Ww2: Hitler The Military Commander

An analysis of Hitler's role as supreme military commander of German forces. Was he militarily competent or was he largely responsible for Germany's defeat?

Today, the mere mention of the name of Adolf Hitler is enough to conjure up images of a monstrous criminal, a modern day Caligula or Nero. Surprisingly, however, little has been written about the Fuhrer's ability as a military commander. Was he, as so lovingly described by his staff, "˜the greatest general of all time' or was he the bumbling helmsman responsible for the successive defeats which precipitated the final collapse of the Third Reich?

An insight into Hitler's ability as a military commander can be gleaned by an examination of the candid remarks of those Generals who worked under him. One such officer was a General Halder, who kept a private diary which included private comments about the Fuhrer. Note what he wrote on July 23rd, 1942:

Hitler's continual under-estimation of the moves at the enemy's disposal is more and more grotesque, and is becoming dangerous. The position is now getting quite intolerable. It is no longer possible to get any serious work done. Hitler's idea of "˜conducting operations' is to follow neurotic reactions based on momentary impressions and to show a total inability to appreciate the apparatus of command.

Obviously General Halder did not consider Hitler to be cut out for military command. Yet, Hitler did have some grasp of the theoretical principles of war. He had extensively read and studied the like of Frederick the Great, Clausewitz, Moltke and Schlieffen. Combined with Hitler's iron will and indefatigable belief in his cause - and his total lack of conscience - this made for a basis of ability. And, indeed, the succession of German victories in 1940 were due to the strategies laid out by the Fuhrer. For instance, it was Hitler who devised the daring plan to make five simultaneous landings in Norway in the face of the British Navy's overwhelming superiority.

Having said that, a study of the man makes it apparent that, although he could initiate a plan with sureness and certainty, he tended to waiver somewhat in the execution. He lacked what that great commander Napoleon termed "˜courage at two o'clock in the morning.' In other words, Hitler was unsure of himself. He was indecisive and hesitant. And when things began to go wrong he had a tendency to panic and come out with irrational orders. This was illustrated when he heard that a destroyer flotilla under a Commodore Bonte had been destroyed at Narvik. Losing all self control, Hitler wanted to pull his whole army back across the Swedish frontier, despite their obvious superior numbers.

Hitler was not trained as a staff officer and was, therefore, quite incapable of coordinating his operations according to a timed plan, or of adjusting his objectives to suit the resources available to him. Such tasks had to be carried out by Hitler's generals in the Army High Command. However, Hitler had a seething mistrust for his staff officers. In the summer of 1940 there was close to open hostility between Hitler and his generals. Most of them had predicted defeat if the Wehrmacht was to move from the Siegfried Line against Norway and France. But they were mistaken and the Fuhrer's plans were vindicated with victories on those fronts. From then on, even though - as shown by General Halder's diary account - they had great private reservations about Hitler's ability - they submissively followed his direction.

Transcripts from the Nuremburg trials show that many of the German high command were stunned by Hitler's decision to invade the Soviet Union. Yet, there was no public airing of such views before the Fuhrer himself. To do so, would be to put one's own life in jeapordy, as the Generals were only too well aware. However, after the disastrous invasion of Russia in June, 1941, there was a renewal of friction between Hitler and the Army High Command. Hitler's response was to take over direct control of the army from General Brauchitsch. Hitler was now Head of State, Chief of Government, Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces and Supreme Commander of the Army all rolled into one. There was now no way that any of the Fuhrer's military dictates could be rescinded. He had absolute control.

Was Hitler physically able to bear this massive load that he had placed upon his own shoulders? Evidence would suggest that, as early as 1944 he had lost all energy and purpose. Here is an account of the Fuhrer in mid 1944, given by General Frido von Senger und Ellerlin, who had just received the Oak Leaves to the Knight's Cross award from his leader:

The ceremony for those who were to be honored was far from impressive. Hitler made a really horrifying impression, and in spite of myself I wondered how the young officers and sergeants who were being decorated with me would react . . .

His unattractive figure, with his short neck, appeared more slovenly than ever. The skin of his face was flaccid, his complexion pale and creased by lack of sleep. The look in his blue eyes, which was said to have completely fascinated so many people, was vacant, possibly as a result of the stimulants which he was continually given. His handshake was floppy. His left arm hung limp and trembling.

This presents a less than flattering physical portrait of the Fuhrer. Recent evidence would suggest that he was, in fact, suffering from Parkinson's Disease. By 1944 he had been put on an absurd diet by his personal physician, Dr Morrell. Morrell was also responsible for prescribing a massive amount of prescription drugs for Hitler. After the bomb blast that nearly took his life on July, 20 1944 Hitler's physical decline was even more speedy. Hitler's way of life was not conducive to good health and this took a great toll on him towards the end. He would spend all day dealing with military matters, screaming his commands at his generals and allowing them to make only cursory responses. Then he would be up until the early hours of the morning chastising his party faithful. A few hours sleep, induced by sleeping pills, would follow. In the morning Dr Morrell would revive his Fuhrer with a strychnine injection, after which Hitler would have a boiling hot bath. Immediately after that he would be back to the war with a study of the war situation map, which had been updated overnight.

So, then, what can we conclude about Hitler's ability as a military commander. Clearly, he had certain innate abilities that lent themselves to command. He was taciturn, implacable, and possessed a total lack of scruples and human feelings. But he was also wishy washy, indecisive and prone to fly off the handle at a moment's notice. He was not skilled in the mechanics of real warfare. His innate strategic talents could not carry him through when the heat was turned up. As a military commander, then, we would have to rate the Fuhrer a failure.

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