By DESMOND WILLIAMS
GRoFATZ (grOsster Feldmarshall aller Zeiten) was, in its full version, a description Hitler fully accepted from his admiring entourage. For others—Churchill, for instance, most historians, the German Resistance and many German generals—the ironic implications of the shortened form were obvious. Hitler remains a figure of passionate controversy to those still interested in the Second World War and its origins. He has not yet passed fully into history. His military interventions are widely held to have been amateur, fanciful, in the later stages hysterical, and in the final outcome disastrous. Certain facts cannot be disputed. Hitler started the war, with an army far less well prepared for war than the Imperial Heer in 1914. His initial successes went way beyond those achieved by the armies of Moltke, Falkenhayn and Ludendorff. The whole of Europe, west of the Dnieper, was over- run; and Britain, for the first time since 1805, was confronted with the imminent possibility of invasion. Unlike Ludendorff, he did not defeat Russia, though Ludendorff's success in 1917-18 depended largely on internal revolution there. The Kaiser's Germany fought for over four years; Hitler's divisions stayed on for nearly six. So in terms of territory acquired and time involved the Nazi Wehrmacht comes out pretty well. It is clear that Hitler ran the show from the beginning of the war—initially in general strategy and later at tactical level, too. As only he took the big decisions, the reponsibilities for success or failure were his. Hitler's War Directives* are very useful, though they presume a great deal of specialised knowledge. Trevor-Roper's introduction is superbly done—placing seemingly dry material in the wider context of Hitler's personality and strategy. The complications of German com- mand arrangements, military procedure and party politics are interrelated, lending an enlivening and impressive unity to what might otherwise. seem a series of disconnected documents. Yet one important point remains unclarified. How much had General Jodi to do with the formulation of these directives and the whole conduct of the war? No one asks this question.
Hegel once pointed out that every schoolmaster is in a position to condemn the errors of Alexander and Caesar. Many modern scribes have the same advantage over Hitler. All leaders make mistakes; the wonder is, looking back, say, at Napoleon, that leaders so long in supreme power make so few mistakes—or, to put it another way, that they succeed so often. In 1939 how many of the experts in Germany, France, Britain or America foresaw, even remotely, the extent of the victories about to be achieved by the 'Bohemian corporal' of 1918? Hitler once said that the world would draw breath at his next military move. From 1940 to 1945 the world did little else. This was no mean tribute to his capacity as a supreme commander, however un- trained.
The defects of his leadership are obvious. He lacked a certain amount of necessary self-con- fidence. He was sometimes reluctant to take great risks. The dithering over Dunkirk (though there is no evidence that this lost him the war) and the failure in autumn, 1941, to concentrate on Moscow illustrate a vacillation dangerous to any commander with high risks at stake. In such situations there is usually only one move to make, and it must be the right one. Hitler's in- stincts often conflicted with professional experi- ence. The instincts may have been more appro- priate. The fatal error was to seek some compromise between what his generals told him and what he felt. The military wanted to push on to Moscow; Hitler, for economic reasons, first wanted the oil wells farther south. Both targets were aimed at, neither attained. Here the vacil- lation comes in again. The grand strategy was altered. One month he might accept the classical principle of concentration of forces, and the next he would divide them. Yet he did recover tem- porarily from the defeat before Moscow. Unlike Napoleon, he managed to stave off a rout. Here, too, he was right and his military advisers wrong, as had happened so.. often before: in the Rhine- land, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Norway, France, Crete and, indeed, in the initial stages of the Russian campaign. The hold-fast order in the winter of 1941 was perhaps his greatest single achievement, and great by any standards, for here he stood against all the generals. Unfortu- nately, it confirmed an increasingly paranoic conviction of personal infallibility. Much has been said about the 'hedgehog' strategy in the later stages of this Russian cam- paign. Hitler usually refused to allow retreat until the very last moment, sometimes not at all large units were often left behind, surrounded by overwhelming Russian forces, to fight hope- less battles. Almost any retreat for almost anY reason had to be rejected in view of its effect on the morale of both sides. Over Stalingrad this policy proved absurd. Elsewhere it may not have been altogether unwise—say in Courland, Vitebsk and the Crimea. For the most part, the Field-Marshals obeyed these orders with superb skill and loyalty. Even after Stalingrad, the war was kept off German soil for nearly two years. Manstein, Kluge, Bock and the rest naturallY concentrated on the interests of their own eastern front, not least on the welfare of the hard-pressed troops fighting under their com- mand. As a politician, Hitler was not just con- cerned with the overall strategy of the war; he was fighting for his regime, and for himself. Perhaps he did as much as he could, and more than most other leaders ever did, to combine such varied and contradictory interests.
Indeed, Hitler's fundamental mistakes were political, not military. He started the war hoping the West would not enter into it. This was hls first and greatest mistake. From it his victories (and they were remarkable) flowed. So did his ultimate defeat. He had preached the doctrine of Weltmacht or Niedergang. This was political lunacy. In 1940 he was quite convinced that England would logically come to terms. He also underestimated the political staying-power of Stalin's Russia, and ideological prejudices made for entire misconception of the role and power of the United States. These political betises—the fruit of self and self-willed education—presented him with problems which no degree of military genius could solve. In military history he emerges as a more stimulating figure than in tile world of politics—his stepping-stone to militarY fame and the tombstone of the Germany he wanted.
* Hin..nits WAR Diaticrivts 1939-1945. Edited bY Hugh Trevor-Roper. (Sidgwick and Jackson. 42s.)