Hitler’s Soldiers


Hitler’s Soldiers
The German Army in the Third Reich
By Ben H. Shepherd
Yale University Press – £25.00

The more enemies, the more honour!

General von Bomberg’s ridiculous and rather chilling riposte to worries that Germany’s rapid rearmament would antagonise foreign nations – Chapter Two, ‘The Road To War, 1936-39

The army of the Wehrmacht is the sword of the new German worldview.

(Erwin Rommel., December 1938 – Introduction).

Just when you thought you knew pretty much all there was to know, or at least believed you had a reasonable grasp on the German armed forces during the World War II, another superlative book comes along to re-awaken what may have inadvertently evolved into a reckoning of staid assumption.

For one thing, in the Preface of Hitler’s Soldiers – The German Army in the Third Reich by Ben H. Shepherd – whose dark and altogether uncompromising 2012 book, Terror in the Balkans I have also reviewed – immediately tackles the otherwise misinformed thinking that the then German army was known as the Wehrmacht: ”Whilst many books employ the term ‘Wehrmacht’ to denote the German army, this is actually incorrect. ‘Wehrmacht’ directly translates as Armed forces, and technically speaking the Wehrmacht comprised not just the army, but also the air force (Luftwaffe), navy (Kriegsmarine), and from 1944, the Waffen-SS.”

Thus, by the time one has reached the book’s Introduction, one has already been alerted to what is clearly a very important error; an elongated error at that, which, surprisingly, ought to have been clarified years ago.

Exceedingly well researched, and perhaps investigated well beyond the call of literary duty, Shepherd clearly knows the political and socially sinister side of modern, German history: ”Big business bought into the Nazi economic programme, albeit with some reservations, partly because rearmament promised enormous profits and business opportunities, partly because the Nazis had obligingly destroyed the trade unions, and partly because the Nazis were able to manipulate big business by divide and rule, particularly coopting those sections of commerce and industry that had most to gain from rearmament (‘The Army in the New Reich’).

As inconceivably complex as the Second World War was, Shepherd has herein tackled each and every phase with a more than cool-headed, linear and analytical dexterity. A quality, which in and of itself alone, underlines the clarity with which Hitler’s Soldiers has been so scholarly devised. What’s more, said quality also reinforces a sense of subliminal trust within that of the reader, wherein the actual reading itself, becomes almost effortless.

To be sure, one can almost home in on any of this book’s twenty-four chapters, with the acute and assured knowledge that what one is reading, is based upon historical fact. Although (perhaps) more importantly, especially so far as the German army is concerned, the facts have themselves been aligned with a critical synthesis of significantly new strategic and social revelation.

For instance, in the fifth chapter, ‘The Greatest Victory, 1940,’ Shepherd sheds relative, new light upon the fact that as a tactician (or madman, both are as equally applicable), Hitler was already getting it horribly wrong as early as Dunkirk: ”[…] the drive on Dunkirk had exposed Hitler’s less than steady nerve, a trait that, paradoxically, would reveal itself again even as the dictator grew ever more convinced of his military genius. It was the campaign’s triumphant conclusion that would dangerously encourage this new sense of infallibility. The drive on Dunkirk also exposed another of Hitler’s traits, one that would, again, resurface ever more frequently and detrimentally – his penchant for micromanaging operations down to the minutest detail.”

To assert as much so early on in the Battle for France, is, to my mind at least, a revelation which isn’t to be taken at all lightly. There again, with the euphoria over the eventual defeat of the country (what with the campaign having started on May 10th, Paris having declared itself an open city on June 13th and the wholesale surrender of France on June 22nd), Blitzkrieg gave rise and a whole meaning to the unfortunate word, swift.

Indeed, Blitzkrieg was borne out of a diktat or approach, initially set in place during Germany’s rearmament of the thirties; a time when the Wehrmacht was, as Rommel declared, evolving into ”the sword of the new German worldview” by way of a whole new militaristic ideology. An ideology which the author initially touches on in the book’s Introduction: ”To ensure that both its frontline officers and more senior commanders would be equal to the task of conducting offensive mobile warfare, Reichswehr doctrine and training promoted Auftragstaktik, or ‘mission tactics,’ a concept that had suffused Prusso-German military thinking since the nineteenth century […] a complex approach, with several interdependent elements, to the increasingly unpredictable conditions of the battlefield.”

Following the Battle for France, Shepherd once again refers to Auftragstaktik: ”[…] it was the Germans’ own strengths that enabled them to triumph so spectacularly. Among other things, they profited from an imaginative and daring operational plan. But if one single, overall reason for the German army’s triumph in the west can be pinpointed, it is that its doctrinal approach to tactics and operations far outclassed that of its opponents. At all levels, it possessed qualities of daring and adaptability, and a capacity to react to the rapidly changing battlefield situation – all hallmarks of Auftragstaktik […]. On the other hand, all these qualities and technologies were employed with the aim of achieving what was, for the German military, a tried-and-tested operational goal: breaking through, encircling and defeating the enemy by concentrating overwhelming power against his weakest spot. As one French general commented after the campaign, the French had used their three thousand tanks in a thousand pack of three, whereas the Germans had used their three thousand tanks in three packs of a thousand.”

It is just such fresh and incisive analyses, which accounts for Hitler’s Soldiers being such an invigorating, if not majestic read on a subject that, although written upon on numerous occasions over the course of the last seventy years, has never been so thoroughly dissected until now.

As such, these 536 pages (excluding Preface, Introduction, Acknowledgements, Appendices, Table of Acronyms, Glossary of German Phrases, Table of Equivalent Ranks, Figures, Maps, Notes, Bibliography, Index and Notes on Illustrations), which are broken into five distinct sections, make for an utterly magnificent, if not fulfilling read.

Quite possibly the finest book on the German Army (during World War II) I’ve ever read.

David Marx


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