Military history

‘HELL HAS BROKEN OUT’

I

On the Eastern Front, the defeat of the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad marked the beginning of a long retreat that was only to end with total defeat in Berlin just over two years later. It was the decisive turning-point of the war in the east.118 Even before Paulus and his bedraggled forces had surrendered, Army Group A (the other half of Army Group South) was also getting into trouble. In the summer of 1942 Army Group A had made rapid advances through the Caucasus as the Red Army retreated while the Soviet generals desperately tried to organize reinforcements of men and supplies. By the early autumn, the German armies were exhausted, reduced in numbers, dependent on long and precarious supply lines, and weakened by being split into a number of different spearheads. By mid-September 1942, despite their rapid advances, they were still hundreds of miles away from their objectives, the oilfields at Grozny and Baku. The commander of Army Group A, Field Marshal Wilhelm List, concluded that he simply did not have the resources to drive the Russians back across the mountain passes before winter set in. Told of the situation, Hitler flew into a towering rage and sacked List, temporarily taking over command of Army Group A himself, though he did not trouble to visit the scene of operations. Hitler still thought that he would be able to conquer the Caspian oilfields. But even he eventually had to admit that this would not happen in 1942. The Red Army finally organized itself enough to make a stand. For many German soldiers, the advance through the fragrant orchards, the vineyards and the maize fields, with snow-capped mountains on the horizon, had seemed almost idyllic. But at the city of Ordzhonikide, they met with insurmountable resistance. ‘None of us,’ wrote one young artilleryman on 2 November, ‘has experienced days such as these. Hell has broken out.’119 ‘What we have experienced in the last two weeks,’ he wrote on 14 November 1942, ‘was dreadful.’120 Surrounded by Red Army troops, the German forces fought their way out; but there was nowhere to go but backwards. The offensive was not just stalled, it was over.121

Retreat now became the only option, as the Soviet thrust to the west of Stalingrad not only cut off Paulus’s Sixth Army but also threatened other German positions. Army Group A would be isolated as well if Soviet forces managed to capture Rostov and seal off the Caucasus on the northern side. As he became increasingly preoccupied with Stalingrad, Hitler appointed Field Marshal Ewald von Kleist to command Army Group A. Kleist immediately saw the danger of being cut off. On 27 December 1942 Manstein persuaded Zeitzler to ask Hitler for permission to withdraw from the Caucasus. Hitler reluctantly gave his assent. Perhaps he realized that with the Sixth Army tied up in Stalingrad and key units sent earlier to the north, it would not be possible to get reinforcements to the Caucasus. Shortly afterwards, he changed his mind; but it was too late: Zeitzler had telephoned through the order and the retreat had begun. Pursued by relatively weak Soviet forces, the German troops marched all the way back to Rostov-on-Don, and then, as the Red Army advanced westwards in the wake of its victory at Stalingrad, the Germans were forced to retreat even further.122 The retreat depressed many of the troops. ‘You could almost break into tears,’ wrote Albert Neuhaus to his wife on 16 February 1943, ‘when you think what the conquest of these territories has cost in sacrifice and effort. You mustn’t think about it . . . There seems to be a real crisis at the moment and you could almost lose your courage if you didn’t have a devout heart.’123This was one of his last letters home. Albert Neuhaus fell to a Red Army bullet just under a month later, on 11 March 1943.124

The Eastern Front had been reconstructed and to some extent stabilized by these withdrawals. Fresh troops were transferred from Western Europe, while Manstein reorganized and re-equipped his forces ready for a counter-attack. On 19 February 1943, Army Group South sent two panzer armies northwards, pulverizing the Soviet advance forces and retaking Kharkov, while another panzer army destroyed the Soviet armour further east. A month later, the spring thaw turned everything to mud and stopped further movement for the time being. But neither Hitler nor the army leadership had any illusions about these limited gains. After Stalingrad, they knew, for all the bold rhetoric in which the Nazi leadership continued to indulge, that Germany had gone over to the defensive on the Eastern Front. The main priority was now to preserve control over the heavy-industrial areas of the Donets Basin, with its rich and essential deposits of coal and ores. Its loss would mean the end of the war, Hitler told the generals.125 What was needed was a tactical offensive designed to straighten out the German front, sacrificing as little in men and armaments as possible, and weakening the Red Army sufficiently to stop it launching a successful summer offensive. The possibilities were limited. The German generals knew that the Red Army now had nearly twice as many men and three or four times as many artillery pieces and tanks as they did on the Eastern Front. Where in these circumstances would it be safest to launch the offensive? As they had done before Moscow, the generals argued amongst themselves and were unable to take a united decision. The Combined Armed Forces Supreme Command disagreed with the Army Supreme Command on whether it was in any case more important to strengthen defences in Italy and the west. And as before Moscow, Hitler was eventually forced to take the decision himself. The blow, he ordered, would fall at Kursk, where a salient in the front line exposed the Soviet forces to a classic encircling manoeuvre.126

While they waited for the ground to harden, the German commanders moved up large quantities of the new Tiger and Panther tanks, together with other heavy armour - especially another new weapon, the Ferdinand self-propelled gun - and combat aircraft, in preparation for an assault on the salient. Manstein wanted to move quickly, before the Red Army could make its preparations, but he was frustrated by the problems the railway system experienced in getting the reinforcements to the front, and the attacks carried out on the transports by partisans. Field Marshal Model, commander of the Ninth Panzer Army to the north of Kursk, warned repeatedly that his forces were too weak to carry out their part of ‘Operation Citadel’, as it was called. Hitler therefore delayed the attack while his armies gathered their strength. But the vulnerability of the Kursk bulge was obvious to all, so the Red Army brought in massive reinforcements of men and armour. Soviet intelligence managed to discover not only where the German offensive thrusts would be launched, but when they would begin as well. The element of surprise essential to the original concept of the attack had been lost. The consequences were to prove fatal for the German armies.127

By the beginning of July, the forces were assembled for what was to be the greatest land battle in history. The statistics were staggering. The Battle of Kursk, including Operation Citadel and two Soviet counter-offensives, involved a total of more than 4 million troops, 69,000 artillery pieces, 13,000 tanks and self-propelled guns, and nearly 12,000 combat aircraft. In the initial assault of Operation Citadel the Red Army outnumbered the German forces by a factor of almost three to one (1,426,352 men against roughly 518,000). 2,365 tanks and self-propelled guns on the German side faced 4,938 Soviet vehicles of the same kind. The Soviet defenders possessed 31,415 artillery pieces of various categories, including rocket-launchers, to put up a wall of fire that the Germans would find it hard to penetrate, while the 7,417 artillery pieces deployed by the German armies had no chance of destroying the Soviet defences. The German forces on the Eastern Front had long since lost the command of the skies, and with only 1,372 combat aircraft to put against their opponents’ 3,648, they were unlikely to regain it. In addition to all this, the Red Army held vast quantities of men and equipment in reserve nearby, ready to throw into the fray if and when it became necessary. Realizing this, Model kept significant panzer forces back from the battle in case the Soviets brought on their reserves to threaten his rear. Altogether in the whole area of the battle, the Red Army outnumbered its German opponents by 3:1 in men, 3:1 in tanks and armour, 5:1 in artillery and 4:1 in aircraft. And it was far better prepared and organized than it had been in previous encounters.128

II

On the morning of 5 July 1943, the Germans attacked simultaneously from both sides of the salient. The Russians were ready for them. In three months of feverish work, 300,000 civilian conscripts had helped the Soviet troops construct defensive systems 300 kilometres deep, with barbed wire, deep ditches, tank traps, bunkers, machine-gun emplacements, flame-throwers and artillery arranged in eight lines, one behind the other. Nearly a million landmines had been laid, in some sectors more than 3,000 per kilometre. One German panzer commander commented: ‘What happened at Kursk was unbelievable. I’ve never experienced anything like it in war, either before or since. The Soviets had prepared a defensive system whose extension in depth was inconceivable to us. Every time we broke through one position in bitter fighting, we found ourselves confronted with a new one.’129 Nevertheless, the battle began badly for the Red Army. Misled by false information from a captured German soldier as to the time of the intended assault, the Soviet artillery opened up first, thus betraying to the Germans the fact that they knew the assault was coming. Soviet bombers took to the air in a surprise attack on the German airfields, which were crowded with combat aircraft, but they were spotted by German radar, and the German air force scrambled its fighter planes, which shot down 425 Soviet aircraft for the loss of only thirty-six of its own. As a result, the Germans obtained temporary air supremacy, despite the far greater strength of the Soviet air forces in the area.130

Meanwhile, in the north, Field Marshal Walter Model pushed forward with the Ninth Panzer Army. Mindful of the huge Soviet reserves in his rear, and the massive superiority of the forces that faced him, he was uncharacteristically hesitant. He tried to preserve his tanks by using them to follow up the infantry instead of deploying them to punch through the deep Soviet defences. This slowed up the advance, and then Model began to lose his tanks as they were blown up by mines. After five days of ferocious combat, the advance ground to a halt.131 To the south, Manstein deployed his considerably larger panzer army, with more than 200 Tiger and Panther tanks, in the classic manner, pushing them through the Soviet defences. But they too were slowed down by minefields, which destroyed twenty-five of them on the first day. Mechanical failure crippled another forty-five Panthers, in another illustration of the dangers of deploying a new weapon before it had been fully tried and tested. Nevertheless, the heavy Tigers proved strongly resistant to attempts to destroy them, and even the Panthers soon proved their superiority over the Soviet T-34s, shooting them to pieces at distances well in excess of 2,000 metres. Manstein and Hoth’s forces advanced steadily, and the Soviet generals began to panic. They decided to bury a large proportion of their tanks in the ground, up to the turret, for protection. This caused enormous difficulties for the German tanks, which now had to approach extremely close in order to destroy their Soviet opponents; the well-camouflaged Russian tanks frequently let the Tigers and Panthers pass by before destroying them at close quarters from behind. The southern attack began to slow down, its situation worsened by the transfer of a large number of combat aircraft to assist the beleaguered Model in the north. Still, by 11 July 1941, Manstein’s forces had broken through the Soviet defences and were within reach of their first major objective, the town of Prochorovka.132

Here the Soviet generals launched a counter-attack, with the aim of encircling and destroying the German forces. The leading Soviet tank general Pavel Rotmistrov sent in fresh forces, advancing up to 380 kilometres from the rear in a mere three days with more than 800 tanks. Keeping some in reserve, he sent 400 of these in from the north-east, and another 200 from the east, against the battle-weary German forces, who were taken completely by surprise. With only 186 armoured vehicles, a mere 117 of them tanks, the German forces faced total destruction. But the Soviet tank-drivers, tired after three days’ driving and perhaps also fired up, as Red Army troops often were, by liberal doses of vodka, failed to notice a massive, 4.5-metre-deep anti-tank trench dug not long before by Soviet pioneers as part of Zhukov’s preparations for the battle. The first lines of T-34s fell straight into the ditch, and when those following on finally saw the danger, they veered aside in panic, crashed into one another and burst into flames as the Germans opened fire. By the middle of the day the Germans were reporting 190 wrecked or deserted Soviet tanks on the battlefield, some of them still burning. The number seemed so unbelievable that a senior general arrived personally to verify it. The loss of so many tanks enraged Stalin, who threatened to have Rotmistrov court-martialled. To save his skin, the general agreed with his commanding officer and with the senior political commissar in the area - Nikita Khrushchev - to claim that the tanks had been lost in a vast battle in which more than 400 German tanks had been destroyed by the heroic Soviet forces. Stalin, whose idea it had originally been to send Rotmistrov’s forces into the fray, was obliged to accept their report. It became the source of a long-lived legend that marked Prochorovka as the ‘greatest tank battle in history’. In reality it was one of history’s greatest military fiascos. The Soviet forces lost a total of 235 tanks, the Germans three. Despite all this, Rotmistrov became a hero, and today a large monument marks the site.133

The missing German tanks had disappeared in response to a redeployment order by Hitler. The rapidly deteriorating situation in the Mediterranean, and above all the Allied landings in Sicily on 10 July 1943, convinced the German Leader that it was necessary immediately to withdraw key forces from the Eastern Front, and above all the tank divisions that were taking part in Operation Citadel, and transport them to the Italian peninsula to prepare to defend it against the looming Allied invasion. Manstein still believed it would be possible to pull a limited success out of the Kursk offensive, particularly in view of the heavy Soviet losses. But on 17 July 1943 the tank commanders received the order to withdraw. Manstein and other generals bitterly reproached Hitler in later years for allegedly throwing away the prospect of victory. But the fact was that the fiasco at Prochorovka made little real difference to the overall balance of strength at Kursk. The losses sustained by the German forces in the battle as a whole were relatively light: 252 tanks against nearly 2,000 Soviet tanks, perhaps 500 artillery pieces against nearly 4,000 of their Soviet counterparts, 159 airplanes as against nearly 2,000 Russian fighters and bombers, 54,000 men compared to nearly 320,000 Russian troops. Far from being the graveyard of the German army, as it has sometimes been described, the battle had only a relatively minor impact. It had, to be sure, demonstrated that the Tiger and Panther tanks were far superior to the T-34. But this made little difference; they were simply too few in number compared to their Soviet counterparts. The aims of Operation Citadel had been limited and modest. But it had failed. Its failure convinced many German soldiers that there would be no reversal of fortune after Stalingrad. For the first time, a German summer offensive had been repulsed, not least because a two-front war was now in progress.134

This was far from being the end of the Battle of Kursk. On 12 July 1943, while the German offensive was still in progress, the Red Army launched its counter-blow. More than a million fresh troops were thrown into the battle, along with 3,200 tanks and self-propelled guns, 25,500 artillery pieces and grenade-throwers and nearly 4,000 aircraft. Together with the forces already fighting in defence, this meant that the numbers involved on the Soviet side were now overwhelming and unprecedented: more than two and a quarter million men, of whom just over one and a half million were combat troops; 4,800 tanks and self-propelled guns; and 35,200 artillery pieces. This was more than twice the size of the victorious Red Army force at Stalingrad. The numerical superiority of the Red Army was so great that it could still afford to open fresh offensives in other sectors of the Eastern Front at the same time, backed by a massive partisan operation in the German rear that tied down large numbers of German troops. The Red Army, advancing on a broad front instead of following the classic principle of trying to punch through the German lines and surround the enemy in an encircling manoeuvre, sustained horrific losses. By the time the counter-offensives were over, on 23 August 1943, it had altogether lost approximately 1,677,000 men dead, wounded or missing in action against the Germans’ 170,000; more than 6,000 tanks in comparison to the Germans’ 760; 5,244 artillery pieces compared with perhaps 700 or so on the German side; and over 4,200 aircraft against the Germans’ 524. All in all, in July and August 1943, the Red Army lost nearly 10,000 tanks and self-propelled guns, the Germans just over 1,300.135 The profligacy of Stalin and his generals with the lives of their men was breathtaking.

Yet the Germans were far less able to sustain their much smaller losses. On 2 September 1943, Otto Ẅhler, a German infantry general, confessed:

While we were forced to adopt the most difficult tactics of conserving our ammunition, the enemy could command unlimited munitions for his artillery and grenade-throwers. He thinned out our ranks to such an extent that it was no longer possible to preserve the m[ain] c[ombat] l[ine], but only to construct it from security groups linked by patrols . . . The 39th I[nfantry Division] only had 6 officers and around 300 men in the fight this morning . . . The commanders reported to me that over-tiredness had led to such apathy amongst the troops that draconian measures were not leading to the desired effect at the moment, and neither the example set by the officers nor ‘gentle encouragement’ had any success.136

The German generals were forced to retreat. Hitler was furious, and issued a stream of orders to hold the line. But the situation was impossible, and even Hitler’s favourite commander, Walter Model, disregarded his Leader’s wishes and carried out a series of tactically skilled withdrawals that managed to reduce German losses. As the Soviet troops advanced on Kharkov, Hitler ordered the town to be held at all costs: Manstein and Werner Kempf, his commander on the spot, told him it was not possible. Hitler reacted by dismissing Kempf, but his replacement said the same thing, and Hitler was forced to agree to the evacuation of the city. As the German troops withdrew from the Kursk battlefield, they left behind a scene of apocalyptic devastation, a ‘battlefield’, as one German soldier described it, ‘upon which every tree and shrub was torn to shreds, the area was covered in wrecked artillery pieces, burned-out tanks and shot-down planes . . . Pictures of the end of the world, the experience of which threatened to drive to despair the men it affected, unless they possessed nerves of steel.’137

III

The months between the Battle of Kursk in July-August 1943 and the Normandy landings in June 1944 have sometimes been called the ‘forgotten year’ of the war.138 The generals were well aware of their desperate situation, and repeatedly asked Hitler for freedom of action so that they could use the vast open spaces of the steppe to perform large-scale tactical movements, hoping to cut off advancing Soviet armies and destroy them. To Hitler, however, this seemed merely an excuse for a cowardly retreat, and as time went on he became ever more insistent on holding the line. This meant, increasingly, that German withdrawals were not integrated into any overall strategy, and took place suddenly, in reaction to the threat of encirclement by Soviet armies. Too often, German army units abandoned their position in panic flight instead of planned withdrawal.139 Throughout the whole period, the German forces were in almost permanent retreat, burning and destroying everything as they went. One young infantryman described the scene to his wife at home, as his unit withdrew across the Dnieper:

On the other side of the river everything has been burning fiercely for days already, for you must know that all the towns and villages in the areas that we are now evacuating are being set ablaze, even the smallest house in the village has to go. All the large buildings are being blown up. The Russians are to find nothing but a field of rubble. This deprives them of every possibility of accommodating their troops. So it’s a horrifyingly beautiful picture.140

Troops were possessed by a kind of lust for destruction, as this letter suggests, often leading to a breakdown in discipline and the mass looting of buildings before they were burned to the ground. Burning buildings signalled only too clearly to the advancing Soviet troops where the Germans were going, and the work of destruction wasted time and resources that might have been better spent on organizing defensive lines. Increasingly, troop units retreated on their own without waiting to be told to, as soon as their situation began to look critical.141

Nevertheless, the German armies held together against the reckless assaults of the Soviets, whose repeated frontal attacks caused them to suffer five times the losses of their opponents, sometimes more. Superior intelligence, the preparation of strong points and defence in depth enabled key parts of the front to hold the line again and again before they were overwhelmed by superior numbers and forced to retreat. 142 What kept German soldiers fighting one losing battle after another? Increasingly, they felt they were fighting for Germany rather than for Hitler or for Nazism. Fear and loathing of the ‘Bolshevik hordes’, of Soviet ‘subhumans’, made them more than willing to kill and destroy. The very recklessness of their enemy cheapened life more than ever. The nearer the retreat got to the borders of Germany itself, the more desperate became the fight to save it, independently of the soldiers’ own allegiance to the principles of Nazism. At the same time, the nationalist beliefs that sustained the troops had become ever more strongly infused over the previous decade with the ideology of Nazism. It filled them with its contempt for Slavs, its assertion of German superiority and, crucially, its willingness to use violence in the pursuit of its aims.143

The intermingling of Nazism with a more traditional kind of nationalism was strongest amongst the youngest and most junior troops, and weakest in the older generations, which meant above all the top ranks of the officer corps. The majority of the generals, born in the 1880s, were nationalists of the traditional kind. They had grown up in the reign of the last Kaiser, when they had belonged unthinkingly to the ruling caste of officers, aristocrats, senior civil servants, Protestant churchmen, university professors and conservative businessmen. Many had lived in rural districts or small towns, and mixed only with the families of other officers or members of the local elite. Particularly if they came from East-Elbian Prussia, they were likely to have cast their eyes fearfully towards the looming colossus of ‘half-Asiatic’ Russia. The long military training through which they had passed had confirmed their conservative, monarchist and nationalist values just as it cut them off even further from the rest of society. Characteristic in this respect was Gotthard Heinrici, a general unusual only in the assiduity with which he kept a journal and the colourful detail in which he described what he saw and experienced. Born in 1886 in Gumbinnen, on the Polish border, he had enrolled as a military cadet in 1905, fought in the First World War and made his way up through the ranks in a typical alternation of staff and operational positions between the wars, becoming a Lieutenant-General in 1938, a full General in June 1940, and a Colonel-General on 1 January 1943. Heinrici had lived his entire life within the confines of the military elite, with no real knowledge of, or contact with, the rest of German society. His whole world had collapsed in November 1918, like that of other members of the Wilhelmine elite. He blamed the defeat on a Jewish-socialist revolutionary conspiracy on the home front and, not surprisingly, supported the Kapp putsch, hoped for the downfall of the Weimar Republic and longed for a war of revenge against Germany’s enemies. Suspicious at first of what he regarded as the vulgar radicalism of the Nazis, he was won over by Hitler’s support of rearmament and his suppression of Social Democracy and Communism. Heinrici was no Nazi ideologue, but he did come to admire Hitler, and stuck to the regime out of an innate conformism and a sense of patriotic loyalty. He supported Hitler’s aim of achieving European dominance for Germany and using it to challenge the British Empire and the United States for global hegemony, though, unlike Hitler, he remained sceptical as to whether this could be achieved. What comes through in his diary is not only his exemplary concern for the well-being of his troops, whose privations he made sure he shared, but also his narrow-mindedness, which would admit of no priority greater than the military. His casually expressed but deep-rooted prejudices against Jews and Slavs were entirely typical of his caste. His loyalty to Hitler and to his own ideas of Germany was to keep him fighting almost to the very end.144

Cast in a similar mould was Fedor von Bock, whose career, unlike that of the more pedestrian Heinrici, eventually took him to the rank of Field Marshal. Born in 1880 in K̈strin, another town on the eastern borders of Germany, he came from a military family, had fought on both fronts in the First World War and remained in the army throughout the Weimar years. In 1938 he had commanded the Eighth Army on the march into Austria, then took Army Group North into Poland in 1939. His late marriage, in 1936, to a widow who already had children seems to have been successful, although his active service meant that he saw little of his family. Bock admired Hitler for restoring Germany’s national and military pride, but he too was no Nazi ideologue. His war diaries reveal a narrowly professional soldier, oblivious of almost everything apart from military action and military planning. His monarchism was no secret. In the Netherlands in May 1940 he drove to Doorn, where the elderly ex-Kaiser Wilhelm II continued to live in exile; but he found that the troops guarding the residence had been instructed not to allow him in to pay his respects. Bock’s military professionalism gave him a basic belief in the laws of war, respect for civilians, concern for the welfare of prisoners-of-war and much else besides. He thought, for example, that occupied areas should be under military government and did not like the intrusion of the SS. He was concerned about Nazi policies towards the Jews in occupied France and Belgium, and his diaries do not reveal any open or even implicit antisemitism. But Bock conceded that Hitler would get his way in the areas the army had conquered, and in any case, all these issues were of very minor importance for him, compared to the dictates of military necessity. His time and energies were taken up almost entirely by commanding armies on active campaign, so he never did anything about these violations of military propriety.145

Professionalism and conservative nationalism were joined by material interest in keeping the generals in line. As in other countries, so too in Nazi Germany, a range of new honours and medals was established to reward bravery in combat during the war, and successful field commanders were rapidly promoted, twelve of them to the rank of Field Marshal after the victory in the west in 1940. Hitler never completely trusted the army, and saw such promotions as a means of binding senior officers to his will even if they disapproved of Nazi ideology. Rapid promotion made little difference, however, to the essentially aristocratic make-up of the senior levels of the officer corps.146 Promotion brought not only a salary increase but also bonuses - 4,000 Reichsmarks a month, tax-free, for a Field Marshal or a Grand Admiral. Hitler did not scruple to use his own considerable personal fortune to steer far larger sums their way. On 24 April 1941 he gave Grand Admiral Raeder a one-off donation of 250,000 Reichsmarks, on his sixty-fifth birthday, to help cover the costs of building a new house. Such gifts were usually made discreetly and behind the scenes, as with another cheque for 250,000 Reichsmarks handed over by Hitler’s principal adjutant, Rudolf Schmundt, to Field Marshal Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb to mark the latter’s sixty-fifth birthday on 5 September 1941. As Hitler knew, Leeb was far from uncritical in his stance towards the way he was conducting the war. The sum helped reassure the Field Marshal, and even after he was sent into retirement at the beginning of 1942 following the defeat before Moscow, he actively looked for property to buy with his gift, repeatedly seeking the help of a variety of civil authorities in his search, which finally succeeded in 1944.

Earlier on, Leeb had been so disillusioned with Hitler’s proposed violation of Belgian neutrality in 1940 that he had put out feelers to the military opposition that was crystallizing once more around Chief of the Army General Staff Franz Halder. But this was the only contact he had, and he did not repeat it. Other senior officers who received the same sum on reaching the age of sixty or sixty-five included Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel and Field Marshal Hans-G̈nther von Kluge. Some, like Guderian or Kleist, were given valuable landed estates, or the money with which to buy them. The Deipenhof estate, which Guderian received, was valued at almost one and a quarter million Reichsmarks. Previously a critic of Hitler’s conduct of the war, Guderian returned from enforced retirement towards the end of the conflict as one of the most determined supporters of a fight to the finish. No doubt the hope of a gift on this scale from Hitler influenced the conduct of many other senior officers. Yet these were men who often made a point of advertising their adherence to the traditional Prussian military virtues of modesty, probity, frugality and a keen sense of honour. As the disaffected diplomat Ulrich von Hassell remarked, ‘for the majority of the generals, a career and the Field Marshal’s staff are more important than the great practical principles and moral values that are at stake’.147

At the divisional level, the more junior members of the officer corps showed some of the same characteristics, but there were also differences too, largely stemming from the fact that they mostly came from younger age-groups. In the 253rd Infantry Division, for instance, which has been the subject of an exhaustive statistical analysis, only 9 per cent of the officers were born before 1900, and 8 per cent in the years 1900- 1909; fully 65 per cent were born in the years 1910-19, the remaining 19 per cent belonging to the post-1919 generation. The Protestant domination of the military elite was reflected in the fact that 57 per cent of the officers in the division described themselves as Protestants and only 26 per cent as Catholics, in sharp contrast to the religious affiliation of the troops they commanded, where Catholics were in a majority; the influence of Nazism came through strongly in the fact that 12 per cent of the officers described themselves as ‘Deists’, the vague, non-confessional term preferred by the regime. The divisional officers came overwhelmingly from the educated and professional middle or upper-middle class and had already served in the army for some years, in many cases going back to the Weimar Republic. 43 per cent were members of a Nazi organization of one kind or another. They were more likely to be decorated for bravery than the men were, and they had better career prospects, assuming they survived: nearly half of them achieved battalion command during the war, or rose even higher, and even the most junior could expect to be promoted to the rank of Captain or Major. This meant, however, that they were far more likely than their men to be transferred to another division or other duties.148

For the great mass of ordinary soldiers the institutional setting in which they lived and fought was surprisingly stable for most of the war years. Roughly half of all German forces at any one time were not engaged in combat duties; either they were in reserve or on security work in occupied areas behind the front or employed in any one of a huge variety of administrative, supply, support or other ancillary tasks. For every tank regiment, for example, there had to be not only men who drove the tanks but also men who repaired them, supplied them with petrol and ammunition, transported them to and from the front, and kept track of where they were. In addition, there were always considerable numbers of troops who were undergoing training, or convalescing after being invalided out with wounds or illnesses of one kind or another. Of the other half, engaged on active combat duty, some 80 per cent served in infantry divisions, which might be regarded therefore as the typical combat unit of the armed forces. From the outbreak of the war to the invasion of the Soviet Union, the army underwent a lengthy initial period of expansion, training and organization, during which military losses, at around 130,000 dead or missing, were relatively low, amounting indeed to only 2.5 per cent of total German military losses during the war. New divisions were continually being formed by mixing experienced troops from existing divisions with fresh recruits, thus ensuring a high degree of continuity. From ninety infantry divisions at the beginning of the war, the army grew to contain some 175 in June 1941. The troops mostly took part in actual combat only intermittently, in short-lived lightning wars such as the invasion of Poland, the western campaigns of 1940 and the Balkan victories of the following year. All this meant that they remained relatively cohesive and a sense of stability underpinned the loyalty of the ‘comrades’ in each unit to one another.149

This picture of relative stability changed dramatically with the heavy losses that began to hit the army following the invasion of the Soviet Union. The military administration tried to mitigate the disruptive effects of these losses in a variety of ways, for example by ensuring that new recruits came from the same part of Germany as the troops in the units they joined, and that men who had recovered from their wounds were sent back to their old regiments, so that the social and cultural composition of each regiment remained relatively homogeneous, thus (it was thought) improving its cohesion and its fighting power. The insistence of the armed forces on thorough training continued to ensure that troops went into battle as effective fighting men. Despite this, mounting losses meant that many regiments were unable to bring themselves back up to full strength, and some indeed ceased to exist as effective fighting units altogether. Morale also began to suffer with the series of major defeats that began with Stalingrad. However, up to the late summer of 1944, it is clear that the German armed forces remained relatively intact in their organization, structure and recruitment patterns. Defeat came not through their disorganization or inefficiency but through the military and economic superiority of the Red Army (or, in North Africa and Italy, and later Normandy, the British and the Americans).150

Who were the men who fought in these infantry divisions? The soldiers and NCOs of the 253rd Infantry Division ranged widely in age. 19 per cent were born between 1901 and 1910 and had experienced the Weimar years as adults; 68 per cent were born between 1911 and 1920 and thus, like the remaining 11 per cent who were born between 1921 and 1926, had been wholly or partially socialized and educated under the Third Reich. What is striking despite the steadily declining average age of the soldiers over the course of the war is the dominance of the generation born shortly before or during the First World War. In other words, the character, behaviour and morale of this, as in all probability of other infantry divisions too, were shaped by a dominant cohort of men who were in their mid-to-late twenties.151 As might be expected from this age structure, the majority of the troops - 68 per cent at the start of the war, 60 per cent towards the end - were unmarried. Many of the older troops already had children, and the divisional command tended to hold them back from the front as a result, sending the younger men without family ties of this kind into the most dangerous situations. Similarly, marriage and fatherhood may well have proved restraining factors in the behaviour of the older soldiers when it came to dealing with the civilian populations, especially women and children, of the conquered territories.152

59 per cent of the soldiers in the division who were born after the end of the First World War had belonged to a Nazi organization. 69 per cent of those born from 1916 to 1919 had been members of the Reich Labour Service. 83 per cent of those born in 1913- 17 had already been serving in the armed forces before 1939. The proportion of those born in 1910-20 who had gone through one of these institutions by the time the war broke out averaged 75 per cent; indeed, 43 per cent had gone through more than one. These were precisely the age-groups that formed the core of the division for the greater part of the war.153 As the war went on, moreover, the army itself intensified the political indoctrination to which it subjected its officers and NCOs and through them its ordinary troops. The idea of an unpolitical army, so loudly and insistently proclaimed under the Weimar Republic, had long ceased to exist. By the time the war broke out, the armed forces regarded enlistment and training in their ranks as the final and highest stage in a process of ideological education that had begun long before. The soldier was trained not just to be a fighter but also to be a full member of the racial community of Germans, even, according to some training guidelines, a new kind of man. All officers were required to learn and convince themselves of the correctness of the National Socialist world-view. A flood of books, pamphlets and manuals was published to assist them in mastering this task. In many of these works, officers were informed about the world conspiracy of the Jews against Germany and told that the Jew was the most dangerous and deadly of all the enemies they were going to have to fight. Arrangements were put in place to ensure the continued ‘spiritual conduct of war’ in the spirit of National Socialism. Intensive ideological training added to the indoctrination the men had already received from school, from the Hitler Youth, and from Goebbels’s mass media. It was hardly surprising that many of the men went into battle against the soldiers of the Red Army describing them as ‘subhumans who’ve been whipped into frenzy by the Jews’.154

Particularly after the army’s sense of invincibility began to wear thin, from December 1941 and then, far more dramatically, after Stalingrad, senior commanders redoubled their efforts to convince the soldiers that they were fighting for a worthy cause. The German officer, Hitler declared in 1943, had to be a political officer. Especially when things were going badly, it was vital that officers draw deep from their well of National Socialist convictions to remind themselves of what it was all about. On 22 December 1943 Hitler ordered the creation of a team to co-ordinate ‘National Socialist Leadership in the Armed Forces’. The measure, as he told Goebbels and a few others privately early the following month, was to ensure that all the troops inhabited the same mental world, one where they would possess the ‘fanatical will’ to fight for the Nazi cause to the end. The provision of Nazi political education officers was centralized and extended. Similar measures were taken in the navy and the air force. In effect, the Nazis were introducing into the German armed forces a kind of parallel to the political commissars who were so important in the Red Army. Their role was inculcated at numerous special political education courses held behind the front, and discussed in conferences organized by the army. Increasingly, as time went on and defeat followed defeat, officers’ orders and commands became more National Socialist in content, in an attempt to inspire the men to ever more fanatical resistance to an overwhelmingly powerful enemy.155 Of course, this still left a considerable number of officers and men indifferent, or even hostile, to Nazi ideology, depending on their age, their circumstances and their pre-existing beliefs. Yet overall, there can be little doubt that political education and indoctrination did have an effect on the troops, and played a role in pushing them to fight to the end.

Some indeed kept fighting out of antisemitic commitment. Propaganda and indoctrination had instilled in them the firm belief that, as a soldier working in the Leader’s military messenger service on the Eastern Front wrote on 1 March 1942, ‘This is a matter of two great world-views. Either us or the Jews.’156 This belief kept some going when German victory began to look in doubt. ‘It surely cannot be,’ wrote one army man stationed in southern France at the end of May 1942, ‘that the Jews will win and rule.’157Mingled with such incredulity was an ever-stronger dose of fear. If Germany was defeated, wrote another soldier in August 1944, ‘the Jews will then fall on us and exterminate everything that is German, there will be a cruel and terrible slaughter.’158 Yet Nazi ideology played little or no role in the commitment of many others. Why, for example, did a man like Wilm Hosenfeld carry on serving in the army, when he hated Nazism so much? It was not only Eastern Europeans and Jews whom the regime he served were persecuting and murdering, but also, he realized in December 1943, Germans themselves. Coming from rural Hesse, Hosenfeld had perhaps not realized the extent of the Nazis’ maltreatment of their internal opponents in the 1930s. A conversation with his new assistant, a former Communist whose health had been broken by repeated torture in the cells of the Gestapo, stripped him of this last illusion. It was clear, wrote Hosenfeld, that the men who led the regime approved of such behaviour:

Now it becomes clear to me why they can only carry on working through force and lies, and why lies have to be the protection for their whole system . . . Ever more violent acts have to follow, war is only the logical continuation of their policy. Now the entire [German] people, who did not exterminate this ulcer at the appropriate moment, must perish. These rogues are sacrificing us all . . . The atrocities here in the east, in Poland, Yugoslavia and Russia, are only continuing in a straight line the process that began with their political opponents in Germany ... And we idiots believed they could bring us a better future. Every person who approved of this system even to the smallest degree has to be ashamed today of having done so.159

For Hosenfeld, the Nazis were a tiny clique of criminals who did not represent the German people as a whole. He carried on performing his duties not for them, but for Germany, to preserve it from Bolshevism. A good many other officers most probably felt similarly. By July 1943, for example, General Heinrici was becoming concerned that Germany was in danger of losing the war. It was, he wrote, as if to bolster up his own commitment to continuing the fight, ‘clear that there must be no defeat in this war, since what would come afterwards is not even to be thought of. Germany would go under, and we ourselves with it.’160

There is little evidence to suggest that Nazi ideology spread through the army to fill a gap left by the disintegration of military values and the men’s basic loyalty to one another as ‘comrades’. The relative homogeneity of each division in most respects meant that primary group loyalties remained intact within the division for most of the war. It was not so much the disintegration of such loyalties as their persistence, in a mixture of experienced and increasingly cynical and brutalized veterans with a continual and, from early 1943, increasing stream of ideologically deeply

Nazified younger men that formed the basis for the barbarous conduct of the war by German troops in the east. Even in times of heavy losses, such as the end of 1941 and the beginning of 1942, the social cohesion of the 253rd Infantry Division companies was damaged but not destroyed, and with the return of convalescent soldiers and the arrival of fresh recruits it was soon restored.161 These were groups of men bound together by ties of mutual loyalty forged in the heat of battle. Even when, as they increasingly did after Stalingrad, they began to doubt whether victory could ever be attained, they continued to fight out of a sense of comradeship and mutual support in adversity.162 Here they could create emotional bonds in small groups that provided a substitute, at least to some extent, for the families they had left at home, caring for the wounded, decorating their bunkers and living quarters and, like the troops who invested so much emotional capital in the celebration of Christmas at Stalingrad, providing some kind of meaning to life amidst the senselessness of war. Here, in another way perhaps, was the organic national community, the Volksgemeinschaft, in miniature; and correspondingly, all the soldiers’ aggressive masculinity was directed outwards, towards the enemy, and towards a population that, in the east at least, they regarded as racially inferior, indeed as barely human.163

The men also kept fighting out of sheer fear - fear of what would happen to them if they surrendered to the enemy, fear of their superiors should they show signs of flagging. The armed forces had their own courts-martial, which were freely used by officers in all three services to prosecute offences ranging from the theft of food parcels sent in the field post at one extreme to desertion of the colours at the other. Any of these offences could land the offender before a firing-squad. Numerous prosecutions were brought for the vaguely defined offence of ‘undermining military strength’ (Wehrkraftzersetzung), which could include anything from defeatist utterances to self-mutilation in the hope of being invalided out; and, as in civilian life, criticism of the regime and its leaders was also a criminal offence. By contrast, as we have already seen, there were relatively few prosecutions for offences against the civilian population of occupied areas, such as looting, rape or murder, and shooting captured enemy soldiers instead of taking them prisoner was widely tolerated, especially in the initial stages of Operation Barbarossa. Courts-martial were, therefore, overwhelmingly used as a means of enforcing discipline and the will to fight. Over the whole course of the war, it has been estimated that courts-martial tried the staggering total of 3 million cases, of which some 400,000 were brought against civilians and prisoners of war.164 Of all these cases, no fewer than 30,000 ended in a member of the German armed forces being condemned to death. This compared with a mere forty-eight executed in the German forces during the First World War. Of those 30,000 death sentences, some were commuted, and a few were pronounced in absentia. But the great majority - at least 21,000 according to the most thorough estimate - were carried out. In all other combatant countries with the exception of the Soviet Union, death sentences pronounced by courts-martial during the Second World War can be numbered in hundreds at most, rather than thousands.165

A prisoner brought before a court-martial was supposed to be tried by three judges. Regulations required the accused to be provided with a defence counsel, but in the heat of the battle such rules were widely disregarded. One participant recalled for example that in a part of the Stalingrad front covered by four army divisions, 364 death sentences were handed out by drumhead courts-martial in the space of just over week, for offences including cowardice, desertion and the theft of food parcels.166 Acting in his capacity as Commander-in-Chief, Hitler issued a set of guidelines that prescribed the most draconian levels of punishment. ‘The death penalty is recommended,’ according to one of the guidelines, ‘if the offender acted out of fear of personal endangerment or if it is necessary in the particular circumstances of the individual case for the maintenance of manly discipline.’167 Military judges by and large shared the view of the civilian judicial apparatus under Nazism that, as one of them declared:

Whatever serves the people is just . . . In the narrower sense of military law, it follows that ‘whatever serves the armed forces is just’. . . Now it becomes clear why there can be no ‘average soldier’. To be a soldier means to raise the National Socialist conception of honour and soldierly behaviour to a professional ethos.168 This meant, for example, that 6,000 executions were carried out for ‘undermining military strength’. The commonest offence bringing men before the firing-squad was desertion, which led to 15,000 executions. In many cases, the offence in effect amounted to little more than absence without leave (unerlaubte Entfernung). Sentences, following orders issued by the Combined Armed Forces Supreme Command in December 1939 and again in July 1941, were carried out as soon as possible after being passed. ‘The faster a pest in the armed forces (Wehrmachtschädling ) receives the punishment he has earned, the easier it will be to prevent other soldiers from committing the same or similar deeds and the easier it will be to maintain manly discipline among the troops.’169

IV

Terrorizing the troops through the draconian application of military justice may well have helped keep them fighting long after they knew the war was lost. But what the regime increasingly required was a military force that fought out of fanatical National Socialist commitment. This was in fact available, in the shape of the Military SS (Waffen-SS ). Its history went back to the early days of the Third Reich, when Hitler had formed an armed personal bodyguard, which later became the so-called ‘Adolf Hitler Personal Flag’ (Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler). Conceived mainly as a ceremonial unit, it was commanded by a rough Bavarian Nazi, Josef (‘Sepp’) Dietrich, whose previous jobs had included working as a petrol-pump attendant, a waiter, a farm labourer and a foreman in a tobacco factory. Born in 1892, he had served in a tank unit, but otherwise had no serious military experience, as army generals repeatedly but vainly pointed out. Soon, however, Dietrich’s boss Heinrich Himmler set up another, larger organization and began recruiting army men to provide the unit with proper military training, which from 1938 was provided to Dietrich’s men as well. By the end of 1939, these various military units of the SS had been joined by groups from the Death’s Head Units formed by Theodor Eicke to provide guards for the concentration camps. The SS forces grew in number from 18,000 on the eve of war to 140,000 in November 1941, including tank regiments and motorized infantry. They were intended from the outset to be an elite, ideologically committed, highly trained, and - unlike the army - unconditionally loyal to Hitler. Senior officers were notably younger than their army counterparts, mostly being born in the 1890s or early 1900s and so in their forties or early fifties at the time of the war. Military SS regiments were given names such as ‘The Reich’, ‘Germany’, ‘The Leader’ and so on. Again unlike the army, the Military SS was an institution not of the German people but of the Germanic race, and its leading figure, Gottlob Berger, a long-time Nazi and First World War veteran who was one of Himmler’s closest intimates, set up recruiting offices in ‘Germanic’ countries like Holland, Denmark, Norway and Flanders, forming the first non-German division (‘Viking’) in the spring of 1941. Further recruits from Eastern European countries followed, as numbers began to take priority over supposed racial affinities. By 1942 the Military SS numbered 236,000 men; in 1943 it exceeded half a million; and in 1944 it was approaching a strength of 600,000, of whom some 369,000 were active in the field.170

Regular army commanders were disparaging of the Military SS, whose commanders they considered lacking in professionalism and over-inclined to sacrifice the lives of their men. Although the SS divisions were placed under their command, the army generals could do little to rein in their fanatical desire for self-sacrifice. When told by Eicke that his men’s lives had counted for nothing in an attack he had just carried out, the army general Erich Hopner, under whose command Eicke had been placed, roundly condemned this attitude: ‘That is the outlook of a butcher.’171 However, the senior generals were not wholly averse to the Military SS spearheading attacks and taking the bulk of the casualties: it preserved the lives of their own men and reduced the strength of a serious rival force. Himmler complained in August 1944 that ‘people of ill-will’ in the army were conspiring to ‘butcher this unwelcome force and get rid of it for some future development’.172 Army commanders also alleged that members of the Military SS were more likely than their own troops to commit massacres of innocent civilians, especially Jews, and carry out other crimes, above all on the Eastern Front. An official army investigation in August 1943 noted that out of eighteen proven cases of rape reported to it, twelve had been committed by members of the Military SS. How accurate such reports were cannot be ascertained. The Military SS tended to provide something of an excuse for regular army commanders wishing to conceal, or pass over, the crimes committed by their own men. On the other hand, even officers from other branches of the SS were known to complain about its brutality. When the commander of the ‘Prince Eugene’ division tried to excuse to a minister of the puppet government in Croatia some atrocities committed by his men as ‘errors’, another SS officer told him: ‘Since you arrived there has unfortunately been one “error” after another.’173 Attempts after 1945 by former Military SS officers to portray their troops as nothing more than ordinary soldiers failed to carry conviction, since there could be no doubt about their elite status or their fanatical ideological commitment. On the other hand, the mass of evidence that has come to light since the early 1990s about the conduct of regular troops on and behind the Eastern Front undermines claims that the Military SS was wholly exceptional in its disregard for the laws and conventions of warfare.

The undoubted fanaticism of the Military SS, as well as the tendency of military commanders to put its units into the front line, led to heavy losses among its troops. A total of 900,000 Military SS men served in the war, of whom more than a third - 34 per cent - were killed.174 On 15 November 1941 the ‘Death’s Head’ division reported losses of 60 per cent amongst officers and NCOs. Its backbone was gone, a report complained. The general view of the Military SS among the German people was, as the Security Service of the SS reported in March 1942, that it was poorly trained and its men were often ‘recklessly sacrificed’. Its men were thrown into battle because it wanted to show itself better than the army.175 Moreover, parents were beginning to try to stop their sons from enlisting because of the anti-Christian indoctrination to which they would be subjected in the Military SS. ‘Influence of parents and Church negative,’ reported one recruitment centre in February 1943. ‘Parents generally anti-Military SS,’ reported another. In Vienna one man told the recruiting officer: ‘The priest told us that the SS was atheist and if we joined it we should go to hell.’176 Volunteers from Flanders, Denmark, Norway and Holland began to apply to be discharged, complaining of the arrogant and overbearing treatment of foreign recruits by German SS officers. Recruiting officers began to go to Labour Service camps and force young men to ‘volunteer’. Relatives complained about such actions, while Military SS officers soon declared themselves dissatisfied with the results, as many of the new recruits were ‘intellectually sub-standard’ and ‘inclined to insubordination and malingering’. The Military SS was rapidly deteriorating in quality towards the end of the war. But in this, it was doing no more than following the course taken by the regular armed forces themselves.177

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!