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A round table on a stone patio with lines pointing to Györ 179 km, Volgograd 2165 km, Budapest 277 km, Debrecen 471 km, "east," and Sevastopol 1427 km
Some displaced ambition from the Schlossberg, Graz. Photo by Sean Manning, September 2015.

Robert M. Citino, Death of the Wehrmacht: The German Campaigns of 1942 (University Press of Kansas: Lawrence, KA, 2007) ISBN-13 978-0-7006-1791-3 [Bookfinder]

Robert Citino’s Death of the Wehrmacht (2007) is a third type of history book. Rather than a journalistic history drawing on interviews or a monograph with carefully limited scope, it is a book with a big idea inspired by experience lecturing. He believes that the kind of land war which Germany waged from 1939 to 1945 was not just a product of a bad strategic situation or Nazi ideology but a particular way of fighting wars which went back to Frederick the Great’s Prussia. This type of warfare focused on throwing the army against the largest concentration of enemy troops from an unexpected direction and relying on highly trained officers and men to overcome larger, better-funded armies in a few weeks of fighting. He then uses this way of thinking to explain the major German offensives of 1942: in the Crimea, at Kharkov in Ukraine (where the Soviets attacked first), against the oil fields of the South Caucasus and to the lower Volga, and against the Nile Delta to close the Suez Canal. This is a book about the Prussian and then German officer corps as an institution, anchored in several centuries of history rather than the Third Reich.

The maps are sketches like someone might draw on a blackboard or throw together for a talk. The endnotes focus on essential books in English, like someone might recommend when talking over a research topic with a student. And there are plenty of asides on hobby-horses like Carl von Clausewitz (he partially approves) and the kind of military history which pronounces what soldiers should have done (he disapproves). Citino has clearly thought about what details and topics are useful for helping his audience understand what he wants them to understand, and what would be a distraction. He throws in comments about the “inferior” Italian M 13/40 and M 14/41 tanks so that readers know that not all tanks are equal, but does not explain that they were 2/3 to 1/2 the weight of “superior” British and German models. People often get very moralistic when criticizing armoured fighting vehicles of WW II, but a twelve-ton tank is always going to have trouble against an 18- to 24-tonner however well it is designed and built (and if you want Italy or Japan to have bigger tanks in 1940, you have to talk about how many destroyers and oil tankers you are willing to give up to get the steel to build them).

Between the narratives of campaigns and his big idea, Citino makes many thought-provoking points. For example, he points out that the only thing more absurd than Germany launching three major offensives in three different theatres in 1942 is that these offensives ended within 400 metres of driving the Soviets into the Volga, within 2 km of the Georgian Military Road through the Caucasus, and within an hour’s drive of Alexandria. Everything in war is so contingent that its hard to argue that they could not have achieved at least one of these goals on another throw of the dice. One of his favourite sources is the German officer corps’ professional magazine, which does not seem as often quoted as memoirs and letters. Since the end of the Cold War, fun-ruining historians often point out that the German army was terrible at locating enemy units and keeping its own secrets out of enemy hands (Poland was a much smaller poorer country than Germany, but Polish intelligence was reading German codes not the other way around). Citino seems to hint that the mindset which let German officers launch skillful attack after skillful attack prevented them from think too hard about whether this particular fight was a wise one (pp. 153-156). Citino’s German staff officers have the bravado of an American action hero crying “never tell me the odds!”

Any engagingly written book about a big idea starts to come apart if you start pulling at the details of the argument. Citino brings up the old excuse that by the end of 1942 the Allies had “overwhelming material superiority” (p. 273, 304). The German army had overcome the same odds before, and many of its problems with transport and production and seizing more ground than it could hold were self-inflicted. Rommel was told repeatedly by his superiors that if he went charging off towards Egypt he would run out of fuel and water and vehicles, he rushed towards Egypt twice and he ran out of fuel and water and vehicles twice. And if his superior officers could tell that North Africa in 1942 was not the place for dashing advances, were they really trapped in a cycle of planning attack after attack by their education? Bayerischer General der Infanterie Robert von Fischer was perfectly willing to ask whether an operation was logistically feasible and say “no” if the numbers did not work out (sure, he was Bavarian not echt Prussian, but Rommel was a Swabian!) But I think the big idea in this book is useful, as long as you remember that all models are wrong but some are useful.

One reason why I think that this book was based on lecturing is that it slips in some historians’ ways of thinking during pauses in the story. It criticizes determinism, explains events through culture and mentalité rather than personality and whim, and points out that some ideas that ‘everyone knows’ come from a specific person at a specific time rather than being birthed from the sea-foam. There is even an in-joke about Ranke (p. 12, 13)! If you are interested in how historians think about the past, and prefer concrete examples to abstract theories, reading this book could be a good place to start. As an ancient historian, Citino’s picture of the kind of person which came out of the Preußische Kriegsakademie makes me think about how ancients believed that any Spartiate or any member of a particular gens was a known commodity.

Robert Citino’s book is so focused on the German army and on ideas that individuals and civilians become rather blurry (despite complaining that civilians “remain all but invisible” in accounts of the war in Libya, p. 117). It also erases what the Axis were doing in the conquered territories in a way which is at the very least unfashionable.[1] There is a surprising lack of Soviet and Russian-language sources in the endnotes. But as long as it talks about German staff officers and modern historians, Death of the Wehrmacht is a deeply humane book about how situation and education and pride can leave people marching further and further along a path as the sun goes down and the water rises and the will-o-wisps come out. And since I spent late 2019 and 2020 stuck in a pattern of behaviour and cursing myself for finishing my book but not finding a job, that is something worth thinking about this January.

Keep my haversack, ammunition pouches, nosebag, and gas tank reasonably full with a donation on Patreon or paypal.me or even liberapay. If not, I’ll just have to draw on my will and my Bildung to perform miracles!

[1] Consider this passage: “Operation Trappenjagd was over. There were still groups of Red Army soldiers in the caves along the (Kerch) peninsula’s eastern coast. German and Romanian security units would hunt them down and root them out over the next few months, part of a general antipartisan effort that the Axis had to mount in the coming months all over the Crimea, with all its attendant cruelties and atrocities.” (p. 77, cf. p. 334 note 79) Separating killing into ‘operations’ which they boasted about in public and ‘antipartisan actions’ or ‘security’ which they shared with old comrades in private was one of the German officer corps’ self-justifications during and after the war. The German army chose to conduct operations such that soldiers would have to choose between their own survival and that of the locals, just like it chose to conduct itself in the occupied territories in a way which will make it infamous for all time. The senior officers who are the subject of the book issued the orders and put soldiers in positions which made these things happen. Wasn’t the old German army’s quickness to resort to hanging and burning a part of its culture just like its narrow understanding of supply (Nachschub or Versorgung not Anglo-Saxon Logistik, p. 124, cp. p. 344 n. 19)? I get the impression that parts of this book are a response to Isabel V. Hull’s Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany (Goodreads) but because it is written in an oral style, this is not signposted as clearly as it could be.

(scheduled January 2021)

Edit 2021-03-27: two slight changes in wording for better rhetorical effect