General Heinz Guderian (1888-1953) is responsible for developing the concept of blitzkrieg, or fast-moving mechanized warfare, which propelled the German army to early victories in World War II.
Apassionate military leader and strategist, Heinz Wilhelm Guderian revolutionized modern warfare by using tanks and air power to gain rapid victories. Unlike military theorists who merely hypothesized, Guderian saw his vision become a reality, as the Panzer divisions were developed within the German army. Sanctioned by Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, the blitzkrieg led to stunning victories across Europe, which allowed Germany to control the continent for most of World War II. The Panzer forces were instrumental in Russia and North Africa as well.
A Born General
Guderian was born on June 7, 1888 in Kulm, Prussia. His close-knit family had roots in the military. His father, Friedrich, had been a colonel in the legendary Prussian army. Guderian attended the Principal Cadet School at Gross-Lichterfelde in Berlin. He was an ambitious and charming student, but determined and serious-minded as well.
In 1907, Guderian was sent to join the Tenth Battalion as a light infantry officer under his father's command. As a young officer, he had time to indulge in things he enjoyed, like riding horses, hunting, and architecture. He also learned a great deal under the tutelage of his father. A stern leader, Friedrich Guderian was both loved and feared by his troops and his family.
In 1909, Guderian's division was transferred to Goslar in the Harz Mountains. In one of the most scenic parts of Germany, he met and fell in love with Margarete Goerne, who he called Gretel. She was later called the perfect soldier's wife—cool and sensible—and able to console her husband during fits of anger. She shared his ambition and believed he had a great destiny. They married in 1913.
Prepared for War
In order to broaden his technical training, Guderian transferred to the Third Telegraph Battalion in 1912 to become a specialist in the new radio-signal equipment. Over the course of the next decade, the ambitious young man pushed himself hard. Soon, he learned both French and English and studied military tactics and theory.
Guderian's diligence paid off when he was chosen as the youngest of 168 officers to attend a three-year program at the War Academy in Berlin. Already gathering a reputation for moving fast, Guderian earned the nickname Schnelle Heinz (Quick Heinz). He liked to quote a saying by military leader Helmuth von Moltke: "First reckon, then risk," which summed up his thinking. Always the student, Guderian would study a situation intently and then strike at a moment's notice.
Guderian's study of military history and strategy was interrupted by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria at Sarajevo and the outbreak of World War I. Guderian joined the wireless staff, a difficult post, because the new technology did not have the support of those directing the war effort. Although an arduous task, Guderian's work in the communications division allowed him to witness almost every front where real fighting took place. The carnage he viewed was instrumental in developing his thoughts on mechanized warfare, which would protect the infantrymen and provide for quick victory.
In the later stages of the First World War, Guderian served as an intelligence officer. Then, in February, 1918, he became a General Staff officer. Guderian's next post was as a staff officer on the Eastern Frontier Protection Service, a group of volunteers combating the Bolsheviks and Poles on the Eastern Front. The battles were fierce and ruthless. The Germans believed they were preserving their sovereignty, while the Communists fought for worldwide revolution.
Blitzkrieg Theory Became Reality
When the war ended, Germany was permitted to train a small army for its national defense. After returning from the Baltics, Guderian served in a series of educational posts, teaching tactics and military history. It was during the ensuing years that he would digest the works on mechanized warfare of British theorist J.F.C. Fuller and interview German tank survivors. He began publishing articles in military journals at a prodigious rate and won a reputation for clear thinking on controversial matters.
Although he antagonized some older members of the German General Staff, Guderian became a catalyst for developing a Panzer division. Between the wars, German officers visited Swedish tank units, trained in secret bases in Russia, and studied all available foreign material about tanks. They formalized plans for armored warfare by 1929, but due to infighting and politics, the theories did not become a reality until 1934.
Guderian's ideas regarding mechanized forces were not based solely on tanks and air power, but were a balanced force of all arms equipped to run as a team. Using his background in wireless communications, Guderian realized the importance of radio for communicating between divisions and as they moved rapidly into enemy territory. As Guderian developed his military theories, Germany experienced political upheaval that would change the world. Hitler's rise touched off a renewed sense of power and national dignity for the German people and its military. Many young staff officers were drawn to the Nazi Party. Although Guderian was ardently anti-Communist, he was politically ambivalent. Patriotism was his principal political affiliation.
Slowly, Guderian's dream of a Panzertruppe came to fruition. In 1934, he was named the division's chief of staff. Three Panzer divisions were created, but without tanks since equipment, officers, and trained men were in short supply. By 1936, when Hitler aggressively pushed Germany toward war, the Panzer divisions were still lacking the firepower Guderian recommended. In his propaganda campaign, Hitler coined the term blitzkrieg, or the "lightning stroke" that would overwhelm a country by land and air.
To generate public support for the blitzkrieg, Guderian wrote Achtung! Panzer! The impact was incredible. The book became a military bestseller and essential reading for military leaders. In the book, Guderian summed up German military thinking, "Deeds are more important than words. The goddess of battle will crown only the most daring with laurels."
World War II
Hitler recognized Guderian's potential and promoted him quickly. By November, 1938, he was named general of Panzer troops. Germany prepared for war and Hitler launched an attack on Poland in 1939. Guderian put his theories into practice as he commanded a Panzer corps in the assault. After securing the Eastern Front, Hitler set his sights on the West.
In 1940, Guderian led a larger Panzer division through the Ardennes and across Northern France. The blitzkrieg worked to perfection. The German advance pushed through France and forced the British to evacuate at Dunkirk. Success on the Western Front, which the entire German army could not accomplish in all the years of World War I, made Guderian a national hero. His theories were vindicated.
When Hitler began planning an invasion of Russia, Guderian was outraged. He openly questioned the Nazi leader's plans. However, he soon acquiesced and led one of the four Panzer corps into Russia (later named the Second Panzer Army). In less than two months, Guderian won a number of important victories at Minsk and Smolensk and carried the battle to within 200 miles of Moscow.
German efforts in Russia soon fell apart. Political wrangling among German military leaders and ineffective supply lines caused dissension and chaos. When Guderian learned that Hitler intended to transfer his division to the South, he confronted the Nazi leader. Guderian felt the move would cost Germany the chance at total victory. Hitler, using his powers of persuasion, preyed on Guderian's Prussian discipline and loyalty and convinced him to back the move.
The move to the South was initially successful and Guderian played a major role in the victory at Kiev. Turning North once again, with weary soldiers and worn-out vehicles, he joined the delayed drive toward Moscow. Guderian's most explicit insurrection occurred when he defied Hitler's order to stand-fast during the harsh Russian winter. Guderian proved that a gradual retreat would work. Looking out for his men, he moved his troops back to safer positions.
Guderian's bravado cost him his position in the German army. Along with a list of other successful military leaders, Hitler forced Guderian to retire. The Nazi leader did, however, give the Panzer commander a 2,500-acre farm in Eastern Prussia. Guderian welcomed the relief from the German propaganda machine. The inactivity did little for his health. A heart condition slowed him down and gradually worsened.
Although German prospects for victory waned, they were able to repel Russian and British offensives in the winter of 1941 and into early 1942. The Germans pushed into Stalingrad after vicious, hand-to-hand combat in the streets and nearly reached the Suez Canal. Searching for someone to bring order to the German war effort, military leaders convinced Hitler that Guderian was needed. Hitler agreed and recalled Guderian in 1943 to be inspector general of Panzer forces. Soon, the general was back in the middle of Nazi political and military infighting, including open arguments with Hitler. A pervasive doom hung over Germany.
There is evidence that Guderian knew about the July 20, 1944, assassination plot against Hitler, but he did not participate. However, Guderian also did not warn Hitler or turn in the plotters. After the coup failed, Guderian was one of the leaders Hitler counted on for support. The Nazi leader appointed Guderian to be his army chief of staff, in addition to his job as inspector of Panzer forces. Guderian's main focus was the defense of the Eastern Front. Since Hitler took a strong personal interest in the events in Russia, Guderian had to put up with frequent intrusions, even though disagreeing with Hitler could be detrimental to his own well-being. Guderian, ever the patriot, hoped to save Germany from Russian occupation.
End of the War
Guderian knew the war could not be won, but still had not resolved himself to Germany's total defeat. In March, he flagrantly opposed Hitler in meetings. Hitler had to get rid of Guderian. With Berlin surrounded, Hitler ordered him to take six weeks' sick leave. The Guderians went to Munich where he underwent treatment for his heart condition. The American forces captured Guderian on May 10, 1945.
Once captured, Guderian risked prosecution for war crimes. His reputation as the designer of the blitzkrieg made him a favorite for interrogation. He spoke freely of his experiences. In fact, when Guderian heard whispers that he would be turned over as a criminal, he refused to cooperate with his questioners. Most of his captivity was spent writing articles on his experiences and commenting on the German war effort. He also learned to play bridge and gardened. He was not released until his 60th birthday in June 1948.
Once released, Guderian wrote his memoir, Panzer Leader, which was translated into ten languages and became an international best-seller in 1952. Soon after its publication, Guderian's health failed. He died in Schwangau bei Fussen, Germany on May 17, 1954.
Like American General George S. Patton, Guderian was a fiery leader. His personal motto was "Nicht kleckern, sondern klotzen" translated as "Don't tickle them—slug them!" A gifted military leader, he excelled at training his men to fight. In Russia, where his armies were often outnumbered and he had inadequate supplies, he won victory after victory by getting his men to give more than 100 percent. Although from an aristocratic background, he sympathized with his troops and was concerned about their well-being. He fought at their side in battle like few leaders would.
A true warrior, however, Guderian was difficult to command. Both calculating and impetuous, he had little time for those who did not share his beliefs. He held grudges and was not politically adept. Fellow German officers referred to Guderian as "Hothead." Throughout his career, he alienated more conservative generals with his audacious tactics, which they considered brash and offensive. Ultimately, many of the roadblocks he faced were a result of this animosity. One of Guderian's chiefs of staff, Walther Nehring, told the general's biographer, Kenneth Macksey, "His thoughts would race ahead and sometimes he had to be pulled back, and while he was a deep thinker he was also liable to act without thinking." As a military commander, this dichotomy led to success, but in the world of politics, Guderian was less successful.
Further Reading on Heinz Guderian
Elting, John R., The Superstrategists: Great Captains, Theorists, and Fighting Men Who Have Shaped the History of Warfare, Scribner's, 1985.
Fischer, Klaus P., Nazi Germany: A New History, Continuum, 1995.
Keegan, John, and Andrew Wheatcroft, Who's Who in Military History: From 1453 to the Present Day, Routledge, 1996.
Macksey, Kenneth, Guderian: Panzer General, Stackpole, 1997.
Macksey, Kenneth, Guderian: Creator of the Blitzkrieg, Stein and Day, 1975.
World War II, July 1999.