He was a Prussian aristocrat from the landed Junker class and a long line of soldiers. Patriotic, conservative, Lutheran and a devoted father and husband, he was a believer in authority and obedience. He believed obedience meant soldiers were to follow their leaders and stay out of politics. His name was Erich von Manstein and as the architect of the operational battle plan that felled France in a few months in 1940 and led armies to win battles on the Eastern Front in 1941 and 1942 he was considered by many to be the Wehrmacht’s best all-around general. He was not afraid, as most were, to challenge Hitler on military operations and tactics. They didn’t even like each other most of the time. Yet Hitler quickly recognized Mansteins military brilliance and Manstein would never publically challenge Hitler’s preeminent strategic decisions, flawed as they were.
It was early in January 1944 that Field Marshal Erich von Manstein left his outnumbered and outgunned army group on the Eastern Front to personally challenge Der Fuhrer for the last time. He wanted Hitler to stop directing and interfering with army operations and it wasn’t the first time "One thing we must be clear about, mein Führer," Manstein said, "is that the extremely critical situation we are now in cannot be put down to the enemy's superiority alone, great though it is. It is also due to the way in which we are led." Hitler, Manstein later recalled, "stared at me with a look which made me feel he wished to crush my will to continue. I cannot remember a human gaze ever conveying such willpower." Three months later Manstein was relieved of his command.
This confrontation, in front of other high ranking officials, is one of the more dramatic scenes in "Manstein: Hitler's Greatest General," Mungo Melvin's interesting, if sluggish at times with technical details, biography of the master strategist and military commander who fought in both world wars.
The horror and tragedy of battle is largely overlooked in the enumeration of military maneuvers and units. That includes Stalingrad the largest and most horrific of all the battles which comes across as a chess game.
What I was hoping to find in this book was an answer to the question as to why so many upstanding German military leaders followed Adolf Hitler to the death and destruction of their nation and millions of innocents at home and abroad. It seems the most worthwhile questions surrounding Manstein's career involve the moral judgments military leadership. Was he the innocent leader of a professional army, blind to Hitler's ideology and ignorant of what the SS and other extramilitary outfits were up to? Or was he, with other German commanders, aware of the extremes of National Socialism and an enabler of its cruelest policies?Mr. Melvin is on better footing when he turns to the moral questions. He fairly points them out and tries to clarify what Manstein said and did. And then leaves it all hanging. At the Nuremburg trials
Manstein, the main witness for the defense argued that he had served his nation, not Hitler or Nazism. He testified that it was only after the war that he learned of the annihilation of the Jews, only then that he came to believe that Hitler "had no moral scruples." But, as Mr. Melvin makes clear, Manstein's recollections were often self-serving.
Manstein took a legalistic stance on the innocence of his soldiers and applied that to himself. They were just following orders. He said he could not have known about all the battlefield "transgressions" and could not have joined an organized opposition to Hitler, given the code of military honor. ("Prussian field marshals," he said, "do not mutiny.") In any event, he claimed, Hitler's overthrow would have brought unacceptable chaos to Germany.
Mr. Melvin concludes that "Manstein's misfortune, along with millions of fellow Germans, was to serve blindly a criminal regime." Yes to a degree but not quite. Manstein never joined the Nazis, wasn’t an ideologue but wasn’t stupid or blind either He helped in a big way Germanys path to ignominy.
In the end while Melvins book is superbly researched and documented though it is fatally flawed like Manstein himself. Well written biographies today cut to the soul of the subject. Military biography today remains in the genre of the "great leaders of past wars." My bad analogy would be like my six hundred page manual for my new Chevy Cruze. All of that just to learn how to open a trunk? I wanted to take it out on the road and just see how it runs. It not enough to say a general sent this division and another right. How could he ignore thousands of civilians being murdered in his area of responsibility? You need to know the culture, the psychology, the previous history etc.
In a sense, the book mirrors the failure of Manstein himself, who, while talented, could not transcend his limitations to achieve true greatness. We never learned what really made him tick. At the end, I remained completely puzzled about Manstein the man and famous general….. That's too bad.