July 16th 2016


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ERICH VON MANSTEIN: Hitler's Master Strategist

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ERICH VON MANSTEIN:
Hitler's Master Strategist




News Weekly, July 16, 2016

 

by Benoit Lemay

 

Casemate, Philadelphia
Paperback: 320 pages
Price: AUD$29.95

 

Reviewed by Jeffry Babb

 

Erich von Manstein was one of the greatest strategists of World War II, and possibly the greatest captain of his time. In the battle for which he won his Field Marshall’s baton, the conquest of Sevastopol, he overcame a deficiency in troops and a poor strategic and tactical outlook to defeat the dug-in Soviet defenders of what was said to be the world’s most unyielding fortress.

Manstein (1887–1973) was a professional soldier, yet he did not reach the peak of his profession. Hitler did not trust his generals, Manstein among them, because they disagreed with him on strategic matters. Hitler was an amateur; Manstein was a professional soldier. Among themselves, the German generals frequently referred to Hitler as “that Bohemian corporal”.

Contrary to popular belief, Hitler was not a great strategist. Had someone of Manstein’s ability been in charge of the German war machine, Germany might have won the war. Hitler, however, was timid in dealing with the German public and with strategy. He attempted to shield the German people from the reality of war. Only after the annihilation of the Sixth Army at Stalingrad in February 1943 did he commit Germany to “total war”.

At the Battle of the Kursk Salient in August 1943, the biggest tank battle of World War II, it was Hitler who called off the attack while Manstein wanted to persevere. Seventy of the 100 Tiger tanks committed to the battle – the best tank of the war – had been knocked out. The Third Reich could afford to lose men but not tanks. The Tiger was notoriously complex and difficult to construct. Hitler wanted to conserve his army’s strength. Failure to prevail in the Battle of the Kursk Salient was, for Germany, the end of the war.

German war aims

Manstein fought most of his war on the Eastern Front. Twenty million Germans either fought with or were connected to the German armed forces. Of these, 13 million fought on the Eastern Front. The Germans had three war aims. The first was to create Lebensraum in the East. That is to say, German settlers would displace Slavs and farm their land. The displaced Poles and other Slavic peoples were often trucked straight to Auschwitz or similar concentration camps.

Second, the Germans wanted to eliminate the “Jewish Bolsheviks”. The Nazis summarily executed all Red Army Commissars they captured, as they did anyone connected with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

The notion of the comingling of the Bolsheviks with the Jews is not altogether without foundation. Nobel Prize Laureate Boris Pasternak, himself of Jewish ancestry, described the “black jacketed Jewish commissars” in his novel, Dr Zhivago.

In Czarist Russia, Jews were effectively excluded from government. That left them with a number of options: the Bund, an anti-communist socialist party; the Zionists, for free thinkers who wanted to flee to Palestine; or the Bolsheviks. The prospects for Jews with the Bolsheviks were good. Of course, later Stalin would begin a purge against the Jews, based on the so-called “Doctors’ Plot” in 1952–53, shortly before his death.

Third, the purpose of Operation Barbarossa, as the invasion of Russia was called, was ethnic cleansing: to eliminate the Jews and other “lesser races”.

The groups charged with eliminating the Jews worked hand in glove with the Wehrmacht. Without this cooperation, they could not have achieved their goals.

The situation was inflamed by the operations of the partisans. The partisans were often communists, Jews and runaway prisoners who faced certain grisly death at the hands of the Germans if captured. For every one German soldier killed by the partisans, it was customary to execute 100 civilians. After the war, most of the partisans were sent to the Gulag, as they were deemed to be politically unreliable.

Manstein cooperated with the groups executing the Jews and other “undesirables” such as the Gypsies.

The Slavs were sometimes spared from execution. They were required to work in industries, such as mining, which were dirty and dangerous. The Slavs were regarded as being “less than human”. The German Herrenfolk alone – the Master Race – had a privileged position.

We can therefore say that the evidence given by Manstein at the War Trials, namely, that he knew nothing of the ethnic cleansing, particularly of the Jews, is certainly not true. Some generals did withhold cooperation from those groups engaged in ethnic cleansing. Manstein was not one of them.

Another controversy surrounding Manstein was his role in the loss of Field Marshall Friedrich Paulus’ Sixth Army at Stalingrad. The name “Stalingrad” has become synonymous with catastrophic defeat, but it can be argued that Stalingrad served a strategic purpose – brutal, but necessary. Manstein, it is argued, could have saved the Sixth Army, if he so desired, but decided against it.

Officer of rare ability

 Hitler recognised that Manstein was an officer of rare ability, but Manstein was not afraid to confront the Fuhrer. Captain (Sir) Basil Liddell Hart, one of the most renowned British military historians and theorists of the 20th century, wrote in his work, The Other Side of the Hill, that “The ablest of all the German generals was probably Field Marshall Erich von Manstein … He had a superb strategic sense, combined with greater understanding of mechanised weapons than any of the generals who did not belong to the tank school itself.”

John Keegan, another contemporary historian with stature, wrote that “Manstein possessed one of the best military minds in the Wehrmacht”.

There can be no real doubt that Manstein initiated the Sickle Cut strategy that put France out of the war. Unlike the Schlieffen Plan, which almost succeeded in World War I, the Sickle Cut plan worked. Yet, in one of the most inexplicable failings of will in the history of warfare, the German forces stopped short almost at the English Channel, allowing the British armada of “little ships” to evacuate 338,000 British and allied troops trapped in the Dunkirk pocket.

The “miracle of Dunkirk”, combined with the Battle of Britain, meant that Hitler could not proceed with his plan, Operation Sea Lion, to invade England. Hitler would not approve the invasion of Britain unless air superiority over southern England had been established.

Manstein was convicted of crimes committed in World War II and was held in custody until 1953, when he was released. Yet he relentlessly defended the honour of his troops. As an adviser to the government of the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany), Manstein was intimately involved in the structuring of the Bundeswehr, the Army of the new Germany.

Possible Jewish heritage

More than likely, Manstein had Jewish heritage. Bryan Mark Rigg, in Lives of Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers (University of Kansas Press, 2009), describes the lives of Jewish soldiers who fought for the Third Reich. Some 150,000 soldiers of Jewish descent fought for Hitler’s regime.

Manstein protested when Jewish officers were expelled from the Wehrmacht solely on the basis of their heritage, which, as he pointed out, had nothing to do with their efficiency as officers. Hitler personally devoted a great deal of time to deciding which Jews were “Aryan”. Hitler himself declared no fewer than 77 high-ranking officers, including 25 generals, Aryan. Among the best known was Field Marshal Milch, head of development of the Luftwaffe, who was considered essential to the war effort.

One of the tragic ironies of the Holocaust is that the German Jews, though relatively few in number, participated vigorously in German national life. They spoke Yiddish, a dialect of German, and were noted for fighting valiantly for Germany in World War I. Forewarned, many German Jews escaped the Holocaust.

Manstein was the 10th child of General Eduard Lewinski. The younger sister of Lewinski’s wife had no children, so, in accordance with the practice of the time, the infant Erich was entrusted to the Manstein couple at his baptism. So, on the day of this religious ceremony, Fritz Erich Georg von Lewinski took the family name von Manstein.

Manstein was always destined for a soldier’s life. He absorbed discipline with his infant’s milk, but he also was destined to live by a code of honour. The Prussian officer caste was pledged to serve its sovereign. According to military theorist Carl von Clausewitz (1780–1831), “war is the continuation of politics by other means”. In other words, war is a means of achieving political goals.

Clausewitz is also credited with the idea of “the fog of war”, whereby the judgement of a commander is hampered by the confusion of the battle. It might have served Manstein better to have kept the link between politics and war in mind as the war was drawing to an end.

Hitler sacked Manstein before the end of the war. Manstein almost certainly knew of Colonel Claus Graf von Stauffenberg’s plot to assassinate Hitler. But as a career solder, Manstein wanted no part of it. Perhaps he was just being prudent. Hitler had escaped many other attempts on his life. Either way, the July 20, 1944, plot failed, and the witch-hunt to track down and execute those involved went on until the end of the war. Manstein stayed loyal to the Fuhrer until Hitler’s suicide; and he retained his loyalty to the Third Reich until it collapsed.

Manstein was a strong character, not afraid of confronting Hitler, his commander-in-chief. Hitler claimed credit for the Sickle Cut plan, when it was Manstein’s idea. In fact, Hitler’s failure to complete the Sickle Cut strategy saved the British army from catastrophe at Dunkirk. Manstein’s plan would have ensured a strategic victory, possibly ending the war.

For all his gifts Manstein was a man of his time and class, unable to see what the future held for Germany. In all, he was a stubborn, proud man, finally put out to pasture because, although he was a gifted strategist, he was not a great conciliator.

When he died in 1973, Manstein was buried with full military honours. Soldiers of all ranks attended the funeral. Manstein was the last of the great German captains. Though influential German news magazine Der Spiegel was not impressed. “He assisted in the march to catastrophe, misled by a blind sense of duty,” Der Spiegel editorialised.

Erich von Manstein: Hitler’s Master Strategist is available online at Booktopia or Amazon.

 




























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