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 Hitler, the generals relaxed, doubtless admitting to themselves that their concern over large-scale repression of civilians was not shared by their underlings in any case. The most striking feature of Rossino’s study of the social aspects of the Polish war is its demonstration of how, once the fighting began, the behavior of practically all the German participants became equally uncontrolled and violent. The normal casualties of the war were used to justify retaliation against civilians, and these in turn led to atrocities in which the behavior of army troops was not significantly different from that of the SS. To underline the point, Rossino includes a photograph of a distraught Leni Riefenstahl with members of her film crew watching German troops slaughter Jews at Konskie.

The Polish conflict of 1939 is generally remembered for its role in setting off the Second World War. It also, Rossino notes, marked “a critical place in the history of Nazi Germany’s descent into mass murder and genocide.” The evolution of German military policy to include genocide did not, as is often believed, begin in 1941. That year merely marked an escalation of the horrors begun in Poland two years earlier.


If Hitler had had his way, he would have launched a drive to the west immediately after the fighting stopped in Poland. On October 9, 1939, he informed Keitel and the chiefs of the army, navy, and air force that it was necessary at the earliest possible date “to effect the destruction of the strength of the Western Powers and their capability of resisting still further the political consolidation and continued expansion of the German people in Europe.”1 On the same day he sent them a directive to plan an offensive through Luxembourg, the Low Countries, and Belgium. This caused consternation among the higher commanders and led Generaloberst Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb to protest to Walther von Brauchitsch, the commander in chief of the army, that Hitler’s plans were exactly what the French expected and would lead to disaster. In the end, the need to repair equipment disabled in Poland and to replenish stores of ammunition forced the postponement of offensive action until the spring, and when it came it took a quite different form.


For one thing, Hitler became obsessed with the possibility of a British attempt to outflank him by attacking Norway and he launched an attack of his own on Norway to forestall them. In their lively new treatment of the campaign, Chris Mann and Christer Jörgensen point out that it was an impressive demonstration of Hitler’s imagination and ability to conduct operations combining land, sea, and air forces, although very costly from a naval point of view. (The price of dominating Norway within forty-eight hours was the sinking of the heavy cruiser Blücher, the battle cruiser Lützow, and a dozen smaller ships.) Hitler himself called “the Weser Exercise” the most daring undertaking in German military history, and although this may seem an exaggeration there is no doubt that the German success in Norway reinforced the psychological effect of the Polish campaign.

Meanwhile, Hitler conceived the idea of attacking to the west below the line running between Liège and Namur and toward the supposedly impassable Ardennes. This was an idea that had also occurred to Lieutenant General Erich von Manstein, and he and the army chief of staff, Halder, elaborated it into concrete plans for military operations. Launched on May 9, this so-called Plan Orange defeated the Dutch in five days, forced the Belgians to capitulate on May 27, drove a joint Anglo-French force into the sea at Dunkirk, and then bypassed the Maginot Line and forced the French to surrender on June 17.

Hitler’s part in this triumph was important but not decisive, since the success was owing in large part to Halder’s staff work and his ability to prevent his high-strung commander from panicking at critical moments. When Hitler addressed the Reichstag on July 19 and reviewed the events of the last ten months, however, he took sole credit for the victory. Halder was mentioned only as a useful assistant to Brauchitsch in matters of command, and Manstein’s name did not appear at all. This transformation of Hitler into an all-seeing Feldherr showed a dangerously inflated sense of self-esteem; equally fateful, because insistent, it betrayed a misunderstanding of the relationship between staff work and operations.

The stubborn refusal of the British to contemplate peace negotiations, let alone surrender, then persuaded the Führer—after Goering’s botched air war against England—that the best way of driving the British out of the war was to defeat their strongest potential supporter, the Soviet Union. In June 1941 he attacked Russia along a line that stretched from the Moscow plain to the frozen tundra that lay between Finland and Murmansk. The commander of the northern drive, General Eduard Dietl, the conqueror of Nar-vik in the Norwegian campaign, had the most serious doubts about the prospects. After preliminary studies, he concluded that

there has never been a war fought in the far north…. The region is unsuited to military operations. There are no roads, and these would have to be constructed before any advance could take place.

Dietl nevertheless pushed on, only in the end to be defeated by a historical irony of the first order. In order to accomplish the tasks necessary to reach Murmansk, he felt he needed more troops and he expected these to come from Norway. But Hitler’s pride in his success with the “Weser Exercise” was always accompanied by a nervous feeling that it might be reversed by a new British attack. The idea of shifting 40 percent of the Norwegian force to Dietl’s command was often talked about but never carried out. Hitler took to referring to the distance between the Finnish border and Murmansk (seventy-four miles) as “laughable,” as if, Mann and Jörgensen write, it would be no more than a summer promenade for Dietl’s troops. The plan for a Murmansk campaign and its potential for outflanking the Russian battle line came to nothing.

Operation Barbarossa was more successful on other fronts, at least at first. The initial drive took 150,000 Soviet prisoners, 1,200 tanks, and 600 big guns. The greatest penetration was made in the south, where General Rundstedt reached Kharkhov by late September. A month later Kleist was in Rostov-on-Don and Manstein was invading the Crimea. But General Bock’s armies were stopped short of Moscow by fierce Russian resistance and the onset of an early winter. As Marshal Zhukov mounted counterattacks north and south of the capital, German commanders urged a general withdrawal that would enable re-grouping for the spring offensive.


This Hitler flatly refused to allow. He was shrewd enough to realize that a withdrawal would cost time and, indeed, might lead to a general disintegration of the battle line, and in view of this he had no sympathy for the ill-clad and overcommitted front-line troops. Declaring that the high command was responsible for the failure to take Moscow, he ordered that his armies stay and fight where they were. He followed this by a more ominous decision. On December 19, 1941, when his commander in chief, Brauchitsch, was forced to resign for reasons of health, he announced that he would take the command into his own hands. In words that must have filled the hearts of his senior commanders with dread, he said that being in charge of the army was no more than “a little matter of operational command” that “anyone can do.”2


Some idea of the results of that decision is provided by the massive book Hitler and His Generals, the first complete stenographic record of the military situation conferences from the Battle of Stalingrad to Hitler’s death in Berlin. This picture of Hitler in his dealings with the military and other leaders of the German war effort shows him at his best and worst, shrewd on technical questions (the importance, for example, of the new Russian tank), hopelessly unreliable on non-European matters (almost everything he says about the United States sounds like a caricature), and a total failure in his personal relations with his generals. Hitler’s basic hostility to the professional soldiers, whom he once called “a special caste of particularly snobbish, pretentious airheads and destructive vermin…with no imagination, full of sterile fertility, cowardice and vanity” made genuine cooperation with the professional soldiers impossible, and conferences on the military situation were marked by much petty criticism and sarcasm.

An exchange like the following with General von Kluge comes close to representing the tone of the daily conferences:

General von Kluge: But I need panzer divisions, too, of course.

The Führer: Well, you don’t like this garbage too much, so it’s easier for you to give it away!

Von Kluge: What garbage?

The Führer: You said, “It’s only garbage!”

Von Kluge: I didn’t say that!

The Führer: Yes, it slipped from your mouth, so we’re taking it away from you.

This sort of thing was trivial compared with the floods of rage and contempt Hitler poured over the commanders who he believed were disobeying his orders. In 1943 when the Sixth Army was surrounded by the Russians at Stalingrad and its commander, Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus, decided, after losing half of his command, to surrender, Hitler said,

It hurts me so much because the heroism of so many soldiers is destroyed by a single spineless weakling…. He’ll sign everything there. He will make confessions and appeals. You’ll see: they’ll walk down the road completely disregarding any principle—to the deepest abyss.

In April 1945, when the commandant of Königsberg surrendered his position when most of his garrison was dead, Hitler sentenced him in absentia to death by hanging.

It was clear after the fall of Stalingrad that the tide of war had swung completely to the Soviet side and that Hitler’s days as a strategist were over. He remained in command, however, and continued to fight all the battles from his bunker, making tactical decisions for all units on all fronts and treating his commanding officers as if they were high-salaried noncommissioned officers. His repeated exhortations to his armies to stand and fight in their places could not, however, halt the enemy’s advance. By mid-1944 the British and Americans were in Italy and France and the Russians were pressing relentlessly forward along a line that ran between Smolensk and Kiev.

Hitler hoped to change the tempo of the fighting by launching a new offensive in the direction of the Ardennes in Belgium, but his plans were delayed by the attempt on his life on July 20, 1944. Among the records in Hitler and His Generals there is an interesting description of the aftereffects of this Attentat in Hitler’s own words. Speaking of future travel plans, he says:

For at least the next eight days, I won’t be able to fly because of my ears…. If I get into an airplane now with the roaring and all those changes in pressure, it could be catastrophic. And what would happen if I suddenly got a middle-ear infection? I would have to be treated. The risk of an infection is there as long as the wound is open. It didn’t go off without affecting my head either…. A speech like the one I held at the Obersalzberg recently I wouldn’t dare to hold today, because I might suddenly get a dizzy spell and collapse.

From these disabilities Hitler recovered, and in December he launched his long-planned counteroffensive. This was contained, not without difficulty, in what came to be known as the Battle of the Bulge. Still undaunted, Hitler told his staff:

Germany will either save itself or—if it loses this war—perish. I want to add right away, gentlemen, that when I say this, don’t conclude that I’ve had even the slightest thought of losing this war. I never in my life learned the meaning of the word “capitulation,” and I’m one of those who has worked himself up from nothing…. I only say this to make you see why I pursue my goal with such fanaticism and why nothing can weaken my resolve.

But it was too late for this kind of defiance to be effective. As the ring of Germany’s enemies tightened inexorably about it, Hitler had to admit that the game was over and on April 22, 1945, he told General Jodl that he was resolved to remain and die in Berlin.

Once made, this decision was irrevocable. There were people—Hitler called them “those smart-asses that Clausewitz warned of…who always see the easier way as the more intelligent”—who believed he would in the end decide to continue the fight in a southern redoubt in the Obersalzberg. This he never seems to have considered seriously. “If we were to leave the world stage so disgracefully,” he told his staff,

then we would have lived in vain. It’s completely unimportant if we continue to live for a while still or not. Better to end the battle honorably than to go on living in shame and dishonor for a few more months or years…. That’s the decision: to save everything here and only here, and to put the last man into action—that’s our duty.

This Issue

December 4, 2003