BOOK REVIEW: A GENIUS FOR WAR: The German Army and General Staff, 1807-1945

A GENIUS FOR WAR; Col. T.N. Dupuy, USA, Ret.; Imprint unknown (2002); ISBN-13: 978-0965532761

In the prologue to "A Genius for War, "Col. Trevor N. Dupuy recounts the desperate German strategic situation in the Fall of 1944. In the author’s eyes, and in the view of the Allied commanders at the time, Germany’s position seemed hopeless. On the Russian Front, the Red Army had just destroyed an entire German Army Group and had advanced across Poland to the borders of East Prussia. In Italy, American and Commonwealth forces had finally broken out of the Anzio Beachhead after months of stalemate, had captured Rome, and were pursuing Kesselring’s army as it retreated north away from the advancing Allies. In the West, German Army Group B had been annihilated during the battle for Normandy and in the subsequent Allied dash across France to the German West Wall. It appeared to almost everyone that Germany was finished, and there was even talk about the war in Europe being over by Christmas. Yet the anticipated German collapse did not happen. In what many Germans called the “Winter Miracle,” the front in the East was stabilized; the German Army in Italy stopped retreating and turned to face its pursuers, and the Allied advance up the Italian Boot stalled. In the West, the German Army, after having been chased out of France, held fast in its positions in the West Wall. Allied talk about a quick end to the war faded and then stopped.

In “A Genius For War: The German Army and General Staff, 1807-1945, the American historian and military analyst, Col. T.N. Dupuy attempts to address precisely this question. How was the German Army — which had appeared to many observers to be on the verge of utter ruin in the Fall of 1944 — able to reconstitute and rearm itself in the space of a few short months? Focusing only on what he perceives to be the central puzzle in this mystery, the author asks: What was it about the German Army of World War II that made it such an effective and resilient fighting force right up until the final days of the Third Reich? For students of military events, this is, and continues to be, a fascinating question. And while the author fails to answer it completely within the pages of his book, he does, none the less, identify what he considers to be the central factor in the German Army’s success on the battlefield.

According to Col. Dupuy, the genesis for “A Genius for War” grew out of his attempt to design a conflict simulation model that could reliably predict World War II combat outcomes for Allied ground operations against German forces. This was a topic with which the author was not personally familiar. Although Col. Dupuy had seen action during the war, he had had no personal experience with combat operations against the Wehrmacht (German Army) in Europe. His own service had been against the Japanese forces in Burma. Still, he felt that this would actually be an advantage and not a problem because he would not be entering into his project with any unconscious biases, or preconceptions based on personal battlefield experiences. As the author went about the work of designing his conflict simulation, however, he continually ran into a persistent and recurring problem: his model simply didn’t work. When back-tested against the known outcomes from historical battles, its predictive value was negligible. Apparently, he had underweighted the combat power of German formations in relation to their Allied adversaries; to make the simulation work, the combat effectiveness of German units had to be increased. Thus, in the process of tweaking his model, the author discovered metrics that seemed to argue that, even in 1944, the German Army was twenty percent more combat effective than its adversaries. This finding, Col. Dupuy candidly admits, came as a complete surprise. How could a conscript army that had been at war for almost six years still be more combat effective than the forces it opposed? "A Genius for War" is the author’s attempt to find the answer to that question.

As a starting point, Col. Dupuy examines the history of the German Army and the new ideas that originated with the leaders of the (then Prussian) General Staff soon after Prussia’s humiliating defeat by Napoleon in 1806-1807. Reform-minded officers such as Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, and Clausewitz were instrumental in modernizing army doctrine, and in reshaping the General Staff and its role in German political society. The author traces the development of the General Staff’s institutional reforms as Prussia evolved into a nation state, and the German Army completed its transformation from a professional to a mass conscript army. A new emphasis was placed on army readiness, on testing and improving doctrine, and on technological innovation. These ongoing improvements also stressed, for the officer class at least, military aptitude over accident of birth; they also nurtured a tradition of serious military study that increasingly treated the waging of war as a type of practical science. These professional reforms, the author argues, gradually created a forward-looking institution in the German General Staff that fostered and rewarded excellence among all levels of military command. And it was particularly among the intermediate ranks — the captains, majors, and colonels — that these reforms, with their emphasis on professionalism, innovativeness, and initiative, had their greatest impact on Germany’s post-Napoleonic military successes.

It is natural for Col. Dupuy to look at the General Staff and to see it as the primary source of German military excellence. The early reformers had placed great emphasis on transforming the army leadership into a permanent German institution that was a reservoir of military knowledge and specialized expertise, and not merely a collection of old generals. Moreover, intellectualism and scholarship within the officer class were valued by the German General Staff, while these qualities were often viewed with suspicion, if not hostility, by many of the senior generals within the British, French, and Russian Armies well into the twentieth-century. Thus, it is reasonable to say, as the author does, that the creation of the modern German General Staff brought enormous improvements to the German Army as a whole. Unfortunately, the author, like many other admirers of the General Staff, is a little too generous when it comes to the General Staff’s enthusiasm for innovation and new technologies. It could, in fact, be quite resistant to change. The Army leadership’s reaction to Guderian’s admittedly ham-handed promotion of armored doctrine is probably the classic example of this institutional conservatism. Moreover, some share of the German Army’s battlefield successes have often been attributed to components other than the influence of the General Staff. These contributing factors have been important enough to warrant comment from other writers, but Col. Dupuy only barely touches on them.

One example that the author brushes by, can be found in the old-fashioned form of recruitment that was retained in Germany, long after mass conscription had encouraged other nations to abandon the tradition of the local levee. Even under Hitler, German conscripts and recruits from a specific geographical region were often sent to a unit with a historical connection to that area. Thus, soldiers, NCOs and even officers in the same unit would typically have some loose type of geographical relationship to each other. Nor was it unusual even to have residents from the same small village or town serving in the same company. This custom, according to many German officers, encouraged better discipline and more soldierly conduct. In addition, this traditional form of mustering encouraged junior officers to learn more about their men, their men’s families, and their backgrounds. This practice not only tended to improve morale within the individual German company, it also improved unit cohesion.

Another factor that, surprisingly, probably positively influenced the German Army’s overall performance during World War II was the rapid expansion of the Wehrmacht from a professional force of only 100,000 men in 1935, to a mass national army of over 3,000,000 men in 1939. While this seems counterintuitive: the obvious result of such an expansion one would assume would be the dilution of command ability and leadership skills as experienced officers and NCOs were dispersed among a huge number of green, newly-raised units. And certainly, some dilution of military expertise occurred. But an unexpected benefit of this rapid growth in the size of the army was the sudden creation of numerous opportunities for gifted junior officers where none had hitherto existed. In the middle ranks, this expansion saw the rapid rise of those officers with initiative and ability to important command positions. Also, this enormous increase in the size of the German Army brought about the promotion of a great number of NCOs to officer rank, a thing almost unheard of before. Thus, the regional recruitment practices of the German Army in concert with these other dramatic changes, materially transformed the traditional relationships between field and company grade officers, and between officers, NCOs, and the men they commanded. Barriers of social class that had rigidly divided the Wehrmacht into separate castes were, by sheer pressure of events, virtually swept away. Ultimately, some military historians have argued, these extraordinary changes culminated in the creation of a mass German Army that, while still built upon the proven framework of the General Staff system, was more flexible, more egalitarian, and more cohesive than it had ever been before.

Still another reason for German success during World War II, to which Col. Dupuy gives little attention, was the fire-discipline of German units; something at which the German Army excelled right up until the end of the war. During firefights, German officers and NCOs, circumstances permitting, moved constantly up and down the firing line to encourage their men to continue to engage the enemy. This practice significantly improved the volume of fire that a typical German unit could produce in combat. In addition, when the high rate of fire from the MG42 was combined with that from MP38 and MP40 machine pistols as well as from the assault rifles that were often present at the company level (particularly in elite units like the Waffen SS) the volume of fire that a German formation could put out was often nearly one and a half times as high as that of a comparable-sized enemy unit.

On one subject, I and the author are in complete agreement. For all of its battlefield accomplishments and its encouragement of military virtues, the General Staff of Hitler’s Germany failed utterly to preserve the moral traditions of its historical predecessors. While some writers have tended to avoid discussing the culpability of the German officer class during World War II, Col. Dupuy, to his credit, minces no words. Only a very few of Germany’s generals had the personal courage to oppose the Führer directly. The majority either ignored the criminality going on all around them, feigned ignorance of it, or, even worse, actively supported the actions of the Nazi Regime. Thus, despite the extraordinary wartime accomplishments of the General Staff and the German Army between 1939 and 1945, this period was also the time of their greatest moral failure. This is a fact that should not be forgotten.

“A Genius for War” is certainly not a perfect book. It is not even the definitive work on this subject: Goerlitz, “History Of The German General Staff, 1657-1945” is considerably more detailed, as well as being much more meticulous in its research. Moreover, there is very little here that is really new. Although the author takes pains to document his arguments, and I could find no glaring errors with any of his facts, almost all of his citations are from secondary sources. And one other nit that I cannot resist picking: despite the fact that the majority of the book’s 362 pages deals with some aspect of the German General Staff, there is surprisingly little real detail about its day-to-day operations.

Still, I am inclined to recommend this book for a couple of reasons. The first is that it is well-written and clear, and is, in fact, actually a pleasure to read. And there are even some interesting period photographs for those readers that care. Also, it does a pretty good job of doing what the author set out to do. Not perfect, mind you, but pretty good. This is not a small thing. I have read a number of historical works, over the years, that were either too academic, or too anecdotal, or just plain too badly-written to allow the reader (me) to actually get much out of the book. This is clearly not the case with “A Genius for War.” Second, it is relatively short, considering the amount of ground that it covers. Goerlitz’ work, for example, is an excellent book, but it is also a lot longer. If you really want the extra detail that comes from a work of serious scholarship, then a "History of the German General Staff” is probably for you. For my own part, I found that “A Genius for War,” was adequately detailed, enjoyable to read, and yet still didn’t require a major time investment to get through it.


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