This is the first in a trilogy that examines the way Germany (and before unification, Prussia) made war from the Thirty Years War up until the first years of the Second World War.
In the Thirty Years War Brandenburg-Prussia was a scattering of principalities in North-East Germany with no secure borders. Nearby were much larger and more powerful states like Sweden and Poland. A strong and well-trained army was a way to keep enemies at bay, and a source of income in these days of mercenary armies. A country as poor as Prussia was could not easily sustain this kind of force on its own resources.
Picking and chosing its sides to fight on also was a way to grow Prussia itself. But these sides had to be carefully chosen, as the country could not sustain a long war itself. An example of this was the Wars of Frederick the Great, where fast campaigns to grab a province (Silesia at the start of the War of the Austrian Succession and Saxony at the start of the Thirty Years War) were the opening of the war. Frederick managed to hold onto Silesia, but was nearly brought to ruin during the Seven Years War.
Tactically, the Prussians needed a fast decision, so they relied on fast marching and decisive attacks to gain the day. To limit bloodshed, they tried to use outflanking moves to gain access to the rear and avoid a long campaign. The fact that Prussian troops could appear out of nowhere and attack hard put a damper on the spirits of the opposing French or Austrian or Russian troops that made the advantage even greater.
To support this kind of army, a kind of collegiate common outlook was cultivated in the aristocracy of Prussia. Commanders needed to be aggressive and be able to take initiative in reaching the common goal. As the marching columns needed to be on their own frequently, these leaders were encouraged to act as they thought best – even if this went against the overall master plan. Loose cannons were rarely punished even when the errors cost battles or lives.
Prussia had a major setback when it was crushed by Napoleon in 1806. The reforms were to add a staff officer to the command tent that paired a good thinker with a noble general to provide a better mix of plan versus man of action. But the man of action was in charge and still could override the plan at will.
Even as Prussia grew, it still felt itself to be a small state surrounded by larger ones. Its war plans were still to strike hard and fast, and to use a short, limited war to gain its ends. Bismarck was able to do this to unify Germany by striking the Austrians and French one at a time, but after that nations learned to group together.
As always, the German plan was to grab a province fast and strike the opposing armies hard to win a short war – in 1914 to hit the French hard and then turn on Russia. This time it did not work, and the long war against all comers led to defeat. This just reinforced the German feeling that wars needed to be quick and decisive, which led to the experimentation with tanks and airborne forces to break the stalemate. Ironically, the limits on the army imposed by the Allies after WWI probably helped this process out, as the small size led to a concentration on theory and good cross-fertilization of ideas. Perhaps a better idea would have been to force them to keep a few thousand generals over the age of sixty in charge instead!
These young Turks were the core of the German Generals that began the Second World War with a bang. For a time, the quick blow worked and the armies took country after country. But the ideology of a limited war by the army tied to the Nazi ideology of permanent societal change was always a bad pairing – there was no way to make a quick peace with just a province or two changing hands here.
And with that. the Germans were out of their depth even from the start. The need for resources that were exposed to attack led to campaigns all over the map – Norway to protect the Swedish iron shipments, the Balkans and North Africa to protect Romanian oil…it was never a German priority to think these things through before getting into a war.
There was a story I read once that in WWI the Germans were shocked to find out that the supply of certain vital military supplies needed to fight the war came from Chile and France! It was only due to breakthroughs by the chemists that they could fight the war without running out of ammunition.
The book ends with Barbarossa. Why attack Russia? The Germans were already stalemated in Britain and North Africa. To win in North Africa would require a major change in logistics or a sea invasion of Malta, or both. It was almost a sense of frustration that the army turned to striking Russia – this was the kind of war they were trained to fight in!
The only problem was that it was one they couldn’t win, as the poor roads, maps, and the ability of the Russians to raise more and more troops to face them made the limits of German war-making apparent early on. And when the Russians became as battle seasoned as the Germans were, the handwriting was on the wall.