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Book Review 208: Inside Hitler's High Command

August 12, 2011 - Harry Eagar
INSIDE HITLER'S HIGH COMMAND, by Geoffrey P. Megargee. 327 pages, illustrated. Kansas

“Inside Hitler's High Command” looks as if it might be one of those books of interest only to professional historians and those creepy guys who seem a little too enthusiastic about the blitzkreig victories of the German army in 1941-42. Not so.

Geoffrey Megargee's well-argued history ought to be required reading for any American concerned about his own military in the 21st century. The reason is that the mistakes of the German General Staff and civilian high command match up with uncanny exactness to the incompetence that the American high command has demonstrated without letup since 1951.

This is not a comparison that Megargee makes. His interest is focused on the German army, in particular the General Staff; and in three areas: structure, culture and ideology.

His main interest is structure, especially the strange split that gave over part of Germany's many military frontiers to the High Command of the Armed Forces (OKW) and the rest to the High Command of the Army (OKH). OKH was responsible for Russia.

This was predictably unworkable, but even before the fighting started two ideological revolutions changed the army fundamentally.

One Megargee covers thoroughly. For two and a half centures, the Prussian, then German state had existed to serve the army. Hitler turned this arrangement around, a story already known but explained in richer detail using novel sources in “Inside Hitler's High Command.”

The other change, implied but never explicitly mentioned, was even more profound. As an instrument of kings and emperors, the army had been used to grab provinces but never (unlike, say, the Austro-Hungarian army) to overthrow regimes. The General Staff, which prided itself on being unpolitical – a false pride, as Megargee shows – adopted without debate and apparently without even thinking about it, Hitler's policy of overthrowing the Bolshevik regime.

The experience of Napoleon ought to have made the generals wary, and the experience of the German army ought to have made Incurious George even warier, but, of course, there is no evidence that Bush II ever knew, or even wondered about, military affairs.

His advisers, in uniform and out, should have, and there is some evidence that the uniformed services were a bit nervous, based on their bad experiences in Vietnam, North Korea and Cuba. But they did not press the point.

Getting down to cases, Megargee correctly identifies the strategic conundrum facing Germany. There was no way Germany could force Russia to quit fighting, the way Moltke had done France at Sedan.

As in the First World War, the General Staff believed that operational success would solve strategic problems – namely, since the only way Germany could prevail was if Russia refused to fight, the way the Dutch, Italians and Danes had, then Russia would refuse to fight.

In one of the few interpretations in which I find Megargee unpersuasive, he proposes that the German army didn't bother to prepare for a winter campaign because the generals understood that Germany could not prevail except in a short campaign. I prefer to think that the generals did not think they would have to campaign at all.

Officers who had been anxious and uncertain about defeating Poland were, by 1941, almost giddy about the prospect of taking on the USSR.

Because the General Staff lived for operations, it paid little attention to intelligence, supply or personnel.

Thus, the Germans won many battles, at first without great difficulty, but they had lost the war by starting it.

The exact parallel to the American invasion of Iraq is obvious. Contrary to expectations in each case, the victims were not happy to be invaded, the numbers of men were far too few, the equipment was insufficient and unreliable, and the intelligence conclusions were entirely wrong.

The parallels are so exact that in each case, one officer and that the chief of staff, understood the impossibility of waging a successful campaign with the resources available, Ludwig Beck and Eric Shinseki, and each was fired. (Beck, strictly speaking, quit before he could be dismissed, and Megargee downplays somewhat his fortitude, but there is no doubt that both generals knew they could not win.)


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