The German Army: 1933-1945; Matthew Cooper; Scarborough House (October 25, 1997); ISBN-13: 978-0812885194

I first read “German Army 1933-1945,” by Mathew Cooper almost twenty years ago. At that time, I was very impressed with Cooper’s scholarship and his graceful and clear writing style, but I was especially enthralled by his thesis that the actual German Army of World War II had little in common with the popular conceptions about that army that arose, particularly in the west, after the war. Fast forward now to the present: having a little time on my hands, I decided to reread his book a few months ago. Happily, I found that I still admired the author’s carefully-cited research and his precise, well-crafted prose. However, when it came to revisiting several of the book’s main conclusions, I found, somewhat to my surprise, that my agreement was now, as “Borat” would say: “not so much.” This is not to suggest that I now disagree with all or even most of Matthew Cooper’s observations, but only that, with the benefit of two decades of additional study, I am now much more skeptical about the book’s conclusions regarding the German General Staff and several of Germany’s most famous commanders.

Despite its length, “The German Army: 1933-1945” concentrates on only two core questions. First, what was the place of the German Army and its generals in German political society, and what was the power relationship between the army and the Führer during the period of Hitler’s political ascendancy? Second, how should the German Army’s overall strategic conduct during the Second World War be evaluated? To address these two interrelated questions, Cooper reviews the history, underlying strategic theory, and senior leadership of the German Army; in this process, he also examines the deep-rooted institutional deficiencies that allowed centuries of Prussian tradition to be subordinated to the military designs of a former Austrian corporal. This preliminary discussion lays the groundwork for the author’s second and more intriguing question. This question, boiled down to its essentials, can be restated as follows: who was responsible for the German Army’s strategic successes during World War II, and who was to blame for its failures?

Early in his narrative, Cooper relates an event that illustrates Hitler’s direct personal control over military matters. In 1935, the Führer, without even consulting with the Oberkommando des Heeres (the German General Staff), announced that the size of the Wehrmacht (German Army) would be increased from the token force of 100,000 men, stipulated by the Versailles Treaty, to an active duty army of 450,000 men, or thirty-two divisions. This announcement came as a complete surprise to the chief of the OKH, who, in previous meetings with the German Chancellor, had advocated an increase in the standing army to only twenty-one divisions. The generals, although alarmed by the stresses such a large, rapid mobilization would place on existing stores of military equipment, and even more importantly, on the available trained cadres of junior officers and NCOs, none the less acquiesced to Hitler’s plan with barely a murmur of protest. Over the next few years, more manpower increases quickly followed. And on the eve of the invasion of Poland, the small professional German Army of 1935 had become, by 1939, a mass national army of over three million men.

It is probably no exaggeration to say that, during World War II, no fighting force accomplished more on the battlefield, given its numerical disadvantages and limited resources, than the German Army. The stunning conquests by the Wehrmacht, during the early years of the war, and the German Army’s tenacious and skillful resistance to numerically superior foes advancing in the east, south, and west during the later stages of the conflict are beyond dispute. These accomplishments have led, not surprisingly, to a number of misconceptions and outright myths both about the German Army, and about Hitler’s Third Reich. It is in these areas that Cooper’s meticulous research really shines. With painstakingly assembled statistics and carefully reasoned arguments based on wide-ranging sources, the author either calls into question, or demolishes outright, many of the popular myths that, over the years, have attached themselves both to the Third Reich and to the army that served it during World War II.

Cooper describes in great detail the ingrained conservatism, and stubborn resistance to innovation that plagued the German High Command throughout the years covered by his book. He traces the roots of “blitzkrieg” warfare, which was neither radical nor new, back to the Prussian Army reforms that had begun during the Napoleonic Wars, and then back even further, to Hannibal’s victory over the Romans at Cannae. In addition, the author’s exposition of the enormous stresses imposed on Germany’s manpower, industrial base, and natural resources by a protracted two-front war is probably the most interesting and persuasive part of his book.

Where Cooper’s analysis begins to lose steam, I would argue, is in his overall evaluation of the senior German officers that directed the army’s operations as the war progressed. Here, despite his many earlier criticisms of the German General Staff, the author assigns the lion’s share of blame to Hitler for virtually all of the army’s most serious failures. And while the military costs of the Führer’s meddling are well known, they were not the only major German mistakes of the war. Yet Cooper either downplays or ignores a disconcerting number of critical errors made by the army’s senior generals, even as he points to the possible origins of their mistakes.

Interestingly, fully forty percent of all of Germany’s generals were, at the beginning of World War II, from the artillery. This curious fact was the result of the lower World War I casualty rates, a generation before, among officers from the artillery arm, compared to those of the infantry and cavalry. These artillery generals, especially, tended to be suspicious of experimental changes in operational doctrine that had not been exposed to rigorous testing. Thus, their skepticism towards combined-arms mechanized warfare persisted long after the smashing German victories over Poland and France. One obvious result was that the OKH did little to further the expansion and improvement of the new panzer forces for much of the war. This was a serious strategic error that would have dire consequences for the Wehrmacht once it invaded Russia in 1941. And to be fair, the author says as much in his book. However, on a similar issue, Cooper seems unconcerned by the inexcusable failure of the army to improve the armament of German tanks by increasing the caliber of their guns prior to the invasion of Russia. This lapse occurred despite the fact that the Führer had specifically instructed the OKH, based on the experience of the France ’40 campaign, to expedite such a change. Other critical missteps by the generals are also barely touched on. For example, the well-documented panic among many of Hitler’s senior generals, during the surprise Russian counteroffensive in winter of 1941-42, is pretty much papered-over by the author. This is a serious omission. The military situation on Army Group Center’s front during the first Russian winter was so precarious that, had the Führer not ordered the entire army to stand fast, any attempted withdrawal in the face of the Soviet offensive might well have led to a complete catastrophe for the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front.

Because of Cooper’s tendency to support the German generals’ version of the World War II historical narrative, some critics have accused the author of showing a pro-German bias. This appraisal is, I think, unfair. A lot of additional information has emerged since this book was first published. It is probably much more likely that the author’s failings in this area are the result of his personal belief in the overall honesty of the post-war historical writings of several of Germany’s most prominent surviving generals. More troubling is the fact that Cooper’s work avoids any serious confrontation with the murderous excesses of the Third Reich: the regime that the German Army served loyally until the very end of the Second World War. Even if one acknowledges the author’s clearly-stated plan to focus on a narrow area of inquiry — because of this troubling omission — I would still argue that Cooper’s examination of the German Army can be fairly criticized for its lack of an unambiguous moral “center.” Many German officers opposed and despised Hitler: some even tried to kill him. And, throughout the war, the Wehrmacht performed with great courage and military skill, sometimes in the face of almost insurmountable odds. Nonetheless, these facts, valid as they are, do not completely erase the stain that comes from having served one of the most evil regimes in human history.

Despite its several flaws, there is much to like about “The German Army: 1933-1945.” And for that reason, I strongly recommend it. Cooper provides a still fresh and very detailed look at the manpower and materiel challenges that confronted the Wehrmacht during the period covered in his work. Moreover, the book is gracefully written, meticulously researched, and very well sourced. However, it also hints at a somewhat troubling and darker subtext: what happens when otherwise decent men allow their patriotism, sense of duty, and institutional and professional loyalties to eclipse their own humanity? The record of the German Army during World War II, for all of its military accomplishments, may well offer a disturbing and cautionary answer to this question.


  • My name is Scott and I first met Joe Beard at the inaugural AVALONCON in 1991 -- and am privileged to now claim him as a close friend. We have been playing board war games by mail and email off and on for the past 18 years. Like Joe, I am former military (retired Air Force) and an avid student of Military History. I have never "blogged" before, but when I learned that Joe had opened this blog, I immediately book marked it and have been checking it daily to see what he would next have to say.

    Even though I have not read this particular book, I feel compelled to add this comment based on the his first paragraph as he touches on a critically important topic that most amateur historians overlook. In my younger days, it never dawned on me how one-sided the views of an individual author of history can potentially be. I would read a single account and assume it was accurate. As my exposure to multiple accounts of various battles or events grew, I began to see GLARING differences in many accounts. Since this moment of clarity first occurred, I no longer read individual books. Instead, I will usually have as many as 6 different books in progress simultaneously. This provides me a much greater gamut and I believe a more balanced view. Nothing is more eye opening than to read a "pro" and a "con" account of the same event or person back-to-back. For those of you who have never given this a try, I encourage you to do so.

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