Napoleon is recognized as a military genius. Hitler probably thought of himself as his equal.
In any analysis of World War II military campaigns, especially the Russian campaign, Hitler receives blame for many of the German military reverses. Hitler was always interjecting himself into the strategic planning, often overruling the advice of his senior military commanders. Sometimes his decisions proved disastrous. For example, his refusal to allow a German field army to make a strategic withdrawal from Stalingrad in late 1942 led to massive losses of soldiers and materiel.
German military historians may damn Hitler for many of the Wehrmacht’s defeats; but, as they do so, they should also give him credit for its greatest victories.
In 1938 the German high command was seriously alarmed by Hitler’s threat to march against Czechoslovakia. They were particularly concerned by the threat of a two-front war, with the British and French to their west and the Czechs (and possibly the Soviets) to the east. But Hitler was the ultimate political poker player, and he bluffed. He saw the weakness in Chamberlain’s and Daladier’s eyes, and he was confident that the power of his will would force them to negotiate. He realized that the British and the French would do almost anything to avert the horrors of another general war. He, on the other hand, was not afraid of conflict. In fact, the camaraderie of military service in the Great War had been the high point of Hitler’s life. He bluffed, and the Allies gave in. Czechoslovakia was occupied by the German Army without the necessity of firing a single shot.
The Czechoslovakian success (preceded by his bloodless occupation of the Rhineland and Austria) fed Hitler’s high opinion of his own military genius and strengthened his contempt for Germany’s professional military leaders. He thought them too cautious, too fearful of taking risks, and too concerned with the supposed strength of the enemy. He saw the western democracies as being corrupt and weak, unable to resist the power of a united German nation under the direction of his genius and inexorable will.
The French campaign of 1940 confirmed Hitler’s belief in his mastery of the art of war. The French army was thought to be the best in Europe, and it was led by an experienced officer corps. Nevertheless, Hitler was determined to confront the French head-on by a massive strike through Holland and Belgium. He expected heavy losses, but he was confident that his inspired leadership would lead his troops to ultimate victory regardless of the cost. At almost the last moment, however, General Manstein proposed a different plan of attack. Rather than a head-on assault, he suggested that the major thrust be made through difficult, wooded terrain in southwest Belgium. The senior staff thought Manstein’s plan much too risky, but the very audacity of Manstein’s proposal appealed to Hitler’s gambler instincts, and he gave it his backing. Thus, the attack through the Ardennes was conceived, planned, and brilliantly executed. The French army was surprised, destroyed and the whole French nation conquered in a brief six-week campaign. Compared to World War I, casualties were light. Hitler’s genius was confirmed – not only in his own eyes, but in the eyes of the entire German nation.
When Hitler ordered the attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941, he was planning to outdo Napoleon. Napoleon’s Grande Armee invaded Russia in 1812, defeated the Russians in a series of battles, and occupied Moscow. Napoleon expected capitulation, instead he got defiance and continued resistance. Moscow burned, and the Russian winter began to set in. Deprived of supplies, the French army began a slow retreat to the west, being subjected to constant harassment by the Russian army along with irregular forces. Bitter winter, combined with disease and battle casualties, virtually destroyed the Grande Armee. All Europe then rose up against Napoleon, and though he fought on desperately and brilliantly, his fate had been sealed.
Hitler was well informed on Napoleon’s Russian campaign, and he believed he could avoid the French Emperor’s mistakes. For one thing, he planned a massive three-pronged assault. One German army would strike in the north toward Leningrad, the center army would drive toward Moscow, and a southern army would push through the Ukraine toward the Crimea. Initially, all went well for the Germans. The Soviet army and air force was totally surprised and suffered enormous casualties. The Germans surged forward on every front, and Hitler savored the prospect of total victory. But the Soviet resistance stiffened. Leningrad and Moscow held firm, and, at the critical moment, the Russian winter intervened.
The German’s renewed their assault in the spring of 1942, this time striking toward the Caucasus, but they were eventually stopped and defeated along the shores of the Volga. Hitler is often criticized for the Stalingrad debacle. The German army was best suited for mobile warfare, and his insistence on the attack on Stalingrad tied them down in a bloody, house-to-house melee. This criticism of Hitler’s strategy is valid, but in the long run I doubt that this particular blunder made much difference. By late 1942 the Soviet Union was totally geared for war, and the United States, with all its potential power, had entered the conflict. The demise of the Third Reich was only a matter of time.
Over the next two years the Germans fought tenaciously to stop the Russian slow eastward advance, but it was like trying to stem an ocean tide. Many in the German high command favored cutting their losses in Russia and the Ukraine and consolidating German defenses in eastern Europe and the homeland. Hitler would not allow it. He directed his generals to fight for every yard of ground. In making this decision Hitler was influenced by visions of Napoleon’s Grande Armee being cut to pieces as it retreated east. He did not wish the German army to suffer a similar debacle. Of course, in the end, the result was much the same.
Hitler’s last major strategic decision was to surprise the largely unbloodied and widely spaced American units in southwestern Belgium by a hard thrust through the Ardennes in December 1944, leading to the Battle of the Bulge. From a strictly logical point of view, the attack was a foolish waste of life. But from Hitler’s point of view, he had nothing to lose. He was an ardent student of history, and he knew that Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, was once saved from military disaster when the coalition against him broke apart. He hoped that the Ardennes campaign would drive a wedge between the Americans and the British or between the Western Allies and the Soviets. His gamble failed.
No, Hitler was not the military genius that Napoleon was, but neither was he a total incompetent.
Hitler was an evil man. Napoleon had his evil side also, but his malevolence pales in comparison to Hitler’s.
Both men had incredible energy and inordinate ambition, and both contributed to the death and misery of countless people – Napoleon to millions and Hitler to tens of millions.