|Hans von Seeckt and the Revolution in Military Affairs|
|Hans von Seeckt's ideas on the uses of military power profoundly influenced a generation of German officers and contributed to the deadly effectiveness of the Wehrmacht during World War Two.|
The spectacular (and seemingly easy) victories of the German Wehrmacht during the period 1939-41 have fired the imaginations of historians and contemporary military officers alike. The early and quick victories gave rise to the myth of German invinciblity and an underlying secret to their success, which, the myth holds, could provide the keys to latter day military victory. The term biltzkrieg, while symbolic of this myth, ironically is not even of German origin; it was coined by a Western journalist. Blitzkrieg is a convenient word used to describe combined arms warfare, which took the German Army nearly twenty years to completely develop as its doctrine.
The German Wehrmacht was arguably one of the best armies the world has ever seen, especially during the period 1939-44. But the Wehrmacht did not simply spring to life in 1933 in its complete and efficient military form and begin the conquest of Europe autonomously as has been suggested. The foundations of the German Army of World War Two lay in the Reichsheer, the Versailles Treaty permitted remnant of the German Army of World War One. Hans von Seeckt was the primary influence on the structuring, training and doctrinal modification of traditional German operational tactics. The successes of the Wehrmacht during World War Two are directly attributable to the leadership and intellectual drive of General von Seeckt.
Revolutionary or innovator?
The role of Hans von Seeckt is often classified as either that of a revolutionary or an innovator. Von Seeckt expanded on traditional German offensive doctrine, the ideas of von Schlieffen and the stormtroop tactics which were an innovation of World war One.
Even while the revised German combined arms doctrine was systematically developed through the means of professional writing and education, von Seeckt had the Reichsheer training using the new tactics even though the Army did not possess the actual equipment required to implement the new doctrine. The use of dummy tanks mounted on automobiles is a singular example of overcoming a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. The Reichsheer did not allow this lack of equipment to inhibit training. There was a realization early on that it was a necessity to get soldiers used to maneuvering at speed and in cooperation with other types of units. Interwar training focused on this.
While it is popular to think of blitzkrieg as merely the use use of tanks supported by infantry to pierce enemy lines and drive deep into enemy territory without regard for one’s flanks (as Rommel’s Seventh Division did after crossing the Meuse near Sedan), there is a tendency to negelct the use of the German Air Force operating in the Close Air Support role. The concepts of a war of maneuver using combined arms supported by attack aircraft was not simply a dramatic occurrence in 1939. There remains a great deal of controversy over whether the concepts of blitzkrieg, as it came to be called, were a revolution in military affairs, or a diverging innovation, based on German military tradition. Despite this debate, it is clear that credit for the ideas of mobile, combined arms warfare did not rest on the shoulders of any one man, as has been suggested; rather the ideas came from a fertile field of creative introspection and a professional command and staff officer system established by General Hans von Seeckt.
The Reichsheer, guided, mentored and commanded by von Seeckt developed, systematically, the concepts which are know today as blitzkrieg. Several different German officers contributed to the development of the combined arms warfighting doctrine.
The keys to the German Army’s successes during World War Two lay in its combined arms approach in tactical situations; flexible decision making up and down the chain of commandas required in a fluid tactical situation; reliance on offensive maneuver to achieve a decision on the battlefield and integration of available combat and combat support units.
Traditional German doctrine, heavily influenced by the writings of Carl von Clausewitz, recognized implicitly that battle is a fluid situation and that uncertainty (the fog of war) inhibits complete fact-based, rational decision making by individual commanders (friction). A leader then, whether a corps commander or a squad leader, had to be capable of exercising ‘auftragstaktik.’ The term does not translate easily, but it essentially means to make decisions based on your higher commander’s overall basic intent, with flexibility to account for a fluid situation.
von Seeckt and the Versailles Treaty
The idea that the Versailles Treaty’s limitations on the size of the Reichsheer forced the Germans to adopt a completely new warfighting doctrine in order to compensate for the lack of mass assumes that the Germans planned on abiding by the terms of the treaty from the date of its implementation. It is evident however, with von Seeckt’s illegal re-establishment of the General Staff, for example, that the Germans never planned on oever complying with a treaty they found unfair. It is painfully clear that the Germans began a campaign to covertly rearm the Reichswehr and develop new weapons systems, including the all-important tank and aircraft, even in the face of severe financial and economic limitations. The evidence suggests that in fact the Germans never even had the number of soldiers specified for in the terms of the Treaty: 96,000 enlisted men and 4,000 officers. Instead, the vast manpower surpluses were hidden inside such organizations as the police, paramilitary organizations and even local shooting clubs. It is closer to the truth to recognize that the Reichsheer was a cadre force, designed to expand as required and whenever it became politically or militarily expedient to do so. This is alos obvious form the ratio of Non-Commissioned Officers to enlisted men.
Historically, the Germans must have realized that, faced with their traditional two front dilemma, that a 100,000 man army would be no match for invaders from both the east and west. That the German Army would have willingly submitted to such a manpower restriction, without attempting a secret effort to ensure its capability for mass mobilization stretches the limits of credulity.
For von Seeckt, the terms of the Treaty may have been a blessing in disguise. Although he plainly created a Fuhrerheer (Leader’s Army), that is, a cadre army which was capable of expanding rapidly, the provisions of the Treaty guaranteed that he could be more selective in determining the selection and training process of the officer and NCO corps. Of the 4,000 officers, 35-50% were from military families, while another 35-40% wee sons of clergy, senior civil servants, academics, doctors and lawyers. From 1922 to 1932, the percentage of aristocratic German officers increased from 21% to 31%. The effect was the re-creation of a politically conservative and reactionary officer corps with monarchical sentiments. While some have said that he disdained mass armies on aristocratic grounds, von Seeckt may have realized that a small, well trained elite force of professional soldiers with a high degree of initiative, quality leadership, combined with firepower and mobility could easily accomplish more against mass conscript armies populated by foot slogging infantrymen. Certainly the lessons of Tannenburg exemplified what a smaller, well led force could accomplish against a larger one. Efficiency rather than notions of aristocracy would seem to have been at the heart of von Seeckt’s innovations. His emphasis on quality rather than quantity extended beyond the recruitment and training of soldiers, NCOs and officers. “The smaller the army, the easier it will be to equip with modern weapons...”
Von Seeckt, as Chief of the Army Command (Chef der Heeresleitung) of the Reichswehr, was responsible for redefining not only the Reichsheer’s organization but also its tactical doctrine, training and equipping. His influence on the development of tactical theory was largely exercised through his published writings in his annual “Commander’s Remarks on the Army.” While von Seeckt was not an armor or air force tactician per se, he implicitly recognized the value of these two combat arms, in conjunction with motorized infantry and artillery, supported by combat engineers, working together as a combined arms team. This team approach to tactical operations developed into what is colloquially termed blitzkrieg. Blitzkrieg’s antecedents are to be found in historical German tactical doctrine and battlefield experience, so called ‘lessons learned.’ The most notable combat experience from which blitzkrieg is drawn is the Battle of Tannenburg and the conept of Kesselschlacht.
Von Seeckt, a veteran of both fronts, learned some valuable lessons: On the Western Front, the action stagnated because of an inability to maneuver. The resultant long war of attrition depleted limited German resources, which resulted in no decisive decision. On the Eastern Front, he learned that maneuver produces decision and that the best defense is a good offense. Von Seeckt’s experience can have only convinced him, along with other veteran officers and soldiers (including an Iron Cross decorated Austrian corporal) that any future war, in order to be decisive, would have to be quick, mobile, and offensively oriented. The primary objective in such a war would have to be the rapid destruction of the enemy army. Such rapid destruction would preclude the ability for the army to mobilize and deploy existing reserve forces.
One of the most obvious conclusions about the motivations for the German close examination of the tactical lessons of World War One and the study of the potential of armored warfare is that they lost the war. While this motivation seems absurdly simple, the German officer corps was more motivated to study the war and determine its tactical lessons than the Allies were, because the outcome left the Germans in the same position, geographically and politically, which they were in prior to 1914. Germany remained between a powerful, although revolutionary Russia, and a hostile France, not easily forgiving of the wounds inflicted on her territory from 1914-1919.
Professional, introspective German officers like von Seeckt passed on the myth of the ‘stab in the back’ and readily admitted the failures of the Hindenburg-Ludendorff combination. In contrast, the French, believing that any future war would resemble the last, prepared to fight it again, exemplified by the building of the Maginot Line.
That Germany lost World War One in large part because of its lack of adequate, reformed and rationalized war financing, assuming a short (and victorious) war, is a valid one. Recognition by von Seeckt of the need for financial reform in order to resource the Reichsheer hwoever, does not seem to have influenced his judgment about the type of war or the tactics to be employed by the Army. Instead, von Seeckt’s determination to separate political considerations and thus political-economic questions from the resourcing, rebuilding and tactical innovation of the Reichsheer seems to be at the heart of the ultimate failure of the Wehrmacht: Its politically reactionary attitude towards its own involvement in questions of state government, finance and politics.
The great German military failure during World War One was the inability to recognize the military potential of the tank. This failure occurred at both the strategic and operational level. The German High Command fixated on the development of ever larger artillery pieces, neglecting the industrial development of the tank. German officers on the front lines compensated for this failure by using captured British tanks to resource their own armor units. If the High Command did not recognize the tank’s potential, then certainly the front line soldiers did.
German officers, writing after the war, clearly understood that the tank had been critical in the Allies’ battlefield successes. It was this type of thought provoking critique which drove the German professional soldier to examine the war closely. Von Seeckt not only recognized the Western Front’s problems and the potential solutions to a war of prolonged attrition, he also encouraged the development of critical thinking by his new officer corps. His establishment, or more properly, re-establishment of the General Staff (outlawed under the provisions of the Versailles Treaty) under the guise of the Truppenamt (Troop Office) created fertile ground for this type of analysis. The Militar Wochenblatt became the centerpiece for the German Army’s technical and tactical discussions on the emerging armorer and aircraft technology. Fritz Heigl, a former Austrian Army captain and captain of industry became one of the most prolific writers on issues of foreign tank and vehicle development.
Change versus Tradition
It is clear that even during the Weimar Republic, the German officer corps remained largely politically reactionary. Distrustful of democratic institutions and comfortable with the familiar monarchical traditions, officers such as future General (then Major) von Stulpnagel were definitively opposed to the democratic ideas proposed by Defense Minister Reinhardt. When Reinhardt, a former colonel, described his views of the republican army as “detaching ourselves firmly from the past,” meaning the Imperial Army and advocated the discarding of “antiquated and faulty institutions,” he raised the ire of conservative officers. Von Stulpnagel, in a letter to von Seeckt urging the latter to remain in the service after von Seeckt’s tendering of his resignation following Reinhardt’s declarations, stated that “it is absolutely essential that an officer corps’ monarchical convictions and of the old stamp should be preserved for the miserable creature of the new army.” In the same letter, von Stulpnagel expressed his desire for a return of the imperial monarchy. That a major would write such a letter to a general and quite openly admit such sentiments is remarkable by itself. It is likely that, even though von Seeckt was a political realist he shared such views; such an opinion as stated by a junior officer must have only been done so knowing that the reader was at least sympathetic to such views.
The idea that von Seeckt was not only politically reactionary, but reactionary towards technological development and new ideas, especially the motorizations of the army, must be tempered with his World War One experience and his actions as chief of the army. His establishment within the Truppenamt of, among other such offices, the T2 III L, dealt solely with questions about air warfare and flying. Although the office was soon shut down by Entente Power inspectors, the fact that office was established gives a clue as to von Seeckt’s realization that warfare had changed forever.
While the young infantry officer cadets arriving at the new academy in Dresden were dumbfounded to find only portraits of their past monarchical leaders instead of those of the new Weimar leaders adorning the hallways; this did not represent merely a step backward in tradition. It is clear that while von Seeckt yearned for a return to the old-style, traditional, disciplined force belonging in body and spirit to the Kaiser, he still realized that modern firepower and mobility were the keys to any future German victories.
Von Seeckt’s interest in weapons development is evident in a 1924 memorandum to the Weapons Office: “The High Command hold it as necessary that the chiefs of departments and sections are continually educated in the continuing and newly-developed technologies and important technical-tactical questions.” Further, von Seeckt ordered that professional bi-monthly seminars be held on motorization, armor technology, gas warfare, mortars and foreign weapons developments. Plainly, von Seeckt not only encouraged technical and tactical discussion, he demanded it.
Holder, 73.Admittedly there was personal and professional competition between Ludendorff and von Seeckt. von Seeckt’s posting to the backwater of Turkey by Ludendorff during the latter stages of World War One and von Seeckt’s subsequent replacement of Ludendorff as chief of the Army could only have added fuel to the fire.