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The First Soldier: Hitler as Military Leader.

The First Soldier: Hitler as Military Leader

By Stephen G. Fritz

Undoubtedly, one of the most written about figures of the twentieth century is Adolf 1 Hitler. The work under consideration here ranks as an excellent addition to that corpus of literature. The focus of Stephen Fritz, one of the more astute observers of the military history of the Third Reich, is on Hitler's career as a military leader.

Fritz begins with Hitler's understanding of military theory and history. Hitler was thoroughly conversant with the concepts of Carl von Clausewitz, and was also familiar, though how much remains debatable, with the geopolitical ideas of Karl Haushofer. A true autodidact, Hitler also read a fair amount of military history, economics, and the racist tracts of Volkisch writers. Some of this reading served Hitler well later as a military leader in that, as Fritz suggests, he generally had a better understanding of economics than his generals.

Perhaps the most written about aspect of Hitler's activity in World War II by military historians concerns his relationship with his generals. Fritz delves into this area with his considerable acuity, and emerges with some very nuanced arguments. Ideologically, Hitler had little opposition to brook. The majority of German generals shared much of Hitler's ideological outlook, as well as his expansionist and exterminationist aims.

On operational matters, Hitler more often than not, as Fritz points out, was willing to defer to his generals, even during the latter half of the war. While Hitler did not necessarily serve his subordinates well, Fritz argues Hitler was not well served by his subordinates either. The most notable person who comes in for rough treatment in this regard is Franz Haider. Chief of the General Staff from September 1938 until his dismissal in September 1942, Haider was in many ways the antithesis of Hitler militarily.

A professional soldier, Haider had spent his career in a long line of staff positions. The quintessential Frontkampfer, Hitler was never averse to throwing his frontline service in Haider's face, suggesting he knew more about war than many of his generals. As a staff officer and operational thinker, Fritz's picture of Haider is unflattering, to say the least. Stolid and unimaginative, Haider was often unscrupulous enough to withhold information from Hitler, which he might have found useful in making decisions.

Operationally, Fritz notes Hitler, as even such postwar critics as Erich von Manstein agreed, was capable of the occasional shrewd insight. Hitler could read a map as well as many professional officers, and could offer well considered analysis of situations. What he often lacked was the kind of professional knowledge when it came to the management of large scale movements and what was possible to accomplish.

Oddly, Hitler and his generals shared two principal faults as military leaders. The first was a lack of understanding of strategy. While Hitler had a clear, if horrifying vision of what the post war world should look like, he had no clear notion of how to get there. Hitler's blindness in this area was shared by his military advisors. Although many were graduates of the vaunted Kriegs Akademie, the school's curriculum--the only professional military education an officer received in his career--remained focused at the operational and tactical levels. Thus, after Operation Barbarossa faltered and the United States entered the war, neither Hitler nor his military advisors had the foggiest notion of how to proceed. Commanders themselves, most notably Manstein, at times confused strategy with operations. This was especially true during his time as commander of Army Group South, especially after the defeat at Kursk.

Another problematic area was logistics. While Hitler understood macroeconomics much better than his generals, he did not understand logistics, and the impact that logistics could have on operations. In this, however, Hitler was not alone. The planning and conduct of German military operations in both world wars was marked by the bad habit of often waving away potential logistical problems, seemingly believing such issues would solve themselves. This approach, often based on faulty assumptions, eventually bore more risk than the Germans could deal with, especially when operations had to be conducted in areas with poor or underdeveloped infrastructure.

While coalition warfare was more the province of Hitler the Fuhrer as opposed to Hitler the Feldherr, the subject gets very little play in the book. This is unfortunate, given the critical role Axis forces were earmarked to play in the 1942 campaign in Russia.

Ultimately, the picture of Hitler that emerges from Fritz's work is a very nuanced one. Although Hitler remained the committed ideologue to the end, even late in the war he could still come up with gifted insight. Too often, however, this was followed by raving self-delusion, which served to undermine whatever advantage may have been gained from the previous insight. This work, marked by the kind of meticulous research and well-supported argument that we have come to expect from Fritz, is a most welcome addition to the pantheon of World War II scholarship. Students of command and leadership at the highest levels, both in and out of uniform, will profit from this outstanding work.

Reviewed by Dr. Richard L. DiNardo, USMC Command and Staff College
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Title Annotation:BIOGRAPHY
Author:Dinardo, Richard L.
Date:Dec 22, 2018
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