Saturday, May 12, 2007

Field Marshal von Manstein The Janus Head a Portrait by Marcel Stein

When I finally got around to reading Manstein's military memoirs I was quite surprised at how much I was annoyed by them. Instead of explaining what had happened and why I was presented with 'what if' solutions and how everyone around him was responsible for the failures under his command and he was innocent and out of the loop. This only one of the reasons I was happy to read Stein's portrait of Manstein. It isn't a biography and it isn't solely about Manstein, at times Stein goes off on tangents to explain who the other characters are in the drama that turned out to have been the German officer corps at war. From the early days when Manstein was coming up the ranks to the July 20th plot against Hitler's life and finally to his testimony at the war crimes trials, all are covered and those who stood up for him and voiced their opinions against him are mentioned and covered in a variety of detail.

To start off I see the good and bad of this book, I agree with many of the authors contentions and at the same time there are some things that I do not think are wholly evident and should be considered practically a given when speaking or thinking of Manstein.

The book starts off with a chronology of his activities from birth until he was dismissed from his post by Hitler. At which point there is a chapter by chapter report about his various and controversial activities. The reader is presented with Manstein's actions during the campaign against France. I appreciated Stein's conclusions in regards to what might have happened if Manstein's plan had not been taken up, in retrospect considering the condition of the French Army, the same outcome would have occurred. The Germans, although outnumbered, would have been victorious against the forces of Belgium, the British Expeditionary Force, and the French Army. Yet, Manstein's plan was helpful in bringing the war to a quick end. I cannot say personally that it was "Brilliant" since its outcome was more so decided by the ineptness of the French military than anything 'spectacular' that Manstein or the German army came up with or did, respectively. In the conclusion one will notice Stein says if this is all Manstein had on his record he would be considered one of the great commanders of history, yet to a degree I think he contradicts himself when, as earlier pointed out, he said the outcome was assured before Manstein's plan was even adopted. Considering the fact that the German General Staff is held in such high esteem, it's hard to believe that their original plan would have been that much off as to cause them to lose the entire war.

The next chapter outlines Manstein's actions in the Crimea and specifically his actions toward a certain divisional commander whom, through his indirect actions, would eventually be killed and whose wife would end up in a concentration camp with 40 marks to her name. Already, it is seen that when Manstein was in trouble, the trouble came from the fact that the Soviets launched amphibious operations in the Crimea when Manstein was head of the 11th Army, that he found someone else to blame. Not taking any responsibility on himself, and in all likelihood that von Sponeck, whom Manstein had dismissed from his position, did the right thing and saved his division rather than listening to Manstein and acting against his own better judgment.

Next is the ever controversial actions of Manstein as commander of Army Group Don and Paulus's 6th Army which was trapped in Stalingrad. Was Manstein his superior? Yes. Could Manstein have ordered Paulus out of the pocket and helped rescue the 6th Army? Yes. Did he? No. In detail this is treated in an entire chapter in Stein's book and the outcome is still not definitive, but simply put, it adds to the idea that when Manstein was put into an uncomfortable situation, minus combat ones, he cracked and couldn't do the right thing. Again and again Paulus asked him for orders hinting that he should let him break out or give him freedom of action and again and again Manstein refused.

Kursk, an operation doomed from the start for a variety of reasons can be viewed as being, at least in part, Manstein's operation. How could a professional commander undertake such an operation without numerical superiority against an enemy that knows he is coming and exactly where? Wishful thinking, what else could be the answer? Those who would argue that it wasn't Manstein who was responsible, I advise to read the book and think again. Too many have made Manstein into a hero he was not and too many ignore his actions thinking him incapable of making them.

Manstein's role in the resistence movement to Hitler. He was approached more than once and by a variety of officers who asked and hinted at the fact that Hitler needed to be killed so that Germany could have a chance at a future. Manstein couldn't find it in himself to choose the correct form of honor. To him honor is doing your duty and obeying orders when you know they are wrong, while there is another kind of honor and Stein does an excellent job of describing it via many other German officers and their actions when it came to the resistance against Hitler or simply disobeying his racist orders in the East. Which leads to the last chapter.

In this chapter Manstein's activities including his 11th Army's actions in conjunction with the Einsatzgruppen are discussed. Many excerpts are taken from his trial and one can easily see that he is hiding something. Him and the 11th Army's chief of staff and a slew of other generals who were on the stand for their orders against Jews and Commissars, for their activities which led to the massacre of Jews and others in their army rear areas, and a plethora of reports that they had to have seen describing Einsatzgruppen actions, at times with cooperation from Wehrmacht units, in the rear areas and the body count of killed climbing higher and higher.

I am obviously leaving too much out, but if this review has anyone interested in the book I cannot recommend it highly enough. While a lot of this material is freely available in German, for those who have not yet mastered the language, this book is a great start. My only fault with this book is that I think Stein conceives Manstein to have been a greater commander than any other German during the Second World War, that is something he has yet to prove if one pays attention to the, at times, contradictory ideas he has about Manstein, his actions, and his plans. His plan which conquered France, in my opinion any plan put together by the German General Staff at that time which had the Germans advancing with loaded weapons would have been a win against France. His actions in the Crimea, one of the longest campaigns which a German army undertook and against forces that were poorly led, although Stein doesn't go into the details from the Soviet side, Mekhlis, a political Commissar, pretty much lost the battle in the Crimea for the Red Army. His actions at Stalingrad, foiled by the 2nd Guards Army under Malinovsky which stopped cold his relief attempt. His actions at Kharkov, thanks to a Panzer corps which he had previously ordered not to evacuate Kharkov and to whom he owed his win. then again it was against an over-extended enemy who had been on the offensive for months, this was in fact a continuation of the operations started in November around Stalingrad. Lastly, Kursk, a failure from the start. Therefore while some of his actions are noteworthy, they are nothing special in my opinion. A reason, aside from his genius or brilliance, can be found for each of his achievements.

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