Erich von Manstein was raised in an aristocratic Prussian military family, serving on both the western and eastern fronts in the First World War, was injured, and served the remainder of the war in an administrative role. In the interwar period, Manstein was among a core of mid-level veterans from the first war who secretly built up Germany’s military capability within the confines of the Versailles treaty from the ruins of the Reichswehr. They built a skeleton army heavy with officers, NCOs and high ranking enlisted men so that the structure could be quickly filled with privates when a full-scale mobilization was possible. During WWII this became the infamous Wehrmacht.
Manstein is widely regarded as the best grand strategist of the Second World War,certainly on the German side and arguably of the whole war. While Guderian was a great innovator in terms of theory, and Rommel a great leader in his own right, Manstein probably had the highest regard as strategist and overall big-picture military thinker.
Manstein first rose to prominence when he suggested the Wehrmacht cut through the Ardennes forest, through Belgium and into northern France, as a means of bypassing the fearsome Maginot Line that the French had built along their border with Germany. Manstein was well-regarded, but not yet high enough within the Wehrmacht hierarchy to participate in the planning of Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, in summer 1941. He was however given command of the 56th Panzer Corps, part of Army Group North, in Nazi Germany’s three pronged attack on the Soviet Union. Manstein’s mission was to slice through the Baltics and pounce on Leningrad, which, being the founding city of the Bolshevik Revolution, Hitler saw as an important ideological objective.
Manstein was critical in his memoirs of Hitler’s approach to the eastern campaign, summarizing Hitler’s goals as follows: 1. Take Leningrad to discredit Bolshevism 2. Take the Ukraine to secure its vast resources, as well as the Donetsk region (stretching into Russia) with its heavy industry 3. From the Donetsk, take the Caucus oil fields. After this Hitler assumed the Red Army would collapse from lack of resources and Moscow could be taken fairly easily. This ignores the long history going well back into Tsarist times of Russian governments investing heavily in backup war capacity beyond the Urals, so Russia could always retreat and wage war from that region.
The high Command, as well as Manstein, wanted to focus on destroying the Red Army first, rather than relying on their collapse after Hitler’s key objective were taken. The German generals felt the best way to do this was to focus on taking Moscow. Moscow was a central rail hub for the whole country and had important military production facilities in the neighboring oblasts. Staking the war on Moscow would force the Red Army to commit extensive forces to its defense, and give the Germans a great opportunity to kill, capture and destroy war capacity before the Soviets had a chance to gear up, augmenting their more veteran troops with green draftees. Capturing Moscow, says Manstein, would also have made it impossible for the Red Army to do coordinated operations, though he didn’t think it would have won the war.
Manstein says the Germans should have planned on two campaigns: the first to capture Moscow and neighboring areas, the second to destroy the remaining strategic military capabilities. In the end the Germans did two campaigns: the initial 1941 push, and the Spring 1942 offensive that led to Stalingrad. Neither campaign, however, achieved its objectives, which were too broad given the constraints on German war capacity and the vast distances of operations.
Mainstein says that Hitler’s fundamental mistake was to “assume the USSR could be overthrown by military means, and in one campaign.” Manstein says that even if one leaned primarily on military means, the option to undermine the Soviet system from within was more attractive – essentially by giving the Russians some other option than dying by German or Soviet machine guns. Manstein doesn’t give specifics, but one imagines he means more humane treatment of the plentiful Slavic volunteers, to encourage further defections. One can imagine alternative histories where a more flexible German government explicitly attempted to build Ukrainian and Russian legions, marching under national banners, as the Nazis did with volunteers from the Baltics.
A good deal of ink is spent in Lost Victories to highlight the enormous suffering that the German soldier endured in the Second World War. Manstein savages the myth of the German soldier as some sort of automaton, incapable of thinking outside the box, or disobeying orders. He says that the German, and especially Prussian, military tradition emphasized the freedom of action for the individual battalion commander, company commander or even individual soldier to act based on local knowledge and conditions. He lambasts Hitler’s approach of top-heavy command as in direct opposition to this long-standing tradition. Manstein also makes an effort to portray himself as a man who was interested in the welfare and thoughts of his men, writing that in the 1941 campaign, he would often visit troops on the front and personally observe attacks. He would smoke cigarettes with tank crews and make an effort to be seen by all his men, so that they would feel their commander was aware of their situation. He says this also energized him. It’s worth noting that Manstein lost a son in the war, whom he dedicated the book to, and was nearly killed by soviet strafing in the Crimean campaign.
In the initial push toward Leningrad over the summer and early fall of 1941 Manstein repeatedly describes how the fighting would grow so intense that elements within his tank corps would be awake and fighting for 72 hours at a time (often with the help of amphetamines.) Manstein is a surprisingly skillful writer, occasionally bogging down in minutia of the operations, which are likely only of interest to the diehard “war buff” but otherwise not wasting a single sentence in terms of information-content – every word advances the story or provides some operation detail to the enthusiast. He illustrates just how hard the men were pushed in 1941, and how brutal the fighting was. He gives the reader an understanding that the war in the East was truly of a different scale and nature than that in the West, and that the Soviet soldier, driven on by brutal commissars, fought much harder than his French or even British counterpart.
On 12 September 1941 Manstein was transferred to the 11th Army of Army Group South (of the original 3 army groups of Barbarossa.) He was to push into Ukraine, to capture Crimea and the fortress complex of Sevastopol. By November, his forces had secured the whole peninsula, but for the besieged Sevastopol. Manstein describes how he was given command of a set of super massive, experimental artillery pieces (the most famous of these was called Schwerer Gustav, shown in the clip below), which had originally been designed to break the Maginot line. He used these artillery to blast through the fortified cliffs of Sevastopol. Occasionally one of the shells would strike a ammunition reserve within the fortifications and blow a whole section of the bunker complex.
On the Crimean campaign, Manstein notes that the Romanian units under his command were not of the same caliber as the German units. His says this is mostly due to the low quality of Romanian mid and upper level officers, who treated their men badly and who were stuck in a First World War mindset. Manstein uses this as an opportunity to expound on the Prussian mindset, which strives to form a connection between officer and enlisted soldier, wherein the officer is a comrade.
After his success at Sebastopol, Manstein was dispatched to Stalingrad. Hitler resisted Manstein’s assertion that they needed to break the troops out and save men as they could not be resupplied sufficiently by air; Hitler refused, and eventually 300,000 German soldiers perished. Tacitly acknowledging his error, Hitler allowed Manstein to do what he wanted for a few months after this, but also prevented Manstein from conducting effective strategic retreat after Stalingrad, forbidding the fortification of rivers and issuing stand-or-die orders to units. Manstein says this forced the Germans into a war of attrition which they had no hope of winning.
As part of the the July 20th, 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler, the coup’s leader Von Stuaffenberg tried to recruit Manstein. Manstein refused, saying that a man of his rank asking men to disobey orders would have led to a collapse on the Eastern Front. He also thought the coup lacked popular support, and that it was unlikely to result in an Allied peace offer. It is possible he did not realize the scale of destruction approaching Germany; even in 1944 and on retreat the German army was inflicting substantial losses on the Soviets, and he may have thought there was a possibility of a harsh, but not totalizing, 1918-style settlement.
Manstein, still obedient and confident in his abilities to fight to some sort of a draw, began resigning to chess and playing cards at night to distract from the realities of the collapsing front. Rommel called him a “man of illusions”; however, Manstein stands above other generals in the final analysis as a supreme military strategist, if a failed political one. Imprisoned after the war, Churchill successfully advocated for his release from prison, perhaps out of respect for his military abilities as Germany rearmed for the new Cold War.