General Guderian and the German Conscience

Panzer Leader, by German General Heinz Guderian, has been a best-seller since it appeared in 1950. For readers well versed in military matters, it offers some fascinating anecdotes and insights. More important, perhaps, is what this memoir by the “father of modern tank warfare” tells us about about life under the Nazi regime.

It is clear from the start that Guderian would have liked to have seen Hitler’s brownshirts thrown out of power. He also wished to avoid war. “Policy is not laid down by soldiers but by politicians,” he explains. “When war starts the soldiers can only act according to the political and military situation as it then exists.” Nevertheless it was the unexpected lightening victories in Poland and France—conducted by experts like Guderian—that made an initially reluctant populace more willing to bask in Hitler’s martial glory.

Guderian grew up with strict ideas about a citizen’s duties to the state. Hitler took advantage of such attitudes when he imposed a personal oath on all officers. This was not like the pledges other soldiers took to their governments, or even to traditional monarchs. The Nazi dictatorship was a renunciation of rule of law. Though German commanders frequently objected to Nazism, many still refused to participate in anti-Hitler plots by invoking this oath as an excuse. Such reasoning strikes us today as remarkably obtuse. But one must acknowledge that the establishment of tyranny is not always obvious or instantaneous. It often comes about through compromises, moral omissions and minor excesses which are cumulative, and seemingly subtle to those not sensitive to the threats to traditional norms.

Short of outright rebellion, Guderian argues that men at the top should have resisted Hitler early on and expressed their disagreement freely, rather than cower under Hitler’s tirades. When promoted to chief of staff at the end of the war, the panzer commander was indeed one of the few willing to shout back at the dictator. Even limited defiance had a salutary impact. During the Warsaw uprising by the Polish Home Army in 1944, Guderian protested against SS atrocities, and when the Polish resistance surrendered he did his best to ensure that captured combatants would be treated as soldiers and not as guerilla outlaws.

Following the failed July 20th plot, the general observed of Hitler that  “what had been hardness became cruelty, while a tendency to bluff became plain dishonesty. He often lied without hesitation, and assumed that others lied to him.” The Fuehrer’s moral and emotional imbalance was belatedly obvious to Guderian, yet we know that his plans for genocide were calmly hatched years before. In conclusion, Panzer Leader answers many important questions, but it leaves many more unresolved. To what extent the author and other essentially decent men were guilty of enabling Nazi tyranny (or were merely victims of its power), and how much they knew about Hitler’s crimes, remain some of the most vexing issues of contemporary history, with important implications even today.

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