Book Review: Hitler’s Soldiers
The Germany Army in the Third Reich
by Ben H. Shepherd
Yale University Press, 2016
It’s been fully half a century since Robert O’Neill’s The German Army and the Nazi Party, 1933-1945; it’s been slightly less than that since the appearance of Matthew Cooper’s The German Army, 1933-1945; and Die Wehrmacht: Mythos und Realitat, the massive compendium of articles curated by Rolf-Dieter Muller and Hans-Erich Volkmann, was published less than twenty years ago. It’s true that some former Soviet archives have opened in the meantime and shed some light on divisional commands and logistical support in the Nazi war machine, but even so, the subject seems comprehensively well-covered, not just by those three brilliant volumes but by many, many hundreds more. The German army during the Second World War – the Kriegsmarine, the Waffen-SS, the Luftwaffe, and most of all the Wehrmacht itself, the foot soldiers of Blitzkrieg – is one of the most-studied military organizations in the history of the world.
It all sets a forbiddingly steep standard for any new book like Ben Shepherd’s Hitler’s Soldiers: The Germany Army in the Third Reich, out now in a hefty 600-page hardcover from Yale University Press, and Shepherd doesn’t always dispel any fears readers might that the book is either derivative (“In keeping with its broad-based approach, the book draws primarily upon English-language and German-language secondary literature,” Shepherd warns. “For illustrative purposes, it also draws upon select primary sources …”) or tending to the facile, as in this disturbing summation:
It is hard to conceive that the army that overwhelmed France and brought Europe under German domination in 1940 had been totally destroyed five year later. It is equally hard to conceive how an army whose leadership in 1933 supposedly cherished the values of ‘decency, morality, order, Christianity, all values which went with a conservative idea of the state’, eventually came to collude in genocide and rapine across Europe, and in its own country’s self-destruction. The leadership of the German army willingly entered into a Faustian bargain with Adolf Hitler that provided the opportunity and means to meet its highest aspirations. Ultimately, however, the army failed both militarily and morally.
Many of these cliches have been challenged for decades. The way the blame for “genocide and rapine” is subtly shifted from “the army” to “leadership” in the course of only one sentence; the use of “collude,” as if the armed forces had some kind of silent partner in the shooting of civilians and the burning of babies from Verdun to Vladivostok; the invocation of a “Faustian bargain” with all it implies about where sympathies should lie; and the contention that “ultimately” the German army failed, with its strong suggestion that a process of degradation took place – after all, something can only “ultimately” be a moral failure if it wasn’t a moral failure from the outset, right? – all these things are alarming notes to be sounded by a new and comprehensive history of the German military.
What work Shepherd is able to do with this material happens largely on the more intimate levels where the human dimensions of German soldiers and their commanders can peek out from all the divisional statistics and operational rigor, as when he describes the trauma lurking always under the surface of the Wehrmacht‘s stern warrior ethos (the play of personalities in this big book is unfailingly supple and fascinating), or when he touches on the “borderline shopaholic” German soldiers in captured Paris in 1942:
It was then, shortly after hostilities ended, that German soldiers in France were given leave to purchase goods on credit. In the colossal spending spree that followed, they stripped shops of most of their consumer goods. Their appetite for clothes, which they packed off to wives and girlfriends in Germany, was particularly prodigious. Parisians nicknamed them potato beetles.
Although the operational rigor is never far from the narrative center, since it’s the heart of the story Shepherd has to tell. The German armed forces were shaped by a military tradition dating back centuries, and by the time war broke out in 1938, the Nazis could draw on a well-trained force captained by veterans of the First World War and fired with a zeal for conquest and redress of grievances – and spearheaded by the concept of blitzkrieg, which worked so spectacularly well against opponents mired in older and more stately modes of military conflict. Its main weakness was the flip-side of its main strength: its reliance on shock and awe created organizational and especially conceptual problems once shock and awe wore off. Temperamentally, the Wehrmacht was less adapted for the long slog than were the less magnificent armies of other nations, which makes all the more gripping Shepherd’s long account of the German Army’s (or any army’s) greatest trial: the epic confrontation with Stalin’s Russia. These are the powerful chapters and vast set-pieces that constitute the irresistible payoff of Shepherd’s book, the parts of it that take on the force of epic and become page-turning reading. It’s still a clash of evils, but readers, subtly encouraged by our author, will nevertheless find themselves occasionally rooting for the storm troopers:
[I]t can be easy to forget how heavily the Wehrmacht hammered the Red Army, particularly in the centre of the front, during the opening weeks of Operation Barbarossa. This success had been due to Soviet ineptitude on several counts: Stalin’s catastrophic misjudgments, inexperienced and often incompetent leadership at various levels, the troops’ poor standard of training, and supply shortages – particularly in fuel and suitable tanks – to name but four. Yet the German arm was only able to exploit this ineptitude so fully thanks to its own superior tactics, training, operational art and combined-arms proficiency.
Hitler’s Soldiers presents a more ample and more psychologically nuanced study of the German army – its ordinary rank-and-file soldiers and especially its mid-level leaders in all their personal and ethical complexity – than has been done to this extent in English before. Moreso than its more elite branches, the German army throws into highlight the questions of personal responsibility and culpability that are always so central to any study of the Nazi state, and it’s likely those questions have no definitive answers. Shepherd’s book refreshingly proposes no such answers; it’s a sprawling chronicle of venal and sometimes heroic men, as perhaps it only should be.