The Magazine

The German Way of War

How two centuries of militarism came to an end on the Eastern Front.

Feb 18, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 22 • By ROBERT MESSENGER
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Its distinctive characteristic is the muster of overwhelming force and a rapid advance into enemy territory. The successive Prussian and German states were surrounded (and felt themselves threatened) by vastly larger ones and so aimed at short, decisive wars of movement: the Bewegungskrieg--though the term blitzkrieg is more common in English. To Germany's leaders, both military and civilian, the offensive must ever be immediately taken to force a decision before the geographic predicament could be made to bear.

The history of the Prussian and German state through 1945 is one in which war is the main outcome of national policy. It was the country's principal export over two centuries. War was more than just "politics by other means"; it was, as the Comte de Mirabeau noted in 1788, "the national industry of Prussia." Though he formulated it most neatly with his quip that: "Where some states possess an army, the Prussian army possesses a state."

The operational excellence of the German and Prussian general staffs is the stuff of hundreds of excellent military histories. But this brilliant style of war, shaped by geographic and historical circumstance, masked an unhealthy strategic shortcoming: an inability to see national war as the last resort, sometimes even an unnecessary one.

They forced war on other nations, and with the exceptions of the quick wars of unification against Austria in 1866 and France in 1871, their military skill battered their own state into submission. Frederick the Great began the Seven Years War by marching into Saxony; Wilhelm II sent his corps into Belgium and Russia in hopes of maintaining German industrial and social prosperity; and Hitler repeatedly used the army as the crutch for mounting the steps in his climb to global power. Each ended in disaster. The German state never existed as anything other than a militaristic enterprise, which is why its skill led to repeated defeat and, ultimately, to its own devastation in 1945. That this final devastation originated out of victory is only one of the many ironies of German history.

In April 1941, Germany was master of Europe. She faced only an isolated and nearly helpless Great Britain. With time and effort, Britain could call on imperial reserves, but, since the abandonment of Greece and Crete, she had no means of meeting the German army in battle. Hitler had brilliantly employed both war and the threat of war to reach this height. Once he brought Britain to the peace table, created a permanent defensible barrier in the east, and settled the grand matter of Bolshevism, Germany would permanently dominate Europe and be--in Hitler's mind--one of three great global powers.

It was all bound up in Hitler's calculations. He felt that Britain fought on because she looked to the Soviet Union for eventual support. The Jews were behind it all and so he must settle all these questions once and for all in, yes, a rapid war of movement. The army would topple the Bolshevik regime, restore the terms of Brest-Litovsk, truly isolate Britain, and give the SS the scope for murdering and exiling the Jews.

That war would come in the east was never a question for Hitler or his generals. He had been calling for it from his earliest preaching. Less than a month after France formally surrendered to Germany, and with the preparations for an invasion of Britain underway, Hitler ordered the drawing-up of plans for an invasion of Russia in the spring of 1941. On December 18, 1940, Directive No. 21 authorized Operation Barbarossa.

The Soviet Union, too, was manically preparing for war, expanding the Red Army and producing innovative weapons like the T-34 tank and the Katyusha rocket-launcher. But Stalin did not want it to come for years. To keep the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact in place, he was fully prepared to make huge concessions in 1941. Stalin assumed all the rumors of war were German saber-rattling in hopes of gaining the Baltic littoral as a defensive barrier against Russia and some of the fertile land of the Ukraine. Hitler could have had a great deal for the asking: Stalin had calculated Hitler's objective correctly, but not the genocidal ambitions, and so failed to grasp that Hitler's principal instrument of state was an army. He negotiated only if he thought the army was too weak to win.