In the years between 1918 and 1933, German armed forces assumed a political posture fundamentally hostile to the young Weimar Republic created at the end of World War I, blaming that state for Germany’s humiliating defeat in the war, for its enduring political turmoil and economic problems, and for the perceived fraying of its social fabric.
In the years between 1918 and 1933, German armed forces assumed a political posture fundamentally hostile to the young Weimar Republic created at the end of World War I, blaming that state for Germany’s humiliating defeat in the war, for its enduring political turmoil and economic problems, and for the perceived fraying of its social fabric. For more than a decade after the end of World War
The Versailles treaty elicited virtually universal disapproval across the political spectrum in Germany; the armed forces themselves took steps to rearm covertly both within and outside the Reich. The General
Any examination of the German military between 1933 and 1945 must address the central role of Adolf
Following the death of President Paul von
The German armed forces generally distinguished themselves during both this time period and the war years through their willingness to support Hitler’s long-term goals of territorial conquest. Hitler drew on old German traditions of loyalty, duty, and honor, citing the personal oath that each member of the military took upon induction and general agreement with the political goals of the regime, to turn the German military into a willing and able instrument of his will. He also ensured the cooperation of senior commanders with enormous bribes. The government created a separate, fourth armed service, the armed Schutzstaffel, or
It is important to note that the armed forces generally agreed with the regime’s policies. When disagreement arose, it usually centered on details and not on the general intent of policy. For example, Hitler believed that time would only serve the interests of Germany’s enemies. Consequently, he informed the armed forces at a secret conference in November, 1937, of his intention to wage war and defeat Austria, Czechoslovakia, France, and Great Britain by 1943 at the latest. After that time, he believed, the major European powers would have enhanced their military capabilities sufficiently to defeat Germany. Many generals questioned the timetable but not the substance of Hitler’s intentions. Most senior commanders, then, did not oppose wars of aggression as long as Germany could wage them when and where it wanted. Although some officers contemplated staging a coup in 1938, and others would mount unsuccessful assassination attempts against Hitler, the majority of Hitler’s soldiers, sailors, and airmen readily did his bidding. Indoctrination with Nazi ideals, fear, corruption, and careerism all played a role in the acquiescence of Germany’s military to Hitler’s will.
German chancellor Adolf Hitler and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in Munich, Germany, in 1940.
The new Italian army that emerged under the Fascist rule of Mussolini was essentially–with the royal army, navy, and air force–continuing the traditions prior to 1922. These remained nominally under the command of the king of Italy. However, there was also the
The German military registered some of the most impressive accomplishments in the annals of warfare before sustaining one of the costliest defeats in recorded history. The conquest of Poland in September 1939 was their first victory, but achieved at a cost. However it was followed by lightning campaigns in Denmark and Norway in April, 1940, before its greatest victory in May and June of 1940, when the Germans, skillfully combining armor, infantry, and aircraft, conquered territory in the Benelux countries and France, over which they and the Allies had fought for months and years during World War I. The conquest of
In the East, Germany mounted the largest invasion in world history on June 22, 1941, with its attack on the Soviet
At roughly the same time, in the summer of 1943, losses in German submarines began to exceed replacements in the bitter and protracted Battle of the
Parisians flee the city as German troops approach in 1940.
In July, 1943, a U.S. soldier looks out over the city of Gela, Sicily, at explosions off the coast.
The best-known piece of German apparel was perhaps the
The standard greatcoat was double-breasted, field gray in color, with a green collar. It was worn by all ranks, up to that of general, and by all arms of service.
The Germans designed some formidable
Hitler, in his capacity as führer (leader), retained overall direction of the German armed forces, collectively called the Defense Force, or
Hitler exercised tight control over Germany’s conduct during World War II for several reasons. First, each member of the armed forces was bound to him by the oath of loyalty. Second, the Prussian army officer code had fostered introspection and emphasis on the purely technical aspects of the conduct of war. Consequently the German officers excelled at the tactical level, performed well at the operational level, and proved deficient at the strategic level. Hitler, however, believed that he possessed an infallible grasp of strategy and in the course of the war began to involve himself increasingly in the details of military operations. He did so both because of his growing confidence in himself, especially after Germany’s stunning victories in 1940, and because of his growing distrust of his senior commanders. Hitler had, after all, advocated the attack on Poland and the Benelux countries against the advice of most of his senior commanders, who feared that Germany was insufficiently prepared for full-scale war at the time. The rapid victories had vindicated Hitler in his own eyes and, it should be noted, in the perception of many others as well.
The armed forces lacked a single voice, and this allowed Hitler to exercise his tight control over them. The service chiefs all had direct access to him, but usually they acted as partisans of their own branches and not in tandem with the other armed forces. Hitler also actively encouraged his subordinates in the military as well as the civilian branches of government to compete among themselves. He thereby preserved for himself the role as final arbiter in any dispute and prevented any power block from forming against him. Unfortunately for Germany, this approach also largely prevented effective coordination of the armed forces into an instrument of coherent strategy.
Mussolini directly controlled the
Any discussion of tactics and strategy should begin with definitions. One working definition of
Several factors explain this phenomenon. The Germans emphasized rigorous and realistic training and initiative. Convalescing veterans would train new units of soldiers and thereby impart, at least theoretically, valuable experience to recruits. The army also exercised great care in selecting soldiers from the same geographic areas to serve in the same units, thereby strengthening unit cohesion. As casualties mounted, however, this practice became ever more difficult to implement. Soldiers were encouraged to think two levels above their rank. Consequently, if their immediate superiors were killed or disabled in combat, subordinates could assume control. The German military distinguished itself through its use of mission-oriented orders. A commander would order his subordinate to complete a certain task at a specific location during a specified time period, such as the holding of a ridge against advancing American tanks. The way in which a subordinate subsequently executed the order, however, was usually his own responsibility. Such an approach lent itself to a flexible response to combat, which by its very nature is fluid. Good tactics, in turn, allowed the armed forces to execute successful campaigns between 1939 and 1941.
Germany’s deficiencies manifested themselves most vividly at the strategic level and explain the Reich’s ultimate defeat at the hands of the Allies. Hitler’s control of the armed forces meant that his background and views affected the conduct of the German military significantly. He was determined to avoid the stalemate that had characterized the western front during World War I. He also believed that the collapse of the home front had caused Germany’s defeat during that war. Consequently, the Germans could avoid defeat by mounting swift attacks using combined arms. German infantry, armor, and aircraft would mount coordinated strikes against the enemy’s weak points and then punch through the front line. The regular infantry, marching on foot as it had from 1914 to 1918, would subsequently encircle and either destroy or capture enemy troops. Hitler believed that this “mailed fist” would ensure swift victory, which in turn would mean that the Reich could eschew full-scale mobilization and the ensuing sacrifices that would be required of the civilian population, such as rationing and the mobilization of male and female civilians in war-related industries.
The rubble of bombed-out buildings in Hamburg, Germany, in July, 1945.
The Germans proved singularly unable to organize their economy efficiently, due to competing loci of power within the Nazi Party and government and to the sheer ineptitude of those tasked to run the country during wartime. The Germans, unlike the Allies, also had never waged real coalition warfare. There was, for example, no Combined Chiefs of Staff linking the highest-ranking German, Italian, and Japanese commanders. Germany’s fate was sealed by Hitler’s fervent belief in both his own infallibility and the ascendancy of willpower over material preponderance, by his overestimation of German capabilities and concurrent underestimation of Allied capabilities, and by the subservience of the German armed forces. Germany’s enemies, in contrast, all learned from their mistakes, improved their own initially inadequate tactics, and mobilized their economies for full-scale war much earlier and more efficiently.
German war effort in the Soviet Union. Later Italy’s objective was to prevent an invasion on its own soil. After the 1943 invasion, the Italians fragmented, with some supporting the Allies and others remaining loyal to Mussolini.
Two very important contemporaneous sources are
Although Mussolini tried to encourage the martial spirit in Italy, compared to the information on the German army there are far fewer works on the Italians available in English. Some of these include
Bartov, Omer. Hitler’s Army: Soldiers, Nazis, and War in the Third Reich. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Beevor, Antony. Stalingrad. New York: W. W. Norton, 1998. Bennett, Ralph. Intelligence Investigations: Collected Papers of Ralph Bennett. London: F. Cass, 1996. Corum, James. The Roots of Blitzkrieg. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1992. Doughty, Robert. The Breaking Point: Sedan and the Fall of France, 1940. Hamden, Conn.: Archon, 1990. Halder, Franz. The Halder War Diary, 1939-1942. Novato, Calif.: Presidio Press, 1988. Hayward, Joel. Stopped at Stalingrad: The Luftwaffe and Hitler’s Defeat in the East, 1942-1943. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998. Jowett, Philip S. The Italian Army, 1940-45: Africa, 1940-43. New York: Osprey, 2001. _______. The Italian Army, 1940-45: Europe, 1940-43. New York: Osprey, 2000. _______. The Italian Army, 1940-45: Italy, 1943-45. New York: Osprey, 2001. Millett, Allan, and Murray Williamson. A War to Be Won: Fighting the Second World War. Cambridge, England: Belknap Press, 2000. Nicoll, David. The Italian Invasion of Abyssinia, 1935-36. New York: Osprey, 1997. Thomas, Nigel. German Army in World War II. New York: Osprey, 2002. _______. The German Army, 1939-45. 5 vols. New York: Osprey, 1997-2000. Weinberg, Gerhard. Hitler, Germany, and World War II. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. _______. A World at Arms. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Das Boot. Feature film. Columbia Pictures/Bavaria Film, 1981. Massacre in Rome. Feature film. Carlo Ponti, 1973. Mussolini and I. Television miniseries. HBO, 1985. The Pianist. Feature film. Focus Features, 2002. Schindler’s List. Feature film. Amblin Entertainment, 1993. The Sorrow and the Pity: Chronicle of a French City Under the Occupation. Documentary. Milestone Film & Video, 2001. Tea with Mussolini. Feature film. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1999. Triumph of the Will. Propaganda film. Reichsparteitag-film, 1935. The World at War. Documentary. Thames Television, 1973.
World War II: United States, Britain, and France
World War II: The Soviet Union
World War II: Japan
Small Arms and Machine Guns
Tanks and Armored Vehicles
Aircraft, Bombs, and Guidance Systems
Rockets, Missiles, and Nuclear Weapons
Chemical and Biological Weapons
Sieges and Siege Techniques: Modern
Armies and Infantry: Modern
Naval Development: The Age of Propulsion
The Age of Bismarck
The “Great” War: World War I
The Spanish Civil War