♦ The High Command 1941-45 ♦

The German Army in World War II


Hitler and his generals at the at the map table, 1942 (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

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The prelude to Operation Barbarossa—the invasion of the USSR—extinguished such vestiges of independence as the High Command of the Army (Oberkommando des Heeres or OKH) still possessed. In his capacity as supreme commander of the armed forces, Hitler decreed that henceforth OKH would concern itself with the Russian front exclusively. All other areas of operations were designated as OKW (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht or High Command of the Armed Forces) theaters of war. Thus unity of command, to the extent that it could still be said to exist, was embodied in Hitler’s person alone. The authority of the Commander-in-Chief of the Army, Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch, was circumscribed accordingly: He could no longer issue orders to Army commands in the OKW theaters.

Hitler also took an active hand in the planning of Barbarossa. He, von Brauchitsch and the Chief of the General Staff, Colonel-General Franz Halder, agreed that the first objective must be the encirclement and destruction of the Soviet forces in the border areas of the USSR. But they did not agree about what should happen next. OKH argued that the main effort should be made on the Moscow axis. Not only was the road and rail net was more extensive in that direction, but the Soviet capital was a major industrial center and hub of communications that the Red Army would be compelled to defend, and whose loss might prove fatal to the Soviet regime.

The Führer, however, had other ideas: the capture of Leningrad and the seizure of Ukraine, the USSR’s breadbasket and a major source of raw materials. He argued that the loss of these territories would cripple the Soviet war effort, and that their resources were essential to sustain the German war effort. For the moment this disagreement was papered over, Hitler telling Brauchitsch and Halder that a final decision on future operations would be made after the successful conclusion of Barbarossa’s first phase.

German troops in Russia, winter 1941-42 (Bundesarchiv)

But as things turned out, the division of command responsibility and Hitler’s non-decision on the second phase of Barbarossa stored up trouble for the future. All might have been well if the Russian campaign could have been finished off as planned by the autumn of 1941. But for various reasons, prominent among them the Germans’ underestimation of the USSR’s military resources, this proved impossible. The last lingering hopes for a quick victory dissipated with Hitler’s decision to halt the drive on Moscow in July 1941 and divert forces to the north and south, grasping for Leningrad and the Ukraine. But the drive on Leningrad failed, leaving the city besieged but still in Russian hands. And though a great victory was won at Kiev, with some 600,000 troops of the Red Army killed, wounded or made prisoner, strategically it led nowhere. Finally, when the attack on Moscow was belatedly resumed in September it lacked sufficient punch and stalled out with the onset of winter. Then came the shock of the first Soviet winter counteroffensive, which for a time seemed to threaten the German Army with a defeat of Napoleonic proportions. Though the immediate crisis was mastered, it was clear to the generals and even to Hitler that Barbarossa had failed. The war in the east would go on—and German’s prospects for winning it appeared increasingly doubtful.

These alarming developments had both short- and long-term consequences. First, the Red Army’s 1941-42 counteroffensive provoked a command shakeup on the German side, with many senior officers dismissed. Once it became obvious that Moscow could not be captured, the generals had advocated a general withdrawal to a defensible winter line, but to this the Führer was adamantly opposed. He argued, no doubt correctly, that such a retreat would devolve into a rout, and demanded instead an all-out defense in place. Hitler got his way in this by the simple expedient of dismissing von Brauchitsch and putting himself in direct command of the Army. He thus united in his person the offices of head of state, supreme commander of the armed forces as a whole, and commander-in-chief of the Army. No longer could any other individual or institution claim independent military authority or responsibility. In effect, OKH was reduced to the status of Hitler’s planning and operations staff for the Eastern Front only. But even this relationship was undermined by his distrust of the generals and the General Staff as a whole—a distrust that developed into a mania as the war went on and the tide turned against Germany.

The fragmentation of military authority intensified the already bitter rivalry between OKH and OKW, exemplified by endless wrangling over the allocation of forces among the various fronts. One of the key responsibilities of a military high command in wartime is the management of reserves and military resources generally. But by 1941 there existed in National Socialist Germany no such responsible body; only Hitler, standing alone at the apex of a jury-rigged command structure, could take fundamental decisions. And though on more than a few occasions his judgment proved superior to that of the Generalität, the Führer was unfitted by temperament or training for such a task. Hitler had no respect for institutions nor any understanding of corporate responsibility. Only his will mattered—and the worse things went for Germany, the more completely was the will of the Führer substituted for rational calculation.

Department of History, USMA West Point

The disastrous results of the 1942-43 campaign, beginning with the German summer offense in the southern USSR and ending with the Stalingrad debacle, laid bare the impotence of OKH and bankruptcy of German strategy. Hitler’s decision to divide his forces in the southern USSR, sending part toward Stalingrad on the Volga and part into the Caucasus, was a grave strategic error, compounded by the Führer’s burgeoning obsession with the capture of the “city of Stalin.” This set the stage for the second Soviet winter counteroffensive, which trapped and destroyed Sixth Army at Stalingrad. Coming as it did on top of defeat at El Alamein in North Africa, Stalingrad clearly signaled the psychological if not quite the military turning point of the war.

Stalingrad also extinguished the last smoldering ashes of OKH's autonomy. From mid-1943 to the end of the war, the High Command of the Army existed in name only. Hitler had stripped it of all authority so that the penultimate Chief of the OKH, Colonel-General Heinz Guderian, appointed after the attempt on the Führer’s life (20 July 1944) spent much of his time in futile wrangling over petty military details as Germany plunged inexorably into the abyss of defeat. To that humiliating and dishonorable end was the OKH brought by the devil’s bargain it had struck with Adolf Hitler and National Socialism.

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Copyright © 2020 by Thomas M. Gregg. All Rights Reserved

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