Synopses & Reviews
The State of the Wehrmacht
On the afternoon of Sunday, 5th November, 1939, it wa's raining in Berlin. Through the empty streets a single black Mercedes, without escort, brought the Commander in Chief of the German Army from Zossen to the Chancellery, where he was to receive, at his own request, an audience with Hitler.
General (as he then was) Walther von Brauchitsch was suffering from a painful attack of "nerves" -- an unexpected complaint for a commander whose armies had lately completed a rapid, victorious, and almost bloodless campaign. The source of his apprehensive condition was to be found in a bulky memorandum which lay in his briefcase and which, as he had promised to his colleagues on the Generalstab, he would personally read out to the Fuhrer. This document, though it bore the signature of Brauchitsch, had been prepared by -many hands and rambled over diverse subjects in the military field. Its purported motif was to "recommend" against launching an attack in the West that autumn, but in essence it was a historical throwback, an attempt to formulate an ultimatum whose substance was as much political as military and whose purpose was to assert the primacy of the Army over all the other organs of government in the Reich.
Ibis was a particularly embarrassing task for Brauchitsch. One, indeed which he had been urged by his colleagues to undertake on several occasions in the past, and which he had always managed to sidestep. Brauchitsch, who owed his appointment to Hider, and who saw more of the Fuhrer than any other soldier outside the immediate Nazi entourage, can have had few illusions about the value of any protest he might be allowed toutter or, indeed, concerning the violence of the reaction which it would provoke. Why, then, having evaded it so often in the past, did Brauchitsch now consent to take on the Fuhrer face to face?
The development which had succeeded in uniting those elements in the Army which were opposed to the Nazi regime and the more strictly professional soldiers who concerned themselves exclusively with military efficiency arose out of the Fuhrer's interference in the planning and conduct of military operations. Hitler had insisted on being shown every order, down to regimental level, for the first three days of the Polish campaign in September. Many he criticised, some he altered, one-the operation to seize the bridgehead at Dirschau -- he completely recast in a more audacious pattern, against the advice of every officer along the chain of command which finally led up to Colonel General Halder, Chief of Staff of the Army and, effectively, No. 2 under Brauchitsch.
The generals, who had already suffered the rebuttal of their traditional claim to be heard in matters of state that impinged on military policy, now sensed a direct threat to their most jealously guarded precinct -the details of tactical combat planning -- and this on the very first occasion that the Army had taken up arms since 1918. And their distaste cannot have been lessened by the fact that in every case Hider's revisions had been justified in battle. Brauchitsch, therefore, had found himself (and not for the lot time) in a most delicate position: suspended between the unanimous protestations of his colleagues and the certain wrath of his Fuhrer.
Hider, who may have suspected that something was afoot, received hisCommander in Chief in the main conference room of the Chancellery, under the bust of Bismarck, instead (as would have been more usual) of one of the smaller antechambers. After a certain amount of verbal shadowboxing, in an atmosphere that must have been anything but comfortable, Brauchitsch declared that "OKH would be grateful for an understanding that it, and it alone, would be responsible for the conduct of any future campaign-"
This suggestion was received "in icy silence." Brauchitsch then went on, with one of those curious and mendacious impulses which sometimes seized him (and of which other examples will be found in this book), to say that ." . . the aggressive spirit of the German infantry was sadly below the standard of the First World War" and that there had been "certain symptoms of insubordination similar to those of 1917-18."
By this time the interview had already lost all semblance of an exchange between equals -- much less the deus-ex-machina quality which was the traditional attribute of an encounter between the head of state and the Commander in Chief of the Army. Brauchitsch never really got started on his main purpose. As his peevish complaints died away, Hitler started to work up a tremendous rage. He accused the General Staff, and Brauchitsch personally, of disloyalty, sabotage, cowardice, and defeatism. For ten, fifteen, twenty minutes the Fiihrer poured forth a torrent of abuse upon the head of his timorous and bewildered army commander, creating a scene which Halder, with truly English understatement, has recorded as being "most ugly and disagreeable."
It was the first of the occasions on which Hitler abused his generals. They were to occur morefrequently, last longer, and be more "disagreeable" in the years to come. This was also the first occasion on which Brauchitsch remonstrated with his Fuhrer, and the last. The Commander in Chief drove shakily back to his headquarters, where ." . . he arrived in such poor shape that at first he could only give a somewhat incoherent account of the proceedings: '
Brauchitsch's fundamental error -- or rather that of the conservative army generals whose emissary he was-was the error latent in all measures that are based on a historical throwback. It arose from a blindness to the pattern of evolution and, in particular, to the manner in which the power structure within the Reich had developed. For this structure was no longer a duumvirate, shared between the facade of civil administration and the authority of the military, but a lumpish hexagonal pyramid with Hitler at its summit. Obedient to the Fuhrer but in deadly rivalry with one another, w ere four major private empires within the Reich administration and a host of secondary ones, revolving around personalities, crackbrained schemes, forgotten sectors of the economy or administration, whose numbers were to proliferate as the war lengthened.
On June 22, 1941, before dawn, German tanks and guns began firing across the Russian border. It was the beginning of Hitler's Operation Barbarossa, one of the most brutal campaigns in the history of warfare. Four years later, the victorious Red Army has suffered a loss of seven million lives. Alan Clark's incisive analysis succeeds in explaining how a fighting force that in one two-month period lost two million men was nevertheless able to rally to defeat the Wehrmacht. The Barbarossa campaign included some of the greatest episodes in military history: the futile attack on Moscow in the winter of 1941-42, the siege of Stalingrad, the great Russian offensive beginning in 1944 that would lead the Red Army to the historic meeting with the Americans at the Elbe and on to victory in Berlin.
Barbarossa is a classic of miltary history. This paperback edition contains a new preface by the author.
About the AuthorAlan Clark, the noted historian, entered poilitics in 1972. He was Secretary of State in Margaret Thatcher's cabinet.