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Book Review - Death of the Wehrmacht


The German Campaigns of 1942


Cover of Death of the Wehrmacht


By Robert M Citino

University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, 2007, 978-0-7006-1531-5, 431 pp.

Reviewed by Dr Albert Palazzo


Sometimes a book remains unread and overlooked for far too long. This was the case for my copy of Robert M Citino’s, Death of the Wehrmacht: The German Campaigns of 1942. I have read and enjoyed other works by Citino, so I was not surprised to discover that this book is also excellent. The Death of the Wehrmacht explains how an army that was so rampantly victorious in the war’s opening years became unstuck so quickly in 1942, the Second World War’s turning point. Citino offers an important story that holds lessons for all contemporary military professionals.

From the book’s title, a reader might expect a campaign history and, in part, this is the case. Citino offers an overview of all the German campaigns of that fateful year, from North Africa to the Balkans and most importantly to the Soviet Union. But it is only an overview and those wanting a deep analysis of tactics and battle might be disappointed. There are no tales of glory to be found here.  Nevertheless, this book is much more than an operational account. In fact, Citino has delivered a work that superbly demonstrates the link between institutional culture and operational choice, and in doing so highlights just how much German defeat was a product of a leadership’s world view that remained dominated by its culture.

Citino fixes this book in Germany’s long military tradition, dating back to Frederick the Great and the Prussian Army. It is actually a continuation of the story he tells in The German Way of War: From the Thirty Years’s War to the Third Reich which Citino published in 2005. It too is a fine work and a worthy read, but it is not a prerequisite for understanding the Death of the Wehrmacht.

Citino shows how Institutional culture acted as a limiting factor on the options available to German commanders. Invariably, no matter the situation, the solution they took was to attack. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel led his Afrika Korps deep into Egypt to El Alamein, despite being outnumbered and outgunned and his troops exhausted and underfed. His solution was to attack and hope for victory, no matter the odds. The same mentality drove the Germany Army to Stalingrad and on to Baku in the Caucasus, constantly seeking to trap the Soviets in a Kesselschlacht — literally a kettle battle — in which they annihilated the surrounded enemy.

Frederick the Great’s Prussia was a small resource poor kingdom, surrounded by more powerful states. To survive, its army’s military culture became one based on initiative at all costs. When a Prussian commander found the enemy, he attacked. The odds faced did not matter, while other forces converged on the battle. The goal was always a quick victory because Prussia could not survive a long war. As Citino highlights, taking a pre-industrial age concept of war and applying it to a 20th Century war of material worked as long as the enemy did not have time to draw upon their resources. Once the Soviet Union and the United States were in the war, Germany was up against the world’s titans of industry, but its Army’s concept of war was still mired in an age of lesser production. German commanders did not have any other plan nor was it possible for them to distil one. The blinders of culture ruled all decision-making.

Some attributes of the German Army have entered into the ways of war of other states. The most significant is the concept of Auftragstaktik, which the Australian Army, and other forces, knows as mission command. Australian Army doctrine extols mission command and leaders are supposed to allow their subordinates to get on with the task assigned, and not interfere. Despite being doctrine, it does not work well in the Australian context. Perhaps commanders are reluctant to let go because mission command is the product of a foreign culture and it does not resonate with the Australian understanding of war. Military culture, like all culture, can not be grafted onto a foreign host, as the attempt to pound Iraq and Afghanistan into little versions of the United States proves.

Those readers who have a long-neglected book in your collection take heed.  There was a reason you added it to your shelf, even if you cannot now remember. You might find yourself as I did with a good book that should have been read sooner. Citino has produced an impressive work of utility to the military professional. It should be read. If you have a copy, give it a go. If not, get one.


The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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