Hitler had been incensed by capitulation of the ‘traitorous’ Italians and German forces swiftly took control of the country. The prospect of the Allies moving easily up the ‘soft underbelly of Europe’, as Churchill had once imagined, proved to be quite false. Mountainous Italy, with nearly all its rivers running across the path of the Allied advance northwards, was soon revealed to be almost perfect terrain for the slow defensive war that the Germans now chose to fight.
The political situation was more complicated, with the new Italian government eventually declaring war against Germany. Hitler wanted a pro German regime. The first step was restoring Mussolini to power. Hitler was very keen to rescue Mussolini, who he regarded as a personal friend, from imprisonment. The daring raid of the 12th September attracted world wide attention.
Hitler’s Propaganda Chief, Josef Goebbels welcomed the publicity. He was rather less sure that restoring Mussolini to power, even in a puppet regime, was a good idea:
Liberation in the Apennines was undertaken with gliders. One of these landed fifty feet in front of the hostelry in which the Duce was staying. Within a few minutes he was free. He was of course deeply touched at being rescued from captivity by German soldiers.
Our soldiers proceeded pretty brutally and thereby kept the Italian Carabinieri guards in check. A few hours later the Duce was in Vienna. Just before calling me the Fuehrer had had a telephone conversation with him.
He told me that the Duce was deeply shaken by developments. He informed the Fuehrer that he was tired and sick and would first of all like to have a long sleep. On Monday he wanted to visit his family in Munich. We shall soon see whether he is still capable of large-scale political activity. The Fuehrer thinks so. At any rate he will meet Mussolini at G.H.Q. on Tuesday.
However much I may be touched on the human side by the Duce’s liberation, I am nevertheless sceptical about its political advantages. With the Duce out of the way, we had a chance to wipe the slate clean in Italy.
Without any restraint, and basing our action on the grandiose treachery of the Badoglio regime, we could force a solution of all our problems regarding Italy.
Hitler suffered from a number of illnesses during the war, mainly related to nervous exhaustion and abdominal complaints. These were undoubtedly exacerbated when the war was going badly and he himself was under stress. Many people regarded him as something of a hypochondriac. His readiness to try alternative therapies probably led him to put his trust in Dr Theodor Morell as his personal doctor. Morell indulged him with a wide variety of patent medicines that may actually have done Hitler more harm than good.
Theodor Morell may have been implicitly trusted by Hitler but he was regarded as a fraud by many others. A Wehrmacht doctor, Dr Giesing, tried the little black ‘anti-gas pills’ that Morell was issuing, in an attempt to discover what effect they had. He experienced ‘irritability, photophobia and stomach cramps’ – they contained strychnine. Nevertheless Hitler continued with Morell who was always ready with an injection when he felt tired, or a herbal tea enema for his gastric problems. He saw him on an almost daily basis.
On the 18th July Hitler was under a lot of stress. The problems on the Eastern front could now only get worse, and he was now faced with the Allies in Sicily, threatening invasions elsewhere. His Italian ally could be seen to be readily buckling, so he flew off to confront Mussolini. Before he went he called for Morell who recorded:
Fuhrer had me sent for at ten-thirty A.M., said he has had the most violent stomach pains since three A.M. and hasn’t slept a wink. His abdomen is as taut as a board, full of gas, with no palpation pains anywhere. Looking very pale and exceptionally jumpy: facing a vital conference with the Duce in Italy tomorrow.
Diagnosis: Spastic constipation caused by overwork over the last few days — three days with virtually no sleep, one conference after another and working far into the night. Last night he ate white cheese and roll-ups (Rolladen) with spinach and peas.
As he can’t duck out of some important conferences and decisions before his departure at three-thirty P.M., no narcotics can be given him; I can only give him an intravenous injection of one ampoule of Eupaverin, some gentle stomach massage, two Euflat pills and three spoons of olive oil. Last night he took five Leo pills.
Before leaving for the aireld I gave him an intramuscular injection of an ampoule of Eukodal. He was looking very bad and rather faint.
In the Condor airplane Reichsmarschall Goring wanted to give me a few final tips (Ondarza was standing just behind him): ‘You must give him Euflat. That once helped me a lot.’ ‘Yes, two tablets three times a day. I’m doing it already.’ ‘But you’ve got to keep doing it over a long period. I took them for eighteen months. And then you must give him Luizym too!’
We’re already doing that too!’ (He got the name wrong at first but Ondarza corrected him.)
During the actual flight Hitler let off wind, which resulted in some improvement. Upon reaching the Berghof I gave him another body massage, with more Euflat followed by the Luizym I have been giving him now repeatedly for some time.
In the evening he had some quite easily digestible nutrition and went to bed around twelve-thirty, after taking a Phanodorm-Calc and half a Quadronox tablet.
See D. Irving (ed.) Theodor Morell: The Secret Diaries of Hitlers Doctor, London Grafton, 1990
Hitlers favourite architect and perhaps the closest person who might be called his ‘friend’, his Armaments Minister Albert Speer, was only too happy to gain favour by proposing new projects. The Nazi rocket research was now showing promising results and the scientists were now claiming that they could move into full production in the near future.
For Hitler this was a genuine new opportunity. He was already limiting the expectations as to what might be achieved with the new offensive in the east. Amongst Germans many people were drawing up realistic expectations of their own, about what the outcome of the war might be for Germany.
The prospect of ‘wonder weapons’ that would transform the war for Germany not only gave him hope, but could be used to bolster up morale. Soon the Nazi Party faithful would be asked to continue believing in Hitler despite all the evidence around them that the war was lost. The Fuhrer had ‘secret war winning weapons’ at his disposal:
On the moming of July 7, 1943, I invited Dornberger and von Braun to headquarters at Hitler’s request. The Fuehrer wanted to be informed on the details of the V-2 project.
After Hitler had finished with one of his conferences, we went together over to the movie hall, where some of Wernher von Braun’s assistants were ready. After a brief introduction the room was darkened and a color film shown. For the first time Hitler saw the majestic spectacle of a great rocket rising from its pad and disappearing into the stratosphere.
Without a trace of timidity and with a boyish sounding enthusiasm, von Braun explained his theory. There could be no question about it: From that moment on, Hitler had been totally won over. Dornberger explained a number of organizational questions, while I proposed to Hitler that von Braun be appointed a professor. “Yes, arrange that at once with Meissner,” Hitler said impulsively. “I’ll even sign the document in person.”
Hitler bade the Peenemunde men an exceedingly cordial good-bye. He was greatly impressed, and his imagination had been kindled. Back in his bunker he became quite ecstatic about the possibilities of this project.
“The A-4 is a measure that can decide the war. And what encouragement to the home front when we attack the English with it! This is the decisive weapon of the war, and what is more it can be produced with relatively small resources. Speer, you must push the A-4 as hard as you can! Whatever labor and materials they need must be supplied instantly. You know I was going to sign the decree for the tank program. But my conclusion now is: Change it around and phrase it so that A-4 is put on a par with tank production.
But,” Hitler added in conclusion, “in this project we can use only Germans. God help us if the enemy finds out about the business.”
There was only one point on which he pressed me, when we were alone again. “Weren’t you mistaken? You say this young man is thirty-one? I would have thought him even younger!” He thought it astonishing that so young a man could already have helped to bring about a technical breakthrough which would change the face of the future.
From then on he would sometimes expatiate on his thesis that in our century people squandered the best years of their lives on useless things. In past eras an Alexander the Great had conquered a vast empire at the age of twenty-three and Napoleon had won his brilliant victories at thirty. In connection with this he would often allude, as if casually, to Wernher von Braun, who at so young an age had created a technical marvel at Peenemunde.
Wernher von Braun was young enough to go on the have a successful second career with the United States rocket programme after the war.
For Speer there was soon another factor to be taken into account. In his memoirs he glides over the contribution that slave labourers made to the project, claiming that this was entirely a matter imposed by Himmler.
After Hitler had become excited over the V-2 project, Himmler entered the picture. Six weeks later he came to Hitler to propose the simplest way to guarantee secrecy for this vital program. If the entire work force were concentration camp prisoners, all contact with the outside world would be eliminated. Such prisoners did not even have any mail, Himmler said. Along with this, he offered to provide all necessary technicians from the ranks of the prisoners. All industry would have to furnish would be the management and the engineers.
Hitler agreed to this plan. And Saur and I had no choice, especially since we could not offer a more persuasive arrangement.
The result was that we had to work out guidelines for a joint undertaking with the SS leadership — what was to be called the Central Works. My assistants went into it reluctantly, and their fears were soon confirmed. Formally speaking, we remained in charge of the manufacturing; but in cases of doubt we had to yield to the superior power of the SS leadership. Thus, Himmler had put a foot in our door, and we ourselves had helped him do it.
Two years before Hitler’s armies had smashed into Soviet Russia with high hopes of a swift victory. They discovered that it was not as rotten within as they had expected. The country had not collapsed like a pack of cards as had been expected. The Soviet system had survived and its people had demonstrated an extraordinary resilience despite massive losses.
A year later he had tried again with a strike into the Caucasus with a bold plan to capture the oil fields. He had been diverted by the struggle for Stalingrad, and never came close to reaching his main objective and denying Russia its oil.
Now, two years later, he faced an eastern enemy that was immeasurably stronger. The Soviets had always possessed tanks that could take on the German panzers, now they had them in much greater numbers and had developed the tactics to use them effectively. The two sides were now much more evenly balanced.
There remained a chance that Germany could seize the initiative by attacking a huge salient in the Russian lines near the city of Kursk. Attacks from the north and south might recreate the conditions for another great victory, like the massively successful encirclement battles of 1941.
But the preparations for the Kursk battle had gone on so long that the element of surprise had long ago been lost. His most senior commanders had misgivings about the plan. Hitlers faith that the new Panther and Tiger tanks would prove game changers was not so widely shared. In briefing his generals when he returned to his advance headquarters on 1st July 1943, Hitler chose not to address these concerns.
A familiar theme now emerged: he would blame others for the situation he was in; and his main objective was now to hold on to territory at any cost ‘without yielding’.
There was no other strategic objective but to ‘hold on’ and disrupt the enemy as much as possible.
General Friessner was to keep a record of the meeting, “In a grave, clear, and confident voice he made the following points” :
Our situation. The blame for our misfortunes must be laid squarely on our allies. The Italians let us down completely. If, as the Fuhrer repeatedly demanded, they had made timely use of their fleet to escort and transport their troops to Africa, Africa would not have been lost. Now their ships are being smashed in their harbors. Comparison with World War I, where we too conserved our fleet too long until it was too late.
Italians failed on the eastern front, in Greece, etc. Hungary likewise : … Romania unreliable : the marshal’s brother, Prime Minister [Mihai] Antonescu, is a devious character. Finland at the end of her tether ; internal troubles with Social-Democrats, fostered and fed by Sweden.
What’s at stake ? Germany needs the conquered territory, or she will not exist for long. She must win hegemony over Europe. Where we are — we stay. Soldiers must see this, otherwise they’ll regard their sacrifices as in vain. Balkans must not be lost whatever happens ; our most vital raw materials for war are there. The Italians have pulled out of Greece and been replaced by Germans. Feel safer since then. Crete is firmly in our hands ; thus we prevent enemy from getting air bases.
Greater Germany and Europe must be defended far beyond our frontiers ; so far we have managed this perfectly. German troops are now occupying the isles of Rhodes, Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica — the Italians would have long surrendered them, just as they did without fighting in Pantelleria.
Eastern front. We will yield nothing without a scrap…. The Russians are biding their time. They are using their time replenishing for the winter. We must not allow that, or there’ll be fresh crises this winter. So we’ve got to disrupt them.
Hitler concluded : “The die has been cast. The attack is on. Everything must now be done to ensure its success.”
The German Generals were now well aware that Hitler obstinately refused to give ground no matter what the situation. In North Africa he had been reinforcing his desert army even as they were squeezed between the Eight Army and the U.S. and British forces coming from the west. Senior German officers had thought the campaign to be futile even back in November. Those in command realised they would lose their grip Africa only too soon. The situation was not as grim as at Stalingrad but similar numbers of troops were involved – troops that might yet be evacuated to fight again elsewhere.
Convincing Hitler of the realities of the situation would not be easy. Deciding that a front line officer might be able to sway him, the direct commander in North Africa General von Arnim, endorsed by his commander based in Italy, Albert Kesselring, decided to send an emissary to the Fuhrer HQ. Colonel Hans von Luck was chosen as the man who might have the battle experience and credibility to make the case to Hitler.
So it was that in early April Hans von Luck found himself at the Fuhrer HQ trying to get an audience with Hitler. First he had to contend with the bureaucracy and the senior officers surrounding Hitler himself:
Then, with my large envelope, I was standing before Jodl. We knew he was an experienced staff officer, but we frontline troops didn’t like him, as he was such a toady to Hitler. I explained my mission to him and why von Arnim had chosen me as intermediary.
“Things look very bad, Colonel-General,” I began, “we’re no longer equal to the pressure of the British and the Americans. The RAF, in particular, hinders almost all our movements, except when it’s raining. ‘The long front from Gabes to Tunis cannot anywhere near be covered by us. To prevent a disaster as many men as possible should be evacuated at once, to be available on fronts where the Western Allies are sure to land. For this purpose, I have an evacuation plan to deliver which has been carefully worked out by Rommel and von Arnim and countersigned by Kesselring, Guderian, and Schmundt.”
With that, I handed him the envelope. “I have been sent here,” I went on, “as an insignificant field officer in the hope that this would make some impression on the Fuehrer.”
Jodl looked at me for a long time, without opening the envelope.
“Listen, Luck,” he finally said, “there is absolutely no question of evacuating elements of the Africa Army, or of considering a ‘German Dunkirk,’ as you call it. The Fuehrer is not ready to think of retreat. We won’t even let you see him personally. He would have a fit of rage and throw you out. Besides, we’re glad to have the Fuehrer on the political tack for a few days, as he is just having a state visit by Antonescu of Romania.”
Without pausing, Jodl took my arm and led me to a huge campaign map that covered one whole wall. “Here, you can see the front in Russia, when we were about to lose Stalingrad. What do you think about Stalingrad?”
“Colonel-General, we have so much trouble with our own theater of war, that we have no time to concern ourselves with Stalingrad. We merely ask ourselves whether it is necessary to abandon 200,000 battle-tried men to their fate. The word Stalingrad is, for us, a provocation, as we fear a similar fate, unless an attempt is made to save what is left to save.”
Jodl was silent. After a short pause he gave me his hand.
“I can understand you all, but your ‘mission‘ is of no avail. Inform von Arnim to that effect.” When I left Jodl, I saw in his eyes a helpless sympathy for the Africa Army.
Deeply disappointed, I went to the radio office and sent off my message to von Arnim. “Not admitted to Fuehrer, plan rejected by Jodl, flying back to Rome and from there to Tunisia.”
Whilst the Nazi Party remained devoted to the Fuhrer and ardent party members were proclaiming how much they still wanted to follow him, the man himself was beginning to crumble. The strain of the defeat at Stalingrad, which he blamed on everyone but himself, was beginning to have a physical effect on Hitler.
His image as a remote military genius, guiding the German nation through treacherous times, was carefully cultivated by the propaganda machine. The godlike mystique was maintained and a remarkable number of people kept their faith in him right up to the end.
There was no possibility that those who knew him personally could ever publicly reveal any real facts about the man. Many of those around Hitler were probably so blindly loyal that they could not see what was becoming of the man.
A picture was only developed from his personal aides after the war, when his personal valet, Heinz Linge, and his SS adjutant, Otto Guensche became prisoners of the Soviets. The Hitler Book remained a state secret for a long time, a personal entertainment for the dictator who finally prevailed in the East, Stalin:
The obliteration of the German army at Stalingrad had a dreadful effect on Hitler.
He certainly would not have survived it had it not been for the stimulating injections of his personal physician Morell, administered every second day after breakfast. He began to have nervous stomach cramps. Because he was in extreme pain he had to keep to his bed for several hours a day. Linge, who administered the opium prescribed by Morell, could not help seeing that he was writhing in agony.
The attacks of nervous irritation increased. One moment Hitler’s collar was too tight and was stopping his circulation; the next his trousers were too long. He complained that his skin itched. He suspected poison everywhere, in the lavatory cistern, on the soap, in the shaving cream or in the toothpaste, and demanded that these be minutely analysed. The water used for cooking his food had to be investigated as well.
Hitler chewed his fingernails and scratched his ears and neck until they bled. Because he suffered from insomnia, he took every possible sleeping pill. His bed was warmed with electric blankets and cushions.
He was short of breath, and as a result he asked that an oxygen cylinder be set up in his bedroom from which he frequently inhaled. He ordered that the temperature in his room be kept at a constant 12 degrees, because he believed that low temperatures had a refreshing effect on him. Participants at his briefings often left the room because they were cold and went somewhere to warm up.
He scarcely ever left his bunker now. Only in the morning before breakfast would he take his German shepherd Blondi out for ten minutes, when she would stay at his side. This huge, trained animal obeyed him alone, growling at everybody else, and guarding him day and night. Even during conferences she lay at his feet.
After lunch Hitler would stretch out in his clothes on his bed and stay there until the evening. Then he would go to the evening situation report that took place at 9.00 every day.
Speaking to a selected audience of party fanatics on the 18th February 1943 Hitler’s propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels, made the most famous speech of his career. His central message was, in reality, a terrible one. The war was set to continue and become an even more bitter struggle, many more soldiers would die and conditions at home would get much worse, as everyone had to make more of a contribution to the war effort. Yet he managed to turn this on its head and make it sound like a triumph:
The tragic battle of Stalingrad is a symbol of heroic, manly resistance to the revolt of the steppes. It has not only a military, but also an intellectual and spiritual significance for the German people. Here for the first time our eyes have been opened to the true nature of the war. We want no more false hopes and illusions. We want bravely to look the facts in the face, however hard and dreadful they may be.
The history of our party and our state has proven that a danger recognized is a danger defeated. Our coming hard battles in the East will be under the sign of this heroic resistance. It will require previously undreamed of efforts by our soldiers and our weapons. A merciless war is raging in the East. The Führer was right when he said that in the end there will not be winners and losers, but the living and the dead.
Total war is the demand of the hour. We must put an end to the bourgeois attitude that we have also seen in this war: Wash my back, but don’t get me wet! (Every sentence is met with growing applause and agreement.) The danger facing us is enormous. The efforts we take to meet it must be just as enormous. The time has come to remove the kid gloves and use our fists. (A cry of elemental agreement rises. Chants from the galleries and seats testify to the full approval of the crowd.)
We can no longer make only partial and careless use of the war potential at home and in the significant parts of Europe that we control. We must use our full resources, as quickly and thoroughly as it is organizationally and practically possible. Unnecessary concern is wholly out of place.
The future of Europe hangs on our success in the East. We are ready to defend it. The German people are shedding their most valuable national blood in this battle. The rest of Europe should at least work to support us. There are many serious voices in Europe that have already realized this. Others still resist. That cannot influence us. If danger faced them alone, we could view their reluctance as literary nonsense of no significance. But the danger faces us all, and we must all do our share. Those who today do not understand that will thank us tomorrow on bended knees that we courageously and firmly took on the task.
We promise you, we promise the front, we promise the Führer, that we will mold together the homeland into a force on which the Führer and his fighting soldiers can rely on absolutely and blindly. We pledge to do all in our life and work that is necessary for victory.
We will fill our hearts with the political passion, with the ever-burning fire that blazed during the great struggles of the party and the state. Never during this war will we fall prey to the false and hypocritical objectivism that has brought the German nation so much misfortune over its history.
The following film of part of the speech is worth watching to get an idea of the atmosphere in which it was delivered. The crowd is constantly making rapturous applause or on its feet making the Nazi salute. At one point they are all shouting ‘The Fuhrer leads, we follow, The Fuhrer leads, we follow”.
What ordinary Germans made of the speech when they saw this film in cinemas at the time is more difficult to determine. They would have had to be very guarded about expressing their views if they had any doubts about the progress of the war.
For a generation that had known little other than Hitler, faith in his abilities ran deep. Nazi propaganda was all pervasive. Belief in the ‘German destiny’ and all the associated Nazi ideas had a pseudo religious aspect. But for more and more people in Germany cracks began to develop in their faith.
In Berlin Else Wendel was a housewife trying to live as ordinary a life as possible for her children, with her husband away at the front. Her circle of friends, most also with husbands at the front, tried to avoid talking about the war. But now one of her friends had just learnt that her husband had died at Stalingrad. She had received the official notification and her husbands last letter:
In the lounge she showed me her husband’s last letter from Stalingrad.
He asked her to forgive him for anything he might ever have done to hurt her. He had never at any time wanted to hurt her. It was for her alone that he was now living and he loved her more than his life. This was no empty phrase he wrote, because they were now facing death, and it would only be a matter of days or weeks. But as long as he felt his death served a purpose he would be willing to give his life for the Fatherland. He implored her never to give up, no matter what might come, and to bring up their children-the youngest only two months old»in the spirit they had agreed upon.
I was utterly shaken. I could see him standing before me in his officer’s uniform, so proud and with the Iron Cross on his chest and the stars of a Hauptmann. He had been a strong and virile man, honest as the day.
‘Was he wounded when he wrote this letter?’ I asked Edith. ‘No,’ she said quickly. ‘I have been told he was not wounded. He met his death with open eyes. He was perfectly well and strong.’
I looked down at the carpet. What kind of death then had he met? As if Edith could guess my thoughts, she said, ‘They have written that death came instantaneously. He got a bullet through the head as he came round the corner of a house.’
While I was searching desperately for the right words, Edith spoke again. ‘There is one thing that haunts me. I have heard a rumour that they could have escaped, but that Hitler forbade it!’
I was frightened. I had not heard that rumour myself at the time. ‘No! Impossible!’ I said. ‘It would be plain murder. Hitler would never do such a thing. You know that, surely ?’
Very slowly Edith lifted her head. ‘I am not so sure,’ she said in a low voice. ‘I keep re-reading that sentence in Albert’s letter (“as long as I feel my death serves a purpose”), that doesn’t sound a bit like Albert. It sounds as though his confidence was waning, and he was beginning to doubt.”
The war had not gone well for Italy. Although Mussolini was in a formal alliance with Hitler at the outbreak of the war he had not declared war on France and Britain – until he saw the success of the German panzers blitzkrieg through France in 1940. Even in these circumstances his troops were rebuffed by the French. His gamble to grab Egypt from Britain had failed spectacularly, as had his invasion of Albania.
His Mediterranean fleet had repeatedly fallen foul of the Royal Navy. Hitler had had to come running to his assistance in the Balkans and North Africa, a diversion which he was later to blame for causing a critical delay in launching the invasion of Russia. Now Mussolini’s finest Alpine troops were suffering an ignominious retreat on the Eastern front.
It was not surprising that Mussolini sensed opposition to him within his own regime. Now he acted to shore up his support. He had a close personal relationship with his son-in-law Count Ciano who was also his Foreign Minister. But he knew that Ciano had always had reservations about the alliance with Germany. Now he sacked him.
Ciano had been at the heart of the Italian government and had been present on most of the occasions when Mussolini met Hitler. His diaries reveal much more than the diplomatic manoeuvres of the war and many acute observations of the personalities involved:
February 8, 1943
I hand over my office at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. Then I go to the Palazzo Venezia to see the Duce and take leave of him.
He tells me “Now you must consider that you are going to have a period of rest. Then your turn will come again. Your future is in my hands, and therefore you need not worry!” He thanks me for what I have done and quickly enumerates my most important services. “If they had given us three years’ time we might have been able to wage war under different conditions or perhaps it would not have been at all necessary to wage it.”
He then asked me if I had all my documents in order.
“Yes,” I answered. “I have them all in order, and remember, when hard times come – because it is now certain that hard times will come – I can document all the treacheries perpetrated against us by the Germans, one after another, from the preparation of the conflict to the war on Russia, communicated to us when their troops had already crossed the border. If you need them I shall provide the details, or, better still, I shall, within the space of 24 hours, prepare that speech which I have had in my mind for three years, because I shall burst if I do not deliver it.”
He listened to me in silence and almost agreed with me. Today he was concerned about the situation because the retreat on the Eastern Front continues to be almost a rout.
He has invited me to see him frequently, “even every day.” Our leave-taking was cordial, for which I am very glad, because I like Mussolini, like him very much, and what I shall miss the most will be my contact with him.
This was to be the penultimate entry in his diary. See The Ciano Diaries
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.
See Field Marshal Erich von Manstein: Lost Victories.