The German Army at War, 1939-1945

The German Army at War, 1939-1945

Samuel J. Newland

Almost from the time the guns fell silent in Europe on 8 May 1945, the world in general and the western world in particular has studied the German army of World War II, and its impressive warmaking potential, with a special fascination. Although more than a half century has passed and the developed nations have moved from mass armies to smaller and more lethal forces, the interest in both National Socialist Germany and the World War II German army continues unabated. We still see a steady stream of books on the topic. Some are original studies on various aspects of the war, while others are either reprints or translations of works being made available for the first time in the English language.

One recent release which adds to our understanding of Germany in war and will intrigue American audiences is Gottlob H. Bidermann’s In Deadly Combat: A German Soldier’s Memoir of the Eastern Front. The book was originally published privately in 1964 but was available only in German. An excellent translation, with the author providing additional materials, is now provided by Derek Zumbro, giving American readers much greater access to this classic. The importance of Bidermann’s memoir to German historians is evidenced by the fact that Dr. Dennis Showalter, a renowned scholar on the subject, consented to write the preface to the English edition.

The allure of this book is in Bidermann’s descriptions of the magnitude of the conflict that occurred on the Eastern Front, supported by the individual dramas that played out daily. Bidermann is eminently qualified to provide these descriptions. With the war in the east only a week old, Bidermann was one of the three million soldiers who disembarked on a seemingly endless journey eastward. He began as an enlisted man in an anti-tank gun crew with the German 132d Infantry Division as it moved across southern Russia. His unit fought in this area during the sieges of the Crimea and Sevastopol. With the Crimea in German hands–after a bloodbath for both armies-the 132d was shifted north to the Leningrad front. There it remained engaged until the end of the war, when it surrendered in the Kurland pocket. Bidermann and thousands of his comrades became prisoners of war in Russia, a fate as fearsome as death itself. Bidermann was released from captivity in the summer of 1948, terribly ill but still a survivor.

What distinguishes Bidermann’s book are his soldier’s insights on the German army and the Eastern Front. Bidermann started the war as a common soldier, a Landser, and finished it as a gun captain. He was wounded seven times and repeatedly decorated for valor. Though he finished the war as an officer, however, he came home devoted not to the National Socialist regime but to the men with whom he fought. He wrote the book for the survivors of the 132d. Many, like the author, were still trying to come to grips with the war, the savagery of the Eastern Front, and the misery of captivity under the Soviets. Rather than glorifying the war as Germany’s eastern crusade, Bidermann looks at the lives and the feelings of the soldiers as they relate to their adversaries and the battles they fought. As he notes for the reader, some say “one may become accustomed to the threat or constant presence of death,” but for Bidermann and his comrades, the cries of the dead and dying, both friendly and foe, “are often heard long aft er the guns are silent.”

Geoffrey Megargee provides another perspective on a different level of war with his new book, Inside Hitler’s High Command. While any reader who enjoys military history will find this an engaging book, Megargee gives the serious student of military history valuable insight into the German high command. Megargee holds a doctorate in military history from Ohio State University, and he does not disappoint the reader with his thoughtful analysis. From the outset he is focused on providing the reader a clear picture of the German high command, in the process correcting some myths that have been erroneously repeated.

One such myth is particularly persistent. After the war the senior officers of the defeated Wehrmacht, repeatedly interrogated by the intelligence community as well as the US Army’s historical services division, promoted the myth that so many of the military failures that befell Germany were the result of Hitler’s continual meddling in German military matters. The implication is that if Hitler and his political leadership would have left strategy and the employment of military forces in the field to the professionals, the trained General Staff officers, Germany would have fared much better during her World War II campaigns. Regrettably, over the years innumerable writers have accepted this rationalization for German failures. Skillfully, and with documented sources, Megargee shows that much of this is simply that–a rationalization with little basis in fact. From virtually the beginning of the National Socialist era, Hitler’s generals were not in opposition to his schemes but supported him. Even those who wo uld later oppose him and even tried to assassinate him, like Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, initially supported him–and did so emphatically. When Hitler’s expansionistic plans began to result in disasters with the overextension of Germany’s military forces, however, the rationalization of blaming Hitler for his inept military leadership became commonplace. Megargee admits that for the informed reader of German military history, his interpretation is nothing really new or original. Rather, his contribution is that he researches, organizes, and documents in one book the reality that both Hitler and his generals were responsible for Germany’s military failures. Having asserted and documented this fact, Megargee then provides examples. He shows how poor staff work and faulty assumptions resulted in major errors in the campaign against the Soviet Union as well as in several other campaigns.

Megargee does offer one new and very significant insight, however. He returns to the era of Helmut von Moltke and Alfred von Schlieffen and finds that for essentially a hundred years, the German General Staff promoted the concept that only they were skilled and educated enough to make decisions on military strategies and operations. To the contrary, Megargee correctly concludes that in terms of higher strategy issues, this caste of officers was remarkably inept, particularly when it came to the relationship of ends (objectives) to means (resources). Thus, in their studies they tended to focus on the operational aspects of war rather than trying to improve their global strategy. As a consequence, in the wake of World War land in preparation for World War lithe German army did not question basic strategic assumptions, but rather focused on how they could better wage war through improvements in maneuverability, speed, tactics, and weapon systems. This was a basic failure on the part of the senior German officer corps and their General Staff. Michael Geyer, in his essay in Peter Paret’s Makers of Modern Strategy From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, tells readers that systematic strategic planning stopped in Germany in the late 1930s, but Megargee seriously questions if systematic strategic planning was ever competently done. This book is written for those serious students of the military art.

Louis Kilzer, an investigative reporter, attempts to take readers to another level of war with his examination of the politics and personalities in Hitler’s headquarters in his book, Hitler’s Traitor: Martin Bormann and the Defeat of the Third Reich. Since the war’s end, students of the Third Reich’s history have been fascinated both by a supposed traitor in the Nazi hierarchy, a Soviet agent code-named “Werther,” and the personality and politics of Hitler’s Party Secretary, Martin Bormann. Kilzer, with the techniques of his craft, attempts to prove that Bormann was in fact the traitor Werther, who fed countless pieces of information to the Soviets, thus making him one of Nazi Germany’s most notorious turncoats.

Bormann remains an interesting personality in Hitler’s inner circle. His confidential letters to his wife, published after the war, proved him to be a totally amoral person dedicated only to the maintenance of his personal power and pleasures. That he might have been a Soviet spy is not an original accusation. Earlier writers and members of the inner council of the National Socialist regime questioned Bormann’s loyalty. Some, indeed, accused him of being a Soviet agent. Kilzer’s book adds little if anything to our understanding of Bormann or to the validity of these charges. A review of the bibliography in many respects reveals why. There are no citations from any German sources other than English translations, and none from any German archive. By and large all of Kilzer’s sources are well-used postwar books and studies. Only the “Black Bertha file” in Moscow shows any real original primary research in the overseas archives where any new revelations on this subject undoubtedly lie, if they exist.

As a consequence, the reader is presented with a rehash of the Soviet spy rings that penetrated German security (most notably the notorious “Rote Kapelle” that fed Stalin key intelligence information) and a rather rambling account of Germany’s war against the Soviets. In the end, the author attempts to validate that the key spy in the highest echelons of the German command was Martin Bormann. But Kilzer fails to provide proof for his accusations. In the end the proof seems to be: “Who else could it have been?” No smoking gun is produced, a factor that has caused earlier writers to question whether there even was an agent named Werther. The discriminating reader is again left with the same questions that have existed since the end of the war: Was there a Soviet agent code-named Werther? If so, who was he? Was it Martin Bormann, or possibly General Hans Oster, another German officer dedicated to destroying Hitler? We still don’t know the answers.

Of the three books under review, two–In Deadly Combat and Inside Hitler’s Command–offer excellent reads for the student of military history. Both of these show that even after more than 50 years, there is still much to learn about our former adversary, the German army of World War II.


Bidermann, Gottlob Herbert. In Deadly Combat: A German Soldier’s Memoir of the Eastern Front, trans. Derek Zumbro. Lawrence: Univ. Press of Kansas, 2000.

Kilzer, Louis. Hitler’s Traitor: Martin Bormann and the Defeat of the Reich. Novato, Calif.: Presidio, 2000.

Megargee, Geoffrey P. Inside Hitler’s High Command. Lawrence: Univ. Press of Kansas, 2000.

The Reviewer: Dr. Samuel J. Newland is a professor of military education in the Department of Distance Education, US Army War College. He holds M.Phil. and Ph.D. degrees in history from the University of Kansas, as well as an M.A. in history from Pittsburg (Kans.) State University.

COPYRIGHT 2001 U.S. Army War College

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