Despite a mountain of documentary evidence that survived the war in Germany, the prosecutors at Nuremberg had a difficult time establishing the guilt of some defendants. Many of the top Nazi leaders had already died, and many of the accused found it quite convenient to blame things on those who could no longer answer. What they knew and when they knew it, and where their responsibility lay was not always easy to ascertain.
Acclaimed military writer Basil Liddell Hart scored a great coup by getting several top German commanders in W.W. II to talk to him about their war experience. It proved all too easy for the generals to ascribe whatever success they had to themselves, and their failure to Hitler. As Hart notes in his prologue, this means it’s hard to know how reliable Hart’s generals can be. They may have invented self-justifications after the fact, and perhaps even believed such justifications.
Still, Hart’s The German Generals Talk succeeds on many levels. While exact particulars remain cloudy in some cases, a definite overall picture emerges. Among other things, the paradigm the generals created (and we also tend to create) in regard to Hitler and the military needs tweaking, at least in some instances.
For example, we think of Hitler as a megalomaniac bent on conquest at all costs. But how to explain, then, Hitler’s attitude towards Britain? Hart shows that at least in the minds of the generals, Hitler wanted to back off of Britain. At Dunkirk the generals thought that Hitler wanted the British to get away. With Operation Sea Lion, generals complained that Hitler barely involved himself in the planning and seemed to care little for the details. He seemed almost relieved to break it off in its infant stages.
In truth, Hitler had always admired the British. He praised them in Mein Kampf, which fit his racial view of the world. The British, after all, had largely German and Nordic stock and thus were not Germany’s “natural” enemies. Apparently Hitler believed that in allowing the British to save their honor at Dunkirk, they would more prone to accept a peace settlement. Like Kaiser Wilhelm II, he implicitly thought that Germany and England were friends deep down. Hitler’s egocentrism led to him to believe that everyone thought as he did. All of us share this characteristic to some extent, but in Hitler it grew far out of proportion. In this rare instance, his race theories actually made him less aggressive, and in this case, this instinct proved disastrous for Germany, a double irony.
Hart’s generals speak of how the army never really trusted or liked Hitler. Every general interviewed sought to distance himself from Hitler in some way. But then this begs the question as to why very few military leaders stood up to Hitler, let alone actively tried to change the situation. They explained their situation this way:
- While many of the upper level officers might have gone against Hitler, their troops would not have. Those from Major on down had been raised with the Nazi system and had much more loyalty to it. Many officers doubted whether or not their troops would have followed them in rebellion.
- The army had an ensconced officer corp with traditions that survived W.W. I. But the Air Force and navies did not. Many army officers believed these branches were comprised almost entirely of pro-Hitler sympathizers, as both owed their very existence to the Nazi regime. Even if the army as a unit rebelled, the Air Force and Navy would not.
Hart offers little comment on this line of defense. It has merit, and it touches on a larger question. For democracy to thrive the army must be apolitical. Is the Nazi army any different? When do we want the army suddenly to get a conscience? Commenting on on our military’s experience in Vietnam, one general stated that, “To argue that officers should be guided primarily by their conscience is to argue for military dictatorship.” But of course we don’t want soldiers, or any human being, to reduce themselves to be a mere robotic arm of the state.
Interestingly the generals’ objections to Hitler had everything to do with Hitler’s military policies and nothing about the morality of the Nazi regime. Nowhere in this 300 page book is the Holocaust even mentioned, let alone the “killing groups” on the eastern front. Maybe this has something to do with exactly who Hart interviewed, but I think it has more to do with the strict stratification of Nazi society, and the technocratic nature of their military education. In the end, neither of these things can explain away their ultimate failure to act in any significant way. None of them went nearly as far as Adolph Eichmann’s ridiculous assertion that, “I only transported people to the concentration camps. I never actually killed anyone!” but they show the same tendency, albeit to a much lesser degree.
This point touches on how the generals conducted the war. While Hart (a military man himself) often sympathizes with the military’s side of the story, he points out that the generals lacked strategic imagination. At least at certain points and times, Hart shows how Hitler had greater grand strategic insight. Hitler and his generals often clashed. They had profound class differences. The Prussian aristocracy surely resented the social mixing engendered by the Nazi regime. But Hart shows that the differences between them also had roots in their personalities and training. Hitler’s poetic mind gave him a potentially greater field of vision than his technocratic generals.
But this “greater field of vision” needs moral and “physical” roots. Art has no merit for its own sake. Hitler often preferred the great, memorable, and perhaps imaginary deed to mundane reality. If he were to win the war, it would have to be on his aesthetic terms. So he ordered what in his mind were “gallant last stands” that really condemned his troops to slaughter. The “Battle of the Bulge” had no real possibility of success due to lack of air support and supplies, but it would be so much more heroic than waiting behind fortified positions behind the Rhine. Hitler seemed to live more fully in the world of Wagner’s operas than reality.
Hitler may have had at times greater strategic insight than his generals. But this distance from reality made it so that he could never bother with mundane details. As far as children are concerned, meat comes from the grocery store, and water comes from the faucet. Hitler never either could or would take logistics like supplies into account. That is why Germany could fall prey so quickly to “imperial overstretch.” General Halder warned Hitler that, “Our danger is that we win all the battles except the last one,” and this proved prophetic in Africa, Russia, and even Europe. Like Hannibal and Napoleon before him, Hitler forgot the need for political as well as military conquests.
It would be more satisfying for us if Hitler had a moment of self-revelation at his end. But like many other Nazi leaders who took their own life, no such moment came. Hitler never wavered from playing his part. As various Nazi functionaries urged Hitler to flee Berlin, apparently it was Albert Speer who countered their advice by telling Hitler, “You must be on stage when the curtain falls.” Speer knew that the best way to motivate Hitler was to play to his sense of theater. Perhaps he wanted Hitler’s demise as much as some of the generals..