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Leading by tantrum

Jeremy Black reviews Hitler: Downfall 1939-45 by Volker Ullrich

Translated from a German book published in 2018, this is the concluding volume of a work, the first volume of which Bodley Head published in 2016. Ably translated and based on a wide range of ably-assessed sources, both unpublished and published, this volume handles the subject that Hitler specialists have not generally found easy, namely the war years. This might seem surprising and notably so given that the war was the intended culmination of Hitler’s vision of destiny in and through the competition of conflict. There are particular source issues for the war years, and notably so as the conflict became worse for Germany; but that is not the major issue. The key problem is the difficulty of writing about military history and more particularly of assessing the specific issues bound up in considering military leadership and, more generally, German warmaking. There is the extent to which, because most historians push military history away, they are not well-equipped to tackle it, or do so by emphasising the factors and methods that are of interest to them in the peacetime years, rather than considering the opposite approach. Ullrich correctly regards war as bringing the Nazi project to fruition, and it is striking the degree to which he shows both that there were willing helpers at every level, including in the Holocaust, but also that Hitler himself was lazy and incompetent as well as a despicable leader. Leading by tantrum, racial homilies and ‘absurd pipe dreams’ (p. 151) did not work, and, if Hitler was not the first dictator who proved better at winning than using power, he was one of the more incompetent ones.

Hitler: Downfall 1939-45, by Volker Ullrich | Bodley Head, 2020, 838 pp. £30.00

Hitler’s distrust of the army leadership, and his determination to wield total control, had come to a head in 1938 when the German War Minister and Commander in Chief of the Wehrmacht, Field Marshal Werner von Blomberg, and the Commander in Chief of the army, General Baron Werner von Fritsch, were dismissed, on 27 January and 4 February respectively, and the ministry abolished. In its place, on 4 February, Hitler established the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW), the Wehrmacht [Defence Forces] High Command, with himself as Supreme Commander, and the ductile Lieutenant-General (from 1940, Field Marshal) Wilhelm Keitel, the Chief of Staff and, under him, his son-in-law, Alfred Jodl, as Chief of the Operations Staff.

In part, this restructuring in 1938 reflected a lack of support on the part of sections of the army for Hitler’s risky bellicosity, one seen in the background to the annexation of Austria and confrontation with Czechoslovakia, with certain senior military figures conspiring and seeking to develop links with Britain aimed against Hitler. There was also an inherent clash between his position and that of the army: Hitler sought to wield far more power than that enjoyed by Emperor Wilhelm II in World War One. Both men were seriously limited, but Hitler was able to grasp control, whereas Wilhelm lost most of his during the war.

In addition, there was the longstanding structural problem, one, moreover, seen with Japan, of a lack of cohesion between army and navy planning, one amplified in the case of Germany by the addition of an ambitious air force. The OKW in theory oversaw all of the armed forces, but it had no real control over the air force or the navy, the commanders of which had direct links to Hitler, while that of the OKW over the Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH, Army High Command) was limited. The OKH was headed from 4 February 1938 by Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch, the Commander-in-Chief. His Chief of Staff, General Franz Halder, was the key figure in the planning of the 1939 Polish campaign, which OKH ran. Accused of defeatism because he was opposed to the invasion of France, believing it too difficult, Brauchitsch, who had borrowed heavily from Hitler, in part to afford his divorce, found himself ignored by Hitler in the planning and conduct of the campaign in the West in 1940.

On 19 December 1941, the failure of Operation Barbarossa led to Brauchitsch being dismissed by Hitler, who replaced him: Hitler liked to respond to failure by getting rid of people, which was in part a reflection of his lack of affinity with the military leadership. OKW then came to direct all theatres, other than the Eastern Front which was left under the OKH. The dismissal of the pessimistic Halder followed on 9 September 1942, when the misconceived campaign of that year ran out of steam. In turn, his successor, Kurt Zeitzler, who had increased his reputation with the successful defeat of the Allied attack on Dieppe, found himself ignored, including over whether the Sixth Army should be permitted to break out from Stalingrad in the winter of 1942-3. He resigned in June 1944, being replaced as an acting head by Adolf Heusinger, before Heinz Guderian replaced Heusinger, whom Hitler increasingly distrusted, in July. Although Guderian was an experienced figure, he found that he had scant influence on Hitler.

In addition, to the heads of the OKW and OKH being weak, Hitler liked direct links with prominent generals, and he also rewarded them accordingly financially. That he had his headquarters to the east, notably at the mosquito-infested and heavily-guarded Wolfsschanze (Wolf’s Lair) near Rastenburg in East Prussia (modern Poland) for much of the period from June 1941 to November 1944, and for part of the period from July 1942 to 1943 at Vinnytsia in west Ukraine, made the direct links easily. So also did a compactness in operations (compared to those of Britain and the United States) which made it readily possible to recall generals, and to visit local headquarters, as on 2 December 1941, when he flew to Army Group South, on 3 July 1942, when he flew to the German forces advancing on Voronezh, and on 17 June 1944, when he flew to Soissons to meet his commanders in France.

It is striking the degree to which Ullrich shows how there were willing helpers at every level

The structure of German command, the assumptions that permeated it, the practices followed, the politicisation and Hitler’s own role, did not lead to cohesion, sensible Intelligence assessment, notably Economic Intelligence, or perceptive planning. The situation was exacerbated by continual jockeying for position by figures in the Nazi regime, and by Hitler’s lazy inability to provide any consistent leadership. Institutional politics was shot through with personalised leadership and ambitious policymaking. Uncertainty over Hitler’s intentions encouraged this rivalry.

Moreover, this uncertainty means that historians need to be particularly careful in analysing and explaining his strategy. In practice, a range of views can be found in Hitler’s remarks. In part, he was speaking for specific audiences, domestic and/or international, military and/or non-military, and sending messages accordingly. However, there was also a lack of consistency on the part of Hitler, and, in particular, a paranoid reaction to what he saw as the challenges represented by others. The argument that he was more concerned about Britain and America than the Soviet Union rests on this issue. In practice, the trend of his statements was one in which the latter was to the fore, with Communism perceived as a threat to Germany that was both domestic and international. The opportunity for Germany was also at the expense of the Soviets. Lebensraum was to the east, not the west, and it was in the east that the slaughter of Jews was to be concentrated. There was no comparison in the case of gains from Britain, the United States, and even France. Alsace-Lorraine was annexed to Germany, but the population, seen now as Germans, was left in place.

With Stalin and Mao, Hitler was also the most vicious dictator in modern times, although all three had smaller-scale acolytes. The harshness and moral emptiness is particularly apparent in the treatment of Jews, which Ullrich very properly handles at length, but there is also a selfishness that should make even his demented admirers pause, as when he saw from dinner on his train the arrival of soldiers from the Eastern Front in November 1942: ‘Without as much as a gesture of greeting in their direction, he peremptorily ordered his servant to draw the shades.’ He also refused to engage with those who had been bombed, a marked contrast with Churchill.

A failed warleader and a ‘leader of state’ in ‘inexorable decline’ (347), Hitler was less touched by the ‘crisis of legitimacy that began for the regime in 1942-3’ (375), than should have been the case. In part, this was because of the depth of support for the Führer, and in part because it was easier to focus redemptive hope on an individual than a cause.

The lack of moderation on Hitler’s part rose to a height after the failed assassination attempt. Ill-health, anger and paranoia co-existed, as did a fanatical disinclination to address the reality of Germany’s situation. The final day in the bunker section is followed by a thoughtful chapter on Hitler’s place in history. This rejects the notion that Hitler was an accident spawned from the Depression and instead looks for deeper continuities, notably in terms of anti-Semitism.

Readers will draw their own conclusions, and are repeatedly offered the opportunities to do so. You could do worse than take those of this most perceptive and thoughtful biographer:

‘If his life and career teaches us anything, it is how quickly democracy can be prised from its hinges when political institutions fail and civilising forces in society are too weak to combat the lure of authoritarianism; how thin the mantle separating civilisation and barbarism actually is; and what human beings are capable of when the rule of law and ethical norms are suspended and some people are granted unlimited power over the lives of others.’ (p. 632).

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