Review: The Myth Of Hitler’s Military Incompetence Examined in “The First Soldier”

By Robert M. Citino
February 2019 • World War II Magazine

The First Soldier: Hitler as Military Leader
By Stephen G. Fritz. 459 pp. Yale University Press, 2018. $30.

HE ROSE FROM HUMBLE ORIGINS to supreme power, tried and failed to conquer the world, and killed millions. Yet even today some refuse to take Adolf Hitler seriously. The man called the Führer is still a caricature in many histories of World War II: a carpet-chewing madman frothing at the mouth, a jumped-up corporal issuing inane orders to his polished, professional commanders, a bumbling amateur who lost a war that Germany could have won.

Respected scholar Stephen G. Fritz is having none of it in The First Soldier. While offering zero justification for anything Hitler said, planned, or did, Fritz demolishes the “Hitler was an idiot” school of World War II history. Hitler had many strengths as a military commander, Fritz notes: openness to new ideas (especially those of mechanized warfare, as in the 1940 campaign), strength of will, and a concept of strategy that ranged well above that of his commanders.

Fritz also notes where the notion of Hitler’s bumbling came from in the first place: the German officer corps, seeking an excuse for its own complicity in the war’s aftermath. Trying to explain away their second lost war within a generation, German military leaders had a perfect fall guy, and they went after the dictator with a will in their widely read memoirs. As the most hated man of the 20th century, Hitler was unlikely to find many defenders—and he didn’t. The fact that the officers themselves had helped bring the dictator to power, supported his launch of the war, and slavishly obeyed his orders to the end were all inconvenient truths, conveniently omitted.

Like most military commanders since Napoleon, Hitler believed in going on the offensive whenever possible and in mounting a tenacious defense when necessary. He launched a war when he thought he enjoyed a strategic advantage and then hung on grimly when things turned south. He often failed, not because he was a fanatic, but because he was indecisive and could not make clean choices between clashing courses of action proposed by his officers. In all this, we read echoes of the great and not-so-great commanders of the past, present, and future.

Fritz’s most interesting insight is that the real German problem was not Hitler as military leader, but Hitler as political supremo. All the operational prowess in the world could not make up for Germany’s flawed political aims: conquest of a great empire, enslavement of subject races, and racial purification. Hitler the commander failed to prosecute the senseless war dreamed up by Hitler the Nazi Führer—but anyone would have. In the end, Fritz notes, Hitler’s vision of “absolute dominance” inevitably gave rise to “absolute resistance.”

Wise words from a wise book, one that offers us a historical portrait of the dictator, and not a caricature. —Robert M. Citino writes this magazine’s “Fire for Effect” column and is the National WWII Museum’s Samuel Zemurry Stone senior historian.

This review was originally published in the February 2019 issue of World War II magazine. Subscribe here.

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4 Responses to Review: The Myth Of Hitler’s Military Incompetence Examined in “The First Soldier”

  1. Joni Pelkonen says:

    Hitler was a fanatic, and fanatics rarely win because their thinking is not coherent. Simply believing in something is not as effective as applying healthy criticism on one’s decisions.

    Hitler and his armies did great in the early part of WWII because they had the element of surprise and initiative. Once they lost both, they also started to loose battles. German generals were very competent, but so were many of their opponents. Germans had good combat tactics and technology, but their opponents quickly developed theirs too.

    Hitler hastened Nazi Germany’s demise by ordering useless operations with hopeless goals and increased human suffering and destruction by refusing to accept that Germany would eventually loose. Coherent thinkers knew already in 1943 that Germany would loose, Hitler refused to accept the truth even while sitting in his bunker and Soviet army less than a kilometre from Berlin city centre.

    • Douglas Self says:

      By the time that the 79th Specialized Brigade was storming the Reichstag, Hitler’s options were limited to: (1) grabbing a rifle and joining his beleaguered troops in a final “Gotterdamerung”, hoping to either fall to Soviet fire or with his last bullet; (2) By his own hand, in the Bunker, with arrangements made for the disposition of his corpse; (3) allowing himself to be captured, with the spectre of the show trial of all time or being displayed naked, in a cage, as Stalin’s ultimate trophy at Red Square; or (4) escape to a “friendly” power, like Argentina or Brazil, with the taking of a new identity.

      The best evidence is that indeed option two was how he chose to end his ill-fated tenure as the German Fuhrer. Still, there is credible evidence that Hitler might have escaped, as Stalin strongly believed, but as to whether such an escape succeeded, let alone where he lived and for how long, remains unknown and likely unprovable.

  2. Arutha201 says:

    I am reading The First Soldier right now, and Prof. Citino’s review is spot-on.

  3. Maaku the Pirate King says:

    The Germans had no chance once the US joined the war

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