Lost Victories: the War Memoirs of Hitler’s Most Brilliant General by Field Marshal Erich von Manstein
The Red Army killed over 80% of German soldiers killed in World War Two so it is impossible to understand the war without knowing something of the fighting which took place in the East between the Soviets and the Germans. And it is impossible to understand the complexity and enormity of the fighting in the East without an appreciation of Herr General Feld Marschal Erich von Manstein.
Unfortunately, you will learn very little of von Manstein by reading his memoirs. The Germans lost the war because of Hitler’s constant interference with his top generals and because Hitler got them into a two front war. So says von Manstein. The Holocaust? The almost 4 million Russian POWs who died starved to death in German hands? He didn’t know anything about those things. Nothing. Nada. Zip.
Was von Manstein Hitler’s most brilliant general? Yes, he was. In fact, von Manstein was the most brilliant ground commander of the Second World War. No one else in any army came close. Did he commit war crimes? Yes. Did he perjure himself at the Nuremberg Tribunals? Yes, he did. Did he know about what really was going on with the murder of European Jewry, the starvation of the Russian POWs, and the criminal negligence displayed to their own men by the German Army High Command? Yes, he knew all of that. Did he do anything about it? No. He did nothing.
Could he have done something? Yes, he could have done a lot; up to and including murdering Hitler, something his officers wanted to do on a brief visit Hitler made to one of von Manstein’s forward command headquarters. Von Manstein’s famous answer to the request to be part of the plot to kill Hitler was, “Prussian Field Marshalls do not mutiny.” Of course, given the example of von Yorck in the Napoleonic Wars, von Manstein would have known this statement wasn’t true.
To this day von Manstein’s family refuses to release his papers. Most of what we know comes from Bounden Duty: The Memoirs of a German Officer, 1932-1945 by his ADC, Alexander Stahlberg.
One of the very strangest things about von Manstein’s life which historians mention only briefly, is this truly astounding fact: von Manstein was born von Lewinski. His birth mother already had nine children including several boys. Prior to his birth, von Manstein’s mother had made an agreement with her sister, Hedwig, that should the newborn be a boy, Hedwig and her husband could have him. The couple had no sons of their own and needed a boy to carry on the family name of von Manstein.
Shortly after his birth, Erich von Manstein was packed off to a different family. One doesn’t have to be Sigmund Freud to realize this act might have profound emotional consequences for the child. It is very odd.
Von Manstein was one of the great captains of history. But he was not a great man. Skip his memoirs and read a comic book instead. You’ll have more fun and its cheaper.
[Images courtesy of Wikimedia.]