Manstein – Hitler’s Greatest General, by Major General Mungo Melvin
image via online.wsj.com
One of the things that interests me about biographies is the ability of the writer to depict historical events, not chronologically necessarily, but centered about the personality in question. It’s a way of seeing history from a very personal vantage point, rather than from the omniscient, “on high” pose historians most often strike. This book does that, using Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, the man Hitler increasingly made responsible for Germany’s prosecution of its war against the Soviet Union during World War II.
First and most importantly, Melvin is no German apologist. In fact, he’s chosen Manstein for this “center-of-the-universe view” precisely because the Field Marshal was as politically neutral as they came during that war. Manstein was an operational genius, and because of his sense of integrity, his leadership transcended the issues of war. Such an examination of his personal and professional life, then, reflects deeply on those, much more flawed aspects of Hitler.
Manstein was of the Prussian aristocracy, an orphan adopted by relatives and reared in the Prussian military caste. He was a young officer during World War I, and was very nearly killed. But he had the good fortune to become a staff officer, these men responsible for the strategic and operational planning necessary to move the tactical chess pieces – not only during battles, but prior to and during a war – in other words, the long view.
By the time Germany began World War II, he had become adept at such planning, and he was largely responsible for the ultra-successful blitzkrieg war into the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. Soon, the General Staff moved him to the east and the war against Stalin. He gained his Field Marshal baton there due to his risky orchestration of the successful conquest of Sevastopol on the Black Sea. After that, however, he and Hitler were continually at odds, and as the war turned against Germany in the east, Hitler fired him and sent him home a civilian. Although of the Prussian aristocracy and by training an operational planner, he was a soldier’s leader, always looking after the combatants’ welfare as best he could. And he was frequently at the front, urging forward, correcting tactical imbroglios, and even doing his own reconnaissance. Once, during the battles in France, he grabbed a young officer of an under-siege panzer unit, and together the general and the young officer swam a river to evaluate what they were up against.
A large portion of Melvin’s book is taken up with the war’s aftermath, the Nuremberg trials, and the personal trial of Manstein. At Nuremberg, Manstein once again stood out. Largely because of his near-photographic memory and his honest but eloquent testimony, he was able to absolve many of the General Staff of responsibility for the horrendous war crimes perpetrated by the SS and a relative few of the German Army. He was fortunate in being fired when he was, however; late in the war, Hitler began moving National Socialism-indoctrinated soldiers and officers into prominence. Had he been in charge of operations then, he would surely have been forced into complicity with those last, widespread deportations and executions.
Strangely, many of the generals were never tried; consequently the Allies sought to hang responsibility for the eastern war solely on Manstein. As a result, he served eight years in various prisons and was released only then due of efforts of key British officers who took up his cause.
This isn’t an easy book. It deals with the mind-boggling complexities of war in general – its technology, its attachment to politics, and its grave moral issues. No one involved in such endeavors can help being tainted by them, and Manstein was no exception. But he stands as an example of how intellect, daring, integrity, and frank honesty can somehow weather such a brutal, barbaric war.
My rating: 18 of 20 stars