Saturday, August 8, 2015

Germany: The Military and Militarism

Prussian (and later German) Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, right, with General Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, left, and General Albrecht von Roon, centre.

The military had always played a key role in Prussia, and in a Reich forged by blood and iron it was the central institution. The German Reich was a military state, German society permeated by the military. “Human beings,” Bismarck said “begin at the rank of lieutenant.” The Prussian army was by far the largest of the four armies, and although the three other “contingents” owed allegiance to the kings of Bavaria, Württemberg, and Saxony respectively, they all came under the kaiser’s command in time of war. Only the Bavarian army remained independent in peacetime. The three contingents followed the Prussian lead in organization, instruction, and weaponry. The military budget and questions such as those of the size of the army and length of service were settled at the federal level. The army was thus Prussian rather than German, the Prussian minister of war, as chairman of the Bundesrat’s Military Commission, served as a de facto federal minister. The military thus played an essential role in strengthening Prussia’s domination over the Reich. 

The military was outside the constitution, beyond parliamentary control, answerable only to the Prussian king and kaiser with his absolute power of command (Kommandogewalt). It was every bit as concerned with the enemy within as it was with its enemies beyond the borders of the Reich. It was ready to crush a revolution, break a strike, and disperse a demonstration, and even to instigate a putsch. It was not bound to consult the civil authorities before acting. 

All matters pertaining to personnel were dealt with by the Military Cabinet, which worked closely with the kaiser. William II was to surround himself with a number of military cronies who formed an informal maison militaire of considerable power and influence that served further to strengthen his power of command. Mere civilians, who were deemed to have no understanding of military arcana, had no place within these circles.

The Prussian minister of war had responsibility for the budget, administration, and military justice. Inevitably there was enduring friction between the ministry and the military cabinet. Since the latter was a direct expression of the kaiser's power of command, the minister answerable to the Reichstag, a number of important responsibilities were shifted from the ministry to the military cabinet. At the same time the spiraling cost of the military, particularly after 1898 when Germany began to build a high seas fleet, meant that the Reichstag had a far greater say in military affairs. It held the purse strings and could determine how the funds were allocated. The war minister could no longer afford to hide behind the sacrosanct power of command and had to submit to rigorous questioning by parliamentarians. This in turn alienated the war minister from the kaiser and his entourage, who were alarmed by the prospect of the army becoming subordinated to parliament. Any concession to the Reichstag was taken as a sign of weakness, so that both the war minister and the chancellor were caught between the need to appease the monarch ' s obsession with his power of command and the necessity for a degree of cooperation with the Reichstag. The slightest hint of a compromise with parliament caused an immediate hardening of the military front, so that by 1914 the Reichstag was only able to make very modest gains. The army remained arrogantly aloof, intensely hostile to parliament, a state within the state. 

Although the kaiser, with his power of command, had absolute control over the military, it was hopelessly divided and lacking in any sense of direction. The war ministry, the general staff, the Military Cabinet, and the maison militaire incessantly wrangled over areas of competence. This was compounded by inter - service rivalry with the navy, which in turn was riven with internal strife between different offices. There was no coherent military planning, no consistency in armaments procurement, no serious preparation for a war which most people in responsible positions felt was both inevitable and desirable. 

Nowhere was this more blatantly obvious that in the general staff, whose carmine - striped demigods planned and plotted in splendid isolation and consequently to disastrous effect. The war was hardly over before the general staff began planning for a preventive war, first against France, then also against Russia. As long as Bismarck was chancellor the preventive war enthusiasts in the general staff were held in check. He found political solutions to the crises of 1874/5 and 1886/7 when the general staff was raring to go. Moltke's successor, Count Alfred von Waldersee, argued in favor of a war against Russia, combined with a coup d'é tat against the Social Democrats, during his tenure from 1887 to 1891. He too was frustrated, first by Bismarck then by Caprivi. 

Bismarck fought long and hard to keep the military under political control. His successors had to deal with William II, a saber - rattling poseur who lacked the strength of character to stand up to an increasingly influential military. The kaiser bypassed the foreign office and relied on the reports from the military and naval attachés, who painted a grim picture of the bellicose intentions of Germany’s neighbors. The chancellor and the civilians were never consulted when the general staff drew up its war plans, and were excluded from the “War Council" of 1912. 

Count Alfred von Schlieffen

Waldersee ' s successor, Count Alfred von Schlieffen, turned Clausewitz on his head by arguing that war was far too serious a business for politicians to have any say in its conduct. The eponymous plan on which he worked throughout his term of office envisaged an invasion of France through neutral Belgium and Holland. The plan was shown in its various versions to three chancellors - Hohenlohe, Bülow, and Bethmann Hollweg - but none of these men saw fit to examine its fateful political consequences. They felt it was inappropriate for mere civilians to question the expertise of a man who was widely regarded as a strategist of genius, a worthy successor to the great Moltke. Apart from a vague plan for an offensive in the east, the Ostaufmarschplan , which was never seriously considered and was dropped entirely in 1913, the German army had only one war plan: an attack on France that was almost bound to involve Britain, because of the invasion of neutral Belgium, compounded by Germany ' s naval ambitions. The proposal to invade neutral Holland was later dropped by Schlieffen's successor, the younger Moltke. 

It was not only the civilians who were excluded from discussions about the details of military planning. Germany's ally Austria - Hungary was kept completely in the dark. It was only in 1909 during the Bosnian crisis that hints were dropped that they were planning an offensive in the west. At the same time Moltke promised his Austrian counterpart, Conrad von Hötzendorf, that Germany would stand by Austria under any circumstances should it become involved in a war in the Balkans. The chief of the general staff was here clearly exceeding his remit, and was making a political commitment of incalculable consequence. The defensive Dual Alliance of 1879 was thus converted into a blank check for Austria to attack Serbia, even at the risk of Russian intervention, at which point Germany would join in by attacking France through Belgium. Britain would then probably be involved and Europe plunged into a terrible war the length and outcome of which many experts were hesitant to predict. 

The army never consulted the navy, which in turn cooked up a series of harebrained plans which a number of naval strategists felt were bound to fail. Neither branch of the military bothered to contemplate the consequence of failing to break the British blockade. A number of far - sighted soldiers thought that the Schlieffen Plan was at best a highly risky gamble. The military Cassandras who warned that the war was likely to be very lengthy were ignored. No preparations were made for such an eventuality. 

The military was determined to remain outside the constitution by insisting that the power of command was sacrosanct. It separated itself from civilians by the exclusivity of its officer corps, its code of honor, and its separate code of law. This was to lead to a series of clashes with the civilians: over the reform of military law, over the size and social composition of the army, and over its relations with the civil authorities. Every such confrontation put the role of the military in question, thereby whittling away at its exclusive rights. As the foundations of the military monarchy were gradually undermined the fronts began to harden and the temptation to risk a war in the hope of overcoming these tensions became ever harder to resist. 

In the 1860s two - thirds of the Prussian officer corps was aristocratic. In the general staff and the smarter regiments the proportion was far higher. As the army expanded, the percentage of aristocrats naturally declined, thus precipitating a lengthy debate as to whether further expansion would change the whole character of the army, water it down, and render it unreliable in the event of domestic unrest and revolution. Was “character “more important than “brains “? Could an army with a high percentage of liberal bourgeois officers and Social Democratic proletarian other ranks maintain law and order at home and pull off another Sedan? The Schlieffen Plan called for a mass army and the plan had no chance of success without one; but the larger the army the greater the importance of the Reichstag, thereby blurring the sharp division between civil and military. General Keim’s Army League, with its raucous populist clamor for substantial army increases, thus was viewed with horror by the kaiser’s military entourage. That the Navy League, Admiral Tirpitz’s child that took on a willful life of its own, had a similar plebiscitary moment was lost on the kaiser, with his obsession with battleships.

The distinction between aristocratic and bourgeois officers has often been exaggerated, and the distinction between technically minded modernizing bourgeois and conservative traditionalist aristocrat is inadmissible. The aristocracy, which still made up more than half the officers of the rank of colonel and above in the Prussian army in 1913, set the tone. Officers were selected not by competitive examination, but by regimental commanders. They picked men of like mind and background. Only the sons of “respectable” bourgeois with sound views were selected. Pay was so wretched that a lieutenant in the more highly regarded regiments needed a private income. Jews were excluded. As in the British army the tradesman’s entrance was tightly shut. Bourgeois officers aped the ways of their aristocratic brothers - in - arms and subscribed to a common code of honor, resolutely refusing to be outdone in overbearing arrogance and contempt for mere civilians with their vulgar materialism. The appalling young subalterns who were so brilliantly and savagely caricatured in the satirical magazine Simplizissimus were unfortunately all too common. The naval officer corps was slightly less exclusive, but here too the aristocracy was over - represented. For all the increasing importance of technical skills and training, both officer corps remained a caste rather than a profession. But it was a caste that was widely admired and emulated in a process of “double militarism " whereby civilian society panegyrized military virtues, relished the prospect of war, enthusiastically supported the Army and Navy Leagues and forced its children into miniature military uniforms. The special status of the military and its widespread acceptance was a serious impediment to the modernization of the political system and the development of civil society.

BATTLE OF KURSK, (JULY 5–23, 1943)

The greatest armored battle in history and one of the largest battles ever fought. The limited success of the Soviet Orel-Briansk offensive operation under General Konstantin Rokossovsky in February and March, along with Field Marshal Erich von Manstein’s successful southern operations ( DON and the Third Battle of Kharkov ), set the lines of the Kursk bulge, a Soviet salient that projected 100 miles deep into German lines. The Wehrmacht built up unprecedented forces around Kursk from March to June. The great mass of German armor was ordered to the area, to ready to slice off the salient. Meanwhile, the Red Army also built up huge forces inside the bulge as well as along its wider flanks. The Soviets knew of the German plans and intended to meet them with even larger, well-hidden tank and air formations under Marshal Georgi Zhukov. These were deployed in a deep defensive field designed to absorb and bog down the German assault in its earliest stages. After strategically overreaching and failing in December 1941–February 1942, and again in January–March 1943, Joseph Stalin and the Stavka had at last recognized a deep truth about the war: it was fundamentally an exercise in sustained attrition necessary to wear down the Wehrmacht before any decisive thrust could be made into the vitals of Nazi Germany. Soviet forces therefore deployed in an extraordinarily deep set of seven defensive belts designed to absorb, bog down, and kill German armored thrusts at price of massive but accepted Soviet casualties and loss of equipment. The armor, artillery, infantry, and air combat that ensued combined to form the largest battle ever fought. Some 3.5 million troops in total fought at Kursk, nearly half the 8.5 million positioned that summer along a 1,500-mile long Eastern Front.

The German offensive plan, ZITADELLE, was delayed several times from April to July, partly for technical reasons and to refit on the German side but also because of the spring rasputitsa. During the postponements German and Soviet casualties dropped significantly. But there was also a building sense of violent tension as each side waited for the summer explosion into combat. Where Adolf Hitler grew evermore cautious and dubious about ZITADELLE as time passed, the Stavka had to restrain Stalin’s urge to attack prematurely. Zhukov’s plan was to draw the German armor into the Soviet defensive belts, in some places 175 miles deep. Only then would he spring a great trap around the Panzer columns with simultaneous counteroffensives on either side of the salient. For that, he held back huge Fronts whose presence was hidden from B-dienst and the Abwehr by some of the most elaborate and successful maskirovka operations of the war. In the south, the counteroffensive was given the additional task of retaking Kharkov and Belgorod, which had been lost to Field Marshal Erich von Manstein and the SS 2nd Panzer Corps in March. Soviet intelligence was unusually good at Kursk, although it mistook the Schwerpunkt as the north side of the salient whereas the Germans believed it was in the south and concentrated their effort there. Information came from multiple sources that allowed the VVS to catch the Luftwaffe on the ground, attacking forward airfields in a set of pre-emptive strikes carried out from May 6–8. And it then gave the Stavka three days advance notice of the precise hour of the German assault. That enabled Soviet artillery to hammer the armor spearheads at their jump-off points before dawn on July 5. Shelling massed Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS formations just 10 minutes before they were set to attack the first defense belt according to the usual, precise German instructions staggered the attacking troops, upset timetables, and shook the confidence of Hitler and the OKH. The armor and artillery battles that followed, as Panzer columns cut into the salient and through the first defensive belts, were bloody and destructive. The climax came in an armor battle at Prokhorovka, still the single greatest armored battle in history. From that point, Kursk became a vast and chaotic Kesselschlacht —or rather, a great kotel —that engaged over 5,000 tanks and lesser armored vehicles, thousands of guns, several thousand combat aircraft, and several million troops.

The Battle of Kursk saw Germans using aircraft to make up for losses suffered at Stalingrad and in Africa. Specialized Junkers Ju 87G Stukas and Henschel Hs 129Bs were used as flying artillery to compensate for weak ground artillery. Junkers Ju 87G Stuka was the most successful version was the Ju 87G1. This close-support aircraft’s armament consisted of two 37mm BK Flak 18 or Flak 36 cannons mounted under the wing. As German air superiority faded, the thinly armored, slow-moving Stuka was relegated to occasional ground attacks. Their formations were responsible for killing hundreds of Russian tanks. On the Russian side, Ilyushin Il-2M3 Shturmoviks armed with 37mm cannons were used with devastating effect against German armor.
In addition to the flying antitank weapons, the Germans armed their Focke-Wulf Fw 190As with SD-1 and SD-2 antipersonnel containers that rained down fragmentation bomblets on infantry and artillery positions.
The air battle was also huge. The Red Army suffered about 70,000 casualties of all types in the fighting at Kursk, excluding the wider Soviet counteroffensives on either side of the salient, which cost another 100,000 men. The Soviets lost nearly 500 aircraft and more than half the armor force they deployed, or over 1,600 tanks. In the main battle the Germans lost 57,000 men and considerably fewer tanks and planes, about 300 and 200, respectively. However, they lost so many tanks and planes in the related Soviet counteroffensives that followed Kursk—Operations KUTUZOV and RUMIANTSEV —that the Wehrmacht never again launched a strategic offensive operation on the Eastern Front. Instead, it surrendered the initiative and was confined to local counterattacks. Germany was already being out-produced in major weapons systems. Despite temporarily regaining a technical advantage with its Panthers and Tigers, it was out-produced in armor in such quantities by the Soviet Union and Western Allies that it never recovered its relative position from the loss of combat power in men and war machines suffered in the summer of 1943. For that reason, Kursk is often identified as the major turning point along the Eastern Front, more so even than Stalingrad. The Red Army for the first time at Kursk succeeded in physically blunting a major German offensive, rather than just defending desperately against it until the Wehrmacht ran out of momentum, as happened before at Moscow in December 1941, and at Stalingrad in November 1942. Then the Stavka launched a set of massive counteroffensives, which completely fooled the Germans in their direction, intentions, and timing. Kursk was, in Heinz Guderian’s expert estimation, the decisive defeat for Germany to that point in the war. After Kursk, the Soviets took the strategic offensive, starting a long and bloody drive that ended only with Hitler’s death in the “Führerbunker” beneath the ruins of Berlin in May 1945.

And yet, arms and aircraft production for both armed forces increased to the end of 1943 and again in 1944, while enlistments swelled new divisions, armies, and army groups. Most casualties suffered along the Eastern Front in World War II still lay in the future. Kursk no doubt massively accelerated the pace of destruction of German military power. But it cannot be argued that, had the Soviets lost at Kursk, the final outcome of the war would have been placed in grave doubt. Not even the greatest battle ever fought was sufficient to decide the larger armed struggle between mighty industrial empires. To decide the war in the east it would take a series of additional battles—a full campaign—fought hard to the end of 1943, then more savage campaigns along several axes of Soviet advance and German counterattack in 1944, and yet more thrusts and fighting and destruction over the first four months of 1945. Meanwhile, the air war continued over Germany and heavy fighting took place in Italy, while the Western powers did not invade France until mid-1944, after which there remained 11 months of fighting in the west. While it cannot really be said, therefore, that Kursk was “the” decisive victory or defeat of World War II, it certainly numbered among its greatest battles and did much to confirm and accelerate the trajectory of attrition that led to ultimate Soviet victory and German defeat.

Suggested Reading: Walter S. Dunn, Kursk: Hitler’s Gamble, 1943 (1997); David M. Glantz and Harold S. Orenstein, eds., The Battle for Kursk, 1943 (1999).