In June 1940, after Germany’s defeat of France, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, chief of the Wehrmacht Supreme Command, referred to Adolf Hitler as the Grösster Feldherr aller Zeiten (Greatest Warlord of All Times). When the fortunes of war began to wane, Hitler’s generals transformed this into the shorter Gröfaz, a name suitable for a kobold or goblin.
The derisive intention was plain but not entirely deserved. Certainly in the early years of the war, Hitler possessed great military talents, which included vision and an instinct for exploiting opportunity, as well as leadership qualities, including steadfastness and energy of the first order and an astonishing knack for mastering specialized military literature. The German historian Helmut Heiber has not hesitated to call him “one of the most knowledgeable and versatile technical military specialists of his time,” while admitting that these gifts were offset eventually by excessive self-confidence and impulsiveness.
The years between 1939 and 1941 saw Hitler’s energy at its most impressive. The Polish war, starting in August 1939, lasted a scant five weeks; General Heinz Guderian’s initial thrust into the Polish Corridor on the German border quickly destroyed a Polish cavalry brigade and three Polish infantry divisions. The revelation of new German weapons and techniques, including well-organized infantry assault teams and systems of air–ground cooperation, astonished the rest of the world and discouraged the British and French from mounting a counterattack in the west, although they still outnumbered the Germans by seventy-six divisions to thirty-two. The Poles collapsed without receiving any foreign assistance and, in what the British and French called “the phony war” that followed, the initiative to take on new enemies was left in Hitler’s hands.
Hitler’s goals in Poland were not restricted to purely military ones, and once hostilities began Reinhard Heydrich let it be known that the Führer had given him “an extraordinarily radical…order” to liquidate the Polish intelligentsia, nobility, clergy, and military elite, as well as leading elements of Polish-Jewish society, an operation that would involve thousands of victims. This order was to be carried out principally by elements of the SS and Gestapo which were called Einsatzgruppen, operational groups.
For a time it appeared that this ideological objective might cause serious divisions between the army and the Nazi Party. The idea of a war with Poland had been popular in the armed forces ever since the Versailles Treaty, but neither Hans von Seeckt, chief of the army command in the 1920s, nor his successors had ever sought the kind of social decapitation now being discussed by Hitler and Heydrich. Among others, the prospect deeply worried the chief of counterintelligence, Wilhelm Canaris, who, as Alexander Rossino tells us in Hitler Strikes Poland, expressed his concerns to the chief of staff, General Franz Halder.
In retrospect, it seems likely that these objections were motivated less by ethnic or ideological considerations than by fear of losing control of the military situation to the SS. Once reassured by empty promises from …