Liddell Hart, B.H. The German Generals Talk (New York, 1948)
Sir Basil Henry Liddell Hart, often lauded as the greatest military strategist of the century, remains a compelling and controversial figure in the historiography of the Second World War. Following the defeat of Germany, he conducted lengthy interviews with many high-ranking officers of the Wehrmacht during their captivity. The resulting book was published in the United States as The German Generals Talk and in the United Kingdom as The Other Side of the Hill. A substantially revised edition appeared in 1951.
Liddell Hart sought to imprint his interpretation of World War II upon the future by providing "an important section of the necessary material for history."(1) To a large degree he succeeded in this task--many historians have used this work as a primary source, accepting his account of these interviews rather uncritically. But recent revisionist works point to Liddell Hart's hidden agenda--the resurrection of his tattered reputation.
Liddell Hart volunteered for service in World War I and was badly wounded during the Somme offensive in 1916. While recuperating, he wrote a pamphlet on platoon tactics which began a lengthy writing career, and in 1921 he was given the task of rewriting the British Army's training manual. He resigned from the army in 1924 to become a military correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, moving to the Times in 1935. Enjoying a growing reputation as a military theorist, he had the ear of Secretary of State for War Leslie Hore-Belisha (1937-40). Espousing the efficacy of defense, he discouraged British plans to deploy an expeditionary force in a continental war and encouraged France's faith in the primacy of defense. The fall of France caused his reputation serious harm which was compounded by his continued demands for a negotiated peace with Hitler. In 1945 he saw an opportunity to remedy the situation by rewriting history with the cooperation of the German generals.
Liddell Hart argues that the German General Staff--the Oberkommando das Heeres or O.K.H.-- did not play a significant role in beginning World War II, "except as an ineffectual brake." (5) This was Hitler's war--the generals did not call the tune. Between the wars, the General Staff developed a professional detachment and concentration on pure military thought that rendered them "essentially technicians." (x) Allied failure to realize the true position of the General Staff in the German power structure caused the prolongation of the war by months, if not years. By not giving "timely and effective encouragement" (x) to the German underground, the Allies unwittingly abetted Hitler's retention of power. The consequences, he argued, became apparent in Cold War Europe. In addition, Liddell Hart acquitted the Wehrmacht of responsibility for Nazi atrocities and genocide.
The work is divided into three parts: Part I contains a concise summary of Liddell Hart's views on the origins and early course of the war. Part II asserts the General Staff's opposition to Hitler's rise to power and traces the development of German Panzer formations and tactics. Part III presents an analysis of German operations from the first Ardennes offensive to the second, the Battle of the Bulge.
After World War I, the treaty-limited Reichwehr was rebuilt and modernized by the unceasing efforts of one man--Hans von Seeckt. This new Reichwehr incorporated a "gospel of mobility" which yielded a "qualitative superiority" (14) to German arms. Allied inertia allowed this situation to go unchecked.
Contrary to the assumption that the military aided and abetted Hitler's rise to power, Liddell Hart insisted that the army blocked his path as much as possible. Kurt von Schleicher was forced to become Chancellor in an attempt to undermine the National Socialists and assert the leadership of the Reichwehr in the Weimar Republic. With no support from Hindenburg or the Reichstag, he soon resigned. That "Schleicher was murdered at the first suitable moment" (85) is evidence enough for Liddell Hart to conclude that the generals could not be blamed for assisting Hitler's quest for power.
To gain effective control of the military machinery, Hitler employed a devious strategy that took years to complete. Hitler began to undermine the generals' opposition by appointing a rather youthful Werner von Blomberg as War Minister, shortly after becoming Chancellor. Caught between Hitler and the senior generals, Blomberg was easily manipulated, "an illustration of how simple the pure soldier can be." (21) Hindenburg's appointment, on the advice of the senior generals, of Werner von Fritsch as commanding general of the army ensured even greater division. Although Fritsch cooperated with Hitler on military matters, he represented a stumbling block to Heinrich Himmler's plans for the SS. Consequently, Himmler arranged Fritsch's downfall.
Blomberg's fall (which preceded Fritsch's) allowed Hitler to gain greater control of the military. Assuming Blomberg's post as Commander in Chief of the Combined Forces, Hitler usurped the functions of the O.K.H. by building another general staff under his own control--the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht or O.K.W.--with a pliant Wilhelm Keitel as Chief of Staff.
Following the conquest of Poland, Hitler began to fear a two-front war since he had not anticipated that Britain and France would fight. Although the pact with the U.S.S.R. seemed to secure the east, Hitler distrusted Soviet intentions. To solve this dilemma, he intended to gamble everything on a preemptive strike against France. With France out of the war, Hitler believed that Britain would come to terms with him. This seemed a pipe dream to the generals; they "did not think that the German Army was strong enough to beat France." (108)
The swift success of the attack on Holland and Belgium in 1940 severed the left wing of the Allied line, trapping the British Expeditionary Force (B.E.F.) and the best units of the French army. The sudden halt of the German offensive allowed the B.E.F. to escape. Hitler's so-called "halt order" is explained in purely political terms: the 'miracle of Dunkirk' came about because Hitler did not want war with Britain. Liddell Hart gives full credence to Hitler's ambivalent feelings about Britain which "fits in with much that he himself wrote earlier in Mein Kampf," finding it "remarkable how closely he followed his own bible." (136) Hitler's hesitation and apparent lack of interest in Operation Sealion is offered as further proof of his desire to avoid a prolonged war with Britain. In the event, Hitler's "mind was already turning eastward." (153)
Hitler lost the war in the east because he was not bold enough. This startling pronouncement stands in sharp contrast to Liddell Hart's image of Hitler the innovative gambler. Believing that the Red Army could be destroyed in short order, Hitler hesitated in uncertainty when this proved impossible. The long delay before Moscow ultimately proved fatal because the Soviets were willing to trade space for time. Other factors contributed to the failure: delay in launching the offensive (caused not by the campaign in Greece but by the coup in Yugoslavia); the lack of an adequate road network in the U.S.S.R.; and the Wehrmacht's reliance on wheeled rather than tracked transport.
When the Soviet counter-offensive in December 1941 threatened a German rout, Hitler correctly realized that a no retreat policy offered the only hope. But this successful defense led Hitler to plunge even deeper into the Soviet Union in 1942 and thus to disaster at Stalingrad. Liddell Hart suggests that the Soviets might have been worn down had the Germans adopted an elastic defense, trading space for time as Stalin had done in 1941.
Taken on its own merits, The German Generals Talk is indeed a classic. The most apparent flaw is the lack of scholarly apparatus. Without ready recourse to documentary evidence one can easily accept the generals' viewpoints. The reader is led to believe that the generals were completely honest: "Most of them, I found, were old students of my military writings, so that they were all the more ready to talk, and exchange views." (113) One reviewer pointed to the "extremely subjective nature of opinions" while another stated that the "real trouble with The German Generals Talk is: They don't talk that way."(2)
A comparison of the 1948 edition with that of 1951 is revealing. Heinz Guderian, a relatively minor figure in the 1948 edition, is elevated to the first rank in the 1951 edition. He is given an entire chapter of his own, "The Creator of Early Victory--Guderian." Additionally, his views provide substantial additions to the chapters analyzing the campaigns in the west and in the U.S.S.R. in 1941. In the chapter "The Rise of German Armor," Liddell Hart acknowledges that he had not spoken to Guderian before the publication of the 1948 edition. Liddell Hart wrote the foreword to Guderian's memoirs, and not coincidentally, is recognized as Guderian's mentor. However, the German edition of Guderian's memoirs does not contain this paragraph, as Guderian's biographer, Kenneth Macksey notes.(3) Most seriously, Liddell Hart deliberately manufactured evidence to fit his need and was the actual author of Guderian's `mentor' paragraph.(4) Fabrication of evidence is the unforgivable sin for a historian.
The German Generals Talk appears, in retrospect, a profoundly flawed work. It cannot be taken seriously as a primary source. A transcription of Liddell Hart's interviews with the generals would be of much greater value. The importance of this work for today's scholars is as an object lesson on how not to write history.
1. B.H. Liddell Hart, The Other Side of the Hill: Germany's Generals Their Rise and Fall, with their Own Account of Military Events, 1939-1945, enl. and rev. ed., (London: Cassell and Company Ltd., 1951), 9.
2. R.H.S. Crossman, The New Statesman and Nation (July 17, 1948): 56; Frank C. Mahin, Military Affairs (Spring 1949): 58.
3. Kenneth Macksey, Guderian: Panzer General, with new introduction (London: Greenhill Books, 1992), xiii.
4. John J. Mearsheimer, Liddell Hart and the Weight of History (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988), ch. 8.
NOTE: Parenthetical references denote pagination of the 1948 edition.