In “The First Soldier: Hitler as Military Leader,” published by Yale University Press, Stephen G. Fritz of ETSU’s Department of History challenges the common characterization of Hitler as an ill-informed fantasist whose erratic decision-making undermined the German military’s efforts in World War II and led to defeat.
This view of Hitler, Fritz says, comes largely from the memoirs written by high-ranking German officers who were taken prisoner by American and British forces at the end of the war. While these officers were awaiting trial, the U.S. Army put them to work writing the histories of various campaigns during the war.
The prisoner put in charge of leading this effort was Franz Halder, who had been the German army’s chief of staff from 1938 until 1942, when he was dismissed by Hitler.
“Halder held what was, in effect, the most important position in the German army for four or five of the most crucial years of the war,” Fritz says. “Hitler basically forced him out in 1942 and essentially went out of his way to humiliate him, so Halder burned with resentment against Hitler.
“So, of course, when he took charge of supervising the various German generals who were writing histories, Halder insisted that a certain slant be put on the historical interpretations of what happened and what went wrong.
“The slant, the interpretation he insisted on, was that in all respects and in all matters and in all operations, the German army planners had been right and their will had been subverted by the incompetent amateur Hitler, who constantly intervened and interfered in military operations.
“It came down to that simplistic notion that if it just wasn’t for Hitler and his interventions, the German military certainly would have won the war. And of course, Hitler did, on occasion, do seemingly irrational sorts of things, and that kind of fed the narrative.”
Fritz says this view inadvertently became taken as truth as academic historians naturally turned to the first-person accounts of these generals when they began to write histories of World War II.
“It’s one of those things that took hold early and was repeated endlessly in early histories of the war, and it just basically took hold as the accepted wisdom,” he said.
Fritz, who had been considering a couple of other research projects after completing his previous book, “Ostkrieg: Hitler’s War of Extermination in the East,” took on this study at the suggestion of a Yale University Press editor.
In “The First Soldier,” Fritz does not focus solely on World War II, but connects Hitler’s ideas back to his crucial personal experiences and views of war from World War I. He says he wanted to show how the historical context of the first world war and its aftermath for Germany influenced Hitler’s decisions.
“As I got into it, I began to realize just how much that early received wisdom had stuck,” Fritz said. “I also realized how much I’d learned in writing my earlier book, ‘Ostkrieg,’ about how Halder had interfered in the conduct of operations.
“He had undermined Hitler’s orders and often subtly or not-so-subtly changed the meaning of Hitler’s orders. On occasion, when his plans did not work, he immediately worked to blame Hitler for failures that were really his own.
“When I got into the research, I was surprised at just how extensively some of the top German military leaders had worked to undermine Hitler’s orders and ideas.”
Fritz says he also realized that Hitler’s ideas regarding military strategy, tactics and other aspects of campaigns were just as sound as, if not more so, than those of his generals.
“I don’t mean to defend Hitler as some kind of brilliant military leader — and I don’t in this book — but I’ve tried to present a much more nuanced image, to show that Hitler was a bit more capable than the standard image of him.
“Most of the time, he had solid reasons for doing what he did. Most of the time, also, he had support from a good number of the top, most-influential generals.”
In his research, Fritz examined Hitler’s speeches, stenographic records of Hitler’s conversations with close associates, the detailed diaries of some of those associates and other sources.
“What struck me in looking at all this was that far from being a madman,” Fritz said, noting the common depiction of the German dictator in popular films, “Hitler had a real calculated strategy, a calculated logic behind what he was doing.
“Again and again, he would come back to two things. One was the humiliation of the German defeat in World War I in November 1918, and over and over, Hitler insisted that there would never again be a November 1918. Also, for Hitler, what was intolerable was not so much defeat, but giving up and not fighting until the end.
“One of Hitler’s favorite quotes was from the great philosopher of war, the German Carl von Clausewitz, who had written after the Napoleonic wars that basically nothing so destroys a nation as the humiliation of a defeat in which you didn’t fight to the end – only a fight to the finish will guarantee the future existence of a nation, because only then will you have retained national honor.
“If you fight to the bitter end, even though you’ve been defeated, you can begin regenerating your nation with your honor intact.”
“The First Soldier: Hitler as Military Leader” is available at http://yalebooks.yale.edu. In addition to “The First Soldier” and “Ostkrieg,” Fritz is the author of “Frontsoldaten: The German Soldier in World War II.”