The Myth and Reality of German Warfare

The Myth and Reality of German Warfare

Operational Thinking from Moltke the Elder to Heusinger

Gerhard Gross, edited by David Zabecki

University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky, 2016, 464 pages

Book Review published on: August 4, 2017

The German “genius for war” idea has rattled around military historiography for some time. Gerhard Gross believes this idea is built on a deeply flawed analysis of history, and he thinks the worst offenders are Americans. Gross, a colonel in the Bundeswehr, offers his book, The Myth and Reality of German Warfare, as a corrective. Ultimately, he reminds us, the purported Teutonic “genius” led to catastrophe for Germany. To make his point, he focuses on the operational level of war in a study that is both personality-driven (think Moltke the Elder, Alfred Graf von Schlieffen, and Franz Halder) and concept-driven (think center of gravity, envelopment, and annihilation). His historical survey will take the reader on the examination of the operational thought of five different German armies: the Prussian army of the nineteenth century, the Kaiser’s army before and after World War I, the interwar Reichswehr, Adolf Hitler’s Wehrmacht, and finally, the Bundeswehr of the Cold War. The result is a fascinating study of a disastrous continuity in military thought.

The author begins his argument methodically, first by tracking the military use of the word “operation” over time, then offering a primer on definitions and concepts such as the relationship of time and geography at the operational level of war. Gross eventually arrives at the definition of “operation” that he will use throughout his historical survey: “an independent military action to accomplish a strategic objective.” U.S. military readers may find this definition a bit vague, but Gross fleshes it out in the course of his narrative. He finds the most salient features of operational continuity in historical German practice include an emphasis on surprise, the use of bold envelopment, a relentless focus on an operational center of gravity, and a quest for a culminating battle of annihilation. Moltke the Elder set the example in the German Wars of Liberation, and his successors sought, again and again, to repeat Moltke’s success in fighting decisive battles close to the German frontier.

The results were mixed. The Kaiser’s army tried to implement Schlieffen’s vision and failed in 1914. The general staff put the blame on Moltke’s nephew and avoided any true reconsideration of the reigning operational concepts. The Wehrmacht took these same concepts into World War II in 1939. However, after a season of success up to 1940, the planning and execution of the invasion of Barbarossa campaign exposed the weakness of German operational thinking. Among them were the failure to reconcile the competing strategic visions of Hitler and the Wehrmacht general staff, an inadequate logistic preparation, a fundamental underestimation of Soviet mobilization capacity, a blinding overconfidence, and a criminal willingness to comply with Nazi policies of racial annihilation. The result for Germany was, of course, disastrous. But, even then, with West German rearmament in the 1950s, the rehabilitated Wehrmacht officers who led the Bundeswehr attempted a revival of the old operational formula.

Gross concludes that: “German operational doctrine was a military attempt to solve the strategic dilemma of achieving continental hegemony without having a sufficient economic, military, and political power. It was a flight from reality.” Given the U.S. military’s current struggles to reconcile the different levels of war, one may find in Gross’s book a cautionary tale.

Book Review written by: Scott Stephenson, PhD, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas