Since the fall of the Third Reich in 1945, our verdict on Hitler’s leadership has mostly come from the pens and mouths of his generals. Many of these men had grown to resent their former leader, and with the fall of Germany they seized the opportunity to criticise and embarrass the Fuhrer at every opportunity. But beneath the facade of slander and betrayal, was Hitler’s military leadership style truly so unpopular — and to what extent did his decisions determine the outcome of World War II?
«So much of what we thought we knew about Hitler for many years came from his generals, and they have a lot of reasons to either consciously or unconsciously falsify what happened,» says Dr Geoffrey Megargee. «They more or less accused him of starting the war against their advice and then of losing it through his meddling, but that doesn’t really give us an accurate picture.»
When Germany declared war on Poland on 1 September 1939, they had not expected to encounter such fierce opposition from Britain and France. After both countries declared war on the Third Reich in response, the German population were distraught; World War I was still fresh in the nation’s memory, and the country had only just started to thrive again from the harsh penalties imposed after their defeat in 1918 and later the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Now the leader of the Nazi party was dragging them into another war against familiar foes.
Despite his popularity, Hitler was not immune to criticism and the start of World War II saw a significant drop in morale in Germany.
But that all changed when France fell in just a matter of weeks to Germany’s Blitzkrieg tactics. According to Dr Megargee, «Once France was knocked out of the war, I suspect at that point Hitler probably reached about the high point of his popularity with the German population because Germany had just managed to defeat in a matter of weeks this enemy that had defeated them over four years of combat in World War I. That was quite a coup.» .
Riding on this success, Hitler quickly involved » himself in all aspects of the operations of the German army — much more so than the respective leaders of other countries. He was known for an attention to detail that was interfering at best, and detrimental at worst. «Hitler was in charge of strategy from the start, figuring out against whom Germany was going to fight, and his decisions were not nearly so unpopular as [his generals] tried to say later on.
«They were all in favour of starting a war against Poland, they were all in favour of starting a war against the Soviet Union — these were not unpopular decisions on Hitler’s part.
«But when we get down to the next level of warfare — operations, ie planning and conducting campaigns — here Hitler was on weaker ground. He had some good insights, and some of his decisions turned out well, but he didn’t have any systematic training in this kind of warfare and that showed»
The popular picture of Hitler is of a man that heeded no advice — a leader that would rather listen to his own gut instinct than to the rational arguments of his generals. This was true to an extent; Hitler was distrustful of some of his senior officers, who in turn criticised him for his inexperience in warfare, and he certainly grew more distrustful and erratic as the war progressed.
That being said it was largely the officers themselves that have swayed our view of Hitler’s leadership, as they resented his involvement in their military, as Dr Megargee points out. «General
[Franz] Halder, for example — who was chief of the general staff from October 1938 to September 1942 — maintained a sort of passive-aggressive relationship with Hitler. He would agree openly with what Hitler had to say, but would then try to work around the decisions that Hitler made.» However, for the first few years of the war at least, Hitler relied upon his generals greatly and would seek their advice on both strategy and tactics, albeit some more so than others.
The Fuhrer, though, was not blithely ignorant; he was well aware of the hatred some of his officers felt towards him, and he used this to his advantage at every available opportunity. «He tended to play off commanders against each other. They would throw in their opinions at briefings and he would go with whoever he agreed with, so it was sort of a divide-and-conquer kind of approach to leadership.
And once he made up his mind on something he could be extremely stubborn about it.»
As mentioned the Fuhrer had an uncanny attention to detail and thus involved himself in the smallest of minutiae about particular units, and many of his generals would be caught short if they could not supply him with precise information — such as, for instance, the number of tanks in a particular division. By 1943 Hitler had started bringing two stenographers (court recorders) to each of his meetings, and although many records were burned at the end of the war, those that survived reveal Hitler’s meetings to be intricate to the point that they were discussing the movements of very small units on the front and their equipment.
Hitler’s level of involvement was beginning to pose a problem. : «You could argue that Hitler was too detailed. When you start talking about how many trucks a particular unit has at its disposal, that’s just ridiculous for a head of state to try to interpret as a military commander. There’s no way that he can understand the situation well enough to an extent that it’s going to make a positive difference on the battlefield.» Such was the extent of his incessant attention for detail that by the end of the war almost no major unit was allowed to move without Hitler’s express permission — especially one on the retreat.
Aside from Hitler’s over-reliance on details, as the war dragged on he began to rely more and more upon his instincts, and «there were times that served him well, but a lot of times that didn’t,» Dr Megargee continues. «By  he was sort of living in a fantasy land, frankly; he thought he was going to burst through the Allied lines and separate the British from the Americans and the whole Allied Western coalition would fall apart and he could go back to fighting the Russians [in the east]. By then his instinct had become delusional.» At this point in the war Hitler’s generals were doing their best to convince him of employing different tactics, such as initiating smaller offensives instead of large ones, but Hitler was having none of it.
For all his shortcomings, though, Hitler did at times make some smart decisions, but embarking on a war at all was a poor one. «The whole war was badly conceived to begin with.
The idea that Germany could take on the British Empire, the Soviet Union and then the US at the same time was at the very least problematic.
I’ve had people ask me when do I consider the war to have been lost, and I semi-jokingly say, ‘1 September 1939’.»
With the hand Hitler had been dealt — or rather the hand he had dealt himself — he managed to conduct himself, and the army, in a reasonable manner at the start of the conflict.
The invasion of Poland was arguably his only course of action once the wheels of war had been set in motion, and the manner in which Germany conquered not only Poland but other nations, such as France, was commendable; they had swiftly and effectively seized control of a large chunk of Europe, thanks to Hitler’s belief that France could be beaten. What he didn’t count on, however, was the steadfast refusal of Britain to enter into any sort of diplomatic negotiations.
«With Britain not giving up his options were becoming extremely limited. He was in an economic bind; he was not going to be able to continue this war over the long run against the British because, sooner or later, Germany was going to run out of strength for that — even with the tentative support of the Soviet Union.
«So he made the decision for strategic and economic and ideological reasons to attack the Soviet Union — something he was more or less intending to do all along anyway. That decision was based on the assumption — which his generals shared and backed — that the USSR would collapse — that there would be one short military campaign which would destroy the Red Army. Obviously that didn’t work out very well.»
Indeed, the war came to a point in 1941 where defeat for Germany seemed all but inevitable and Hitler’s strategic choices became ever-more limited. By 1942, after a second attempt at defeating the Soviet Union had failed, Dr Megargee suggests that, for Hitler, it became «just a matter of holding out as best he could in the hope that the Allied coalition would break up. And it became more based on delusion than anything else.»
By 1945 Hitler was all but dictating to his generals exactly what to do, and he had little trust left in any of them. But by then, and possibly even much earlier, for all the strategic knowledge in the world, Hitler had no hope of leading the Third Reich to victory. «I think quite honestly his biggest strategic mistake was starting the war.
«Beyond that you get into details, and there are arguments to be made for each of the strategic decisions he made after that — declaring war on the Soviet Union and the United States, for example — but that’s all within the context of a war in which Germany was, I won’t say fated to lose, but certainly was not going to win easily.»
Hitler’s deterioration from sanity to irrationality, therefore, was not the deciding factor in the war, however there can be little doubt that his leadership style did little to help what was already a difficult cause for Germany.
Perhaps even with the greatest generals in the world the Third Reich would have been defeated; of that we cannot be certain. What we do know, however, was that Hitler was not the great military leader he himself thought he was. For his handful of victories there was a truckload of defeats, and his refusal to listen to reason ultimately accelerated Nazi Germany down the path to defeat.
The invasion of Poland 1-27 September 1939
On 1 September 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland, and just two days later both Britain and France declared war on Germany. World War II had begun.
The campaign in Poland was devised by General Franz Halder, chief of the general staff, but it was ultimately Hitler who gave the order to invade. Germany employed Blitzkrieg (which translates as ‘lightning war’) tactics, denting Poland’s front lines with Panzer tanks and aircraft before troops moved through gaps this created. The approach was hugely successful, although it was not one that Hitler came up with. On 27 September 1939 Poland surrendered, albeit with a Soviet invasion from the east dividing the country.
The effects of this campaign were felt across the globe and signalled the start of World War II. Hitler would go on to employ the same tactics in other countries, including France in 1940.
The expert’s view
«If Germany was going to have a war, then September 1939 was probably the best time to attack,» says Dr Megargee. «The Allies were getting stronger, so the timing was working against Germany at that point and I think Hitler even said that. But, of course, he was counting on Britain and France to stay out of it. He figured they would let Poland go; he underestimated them on that point.»
«The whole idea of starting the war was a poor strategic decision, but if Hitler was going to start one this was probably the best he could do.»
The fall of France 10 May — 22 June 1940
Resigned to the fact that both Britain and France had declared war, Hitler knew that he needed to nullify France to have any chance of fending off the Allies. So, on 10 May 1940, Germany invaded its Gallic neighbour.
The campaign consisted of two operations. The first was Case Yellow (Fall Gelb), where German forces advanced into the Ardennes region and pushed the Allied forces in Belgium back to the sea. This ultimately resulted in the mass evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk between 26 May and 4 June.
A second operation known as Case Red (Fall Rot) began on 5 June, with Germany’s air superiority and armoured units overcoming the depleted French forces. German forces pushed into Paris on 14 June, and by 22 June they had signed an armistice with the French that would see Germany occupy the north and the west of the country until 1944.
The two major operations were not Hitler’s doing. However, it was Hitler that ultimately convinced the German High Command to accept the plan, which undoubtedly was a significant factor in defeating France. The campaign prevented the stalemate that had occurred in World War I, and enabled Germany to begin focusing its attention on other foes.
The expert’s view
«Hitler — especially at this stage of the war — was extremely nervous about how it was going to all work out. He was very worried about the left flank of that attack going through the Ardennes to the coast of the English Channel, and he was worried that the French might counterattack. He was [pivotal] in getting the German High Command to accept [Erich von] Manstein’s plan to go through the Ardennes.»
«Hitler had a good instinct to go with what Manstein proposed. Hitler was on the right side of that decision.»
Who was Erich von Manstein?
Born in Berlin on 24 November 1887, and after seeing service during World War I, Manstein was the chief of staff to Germany’s Army Group South at the start of World War II. He was one of the main instigators of an offensive through the
Ardennes (known as Case Yellow or Fall Gelb) during the invasion of France in 1940, which ensured Germany a swift victory in Europe. He later attained the rank of general, but his constant criticism of Hitler’s strategies coupled with his failure to turn the tide at the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942 saw him ousted from the German army in March 1944. He was captured and imprisoned by the British in August 1945, and died almost 30 years later on 9 June 1973.
The Battle of the Atlantic
3 September 1939 — 8 May 1945
For all his inexperience in ground warfare, Hitler was even more of a novice when it came to the sea. He didn’t have any considerable knowledge of navies, and thus for the most part he left naval operations in the hands of generals he trusted including Erich Raeder and Karl Donitz, who both served as commander-in-chief of the Kriegsmarine during the war.
The Battle of the Atlantic was the longest military campaign of World War II, running continuously from the outbreak of war on 3 September 1939 to 8 May 1945. The majority of the campaign was fought between the Kriegsmarine and the combined Allied navies of Britain and Canada, and later in 1941 the US. The Germans relied considerably on their
U-boat submarines, with only a handful of warships available.
The campaign revolved largely around the Allied blockade of Germany and a subsequent counter-blockade by the Kriegsmarine. German U-boats attempted to attack convoy ships travelling across the Atlantic, but the strength of the Allied navies, combined with Hitler’s decision to pull many U-boats away for other campaigns, would see the Allies gain control of the Atlantic and the Channel by 1944.
The expert’s view
«Hitler was involved in some key decisions, especially to take U-boats away from the Atlantic and send them to Norway and the Mediterranean.
One probably can’t argue that those decisions weakened the Atlantic campaign fatally, but they certainly didn’t help it.»
«Hitler’s on-again, off-again decisions regarding resources for the construction of U-boats did hurt the [campaign] considerably.»
The Battle of Britain
10 July — 31 October 1940
With France defeated with surprising swiftness, Hitler was unsure what to do next. The German High Command had been especially unconvinced that France would fall in such a short amount of time, and thus they set about deciding what Germany’s next course of action should be.
Hitler was all too aware that Britain posed a significant threat and, with little chance of a diplomatic resolution, he would have to attack. The prospects of a potential invasion of Britain (known as Operation Sealion), however, were incredibly slim. The Royal Navy was far superior to the German Navy (Kriegsmarine), while the Royal Air Force posed a formidable threat in the skies. If an invasion were to happen, the German army wanted to get as many troops ashore as possible, while the Kriegsmarine was adamant that such an operation would be impossible.
With numerous options available, Hitler eventually opted to test out the defensive capabilities of Britain with an attack from the air. If the German Luftwaffe could manage to gain air superiority over the Royal Air Force, it could then keep the British Royal Navy at bay while Germany mounted an all-out ground invasion.
Britain, however, proved a much more stubborn opponent than Germany had ever anticipated, and ultimately the RAF was never in too much danger of succumbing to defeat. One of the key factors that affected the outcome was the decision for the Luftwaffe to switch from bombing British military targets and airfields to bombing cities such as London as a terror tactic.
With the Luftwaffe unable to gain air superiority, Hitler postponed Operation Sealion indefinitely in October 1940.
However, the bombing of civilian Britain continued in what was to become known as the Blitz.
The expert’s view
«The popular image is that the RAF was sort of on the ropes when the Germans made the switch [from bombing airfields to cities], and that in effect took the pressure off [Britain].
On the other hand, while the RAF was having a hard time all they really had to do was withdraw a little farther back into the country and husband their resources and they still could have stopped an invasion quite effectively. I don’t get the impression the Luftwaffe ever really had a good chance of knocking out the RAF.»
«Hitler may have been involved in the decision to go from attacking British airfields and radar stations to bombing London, but this certainly did not help the campaign.»
The invasion of the USSR
22 June 1941 — 24 July 1944
The height of Hitler’s involvement with his army came in 1941 when he decided to invade the USSR. Germany’s battle with the Red Army began with the five-month-long Operation Barbarossa on 22 June 1941, and culminated in the Soviets liberating Minsk (Belarus) and Majdanek (Poland) in July 1944.
Hitler and his generals believed that the Soviet Union would fall if Germany mounted a sustained attack. They presumed, somewhat naively, that the Red Army would collapse and the Soviet people would surrender after a short military campaign, allowing Germany to occupy large portions of the USSR while focusing their efforts on Britain in the west. This, of course, was anything but what really happened, and Hitler’s underestimation of the Soviet Union was a major failing of the entire campaign.
Hitler held a great number of debates in Barbarossa itself regarding the direction of the main attack: whether it should go to Moscow or into the Ukraine and up through Leningrad. Hitler ultimately made the choice to focus on the economic resources of the Soviet Union rather than the capital. Hitler had good instincts in this regard, but the overall decision to attack the Soviet Union was a poor one.
The Soviets refused to ‘roll over’ the way the Germans had expected them to, and while Hitler’s direction of the campaign in the summer of 1941 was adequate, his refusal to heed the advice of his generals as the invasion dragged on was a major flaw on his part.
Germany’s Blitzkrieg tactics that had been so successful earlier in the war were nullified by the Red Army’s tactic of holding back before launching counteroffensives. In December 1941 Germany was at the gates of Moscow, but the Soviets kept attacking and wore the Germans down. With winter approaching, many of Hitler’s generals suggested the German army should retreat and consolidate before attacking again in spring 1942. Hitler, though, was adamant the army should hold everywhere to ensure they didn’t lose any of their heavy equipment, which he came under much criticism for. His decision was arguably the right one at first, but later in the war he became too enamoured with the technique.
With their first attempt at defeating the Soviet Union unsuccessful, Germany would try again before the war was out. Hitler and his generals were convinced the Red Army was on the ropes, and sustained attacks would wear them out. But the Russians stood strong and, after successfully defending key cities including Moscow in 1942, Hitler was left with few options but retreat.
The expert’s view
«The genocide of the Jews and the general abuse and destruction of the Soviet population really made it impossible to come to any kind of arrangement with the Soviet people. There’s an argument to be made that if the Germans had gone in with a different attitude they could have [tempted] Ukraine and the Baltic states, and perhaps other portions of the Soviet Union, away. But Hitler assumed they were going to have a quick military victory and saw no reason to compromise. He convinced himself that the Red Army must be on the ropes, and they kept pushing in the winter, still trying to take Moscow and still trying to advance in the south, and they ran out of steam. As a result, Germany found itself in the middle of winter without the proper equipment, with no place to go, and vulnerable to the Soviet counteroffensive.»
«If you ignore the bad decision of attacking the USSR to begin with, on an operational level Hitler did fairly well [at first, but he lost his way].»
Key moments in World War II
Outbreak of WWII
Hitler invades Poland and, two days later, Britain and France declare war on Germany, heralding the start of World War II.
1 September 1939
For almost six years the longest military campaign of WWII sees the Allied and Axis powers fight for control of the Atlantic.
3 September 1939
Germany takes control of large portions of western Europe, including Belgium, culminating in the surrender of France.
25 June 1940
Luftwaffe air raids
The German Luftwaffe begins an air campaign against the UK, but the Royal Air Force (RAF) stands strong and is victorious almost four months later.
10 July 1940
Germany invades the Soviet Union, reneging on the Non-Aggression Pact that the two countries had signed in 1939.
22 June 1941
Pearl Harbor attack
Japanese fighter planes attack the American base at Pearl Harbor, killing over 2,000 people. Four days later, the USA enters the war.
7 December 1941
An Allied campaign of over 300,000 soldiers begins landings in Normandy in northern France in order to break Germany’s stranglehold on Europe.
6 June 1944
Hitler commits suicide in his Fuhrerbunker as Germany faces defeat in the Battle of Berlin with the Soviet Union. Germany surrenders six days later.
1 May 1945
The US drops atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, killing tens of thousands in an instant. On 2 September Japan surrenders and WWII ends.
6 and 9 August 1945