REVIEW BY CALUM HENDERSON
‘The longer the war lasts the lesser my opinion of the generals.’ These were the words in April 1943 of Ulrich von Hassell, a German diplomat who was executed for his role in the 20 July plot to kill Hitler the following year. He went on to add that, although ‘they have undoubted technical ability and physical courage’, the generals had ‘little moral courage, absolutely no broad world vision, no inner spiritual independence, or that strength of resistance which rests on a genuine cultural basis.’
Such an indictment could hardly be better put, especially with regards to the four generals profiled in this new book by David Stahel, author of several earlier histories of the Barbarossa campaign and its aftermath. Here, he takes a close look at the previously unpublished letters of four of Hitler’s elite Panzer commanders – Heinz Guderian, Rudolf Schmidt, Erich Hoepner, and Georg-Hans Reinhardt – to their respective wives. And what their contents reveal, very much as von Hassell would have recognised, were men who were almost entirely lacking in morality; men who were vain, pompous, and preoccupied with besting their rivals, all to the huge detriment of the German war effort in the East.
Most of the letters date from the summer and autumn of 1941, in the first few months of Operation Barbarossa, when the Wehrmacht may have been fighting Soviet troops but were not yet actually in ‘old Russia’, what Guderian described in one piece of correspondence as an ‘apathetic and barren land’. Along with decrying the barbaric and impoverished nature of their enemy, the generals were constantly boasting to their wives of their own bravery, courage, and sacrifice – while playing down the bad news that only increased over time.
After all, even in the intimacy of a private letter to their wives, the generals still had an image to maintain. Guderian in particular enjoyed something close to celebrity status within the Third Reich and was inundated with fan mail. In the military realm, too, these senior figures were venerated by the thousands of men who served under them, as reflected in the nicknames – such as ‘Panzer Schmidt’ and ‘Schneller Heinz’ – that they acquired. Given that they were tasked with driving forward the biggest military operation in history, on which the fate of the Reich hinged, it is not surprising that the glory completely went to their heads.
But what the letters also reveal is that, in private and underneath the skin, the four generals were much more fragile than they outwardly appeared. Stahel’s analysis is at its best when he shows how these supposedly ‘iron-willed’ men began to crumble emotionally and physically as Barbarossa ran into problems. ‘The generals had become accustomed to success,’ he says at one point, ‘and there was nothing in the military planning or the state propaganda to prepare them for what the Eastern campaign would require.’
But then, why would there have been? However talented they were, several of the most senior generals were completely morally compromised by their relationship with their Führer. Hitler was secretly paying them vast sums of money (on top of their not-negligible regular salaries) to ensure their loyalty and so that they kept schtum about any misgivings they had about the campaign. With this money, the generals enriched themselves: Hoepner, especially, went all out, ordering crayfish, caviar, beer, braces, garters, and countless other luxuries to be delivered to him at the front. And all while millions of civilians both back in Germany and in the USSR were impoverished, uprooted, or worse.
The letters also reveal the shock the generals felt when it became apparent that the USSR was not actually going to fold like a house of cards. ‘The Russians are making our work a bit more difficult than in previous campaigns… they’re fighting doggedly and cunningly,’ Reinhardt wrote to his wife Eva almost a month into the invasion. Soon that doggedness was grinding the Nazis down.
The failure of Barbarossa to deliver a swift victory caused each of the men immense stress. This was particularly true with Guderian, who was removed from his command in December 1941 for disobeying Hitler’s order to halt the campaign. There is good evidence from the letters that Guderian relied strongly on his wife Margarete, the only one of the wives whose replies to her husband have survived. She is the fifth major figure in this book and perhaps the most interesting.
Margarete was immensely stoical about the danger faced not just by her husband but also by her two sons, Heinz and Kurt, who were also fighting. In facing up to the fact that all three of them could be cut down at any time, she lived up to the ideal ‘hero mother’ figure that the Nazi regime so approved of.
But Margarete was ambitious for her husband, too, ‘a confidante, advocate, and perhaps even at times manager of his ambitions’, Stahel says. She certainly did her bit to fan the flames of his ego. And nor did she think the war wicked or unnecessary. In fact, her correspondence suggests she rather enjoyed it all, even from the relative safety of her home. After the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor in 1941, she wrote to Heinz of her delight, not quite appreciating that the American entry into the war, at just the same time Barbarossa was stuttering to a halt, would be in the long run a disastrous development for Germany.
Guderian was not entirely straight with his wife, however. Along with the other three men profiled here, he omitted mention of the countless war crimes he witnessed and even participated in. Stahel does not need to prove that these generals were responsible for grossly illegal acts – all the information has been out there for decades – but he nonetheless repeats time and again that Guderian and the others were all enthusiastic murderers. Their stunning indifference to the human suffering they caused on the Eastern Front is quite a contrast with the tenderness and affection on display in their letters home.
Hoepner, having been humiliatingly dismissed by Hitler in early 1942, later mustered enough courage to participate in the failed 20 July plot. Like von Hassell, he was executed. Schmidt was imprisoned by the Soviets after the war, and was released just months before his death in 1957.
Guderian and Reinhardt, however, both had pretty comfortable post-war lives. Reinhardt was tried at Nuremberg, where he appealed furiously against what he considered ‘victor’s justice’. He later managed to rehabilitate his reputation to a certain extent. But Guderian turned out to be the real pro at the rehabilitation business, publishing a bestselling memoir, Panzer Leader, in 1951, which gave rise to countless myths that subsequent generations of historians had to expose. All in all, their ravings about ‘victor’s justice’ were fairly hypocritical considering how lightly that justice treated them.
David Stahel has produced an excellent book about four vain and thin-skinned men whose contribution to the German war was on the whole disastrous. Men who, as Ulrich von Hassell also said, ‘cared more about gifts and Field Marshal batons than the great historical issues and moral values at stake.’
Hitler’s Panzer Generals: Guderian, Hoepner, Reinhardt, and Schmidt unguarded
Cambridge University Press, hbk (£25)