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Hitler’s Soldiers, The German Army in The Third Reich by Ben H Shepherd

Ben H Shepherd
The Treaty of Versailles in 1919 limited the size of the German Army to 100,000 men, no General Staff and no tanks. Following the turbulence that accompanied the establishment, rule and failure of the Weimar Republic, in which the German Army played little part. Instead it spent the 1920s developing a professional officer corps, the concepts of panzer warfare and Auftragstaktik (currently known in the UK as “Mission Command”). It also developed the war plans necessary to make Germany a viable state. The self-appointment of Hitler as President of Germany in 1934 started a five-fold increase in the Army manpower to 500,000 (36 divisions); by 1936 is was planning on a mobilised strength of 2.6 million.

This book, the author’s third, details the history of the German Army (a term he uses as Wehrmacht actually means Armed Forces) from 1933 to its destruction in 1945. He is particularly interested in why the German Army was so good in the early years, having been so good what how did it lose its edge, having lost its edge why did it fight for so long and how culpable was the Army for the atrocities of the Nazi regime? The style is narrative and chronological and it is well written and eminently readable. The author has a deft touch, seamlessly flitting from the experience and view of the Landser (German for Tommy Atkins) to those of high strategy while maintaining flow and attention. The historical record part adds little new but is more readable than most other attempts.

The accounts of Army (as opposed to SS or SD) atrocities are revealing and he certainly scotches the case for the “Army good, SS bad” categorisation of war criminals. But, as he makes clear, anti-partisan warfare is brutal and The Hague Conventions did permit the taking of hostages. The Nazification of the Army was an inevitable result of its expansion. As the war progressed a higher and higher proportion of the Army had grown up through the Hitler youth movement which, the author proposes, made them more likely to believe in Aryan racial superiority and the Jewish-Bolshevik threat. Soldiers were also increasingly exposed to the brutality of the Eastern Front.

The author ably illustrates the depredations to Russia following Barbarossa, leading to the starvation of millions of Russian citizens and prisoners of war, the stringency of the occupation troops’ orders and the failure of adequate logistic planning on the blithe assumption that the Red Army would be destroyed in 1941. As recent events show, when projected short wars turn out to keep on going because an enemy disobligingly refuses to capitulate the results are ugly.

Why did the German Army (indeed the entire Wehrmacht) keep fighting? As the author points out, what else could it do? With the British and Americans bombing German cities to smithereens and a rapacious Red Army pressing hard, a chaotic higher command run by an increasingly unhinged despot and the allies committed to unconditional surrender there weren’t a whole lot of options. Over one million members of the Wehrmacht died in the periods 1 January to 7 May 1945.

This is a superb book which provides a holistic view of the Second World War from the German Army. It is also a full account of how an army deteriorates as it transitions from success to hubris to failure. I think the author overstates the moral collapse of the formation commanders and makes too much of demonstrating that the German Army was complicit in some, indeed many, atrocities. He also does not explain how the German Army failed to adequately mechanise its logistics and heavy artillery, both of which were largely horse drawn until the end.

However, there is a huge amount in its 540 pages that I enjoyed and I commend it to you.
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