Book review: Erich von Manstein – Hitler's Master Strategist

Many consider German Field Marshal Erich von Manstein (born von Lewinski) the greatest operational genius, if not the best strategist, of World War Two. But was he also a war criminal and lucky to escape the gallows?

His successes, his latest biographer, Benoit Lemay, writes, includes the planning of the 1939 invasion of Poland; the “Sickle Cut Plan” that led to the lightning defeat of the French, British, Dutch and Belgians in May 1940; his handling of the 56th Panzer Corps in Russia in June 1941; his command of the 11th Army in the Crimea and especially the capture of Sevastopol; his attempt to relieve the 6th Army as commander of Arm Group Don and the famous “Kharkov Riposte” in early 1943, leading to the battle of Kursk in July, where Manstein commanded the southern wing of the German attack, including the forces involved in the biggest tank battle to date – that at the village of Prokorovka. That pretty much was Manstein's war. He was relieved of command not long afterwards and not employed again during the world conflict – by all accounts because of the hostility towards him from OKW chief Wilhelm Keitel, SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler and Propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Hitler, too, found reasons not to employ the marshal, according to Lemay, because the Führer, with his penchant for “yes men” and lackeys did not care for his straight talk, his ambition for high command and his operational approach centred on mobile defence at a time the Nazi leader wanted to retain every inch of captured ground. Yet, to the last days of the war, he awaited a recall to command. Why?

Lemay argues that Manstein had an overwhelming ambition to become chief of the army. He had come close to this position just before the war, when he was deputy chief. Later, when Hitler himself filed that post, he suggested to the “Austrian corporal” that he, Manstein, should at the least take command on the Eastern Front – suggestions that left cold an increasingly paranoid Nazi leader.

Did his ambition, his military (mis)education and the tax-free “good behaviour” stipend Hitler paid all colonel generals and field marshals from 1940 blind him to what he was doing? How did Manstein go from planning for the lawful and legitimate defence of Germany from foreign invasion (France, Poland and Czechoslovakia) in the 1920s to aggressive war and landgrab from 1939? How did his signature end on orders authorising – and encouraging – the immediate murder of Soviet political commissars? Then there was his failure to act against outrages by German soldiers against Polish civilians, especially Jews. He received a report on these murders, rapes, robberies and abuses but did nothing. In Russia, Manstein, as commander of the 56th Panzer Korps, and then of the 11th Army had a hand in the abuse of Soviet prisoners – their systematic starvation, summary executions, especially of Jewish soldiers; and illegal forced labour on military works and demining, sometimes under Russian fire.

While commanding in the Crimea, SS Einsatzgruppe D assisted by several thousand army troops, murdered some 33 000 Jews and other “undesirables”. SS-Gruppenführer Dr. Otto Ohlendorf wrote glowing reports to Berlin, praising the support provided by the 11th Army. Then there was the systematic stripping of resources – including foodstuffs, the deportation to Germany of civilians and prisoners as slave labour as well as the zealous shooting and public hanging of alleged “partisans” as well as “reprisal shootings”, the practice of murdering 50 or 100 villagers for every German killed (or sometimes wounded) by partisans or cut-off Red Army soldiers.

It is important to note these were not aberations, this was not just the work of the SS, despite Manstein's protestations to the contrary at his trial n 1949 and in his memoirs. The evidence, Lemay finds, is overwhelming. “...he was, and will remain – and this precisely his tragedy – a man who can rightly [be] called 'the most uncomfortable general of the devil.'”

Benoit Lemay
translated by Pierce Heyward
Erich von Manstein – Hitler's Master Strategist
Casemate Publishers
Havertown, Pennsylvania
2010