Saturday, May 13, 2017

Blitzkrieg: From the Ground Up by Niklas Zetterling

That the idea of “Blitzkrieg” – a term hardly ever employed by the Germans – continues to dominate thinking about the Second World War means the term and concept are still in need of a better grounding and contextualization.  Niklas Zetterling’s “Blitzkrieg: From the Ground Up” attempts to look at a few select German operations – the invasions of Poland, Norway, France, and the Soviet Union – through the eyes lower-level ground forces in order to understand how revolutionary the concept of “Blitzkrieg” really was.  While I appreciate the attempt, the final results are somewhat disappointing.

The initial chapter, which documents how the foundations of what became “Blitzkrieg” are visible in the First World War (stormtrooper tactics) and discusses the evolution of German thinking of warfare in the interwar period, contains some interesting ideas.  Specifically, the author discusses the novelty, or lack thereof, behind what we associate today with the idea of “Blitzkrieg,” and more importantly the role and influence of technology versus that of personnel initiative.  The individual chapters themselves also contain interesting discussions, when speaking in a general sense, about the various campaigns the author concentrates on.  For instance, when ending the chapter on the invasion of Poland, Zetterling concludes: “Poland had been conquered by a rather traditional mode of warfare…”  Hardly reminiscent of the exciting, lighting victory that the first German success on the field of battle is usually portrayed as.  

However, some of the other conclusions the author reaches are unoriginal and I am unsure why they would merit an entire volume.  Zetterling’s main arguments revolve around the fact that the way the Germans waged war in WWII was not “revolutionary.”  According to the author: German air power was limited during 1939-1940 and cooperation between ground and air forces was not ideal until perhaps 1942; combined arms operations as employed by the Wehrmacht were not a novel concept but rather the norm for contemporary military operations.  Germany’s “secret,” as it turns out, was the training and initiative that was stressed by its officer corps, which often enough in the field meant a disregard for orders and the solving of problems before superiors even knew they existed.  Less attention is devoted to how often subordinates ignored orders from commanding officers and how that influenced the commander/subordinate dynamic that existed in the Wehrmacht.  The author argues that new weapons that appeared on the eve of and during the Second World War were incorporated into an existing army framework; the army decided how best to utilize the weapons it received rather than the weapons defining future German operational abilities.  Thus German success against states like Poland, Norway and France was the culmination of intensive work done by the Reichswehr and the Wehrmacht in the interwar period.  Furthermore, no successful “Blitzkrieg” doctrine that relies on quick wars based around surprise and offensive actions explains the successful defensive operations that the Wehrmacht employed in the latter half of the Second World War.  That, once again, according to the author, was due to training and independent thinking.

While it is hard to disagree with the above, my biggest complaint is that the way this volume was put together does not allow for enough emphasis or analysis of the above.  Zetterling might have wanted to present various diaries from soldiers and weave them into a seamless narrative, but the end result is a general commentary by the author about major operations/campaigns and then something of a “zoom-in” feature that takes the reader to the ground level, almost disconnected from the previous narrative, as the author paraphrases each and every primary source with needless details.  Instead, the author should have either included the diary/journal entries as they were (written in the first person) or taken out all the superfluous context and concentrated on the information that would support his argument(s).  Moreover, there is not enough supporting original material when Zetterling does present his argument(s).  For instance, there was no mention of the fact that planning for Germany’s campaign against France was initially planned to last some six months – hardly a “Blitzkrieg” campaign.  Additionally, there is no attempt to offer an explanation for why Germany’s opponents either lost the discussed campaigns or were decisively defeated in various engagements.  This really is a missed opportunity as deconstructing what “Blitzkrieg” is and is not will go a long way in helping to understand not only how and why Germany was successful in the Second World War but how the myth of “Blitzkrieg” has continued to dominate our understanding of this time period.

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