The German Wehrmacht and fighting a losing war

Why does an army keep fighting a war that is clearly lost?

Can an army escape its history and culture?

How can an army that is nearly always tactically and operationally superior to its opponents still lose a war?

These are all questions that Robert Citino, senior historian at the World War II museum, attempts to answer in the concluding volume of his magnificent trilogy on the German Wehrmacht from 1942-1945.

 The 1942 volume highlights the Wehrmacht really at the height of its prowess and tactical ability.  After 3 years of uninterrupted victories, marred only by the failure to capture Moscow in the winter of 1941, the 1942 summer campaigns in North Africa and Russia show the dazzling brilliance of the German war machine at its height. 

However the disaster at Stalingrad, combined with the British victory at El Alamein turns back the high tide of the Wehrmacht and Germany never again regains the strategic initiative.  1943 brings further disasters at Kursk and the Allied invasion of Sicily and Italy and the German Army begins to see a marked decrease in fighting quality as it attempts to hold back a rising Allied tide.

Finally, in this new volume, we see the final demise of the once invincible German military machine as the Allies launch crushing attacks on both fronts, with the Russians destroying an entire German Army Group and the Allies driving the Germans out of Western Europe.  The horrendous losses incurred in the summer of 1944 bleed what little strength remains from the German army and even though a final operational offensive in the West is attempted in December 1944, the historic "Battle of the Bulge", the Panzerwaffe is stalled almost as soon as it rolls west, crippled by logistics, terrain, and eventually, overwhelming Allied airpower.  The outcome of the Ardennes Offensive was never really in doubt, it was just a question of how many German and American soldiers would die.

What makes these books so remarkable is that Citino pulls from his extensive expertise on the German military and way of war, going back to the days of Prussia and Frederick  the Great to provide a narrative of a German officer corps and their military culture which almost worships a cult of Bewegungskrieg or maneuver warfare that ignores the strategic level of war by over optimizing the tactical and operational aspects of war.

Tracing this style of warfare back to the early days of Prussia, Citino outlines how the Prussia/German militaries always planned for a quick decisive war, keenly aware that their country was neither as populous as Russia nor as rich as Britain and was surrounded on all sides by hostile countries.  

Ironically, although traditionally the Germans constantly feared fighting a two-front war against stronger opponents, in both World Wars, but especially World War 2, the Germans waged war on the three countries having the most latent military and economic power.

Interestingly, Citino shows how the Germans never mastered or even tried to master the intricacies of coalition warfare, treating their allies almost as vassal states and not as contributors to an overall plan for victory, especially against the Russians where German allies Hungary and Romania made significant military contributions before seeing the writing on the wall and attempting to change sides in 1944.

Citino pulls no punches and takes a harsh view of the German General Staff and German officer corps for the continuing loyalty to Hitler, which he skewers as he takes apart the various "I told Hitler" memoirs they penned to try and minimize their role in the deaths of millions of German soldiers and civilians as well as millions of Allied soldiers and civilians. 

In the end, the Germans simply did not have the economic power to defeat the combined might of the US, Britain, and Russia.  Hitler's hubris and inability to accept cold hard facts, combined with the Allied policy of unconditional surrender condemned Europe to the long and bloody conflicts of 1944-1945 long after it was apparent that Germany could not win the war.

The operational brilliance of the Wehrmacht, like all innovations in warfare, was not enduring, and by 1944, as these books point out, the Allies had mastered and in many cases surpassed the Wehrmacht's skill for maneuver warfare, and this new capability was multiplied by the economic and logistical power of the Allies, something the German military constantly neglected as an adjunct, instead of the basis of military power.  

The old saying, "amateurs talk tactics, professionals talk logistics" was never more true than in World War 2, where throughout the war the German military often found it's maneuverability limited by a lack of fuel and ammunition.

As a trilogy, these are really Citino's magnum opus on the German Wehrmacht in World War 2.  Well researched and written with a brisk style, they provide a comprehensive and readable account of the German Army from 1942-1945.