News & opinion on Greater China and the even Greater Beyond: by Biff Cappuccino.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Review of The German Generals Talk (1948), by B.H. Liddell Hart

This book is a concise, sensible, readable summary of oral interviews conducted by Hart in 1948 with those of Hitler’s generals who survived the second, and counting, Great War to end all wars. It covers all of the major campaigns and is good as its word, offering "Startling revelations from Hitler's high command." (probably not the hyperbole of choice the late Hart would have gone for, but then again, one regularly reads blurbs for worthy books that depart from the tone of the book itself so far as to not only be misleading but likely to repel the author's intended audience. As is so often the case, the publisher is a Philistine and his crew of education-burdened information-workers are jakes hawking paper & ink widgets to the lowest common denominator in the commode reader marketplace. If Orwell was to really Turn Over in his Grave, rather than due to the double-speak somberly denounced by the (nearly) eponymous documentary, it would more likely be due to the dreadful testimonials on the Penguin editions of his works that make him out to be a latter-day Messiah hybrid of Oprah Winfrey, Christopher Hitchens, and Spencer Johnson (author of Who Moved My Cheese: An A-Mazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and In your Life). Orwell, when not feeling our pain, was inflicting it. In those early less civilized days, in addition to beating 'niggers' as a cop in Burma, he punched out the occasional friend when they got too much for him. Norman Mailer seems to have limited himself to head-butting his literary nemeses (ex: Gore Vidal); Bill O'Reilly's reduced to hate-sex and self-affirming barks of "Pinhead" and bellows of "Shaddup!")

Progress, progress. But I digress. As usual.

Anyway, this is a difficult book to review because it is so overstuffed with novel explanations for a grab-bag of main events, despite being written in 1948. For someone like myself who picked up most of his WWII impressions from school books, newspapers and maybe PBS, as usual I made the mistake of assuming the core issues were well-understood, well-ventilated, and old news indeed.

But, as usual, the mainstream edition of events is not shepherded by inventors of novel ideas, as there are too few of these freaks to go around. Instead events are stage-managed, in a manner most politicians would recognize, by diploma-bearing parrots of respectable (i.e. uncontroversial, lawsuit and scandal-proof) exegeses of events. If one holds one’s breath to delve into the low-oxygen works of the more respectable historians, especially if one flips through the tomes of those poor doomed clowns who win literary prizes, such as the appalling Pulitzer (a sort of literary albatross around the neck of good taste), one finds that most respectable authors have only a handful of ideas to market, which they then proceed to bulwark with 300 pages of impressively indexed and annotated facts and figures, examples, anecdotes, and quotes, mostly if not entirely borrowed from the works of other respectable factotums; i.e. by tossing in bale of packaging and a truckload of recycled filler which, to the connoisseur of the field, is indistinguishable from literary oatmeal. For me, a frank ignoramus of the events of WWII, anything would serve to impress. But this book almost overwhelms with its cataracts of ideas and heretical views clearly expressed. I emerged from several days reading this work with my head spinning and three pages of notes written in excitable ink, all of which are refer to specific original ideas which in turn beg further exploration and extrapolation. However, doing so would probably result in a 30 page review which I'm no more prepared to write than you're prepared to read.

Perhaps the best way to introduce this book is to let it speak for itself. This is from chapter 10, titled "How Hitler Beat France -- And Saved Britain"

The real story of any great event is apt to be very different to what appears at the time. That is especially the case in war. The fate of millions of people turns on decisions that are taken by one man - who may be influenced by the most curious of motives in reaching a decision that changes the whole course of history. The way he makes up his mind is known only by a few men behind the scenes, who usually have good reason for keeping it quiet. The truth sometimes leaks out later; sometimes never.

When it emerges it often bears out the saying that "truth is stranger than fiction." The novelist has to appear plausible, and would hesitate to make use of such astounding contradictions as occurred in history through some extraordinary accident or twist of psychology.

Nothing could be more extraordinary than the way that the decisive events of 1940 were shaped. France was overcome by an offensive in which few of the higher executants had any faith, and the invasion only succeeded through a belated change of plan on the German side that happened to fit the situation produced by rigidity of plan combined with overconfidence on the French side. Stranger still was the way that the British Army escaped, and Britain itself was preserved from invasion. The truth here is quite contrary to the popular picture. It would have seemed incredible to the British people at that time, and equally incredible to most of Hitler's ardent followers in Germany.

... The escape of the British army from France has often been called "the miracle of Dunkirk." For the German armored forces had reached the channel coast behind the back of the British army while this was still deep in the interior of Flanders.... Those who got away have often wondered how they managed to do so.

The answer is that Hitler's intervention saved them -- when nothing else could have. A sudden order from them over the telephone stopped the armed forces just as they were inside of Dunkirk...Rundstedt and other generals concerned, as executive commanders or on the higher staffs, gave me accounts from their different angles of the staggering order and its effects.

Hitler turns out not to be the three-testicled psycho and sociopath whose arch-fantasy was to have German heifers dollop Aryan turds on his mongrel Bavarian snout. Well, no surprise there. And surely the whole mystique about Hitler’s allegedly inscrutable personality is easily understood as the inability of the unintelligent to understand someone who can think for himself: i.e. an entirely removed species from themselves. Most of these dunderheads are like the sort of Christian who opines in a knowing way that God works in mysterious ways, a face-saving camouflage for “I don’t care to think about it” which is usually a patent admission of “I’m incompetent to think about it.” Reading the works of bold Christian thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas or Tertullian, one is at least impressed by the entertainment value of their colorful inventions, their over-stretched casuistry, their tortured attempts to plug round holes with square pegs in their fearless rationalizations of the implausible.

Either way, Hitler proves to be much like any other highly adept politician. Like Lincoln and like Churchill, because he's thoroughly familiar with political trends and economic developments, not only domestic but foreign, he sees farther and much more clearly that his generals, who were professional soldiers and aristocrats who took pride in their distance from politics and disesteem for the mob.

It’s perhaps worth prefacing that it took Lincoln two years to find a general that could prosecute his war, having passed over various political appointees (politicians, wire-pullers, and CEOs who canvassed for the job) and incompetent professional military commanders before he stumbled across the oft-drunk Ulysses Grant, whose primary strength turned out to be his willingness to throw his men into the slaughter without hesitation, thus earning himself the nickname of "the Butcher" from his own troops. Hitler, likewise, found his own generals to be lacking in foresight, timid (like Lincoln's General Mclellan, they also consistently overestimated the strength and difficulty of defeating enemy troops, while sneering at their political handler as being no better than a monkey), and tactically and strategically conservative.

Hitler's generals were also very politically unaware which greatly hampered their ability to prosecute strategic warfare. His generals were often very competent with the nuts and bolts of military tactics and quick studies therein, but they had very little sense of how European politics worked.

For example, Hitler's generals were overwhelmingly opposed to launching an attack against France in 1940. So opposed were they that they established a cabal of generals to lead their armies on Berlin to overthrow Hitler and the Nazis in a military coup, thus reviving the ancient Roman tradition begun by Julius Caesar and which threatened to take place figuratively speaking with McArthur and Truman. In the end, the leading general refused to cooperate believing, probably correctly, that Hitler's popularity with the masses was too great and that they would not survive the coup. But equally surprising is that Hitler himself was very worried about moving on France. He saw it as a gamble, one that he could lose easily. He went into France apparently, not because he wished to expand his empire into France, but because he was unable to secure a peace treaty with France or England. The enemy he feared most was Soviet Russia. He felt he could not fight both France and Russia at the same time in 1942. Thus, he had to take out France first. (I had previously presumed the Hitler peace overtures were a ruse.)

The miracle of Dunkirk took place apparently because Hitler was opposed to invading England. He felt that England and the Catholic Church were pillars of stability in Europe. He believed Germans were racially not constituted for living in the tropics and that the British colonies were thus of no interest to Aryan Germans. Thus, he let the British troops depart from Dunkirk unhampered for three days. Similarly, he prosecuted the Battle of Britain with little fervor and apparently only attacked England by air after first being pushed by Churchill's repeated bombings of German cities. Most of Churchill's government wished to sue for peace with the Germans, but Churchill was adamant about going to war. Churchill could not get the Germans to sink British shipping, so he tried getting Hitler's goat by ordering the secret bombing of Hamburg, etc. (FDR of course pursued a lite-version, via trade wars and contrived international incidents, of the same tactic with the Japanese)

Apparently Hitler was not interested in attacking North Africa either, but he worried that Mussolini would change sides and join the Allied countries. This was the only reason he participated in the North Africa campaign at first.

The list of surprises goes on and on. The German military apparently, like the Americans and British, first prepared for the Second World War by amassing cavalry. Rommel, for example loved horses and disliked tanks. He initially knew nothing about armored divisions and his successes were due primarily to tactical brilliance (example: driving truck caravans towards Allied bases from different directions to create a misimpression that they were being attacked by a vast armada of tanks). Rommel was held in such high esteem by the British troops that a positive accomplishment was termed by them "a Rommel."

In contrast to the standard notion that Hitler acted in the manner of an Oriental despot, one of his generals, Zeitzler, often lost his temper with him. He tendered his resignation on numerous occasions and it was only in 1944 after committing himself to hospital and faking an illness that he was relieved of command. In other words, Hitler's generals, this was not the only one, could be contumacious and retain their positions. Indeed, it could be difficult to get fired.

This is not to say that Hitler didn't make numerous mistakes. He fired good generals over sex scandals because he was a prude. He was also in the habit of ensuring loyalty to his command by promoting younger generals over those more qualified. This of course led to disgruntled senior staff and incompetence in the field. Towards the end of the war, because of Hitler's great successes overruling the judgment of his generals, he tended not to trust their judgment in anything. He micromanaged battles with results that his generals were like Hollywood rent-a-directors slavishly following film scripts. He refused on many occasions to let generals retreat and this led to avoidable losses on innumerable occasions. It turns out that, rather than offense being the best defense, that in fact the best defense is defense. Apparently, German divisions holding good defensive postures were often able to fend off allied troops up 18 times their own number. This is one of the reasons it took so long to defeat the Germans after D-Day despite the Germans being vastly outnumbered and never having anything approaching air superiority.

Hitler also put Gestapo spies on all of his generals which did nothing for morale or creative thinking, as one can imagine. And, the nature of military orders changed for the worse. In WWI orders were deliberately brief to permit flexibility of execution by field officers. With Hitler on the throne, propaganda was written on high and then inserted into orders for the troops below and micromanagement became the order of the day. Hitler envied Stalin, including his purge of the Russian military because, post-purge, Stalin's generals were so completely obedient. On the other hand, what he did not realize was that the Russians, more fearful of Stalin than the Germans, were terrified of taking any sort of risk and dared not deviate in any form from their orders. As a result, they tended to attack in a cyclical fashion enabling German generals to predict like clockwork their attacks. It was this sort of dogmatic manner which led to so many deaths in the First World War, where generals would operate in an honorable fashion and launch attacks after giving the enemy sufficient time to down its breakfast, for example.

Apparently, German troops were prepared for the winter conditions in Russia after the end of the first winter. So much for the prevailing cliché. Russia's strength was Stalin's ability to drive large numbers of men like slaves into battle, as was the case with the Chinese Nationalists and Communists and with Vietnam's Ho Chi-min. With sufficient cannon-fodder much can be achieved, though surely the achievement is usually not worth the effort if one dispassionately weighs the pros against the cons. The Russians, like the US soldiers in the Civil War, were gunned down by their own officers if they tried to run in the heat of battle. Again, was the US really improved by the Civil War? A topic of discussion which leads profitably to some highly provocative and searching conclusions when the bilge of patriotism is purged from the podium.

Last but not least, Hart mentions that French Communists, Gaullists, and Girandists (the primary French resistance groups) constantly ratted to the Germans about each other's activities like the anti-Roman revolutionary splittists of Monty Python's Life of Brian. This mockery went on until 1943 when the British secret service walked in and forced them to act like adults, supplying them and directing their operations. This was successful because French resistance bombing disrupted trains carrying supplies and reinforcements after D-Day. Additionally, allied air supremacy and the unexpected long-range, power and accuracy of Allied Navy artillery led to significant German losses and tactical failures.

There’s this and much, much more. Highly recommended.

Biff Cappuccino

No comments:

Post a Comment