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Adolf Hitler: Assessment as a Military Commander

MG is a senior air warrior who is an alumnus of the Staff College and a notable writer on military history.

adolf-hitler-assessment-as-a-military-commander

Introduction

Adolf Hitler is one of the colossi of the 20th century, in the sense that his name cannot be erased from world history, especially in the 20th century. He was a charismatic figure who captivated the hearts of the German-speaking people and for a brief period of about a decade or more, dominated the European stage to the extent that his name cannot be ignored. In 1933 he came to power on the back of a general election where his party became the largest single party in the Reichstag. He, however, had a dictatorial frame of mind and made plans to perpetuate his rule. He got the German parliament building burnt and blamed it on the communists and promulgated the state of emergency. After the death of the aging president Marshall Hindenburg, he became the chancellor of Germany.

One of the facts of history is that he plunged the world into the biggest war ever in the history of mankind that overshadowed the campaigns of Alexander and Genghis Khan. One can perhaps compare him to Napoleon Bonaparte but there is a difference. Bonaparte is given high marks by most western historians as a military leader, they do not accord the same capability to Hitler. Prominent historians like JFC Fuller and Liddlehart's thinking is clouded by the fact that he was a corporal in the German army doing World War I. To their way of thinking it is incomprehensible that a man who had no formal training as an officer and was only a Corporal could have the ability to lead armies and shake the world.

Indian historians however look at Hitler in a different light. Their thinking is not colored by the racial theories of Hitler and the fact that he was a corporal. Western historians give him pretty low marks as a general and commander but this is not the entire truth. The truth is somewhere midway and we have to assess Adolf Hitler as a strategist, commander, and planner in the field of battle and compare him with the captains of history who are regarded as great soldiers namely Alexander, Napoleon, and Genghis Khan.

In this article, we will examine this aspect of Hitler and not refer to his racial theories and see what conclusion we can draw.

adolf-hitler-assessment-as-a-military-commander

Planner

The first quality of any commander is to plan a campaign. Let us see how Hitler fares as a planner. We must accept the fact that after he had taken over as the chief of the OKW, Hitler was the only man who took the decisions and approved the plans for the invasions, whether of France or Russia.

He was at loggerheads with his general staff on many issues and the first issue I will refer to is the conquest of Norway. The German general staff was not in favor of invading Norway mainly because of the omnipotent strength of the Royal Navy. They appreciated the strength of the Royal Navy and advised Hitler against an invasion of Norway. Hitler, however, had a spark of genius and he launched the invasion of Norway despite the opposition of the general staff and landed German troops at five places in Norway and within a month the entire campaign was over. The royal navy turned out to be a paper tiger. We must give credit to Hitler as it was planned and conceived by him.

The battle of France was approved by him at his headquarters in the Reichstag chancellery. Just before the battle, he moved to the Franco-German border to direct the German armies. it was another brainwave where he took the decision to invade France through the Low Countries. This was a masterstroke and the formidable Maginot line which was built up by the French for defense against Germany was breached and the 5 million-strong French army was defeated. His planning for this campaign was immaculate and to the point and he achieved not only victory but his political objective as France under Marshall Petain came on the German side.

The first flaw in Hitler's thinking as a planner comes when he decided to postpone operation Sea Lion, the invasion of England. In this he allowed his better judgment to be swayed by racist theories and he turned his attention to conquering Russia. The Russian campaign was planned by Hitler to the minutest details and it is on record that 1 million men of the German army invaded Russia and advanced a 1000 km. There is no parallel in four thousand years of the world history of such a gigantic invasion. Hitler by signing the nonaggression pact with Russia fooled Stalin. The campaign during 1941-42 now reads something like the invasion of Genghis Khan.

Hitler was more than an average planner but his fault was he had very little flexibility. One of the principles of war is flexibility and this he lacked. The battle of Stalingrad was lost entirely by his inflexible approach and he could have salvaged the situation had he agreed to the request by Field Marshal Von Manstein to allow Von Paulos to break out and retreat. This didn't happen and the Germans began to lose the initiative.

Another point that goes against Hitler is his lack of comprehension of AirPower, in particular, strategic attacks. He had a little concept of interdiction and his entire concept of the Air Force was its use as a tactical force. He also had a little comprehension of naval warfare and sending ships like the battleship Bismark on suicidal missions would show him as a poor planner.

adolf-hitler-assessment-as-a-military-commander

Supreme commander

The job of any commander of any armed force is twofold. First, he has to look after the welfare of the soldiers under his command, and second, he has to instill in them the spirit of devilry. There is no doubt that the German soldiers were fanatically devoted to Hitler. You can put it down to anything like propaganda and other things but that is part of the game. The fact is the German army was highly motivated but again I must say that Hitler had little concern for the soldier fighting on the front. He had a megalomaniac streak and a soldier's life mattered little to him.

The commander also has to ensure that the rules of war and the Geneva convention are followed by the men under him. Here he was found wanting as he allowed the political commissars with the Red army to be shot without a trial. He also failed the Geneva Convention and 65 % of Russian prisoners of war died in prison camps.

He had tremendous willpower and that was the reason he stabilized the front in 1943-44 but the results on the German soldier were disastrous and thousands died just to satisfy his ego.



adolf-hitler-assessment-as-a-military-commander

Assessment

Where do we place Hitler in the pantheon of great soldiers? let us have a look at Napoleon Bonaparte. Most western historians consider him to be a great general though he lost heavily on the Russian front and was defeated at Waterloo. In 1815 when the Prussians were wanting his head, he went into hiding and surrendered to the English, because at that time, he was the most hated man in Europe. The other great conquers like Alexander and Timur could not bring any permanence and their empires folded up after their death.

Many people are not aware that Hitler was not just a corporal but he had read the great writers of warfare like Moltke, von Schiffilian, Clausewitz, and others. He thus had fairly good knowledge about land warfare but his knowledge of air warfare and Naval operations and was poor. Napoleon also lost the battle of Trafalgar and his naval contribution by zero. None of the allied generals have any claim to fame in particular the generals on the Western front namely Eisenhower and Montgomery. They were facing substandard German troops and just the minimum required for defense as the bulk of the elite army were facing Russia. In my view, Marshall Zhukov is rated highly but he won mainly because of preponderance in numbers and weapons of the Red Army.

In sum, one can say that Hitler was a good planner but not a good commander. On a 10 point scale, I will place him at 6.5 or 7 and that I suppose is pretty good but obviously, if Napoleon can be rated highly, I do not see why Hitler cannot.

The real history of this period and the contribution of Hitler as a commander will probably emerge after another 50 years. In the meantime, in India, at least many historians have opined that the freedom of India would never have taken place if Hitler had not been there.

Comments

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on August 09, 2021:

Rodric, thank you for your comment. By the way it is good that the white man left India because there were boards like" Indians and dogs not allowed"

Rodric Anthony Johnson from Surprise, Arizona on August 09, 2021:

Thanks for following up with the answer, MG. I appreciate the extra knowledge. Hitler helped to weaken the British's hold on India so it could assert its independence! That is one good thing he did.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on August 09, 2021:

Rodric, thank you. Briefly, in 1939 the UK was at its apex and was planning to rule India for another 200 years. But in 6 years of fighting the UK won a pyrrhic victory and Hitler who courted many Indian leaders like Subhas Chandra Bose were able to unleash forces in the Indian army that made British rule over India impossible. The army and navy could no longer be relied on to hold India and Cin C India Field Marshal Auchinleck informed London that India could no longer be held. There were mutinies in Karachi and Mumbai and English officers were shot dead. Attlee decided to leave gracefully. The effect of Hitler was to emasculate the English and they were so weak they couldn't hold India. Lord Attlee admitted it in 1954.

Rodric Anthony Johnson from Surprise, Arizona on August 08, 2021:

I would like to know how he contributed to the freedom of India. I believe he was an influential leader to convince so many to his side. He reminds me of Shaka Zulu in his thinking. If he would not have sent that force into Russia, it is possible I could be speaking German today. He shot himself in the foot with that call.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on August 08, 2021:

Thank you Femi, so nice you commented.

femi from Nigeria on August 08, 2021:

You write something real heavy stuff.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on August 06, 2021:

David, it is a pleasure reading your comment. I am glad you agree with the theme of this article which is out of the limits set by the West.

David Isaac on August 06, 2021:

I have enjoyed reading this article I must compliment you that this is not a run-of-the-mill article but definitely something out of the ordinary. Your assessment of Hitler is correct and maybe in another four or five decades his role will be appreciated more

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on August 06, 2021:

Olusegun, it's a pleasure to read your comment. You are right we must not tar a leader with one brush but see all aspects of his life.

OLUSEGUN from NIGERIA on August 06, 2021:

I enjoyed reading this article. You said he ruled for a brief period of a decade, but to me a decade of rulership is not brief because we know what we are experiencing in Nigeria now under the rulership that is 6 years and some months.

However, I think I understand why you said the rulership of a decade is brief for if we compared his decade of rulership with Monarchy styles of ancient days in which a King can rule for 4 or more decades it is very brief indeed.

By and large this work deserves commendation and could be learnt from as a leader in different disciplines that we should allow flexibilities drink from the cups of knowledge of others by this means we shall be a balance leader and world shakers.

Impressive work.

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