'87 Sir

Thirty years of service ----USNA Class of 1987 '87 Sir

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Germany--trapped by geography?

So, now our discussion continues with one of the most interesting countries to study from a strategy perspective- Germany.  There have been many fantastic books on German strategy and operational art, several of my favorites by Robert Citino that have been reviewed on this blog about the German Wehrmacht in 1942 and 1943.  He also has a book entirely dedicated to the "German way of war" that is still in my reading list.
Operational Art or Strategy? A Comparison of the Second and Third Reich

 The strategic challenges faced by modern Germany are unique among the case studies of the Early Modern and Modern era. Unlike England, the United States or even France, Germany was surrounded by potential adversaries in Central Europe and from the beginning of the Prussian Empire; the need to either avoid or quickly win a multi-front war was a foremost factor in strategic planning and thought. In addition, the nature of the modern German state presented unique cultural and political factors not found in the other countries studied, which also had a profound influence on strategic thinking and war planning, particularly in Wilhelmine Germany. The constant grappling of ends and means was a requirement for Germany, which added to complexity of strategic planning. Ultimately both Imperial and Nazi Germany were not successful at strategy through a lack of planning and strategic foresight rather than random circumstances. Although the Germany military was operationally superior to its adversaries in both world wars, the lack of an overall strategic plan kept tactical success from becoming strategic victory. 

Bett’s critique on complexity and linearity in strategy certainly had many examples in this case study. One of the salient features of Prussian military thought was that any war had to be short and decisive because Prussian society could not tolerate a protracted struggle either economically or socially. Therefore Prussian, and later German military thought was dominated by the well-orchestrated decisive battle to quickly destroy the enemy army and bring about a swift peace on the victor’s terms. Bismarck was probably the quintessential Clausewitzian strategist, fighting short well planned wars with Denmark, Austria and France to accomplish clear objectives leading to the ultimate goal of a united German Empire dominated by Prussia that could coexist peacefully with its neighbors. Although the French clearly wanted revenge for their drubbing in 1870, the Austrians eventually became German allies in World War I. More importantly, Bismarck had a keen understanding of the limits of the military power of the new Germany and made the requisite adjustments in means and ends to provide German security and avoid warfare he could not control. Bismarck greatest strength was not his military thinking, but his diplomacy, which created the alliance with Russia and avoided a potential two-front war, the nightmare scenario for German military planners.[1]

Unfortunately for Germany, after Bismarck’s departure, the Kaiser and his army seemed to epitomize the misguided notion that all warfare could be reduced to railroad timetables and mobilization schedules with no uncertainty or friction. They also disdained diplomacy and allowed the network of alliances collapse, especially the all-important Russian treaty. Because of internal political issues, primarily the need to maintain the Prussian and Junker dominance of the army and its officer corps, the Germans were never able to truly match the means required for the anticipated two-front war prior to 1914 with either a realistic strategy or a complete understanding of modern industrial warfare. Like their French and British counterparts, pre-World War I German generals and politicians did not understand the implication of firepower and defensive warfare or what total warfare would require economically, although the Germans did seem to have an inkling of the societal pressures it might involve. The German failure to realistically determine how to fight a two front war, coupled with their complete lack of cooperation with their primary ally, Austria-Hungary made World War I an industrial war of attrition that Germany could not win. In addition, the complexity of the Schlieffen Plan almost ensured its ultimate failure. Although the Germans developed new operational and tactical means to restore the offensive on the Western Front, their sturmtruppen tactics could not overcome America’s entrance into the war.[2]

Nazi Germany did no better at strategic planning, although Hitler avoided a two-front war at the onset of World War II, which allowed him to concentrate all of Germany’s might against the Western Allies in 1940. But Nazi Germany had no realistic political goals in mind other than the conquest of Lebensraum at the expense of Poland and Russia and once Hitler declared war on the United States in December 1941, Germany again faced a two-front war of attrition it could not win. The nature of the Nazi regime made limited warfare impossible and the Allied insistence on unconditional surrender guaranteed total war between the Allied and Axis powers. Although Germany was able to win significant battlefield victories through the operational and tactical ability of the Wehrmacht, they could not achieve a lasting victory.[3]

In both World Wars, the Germans tried to substitute operational prowess for strategic planning and the results were almost preordained- the Germans lost World War I at the Marne in 1914 and World War II at the gates of Moscow in 1941. There was a great deal of reaction to events by Germany, but very little randomness. Like the other case studies presented, the Germans were ultimately responsible for the choices made and not made and the resulting consequences.

[1] Williamson Murray, MacGregor Knox and Alvin Bernstein, ed., The Making of Strategy: Rulers, States and War (New York: Cambridge University Press: 1994), 249-251. 
[2] Ibid., 252, 257-258, 260, 273. 
[3] Ibid., 381, 390-392.

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