Guderian – Myth & Reality

German Panzer General Heinz Guderian is one of the best-known German commanders of the Second World War. This is due to his accomplishments in building up the Panzerwaffe and later on being the general inspector of the German armored forces. But also due to his memoirs, which in Germany have the name Erinnerungen eines Soldaten, literally ‘Memories of a Soldier’, quite contrary to the English edition, with the more marketable title ‘Panzer Leader’, yet the problem is a lot of people, even historians, far too often took Guderian’s memoirs at face value. Time to set the record straight. The narrative Guderian created in his memoirs is that he and few supporters were building up the German Panzerwaffe against major resistance within the German military. One example Guderian provides is the reasons for publishing the book Kampfwagenkrieg from an Austrian general, since he noted that the German military would only listen to foreign experts, not their own advisors. To quote directly from his memoirs: “Even at the risk that foreign experts might become aware of Eimannsberger’s thoughts, this decision had to be taken, because the resistance of the German authorities had to be eliminated, due to their tendency to listen to foreign opinions instead of their own advisors, there was almost no other way to break those views [than by publishing Eimannsberger’s book].” Such claims are common also in other books, for instance stead of Panzer General Oskar Munzell who notes “The first battles for this new weapon were infinitely heavy and tenacious, especially in organizational matters.” Yet there’s very little evidence that various modernization and Panzer advocates in Germany ran into major troubles at all. Probably one of the best examples is that Guderian received command of one of the three new Panzer divisions in 1935 and he was still a Colonel, whereas the other commanders were already Generals. The German military storm Markus Pöhlmann thus notes quite ironically that Guderian’s career was more influenced by his real connections and not his alleged enemies. Similarly, Guderian rarely had revolutionary views. Quite often his views were common among the advocates of mechanization. “This image of military prophet struggling against great odds is attractive to military historians. Nevertheless, it does not fairly reflect the experience of Guderian or the German armor theorists in the 1920s and 30s. The careers of German tank and motorisation advocates prospered.” But let’s look at one of the alleged opponents of Guderian and the Panzerwaffe, namely General Beck. To quote from Guderian’s memoirs: “General Beck took offense at the plans of the armored troop. He primarily wanted tanks as a support weapon off the infantry and therefore the largest unit of our weapon should have been the tank brigade. He did not think much of building tank divisions.” This is a rather interesting interpretation of the facts that we have from the data and the archives. Beck in a memorandum advocated for the expansion of the armored forces by creating additional Panzer brigades. As such, the total number of Panzer battalions should be increased from 36 to 48. Since such a major expansion was resource intensive, he even agreed to postpone the creation of 12 anti-tank battalions. Additionally, Beck noted that the Panzer was not just the support weapon for the infantry and that the Panzer Division was a promising organizational unit. Beck advocated for Panzer brigades next to the existing Panzer divisions due to the limitations of a fast expansion. Especially since he thought that the Panzer I and II were insufficient and insisted that at least 2/3rds of the Panzer forces should be equipped with Panzer III’s. Hence Beck’s objections and suggestions Aston’s were along a slower and proper expansion of the German armed forces, in reasonable numbers and with adequate equipment. Such reservations were quite common, as noted in my video on the German army expansion from 1933 to 1939. Furthermore, Beck’s concerns about the Panzerkampfwagen I’s were very soon validated by the experiences of the German tank units in the Spanish Civil War. The one major issue with the reception of Guderian is and was that he gathered a large amount of, let’s call them, fanboys and to be totally transparent here, I was one of them for quite some time. Many of his biographers and authors took not only his various accounts at face value, but sometimes they even edit some stuff of their own on top of it. For instance “The claim that Guderian first saw the use of tanks here [on the Western Front in 1917 is inaccurate and indicative of the biographers’ efforts to relate his career as early as possible to the mechanization of war.” Another example is the biographer Kenneth Macksey. He notes that Guderian published several articles that won him admirers and enemies. Additionally, he added that Guderian in 1924 was already considered a tank expert, yet James Coram notes: “As a matter of fact, Heinz Guderian wrote only 5 signed articles from the Militär Wochenblatt between 1922 and 1928, all of them mundane pieces including ‘French motorized supply at Verdun’ and ‘Reconnaissance and security for motor marches’ Guderian’s tactical articles tended to be short pieces of only a page or two, Such ‘Cavalry and Armored Cars’ and ‘Troops on Motor Vehicles and Air Defense’.” This is a very similar assessment to that of Marcus Perma, now one aspects needs further investigation, namely the Battle of Kursk – Operation Zitadelle and Guderian’s alleged opposition against it and the use of the early Panzerkampfwagen V Panther. Well, although “This version has been recited in the literature usually unchecked, so of course by Nehring and also by Friedrich Wilhelm Hauck. For Karl-Heinz Frieser it was clear that Guderian ‘energetically, but in vain’ protested against the use of the not front-ready Panzer V. Bernd Wegner came to the verdict the Guderian was ‘generally, or at least of the timing and approach skeptical’ about the Battle of Kursk.” Now of course the question is ‘Did Guderian really oppose Operation Zitadelle and the use of the early Panthers? While according to Pöhlmann there’s basically nothing in written form, like in Guderian’s or spare conference notes. They show that Guderian objected the operation or the use of the Panther in it. One of the few elements he noted was that Guderian proposed a different kind of approach in the tactical level, when such an alternative doesn’t support any claims of major opposition, as Guderian noted in his memoirs, whereas for other people that opposed Kursk, there is written evidence available. And Pöhlmann also notes that Guderian’s influence on Operation Zitadelle and the deployment of the Panther were limited from the get-go, since Guderian only recently had regained an influential position because in winter 1941 Hitler had sacked Guderian and only in 1943 called him back to become General Inspector of the German armored forces. Now, Guderian is also well known for his pre-war book Achtung Panzer! In this case, two of my main sources, Pöhlmann and Corum slightly disagree about its importance and assessment. Corum is more positive about it and notes “Achtung Panzer! was indeed a brilliant and original book But it was the product of a long evolution of armoured thought that relied heavily on the work of previous armour theorists, most particularly the Austrian general Ludwig Ritter Von Eimannsberger, whose major book, The Tank War (Der Kampfwagenkrieg) was published in 1934 and gained a wide audience in the German army.” Interesting here is that Pöhlmann notes that Achtung Panzer was, first and foremost, a book not intended for experts. It is a book that should convince the general population and politicians, thus it was more of a public relations publication. Additionally, the previously mentioned book from Eimannsberger, Kampfwagenkrieg, was published a few years earlier and was the first major publication in the German language that contained a convincing military analysis and included contemporary proposals for the organization of Panzer units, although claims that Guderian’s book was plagiarism are wrong. Thus Achtung Panzer was an important and crucial book, yet less revolutionary than often claimed. That for a book being more famous, although there was another one more revolutionary before it, is not particularly uncommon. Yet there is a more glaring problem here in relation to EimannsBerger’s book and contributions, namely that Guderian didn’t include him at all in his autobiography initially and only edited a paragraph in the 4th edition after Eimannsberger’s son wrote to Guderian and according to Corum, this is a common theme in Guderian’s autobiography. “Even for an autobiography, Guderian’s Panzer Leader goes in far too much self-aggrandizement. Volckheim, for example, receives passing mention in one sentence of the book. Lutz heartily praised – mostly for his support of Guderian’s ideas after he became Lutz’s chief of staff in 1931. Other officers who contributed significantly to German Armour development in the 1920s and 1930s, men like Pirner, Heigl, von Eimannsberger, von Vollard-Bockelberg, and the many officers who trained in the Kazan tank school are glossed over or not mentioned at all in Guderian’s account.” As such, it is also quite interesting Guderian’s work didn’t catch much criticism at all for so long. Now some of you might probably say that Guderian’s memoirs ‘Panzer Leader’ should be called ‘Panzer Liar’. Whereas I think a certain amount of nuance is necessary and thus find the term ‘liar’ out of place here. First off, human memory is known to be highly inaccurate,, even in regular circumstances. Our memory is not a storage device – it is more of a guidance and orientation device. As such, it adapts regularly and additionally, it adapts when we use it. For instance if we tell a story and we brag a bit, that bragging over time might transform the memory. Additionally, own contributions are usually inflated whereas those of others are usually deflated, which is understandable because we experience how much we worked, but rarely are we able to experience how much somebody else worked. Another factor is that we adapt the content of our speech to the audience, thus in some cases you will neglect to amplify certain points. You probably talk differently about your girlfriend with your best buddy than with her father. As such, talking can change your memory, so even without conscious intentions, memoirs will have inaccuracies, mistakes or blatant errors that make absolutely no sense, but for the person writing them, it might appear as truth and their representation of what they experienced. Then we should not forget the commanders like Guderian were involved with one of the hardest and largest conflicts in human history, that affected millions on all sides. Let’s not forget that most people can’t even admit when they made a wrong argument or a simple mistake that is obvious, yet they often go to enormous lengths to justify their actions or refuse. Well, can you imagine admitting that you made a fatal mistake that led to the death of one person, let alone thousands? I certainly can’t, seeing how I often engaged in various comment wars over the years. So it is hard to tell what parts of Guderian’s memoirs, But due to regular memory mistakes, self-serving public relations, cognitive dissonance, setting old feuds and a mixture of these elements over the years. I personally think that historians and authors are mainly accountable here, since it is their responsibility to fact-check, unless they write fiction. Although I make an exception here for the early ones like Liddel Hart and Panzer General Nehring, since they were very close to the action. Additionally, many documents were still off-limits and the standards of research were also different, yet for more recent publications, such neglect and mistakes are less tolerable. Now for those of you who want some kind of final assessment on Guderian, I think James Corum gives a short and fair assessment: “If Guderian had been a modest man and never written a word about himself, he would have gone down in history as an excellent general a first-rate tactician, and a man who played a central role in establishing and developing the first Panzer divisions, but Guderian was far from modest.” If you ever wondered why I stay away from memoirs and oral history for the most part, well the reason is simple: one of the books I read as a teenager was Guderian’s Panzer Leader, and I took most of it at face value. It basically turned me into a Wehraboo. Luckily, years later at university we had a guest lecture that covered military history and without these lectures I probably would still believe a lot of bullshit that I got from Guderian’s book. Of course, I’m pretty sure I still run around with quite some myths and inaccuracy from other sources as well, but hey, It’s an interesting journey. If you want to join the ride be sure to subscribe or even become a Patreon. Anyway, thank you for watching and see you next time.


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