Book Review: The Myth and Reality of German Warfare: Operational Thinking from Moltke the Elder to Heusinger


by Gerhard P. Gross, edited by David T. Zabecki.

Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2018. Pp. xvi, 426+. Illus., maps, notes, biblio., index. $65.00. ISBN: 9780813168371

“The German Way of War”

Certainly no foreign military establishment has garnered more attention in the United States than the German army. Historically, the German army of World War II has taken the lion’s share of interest, but consideration of the army of the Kaiserreich has grown with the arrival of the centennial of the Great War. Some scholars, most notably Robert M. Citino, have posited the idea of a “German way of war.”

Gross, is both a colonel and a career officer in the German Bundeswehr and a well-published author and researcher. Until recently, he had been the head of the Department of German Military History before 1945 at the Center for Military History and Social Sciences of the Bundeswehr (ZMSB) located in Potsdam, Germany. The center is the successor to the former Military History Research Office (MGFA), the organization that had produced the German “semiofficial” history of World War II, translated into English under the title Germany and the Second World War.

Gross’s work is very similar to Citino’s German Way of War, but with some important and interesting differences. Where they agree is on the basic parameters of the Prusso-German approach to war. Given the geographic circumstances of the Prussian kingdom, the Prussian army and its German successor sought to fight short wars, quickly decided by sharp offensively oriented campaigns culminating in decisive battles. Thus, while Napoleon is often credited with creating this style of warfare, for the great Prussian theorist Carl von Clausewitz, Napoleon was merely the continuator of a process really begun by Frederick William, Elector of Brandenburg.

While Citino began his work with Frederick, the Great Elector of the seventeenth century, Gross begins his book with Helmuth von Moltke, Moltke the Elder, and thus wades into a controversy that still resonates today, especially in the American military. Moltke is credited with creating the operational level of warfare—or at least identifying it. Defining it, however, was another matter. As Gross notes, Moltke contributed to the confusion with the looseness of his language in his writing on the subject.

The greatest danger to the German army’s preferred method of warfare was something over which the army had no control, namely increasing size. The span of Moltke’s career saw the rise of mass armies, first in the American Civil War and later in Europe after the creation of the German Empire in 1871. The growth in the size of armies made the prospect of waging a short, sharp conflict problematic. Although all the European war plans that were developed called for decisive campaigns, other factors almost ensured the plans would miscarry. Primary among these factors was logistics. Gross notes the failure to take logistics into account was one of the constant weaknesses of German military planning throughout the period of both world wars.

Another critical factor for the German way of war was the environment in which war was conducted. The German high command, both during and after the war, pointed to the Battle of Tannenberg as the ideal operation. Gross, however, identifies two important things that run counter to this fixation. First, Tannenberg was a defensive battle, as opposed to the German army’s preferred posture, which was offensive. In addition, the battle was fought on German territory, allowing German commanders Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff to make use of the excellent road and rail system.

The German method of waging war was thus best suited to areas of central and western Europe, where road and rail systems could facilitate the conduct of rapid operations. Where these systems were not present, most notably in the expanses of Russia, the German way of warfare either yielded indecisive (if occasionally spectacular) results or broke down completely.

Where German military thinking really failed was in its focus, which was generally downward. Thus, the focus of thinking, education, and doctrine produced an army that was operationally nimble and tactically adept, but strategically as bereft of ideas as the country’s political leadership.

Gross goes beyond the scope of most works on German military history, including Citino’s, by extending his discussion into the early Cold War period. The thinking of both German armies owed much to its predecessor, although the Soviet army had also developed its operational theory during the war. For the newly created Bundeswehr, the key figure was Adolf Heusinger, a high-level staff officer who was arrested by the Gestapo in 1944 as a suspect in the attempt to kill Adolf Hitler. Ironically, the German approach to conventional warfare worked best when incorporated into a broader alliance system, where a bigger ally really determined the strategy.

In conclusion, Gross has made a major contribution to the literature in this field. The Myth and Reality of German Warfare: Operational Thinking from Moltke the Elder to Heusinger is indispensable reading for any student of the topic.

This review originally appeared in the U.S. Army War College publication Parameters, Vol. 47, No. 2 (Summer 2017), used with permission of Prof. DiNardo and Parameters


Note: The Myth and Reality of German Warfare, a volume in the Kentucky series “ Foreign Military Studies” is also available in several e-editions



Reviewer: Richard L. DiNardo   

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