Academic journal article Military Review

1930s German Doctrine: A Manifestation of Operational Art

Academic journal article Military Review

1930s German Doctrine: A Manifestation of Operational Art

Article excerpt

Although many years have passed since German operations at the outset of World War II, academics are still divided in defining the essence of German doctrine: the blitzkrieg. (1) Was it a tactical doctrine that emerged as a response to technological advances, namely mechanized warfare and radio communications? Or, was it a strategic doctrine? Or, was it perhaps a philosophy born of Germany's geo-strategic state that mandated avoidance of a simultaneous, two-fronted war, thus requiring the quick defeat of one enemy in order to allocate all resources to face a second? (2) Robert Citino, noted Wehrmacht historian, leans toward the latter, asserting that German military philosophy had not changed during the interwar period. Rather, it was an extension of historic tradition of German military theory, dating back to Friedrich II ("the Great"). (3) Either way, the nature of German doctrine remains hotly debated among military historians, as can be observed from the vast amount of literature available. The final word on the matter is yet to be said, and this article will not attempt to claim it. (4)

However, one oft-contested issue stemming from debate and discussion of blitzkrieg is whether the German doctrine was conceived as a construct at the operational level of war. It is this narrower issue which is the subject of this article.

Shimon Naveh, a well-known Israeli military historian, disputes the assertion that blitzkrieg was a manifestation of operational art. Instead he describes it as a concept that "not only lacked operational coherence but ... its actual formation dictated relinquishing a systemic approach to military conduct," and that between 1933 and 1938 the Wehrmacht underwent a process which systematically destroyed operational awareness. (5) He goes on to assert that the essence of the blitzkrieg was mythicized in the wake of the German army's incredible victories at the outset of the war, which distorts clear analysis. Thus, Naveh maintains, discussion of operational thinking is irrelevant in regard to World War II German military thought. (6)

This article will attempt to refute Naveh's misguided (and misleading) thesis by discussing the theory and practice of the German army during the 1920s and 1930s, proving that both operational thinking and emphasis on joint operations were very much existent in German thinking that led to formulation of blitzkrieg. Moreover, the article will clearly show that recognizable operational-based theory was converted into practice during the campaigns to conquer Western Europe.

Operational-Level as Paradigm

One can assert that the very basis for modern campaign planning and execution lies in developing doctrine that requires operational thinking and joint operations. Such doctrine was, in fact, developed during the second half of the 1930s, the very period when, per Naveh, the Germans deserted operational thinking. Before detailing the development of operational thinking in German military philosophy, it is necessary to first provide a short and simple overview of the operational level of war and joint operations as concepts. Later we shall examine the emergence of German doctrine especially during the period between the close of World War I and outbreak of World War II.

Operational Level of War Definition

The U.S. Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms defines the operational level of war as one at which "campaigns and major operations are planned, conducted, and sustained to achieve strategic objectives" as defined by the political echelon. (7) Thus, the operational level can be understood as a methodology of command aimed at executing strategic directives; it is not detached from the strategic level, but rather is subject to it. Moreover, it is at once the bridge between strategy and tactics, as well as a stage within the stages of war. Also, as art, it should be noted that the operational level cannot be analyzed via mathematical or physical means (i. …

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