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  • 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?

83
+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

  • 4
    Excellent answer!! – Felix Goldberg Aug 6 '13 at 19:36
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    Wonderful answer, created an account just to upvote it! – Mark Aug 8 '13 at 1:35
  • @TeaDrinker +1 for great answer, but "Britain and France were better equipped to fight a long war than Germany"? I've always understood that Britain, at least, under pressure of the appeasement lobby, was totally unprepared in 1939 (cf Dunkirk). I don't know, just asking. – TheHonRose Jul 13 at 16:55
  • 1 through 5 are really just a setup for 6, aren't they? – Spencer Jul 14 at 4:48
  • #7: the Allies (especially the US) specialized in logistics. Driving the enemy from the field through daring and brilliant tactics makes for a good story. Driving the enemy from the field because your troops consistently have the tools they need doesn't. – Mark yesterday
12

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.

  • 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
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    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. – Karlth Aug 6 '13 at 16:28
  • @user357320 Right on the money! – Felix Goldberg Aug 6 '13 at 18:45
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    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
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    @T.E.D. did their excitement come to anything? I ask because alot of staples written during the cold war - such as Alan Clark's 'Barbarossa' - never got thorough editions after the curtain fell – Evil Washing Machine Aug 12 '13 at 12:12
6

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."

  • 2
    Maybe you're pushing the correct observation about the elderly French generals too far... – Felix Goldberg Aug 11 '13 at 19:44
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    Patton was versed in tank warfare so your contention that he were not adaptable to modern war conditions is hard to follow. – javadba Jan 18 '16 at 6:11
  • @javadba: The (older) Patton was actually up on technology. But he was considered too "old school" after he slapped a soldier in Sicily, which is why he was passed over for second in command in favor of the younger Bradley. That, not "technology," represented his failure to "adapt to modern war conditions.." – Tom Au Oct 17 '16 at 14:01
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    @TomAu His personal behavior makes him old school? Not his battlefield strategy and tactics?? Let's get the cart after the horse here. – javadba Oct 17 '16 at 21:22
  • @javadba: How a general treats (and views) common soldiers is part of his "battlefield strategy and tactics." – Tom Au Oct 18 '16 at 2:23
4

Besides all the very good answers, esp @Tea Drinker, consider survivor bias. Once the war got started, Germany was either going to succeed at first or lose right away. Given their situation, to succeed at first, they needed brilliant generals. If they had not had them, then there wouldn't have been much of a WW2 and those generals wouldn't be talked about.

To go further - to succeed they needed to use effective new tactics, Blitzkrieg in this case, and those new tactics, especially as they are the first to use them, naturally make them look good. And, make no mistake, they are very, very, good.

The fact that they are the first to use Blitzkrieg (which a number of other folks in USA-?, France-De Gaulle, UK-Liddell Hart, and USSR-Tukhachevsky had theorized about as well) has an extra benefit: no other army is ready for the new form of warfare and they have outsized success. Everyone else following in their footsteps will a) not have "invented"* it and b) face much better prepared opponents.

German command doctrine also heavily emphasized initiative by subordinates, which would naturally lead to better senior leaders.

Plus, as the OP wonders, there is a bit of perverse romanticism going on, even though we all know exactly what kinda of beastly system these men were helping with. Germany is the plucky underdog that takes on the whole world. OK, their Nazi component is the rabid plucky underdog that got humanity nearest to pure evil that we've seen, but that's still an effect. You see that all the time with gamers: playing the German side, with its outnumbered super-tanks (which conveniently don't suffer their customary mechanical breakdowns) is quite a bit more popular than one would expect from the Nazi association. Same mechanisms, romanticizing and survivor bias, are at play with Confederate generals like Lee or Stuart - very few people like what the Confederacy fought for, but their military itself is rather impressive, because it had to be for the Civil War to last any length of time.

Note that, either through lack of competence or deliberate post war info management, the Waffen SS generals never quite got the same level of celebrity. In Tank Warfare on the Eastern Front 1941-1942: Schwerpunkt, Robert Forczyk** very emphatically makes the point that the Waffen SS had a negative effect on Wehrmacht performance - they got the best tanks but weren't really good at armored warfare, especially in the beginning, relying on fanaticism and their equipment. Had the regular Army received those troops and tanks instead, they would have been put to better use. By the time the top SS leaders got better at their craft (IF they ever did, compared to the Mansteins and Guderians), Germany's chances of winning had petered out.

* the Germans weren't the only ones thinking of armored breakthroughs, but they were the first to move from theory to practice, which counts for a lot.

** As a side note, Forczyk is less than entirely complimentary about Zhukov, saying that he was really good at getting the best units for his endeavours and at taking credit for his successes (he had to be: there's a bit of literal survivor bias going on with him wrt Stalin purges). He's not saying he was bad, just that he was human too. Ditto his dismissal of Monty.

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To understand fully the differences in command style and effectiveness, at least two other factors must be taken into account. These are to do with the history and culture of the armies involved -

  1. The British and the French military system was developed over hundreds of years in large part to support their Empires. It was said of Bernard Montgomery that he was, "not one of us," and "not a nice chap." He wasn't a traditional 'Imperial Brit'. Many of the British commanders possessed a set of skills appropriate to being military governors of far flung places. This is true, to a lesser extent, of the French. Monty was a disaster as a peacetime administrator, but brilliant at taking the resources he had and crushing an opponent. By contrast, some of the commanders that Monty replaced were superb governors, but not as effective at war fighting. The Americans had their own particular history, which meant that they had excellent theory, but much less experience in war fighting. North America is a long way from the killing fields of Asia and Europe, and most Americans, understandably, wished to keep it that way. Again, success in the American Army did not depend upon your prowess in conquest. The agenda set for Soviet forces was peculiar, especially with Stalin in control, both aggressive and very politically driven. Soviet effectiveness largely affected by a huge theoretical, political gamble.

  2. The Germans, by contrast, had one use for their army – conquest. The Prussians had united Germany less than 100 years before by a series of lightning fast political and military actions, and Germany had no tradition of overseas empire building that many of the other European states had. Progress in the German military depended on one thing – your likely success in defeating your immediate European neighbours. They felt that they had nothing to lose. Some of the consequences of this are very ably outlined above.

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The correct answer was and is doctrine, if you look at german doctrine following ww1 and the revolutionary changes and forward thinking that they employed it's quite simple

I.e any one in the military who has read achtung panzer by Heinz Guderian will note how it's a basis for some currant doctrine

Hence later in the war the soviets caught up somewhat after there disastrous losses in the first years of the war

  • 3
    did you even bother reading the question or did you just answer without thinking? – Evil Washing Machine Apr 4 '15 at 23:36

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