Hitler’s Commanders – Book Review
Hitler’s Commanders: Officers of the Wehrmacht, The Luftwaffe, The Kriegsmarine, and The Waffen-SS. Samuel W. Mitcham, Jr., and Gene Mueller. Second Edition. Rowman & Littlefield, 351 pages, with 12 pages of photographs.
The second edition of Hitler’s Commanders, by Samuel Mitcham Jr. and Gene Mueller, is an updated version of their earlier work originally published in 1989. The book contains short, descriptive chapters on dozens of major (and some arguably minor) commanders of the Third Reich in World War II. Though substantially the same as the previous volume, the authors have made use of some new information that has come to light, especially in the manner of personnel records, since many of the subjects discussed in the book have died since the original publication. They make clear, however, that the purposes of this book are the same as the original volume: “to entertain the reader while simultaneously giving him or her a greater insight into the workings of the German armed forced in World War II.”
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As described by the authors, their purpose “is to describe the lives and careers of selected German officers from all three branches of the Wehrmacht, as well as from the Waffen-SS (armed SS).” The subjects chosen for portrayal in these profiles were selected by the authors on the basis of the “diversity of their characters and careers, the availability of information, and our own interests.” That is to say, this collection has no intention to be complete or definitive, but to fill a purpose within an overarching theme. They freely admit to possible criticisms of the choices they’ve made, and accept that others would perhaps choose differently. However, variations might also be due to criticisms of their rankings of importance or to placement within what sometimes might appear to be arbitrary categories.
Mitcham and Mueller come to their subject from the discovery, or understanding, that not all officers were Nazis, and that not all Nazis were comic book characters of pure evil but had their own inner and outer lives. Consequently, not all military commanders, those worthy of being subjects for this book, can be treated the same or looked at from the same vantage point.
The biographies are short and pointed. The authors do not lay out full biographies of their subjects, but give vignettes designed to highlight specific instances in which the subjects’ military career intersected with particular German and/or Nazi military doctrine or practice. Naturally, these vignettes or anecdotes are designed to fit the officer into the story of the particular target chapters, such as “Generals of Stalingrad.”
Even so, the categories chosen in which the subjects are placed, or from which it is deemed best to view them, are chosen by the authors themselves. The book is separated into sections denoting areas of coverage, hence the commanders described are put into separate sections, such as “Generals of the High Command”, “Warlords of the Eastern Front,” “Generals of Stalingrad,” and “Commanders in the West.” But the second half of the book places further subjects into areas of expertise, rather than theater, such as “The Panzer Commanders,” “The Lords of the Air,” “Naval Officers” and, finally, “The Waffen-SS.”
Within these categories, the first individuals discussed are major generals of high command, then the major commanders in certain campaigns or theaters. Each category chosen and populated by the authors also highlight certain themes that they consider important within that classification. For instance, in the chapters on panzer commanders a dominant theme is the commanders’ professional brilliance. That on the Luftwaffe highlights their competence but complexity. Among the Luftwaffe commanders, the authors hold up for special mention Walther Wever, who may have made a large difference in the war had he not been killed in 1936. Among Naval officers, the authors denote two categories, admirals—whom they deem for the most part “self serving”—and U-boat aces who “represent courage.”
And among the Waffen SS (the armed SS or Shutzstaffel), Mitcham and Mueller distinguish the fighting SS from those who ran the camps, though they acknowledge some important overlaps. But they hold up for special mention Michael Wittman as a great, deadly effective soldier – the only SS officer without a negative word from the authors.
For the most part field marshals are left out because they are covered in Mitchem’s book Hitler’s Field Marshals and Their Battles (Scarborough House, 1993). But there are exceptions—Keitel, Leeb, Kuechler, Bock, Paulus as they represent important campaigns or types. However, unlike his earlier book in which the emphasis was on battles, here the weight of analysis is on “personalities and characters.”
Within chapters or sections, each commander gets a fairly brief summary starting with birth, childhood and early years, education, marriage etc. Then the authors move on to their subject’s early military life and training. The authors give short expositions on early experiences that they deem important for the commander’s later career, especially how he saw his role in WWII and his role in dealing with Hitler. The attitude toward the Third Reich, toward politics, and toward the Nazi Party in particular, is given strong emphasis by the authors for many of the commanders. It is not only their military background and leadership role as commanders in battle that are in focus, but their role within the political and strategic designs of the regime. For instance, in the section on General Wilhelm Keitel the authors highlight his psychological subordination to the Nazi regime and stress that his belief in his role as a loyal officer led to his obsequiousness toward Hitler.
According to the authors, Keitel was chosen by Hitler as chief of the High Command of the Armed Forces, because he “needed someone on whom he would rely to carry out his will and to keep his ‘house’ in order – someone who would not question his orders and who would identify with the Fuehrer Principle.” As they say, “Keitel fit that role.” It was something he admitted to those around him, and which he did not find particularly troubling. For him, it fulfilled his role as a loyal officer, a servant to the regime. But in actuality he had “unbounded faith in Hitler, and the Fuehrer craftily exploited this relationship.” Would he have been as loyal to a democratic regime as he was to a fascist? Unfortunately, that question cannot be answered, nor can the question as to how much his justification was to himself, and how much to answer public critics.
In his Nuremberg testimony he attempted to emphasize “quiet objections” that he raised, and explained he had “tried unsuccessfully to soften some of the decrees.” But in the end “he remained extremely loyal.” Though the authors acknowledge these attempts at justification, they emphasize how the unsuccessful bombing by Claus von Stauffenberg, aimed at assassinating Hitler and of which Keitel was a witness, further radicalized him and brought him even closer to full loyalty. Though he felt himself loyal to the Wehrmacht, the authors make the case that it was that blind loyalty that destroyed not only the army, but himself. Convicted of war crimes at Nuremberg, he was hanged in October 1946.
General Friederich Paulus, who surrendered at Stalingrad after being named by Hitler as a field marshal, is given a very short biography, one of the shortest in the book. Yet there is much discussion of him as a commander within the biographies of others highlighted in the chapter on “Generals of Stalingrad.”
Though perhaps best used as a reference work due to its short treatments, there is more to this book than brief descriptions of military men. I found this book and it’s mini-biographies to be insightful, interesting and thought provoking. Though there is a lot of information, Hitler’s Commanders also contains a good deal of perceptive analysis and strong opinion. I would recommend it to any student of military history and to anyone interested in World War II.
Douglas Sterling is a bookseller and freelance writer from Northern Kentucky who has published works on Julius Caesar’s army, the later Crusades, the Hundred Years’ War and World War II. He has Master’s Degrees in Military History and American History. In addition to several book reviews, his articles for ArmchairGeneral.com include “Erwin Rommel – Roots of Victory, Seeds of Defeat.”