Heinz Guderian

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Heinz Guderian
Heinz Guderian portrait.jpg
Guderian in July 1941
Birth nameHeinz Wilhelm Guderian
Nickname(s)Schneller Heinz
Hammering Heinz [1]
Born(1888-06-17)17 June 1888
Kulm, Kingdom of Prussia, German Empire (now Poland)
Died14 May 1954(1954-05-14) (aged 65)
Schwangau, Bavaria, West Germany
AllegianceFlag of the German Empire.svg  German Empire
Flag of Germany (3-2 aspect ratio).svg  Weimar Republic
Flag of Germany (1935-1945).svg  Nazi Germany
Branch Imperial German Army
German Army (Wehrmacht)
Years of service1907–1945
Rank Generaloberst
Commands held 2nd Panzer Division
XVI Army Corps
XIX Army Corps
2nd Panzer Army
Battles/wars World War I
World War II
Awards Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves
Margarete Goerne(m. 1913)
Children Heinz-Günther Guderian
Other workSee List of works
Signature Guderian Signature.svg

Heinz Wilhelm Guderian (German: [ɡuˈdeːʁi̯an] ; 17 June 1888 – 14 May 1954) was a German general during World War II. An early pioneer and advocate of the " blitzkrieg " doctrine, he became chief of staff to the Inspectorate of Motorized Troops under Oswald Lutz in 1931. During World War II, Guderian successfully led panzer (armoured) units during the Invasion of Poland and the Battle of France. He led the 2nd Panzer Army during Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. The campaign ended with a German defeat at the Battle of Moscow, after which Guderian was dismissed.

World War II 1939–1945 global war

World War II, also known as the Second World War, was a global war that lasted from 1939 to 1945. The vast majority of the world's countries—including all the great powers—eventually formed two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis. A state of total war emerged, directly involving more than 100 million people from over 30 countries. The major participants threw their entire economic, industrial, and scientific capabilities behind the war effort, blurring the distinction between civilian and military resources. World War II was the deadliest conflict in human history, marked by 50 to 85 million fatalities, most of whom were civilians in the Soviet Union and China. It included massacres, the genocide of the Holocaust, strategic bombing, premeditated death from starvation and disease, and the only use of nuclear weapons in war.

<i>Blitzkrieg</i> anglicised term describing a method of warfare. also known as lightning war

Blitzkrieg is a method of warfare whereby an attacking force, spearheaded by a dense concentration of armoured and motorised or mechanised infantry formations with close air support, breaks through the opponent's line of defence by short, fast, powerful attacks and then dislocates the defenders, using speed and surprise to encircle them with the help of air superiority. Through the employment of combined arms in manoeuvre warfare, blitzkrieg attempts to unbalance the enemy by making it difficult for it to respond to the continuously changing front, then defeat it in a decisive Vernichtungsschlacht.

Oswald Lutz was a German General who oversaw the motorization of the German Army in the late 1920s and early 1930s and was appointed as the commander of the Wehrmacht's Panzer Troops Command in 1935.


In early 1943, Adolf Hitler appointed Guderian to the newly created position of Inspector General of Armoured Troops. In this role he had broad responsibility to rebuild and train new panzer forces but saw limited success. Guderian was appointed Acting Chief of the General Staff of the Army High Command, immediately following the 20 July Plot to assassinate Hitler. Although Guderian denied any involvement with the plot, there is strong circumstantial evidence that he supported it.


Panzerwaffe, later also Panzertruppe refers to a command within the Heer of the German Wehrmacht, responsible for the affairs of panzer (tank) and motorized forces shortly before and during the Second World War.

Guderian was placed in charge of the "Court of Honour" by Hitler, which in the aftermath of the plot was used to dismiss people from the military so they could be tried in the "People's Court" and executed. He was Hitler's personal advisor on the Eastern Front and became closely associated with the Nazi regime. Guderian's troops carried out the criminal Commissar Order during Barbarossa, and he was implicated in the commission of reprisals after the Warsaw Uprising of 1944.

Peoples Court (Germany) court in WW2 Germany

The People's Court was a Sondergericht of Nazi Germany, set up outside the operations of the constitutional frame of law. Its headquarters were originally located in the former Prussian House of Lords in Berlin, later moved to the former Königsberg Wilhelmsgymnasium at Bellevuestrasse 15 in Potsdamer Platz.

Eastern Front (World War II) theatre of World War II - war between Germany and USSR 1941-1945

The Eastern Front of World War II was a theatre of conflict between the European Axis powers and co-belligerent Finland against the Soviet Union (U.S.S.R.), Poland and other Allies, which encompassed Central Europe, Eastern Europe, Northeast Europe (Baltics), and Southeast Europe (Balkans) from 22 June 1941 to 9 May 1945. It has been known as the Great Patriotic War in the former Soviet Union and modern Russia, while in Germany it was called the Eastern Front, or the German-Soviet War by outside parties.

Commissar Order Nazi conspiracy-enforcing unit of the Nazi military

The Commissar Order was an order issued by the German High Command (OKW) on 6 June 1941 before Operation Barbarossa. Its official name was Guidelines for the Treatment of Political Commissars. It instructed the Wehrmacht that any Soviet political commissar identified among captured troops be summarily executed as an enforcer of the Judeo-Bolshevism ideology in military forces.

Guderian surrendered to the United States forces on May 10, 1945 and was interned until 1948. He was released without charge and retired to write his memoirs. Entitled Panzer Leader , the autobiography became a bestseller, widely read to this day. Guderian's writings promoted several post-war myths, including that of the "clean Wehrmacht". In his autobiography, Guderian re-imagined himself as the originator of the German panzer force; he omitted any mention of his relationship with Hitler and the Nazi regime or of war crimes. Guderian died in 1954 and was buried in Goslar.

<i>Panzer Leader</i> (book)

Panzer Leader is an autobiography by Heinz Guderian. The book, written during his imprisonment by the Allies after the war, describes Guderian's service in the Panzer arm of the Heer before and during World War II.

Clean Wehrmacht

The term Clean Wehrmacht, Clean Wehrmacht legend, or Wehrmacht's "clean hands" denotes the myth that the Wehrmacht was an apolitical organization along the lines of its predecessor, the Reichswehr, and was largely innocent of Nazi Germany's war crimes and crimes against humanity, behaving in a similar manner to the armed forces of the Western Allies. This narrative is false, as shown by the Wehrmacht's own documents, such as the records detailing the executions of Red Army commissars by frontline divisions, in violation of the laws of war. While the Wehrmacht largely treated British and American POWs in accordance with these laws, they routinely enslaved, starved, shot, or otherwise abused and murdered Polish, Soviet, and Yugoslav civilians and prisoners of war. Wehrmacht units also participated in the mass murder of Jews and others.

Goslar Place in Lower Saxony, Germany

Goslar is a historic town in Lower Saxony, Germany. It is the administrative centre of the district of Goslar and located on the northwestern slopes of the Harz mountain range. The Old Town of Goslar and the Mines of Rammelsberg are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Early life and World War I

Guderian was born in Kulm, West Prussia (now Poland), on 17 June 1888, the son of Friedrich Guderian and Clara (née Kirchoff). [2] His father and grandfathers were Prussian officers and he grew up in garrison towns surrounded by the military. [3] In 1903 he left home and enrolled at a military cadet school. He was a capable student, although he performed poorly in his final exam. [3] He entered the army in February 1907 with the 10th Hanoverian Light Infantry Battalion, under his father's command. He became a second lieutenant in January 1908. [4] On 1 October 1913, he married Margarete Goerne with whom he had two sons, Heinz Günther (2 August 1914 – 2004) and Kurt (17 September 1918 – 1984). [2]

Chełmno Town in Kuyavian-Pomeranian, Poland

Chełmno is a town in northern Poland near the Vistula river with 20,000 inhabitants and the historical capital of Chełmno Land. Situated in the Kuyavian-Pomeranian Voivodeship since 1999, Chełmno was previously in Toruń Voivodeship (1975–1998).

West Prussia province of Prussia

The Province of West Prussia was a province of Prussia from 1773 to 1829 and 1878 to 1922. West Prussia was established as a province of the Kingdom of Prussia in 1773, formed from Royal Prussia of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth annexed in the First Partition of Poland. West Prussia was dissolved in 1829 and merged with East Prussia to form the Province of Prussia, but was re-established in 1878 when the merger was reversed and became part of the German Empire. From 1918, West Prussia was a province of the Free State of Prussia within Weimar Germany, losing most of its territory to the Second Polish Republic and the Free City of Danzig in the Treaty of Versailles. West Prussia was dissolved in 1922, and its remaining western territory was merged with Posen to form Posen-West Prussia, and its eastern territory merged with East Prussia as the Region of West Prussia district.

Guderian is a German surname. Other spellings are Guderjahn and Guderjan. It is present in Greater Poland and Mazovia in the 19th century. Notable people with the surname include:

At the outbreak of World War I Guderian served as a communications officer and the commander of a radio station. On November 8, 1914 he was promoted to first lieutenant. [5] Between May 1915 and January 1916 he was in charge of signals intelligence for 4th Army. He fought at the Battle of Verdun during this period and was promoted to captain on 15 November 1915. He was then sent to the 4th Infantry Division before becoming commander of II Batallion of Infantry Regiment 14. [5] On 28 February 1918 Guderian was appointed to the General Staff Corps. [6] He finished the war as an operations officer in occupied Italy. [7] He disagreed with Germany signing the armistice in 1918, believing that the German Empire should have continued the fight. [8]

4th Army (German Empire)

The 4th Army was an army level command of the German Army in World War I. It was formed on mobilization in August 1914 from the VI Army Inspection. The army was disbanded in 1919 during demobilization after the war.

Battle of Verdun battle on the Western Front during the First World War

The Battle of Verdun, fought from 21 February to 18 December 1916, the longest battle of the First World War was fought on the Western Front between the German and French armies. The battle took place on the hills north of Verdun-sur-Meuse in north-eastern France. The German 5th Army attacked the defences of the Fortified Region of Verdun and those of the French Second Army on the right bank of the Meuse. Inspired by the experience of the Second Battle of Champagne in 1915, the Germans planned to capture the Meuse Heights, an excellent defensive position with good observation for artillery-fire on Verdun. The Germans hoped that the French would commit their strategic reserve to recapture the position and suffer catastrophic losses in a battle of annihilation, at little cost to the Germans, dug in on tactically advantageous positions on the heights.

The army rank of captain is a commissioned officer rank historically corresponding to the command of a company of soldiers. The rank is also used by some air forces and marine forces. Today, a captain is typically either the commander or second-in-command of a company or artillery battery. In the Chinese People's Liberation Army, a captain may also command a company, or be the second-in-command of a battalion.

Interwar period

Guderian, left, in Sweden, 1929 Major Guderian. AMA.0010832.jpg
Guderian, left, in Sweden, 1929

Early in 1919, Guderian was selected as one of the four thousand officers allowed by the Versailles Treaty in the reduced-size German army, the Reichswehr. He was assigned to serve on the staff of the central command of the Eastern Frontier Guard Service. [9] The Guard Service was intended to control and coordinate the independent freikorps units in the defense of Germany's eastern frontiers against Polish and Soviet forces engaged in the Russian Civil War. [10] In June 1919, Guderian joined the Iron Brigade (later known as the Iron Division) as its second General Staff officer. [9] The commanders of the regular German army had intended that this move would allow the army to reassert its control over the Iron Division; however, their hopes were disappointed. Rather than restrain the freikorps, Guderian's anti-communism caused him to empathize with the Iron Division's efforts to defend Prussia against the Soviet threat. [9] The Iron Division waged a ruthless campaign in Lithuania and pushed into Latvia; however, traditional German anti-Slavic attitudes prevented the division's full cooperation with the White Russian and Baltic forces opposing the Bolsheviks. [11]

Guderian had disobeyed direct orders and his actions came close to mutiny; however, sympathy for the freikorps was so common that his superiors gave him a second chance. [11] Guderian presumed in his memoirs that he was transferred to the Inspectorate of Transport Troops in 1922 as further punishment; support services had less prestige than combat positions, so he had effectively been given a demotion. [12] Guderian did not want his new role in supply and logistics, and vociferously complained. He attempted to get transferred out on two occasions before being reprimanded for doing so. [13]

In the 1920s Guderian was introduced to armored warfare tactics by Ernst Volckheim, a World War I tank commander and a prolific writer on the subject. [14] He studied the leading European literature on armored warfare and between 1922 and 1928 wrote five papers for Military Weekly, an armed forces journal. [14] While the topics covered were mundane, Guderian related them to why Germany had lost World War I, a controversial subject at the time, and thus raised his profile in the military. [15] There were some trial maneuvers conducted in the Soviet Union and Guderian academically evaluated the results. Britain was experimenting with armoured units under General Hobart, and Guderian kept abreast of Hobart's writings. [16] In 1924 he was appointed as an instructor and military historian at Stettin. As a lecturer he was polarizing, some of his pupils enjoyed his wit, but he alienated others with his biting sarcasm. [15]

In 1927 Guderian was promoted to major and in October he was posted to the transport section of the Truppenamt, a clandestine form of the army's General Staff, which had been forbidden by the Treaty of Versailles. [15] By the autumn of 1928 he was a leading speaker on tanks; however, he did not set foot in one until the summer of 1929 when he briefly drove a Swedish Stridsvagn m/21-29. [15] In October 1928 he was transferred to the Motor Transport Instruction Staff to teach. [7] In 1931, he was promoted to lieutenant-colonel and became chief of staff to the Inspectorate of Motorized Troops under Oswald Lutz. [7] This placed Guderian at the center of Germany's development of mobile warfare and armored forces. [7]

Panzer Division and mobile warfare

Guderian helped develop panzer divisions and blitzkrieg Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-218-0504-36, Russland-Sud, Panzer III, Schutzenpanzer, 23.Pz.Div. (cropped).jpg
Guderian helped develop panzer divisions and blitzkrieg

In the 1930s Guderian played a significant role in the development of both the panzer division concept and a doctrine of mechanized offensive warfare that would later become known as blitzkrieg. [17] Guderian's 3rd Motor Transport Battalion became the blueprint for the future German armored force. However, his role was less central than he claimed in his memoirs and than historians repeated in the post-war era. [18]

Guderian and his immediate superior Lutz had a symbiotic relationship. [19] Both men worked tirelessly with the shared aim of creating a panzer force. Guderian was the public face advocating mechanized warfare and Lutz worked behind the scenes. [19] Guderian reached into the Nazi regime to promote the panzer force concept, attract support and secure resources. This included a demonstration of the concept to Hitler himself. [20] Lutz persuaded, cajoled and compensated for Guderian's often arrogant and argumentative behavior towards his peers. [21] The modern historian Pier Battistelli writes that it is difficult to determine exactly who developed each of the ideas behind the panzer force. Many other officers, such as Walther Nehring and Hermann Breith, were also involved. [22] However, Guderian is widely accepted as having pioneered the communications system developed for the panzer units. [22] The central tenets of blitzkrieg independence, mass and surprise were first published in doctrinal statements of mechanized warfare by Lutz. [23]

Guderian with an Enigma machine in a half-track being used as a mobile command center during the Battle of France, 1940 Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-769-0229-12A, Frankreich, Guderian, "Enigma".jpg
Guderian with an Enigma machine in a half-track being used as a mobile command center during the Battle of France, 1940

During the autumn of 1936 Lutz asked Guderian to write Achtung – Panzer! He requested a polemical tone that promoted the Mobile Troops Command and strategic mechanized warfare. [24] In the resulting work Guderian mixed academic lectures, a review of military history and armored warfare theory that relied on the book The Tank Warfare (1934) by Ludwig Ritter von Eimannsberger. [25] While limited, the book was in many respects a success. [25] It contained two important questions which would require answering if the army was to be mechanized. How will the army be supplied with fuel, spares and replacement vehicles? And how to move large mechanized forces, especially those that are road-bound? [26] He answered his own questions in discussions of three broad areas: refueling; spares parts; and access to roads. [27]

In 1938 Hitler purged the army of staff who were unsympathetic to the Nazi regime. Lutz was dismissed and replaced by Guderian. In the spring of that year Guderian had his first experience of commanding a panzer force during the annexation of Austria. [28] The mobilization was chaotic, tanks ran out of fuel or broke down, and the combat value of the formation was non-existent. Had there been any real fighting Guderian would certainly have lost. [28] He stood beside the Führer in Linz as Hitler addressed Germany and Austria in celebration. Afterwards he set about remedying the problems that the panzer force had encountered. [29] In the last year before the outbreak of World War II Guderian fostered a closer relationship with Hitler. He attended opera with the Führer and received invitations to dinner. [30] When Neville Chamberlain, in his policy of appeasement, gave Hitler the Sudetenland, it was occupied by Guderian's XVI Motorized Corps. [30]

Second World War

Invasion of Poland

Guderian with Soviet tank commander Semyon Krivoshein at the German-Soviet military parade in Brest-Litovsk after the invasion of Poland, 1939 Armia Czerwona, Wehrmacht 22.09.1939 wspolna parada.jpg
Guderian with Soviet tank commander Semyon Krivoshein at the German–Soviet military parade in Brest-Litovsk after the invasion of Poland, 1939

During August 1939 Guderian took command of the newly formed XIX Army Corps. At short notice he was ordered to spearhead the northern element of the invasion of Poland which began on 1 September. [31] Under his corps command was one of Germany's six panzer divisions; Guderian's corps controlled 14.5 per cent of Germany's armoured fighting vehicles. His task was to advance past the former West Prussian territory that included his birthplace of Kulm, then travel through East Prussia before heading south towards Warsaw. [32] Guderian used the German concept of "leading forward", which required commanders to move to the battle-front and assess the situation. He made use of modern communication systems by travelling in a radio-equipped command vehicle with which he kept himself in contact with corps command. [33]

By 5 September, XIX Corps had linked up with forces advancing west from East Prussia. Guderian had accomplished his first operational victory and he gave a tour of the battlefield to Hitler and Himmler. The next day he shifted his corps across East Prussia to participate in the advance on Warsaw. [34] On 9 September his corps was reinforced by 10 Panzer Division and he continued deeper into Poland, finishing at Brest Litovsk. In ten days Guderian's XIX Corps advanced 330 kilometres (210 mi), at times against strong resistance. The tank had proved itself to be a powerful weapon, with only 8 destroyed out of 350 employed. [35] On 16 September, Guderian launched an attack on Brest Litovsk; the next day the Soviet Union invaded Poland. He issued an ultimatum to the city – surrender to the Germans or Soviets the garrison capitulated to the Germans. The Soviet Union's entry into the war shattered Polish morale and Polish forces began to surrender en masse to Guderian's troops. [36]

The historian Russel Hart writes that Guderian supported the invasion because he "despised the Catholic, Slavic Poles who now occupied parts of his native, beloved Prussia". [37] Foremost in his mind was the "liberation" of his former family estate at Gross-Klonia; he ordered the advance on Gross-Klonia at night and through fog,[ when? ] leading to what he described as "serious casualties". [38]

Despite the attention focused on blitzkrieg, the majority of German forces marched into Poland on foot and transported their supplies by horse-drawn vehicles; only 14 of the 54 divisions involved were mechanized [39]

The invasion of Poland was ferocious. The German military killed thousands of civilians. [39] Military officials mistreated and killed prisoners of war, ignoring both the Geneva Convention and their own army regulations. [39] Guderian's corps withdrew before the SS began its mass killings of civilians. He learned of the murder operations and of Jews being forced into ghettos from his son, Heinz Günther Guderian, who had witnessed some of them. There is no record of his having made any protest. [40]

Invasion of France and the Low Countries

Guderian during the Battle of France 1940 Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-769-0229-02A, Frankreich, Heinz Guderian in Schutzenpanzer.jpg
Guderian during the Battle of France 1940

Guderian was involved in the strategic planning of the invasion of France and the Low Countries. [41] The plan was being developed by his classmate at the 1907 War Academy, Erich von Manstein. [42] The Manstein Plan shifted the weight of the armoured formations away from a head-on attack through the Low Countries to one through the Ardennes. [42] Guderian confidently proclaimed the feasibility of taking armor through the hilly Ardennes Forest and was subsequently told he may have to command the spearhead the attack himself. [42] He then complained until he was given seven mechanized divisions with which to accomplish the task. [42] The plan established a force for the penetration of the forest that comprised the largest concentration of German armor to that date; [42] 1,112 out of Germany's total of 2,438 tanks. [42] Guderian's corps spearheaded the drive through the Ardennes and over the Meuse. He led the attack that broke the French lines at the Battle of Sedan. Guderian's panzer group led the "race to the sea", ending with the British Expeditionary Force and French forces trapped at Dunkirk. [43] Guderian was then ordered to advance to the Swiss border. The offensive started at the Weygand Line on 9 June and finished on 17 June with the encirclement of the Maginot Line defences and the remaining French forces. [44]

Despite the success of the invasion, French defeat was not inevitable; the French had better, more numerous military equipment and were not overwhelmed by a superior military force. Instead, the French loss stemmed from poor army morale, faulty military strategy and a lack of coordination among Allied troops. [45] The original invasion plan Fall Gelb (Case Yellow) had fallen into French hands by chance through the Mechelen incident. The incident contributed to the French executing the Dyle Plan, moving most of their forces north to Belgium and leaving the Ardennes lightly defended. However, the Germans subsequently changed their plan. [46]

Hitler and his generals became over-confident after their historic victory. [47] They ignored the role chance had played in the victory and came to believe they could defeat the Soviet Union, a country with significantly larger industrial might, manpower and resources. [47]

Invasion of the Soviet Union

Guderian during Operation Barbarossa, July 1941 Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-139-1112-17, Heinz Guderian.jpg
Guderian during Operation Barbarossa, July 1941

In Guderian's 1937 book Achtung — Panzer! he wrote that "the time has passed when the Russians had no instinct for technology" and that Germany would have to reckon "with the Eastern Question in a form more serious than ever before in history". [48] However, during the planning for Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, he had become optimistic about the supposed superiority of German arms. [49] By May 1941 Guderian had accepted Hitler's official position that Operation Barbarossa was a noble defensive preemptive strike. [50] He had accepted core elements of National Socialism: the Lebensraum concept of territorial expansion and the destruction of the supposed Judeo-Bolshevik menace. [50]

Guderian took control of the 2nd Panzer Group which began its offensive on 22 June by crossing the Bug River and advancing towards the Dnieper. [51] The combined forces of 2nd and 3rd Panzer Groups closed the Minsk pocket, taking 300,000 prisoners before attacking towards Smolensk. [51] Following the conclusion of the Battle of Smolensk which ended with the encirclement and destruction of the Soviet the 16th, 19th and 20th armies, General Franz Halder, Chief of the OKH, argued in favor of the all-out drive toward Moscow. [52] Guderian was sent to Hitler by Bock and Halder to argue their case for continuing the assault against Moscow, but Hitler issued an order through Guderian, bypassing his direct superiors Field Marshal Fedor von Bock and Halder, to send Army Group Center's tanks to the north and south, temporarily halting the drive towards Moscow. [53] Guderian returned to his commanding officers as a convert to Hitler's plan. [54]

By September 15, German forces including the 1st and 2nd Panzer Groups had completed the largest encirclement in history, the Battle of Kiev. Owing to the 2nd Panzer Group's southward turn during the battle, the Wehrmacht destroyed the entire Southwestern Front east of Kiev, inflicting over 600,000 losses on the Red Army by September 26. However, the encirclement was costly, the German forces had just half the tanks they had three months earlier. They had been bogged down in a war of attrition that the lightning strike forces were not prepared for. [55] Guderian's 2nd Panzer Group was in the worst shape, it had just 21 per cent of its tanks in working order. [55] In mid-September he was ordered to make a drive for Moscow. [56] On 30 September the Battle of Moscow began. [57]

By November, the attack by the 2nd Panzer Group on Tula and Kashira, 125 km (78 mi) south of Moscow, achieved limited success, while Guderian vacillated between despair and optimism, depending on the situation at the front. [58] Facing pressure from the German High Command, Kluge finally committed his weaker south flank to the attack on 1 December. In the aftermath of the battle, Hoepner and Guderian blamed slow commitment of 4th Army to the attack for the German failure to reach Moscow. This assessment grossly overestimated the capabilities of Kluge's remaining forces. [59] It also failed to appreciate the reality that Moscow was a metropolis that German forces lacked the numbers to either encircle or to capture in a frontal assault. [60]

The German formations on the Eastern Front ubiquitously implemented the criminal Commissar Order and the Barbarossa Decree. For all divisions within Guderian's panzer group where files are preserved, there is evidence of illegal reprisals against the civilian population. [61] In his memoirs Guderian denied having been given the commissar order. However, commander Joachim Lemelsen of his panzer group is documented as saying "prisoners, who could be shown to have been commissars, had to be immediately taken aside and shot" and that the order came direct from Guderian. [62] Reporting to the OKW, Guderian is documented as saying his panzer group had "shunted off" 170 commissars by the beginning of August. [62]

Inspector General of Armoured Troops

Guderian being transported to the Eastern Front, 1943 091220 - Heinz Guderian.jpg
Guderian being transported to the Eastern Front, 1943

On 1 March, 1943, after the German defeat at Stalingrad, Hitler appointed Guderian to the newly created position of Inspector General of Armoured Troops. [63] His responsibilities were to oversee the panzer arm and the training of Germany's panzer forces. He established a collaborative relationship with Albert Speer regarding the manufacture and development of armored fighting vehicles. [63] During 1943 Germany's military failures prevented Guderian from restoring combat power to the armored forces to any significant degree. He had limited success with improved tank destroyers and fixing flaws in the third generation of tanks, the Panther and the Tiger. [64]

Operation Citadel, the last major German offensive operation in the east, was an attempt by the German army to regain the initiative. The result would be a significant weakening of the German panzer forces that Guderian was trying to rebuild. In a conversation with Hitler prior to the offensive, Guderian said "My Führer, why do you want to attack in the east at all this year?" Hitler responded, "You are quite right. Whenever I think of this attack my stomach turns over." Guderian concluded, "In that case your reaction to the problem is the correct one. Leave it alone." [65]

Guderian denied any involvement with the 20 July Plot to assassinate Hitler in 1944. Hart argues that there is strong circumstantial evidence that Guderian supported it: he had recommended Himmler appoint von Stauffenberg to become the army's chief of staff which would have given him direct access to Hitler; he delayed the mobilization of vehicles which implicitly assisted the plot; and he unexpectedly retired to his estate on the day of the assassination attempt. [66] Hart writes that he was playing both sides; he was aware of the plot and implicitly assisted, but provided himself with an alibi by being on his estate should it fail. [66] He communicated with the conspirators through his deputy, Wolfgang Thomale, who was already part of the conspiracy. Guderian briefly fell under suspicion, however, the same day Hitler promoted him to Acting Chief of the General Staff. Hart surmises had the plot succeeded then Guderian would have supported the new regime and demanded a significant promotion as reward for his assistance. [67]

Acting Chief of Army General Staff

Guderian (left), Hans Lammers, and Himmler (at podium) at a Volkssturm rally, October 1944 Bundesarchiv Bild 146-1987-128-10, Rede Heinrich Himmler vor Volkssturm.jpg
Guderian (left), Hans Lammers, and Himmler (at podium) at a Volkssturm rally, October 1944

Guderian became the Acting Chief of the General Staff of the Army High Command with the responsibility of advising Hitler on the Eastern Front. [68] Germany was already heading to inevitable defeat and Guderian could not shape the military situation nor Hitler's strategic decisions. [68] Hitler placed Guderian in charge of the "Honour Court"; a kangaroo court for those accused of involvement in the 20 July Plot. [69] The court discharged those found guilty of participating in the plot from the armed forces so that they could be tried by the People's Court, set up for the purpose of prosecuting the alleged plotters. [70] Those accused were tortured by the Gestapo and executed by being hanged with piano wire. [69]

Post-war, Guderian claimed that he had attempted to get out of this duty and that he had found the sessions "repulsive". [70] Hart writes that he fought to save Rommel's chief of staff, Hans Speidel, because Speidel could have implicated Guderian in the plot. [69] In 1948, 20 July plot conspirator Fabian von Schlabrendorff wrote that Guderian had betrayed the conspirators in order to become Chief of the General Staff. [71]

Guderian completed the total Nazification of the army general staff with a 29 July order that demanded all officers join the party. He also made the Nazi salute obligatory throughout the armed forces. [72] He supported the politicization of the military, but failed to see why other officers perceived him as a Nazi. [72] At a Volkssturm rally in November 1944, Guderian said that there were "95 million National Socialists who stand behind Adolf Hitler". [73]

Guderian cultivated close personal relationships with the most powerful people in the regime. He had an exclusive dinner with Heinrich Himmler on Christmas Day 1944. [74] On 6 March 1945, shortly before the end of the war, Guderian participated in a propaganda film that denied the Holocaust; the Red Army in its advance had just liberated several extermination camps. [75] Despite the general's later claims of being anti-Nazi, Hitler most likely found Guderian's values to be closely aligned with Nazi ideology. Hitler brought him out of retirement in 1943 and especially appreciated the orders he issued in the aftermath of the failed plot. [73]

Later life and death

Guderian's grave GuderianGrab.jpg
Guderian's grave

Guderian and his staff surrendered to US forces on 10 May 1945. He avoided being convicted as a war criminal at the Nuremberg Trials because at the time there was no substantial documentary evidence against him. [71] He answered questions from the Allied forces and denied being an ardent supporter of Nazism. [71] He joined the US Army Historical Division in 1945 and the US refused requests from the Soviet Union to have him extradited. [76] Even after the war, Guderian retained an affinity with Hitler and National Socialism. While interned by the Americans, his conversations were secretly taped. In one such recording, while conversing with former field marshal Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb and former general Leo Geyr von Schweppenburg, Guderian opined: "The fundamental principles [of Nazism] were fine". [77]

Guderian was released from captivity without trial in 1948. Many of his peers were not so lucky. Von Manstein was sentenced to 18 years and Albert Kesselring was given a life sentence. [78] Guderian had informed on his ex-colleagues and co-operated with the Allies, which had helped him evade prosecution. [71] He retired to Schwangau near Füssen in Southern Bavaria and began writing. His most successful book was Panzer Leader . [78] He remained an ardent German nationalist for the rest of his life. [79] Guderian died on 14 May 1954 at the age of 65 and is buried at the Friedhof Hildesheimer Straße in Goslar. [79]

Writings and mythology

Panzer Leader myth

Guderian's post-war autobiography Panzer Leader was a success; it has been researched and widely read. He cast himself as an innovator and the 'father' of the German panzer arm, both before the war and during the blitzkrieg years. [2] This allowed him to re-imagine himself as the master of the blitzkrieg between 1939 and 1941; however, this was an exaggeration. [79] Guderian's German memoirs were first published in 1950. At that time they were the only source on the development of panzer forces, German military records having been misplaced or lost. Consequently, historians based their interpretation of historical events upon Guderian's self-centred autobiography. [80] Subsequent biographers supported the myth and embellished it. [79] In 1952 Guderian's memoirs were reprinted in English. To promote sales, British journalist and military theorist Basil Liddell Hart asked Guderian to fabricate details to say that he had based his military theories on Liddel Hart's; Guderian obliged. [81]

In newer studies, historians began to question Guderian's memoirs and criticize the myth that they had created. [80] Battistelli, examining Guderian's record, said he was not the father of the panzer arm. [82] He was one of a number of innovators. [82] He stood out from his arguably more able compatriot, Lutz, for two reasons. Firstly he sought the limelight, and secondly, he fostered a close relationship with Hitler. [83] In portraying himself as the father of the blitzkrieg and ingratiating himself with the Americans he avoided being handed over to the Soviet Union. [84] Battistelli writes that his remarkable skill was not as a theoretician or commander, it was as an author. His books Achtung-Panzer! and Panzer Leader were a critical and commercial success upon publication and continue to be discussed, researched and analysed 60 years after his death. [2]

Hart writes that most of his success came from positions of such strength that he could hardly lose: he was never able to accomplish victory from a position of weakness. [85] Hart adds his deficiencies outweighed his strengths, such as deliberately creating animosity between his panzer force and the other military arms, with disastrous consequences. [86] His memoirs omitted mention of his military failings and his close relationship with Hitler. [2] James Corum writes in his book The Roots of Blitzkrieg: Hans von Seeckt and German Military Reform that Guderian was an excellent general, a first-rate tactician and a man who played a central role in developing Panzer divisions, irrespective of his memoirs. [87]

Myth of the clean Wehrmacht

Battistelli writes that Guderian rewrote history in his memoirs, but notes that the biggest re-writing of history comes not in his putative fathering of the panzer force but in the cover-up of his culpability for war crimes during Operation Barbarossa. [84] Units under his command carried out the Commissar order, which entailed the murder of Red Army political officers. He also played a large role in the commission of reprisals after the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. [84]

Like other generals, Guderian's memoirs emphasized his loyalty to Germany and the German people; however, he neglected to mention that this loyalty had been bought by Hitler via secret, extra-legal payments in the form of bribes that were paid to senior Wehrmacht officers, including a landed estate and a monthly payment of 2,000 Reichsmarks. [88] Guderian wrote in his memoirs that he had been given a Polish estate as a retirement gift. [89] [90] The estate covered an area of 2,000 acres (810 ha) and it was located at Deipenhof (now Głębokie, Poland) in the Warthegau area of occupied Poland. The occupants had been evicted. [91] The property was worth 1.24 million Reichsmarks. Guderian also did not mention that he had initially requested an estate that was three times larger, but he was turned down by the local Gauleiter, with support from Himmler. The Gauleiter balked at giving such an opulent estate to someone with the rank of only a Colonel-General. [70]

In 1950, Guderian published a pamphlet entitled Can Europe Be Defended?, where he lamented that the Western powers had picked the wrong side to ally themselves with during the war, even as Germany "was fighting for its naked existence", as a "defender of Europe" against the supposed Bolshevik menace. Guderian issued apologetics for Hitler, writing: "For one may judge Hitler's acts as one will, in retrospect his struggle was about Europe, even if he made dreadful mistakes and errors". He claimed that only the Nazi civilian administration (not the Wehrmacht) was responsible for atrocities against Soviet civilians and scapegoated Hitler and the Russian winter for the Wehrmacht's military reverses, as he later did in Panzer Leader. [92]

Ronald Smelser and Edward J. Davies, in their book The Myth of the Eastern Front , conclude that Guderian's memoirs are full of "egregious untruths, half truths, and omissions", as well as outright "nonsense". Guderian's claimed, contrary to historical evidence, that the criminal Commissar Order was not carried out by his troops because it "never reached [his] panzer group". He also lied about the Barbarossa Decree, that preemptively exempted German troops from prosecution for crimes committed against Soviet civilians, claiming that it was never carried out either. Guderian claimed to have been solicitous towards the civilian population, that he took pains to preserve Russian cultural objects, and that his troops had "liberated" the Soviet citizens. [93]

David Stahel writes that English-speaking historians too readily presented a distorted image of German generals in the post-war era. [94] In his book Operation Barbarossa and Germany's Defeat in the East, Stahel wrote: "The men in control of Hitler's armies were not honourable men, carrying out their orders as dutiful servants of the state. With resolute support for the regime, the generals unquestioningly waged one war of aggression after the other, and, once Barbarossa began, willingly partook in the genocide of the Nazi regime". [95]

A postcard used to publicize Guderian during the war VDA T316, Generaloberst Guderian.JPG
A postcard used to publicize Guderian during the war

Guderian's memoirs remain popular to this day. The favourable descriptions started with the British journalist and military theorist Liddell Hart, who described Guderian as one of the "Great Captains of History", in a book published by the mass-market Ballentine Books in 1957. As late as 2002, for the 55th anniversary of the first publication of the book, The New York Times, Newsweek, The New Yorker and other outlets published positive reviews, reinforcing the tenets of the myth of the clean Wehrmacht. The reviews stressed the separation between the professional soldiers and the Nazi regime, while The New York Times Book Review described the book as one of the best written by former German generals. [96] Kenneth Macksey in his biography eulogized Guderian, inflating his true accomplishments. [79]

In 1976, the leading wargaming magazine, Strategy and Tactics , spotlighted Guderian in a featured game of the month called Panzergruppe Guderian. The magazine cover included a photo of Guderian in military dress, with his Knight's Cross and a pair of binoculars, suggesting a commanding role. The magazine featured a glowing profile of Guderian where he was identified as the originator of Blitzkrieg and lauded for his military achievements. Adhering to the post-war myths, the profile posited that a commander like this could "function in any political climate and be unaffected by it". Guderian thus came across as a consummate professional who stood apart from the crimes of the Nazi regime. [97]


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Further reading