Life of the Fuehrer’s enabler
British historian Basil Liddell Hart called him “the Allies’ most formidable military opponent — a man who combined modern ideas of mobility with . . . a mastery of technical detail and great driving power.” Another military historian, John Keegan, called him “a battlefield commander of the highest quality . . . strongly resistant to the psychological intimidation by which Hitler overcame the intellectual independence of his lesser generals.”
The soldier in question is Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, a career army officer who remains little known in this country, in part because he fought almost exclusively on the eastern front. But Manstein has long fascinated British historians, and he is now the subject of a massively researched biography by a fellow soldier, Maj. Gen. Mungo Melvin.
Manstein was born in Prussia, the 10th child of a German army officer. From the outset he was destined for a military career, and in 1914 he was severely wounded while serving with the German army in East Prussia. His experiences in World War I convinced Manstein (along with many other military professionals) of the necessity of restoring mobility to the battlefield.
Manstein was on Gen. Gerd von Runstedt’s staff in the planning for the German invasion of France in 1940. He challenged the general staff’s plan to attack through Holland, arguing instead for an armored drive through the Ardennes. As it happened, Hitler was thinking along the same lines. The successful German invasion via the Ardennes put Manstein briefly in the fuehrer’s good graces.
Manstein soon proved himself an outstanding field commander as well. In the June 1941 invasion of Russia, he led a panzer corps with such elan that he was given command of an army under Army Group South. After clearing the Crimea and defeating a major Soviet counterattack, Manstein captured Sevastopol in July 1942.
In November of that year, Manstein, then a field marshal, was given command of Army Group Don, whose responsibilities included the Stalingrad sec- tor. He was unable to relieve the German army encircled there, but in the spring of 1943 he undertook a brilliant offensive that led to the recapture of Kharkov.
From then on, however, it was all downhill. He commanded one wing in a great offensive against the Kursk salient in July 1943, but the Germans were overcome in the greatest tank battle of all time. Henceforth he was on the defensive against increasingly well-led Soviet forces. He inflicted heavy casualties, but his repeated withdrawals incurred Hitler’s ire and led to his being fired in March 1944.
Until then, Manstein’s relations with the fuehrer had been more cordial than otherwise. (He would later write, “I cannot remember a human gaze ever conveying such willpower.”) Manstein had often argued with Hitler, but always about operational as opposed to strategic issues. As time went on and defeats accumulated, Hitler was no longer prepared to accept dissent from a confident professional who represented the aristocratic Junker class that he despised.
Such was Manstein’s prestige within the German armed forces that he was repeatedly approached by plotters seeking to remove Hitler. He invariably refused to involve himself, declaring on one occasion that “Prussian field marshals do not mutiny.” But such was Manstein’s sense of honor that would-be plotters could raise forbidden subjects safely, confident that the field marshal would not betray them. Gen. Melvin concludes that Manstein “was trapped throughout his career in a severely illiberal, authoritarian military hierarchy deeply imbued with Prussian-German virtues of honor, loyalty and independence.” As a soldier, however, Manstein “had the priceless ability to anticipate the actions of his opponent, to maneuver decisively and to foresee intuitively how best to exploit the resulting situation.”
In 1941, Manstein signed an order calling for the ruthless treatment of partisans and Jews. This led to his being tried for war crimes in 1949 and sentenced to 18 years’ imprisonment. In the end, he served four years. Manstein comes through as a rigid, tradition-bound soldier whose strategic vision fell short of his tactical skill. But there is a human side to the field marshal as well. According to the author, he trained his pet dachshund to raise its right paw in imitation of the Hitler salute.
John M. Taylor’s books include a biography of his father, “An American Soldier: The Wars of General Maxwell Taylor” (Presidio, 2001).