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What Was Germany's Story Before 1945 That Made Her So Formidable? Part I
On this day in 1939…
Germany was plunging deep into Poland, having mostly destroyed the Polish Air Force on the ground. This wasn’t a repeat of 1914, or even of 1866, or 1871. But the same mechanism, the same system of thought, was in large part responsible for the lightning success of German arms in 1939…
A Tale Told Backwards
Twenty-one years before…
By November 1918, the German Army was on the edge of disintegration. It had started to fall apart in late summer—the traditional date is 8 August. Still, they were coherent enough to withstand heavy American/Allied blows in France, Italy, and the Balkans. The draft class of 1915—seventeen-year-old boys—was in the trenches. Putting the class of 1916 in uniform that winter—sixteen-year-old boys—was being contemplated. The Army did not have long to live. The Navy, after being ordered out to sea for a last suicidal battle with the British Royal Navy (and a sizable US Navy squadron with them), mutinied under the dreaded red banner of Bolshevism. In the Argonne and elsewhere, American and Allied troops finally broke into the areas behind the German fortification zones that had held them up for three years. Open warfare put them in German territory, and the Germans were running out of options. On the home front, children younger than six were scarce; turnips were the most common fare.
Fuel was scarce, and the prospect of another winter of British blockade was unthinkable.
Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff, the two officers who had been practically running Germany, counseled Kaiser Wilhelm II to ask their enemies for terms. The victors of Tannenberg could see the proverbial writing on the wall. Germany had lost the Great War they had contemplated, planned for, anticipated since 1871. What happened in 1871?
Germany happened again.
This was the Second Reich, proclaimed after the French surrender after the Franco-Prussian War (called the War of 1870 in France). It was the second because the first, the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation (Heiliges Römisches Reich Deutscher Nation in German), started in 800 AD and ended in 1806. Numbers aside, Wilhelm I, Hohenzollern King of Prussia, nervously proclaimed himself emperor (Kaiser) of the German Empire, which was to include Prussia and the states that comprised the North German Confederation, a customs union that included the independent kingdom of Saxony and would later include those of Saxony, Bavaria, and Württemberg. Further, it included a mix of duchies, grand duchies, principalities, and free and Hanseatic cities. What had been many became one under the undoubted leadership of Prussia.
Where some states have an army, the Prussian Army has a state.
For a century and more, after the Thirty Year's War in 1648 (of which, more later), Prussia had been hiring out their soldiers to whoever had the money to pay for them. The soldiers they provided were not only willing, they were steady and capable. Other Empire states would send their young men to learn the arts of war under the Prussians. In 1771, the first Hohenzollern King of Prussia-Brandenburg, Frederick II—Fredrick the Great—took the title that he and his heirs and successors would hold for another century and a half. Prussia was best known for its holdings on the Baltic, but Brandenburg was inland and included Berlin.
Fredrick was a good soldier; a fair monarch.
That said, historians have exaggerated his career and its influence on the arts of war. He was steady, and he had more nerve than a toothache, but "genius" probably isn't appropriate. More like utilitarian. He used a familiar pattern of grand tactics for Germans that would be seen all the way to 1945: encirclement by rapid movement—the Kesselschlacht, or cauldron-battle. The style predated Fredrick in Prussian-style warfare, and against most European opponents, it was pretty devastating. The Prussians had developed this way of war because a glance at any map would show that most of Germany is relatively flat and featureless, practically inviting invasion—witness the Thirty-Year's War. This style of warfare developed during a period when there were more sieges than open battles, and soldiers in most armies were usually little better than rabble. Most armies, that is, except the Prussians.
Prussia’s armies were well-disciplined rabble.
And there were very few of them because Prussia-Brandenburg was anything but rich or populous. That said, they won more than they lost, right up to 14 October 1806, when Napoleon defeated them badly in two battles on the same day at Jena and Auerstat. But that defeat imbued in the survivors a burning desire to figure out where they failed, and their greatest weakness—they knew before but never addressed—was in staff work. For those of you who don't know what that is, it's the tedious drudgery required to get armies from here to there on time and well-supplied. And it's a great deal more involved than most people think. It's actually a great deal more complicated than most non-staff-trained officers believe. But Napoleon had already got there with his Maison de L'Empereur—Imperial Household—system. It was how Napoleon could run his empire from the saddle.
Meet the Generalstab—the General Staff
The Prussians Napoleon’s military and civil planning system, sifted through it, and came up with the general staff. In the iteration pioneered and taught by such worthies as Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, they trained each staff officer in precisely the same way, to perform all the planning tasks the same way, from procuring uniforms and food to moving an army from one point to another. Mind you, this wasn't battle planning; it was everything before and after the battle. They followed the same plans and procedures, changed for weather, seasons, terrain, and the size of the force, at every level, from company to army.
But they did not vary depending on the opponent.
The same principles and techniques applied to the entire country. They performed the same planning for attacking Russia in 1812, at Napoleon's side for a while. The Prussians honed, tested, reworked and retested their general staff system in Russia. They tested it again and again in the 1813 campaign and in the 1815 campaign.
By the middle of the 19th century, it was clear Prussia could mobilize and field an army faster than any other army on Earth.
Defeating Austria in 1866 was comparatively easy...everyone knew that. Defeating France in 1870? That, according to the "experts," was miraculous. So Prussia took charge of the German Empire in 1871. The heirs of Frederick the Great dominated Central Europe, who could march faster and fight longer and better than nearly anyone else. They also had a larger population than France and a burgeoning industrial base supported by the most sophisticated rail system in the world. And everyone everywhere started copying the German General Staff system. In 1888, Wilhelm I died and was succeeded by Frederick III...who was also dying.
Fredrick III died in the same year, and Wilhelm II took the throne.
This shouldn't have been of great concern, but it was because Wilhelm II could never be ready to run the second German Empire. Immaturity was his (unofficial) middle name, and he wanted to make his empire greater than that of his cousins...who owned the British Empire. Hand in hand with Wilhelm was a German admiral named Alfred von Tirpitz, who wanted the same thing. Thus began an arms/naval/industrial race that ended in 1918 mainly because Wilhelm promised Austria-Hungary—more or less—that he could defeat all the rest of Europe...or at least beat them to a standstill.
We saw the result in 1918.
The preceding suggests that Germany's magnificent war machine of 1914 was crushed by four years of brutally unprecedented industrial war. While it was, there was the small question of why Germany went to war against half the world and expected to hold their own. They could, but not indefinitely. Another suggestion is that Wilhelm was the problem. Yes, and he was the absolute ruler of Germany...and there was no one in Germany after he fired Bismarck in 1890 who could tell him 'no.'
Wilhelm II was easily led by strong minds, like Tirpitz, who told him what he wanted to hear.
The "why" has a great deal to do with that machine and the enormous self-confidence it bestowed on Germany. It was in many ways better than any other war machine up to that time. But it could not outlast the resources of all of Europe and certainly could not outlast the resources of the United States. Planning could not provide experienced soldiers; no plan could provide food where it wasn't available.
No monarch's pronunciations could maintain the collapsing morale of hungry men.
The General Staff made Germany more successful against more numerous enemies than nearly any other army ever, and did more than once. Some say that the Germans surrendered in 1918 to keep from seeing a victory parade down the Kurfurstendamm in Berlin. Others say that Britain and France accepted that surrender to keep that victory parade from being led by the Americans.
But there was Auftragstaktik, too.
Mission-oriented orders were developed during the Great War by the Germans and, incidentally, by the Allies and their “associated power,” the United States. We’ll talk about that in Part II…
Steele’s Battalion: The Great War Diaries
This is a work in progress, the first of a series called The Ned Steele Diaries my editor and I are planning.
The main character is a young man named Ned Steele, an officer commanding a somewhat unconventional American machine gun unit in France who keeps a diary…
Labor Day…And the End Of Summer
The Mystery of the Confederate Attack Plan at Shiloh
On 2 September:
31 BC: The naval battle of Actium was fought in the Ionian Sea, near the former Roman colony by that name between the Roman fleet of Octavian, led by Marcus Agrippa, and the combined fleets of both Mark Antony and Cleopatra. The climax of over a decade of rivalry between Octavian and Antony, Octavian’s forces prevailed, Antony’s rebellion was crushed, and the Egyptian queen would take her own life.
1963: CBS News begins a 30 minute long television news program, the first in the industry. With veteran newscaster Walter Cronkite in the anchor chair, the half-hour long broadcast featured live feeds from Tuskegee, Alabama, Plaquemine, Louisiana, Saigon, South Vietnam, and Washington, DC. Within a week, NBC followed suit with the Huntley-Brinkley Report.
And today is NATIONAL V-J DAY. Today we observe the end of the war with Japan, when the Instrument of Surrender was formally signed on USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. Let’s celebrate not the victory, but the silence it brought.