Added 9 May 2006.


Heinz Guderian: Panzer Leader

"I first saw the light of day..... in 1888...." Despite this opening sentence, Panzer General is not so much an autobiography as a historical overview of the German panzer force between the 1920s and 1945, written by the man who was one of its foremost midwives. Published originally in Germany as Erinnerungen eines Soldaten [Memories of a Soldier], Panzer Leader appeared in 1950, not long after the author's acquittal of war crimes charges, and only a few years before his death.

Guderian was born into a military family of Prussian stock, and although he does not dwell on his early years, the tone of his writing and his political views make it clear that he was loyal to the class of professional military men who came from that part of old Germany (now part of Poland). Thus he blames the victorious Great Powers of the First World War for the rise of Hitler inasmuch as they gave him fertile ground for discontent in the Treaty of Versailles, and approves of the Anschluss with Austria and finds little to criticise in the taking of Sudetenland or even Hitler's attitude towards the Polish corridor. But his very honesty expressed in these views make his subsequent remarks on the course of the war, Hitler and the Nazi Party all the more revealing, of which more below.

As a youngish officer Guderian fought in the First World War. Peacetime found him still retained in the Reichswehr but at something of a loose end, until his seniors involved him in a study on motorisation, an area of which he had hitherto had no experience. Imperial Germany had had no more than 20 tanks in the First War, and the postwar army was forbidden by Versailles to possess modern armour. The story of the clandestine development of the Panzerwaffe , from using dummy tanks to the first real tank, the Panzer I, is closely bound up with Guderian and his efforts and enthusiasm. One interesting insight offered by the book is that far from the accepted vision of Nazi Germany as tank-mad, many of Guderian's peers and seniors did not share his views: one of his superiors went so far as to tell him that neither of them would see tanks in Germany in their lifetime! Given subsequent events, it is surprising that this remark has not made the hall of ironic hindsight.

Running parallel to the development of German armoured vehicles and their doctrine is the ascent of Hitler from elected politician to dictator. Guderian was clearly an admirer of Hindenburg, who made the ex-corporal Chancellor, and found much to admire in Hitler's domestic and foreign policies as stated in public. The Roehm affair and in particular the associated murder of Army officers who were not linked to the SA left him and other officers very uneasy and unhappy, and with hindsight he believed that the officer corps should have demanded full satisfaction from the Nazis: had they done so, in his view, events might have taken a different course. After the signing of the oath he expresses a wish in a letter to his wife that he hopes the Army will be able to keep its oath in good conscience: perhaps a presentiment of later events. Instead a few years later he was to see with indignation how Fritsch was forced out of office after ugly manouvering by Himmler: although subsequently the charges were dropped, Fritsch was not reinstated and his rehabilitation less than complete (he was subsequently to be killed during the Polish campaign).

In the run-up to war Guderian finds little to criticise, as has been noted, in Hitler's foreign policy, but claims to have hoped that peace could nevertheless be preserved without another conflagration. Instead, of course, the Anglo-French guarantee to Poland made war inevitable when the border was crossed. Guderian discusses the Polish campaign and the lessons learnt, and then goes on to cover the planning for the campaign in the West. This is nearly as interesting as the campaign itself, since Guderian claims that many of his colleagues still did not understand the correct use of armour, and that he and Manstein had to push to get the final, successful offensive plan approved. While not an extreme front-line general like Rommel, Guderian was still fairly active in visiting different parts of his commands, including the combat troops, and his coverage of the French campaign is interesting, especially when discussing the delays that the General Staff tried to impose on him, culminating in Hitler's orders to halt the panzers before Dunkirk. The German armour leader refers to this several times in the book, claiming that had the armour been able to overwhelm the British before they could embark then a peace with or conquest of Britain might have been possible.

The most detailed and lengthy part of the book is taken up with Operation Barbarossa, Hitler's decision to invade the Soviet Union. This chapter starts with critical remarks by Guderian on the failure of German foreign policy and military strategy between the fall of France and June 22, 1941. The Colonel-General notes that tank production had been kept low in the early years and that the use of captured French vehicles was unsuitable to the Eastern Front. Thereafter the writing takes the form of a military diary, and at this point many readers may feel themselves somewhat overwhelmed by the detail, although I cannot in truth say that Guderian is ever dull. He explains the depth of this part of the book as a desire to show what conditions in the East were like, and also to show how the campaign took a wrong turn due to Hitler's and OKW's interference. Guderian himself was adamant that the correct strategy would have been to push all out for Moscow: instead, by the time the drive on the capital began, the Germans were suffering appalling deprivation in a Russian winter. Never again would they have the strength to conduct such a full-scale offensive. At this point Guderian was dismissed, something he holds Field Marshal von Kluge at least partly responsible for.

After some brief notes about his year or so of unemployment, Guderian returns in the aftermath of the Stalingrad disaster as Inspector-General of the Armoured Troops. He finds that the world has changed for the worse since he has been gone, with powerful enemies and feeble allies without and bureaucracy, political infighting and instability within. The German military leadership has been steadily emasculated by Hitler, who now controls Germany's destiny and uses a small clique of often mutually antagonistic men to run affairs. The Inspector-General's strategic plan was to build up an armoured reserve in 1943 to meet the anticipated Western attack in 1944, but this was frustrated by Hitler's decision to attack the Kursk salient, a move which not only failed but consumed large amounts of men and vehicles in so doing. After Zeitzler's dismissal Guderian became Chief of Staff, but this was a far from enviable position and involved long and exhausting hours arguing not only with Hitler but also his entourage, often in vain. Thereafter the story is one of a rising tide of military defeat, from Sicily to the destruction of Army Group Centre and Normandy and finally the Russians carving their way towards Berlin. By this time Guderian was fixated solely on the East and tried without success to get senior Nazis to find a way to at least an armstice with the Anglo-Americans so that Germany (and his beloved Prussia) could be defended from what he perceived as the Red menace. To give him credit, he admits that there was never much hope of this, but it was all he had to hope for. Finally Hitler brusquely tells him to go on leave for six weeks for the sake of his health, at which point Guderian takes his wife to a part of the country not yet overrun by the Allies and sits out the end of the war.

Perhaps the most darkly fascinating chapter of the book is the last but one, dealing as it does with Hitler, the leading Nazis and their influence on the course of the war. While claiming that Germany had legitimate grievances and that Hitler's early policies had some success (both of which may be considered valid points), Guderian draws Hitler as a man who on reaching power chose the path of dictatorship and amassed steadily more power to himself until his arrogance and self-confidence knew no bounds even as his stability and health deteriorated. According to this account, Hitler initially was not awed or intimidated by those of better circumstances or training than himself, but then many of his own circle brought forth the nascent seeds of resentment within him. The German dictator had a premonition that his own life would be short and that all his work, as he saw it, would have to be done in his own lifetime since his successors would lack his own power to achieve this. This, of course, was to be a self-fulfilling prophecy since it caused Hitler to embark on his reckless and impulsive adventures that would end in his suicide in the bunker. Most tellingly, Guderian describes Hitler as a man who walked alone with only his grand ideas for company: no friends, no wife (Guderian says he never saw Eva Braun in all his time working with Hitler), little family, only disciples and sycophants. Apart from Speer the rest of the Nazis receive similar contemptuous treatment, although Guderian does acknowledge that Goebbels showed some courage in the early days and that Goering did set up the Luftwaffe initially. Himmler and Goering are in fact fairly savaged, as is Martin Bormann whom Guderian describes as the eminence grise of the Third Reich.

The final chapter in the book is an essay on the German General Staff, some of its illustrious alumni and the qualities sought in any man who would serve on it. Of course Jodl and Keitel were less than exemplary, both for their moral failures (passing on Hitler's more reprehensible orders without demur) and for their failure from the military point of view in forcefully presenting a more rational course of action to the dictator at critical points during the war.

What sort of man was Guderian, as evinced by his own words? Perhaps the key to his own personality is found in the words in the chapter on Hitler:

Everything on this earth that casts a glow of warmth over our life as mortals, friendship with fine men, the pure love for a wife, affection for one's own children, all this was and remained for ever unknown to him.

By implication, these were things which Guderian deemed important - and who could disagree with him? The general appears to have been devoted to his wife and to his two sons, both of whom he was proud (they served in panzer units) and one of whom was to serve in the postwar Bundeswehr. Although not uncritical of some of his colleagues (and scathing, as noted, of some of the senior military and political leadership), he comes across as restrained and desirous of speaking well of his brother officers, fellow Germans and also representatives of the enemy.

As we have noted, Guderian was no liberal in the modern mould. Some aspects of postwar life in Germany, such as the embrace of American-style consumerism, the liberalisation of public life and the radicalisation of student politics might well have been distasteful to him had he lived longer. However he seems to have been sincere in his avowal of Christian faith, although it may have been the more traditional Prussian kind rather than either the liberal or evangelical versions now common in the West. Whatever reservations one may have about some aspects of his career as one of Hitler's foremost generals, Panzer Leader is an important text to read if one wishes to understand the triumphs and failures of German arms in the Second World War.

The original was translated by Constantine Fitzgibbon and with a foreword by Captain Basil H Liddell Hart. Interestingly the 1996 and 2000 editions contain a very readable introduction by former armour officer and military historian Kenneth Macksey, who claims that Liddell Hart insisted on the insertion of a paragraph in which Guderian acknowledged a debt to the British armour theorist (Macksey says that in fact the influence of J F C Fuller on Guderian was greater). Macksey also notes some grey areas in Guderian's account (such as his position on the attempted assassination of Hitler) without detracting overall from the late General's account or character.


The German military historian Jürg Muth has written an interesting article on Guderian, including a discussion of how far he supported Hitler. One may agree or disagree with his conclusions, but the piece seems to be objectively written.

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