2010/01/03

German top military geniuses of the 20th century


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Ah, that's so much fun. A politically incorrect post. :-)

German military forces participated "prominently" in both World Wars during the first half of the 20th century and stood watch with a larger ground force contingent than any other NATO power in Central Europe during most of the Cold War.There were many personalities among its generals that deserve to be known even long after their death - just as von Clausewitz the premier military philosoph, the army reformer Scharnhorst and Moltke the Elder during the 19th century or Frederick the Great during the 18th.

Thousands of German generals served during the 20th century, and I think at least five geniuses deserve a special mention here.


This is my chronological top five list


Bruchmüller actually never got past the rank of Oberst (colonel). He earned his nickname Durchbruchmüller (breakthrough Müller) by orchestrating innovative and hugely effective artillery support for offensives in the latter part of the First World War. He used an unparalleled knowledge of weapons and munitions effects to optimize the use of artillery and spent less ammunition for greater effect than the Allies did.

He was the father of modern artillery. He created an artillery paradigm that stood till the rise of precision guided artillery munitions during last years of the 20th century.





He was an arch-conservative in his time and is therefore a politically incorrect choice, but he's more than notable for what he turned the inter-war army into: The most professional, most competent army of the world. The unbelievable growth potential and overqualification of that army enabled the impressive enlargement to the most powerful army of the world during only about seven years of the Hitler regime in the 30's.
The restrictions imposed on the Reichswehr during Seeckt's time in office dwarf any budget crunches that NATO armies ever suffered.
His approach of a ridiculously overqualified and professional army is still a worthy object for modern study. The Reichswehr was one of the few historical armies that didn't get fat, lazy and soft during peacetime.



The inventor of the most successful mechanization approach (Blitzkrieg) and a highly successful leader in wartime.

Liddel-Hart, Fuller, Tukachevski and de Gaulle were mechanization pioneers as well, but none of them developed an as revolutionary or as successful system as did Guderian (in concert with Manstein).
He deserved to be called the father of modern armoured warfare (with the exception of assault gun tactics).




(4) Erich von Manstein (born as Fritz Erich von Lewinski)


He was already known to be an operational prodigy during the late 30's and became the operational genius of the Second World War.
His operational concept defeated the supposedly most (or second-most) powerful army of the World (the French one) in six days* followed by less than six weeks of making it obvious for everyone.

He shattered the paradigm of secured flanks in conjunction with Guderian during 1940. This released the mechanised/motorised forces' mobility for full operational exploitation.

Likewise, he pioneered the operational concept of Schlagen aus der Nachhand ("mobile defense") later on the Eastern Front; he allowed Soviet forces to advance deeply, overextend themselves beyond the culminating point and cut them off with a flank attack. It was just as the 1940 operation against France a very daring move, one that required great patience and a victory over the fear that a successful enemy advance instills in soldiers.

(5) ?

I'm spoilt for choice. Any suggestions?

Oskar von Hutier, probably the father of modern infantry, was certainly a top ten candidate, but I'm not sure about top 5 status because the achievements that English-speaking scholars tend to attribute to him were apparently more an almost army-wide parallel invention.

(Forget about Rommel; he was more a talented self-promoter like MacArthur and Petraeus than a military genius. The German army had dozens of equal or better officers during WW2.)


It's politically incorrect in modern Germany to praise the talent and performance of German officers who were active between the end of the First World War and the end of the Second World War.
Nevertheless, these (three) stood out so much that they should inspire the present and coming generations of German officers to be as innovative and to help as talented comrades to succeed.


*: The French army commander Gamelin admitted on May 15th in presence of the American ambassador that they had already lost.

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12 comments:

  1. Von Seeckt ... ouch. :-)

    Well, I'd probably put Manstein before Guderian. Even though the tank was definitely the most decisive new weapon, the Wehrmacht was for the most part still an infantry army and the tank's relative importance declined rather quickly as the war shifted from offensive to defensive operations.

    As for the rest, I can't say that I can contribute much. I am a bit befuddled, though. Personally I couldn't wrap my head around that ethical dilemma of admiring someone's operational genius when it ultimately served an inhumane strategic goal. Maybe you could write about that some time. After all, I'm not the only one who can't begin to solve this, the Bundeswehr as a whole still has to deal with this. Or maybe I'm just too nit-picky?

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  2. It's chronological (Guderian became effective & important before Manstein did), so there's no need to put Manstein before Guderian.
    Manstein was furthermore the operational genius of mobile warfare with fast troops - his use of infantry divisions didn't stand out that much among Wehrmacht generals afaik.


    The ethical aspect should either be ignored or at least not be applied with tunnel vision.

    The ancient army leaders such as Caesar and Alexander are being admired without taking into acount their utterly unethical side.

    There are in fact very few great generals in military history who did not serve a dictator or were ruthless against civilians. Ironically, von Seeckt seems to fit into that rare category.

    Finally, I wrote this in English and conform with the typical English military literature stance to such things: Less ideology, more interest in professional talent, capability and performance.

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  3. Sven-

    Nice post.

    I would add Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and Colmar von der Goltz and drop Guderian and von Manstein.

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  4. Lettow-Vorbeck is an interesting suggestion. His remarkable actions were certainly among the most unusual ones in German military history.

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  5. Rommel is completely unknown in Russia.

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  6. Rommel's fame stems from

    * his activity in an exotic place (Africa)

    * his willingness play with and for the PK (Propagandakompanie)

    * his "Infanterie greift an!" self-promotion book about his admittedly unbelievable (both in regard to skill and luck) successes in 1914-1917.

    His actual skill didn't seem to have been very exceptional in comparison to other German generals - top 100 probably. The British respect him, but many people from former Western Allied nations tend to ignore the Eastern Front as much as possible.

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  7. Yeah, in Anglosphere, he's the only widely-know German general, for reasons you've described.

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  8. This seems to focus a lot on the army. What about the Luftwaffe and the German Navy? I would perhaps suggest Walther Wever - the architect of the Luftwaffe before WW2. The Luftwaffe was in many ways the key to several ground victories and Wever did some fine work before he was killed in an air crash in 1936. Perhaps the corrupt and inefficient leadership of Hermann Göring would have stopped him anyway before he could have created a truly modern and effective air force?

    I would also suggest Karl Dönitz. German subs came according to Churchill closer than anyone else to defeat Great Britain.

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  9. Dönitz' wolfpack tactics based on what had been developed back in WWI, he did merely add the communications part and was in my opinion rather mediocre during the tech & tacticts race '42-'43.


    Operational Luftwaffe leadership resided very much in the wing leaders (Geschwaderkommodore). That's why it's so difficult to spot exceptional high level leaders.

    Wever - well, he advocated strategic bombers at a time when there were simply not enough resources and know-how for a success of the approach. I dont recall anything especially impressive of him.

    I thought about Kesselring instead, who proved to be a capable air AND army leader (Italy). He's unique, but he wasn't exceptional enough for top 5 in my opinion.

    Kammhuber wasn't successful enough to qualify, as attested by today's German cityscapes.

    Udet was impressive in some ways and totally deficient in others; a classic case of "great colonel, poor general".

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  10. Guderian is a comme ci comme ca choice. He was a shamelesss self promoter as well, and hardly any other general got along with him. Also he was at a complete loss during his later time as acting chief of the army general staff.
    IMHO he is mainly to be credited with putting emphasis on (radio based) communication within the armored forces, but here Fellgiebel might be mentioned as well (generally it might be worth to have a lookout for more competent staff officers as well).

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  11. If the Luftwaffe might be included, I would definitely include Wolfram von Richthofen, for developing the basic framework of close air support doctrine and procedures, which is basically valid still today.

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  12. Guderian did some absolutely critical things as a leader, developing his officers into the arour mind set.

    Some others tried to get a bit of his fame by publishing post-war books emphasizing their own role, but his role in the development of the first operationally and in many cases evens trategically decisive armor arm was the greatest.

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