The Wehrmacht Retreats – Robert M. Citino

This is the third book in Citino’s series on the shift in German military thinking in World War II.  His basic thesis is that the mindset of the German military had been shaped over centuries by the position of the state of Brandenburg, then Prussia, and finally Germany.  These were small, vulnerable lands surrounded by larger and more resource rich nations.  In order to avoid being swallowed by one or more of them, the leadership invested in a strong military.  This could ward off attackers, and at times even pay for itself by hiring itself out to one side or the other in the wars of the period.

But because the cost of the army was so high for a small nation, wars had to be fast and decisive.  A long war would allow the larger nations around time to gather their strength and overwhelm them.  In order to lead these armies, the nobles were encouraged to lead troops and were instilled with a culture that sought the quick victory needed.  A consequence of this was that modifying or ignoring orders was winked at, especially if it worked.  The leaders were more partners to the king rather than subordinates.

This usually gave Brandenburg/Prussia the kind of military that gave neighbors fits, as they might strike quickly after the war started or march from far away and hit an unguarded spot.  Even when these attacks were repulsed, the reputation of the army often helped save them from the consequences of rashness.

This pattern continued right into World War II.  But in 1942, as Citino reports in his book  ‘The Death of the Wehrmacht’ things began to change as Hitler began to put the clamps down on the independence of the Generals.  The drive for the short war had failed in the face of war with England and Russia, and the traditional neglect of long-term strategy and logistics was starting to bite.  Also, the total war aims of Hitler clashed with the short war idea – it is one thing to cut a deal when you are trying to grab a province here or there, and quite another when your aim is to occupy the country and send the populace to the death camps.

Repeatedly Citino shows that the reported rift between the wise generals and the crazy Hitler is overstated.  Many of the General’s ideas were as half-baked as Hitler’s, and many generals supported what Hitler wanted.  And by this time both were flailing around aimlessly at the prospect of the coming Allied and Russian offensives in 1943.

This third book follows 1943.  The Generals are no longer partners and must do as they are told.  The prospect of one big offensive to win the war is illusory.  Some, like Kesselring and Manstein, learned to almost enjoy methodically fighting a lost war in a kind of death ride to the end.  Despite defeat after defeat, and against their own ideas of how a war should be won, they ‘soldiered’ on.

Many histories tend to adopt the point of view that the Germans pushed after the war about the role of the generals and Hitler, and what their strategies were.  Citino doesn’t buy it, giving a fresh new look at the war, backed up by solid facts.   I’m not sure if this series will continue to the end of the war, but if it does, I’ll get those books too.

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