All the records agree that on Tuesday, 15 October 1918, a little over a week before the Armistice, Adolf Hitler was blinded by poison gas. A hardened veteran, his four years of service with the 16th Bavarian Reserve Regiment had brought him full circle, almost back to where he first saw action in 1914, advancing on the Flemish city of ypres. This time, his company was manning the lines at Wervicq-Sud, twelve miles south of ypres, when a bombardment from the British 30th Division caught them in the early morning. Six were incapacitated, including Gefreiter (Lance Corporal) Hitler, one of the Meldegänger (despatch runners), considered by his mates to be lucky until that moment. Reeling from the effects of a mixture of phosgene and chlorine gas, the twenty-nine-year-old recalled later how his ‘eyes had turned into glowing coals; it had grown dark around me’. He was evacuated quickly through a series of aid stations and hospitals from the little village on French side of the Lys river which separated France from Belgium. This occurrence allegedly explained his aversion to the military use of poison gas during the Second World War.
According to his medical notes, despite washing out his red, swollen eyes, he stated that he remained totally blind. Travelling by hospital train for several days, his piercing blue eyes, which would one day captivate millions, covered by grubby bandages, Hitler was not to know that the end of the war was days away. His destination was a specialist eye clinic at Pasewalk, in north-eastern Germany near the Polish border, for the diagnosis in his case was most unusual. His continuing blindness was attributed not to injuries suffered in the gas attack, but to hysteria. Doctors from all the belligerent nations were overwhelmed by servicemen suffering from such hysteria, in the same category as shell shock – acute stress, mental rather than physical in origin – that manifested itself in a range of symptoms, which varied from memory loss, insomnia, stutters or mutism, to extreme physical tics, paralysis, deafness or in extremis, blindness. In Hitler’s case there was no lasting or serious damage to his eyes – they were sore from rubbing, not gas – which suggested that the cause was mental not physical. He could not see because he believed he had gone blind. In other words, Hitler, far from being injured in the British attack, had suffered a mental breakdown.
Hitler’s case was considered unique by those treating him, for he possessed an excellent combat record; wounded by shellfire in October 1916, he had written to his commanding officer from convalescent leave asking to return to his regiment at the front. As recently as 4 August 1918 he had received the rare award of an Iron Cross, First Class. Although the medal was first instituted in 1813 by Frederick William III of Prussia, it was most commonly issued during the First World War, where almost six million were awarded. While the majority of these (over 5,500,000) were awarded in Second Class, only 220,000 recipients were decorated with the more unique First Class cross, most of whom were officers. Hitler would ever after sport it with great pride on his tunic, and died wearing the cross in the Führerbunker on 30 April 1945. The citation for Hitler’s 1918 award read:
As a runner, his coolness and dash in both trench and open warfare have been exemplary, and invariably he has shown himself ready to volunteer for tasks in the most difficult situation and at great danger to himself. Whenever communications have been totally disrupted at a critical moment in a battle, it has been thanks to Hitler’s unflagging and devoted efforts that important messages have continued to get through despite every difficulty. Hitler received the Iron Cross Second Class for gallantry on 1 December 1914. [He] fully deserves to be awarded the Iron Cross First Class.
This document alone gave Hitler the ability to face down any general or soldier in the Second World War whom he thought was under-performing. The author of this citation was Hitler’s company commander, Leutnant Hugo Gutmann, whose words make it clear that the award was not for one act of bravery, but several. There is much about Hitler’s performance during the Great War that was swathed in mystery and myth by the Nazis. That he was brave and genuinely earned his medals was beyond doubt. That he suffered a mental breakdown and had been awarded the coveted Iron Cross First Class by a Jewish officer had to be concealed. One of Hitler’s biographers has noted with irony that ‘Gutmann’s qualities – bravery, selflessness, resilience, loyalty and education – were those demanded by Hitler from the “tough as leather, hard as Krupp steel” youth of the Third Reich’. Had Gutmann not been Jewish, he would surely have become a National Socialist hero.
What happened next cannot be conclusively proven, but more than one biographer has argued that Hitler’s hysterical blindness was self-induced. German scholar Joachim C. Fest suggested this blindness was ‘precipitated by the shock he [Hitler] felt at the abrupt change in the course of the war’. A reading of "Mein Kampf" seems to support this; initially Hitler ‘was unable to read the papers’. Then ‘in the last few days I had been getting along better. The piercing pain in my eye sockets was diminishing; slowly I succeeded in distinguishing the broad outlines of things about me . . . I was on the road to improvement when the monstrous thing happened.’ This ‘monstrous thing’ was Germany’s surrender, the fall of the House of Hohenzollern and Communist revolution. Hitler’s reaction was extreme: ‘I could stand it no longer. It became impossible for me to sit still one minute more. Again everything went black before my eyes; I tottered and groped my way back to the dormitory, threw myself on my bunk and dug my burning head into my blanket and pillow.’
Unguarded comments made to Albert Speer seem to agree with this conclusion. In 1942 Hitler had stated that his eyesight meant nothing if all one could see was a world in which the nation was enslaved; in 1944 when all was sliding downhill, he told Speer gloomily he feared losing his sight once more, ‘as had happened towards the end of the First World War’. Certainly at Pasewalk he was recommended for psychiatric treatment by the hospital’s consultant neuropsychiatrist, Dr Edmund Forster. Forster’s approach was to ‘bully’ the patient into recovery, based on his conviction that the underlying cause of all combat hysteria was a lack of willpower. In Hitler’s extreme case, Forster concluded that his patient ‘refused to see because he could not bear to witness the defeat of Germany’. He ‘believed himself the victim of a physical, and therefore to his way of thinking, honourable, injury’.
According to this interpretation of Hitler and his visual impairment, Forster assessed his challenging patient for a fortnight and realised that in order to persuade Hitler to regain his sight, he would have to resort to an extreme technique. Essentially lying to his patient, Forster told Hitler that while ‘any ordinary individual would be condemned to lifelong blindness by such injuries, there remained the possibility that someone extraordinary, a man of destiny chosen by a higher power for some divine purpose, might overcome an obstacle as great as this’. Forster struck a match in front of his patient’s face: ‘you must have absolute faith in yourself, then you will stop being blind. you are young, it would be a tragedy if you remained blind. you know that Germany now needs people who have energy and faith in themselves.’ Hitler’s sight returned gradually, as Forster intoned, ‘you have been cured. you have made yourself see. you behaved like a man and you managed to put light into your eyes because of your willpower.’
Hitler’s version of this in "Mein Kampf" implies a self-cure, without the help of Forster or anyone else: ‘And when at length the creeping gas – in the last days of the dreadful struggle – attacked me too, and began to gnaw at my eyes, and beneath the fear of going blind forever, I nearly lost heart for a moment, the voice of conscience thundered at me: miserable wretch, are you going to cry when thousands are a hundred times worse off than you! . . . What was all the pain in my eyes compared to this misery?’ "Mein Kampf" doesn’t go into the details of how he regained his sight, but the event seems to have been swift and dramatic. The records show that Hitler was discharged on 19 November 1918, fully recovered.
A seasoned biographer and a sharp, incisive contemporary observer, Winston Churchill, in his chapter on Hitler in"The Gathering Storm," understood the Pasewalk episode as seminal in the Führer’s life: ‘As he lay sightless and helpless in hospital in the winter of 1918, his own personal failure seemed merged with the disaster of the whole German people. The shock of defeat, the collapse of law and order, the triumph of the French, caused this convalescent regimental orderly an agony which consumed his whole being, and generated those portentous and measureless forces of the spirit which may spell the rescue or doom of mankind.’ Published in 1948, the first volume of Churchill’s Second World War memoirs was begun within months of the Führer’s death when the former Prime Minister had lost the July 1945 general election. Only Churchill could have written such prose, but in identifying the ‘measureless forces of the spirit’, Hitler’s leading British opponent, who himself understood the requirement for immeasurable reserves of inner strength, also hit on the mechanism that drove the Führer.
Willpower is certainly the key to Hitler. The Führer was a great disciple of the Prussian military philosopher Carl von Clausewitz, claiming to have read his famous 1832 treatise "Vom Kriege" ("On War") several times. Clausewitz is not an easy read and open to misinterpretation, yet Hitler (who read very widely, but selectively, cherry-picking ideas and maxims that suited his own interpretations of life, rather than acquiring a more nuanced understanding) recognised, and perhaps consciously emulated, one of the fundamental Clausewitzian concepts, ‘that War therefore is an act of violence to compel our opponent to fulfill our will . . . War is a contest between independent wills . . . and the strength of the will.’ Hitler took this quite literally, to an absurd degree. The title (chosen by Hitler himself) of Leni Riefenstahl’s memorable movie record of the 1934 Nuremberg Rally tells us so: "Triumph des Willens" ("Triumph of the Will").
Of Hitler in the 1914–18 war, Alan Bullock observed, ‘Those years . . . had hardened him, taught him to be self-reliant, confirmed his belief in himself, toughened the power of his will.’ General Friedrich von Mellenthin, later chief of staff to Baron von Manteuffel, remembered Hitler as ‘an incredibly clever man, with a memory far beyond the average. He had terrific willpower.’ Whether over the people of Germany, its soldiers and generals, or other countries, willpower also answers the question as to specifically why and how the Ardennes attack was launched.
There was nothing inevitable about the Battle of the Bulge. It made no sense at the time, and makes none with hindsight. It was launched simply because of the vision, dogged determination and sheer willpower of one man, who ignored all professional military advice to not initiate it. Although it was German military doctrine always to counter-attack, the question was when and where, not if.
After the war, the OKW historian Percy Schramm also saw Hitler’s leadership in terms of his self-discipline, recalling one of his boss’s monologues in late August 1944: ‘My task has been never to lose my nerve under any circumstances. For the past five years I have cut myself off from the other world. I have neither visited the theatre, heard a concert, nor seen a film. I live only for the single task of leading this struggle, because I know if there is not a man who by his very nature has a will of iron, then the struggle cannot be won.’ Aside from Hitler’s mistruth that he had enjoyed no music and movies during the war, Schramm believed his Führer interpreted all his political and later military activities in terms of never losing his nerve, and ensuring that his will dominated everyone else’s.
Jodl concluded the same, observing that Hitler’s interference in minor details was ‘in order to impose with unbending will . . . that one had to stand or fall, that each voluntary step backwards was an evil in itself’. Guderian noted Hitler’s ‘compelling willpower was entirely devoted to this thought which dominated him completely: “Never yield and never capitulate!’’’ While such an attribute is a positive characteristic, and one without which no military leader can succeed, Hitler linked it to his entire mission in the world. Thus in his mind, willpower became rigidity for its own sake, with no room to learn, adapt or compromise. In this way, Schramm felt, for example, that the struggle for Stalingrad was really a contest of Hitler’s determination triumphing over that of his generals, with victory over the Russians taking second place.
Albert Speer, his Armaments Minister, interpreted Hitler’s use of willpower slightly differently. People around Hitler ‘admired his composure in critical situations . . . This self-command was an extraordinary achievement of his will till the end: in spite of his ageing, in spite of illness, in spite of . . . endlessly accumulating burdens. To me his will seemed unbridled and untrammelled like that of a six-year-old child who will not be discouraged or worn out; that was, in part, ludicrous, but it was also impressive.’
Eventually his unbroken will became divorced from military reality, and became toxic. Such was the context for launching the Ardennes assault.
In the wider context we need to understand how unwell Hitler was by the autumn of 1944, a situation exacerbated by the wounds he received on 20 July. His various medical conditions had long been affecting both his decision-making and his ability to process information – crucial factors missed by previous historians of the Bulge campaign. These provoked violent mood swings, and not untypically on 31 August, a week after the defeat in Normandy, he was recorded as laying into Keitel, ‘I accuse the General Staff of failing to give the impression of iron determination and . . . affecting the morale of combat officers . . . when the General Staff go up to the front I accuse them of spreading pessimism!’
From the end of 1942, the Führer had been unable to tolerate intense light and wore a cap with a lengthened peak to protect his eyes when outdoors. When travelling by train, he kept the blinds drawn, and this may explain his proclivity to living and working in underground headquarters bunkers. After 20 July, he avoided the open air, afraid of infections and assassins, and although his staff urged him to leave the dusty, depressing concrete rooms, he refused and withdrew ever more into himself. Jodl likened the atmosphere of the Wolfsschanze as a cross ‘between a concentration camp and a monastery’. Albert Speer recalled how Hitler ‘often interrupted a conference because of his gastric pains and withdrew for half an hour or more, or did not return at all’.
A creature of habit, at the Wolfsschanze Hitler generally woke at 11 a.m. each morning, dressed to a stopwatch held by his SS valet, Heinz Linge, walked his German Shepherd bitch, Blondi, breakfasted, then attended a military briefing held at midday. Stauffenberg’s briefcase bomb had exploded at 12.42 p.m., in the midst of such a conference. These often lasted a couple of hours and were followed by lunch at 14.00 and a siesta. Dinner was at 8 p.m. sharp and he always attended the second daily situation conference at midnight. Thereafter he would work into the small hours, sometimes as late as four or five, meaning that military decisions could only be made during his unusual waking hours. Hitler’s hours were not to Himmler’s taste, Martin Bormann noting in September 1944 that the SS chief ‘is always quite shocked by our unhealthy way of living. He says he has to be in bed by midnight, at least as a rule. And we go on working till four in the morning, though we do stay in bed a little longer.’
On moving to the Adlerhorst to oversee the December Ardennes offensive, Hitler’s routine remained the same. Part of the personal entourage who accompanied the Führer everywhere was twenty-seven-year-old Oberscharführer Rochus Misch, whom I interviewed twenty years ago in Berlin. Misch was part of Hitler’s SS HQ bodyguard detachment, transferred from a combat unit in late 1939 after being wounded in Poland. He had lost his parents at a very young age and worked as a painter before joining the SS in 1937, aged twenty. When not protecting his boss, Misch served as one of Hitler’s telephone operators. ‘He wasn’t a monster, he wasn’t an Übermensch [superman],’ he told me. ‘He stood opposite me like a perfectly normal gentleman, and spoke kind words,’ and sent his bodyguard a case of champagne on his marriage in 1942. Of the Adlerhorst, Misch recalled each day watching the sky full of the contrails of US bomber fleets attacking the Reich, a sight new to him and the Führerhauptquartier staff, for this hadn’t been seen at the Wolfsschanze.
At this time one of his doctors observed that Hitler, then aged fifty-five, ‘gave the impression of being prematurely aged . . . worn out and exhausted . . . a man who had to husband his strength; his shoulders sagged, his chest was hollow and his breathing superficial’. Witnesses commented that his skin was white and flaccid and he was hypersensitive to certain tastes and smells. The Stauffenberg plot exacerbated his fears and phobias. He looked awful, with bags under his steel-blue eyes, which had lost their intensity and lustre; he dragged himself along rather than walked and had lost his physical sense of balance, too; ‘I always feel as though I’m falling over to the right,’ he stated in July 1944, sometimes having to walk with legs stride, ‘like a sailor on a pitching ship’. His stature was permanently hunched, indicating scoliosis, and his dark brown, almost black, hair had become flecked with grey. All agree that from the time of Stalingrad his left arm had begun to tremble sometimes uncontrollably, which he had to grip with his right hand, perhaps indicating the onset of Parkinson’s disease. The irony may not have escaped Hitler’s attention that he was emulating the medical afflictions of Germany’s previous autocratic ruler, Kaiser Wilhelm II, who was born with a weak and withered left arm – for the Führer loathed the former emperor, whom he held partly responsible for Germany’s humiliation in 1918, and he despised any manifestation of physical infirmity.
The immediate effects of the 20 July bomb were insomnia, a loss of hearing in his right ear and flickering vision in his right eye – he relied heavily on reading glasses, though refused to be photographed wearing them, believing them a sign of weakness. The lack of sleep was exacerbated by builders drilling and hammering to reinforce the Wolfsschanze bunkers against further attack. One of those present in the conference room on 20 July was Kapitän zur See Heinz Assmann, a senior naval officer on the OKW Operations Staff, who remembered Hitler’s ‘hand-clasp was weak and soft, all his movements were those of a senile man; only his eyes retained their flickering gleam and penetrating look’.
As photographs testify, Stauffenberg’s bomb had torn Hitler’s clothing to ribbons; 200 tiny wood splinters were removed from his body and he was unable to shave with his right hand for a while. Hitler put his survival down to providence, but the Stauffenberg attempt represented only one of Hitler’s several brushes with death, each time reinforcing
the dictator’s self-belief that he had been chosen by destiny to make Germany great, as an OSS wartime psychoanalysis report on the Führer made plain. Forthwith he began to be more interested in astrology and the supernatural, which he believed would govern his own fate. Goebbels realised that Hitler was not the only one in the Reich pinning their hopes on the stars, and widely distributed fake horoscopes which spoke of ‘valleys of darkness’ to be passed through, ‘imminent surprises’ and ‘happy final outcomes’, by way of influencing public opinion, which had grown tired of gloomy news reports.
In August 1944, at the time of the Allied breakout from Normandy, Hitler complained of violent headaches and sinus pain, for which he was prescribed a 10 per cent cocaine solution, inhaled twice a day. On 12, 14 and 16 September 1944 (latterly, the day of Hitler’s dramatic announcement about the Ardennes attack), he appears to have suffered very minor coronaries, brought on by stress. For several days he endured fits of dizziness, intense sweating and stomach cramps before consenting to be X-rayed on 19 September. Dr Erwin Giesing, one of his doctors, felt the cause to be tablets prescribed for wind by his rival, Dr Theodore Morell, which contained very mild doses of two poisons – strychnine and atropine.
There were several doctors, who competed with one another fiercely for Hitler’s attention with conflicting prescriptions. Many witnesses remembered the corpulent and bespectacled Morell shuffling protectively around Hitler, to whom he had been introduced by Eva Braun first in 1935. Albert Speer, who felt him to be a repulsive Rasputin-like fraud, observed that ‘if Hitler had the faculty for placing others under his spell, in this case the reverse relationship developed: Hitler was completely convinced of his personal physician’s genius and soon forbade any criticism of the man’. A secretary remembered, ‘Either before or after meals, Linge [the valet] had to give him at least five different pills . . . In addition Professor Morell, grunting and groaning, turned up in person every day to administer his usual miracle-working injections.’ Göring once observed with cruel accuracy that Morell was the ‘Reich Injection Minister’.
Essentially, Hitler had become by late 1944 a nervous hypochondriac under the spell of several dubious medical consultants who, having wormed their way into the bizarre world of Hitler’s court, created a culture of dependency.
A panzer general, who was allowed to visit his Führer on 26 September, remembered that, ‘it was a tired, broken man who greeted me, then shuffled over to a chair and asked me to sit down’. General Nikolaus von Vormann, whose Ninth Army had just been destroyed in the east, recalled that Hitler spoke ‘so softly and hesitantly that it was hard to understand him. His hands trembled so much he had to grip them between his knees.’ Vormann put all of this down to 20 July, because he then observed, ‘This was not the same Hitler I had last seen at war conferences on 15 and 18 July, before the murder attempt of the twentieth.’ Vormann was not aware that Hitler’s health had already been going steadily downhill; Stauffenberg’s briefcase had merely accelerated the process.
On 25 September he was diagnosed with jaundice and on 1 October fainted while being treated by Giesing. Of these days, another of his secretaries, Traudl Junge (whose husband had died in Normandy fighting with the Waffen-SS), remembered Hitler ‘lying disinterested in his bed looking around with tired eyes . . . his body had suddenly realised how senseless had been all the efforts of brain and will, and had gone on strike’. On 13 November the Führer developed a sore throat, finding it difficult to eat. X-rays revealed a non-malignant laryngeal polyp on his left vocal cord, a common affliction of professional singers.
Hitler’s final departure from the Wolf ’s Lair – he would never return, for the Russian army was within fifty miles of the bunker complex – was for an operation in Berlin to remove it. The procedure to remove this tiny, but irritating anomaly (they are the size of a millet seed) was completed on 22 November, and the Führer was voiceless for a week (a blessed time, apparently, for those in the vicinity), the entire Chancellery adopting whispers in sympathy. He totally withdrew from all aspects of public life while he recovered, apart from a conference on 2 December about the Ardennes, and then left Berlin overnight on 10–11 December, when he journeyed by train then car to the Adlerhorst in the lee of the Schloss Kransberg at Ziegenberg.
Thus, in the midst of planning and executing the Ardennes campaign, Hitler’s physical and mental faculties were excessively impaired: he slept little, was exhausted and subject to an extraordinary daily cocktail of drugs, which may partly explain the extreme risk-taking that the eventual plan entailed. Whatever the political logic, the Ardennes was not a sane venture and certainly not an operation that Hitler or OKW would have contemplated even a year earlier.
Hitler’s diet, mostly potatoes and vegetables – he was a strict vegetarian – was never good, his meals were prepared lukewarm (an intolerance of hot food due allegedly to the physical consequences of his being gassed), and he had a sweet tooth with a weakness for chocolate cake. Newly discovered records of his personal dentist, Brigadeführer Dr Hugo Blaschke, Deputy Chief Dental Surgeon of the SS, who put ten fillings into Hitler’s mouth in 1944 alone, also noted at this time his boss frequently complained of pain and had ‘terribly bad breath, yellowing teeth, abscesses and gum disease’. Hitler’s anxieties can only have increased as he had a personal phobia of the dentist’s chair. Göring had been a patient of Blaschke’s in 1930, whereupon the latter had joined the SA and the Party, subsequently treating Goebbels, Himmler and Eva Braun. In the competitive inner sanctum of the Führerhauptquartier, Himmler like to have his acolytes closely watching everything; Blaschke was one, along with SS-Brigadeführer Dr Karl Brandt, yet another of Hitler’s personal physicians for over a decade. Behind the Führer’s back and responding to protests from Dr Giesing, his rival Morell was prevailed upon to alter his treatments. Thereupon Hitler’s physical condition improved somewhat, perhaps because he was buoyed mentally by plans for the Ardennes attack.
Hitler’s illnesses and psychological reactions need to be inserted into our picture of events leading to the Bulge campaign – particularly in the Führer’s refusal to listen to advice or alter plans. As General Walter Warlimont, Jodl’s deputy in the Wolfsschanze, who was himself injured by Stauffenberg’s bomb, commented in a post-war interview, ‘Hitler controlled everything from the beginning, down to single modifications of weapons. [His] health at that time was not good; he had to bear the consequences of 20th July; he was the initiator of the plan, not OKW. When we had studied the possibilities of reaching Antwerp, we were convinced it was impossible with our forces.’
As we shall discover, various feasible alternatives were proposed, which then and today were considered to have stood a much better chance of success, but as Warlimont observed, his Führer always countered with the statement that ‘This operation is unalterable in every detail’. Hitler’s leadership, once inspirational, had become poisonous; he was no longer able to assess data unless it corresponded to his own preconceived notions, and blatantly ignored facts he did not like, such as intelligence reports with adverse conclusions.
Some of the Führer’s physical ailments – the uncontrollable trembling of his left arm and hand – suggest, as noted earlier, a form of Parkinson’s disease, but mentally Hitler’s traits put him at least somewhere on the autism or Asperger’s spectrum, possibly with extreme pathological demand avoidance (PDA) syndrome, which can develop in childhood. Sufferers typically exhibit obsessive behaviour, a lack of boundaries, avoid everyday work and social demands due to their own high anxiety levels, and feel they are not in control. They often possess great communication skills, but in appearing charming when feeling secure, they lack depth in their understanding of colleagues and intimates, and suffer excessive mood swings, often switching violently with a ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ tendency, having real problems controlling their temper, which can take the form of prolonged tantrums and violent outbursts. Speer observed these increase in frequency as the war drew on; in one conference at which he presented unwelcome statistics, ‘That alone made Hitler nervous and angry. Although he listened, I could see by his expression, by the lively fluttering of his hands, the way he chewed his fingernails, that he was growing increasingly tense . . . When I had finished . . . Hitler was no longer in control of himself. His face flushed deep red; his eyes turned lifeless and fixed. Then he roared at the top of his lungs . . . Abruptly, he terminated the conference, cutting off all further argument.’
Those afflicted by PDA syndrome often have an inability to see the bigger picture and a desire to dominate; they understand the rules of human behaviour, which they nevertheless feel do not apply to themselves. Their ability to avoid decisions can include refusal, distraction, excuse-giving, delay, argument, suggestion of alternatives, or withdrawal into fantasy, and may be supported by temporary physical incapacitation. If pushed to comply, they can become verbally or physically aggressive with severe behavioural outbursts, fashionably described these days as a ‘panic attack’.
Schramm likened Hitler’s temper and fierce determination but physical exhaustion to ‘a poorly serviced locomotive fired up to red heat in order to barely be able to creep into the last station on its route’. It is of course extremely difficult to diagnose Hitler at this distance, but all the evidence points to a high degree of pathological disorder, sustained by the drugs of Morell and others. This emphasises the conclusion that the Ardennes attack was forced through by Hitler despite extreme opposition from his generals.
The Führer’s visits to factories or military units had ceased in 1943 and his knowledge of the outside world was based solely on telephone, wireless and written reports. He still met soldiers to whom he awarded the Knight’s Cross and other high decorations, but such events were heavily stage-managed with no opportunity for unpleasant truths to be told. Thus his first-hand experience of the war and meetings with combat troops had dwindled to nothing: it was uncomfortable and therefore shut out of his world. When Speer presented photographs he had taken of German civilian refugees, in an attempt to draw their plight to Hitler’s attention, ‘he roughly pushed them aside’. Another bystander noted that Hitler’s war was ‘an affair of maps and paper, away from the blood and turmoil’. Rastenburg was a setting of ‘forests, lakes and woods, a landscape that had nothing in common with the horrors of the war. He saw neither photographs nor films from the front line; nothing must interfere with the decisive power of his genius.’ The advent of these self-delusional attributes was advanced by the events of 20 July, and in the aftermath, with unchecked power, his quick temper and a circle of SS acolytes ready to undertake any task, few chose to argue with their Führer.
Psychologically, he had become aloof and lonely, confiding in no one and terminating any conversation abruptly if a disagreeable topic arose.
As the war progressed, he treated generals more as privates, and even those figures in his own headquarters ceased to have the influence with him they possessed formerly. Hitler began increasingly to meddle in the process of directing his field forces, countermanding orders of senior officers and reserving decisions for himself, even in the employment of battalions and brigades numbering a few hundred troops, while working from out-of-date reports and based in the far-distant Wolfsschanze.
The freedom of subordinate commanders to exercise their initiative, Aufstragstaktik (the doctrine of delegated tactical authority, loosely translated as ‘mission command’), which had been a hallmark of German successes during 1914–18 and 1939–42, was removed in favour of direct orders from Hitler. Quite junior officers were dismissed, reduced in rank or – in extremis – executed, if they were perceived to have disobeyed a Führerbefehl, whether or not such was the case. A typical Führer rebuke to a senior commander at this time was recorded: ‘There’s no need for you to try to teach me. I’ve been commanding the German army in the field for five years and during that time I’ve had more practical experience than any gentlemen of the General Staff could ever hope to have. I’ve studied Clausewitz and Moltke and read all the Schlieffen papers. I’m more in the picture than you are!’
But, of course, he wasn’t.
Excerpted from “Snow and Steel: The Battle of the Bulge, 1944-45” by Peter Caddick-Adams. Copyright © 2014 by Peter Caddick-Adams. Reprinted by arrangement with Oxford University Press, a division of Oxford University. All rights reserved.