WWII GERMANY – VON MANSTEIN – THE MILITARY – HUMAN NATURE &

by Ivy Scarborough | January 28th, 2013

Nearing completion of the reading of a biography of German Field Marshall von Manstein, critical themes – or what should be called lessons to learn – come to mind extending far beyond the realm of World War II military history and into our own time.

On a superficial plane, it seemed apparent from earlier reading that von Manstein and Guderian were Germany’s best military leaders of this era, with probably most professional military officers giving the edge to von Manstein. This may be true in the technical sense of operational skill.  But I come away from this study persuaded that Guderian was his superior, broadly speaking.

Manstein – as with all of us – had blind spots, but his were huge!  He never assessed Hitler with any degree of insight, whereas Guderian more successfully read Hitler.  Thus Guderian was not as vulnerable to Hitler’s manipulations.

Manstein was incredibly naïve politically and in terms of the psychology and character of Hitler and others – all of which is in jarring contrast to his ability to anticipate the thinking of Vatutin, Zhukov or others he opposed on the Eastern Front. 

One wonders how a man could be so out of balance in his thinking. Yet, as we will see, history is replete with evidence of similar anomalies.

Part of the answer is provided by Telford Taylor, the Army lawyer and intelligence officer who was second in line after Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson in prosecuting the Germans at Nuremberg. Taylor made a telling observation in his opening statement to the Tribunal:

“They [the German officer corps] saw it [the Nazi bandwagon] was going in their direction for the present. No doubt they hoped later to take over the direction themselves.  In fact, as the proof will show, ultimately it was the generals who were taken for a ride by the Nazis.”

I was struck by this observation because it fits with a theme of my writing in Into the Night which I repeated recently about our own government. I call it “riding the tiger”. 

I recently learned, to my dismay, that not only was our own government and its agencies, such as the CIA, showing deference to Islam in very concrete ways – as contrasted with a simple pragmatic recognition of the need to work with Muslims – but apparently we even have, or have had, practicing Muslims in ranking positions in the CIA.

This practice betrays a grave failure to understand the nature of the forces which are hostile to us.  Our government officials apparently believe – in the supercilious, arrogant mindset that characterizes the powerful in our culture – that they can manage, control, and be “out in front” of these forces.  They are “riding the tiger” – a folly which will in time exact penalties.

In any event, Taylor’s statement accurately presents a similar supercilious – “I-am-smarter-than-you” – mindset among the German military professionals.

Ironically, Manstein saw himself as a devout Christian.  This was given credence by his biographer, British Major General Mungo Melvin (no, that name is not a typo). Melvin offers: “Officers who were brought up as Christians – and this was the vast majority, particularly in the older generation – could not break their oath to their Supreme Commander, let alone kill him.”

This shocking observation was revealing of how little either Melvin or Manstein understood of Christianity.  Apparently this obtuseness extended to the majority of the military leaders. Christianity was in effect an affectation or a gloss, though they did not perceive it that way.

This is part and parcel of the same phenomenon we see in our culture today – Christianity as a belief system subscribed to broadly but which in reality has scant effect on the thinking and lives of those who profess belief in it.

The result was that this thinking, this mindset – undoubtedly nurtured by a weak and corrupt German church – led these men to be corrupted profoundly and in effect serve the Devil. Yet they went about their duties with zeal and the conviction of the nobility if not of their cause then in their way of discharging those duties as warriors!

One should not be misled into thinking that this phenomenon is isolated to historical circumstances like those of Nazi Germany!  It exists in mutated forms in our nation today.

Those who see themselves as clever or somehow superior in courage, skill, training, innate intellectual capacities, or erudition will, by virtue of that very mindset, surrender the “high ground” – a high ground they neither perceive nor understand – and be corrupted.  You need not be a student of the Bible to arrive at a stunning conclusion: Evil is a powerful malevolent force in the choices of men that is capable of a level of guile and strategic action exceeding anything individual men can anticipate, outmaneuver or defeat –  in and of themselves.  History, not religion, is the Instructor here.

The first and primary weapon of evil deployed against men is deceit.  Self-deception is the most lethal variant. But deceit is most effective when aimed at the practitioner of pride (e.g., vanity, ego, arrogance, etc.).  Humility is a barricade behind which a victim of this sinister aggression can find cover and even sanctuary IF his humility leads him to make wise choices.

Hitler was far out in front of these arrogant generals in this realm.  Many saw themselves as superiors of the presumptuous, paper-hanging, little corporal.  With supreme irony, they had no comprehension of their enemy.

All of these insights relate to another concept worthy of attention:  Moral courage as contrasted with physical courage.  At this point in my life I am now convinced that moral courage is rarer than physical courage.  It is also far more significant in the affairs of men, though the latter receives the lion’s share of attention.

The German generals typically were men who had repeatedly displayed physical courage, but to a man they failed to a greater or lesser degree in the realm of moral courage.  None would openly defy Hitler even in the early stages of his ascendancy when the physical risks would have been minimal. Furthermore, many were intimidated by the popular support for Hitler despite the growing apprehensions of a few of the more insightful that his leadership might lead to Germany’s gotterdammerung. Von Manstein was not among these more insightful.

Some of this was the product of other factors peculiar to Germany in the Twentieth Century, which I describe in Into the Night – the unholy confluence of Hegelian philosophy with Prussian social conformity.

Hegel asserted that the State was supreme.  He exalted it to the level of deity.  This same line of thought manifests itself in socialism and communism, though in both it is disguised as deference to the interests of the “masses” or the people.  Similarly, it has rampaged through Western societies and into American thought as manifested in the policies and ideologies that brought Barack Obama to power.

In American political and social thought it is cloaked – remember the primary weapon of deceit – as a manifestation of democracy, of “the people rule”.  But the de facto effect is an ever increasing shift of power from the people to the government – which means into the hands of the few who have acquired power in the society. 

The most critical barometer of these trends can be found in what happens to the Second Amendment.

All American freedoms are highly abstract – even the vaunted freedoms enunciated in the First Amendment – and thus each is easily manipulated.  Only one, the right of the people to keep and bear arms – not “hunting” arms, but arms of combat – is concrete.  This freedom cannot be manipulated; it can only be abridged.

Social conformity is the second factor that nurtured the ascendancy of Nazism.  But my study of history convinces me that conformity is always a primary factor in the ascendancy of any form of authoritarianism.  Just as the manure of pride provides an optimal culture for the human weaknesses which evil exploits, conformity allows it to spread exponentially, arresting the consciences of millions and propagating attitudes, beliefs and behaviors that are adverse to everything true and noble. 

Yes, the behaviors – the conforming behaviors – sometimes come first, even before the thinking and attitudes.  There is a widely accepted school of psychology which demonstrates how changes in behavior can and typically do produce shifts in attitude and belief.  Get people to conform in their behavior and you may in time have their brains by the nose.  

Thus we begin to see how these German military leaders – men capable through their leadership and skills of killing more human beings in relation to their own numbers than any other military force in the 20th Century – were themselves puppets and pawns of forces they never recognized or understood, much less successfully resisted.

Yet they are avidly studied by men like Mungo Melvin and instructors at innumerable military academies with scant recognition of the real significance of their lives.  Indeed, they are admired by many as paragons of the military “arts”, when in point of fact, more than anything else, they were dangerous fools who lent their talents to the most debased and sinister of human motives.  But the human pride we spoke of earlier continues to drive some to adulation of them and their “accomplishments”.

In our own culture we see these patterns, values, and trends becoming more and more pronounced.  Throughout American history we have spoken glibly of standing for “God and country”, but the truth has often been that for many it was more precisely “country and God”. That reversal inevitably leads to the tarnishing, then the undermining, then finally the absolute collapse, of a nation as a bastion of true freedom and nobility.

We become like all other nations that have preceded us, yet with a vestigial self-righteousness – the conviction that we are somehow superior. American “exceptionalism,” as originally conceived, had much objective evidence to support it, but the devolution of American thought and values is so rapidly eroding those underpinnings as to transmute the phrase into a perverse travesty of its original meaning.

In all of American history – at least in the military realm – I have only found one significantly recognized example of someone who displayed both moral courage and physical courage in abundance. There have been others – but they are an elite and largely obscure group, none of whom gained the recognition of this figure in history or popular culture. 

Alvin York was prepared to defy his own government – initially to the point of violence, then later to the point of imprisonment – in deference to his convictions of what God expected of him.  This was an extraordinary act of moral courage made all the more conspicuous by the fact that he lived in a time and place where martial skills and prowess were venerated and the willingness to “serve one’s country” held as among the highest of values.

Only when he reconciled himself to the notion that God wanted him to accept the role of warrior on behalf of his nation – a recognition he came to only arduously, in and of itself a process that was extraordinary – did he acquiesce to the demands of his country.

Then, amazingly, he displayed not only great physical courage but a warrior’s prowess and presence of mind which in and of itself is rarefied in the annals of American military history.

Astonishingly in the eyes of some, these were choices and actions of a man who never had more than the equivalent of a third grade education!  But it was York’s humility which protected him and led him to the decisions that made him an exemplar of moral and physical courage.  What a contrast with the arrogant Prussian military aristocracy!

All of this leads us around to another revelation – also a point made in greater detail in Into the Night – ironically perhaps best represented in a scene from a movie, The Last of the Mohicans! An arrogant (yes, there is that highly significant concept again) young British officer, astride his steed, resplendent in a red tunic, expresses growing frustration that the American frontiersmen before him are not responding to his call to join the militia and fight for “king and country”. Angrily, he demands, “Do you not consider yourselves loyal subjects of the Crown?”

The cinematic hero, Nathaniel – significantly and appropriately leaning on his rifle – responds, “I don’t consider myself subject to much of anything.”

Those words embodied the quintessential original American spirit.  Alvin York could just as easily have uttered them, albeit with the highly significant additional phrase: “I don’t consider myself subject to much of anything, except God Almighty.”  In truth this latter phrasing would have more accurately characterized the sentiments of that era of Americans, but such would be too much for Hollywood to stomach!

The Conclusion: “The dog [humanity] returns to his vomit [the folly and foolish values of human beings throughout history].” 

The American “dog” is busily lapping at the same pool of ever so ancient vomit.

Nearing completion of the reading of a biography of German Field Marshall von Manstein, critical themes – or what should be called lessons to learn – come to mind extending far beyond the realm of World War II military history and into our own time.

On a superficial plane, it seemed apparent from earlier reading that von Manstein and Guderian were Germany’s best military leaders of this era, with probably most professional military officers giving the edge to von Manstein. This may be true in the technical sense of operational skill.  But I come away from this study persuaded that Guderian was his superior, broadly speaking.

Manstein – as with all of us – had blind spots, but his were huge!  He never assessed Hitler with any degree of insight, whereas Guderian more successfully read Hitler.  Thus Guderian was not as vulnerable to Hitler’s manipulations.

Manstein was incredibly naïve politically and in terms of the psychology and character of Hitler and others – all of which is in jarring contrast to his ability to anticipate the thinking of Vatutin, Zhukov or others he opposed on the Eastern Front. 

One wonders how a man could be so out of balance in his thinking. Yet, as we will see, history is replete with evidence of similar anomalies.

Part of the answer is provided by Telford Taylor, the Army lawyer and intelligence officer who was second in line after Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson in prosecuting the Germans at Nuremberg. Taylor made a telling observation in his opening statement to the Tribunal:

 “They [the German officer corps] saw it [the Nazi bandwagon] was going in their direction for the present. No doubt they hoped later to take over the direction themselves.  In fact, as the proof will show, ultimately it was the generals who were taken for a ride by the Nazis.”

I was struck by this observation because it fits with a theme of my writing in Into the Night which I repeated recently about our own government. I call it “riding the tiger”. 

I recently learned, to my dismay, that not only was our own government and its agencies, such as the CIA, showing deference to Islam in very concrete ways – as contrasted with a simple pragmatic recognition of the need to work with Muslims – but apparently we even have, or have had, practicing Muslims in ranking positions in the CIA.

This practice betrays a grave failure to understand the nature and dynamics of the forces which are hostile to us.  Our government officials apparently believe – in the supercilious, arrogant mindset that characterizes the powerful in our culture – that they can manage, control, and be “out in front” of these forces.  They are “riding the tiger” – a folly which will in time exact penalties.

In any event, Taylor’s statement accurately presents a similar supercilious – “I-am-smarter-than-you” – mindset among the German military professionals.

Ironically, Manstein saw himself as a devout Christian.  This was given credence by his biographer, British Major General Mungo Melvin (no, that name is not a typo). Melvin offers: “Officers who were brought up as Christians – and this was the vast majority, particularly in the older generation – could not break their oath to their Supreme Commander, let alone kill him.”

This shocking observation was revealing of how little either Melvin or Manstein understood of Christianity.  Apparently this obtuseness extended to the majority of the military leaders. Christianity was in effect an affectation or a gloss, though they did not perceive it that way.

This is part and parcel of the same phenomenon we see in our culture today – Christianity as a belief system subscribed to broadly but which in reality has scant effect on the thinking and lives of those who profess belief in it.

The result was that this thinking, this mindset – undoubtedly nurtured by a weak German church – led these men to be corrupted profoundly and in effect serve the Devil. Yet they went about their duties with zeal and the conviction of the nobility if not of their cause then in their way of discharging those duties as warriors!

One should not be misled into thinking that this phenomenon is isolated to historical circumstances like those of Nazi Germany!  It exists in mutated forms in our nation today.

Those who see themselves as clever or somehow superior in courage, skill, training, innate intellectual capacities, or erudition will, by virtue of that very mindset, surrender the “high ground” – a high ground they neither perceive nor understand – and be corrupted.  You need not be a student of the Bible to arrive at a stunning conclusion: Evil is a powerful malevolent force in the choices of men that is capable of a level of guile and strategic action exceeding anything individual men can anticipate, outmaneuver or defeat –  in and of themselves.  History, not religion, is the Instructor here.

The first and primary weapon of evil deployed against men is deceit.  Self-deception is the most lethal variant. But deceit is most effective when aimed at the practitioner of pride (e.g., vanity, ego, arrogance, etc.).  Humility is a barricade behind which a victim of this sinister aggression can find cover and even sanctuary IF his humility leads him to make wise choices.

Hitler was way out in front of these arrogant generals in this realm.  Many saw themselves as superiors of the presumptuous, paper-hanging, little corporal.  With supreme irony, they had no comprehension of their enemy.

All of these insights relate to another concept worthy of attention:  Moral courage as contrasted with physical courage.  At this point in my life I am now convinced that moral courage is rarer than physical courage.  It is also far more significant in the affairs of men, though the latter receives the lion’s share of attention.

The German generals typically were men who had repeatedly displayed physical courage, but to a man they failed to a greater or lesser degree in the realm of moral courage.  None would openly defy Hitler even in the early stages of his ascendancy when the physical risks would have been minimal. Furthermore, many were intimidated by the popular support for Hitler despite the growing apprehensions of a few of the more insightful that his leadership might lead to Germany’s gotterdammerung. Von Manstein was not among these more insightful.

Some of this was the product of other factors peculiar to Germany in the Twentieth Century, which I describe in Into the Night – the unholy confluence of Hegelian philosophy with Prussian social conformity.

Hegel asserted that the State was supreme.  He exalted it to the level of deity.  This same line of thought manifests itself in socialism and communism, though in both it is disguised as deference to the interests of the “masses” or the people.  Similarly, it has rampaged through Western societies and into American thought as manifested in the policies and ideologies that brought Barack Obama to power.

In American political and social thought it is cloaked – remember the primary weapon of deceit – as a manifestation of democracy, of “the people rule”.  But the de facto effect is an ever increasing shift of power from the people to the government – which means into the hands of the few who have acquired power in the society. 

The most critical barometer of these trends can be found in what happens to the Second Amendment.

All American freedoms are highly abstract – even the vaunted freedoms enunciated in the First Amendment – and thus each is easily manipulated.  Only one, the right of the people to keep and bear arms – not “hunting” arms, but arms of combat – is concrete.  This freedom cannot be manipulated; it can only be abridged.

Social conformity is the second factor that nurtured the ascendancy of Nazism.  But my study of history convinces me that conformity is always a primary factor in the ascendancy of any form of authoritarianism.  Just as the manure of pride provides an optimal culture for the human weaknesses which evil exploits, conformity allows it to spread exponentially, arresting the consciences of millions and propagating attitudes, beliefs and behaviors that are adverse to everything true and noble. 

Yes, the behaviors – the conforming behaviors – sometimes come first, even before the thinking and attitudes.  There is a widely accepted school of psychology which demonstrates how changes in behavior can and typically do produce shifts in attitude and belief.  Get people to conform in their behavior and you may in time have their brains by the nose.  You can lead them wherever you want them to go.

Thus we begin to see how these German military leaders – men capable through their leadership and skills of killing more human beings in relation to their own numbers than any other military force in the 20th Century – were themselves puppets and pawns of forces they never recognized or understood, much less successfully resisted.

Yet they are avidly studied by men like Mungo Melvin and instructors at innumerable military academies with scant recognition of the real significance of their lives.  Indeed, they are admired by many as paragons of the military “arts”, when in point of fact, more than anything else, they were dangerous fools who lent their talents to the most debased and sinister of human motives.  But the human pride we spoke of earlier continues to drive some to adulation of them and their “accomplishments”.

In our own culture we see these patterns, values, and trends becoming more and more pronounced.  Throughout American history we have spoken glibly of standing for “God and country”, but the truth has often been that for many it was more precisely “country and God”. That reversal inevitably leads to the tarnishing, then the undermining, then finally the absolute collapse, of a nation as a bastion of true freedom and nobility.

 

We become like all other nations that have preceded us, yet with a vestigial self-righteousness – the conviction that we are somehow superior. American “exceptionalism,” as originally conceived, had much objective evidence to support it, but the devolution of American thought and values is so rapidly eroding those underpinnings as to transmute the phrase into a perverse travesty of its original meaning.

In all of American history – at least in the military realm – I have only found one significantly recognized example of someone who displayed both moral courage and physical courage in abundance. There have been others – but they are an elite and largely obscure group, none of whom gained the recognition of this figure in history or popular culture. 

Alvin York was prepared to defy his own government – initially to the point of violence, then later to the point of imprisonment – in deference to his convictions of what God expected of him.  This was an extraordinary act of moral courage made all the more conspicuous by the fact that he lived in a time and place where martial skills and prowess were venerated and the willingness to “serve one’s country” held as among the highest of values.

Only when he reconciled himself to the notion that God wanted him to accept the role of warrior on behalf of his nation – a recognition he came to only arduously, in and of itself a process that was extraordinary – did he acquiesce to the demands of his country.

Then, amazingly, he displayed not only great physical courage but a warrior’s prowess and presence of mind which in and of itself is rarefied in the annals of American military history.

Astonishingly in the eyes of some, these were choices and actions of a man who never had more than the equivalent of a third grade education!  But it was York’s humility which protected him and led him to the decisions that made him an exemplar of moral and physical courage.  What a contrast with the arrogant Prussian military aristocracy!

All of this leads us around to another revelation – also a point made in greater detail in Into the Night – ironically perhaps best represented in a scene from a movie, The Last of the Mohicans! An arrogant (yes, there is that highly significant concept again) young British officer, astride his steed, resplendent in his red tunic expresses growing frustration that the American frontiersmen before him are not responding to his call to join the militia and fight for “king and country”. Angrily, he demands, “Do you not consider yourselves loyal subjects of the Crown?”

The cinematic hero, Nathaniel – significantly and appropriately leaning on his rifle – responds, “I don’t consider myself subject to much of anything.”

Those words embodied the quintessential original American spirit.  Alvin York could just as easily have uttered them, albeit with the highly significant additional phrase: “I don’t consider myself subject to much of anything, except God Almighty.”  In truth this latter phrasing would have more accurately characterized the sentiments of that era of Americans, but such would be too much for Hollywood to stomach!

The Conclusion: “The dog [humanity] returns to his vomit [the folly and foolish values of human beings throughout history].” 

The American “dog” is busily lapping at the same pool of ever so ancient vomit.

About Ivy Scarborough

Ivy Scarborough is a writer, commentator, former adjunct professor, television, radio and print commentator, radio program host, professional mediator, and lawyer.

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