Führer’s Military Incompetence, Did it Cost the Third Reich the War

Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1995-041-23A / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Analysis of Hitler’s military ability has always been controversial, in no small part due to a conflict between the Nazis portraying themselves as an elite military machine and the memoirs of German generals after the war accusing Hitler of incompetence.

There is no doubt that Hitler was abnormally involved in military affairs compared to other heads of state. He often set up field headquarters near the front. His politicized appointments of generals are also infamous.

However, his aggressive tactics were successful, at times.

Was Hitler a capable military strategist who was later thrown under the bus by generals desperate to save their own reputations? Or was he a meddling fool who promoted unqualified political allies?

Speaking in Reichstag –May 4, 1941 By Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-808-1238-05 / CC-BY-SA 3.0
Speaking in Reichstag –May 4, 1941 By Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-808-1238-05 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

A Corrupt and Sycophantic Officer Corps

Hitler was selfish when it came to promoting officers. His primary concerns were that they were loyal to him alone and that they were not talented enough to challenge him for power. This led to sycophants being appointed over more meritorious officers.

Furthermore, a system of bribery arose throughout the war so that Hitler could maintain those loyalties.

German officers in front of the National Theatre in Oslo, 1940
German officers in front of the National Theatre in Oslo, 1940

In 1941, some high-ranking officers began receiving checks of over a quarter of a million Reichsmarks for milestone birthdays (such as 50 years, 60 years, and so on). Historian Norman Goda found records which show that “in 1944 a small group of officers was given tremendous estates, some valued at over one million marks.”

Hitler watching German soldiers marching into Poland in September 1939. By Bundesarchiv – CC BY-SA 3.0 de
Hitler watching German soldiers marching into Poland in September 1939. By Bundesarchiv – CC BY-SA 3.0 de

Not only were all of these gifts tax-free, but they also drained away money that should have been used elsewhere.

This bribery was partly due to Hitler’s well-known lack of faith and mistrust in his generals. He famously forced Erwin Rommel, one of Germany’s most successful generals, into suicide to avoid repercussions for his family.

Erwin Rommel. By Bundesarchiv Bild CC-BY-SA 3.0
Erwin Rommel. By Bundesarchiv Bild CC-BY-SA 3.0

While Hitler might have been right in his suspicions about Rommel (who actually was in favor of removing Hitler from power), his mistrust of the others was perhaps less warranted. Some sources reported that “As early as 1938 he was heard to say that every general was either cowardly or stupid.”

He used this mistrust to justify ignoring his generals’ advice. Ironically, it was through ignoring their advice that Hitler’s leadership achieved one of its most inspired moments.

Generalfeldmarschälle Gerd von Rundstedt and Erwin Rommel meeting in Paris. ByBundesarchiv, Bild CC-BY-SA 3.0
Generalfeldmarschälle Gerd von Rundstedt and Erwin Rommel meeting in Paris. ByBundesarchiv, Bild CC-BY-SA 3.0

As the Nazi offensive towards Moscow stalled, his generals wanted to retreat, but Hitler decided to form a defensive front and hold the line. As the commander-in-chief, Hitler made the final decision, and the German defenses held. Soviet losses were so severe that the resulting stalemate became known as the “Rzhev Meat Grinder.”

Obsessive Focus on Detail

Hitler fundamentally failed to understand the proper role of his high-level staff.

Hitler during a meeting at the headquarters of Army Group South in June 1942.Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-B24543 / CC-BY-SA 3.0
Hitler during a meeting at the headquarters of Army Group South in June 1942.Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-B24543 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

When he was near the front, he would often telephone his field commanders or even summon them to his headquarters, to ask them about every detail of their forces. This included everything from the exact position of small units to details of their armaments.

Since Hitler was always briefed by his staff and had a remarkable memory, he would become irate if his commanders did not know everything.

The job of high ranking staff should be far less detail-oriented and more centered around organization and strategy. Instead, out of fear of Hitler’s wrath, his high command focused on details like the specifications of certain guns.

Afrika korps: German officers, North Africa. By Bundesarchiv – CC BY-SA 3.0 de
Afrika korps: German officers, North Africa. By Bundesarchiv – CC BY-SA 3.0 de

Being in Hitler’s good graces could lead to more resources and promotions for those commanders, and so their attention was split between winning over the Führer and winning the war.

Hitler further undermined the war effort with his obsessive focus on detail by ignoring strategy to micromanage forces.

During the Battle of Stalingrad, he had a street-by-street map of the city placed before him as he planned. Late in the war, he required even small units to have his personal permission to attack or retreat.

German Infantry in position for an attack in Staligrad.
German Infantry in position for an attack in Staligrad.

Poor Strategy

One might assume that, as a veteran of World War One, Hitler had relevant military experience to guide him. However, Hitler’s role in the Great War was a far cry from commander-in-chief.

As a foots oldier and non-commissioned officer, he had been near the front. His experience in trench warfare and message running was not useful in a world of rapidly shifting fronts, urban warfare, extended supply lines, blitzkrieg, and more advanced armor and air units.

German Soldier with Soviet submachine gun PPSch 41 in cover between rubble. By Bundesarchiv, Bild 116-168-618 / CC-BY-SA 3.0
German Soldier with Soviet submachine gun PPSch 41 in cover between rubble. By Bundesarchiv, Bild 116-168-618 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Hitler failed to see the forest for the trees. He planned minor unit movements in obsessive detail, ignoring underlying issues that were crippling his army, like equipment that could not work in harsh winter conditions and horribly overextended supply lines.

As his men awaited direct orders from him, they were often unable to take advantage quickly enough of opportunities that emerged on the front.

Hitler most likely pushed his nation to war earlier than was wise. His ideology may have been an underlying cause for his arrogance: he had faith in the “innate superiority” of the German people to carry him to victory quickly, even against superior numbers.

German forces surrendering in St. Lambert-sur-Dives on 21 August 1944.
German forces surrendering in St. Lambert-sur-Dives on 21 August 1944.

So it was all Hitler’s fault then?

Despite what some post-war generals tried to claim to protect their reputations, not all of it was Hitler’s fault. Although the Führer did more harm than good, there were significant underlying flaws in the German war machine.

World War Two military historian, Geoffrey Megargee, summaries the balance of blame, saying “the German general staff, despite flashes of real brilliance, had deep, long-term flaws in such areas as intelligence, logistics, and strategic planning. Hitler made any number of mistakes, but so too did his subordinates.

Adolf Hitler poses for a photo in 1938. By Bundesarchiv – CC BY-SA 3.0 de
Adolf Hitler poses for a photo in 1938. By Bundesarchiv – CC BY-SA 3.0 de

Hitler’s poor leadership served to make a bad situation worse. The German high command, and to a degree the German war machine as a whole, had many underlying issues.

Read another story from us: The Leaders of the Third Reich

In particular, they were not prepared for a protracted war on two and then three fronts. Additionally, German supply lines were incredibly overextended on the Eastern Front – a problem inherent to such an advance.

Hitler’s failures may have hastened the defeat of the Nazis, but Germany had already put itself in a difficult position.