Take the 2-minute tour ×
History Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for historians and history buffs. It's 100% free, no registration required.
  • von Runstedt
  • Model
  • Dietl
  • Guderian
  • von Manstein
  • Rommel
  • Kesselring (who was an able commander both on land and in the air)
  • Richtofen
  • Donitz
  • Raeder

All of these German names have been featured heavily both in popular media and in the various military academies of their respective branches. Manstein, "the master of maneuver warfare", Rommel the "Desert Fox", Donitz the "father of submarine warfare", Dietl "the master of the mountains".

Yet, the Allied powers could not even hope to match such a list. Many of the 'top' Allied generals are mired in controversy, such as Patton and his wasteful Alsace campaign and Montgomery during Market Garden; the only Allied general who arguably escaped much debate is Zhukov. As a naive example - searching 'Zhukov' on google books yields 370,000 results, searching 'Rommel' yields 1,550,000.

How did this happen? Was there a superiority in German officer training, or was this a product of modern Romanticism for a defeated power?

share|improve this question
1  
I can't say for certain, but couldn't it be that because of the Allies overall success the failures of the Allied commanders stand out more? –  Kobunite Aug 6 '13 at 15:43
2  
The Allies did have some impressive officers too (Eisenhower, Nimitz, MacArthur, Bradley, and more) –  American Luke Aug 6 '13 at 15:46
2  
@SchwitJanwityanujit Re: search. While zhukov is not a popular noun in any language, rommel is. It means simply "trash" or "mess" in Dutch. –  kubanczyk Aug 6 '13 at 16:34
3  
(b) Why is Dietl on the list? What did he do do be "master of the mountains"? (c) Your Allied list is strangely populated. Monty is out but Alexander in? (d) As for the Russian version, I guess you are less familiar with the Russian side. Zhukov may be the most famous Soviet commander but not neccessarily the most brilliant (try Chuykov or Rokossovsky or Vatutin, perhaps); he's also by far the most controversial with some thinking he was Hannibal reincarnate and others he was a bloody butcher. I tend to think he was a bit of both. (e) The German generals were made themselves great PR after –  Felix Goldberg Aug 6 '13 at 18:41
2  
@SchwitJanwityanujit Most of them: Kesselring: war crimes in Italy, misjudgment in north Africa; Richthofen: bombing of Guernica, bomb war against civil targets in Poland; Dönitz: late-war lunatic, disastrous submarine losses, suicidal attack orders agains superior targets; and so on. –  lejonet Aug 8 '13 at 21:05

3 Answers 3

up vote 40 down vote accepted
+50

To a certain extent there's a wider question to ask - why did German armies fight so well in WW2? I say that because the answers to both questions overlap. The effectiveness of ordinary German soldiers made their generals look good, and good generalship made the soldiers effective.

But to restrict this answer specifically to the senior officers I'd say the answer lies in these six points. Points 1, 2, 3, 4 may explain why German military leadership was so "impressive", while 5 & 6 may explain why it has long been considered impressive at least in the English speaking world.

1. Effects of WW1 Manpower Losses
Germany suffered terrible losses in WW1 amongst middle ranking officers, which led to rapid promotion through the ranks. This meant that relatively youthful officers got their chance to prove themselves at a young age in the 1914-18 war. By the time WW2 came round these experienced officers were in their prime. Of course Germany was not alone in this regard, though only France suffered comparable losses. But as the WW1 victors, France and Britain were naturally in no hurry to clear out their senior WW1 generals and these were retained into WW2 (Gamelin was 68 in 1939, Weygand 73).

2. Effects of the Versailles Restrictions
The Treaty of Versailles restricted Germany to an army of 100,000 and also imposed limits on certain kinds of weapons. It's possible this led to a culture which valued officers who could offer creative and imaginative solutions to tactical problems.

3. Effects of Defeat in WW1
The German army staff between the wars avoided that classic military error of "preparing to fight the last war" whereas French and, to a lesser extent, British planners, fell badly into that trap. Germans were keen to experiment with new technology and this meant the German army was better placed to use planes and tanks in bold, decisive new ways. It's easy to see why senior German officers using such tactics appeared better generals than their opponents.

4. Effects of Prussian/German military tradition
It's widely felt by military historians that the Prussian/German tradition of decentralized command was an important factor in the success of German armies in WW2. The doctrine played an important part in the successful careers of men like Rommel and Guderian.

A paper prepared for the USAF in 1994 sums this doctrine up:

Army Regulation 487 outlined a number of general principles to be followed, but no formulae. For example, the German operational doctrine de-centralized the operational leadership, and not only allowed, but insisted that junior officers would possess considerable initiative in command.

http://www.dtic.mil/doctrine/doctrine/research/cmc.pdf

5. Need for Quick Victories (and post-war "spin")
The nazi state needed quick victories, both because Britain and France were better equipped to fight a long war than Germany was, and because Hitler felt WW1 had proved that a long draining war was dangerous for morale on the home front. This meant that officers who offered bold and daring solutions got Hitler's ear. When daring paid off, in the early part of the war, German officers like Guderian and Rommel were able to claim credit. Disasters, especially those later in the war, could be entirely blamed on Hitler. This was certainly the spin that senior officers put on things after the war, in their memoirs. And this helped to add to their reputations. I don't say this in any way as a Hitler apologist but to offer up the suggestion that having Hitler and his most loyal cronies out of the way, was certainly convenient for wehrmacht memoirists after the war.

6. Convenient for the Allies
Paying tribute to the skill of your opponent is a classic tactic if you need to distract attention from your own shortcomings. It was a technique used by the British in the disastrous run of defeats in France, Norway, Greece, Crete and North Africa.

It was one of the tools in Churchill's kitbag when he was forced to explain before parliament and a domestic audience the lamentable performance of the British army in Africa in 1940-42. He often praised Rommel and hailed him as a "great general". The notion of the "Desert Fox" was useful to British commanders. While Churchill was privately furious with his own generals, in public it was a sort of an explanation for why the British, superior in men and tanks, were doing so badly against Rommel.

As a result, Rommel, and other German generals came out of the war with burnished reputations

share|improve this answer
3  
Excellent answer!! –  Felix Goldberg Aug 6 '13 at 19:36
    
Yes indeed, thanks for sharing! –  Evil Washing Machine Aug 6 '13 at 19:47
2  
Wonderful answer, created an account just to upvote it! –  Mark Aug 8 '13 at 1:35

To my impression this reflects systematic bias of the sources you use, possibly, sources circulating in your country and/or language. In the USSR, for example, there was no such glorification of the German generals, and many of the Soviet marshals and generals (such as Vasilevsky, Rokossovsky, Malinovsky, Konev, Meretskov) were well known.

Today in Russia those Soviet generals are known far less, especially by the younger generation, but the German generals are not known better.

share|improve this answer
4  
You could be right - it possibly is a bias on the english speaking world's part. –  Evil Washing Machine Aug 6 '13 at 15:53
10  
For some reason or another the German military seems to be more interesting to amateur pundits. The interest is usually not due to any shared political views but rather to the tendency to admire "military machines" fighting against the odds. See Sparta, elite divisions, Navy Seals, etc. –  user357320 Aug 6 '13 at 16:28
    
@user357320 Right on the money! –  Felix Goldberg Aug 6 '13 at 18:45
2  
of course it could never be that the Soviet sources were biased in favour of the glorious defenders of the Motherland and against the imperialist fascist agressors... –  jwenting Aug 7 '13 at 5:39
    
Actually, the explanation I always heard back in the day for the lack of fame all things Eastern Front in WWII was that the USSR was not nearly as forthcoming with their wartime military records to researchers as the governments on the other side of the Iron Curtain were. Thus there just wasn't the same level of actual documented information available. I remember a lot of excitement from Historians in the late '80's that the changes in Eastern Europe might finally start to open up eastern european war records to researchers. –  T.E.D. Aug 9 '13 at 18:42

Germany was fortunate to have a large batch of officers born in the 1890s. These included Rommel, Doenitz, Paulus, Richtofen, Zeitzler, and Dietl. Important "exceptions" such as von Manstein and Guderian were born just a few years earlier, in the late 1880s. In this context, it was important to note that Germany's "maximum leader," Adolf Hitler, was born in 1889, which is to say that these generals were appointed by a "peer." This was known as the "Lost generation," which more than others, had to rely on its own resources.

The reason the 1890s "vintage" was so important was because these men spent their (key) fortysomething age brackets during the 1930s, that is the Global Depression, before ripening into generals around age 50 in the 1940s. These hard economic times shaped an "edgier," more resourceful, more cunning group of officers than the ones that came just before and after them. This was particularly true in Germany, which suffered the double whammy of the depression and the restrictions imposed by the Versailles Treaty. Also, they were much more conversant in the "new" technologies of tanks, airplanes, and self-propelled artillery than older generals of other armies.

America was fortunate to have a number of generals born in the 1890s; Dwight Eisenhower, Omar Bradley, and Mark Clark, who were more adaptable to modern war conditions than older generals such as Patton. These generals were headed by a President (FDR) born in 1882, which may be why there were fewer "1890s"-vintage American generals than Germans.

Britain's commanders (Wavell, Auchinleck, Gort, Montgomery were mostly born in the early to mid-1880s, which is to say in a less timely fashion than the Germans. It is noteworthy that their leader was Winston Churchill, born 1874, who did not appoint brilliant later commanders such as Jock Campbell (born 1894) to senior command.

The French were in the worst shape. Their only general of note born in the 1890s was Charles deGaulle, and he was only a brigadier. Spots ahead of him were occupied by the likes of Generals Gamelin and Weygand, born in the 1860s and 1870s, the right age for World War I (but not II).

There is a fear that today's hard economic times is creating an edgy, hungry, and cunning new "Lost" generation of young adults born in the 1980s and 1990s. (Some would say that the "New Lost" goes back to the 1970s). If there is a major war in the late 2020s, 2030s, or early 2040s, this generation will likely produce the sharpest generals we've seem in modern times; otherwise, they'll become generals of finance, technology, or "cyberwars."

share|improve this answer
1  
Maybe you're pushing the correct observation about the elderly French generals too far... –  Felix Goldberg Aug 11 '13 at 19:44

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.