On the 6th February a Condor aircraft was despatched to collect Field Marshal von Manstein for a conference with Hitler. In the wake of Stalingrad the German armies in the eastern front were still in a dire situation. von Manstein was now commanding the ‘Army Group Don’. He had had overall command of the German attempt to relieve Stalingrad, Operation Winter Storm. Now he was trying to consolidate the German lines and bring stability to the Eastern front.
He wanted to talk to Hitler not just about immediate operational matters but also the chain of command. Ever since Hitler had adopted the role of Supreme Commander after the dismissal of Field Marshal von Brauchitsch his generals had complained about his interference in decision making in the field. The army commanders wanted freedom to be able to react to situations themselves without constantly referring back to the Fuhrer.
Von Manstein wanted the formal chain of command to be revised. Hitler, of course, was having nothing of it. Von Mansteins account of the conference on the 6th February 1943 runs to several pages and goes to some length to describe Hitlers military ability and outlook. It is one of the most insightful accounts from any of the senior commanders who personally worked with Hitler:
Hitler opened the talks – as I have already reported in the chapter on Stalingrad – with an unqualified admission of his exclusive responsibility for the fate of Sixth Army, which had met its tragic end a few days previously.
At the time I had the impression that he was deeply affected by this tragedy, not just because it amounted to a blatant failure of his own leadership, but also because he was deeply depressed in a purely personal sense by the fate of the soldiers who, out of faith in him, had fought to the last with such courage and devotion to duty.
Yet later on I came to doubt whether Hitler had any place whatever in his heart for the soldiers who put such boundless trust in him and remained true to him till the end. By then I wondered if he did not regard all of them – from field-marshal down to private soldier – as mere tools of his war aims.
Be that as it may, this gesture of Hitler’s in assuming immediate and unqualified responsibility for Stalingrad struck a chivalrous note. Whether deliberately or unconsciously, he had thus shown considerable psychological skill in the way he opened our discussion. He always did have a masterly knack of adapting his manner to his interlocutor.
As was to be my experience on similar occasions, he avoided any real discussion of what I had to say on operational matters. He did not even try to propound a better plan of his own or to refute the assumptions on which I had based my arguments. Nor did he dispute that the situation would develop in the way I felt bound to anticipate. He treated every statement not bearing directly on the most pressing needs of the moment as sheer hypothesis which might or might not become reality.
Now, all considerations of an operational nature are ultimately based – especially when one has lost the initiative to the enemy – on appreciations or hypotheses regarding the course of action which the enemy may be expected to take. While no one can prove beforehand that a situation will develop in such-and-such a way, the only successfiil military commander is the one who can think ahead.
He must be able to see through the veil in which the enemy’s future actions are always wrapped, at least to the extent of correctly judging the possibilities open to both the enemy and himself.
The greater one’s sphere of command, of course, the further ahead one must think. And the greater the distances to be covered and the formations to be moved, the longer is the interval that must elapse before the decision one has taken can produce tangible results. This long-term thinking was not to Hitler’s taste, however – at least not in the operational field.
Possibly he disliked the prospect of being confronted with conclusions which did not conform to his wishes. Since these could not be refined, he avoided becoming involved in them wherever possible.