Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) meets with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu (2L) and chief of the general staff Valery Gerasimov in Moscow on 27 February 2022. (Photo credit: ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images)

The moral blindness of Putin’s generals

Russia’s murderous tactics to “de-Nazify” Ukraine have made its military leaders doppelgängers for the senior officers who executed Hitler’s evil plans

This article is taken from the May 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

One parallel between the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the conduct of the Second World War that has hitherto escaped notice concerns the relationship between the dictator and his generals. Just as the German General Staff obeyed Hitler’s orders, even when they knew him to be leading them not only to defeat but to depravity, so the Russian high command has capitulated to Putin despite realising that his war was not only a mistake but a crime.

In the Britain of the Sixties, a certain mystique still attached to the generals of the Third Reich. In their stylish uniforms and their gleaming jackboots, they had swaggered. Only two, Keitel and Jodl, were executed at Nuremberg; the rest got away with murder. 

Even some of those who were convicted of war crimes had friends in high places. One of the most prominent was Erich von Manstein, the architect of many German victories both in the Battle of France and on the Eastern front. He was also complicit in the genocide of more than a million Jews and others by the Nazi Einsatzgruppen in Ukraine.

von Manstein: complicit in the genocide of more than a million jews and others by Nazi death squads


Yet Churchill was among those who successfully campaigned to have Manstein’s 18-year sentence reduced to 12, of which he served only four. 

Manstein’s memoir Verlorene Siege (translated as Lost Victories) appeared in 1958, a key text in the mythology that depicted the Wehrmacht as “clean” and laid the blame for war crimes on Hitler. Konrad Adenauer, the first chancellor of the postwar Federal Republic, also played his part in the rehabilitation of Manstein, on the grounds that West German rearmament required a sharp distinction between the Nazis and an untainted military tradition as the basis for the new Bundeswehr.

Respectable historians have long since repudiated that mythology, as overwhelming evidence of the culpability of the Nazi military at every level has emerged. Even the most celebrated of all German generals, Erwin Rommel, no longer basks in the posthumous glory that once fuelled such films as The Desert Fox. 

Nowadays the focus of scholarship is rather on Rommel’s loyal service to the Nazi cause, including rounding up and deporting Jews from North Africa. Historians still debate whether Rommel truly approved of the plan of his former staff officer, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg to kill Hitler, though he certainly sympathised with the conspirators and tried to recruit others, including Manstein.

There are many parallels with contemporary Russia

However, he was wounded in an Allied air raid just before the attempt on Hitler’s life; afterwards he was incriminated and confronted by two generals at home. Given the choice between defending himself before Hitler, which would almost certainly result in a humiliating trial and execution, or protecting his family and staff by committing suicide, he chose to swallow cyanide. The Nazi propaganda machine pretended he had died of his injuries.

Whatever they might claim afterwards, the truth is that most German generals only turned against Hitler when the war was evidently lost. Even then, they procrastinated, preferring to live in denial rather than risk dying in disgrace. Thereafter, they pleaded ignorance.

A salutary example of a major German general whose reputation has plummeted from hero to zero is Heinz Guderian. He played a crucial part in military history as the creator of the panzer division. Beginning in 1929, he struggled to persuade his superiors to adopt his ideas; only after Hitler became Chancellor in 1933 did the new concept become reality. 

As a commander of these wholly new armoured formations, Guderian devised the breakthrough in the Ardennes in May 1940 which brought France to her knees. In Russia, he led the assault on Moscow; when it failed he was dismissed. 

In 1943 he was reinstated as inspector general of Armoured Troops, with the task of rebuilding the panzer divisions; in July 1944, after the Allied invasion of Europe and the failed plot against Hitler, he was made chief of the General Staff. In March 1945, just over a month before the war ended, he was replaced by Hitler and retired to his estate. 

After the war, Guderian avoided prosecution, not least thanks to B.H. Liddell Hart, the military historian and defence correspondent, who debriefed him along with other German generals. Liddell Hart championed Guderian as a pioneering “genius” who had put his own theories into practice. He also contributed a preface to the general’s bestselling memoir, Panzer Leader, which appeared in 1958, fluently translated by Constantine Fitzgibbon. The English version, unlike the German original, makes fulsome mention of his intellectual debt to “Captain Liddell Hart”, presumably inserted by Guderian at his British sponsor’s behest.

Guderian: architect of blitzkrieg who served Hitler almost to the end, but avoided prosecution

A striking passage describes how Hitler, just after assuming power in 1933, watched Guderian’s armoured units on manoeuvres. The new chancellor was much impressed, repeatedly exclaiming: “That’s what I need! That’s what I want to have!” Guderian evidently reciprocated the enthusiasm, struck by the fact that Hitler was the first chancellor since Bismarck to visit their Kummersdorf training ground. 

Though the general is at pains throughout his book to distance himself from the Nazis and their Führer, it is clear that their bond was real: it was Hitler who believed in his vision of the irresistible power of the new panzer division: a minimum of 400 tanks, integrated with motorised infantry and artillery. 

It was Hitler who gave him the opportunity to prove his worth in a “war of manoeuvre”, designed to overcome the dreaded trench warfare of 1914-18. (The Germans themselves disdained the term Blitzkrieg, used by Western journalists to describe their campaigns of 1939-40). And it was Hitler who trusted Guderian to salvage something from the wreck of his unwinnable war.

For all these reasons, Guderian served Hitler almost to the bitter end, taking refuge in a facade of professionalism and joining forces with the armaments minister, Albert Speer. Both these technocrats contributed to the once-dominant narrative that made Hitler the scapegoat for the collective moral cowardice of the German establishment.

There are many parallels with contemporary Russia. Not unlike Guderian, the Russian chief of staff, General Vassily Gerasimov, has exploited Putin’s patronage to advance his own theory of “new generation warfare”. This “Gerasimov doctrine” is based on the “nonlinear” forms of psychological subversion pioneered in the annexation of Crimea. 

At the time of writing there is speculation that Gerasimov, who has only been seen in public twice since the invasion began, may now be in disgrace. However that may be, the assault on Ukraine was carried out according to his plan, at the heart of which were the “psyops” intended to reduce Ukraine to “a web of chaos, humanitarian disaster and civil war”.

Just as Guderian’s panzer divisions during Operation Barbarossa were followed by the Einsatzgruppen, who systematically massacred Jews and others behind the lines, so Gerasimov’s tanks were followed by the merciless mercenaries of the Wagner Group to torture and butcher Ukrainians. 

Once the invasion began, there were chilling echoes of LTI, the lingua tertii imperii or language of the Third Reich, as the diarist Viktor Klemperer called it. A document published by Russian state media with Putin’s approval demanded the “final solution” to the “Ukrainian question”, calling for the total “liquidation” not only of the elite but “a significant part of the masses”. 

Putin’s “special operation” echoes Sonderbehandlung, (“special treatment”), the Nazi euphemism for extermination. As in Barbarossa, Russian forces are using mobile crematoria to destroy the evidence of their crimes, but this time the world is watching.

It is implausible that Gerasimov did not know that the annihilation of civilians was an integral part of the invasion plan. Nor is the Russian army any more “clean” than was the Wehrmacht. Like Guderian, Gerasimov has been seduced by the opportunity to put his strategy and tactics into practice. Just as Hitler and Guderian suited one another, so do Putin and Gerasimov. In each case, the pitiless logic of total war has hollowed out the military tradition of honour and chivalry.

Gerasimov: annihilation of civilians was integral to the plan for the invasion of Ukraine

Yet the capacity for self-deception of such “professionals” is boundless. In his memoirs, Guderian is contemptuous of his fellow officers who participated in the plot of 20 July 1944 — officers whom he and his fellow members of the military “court of honour” handed over to the notorious “people’s court” for torture and execution. 

Absurdly, he claims that “if the assassination had succeeded, Germany’s condition would not be one jot better than it is today”. His protestations of ignorance about Rommel’s fate until after the war ring false. Though he had left it too late to stop the slaughter, at least the Desert Fox chose death rather than dishonour.

In March 1945, as his native Prussia was overrun, Guderian joined forces with the propaganda minister, Dr Goebbels, to issue a radio protest against Russian atrocities and the “Anglo-American air terror”. Without irony, he laments that this appeal fell on deaf ears: “Humanity and chivalry had both disappeared during those months.” 

The same kind of moral insanity has gripped Gerasimov and his fellow generals. They tell themselves they are slaughtering children to “de-Nazify” Ukraine. In reality, these Russians have become doppelgangers of the Nazis.

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