Life of the Fuehrer’s en­abler

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

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).

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.