considerations became paramount during the second half of 1940. Rumania requested German instructional and training troops. Reluctantly and carefully, but step by step, Bulgaria attached itself to the Axis. Only Spain showed a cold shoulder. To what extent the influence of Canaris on the Spanish generalissimo played a role in this is a question I will not go into. Above all, it was bitter for Hitler to have to give up his plan to take Gibraltar with Spanish help or approval. This military intention of Hitler had the general sympathy of his military advisers, and even today I have no doubt that the attack on the mighty rock fortress, which we had meticulously thought through and prepared in detail, would have been successful.

But instead of being able to carry out this strategically correct plan, Hitler found himself constrained to hatch the cuckoo eggs that Italy had laid in the nest of our joint war effort. On his own initiative and despite the negative attitude of the Army High Command, Hitler had offered his friend Mussolini help in Africa. It was rejected with the explanation that tanks could not operate in the desert. But then in the last days of October 1940—in violation of all agreements not to disturb the peace of the Balkans—Mussolini attacked Greece. Hitler, who wanted to prevent this attack, arrived a few hours too late in Florence. He was enraged, but the god of war even more so. The latter had never been a friend of the Italians. And now he quickly changed sides. English tanks drove Graziani’s beaten army back to the border of Cyrenaica, and instead of winning a quick victory over the Greeks, the Italians found themselves threatened with the loss of Albania and of the divisions which were holding on there only with difficulty. Concern was now stronger than pride in Rome, and cries for help crossed over the Alps as far as the Reich Chancellery in Berlin. Hitler decided that in view of modern long-range aerial warfare we had to wage the war as far from the periphery of the Reich as possible. Therefore [Hitler ordered] help for Africa through Rommel and good mobile armored troops. He wanted no conflict with Greece, so he refused help in Albania. But for the spring of 1941 he ordered that an attack against Greece from Bulgaria be prepared in case this should become necessary after all, or even be forced on us by an English landing in Greece.

There was not much consultation before these decisions. They were unfortunately constrained—as much as Hitler’s generals on purely military grounds resisted this commitment of forces to different theaters. For meanwhile the specter of a massive Russian concentration of forces on the eastern borders of Germany and Rumania had taken concrete form, and Hitler was weighing the thought of preventive war. The world has learned from the Nuremberg Trial of many voices that warned against this march [into Russia]. All agree that it was definitely Hitler’s idea originally. Both [the fact that the idea originated with Hitler and that he was warned against it] are historical facts. The court judges according to good and evil, world history in terms of correct and false. I will not concern myself here with either of the two judgments, but rather only point out that the danger from the East was seen by all soldiers, and Hitler’s concern was shared, more by some, less by others. Opinions differed whether the danger was really so acute and whether it might not have been possible to deal with it by political means. On that question it will be necessary to await a later judgment. Here we are interested only in the influence it had on Hitler’s waging of the war, and of that the following can be said: the decision for the campaign against the USSR, Plan “Barbarossa,” was his decision and his alone. He did, however, make the final decision only on April 1, 1941. For at this time an event occurred that effectively delayed the beginning of the attack against the almost completely assembled Soviet forces by four to five weeks. For Hitler it was like a beacon that revealed Stalin’s intentions.

It was the military coup in Belgrade the night after Yugoslavia’s accession to the Tripartite Pact. Hitler was beside himself. He virtually dictated his decisions to the assembled Commanders-in-Chief and the Reich Foreign Minister. He tolerated no discussion of whether the political attitude of the Yugoslavian government should first be clarified diplomatically. So far as he was concerned, Yugoslavia was in league with Russia, prepared to strike us from behind when we marched into Greece, and was trying to establish contact with the English, who at the beginning of March had landed at Piraeus. And as a matter of fact, the Yugoslavian Army did mobilize on the borders. Beginning on April 6, it was overrun by German troops, even though these had very hastily concentrated, and within a few weeks it had reached the point of dissolution— [though these were] the same soldiers who then, only scantily clad, would for years wage a bitter guerrilla war under Tito’s leadership, until they were developed into a new Communist army.

The attack on Russia began on June 22 [1941]. The two-front war had been unleashed. It could lead to success only if it were possible to win an annihilating victory over the enemy on one front. This failed by only a little, but that little sufficed, together with the catastrophe of the cold winter, to carry Hitler’s train of victories, after having reached this culmination, over onto a declining track. When in 1942 he decided once more to commit all his forces in the attempt to break down the Russian colossus, he was not contradicted in principle by his military advisers; but there were many among them who would rather have seen the second major attack in the North, beginning with the capture of Leningrad, than in the direction of the Caspian Sea. The great apparent success of this campaign ended with the catastrophe on the Don and before Stalingrad. When toward the end of the year Rommel, defeated before the gates of Egypt, fell back on Tripoli as the Allies landed in French North Africa, it was clear not only to the responsible soldiers but to Hitler himself that the god of war had now turned from Germany and gone over to the other camp. With that, Hitler’s activity as a strategist was essentially ended. From then on, he intervened more and more frequently in operational decisions, often down to matters of tactical detail, in order to impose with unbending will what he thought the generals simply refused to comprehend: that one had to stand or fall, that each voluntary step backwards was an evil in itself. Opinions differ as to whether he thereby hastened or delayed the end of the war. One thing only is certain: he could no longer come to a strategic decision. But perhaps there was no longer one to be reached.

He could not surrender. None of the opponents would consider negotiating since agreeing on unconditional surrender as their wartime goal. Therefore what was Hitler to do? He could only fight to the end or seek his own death. Throughout his whole life he had been a fighter, so he chose the first course. Heroism or insanity, opinion throughout the world will always differ on it. Could he not, in order to save his people unnecessary suffering, have come to an earlier end? As a matter of fact, this very thought did concern Hitler during the last days of his life. When he informed me on April 22 [1945] of his decision not to leave Berlin again but to die there, he added: “I should already have made this decision, the most important in my life, in November 1944, and should never have left the headquarters in East Prussia.”

But his military advisers—today one often hears it said—should certainly have made it clear to him earlier that the war was lost. What a naive thought! Earlier than any other person in the world, Hitler sensed and knew that the war was lost. But can one give up a Reich and a people before they are lost? A man like Hitler could not do it. He should have fallen in battle rather than taking flight in death, it is said. He wanted to, and he would have done so if he had been physically able. As it was, he did not choose the easier death, but the more certain one. He acted as all heroes in history have acted and will always act.

He had himself buried in the ruins of his Reich and his hopes. May whoever wishes to condemn him for it do so—I cannot.

[Signed:] ALFRED JODL

[The foregoing reflections are complemented by the following passage in a letter Jodl sent to his wife. When she had written to him, after the interrogation at the Nuremberg Trial of Field Marshal Erhard Milch on March 8 and 11, 1946, concerning her own estimation of Hitler, he answered her that in many respects he agreed, although on one or another point he saw things somewhat differently, though for a number of reasons he did not care to go into it. He then went on as follows:]

When I read how Frank Thiess, breaking with historical tradition after fifteen hundred years, tries to reach a true picture of Justinian,7 then I must think more than ever of the present and am reminded of how the history of that man who brought the whole world into flux was falsified during the course of his life, in part even by himself. And so I find myself thinking again and again whether it might not be my responsibility to set the historical record straight without the slightest regard to my personal defense. And I would do this except for two considerations. In the first place, that is not the primary purpose of the court, which can bring an end to any such attempt by application of the legal concept of “irrelevance.” In the final analysis, the attempt would be futile, because the archives of the other side remain closed. In the second place, I ask myself: Do I then know this person at all, at whose side I led for so many years so thorny and self-abnegating an existence? Did he not play with my idealism, too, and only use it for purposes that he concealed in his innermost being? Who will boast of knowing another when that person has not opened to him the most hidden corners of his heart? Thus I do not even know today what he thought, knew, and wanted to do, but rather only what I thought and suspected about it. And if today a picture is unveiled in which one had once hoped to see a work of art, but one is confronted only with a diabolical distortion, then it is up to the historians of the future to rack their brains over the question of whether it was that way from the very beginning, or whether this picture had gradually transformed itself with the course of events. At times I often make the mistake of blaming [Hitler’s] origins, only to remember how many peasants’ sons have been given the name “the Great” by history. The ethical foundation is what counts.