The Great Myth of the Wehrmacht

In 1985, English historian Max Hastings published a provocative Washington Post article, titled simply: Their Wehrmacht was Better Than Our Army. The title refers to the German armed forces during World War II. Not mincing words, Hastings writes the following:

The inescapable truth is that Hitler’s Wehrmacht was the outstanding fighting force of World War II, one of the greatest in history. For many years after 1945, this seemed painful to concede publicly, partly for nationalistic reasons, partly also because the Nazi legions were fighting for one of the most obnoxious regimes of all time.

Hastings goes on to cite the work of American Colonel Trevor Dupuy, who conducted detailed statistical analysis of the battles of the Second World War. Dupuy concluded the following:

On a man for man basis, German ground soldiers consistently inflicted casualties at about a 50 percent higher rate than they incurred from the opposing British and American troops under all circumstances. This was true when they were attacking and when they were defending, when they had a local numerical superiority and when, as was usually the case, they were outnumbered, when they had air superiority and when they did not, when they won and when they lost.

Trevor Dupuy, as cited by Max hastings

This week, we’re going to examine the historical narrative of the overpowering military power of the German Reich, as championed by Max Hastings and other historians. Is Hastings correct in his assessment? But more than that, we’re going to examine the history of the idea of Germany’s overwhelmingly superior army. Where did the idea come from, and what implications does it have today?

How much do casualty numbers really say about military effectiveness?

The available evidence tends to support the statistics Max Hastings and Trevor Dupuy deploy. An independent statistical analysis conducted by Christopher A. Lawrence in 2017 concluded that, although Dupuy’s estimate of 50% greater casualties inflicted by the Germans may be an exaggeration, German soldiers performed at 20% higher ‘combat efficiency’ than their American counterparts, and 60% higher than the British. Such figures are undeniably impressive, and point to a clear German military superiority. That is, if you accept Dupuy and Lawrence’s analysis. 

However, Dupuy and Lawrence’s broad claims of fighting efficiency come from essentially a single variable: casualties. In their models, the best and most efficient army is the one that inflicts the most casualties on the enemy while minimizing their own losses. This is, to be frank, a rather childish view of warfare. During the Vietnam War, the Americans killed as many as ten North Vietnamese soldiers for every man they lost, but was the American military really better than the NVA and Viet Cong? 

“The Soviets took Berlin, but the Germans killed a lot of Soviets, so the German army was better.” – Max Hastings, apparently.

As every military theorist from Sun Tzu to Clausewitz has argued, winning a war is not about killing the most enemies, its about reaching your strategic objectives. The best army is the one that can achieve those strategic objectives as quickly as possible. The American and British armies were not designed to maximize their kill ratio, they were designed to overrun and destroy the Nazi state, which they did within a year of landing on the shores of France. The Germans, for their part, thrived at the tactical and operational level, but lacked the ability to achieve their strategic goals.

Hastings and Lawrence attribute the German defeat not to any defect in the German military machine, but to the allies’ overwhelming resources. The allies had more tanks, planes, and bombs, more men, factories, and oil. And while the Allies certainly did enjoy more resources than the Axis powers, this does not mean that their military system was inferior.

Quality is a Choice

In any military system, quality is as much a choice as it is an inherent attribute. The Soviet Union knew that its soldiers were undertrained and underequipped, but it judged those losses acceptable because the German army was unable to deal with repeated and determined Russian attacks. True, Russians took huge casualties, but they also drove the German army from the frontiers of Moscow to Berlin. Does that mean that the Soviet army was worse than the German one? No, it just means that the Soviets chose the right strategy to match their strengths.

Historian (and amateur) fixation on kill ratios and casualties distracts from factors which enable an army to actually win a war. To illustrate the point, I’m going to focus on one of the most enduring stereotypes about the German army: that it used far more advanced equipment and technology than its allied counterparts.

Take the question of tanks. “Above all,” Hastings writes, “Germany possessed better tanks.” And to be sure, the German tanks of the last few years of the war, the Panzer IV, the Panther, and the Tiger, boasted better armor and guns then their allied counterparts. As a result, German tanks typically destroyed more enemy tanks than they lost. At the 1943 battle of Kursk, for instance, the Soviets lost three tanks for every one German tank they destroyed. 

German Tiger II Tank, perhaps the most powerful tank used in World War II. The Tiger’s impressive armor and armament concealed an inefficient and over-engineered tank.

However, an impressive kill ratio does not mean that the German tank forces were ‘better.’ Firstly, German tanks during the first years of the war were notably inferior to their allied contemporaries. In fact, during the invasions of Poland and France, much of the German armored corps was not made up of German tanks at all, but Czech tanks, stolen from Czechoslovakia in 1938.

More importantly, however, even late-war German tanks were not better than their opponents in every way. Late war German tanks were notoriously time-consuming and difficult to produce, in contrast to the allied tanks, which were designed with mass production in mind. The Soviets used the same medium tank, the T-34, for the whole war. Because of the consistent design, Soviet factories could produce the T-34 in huge numbers. When the Soviets did make changes, it was often to remove safety features or extra armor with the goal of streamlining production and maintenance. The Soviets were not interested in trying to match German tanks in a head-to-head fight.

Furthermore, when it comes to tanks, bigger is not always better. German tanks were primarily designed to fight other tanks, while allied tanks had been designed for a greater range of tasks. The Russian T-34, for instance, could rapidly maneuver in all kinds of terrain, while the German heavy tanks routinely got stuck in mud or bad roads.

In essence, the impressive kill ratio of German tanks conceals many serious failures of the German tank forces. Germany did not need the biggest and the most technologically advanced tank. It needed a lot more tanks, and tanks that could effectively maneuver and attack enemy targets. If the allies had wanted, they could likely have produced tanks just as good at killing other tanks as the German ones were. The allies however, instead chose tanks aimed at more strategically relevant tasks.

Moreover, the German army’s impressive technology masked a very weak logistics system. In contrast to the highly mechanized allies, over 80% of German divisions used horses for transportation rather than motorized vehicles. Logistics are not as sexy as kill ratios, but the old adage that amateurs talk tactics, while professionals talk logistics was as true in World War II as in any other conflict.

This is a far more representative portrayal of German soldiers than we commonly see in media. The Germans relied on horses more than any other major power in World War II.

Admittedly, this discussion of tanks and motorization only encompasses a tiny portion of the Wehrmacht’s many different facets. But I hope that it illustrates both the tendency for the public to ogle over German technology and tactics, while underplaying the weaknesses of the German military.

These examples illustrate the pointlessness of using casualties or technology to argue why a certain army was ‘better’ than another one. The German army certainly proved effective at certain times and in certain tactical situations, yet these successes do not place it, as Hastings seems to believe, head and shoulders above the rest of the wartime combatants. To indisputably demonstrate its superiority, the German military would have had to win the war, a task at which it could not have failed more decisively.

The Legacy of Propaganda

In his article, Max Hastings makes a peculiar suggestion. He suggests that the public is deceived by propaganda suggesting that “One [American] dogface or one [British] tommy was worth three wooden-headed krauts. Hitler’s robots could never match the imagination and initiative of Allied soldiers on the battlefield.” Hasting writes that it is time Americans and British disregard the aggrandizing propaganda and accept the truth. 

Hastings, however, is wrong in assuming that propaganda has led people to believe that the German army was inferior to the allies. In fact, the opposite is true. Both during and after the war, media has consistently shown the German army as technologically advanced to the point of absurdity, as well as rigidly disciplined and fanatically motivated. It is these wrong stereotype which we should disregard, not the ones that Hastings invents.

In this scene from Band of Brothers, our protagonists face off against a German Tiger II tank. In reality, only a few hundred Tiger II tanks were ever produced, so the odds of encountering one in battle would have been vanishingly small. This illustrates media’s tendency to portray Nazi Germany as more technologically impressive than it really was.

How many casual historians, for instance, believe that the German battleship Bismark was the most powerful battleship of the war, when in reality it was outstripped in size by both the American Iowa class and the Japanese Yamato class. In fact, the Bismark, like all battleships at the time, was obsolete, and its one rather pathetic combat excursion achieved nothing of any strategic importance. However, British propaganda elevated the threat posed by the Bismark, especially after the ship was at the bottom of the sea.

American propaganda also portrayed the German army as a devastatingly efficient “war machine.” The Why We Fight propaganda film series describes how during the Battle of France, the Germans moved with “the fastest speed an army has moved in all history,” and how in the Battle of Greece, the Germans were “overwhelmingly superior in numbers and equipment.”

The American government commissioned Why We Fight partly to impress upon the American public the threat posed by Germany. Effective propaganda does not minimize the threat posed by the enemy, but maximizes it. Even after the war, people continued to paint the image of the German boogieman. After all, what glory is there in defeating an overmatched and inferior enemy?

Since then, Nazis have been synonymous with efficiency and technological achievement. Take the character Doctor Strangelove, from his titular 1964 movie. Strangelove was based upon Wernher von Braun, a former Nazi who became one of NASA’s greatest minds. The Nazis themselves would not have been entirely dissatisfied with the modern portrayal, for it emphasizes the qualities they themselves most esteemed.

The Importance of the wehrmacht’s legacy

The continued veneration of the fighting ability of the Wehrmacht (if not of its ideology, thank God) has a few serious consequences. For one, it underplays the role the German army had in conducting atrocities, including the Holocaust. For years, scholars argued for a ‘clean’ Wehrmacht, a purely professional Wehrmacht uninvolved in the murders and genocide of the Nazi regime. Interestingly, these scholars included Liddel Hart, one of Max Hastings’ main sources in his article. More recently, however, academics have decisively disproved the clean Wehrmacht myth. Far from being a coldly rational and apolitical organization, the Wehrmacht was directly involved in all sorts of horrific crimes against humanity.

Hasting goes on to make the ludicrous suggestion that behind the German success was its ability to turn its men into killers. 

Yet in war, the army that proves most successful in making its raw recruits into killers possesses an immeasurable advantage. Montgomery wrote ruefully from the desert to Sir Alan Brooke in London, in identical vein with Hersey: “The trouble with our British boys is that they are not killers by nature.”

The notion that warfare is all about psychologically hardening soldiers to fight is an absurd and sickening notion, and one with no real evidence to support it. Yet Hastings feels compelled to make it to explain his erroneous idea of German military supremacy. Hastings uses what is essentially a repackaged version of Nazi propaganda to explain his idea of German military supremacy. Max Hastings’ arguments are inadvertently similar to those of the big bad guy himself, Adolf Hitler, who routinely said things like, “We do not want this people to grow soft, but we want it to be hard so that it will be able to withstand the hardships of life.” 

Historical misinformation is never good, but the stakes are especially high when a distinguished historian like Max Hastings gives credit to the Nazi regime for producing an army he describes as “one of the greatest in history.” Hastings is essentially giving the Nazis the compliment they would have most wanted to hear. It’s time historians and makers of World War II stop giving Nazism a legitimacy that it does not deserve.

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