On the Eastern Front German forces had suffered significant reverses since Red Army offensive at the beginning of the year. Rationally they had suffered significant defeats from which there was no real prospect of recovering. Yet Hitler managed to maintain morale in his army and keep them fighting despite everything.
Hitlers attitude to these defeats was only discovered from his personal aides after the war, when his personal valet, Heinz Linge, and his SS adjutant, Otto Guensche became prisoners of the Soviets. Interrogation of these two men provided a picture of Hitler in his private moments and when when making key decisions – this material was collated into what became known as “The Hitler Book”. This remained a Soviet state secret for a long time, a personal entertainment for Stalin.
Only recently published in the west, it throws light on Hitlers attitude when facing defeat:
In the middle of February 1944 Zeitzler [Chief of Staff] briefed Hitler on the situation on the Eastern Front, He had long ceased to be the bundle of energy he had once been. He still spoke as quickly as ever, but now he gave the impression of wanting to finish the briefing as quickly as possible. As always in recent times, he began with the situation of Army Group South.
He reported that the position of German troops on the lower reaches of the Dnieper had got so bad that they would have to withdraw from the industrial area of Nikopol, and in this connection he said that the Army Group High Command wanted to retreat a few kilometres westwards in order to straighten out the line.
At these words Hitler leaped up, threw himself across the table, screwed up the map in his left hand and screamed, ‘If only the generals could finally understand why I cling to this area so much! We urgently need Nikopol manganese! They simply don’t want to understand this. And as soon as they are a few tanks short, they go immediately to their radios and say; “Without tanks we can`t hold on. We ask for permission to retreat!”
Hitler had pointed out many times that Nikopol manganese was particularly important in the making of stainless steel. That was why sources of raw materials had to be retained at all com. For that reason the Nikopol area had to be turned into a fortress that could not be taken by the Russians.
Hitler fell into an armchair. He stared at Zeitzler with wide-open eyes as if he wanted his support. Zeitzler, however, said nothing. He knew that to be the best policy at such moments. When Hitler’s wrath had abated a little, Zeitzler continued.
When Zeitzler had finished, Hitler ordered that the map of the southern sector be opened again. He studied it excitedly.
Then, in a calmer voice, he declared that the war against Russia had entered a phase that would decide its outcome – victory or defeat. Any army can lose and be repulsed, but there is irrefutably a moment when all these blows come together to create a catastrophe. This was the current position on the German Eastern Front.
As a result it was absolutely vital to demonstrate an iron will. Any further withdrawal ultimately meant defeat for Germany. From now on a general or officer who suggested to him that there should be further retreat he would punish severely or simply shoot.
It was not primarily about operational experience any more, but about the firmness and steadfastness of commanders. As a result he would give the post of commander to young generals and officers who possessed these qualities. Officers of this sort he would promote by two or three grades.