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Untainted Shield of Wehrmacht?,
By A Customer
This review is from: Panzer Leader (Paperback)
"Panzer Leader," written by a former Colonel-General of the Wehrmacht, Heinz Guderian, is a fascinating book. It is fascinating in its own right in that it describes Guderian's efforts to create and operate effective all-arms formations including armor, armored infantry and towed (later self-propelled) artillery in spite of the opposition from the more traditional elements of the Wehrmacht. With Hitler's keen interest and help, Guderian succeeded in creating such formations in "Panzerdivisionen" - armored divisions. The subsquent successes which Guderian had as a commander of such formations in Poland, France and Russia make an exciting and informed reading.
However, the book is also fascinating because of the falsehood contained in it. Principally, there are two major "untruths" which often escape notice from the casual reader. The first falsehood is the credit which Guderian attributes to the late Sir Basil H. Liddell Hart as the "founder" of Blitzkrieg "doctrine." Guderian was jailed after the Second World War by the Allied authorities in the West, and it was Sir Liddell Hart who championed his (and other jailed German generals') cause. He brought them gifts and attempted to convince the authorities to free them, and eventually became the editor of their memoirs in the West. Sir Lidell Hart had been indeed an innovator of military doctrine in the 1920's, but he had, by 1930's, rejected the concept of armored warfare as viable. In any case, his reputation had fallen during the war, and this he attempted to salvage rather successfully with the help of the grateful ex-German generals after the war. Hence, Guderian inserted the line crediting Sir Liddell Hart as the founder of Blitzkrieg idea in the English edition of the book (it does not appear in the German edition) which was then edited by Sir Liddell Hart himself. Guderian really deserves the credit for integrating armor, motorized infantry and motorized artillery into an all-arms fighting formation known as Panzer Divisions.
Second major "irregularity" of the book concerns the infamous "Commissar Order." Prior to launching Case Barbarossa, the invasion of Soviet Union, Hitler directed that German forces to eliminate Soviet political officers (and eventually other "undesirables" including Jews) among the captured Soviet POWs. Guderian claims in the book that he did not distribute this order to units under his command, the Second Panzer Group (later the Second Panzer Army) and that hence the order was not carried out in his command. This is an outright lie as was later effectively rebutted by the books written by Professor Omer Bartov. In fact, the Commissar Order was carried out in the Second Panzer Group.
There are other smaller problems. While the account of the war in the book is largely accurate, Guderian often fails to mention that his mistakes were at times reponsible for the failure of military operations under his command. Instead he blames Hitler who, though he shares a large part of the blame, did not make the mistakes alone.
This book was instrumental during the earlier years of the Cold War in implanting the idea that the "Shield of the Wehrmacht" was "untainted" - that it was Hitler and the SS who were responsible for the military failures and the atrocities and that the German army's honor and operational brilliance remained untainted. The book was welcomed in the West because it helped to buttress the argument for the rearming of the Federal Republic of Germany, and because it pointed a way to defeat the Russian "Slavic-Asiatic" hordes with West European operational and tactical brilliance.
We now have a more accurate portrayal of the war available. Nonetheless, the book is useful in that it provides an insight into why the Panzer Division was such an effective instrument of war. The books shows that it was the operational and tactical brilliance of integrating all arms and allowing the unit to deal flexibly with all forms of enemies while maintaining the momentum of operation which made the German armored units so formidable, not the superior number of German tanks during the early years as Sir Churchill inaccurately pointed out in his writings.
At the same time, the reader must understand the context of the book and what it does not contain and what it falsifies. For the shield of the Wehrmacht was tainted with the blood of its victims and occassional military blunders by its commanders. So long as that understanding is present, the book makes an interesting and fascinating military history reading.
James J. Na