How Did the German Military Develop Blitzkrieg?
The early German victories in Poland, Norway, France, the Low Countries, the Balkans, North Africa, and Russia form an impressive list of military triumphs. What was more, these triumphs were accomplished with great speed and fairly modest cost to the Germans. Indeed, these victories were so striking that they gave rise to the myth of German military supremacy—a myth that has persisted to this day.
The early German successes have long been closely associated with the catch-all (and catchy) term of blitzkrieg—the “lightning war.” What was blitzkrieg? John Keegan’s definition of it is fairly representative of the popular conception of the German warmaking style:
“[Blitzkrieg was] essentially a doctrine of attack on a narrow front by concentrated armor, trained to drive forward through the gap it forced without concern for its flanks…"
Keegan’s typically reductivist definition of the term encompasses most of the popular stereotypes of blitzkrieg: speed, aggression, and the massed use of armored fighting vehicles, specifically tanks. The popular view of blitzkrieg also assumes it was a new tactic, one that arose out of the stalemate of trench warfare during World War I. The Germans were the only ones to find the “correct” way to use tanks and aircraft and created a strategy or tactic that enabled them to win wars quickly and cheaply.
The historical reality was somewhat more complex. While the German military was indeed concerned with speed and maneuver in warfare it is probably not true that their style of fighting was either doctrinaire or even new. First, a formal and established doctrine of blitzkrieg probably did not exist in the German military. The term “blitzkrieg” appeared only rarely in official Wehrmacht literature before or during the war and the term seems to have much more popular with foreign journalists. Second, the tactics of maneuver and speed in warfare were not an interwar discovery by the Germans, but were a reversion to traditional German/Prussian styles of warfare.
The German Way of War
Robert Citino has been the most responsible for theorizing of the existence of a “German Way of War.” According to Citino, the origins of Germany’s military style came out of the particular strategic position of Germany’s founding state: the Kingdom of Prussia. From the days of Frederick William, the Prussians have had to contend with enemies who both came from all sides because of the Prussia’s central location, but who were also better endowed with manpower and economic resources. Prussia could not afford to fight long, protracted wars against such enemies—it simply did not have the resources or staying power to do so. The need for “short and lively” wars, compounded by a lack of strategic depth, meant that the Prussians tended to attack even if they were not the ones who initiated conflict. The Prussian style of warfare emphasized maneuvering to find the enemy flank or rear and then surrounding the enemy, thereby creating a Kessel or “cauldron.”
So instead of speaking of blitzkrieg, it is more appropriate to use the more traditional German term of “Bewegungskrieg”—“war of movement.” Bewegunskrieg was the favored form of fighting, as opposed to “Stellungskrieg” or “fortress war” or “Materialschlacht” or “Materiel Warfare.” The last two terms implied slow and costly wars that the Prussians thought that they could not win.
Equally important to the German way of war was the peculiar relationship of the Junkers to the Hohenzollern monarchy. The hereditary Junkers nobility became the officer class of the Prussian army, and in exchange for their loyalty and military service, the Hohenzollern monarchs gave them great domestic and a considerable degree of latitude in command. In warfare, this translated into allowing subordinates a great degree of leeway when trying to achieve their tasks in combat. This is now known as Auftragstaktik or “mission tactics”—a system of command whereby subordinates are not given specifics but a general “mission” which they can fulfill according to their best judgment. Like “blitzkrieg” the historicity of the term “Auftragstaktik” is somewhat doubtful, but the devolution of authority and command initiative in German warmaking cannot be denied.
The greatest exemplar of the Prussian way of war was the warrior-king Frederick the Great. His victories in Rossbach and Leuthen were won with speed and daring maneuvers where Frederick the Great tried to find the enemy army’s flanks. The 19th-century head of the Prussian General Staff, Helmuth von Moltke was also a role model for this kind of operational style. His victories in Sedan and Koenigsberg during the Wars of German Unification all involved Prussian armies outmaneuvering and surrounding their enemies in quick and relatively low-cost wars.
When the Hohenzollern monarch became the Kaiser of Germany, the Prussian Way of War became the German Way of War. The Prussian General Staff became the main conduit for this tradition, and it continued to advocate “short and lively wars.” This military weltanschauung persisted despite the fact that Germany rapidly became one of the most industrialized and populous countries in Europe during the 19th century and was thus more capable of winning long, attritional wars.
World War I
World War I seemed to nullify bewegungskrieg when both sides were unable to maneuver in the face of the superiority of the defense. Unfortunately, almost all of the major combatants of the First World War initially favored aggression and attack—the so-called “cult of the offensive.”  So in the opening months of the war, all of the major combatants launched massive attacks that all bloodily failed. Why was the Western Front locked in stalemate for almost 4 years?
First, firepower in the form of machine guns, bolt-action rifles, and—especially—quick-firing artillery like the French 75mm or the British 18-pounder favored the defensive over the offensive. The new weapons technology had made the attack á outrance difficult and costly almost to the point of futility. “Crossing the deadly ground” or attacking across terrain covered by these new weapons extracted a huge toll on exposed attackers, who also could not stop to fire without disrupting the momentum of the advance. Conversely, defenders sheltering in even improvised field fortifications presented much less of a target to the attackers’ firepower and were far less vulnerable.
It is something of a myth that the militaries of the period were unaware of the dangers posed by modern firepower.  There were some attempts to come up with tactics to overcome the dangers of defensive fire and some of the combatants had alternatives to massed attacks in close order. The problem was that these solutions were not enough, and attacks still suffered horrendously even when successful. Tactical attacks did not necessarily fail in the sense that they were unable to reach trench lines—attacking infantry often actually did reach the enemy trenches despite all of the defensive firepower. The problem lay in consolidating and reinforcing success, and thereby turning a tactical success into an operational one.
The defensive advantage was technological and it was conferred by new means of transport and communication.Transport during World War I was still primarily muscle-powered, that is, soldiers, ordnance, and supplies were either leg-borne or conveyed by animal power. Strategic mechanized transport over land was through railways, and railways were not responsive to rapidly changing tactical situations. Thus, if an infantry attack breached a trench line, the defender could use the transport network to quickly bring up reinforcements to plug the gap. Indeed, the major combatants built rail lines behind their trench systems precisely to ease such transport. Attackers were not able to match this kind of ease of transport because their railway lines ended at the no-man’s land between the two trench lines. To compound the attacker’s problems, the mud in no man’s land—often churned up by constant bombardment—was difficult to traverse and usually targeted by enemy interdicting fire. Under such conditions, the resupply and reinforcement of a successful breach was almost impossible.
Hand in hand with the transport problem was the problem of communications—more specifically, the attacker’s lack thereof. Long-distance communications was generally done through telegraphy, a system that was not very portable. Wireless telegraphy did exist, but the early sets were bulky, unreliable, and of short range. The most commonly used form of telegraphy during the First World War relied on wires to transmit information. These wires were easier to lay in times of peace, when the grid’s layout could be properly plotted and when the wires could be buried underground. During an attack, the only way for the attackers to stay in telegraphic communication with their rear was to trail the wire behind them as they crossed no-man’s land. This made for a very vulnerable line, one that was easily cut or disrupted. It was therefore difficult for a successful attack to request support from the rear. Indeed, for most of the war the only reliable means of doing so was through runners—the most famous of whom must have been Corporal Adolf Hitler. 
The second major dilemma was the very nature of the armies of Europe prior to World War I. These armies were massive, the product of what John Keegan called a “military population explosion” brought about my nationalism and the advocacy of the “nation at arms.”  These armies were composed largely of conscripts or reservists who were not in the best of training. There were a few highly trained regulars, but the majority of the soldiers did not possess the high standard of training that was required to overcome the challenges of modern warfare. These conscript armies lacked finesse—they were too large to command with the technology of the day and they lacked the training to be supple. According to the post-war German Army commander, Hans von Seeckt, these armies could only move forward ponderously and crush the enemy through sheer mass.  The problem of poor training grew worse as the war consumed the trained reserves of manpower. By the latter half of the war, tactics had become even more simplistic almost by default—it was all that the poorly-prepared soldiers were capable of. 
Yet by the end of the war, a degree of mobility was restored to the battlefield. It was not perfect mobility, since the problem of sustaining an attack remained, and operational freedom was still constrained by problems of logistics and communications. But the fact remains that it was possible to overcome the challenge of the trenches, and all of the major combatants came up with ways of doing so.
A non-technological solution was infiltration tactics: infantry would sneak up to the weakest point of the enemy line, attack them from the flanks or rear, often after a brief bombardment, and then push on, bypassing points of resistance. These tactics are erroneously thought to have originated with the Germans, but the British and the French came up with them independently—possibly even prior to the wide-scale German usage of them in the 1918 Spring Offensives.
Infiltration tactics were complemented new artillery techniques, like the creeping barrage, and by the emerging technologies like chemical weapons, improved radio communication, the tank, and aircraft. All these factors helped to end the stalemate and restore some degree of mobility to the battlefield. There was no one solution that could overcome the preponderance of the defense—the key was combined arms, or the effective use of infantry, artillery, armor, and aircraft in concert. The battlefields of 1918 presaged those of World War II.
Yet even before these new weapons and tactics, the Germans were still able to employ Bewegungskrieg in the Eastern Front. There the theater of operations was too large to allow the establishment of siege lines like in the West, and enemy flanks could always be found. The war in the East still dragged on longer than the Germans had hoped, but it was not the same kind of frustrating stalemate. Eventually, the pressures of war and constant defeat eventually knocked Russia out of the conflict and the Germans essentially “won” in the East.
The German experience of World War I was therefore quite different from that of the French and the British, and the “lessons” they drew from it were consequently also different. They were not as wedded to the idea of stalemate or the irrelevance of the offensive and operational maneuver and chose to view the Stellungskrieg of the trenches as an aberration that could be overcome. In the German view, Bewegungskrieg had not been rendered obsolete or untenable—it just had to be adapted to the new circumstances.
The Inter-War Development of Blitzkrieg
After the war, the Reichswehr—the successor to the Imperial German Army—set about trying to train for the next war that it knew was coming and wanted to fight. The Reichswehr was much stymied by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, but this did not stop its new chief, Hans von Seeckt in his desire to restore German arms and bring Bewegungskrieg back from its supposed extinction.16
Von Seeckt had one unusual advantage in his bid to remake the Reichswehr: its small size. In the words of John Keegan,
Internally however, Versailles [Treaty] had missed the mark. Designed to stunt the German army by making it ridiculous, it contrarily succeeded in transforming it into an elite [force].
Von Seeckt exhibited “ruthless disregard” when it came to selecting which few officers could remain in the Reichswehr, making sure that only the best were retained regardless of background. The same selectivity applied when it came to the rank-and-file: the Reichswehr had the pick of the best. Due to the shattered Germany economy of the 1920s, the German military had its choice of qualified recruits. A career in the army was appealing during unsettled economic times because it offered steady pay and benefits. To many conservatives, the army also seemed to be the repository of old Imperial values and traditions at a time when German society seemed to be breaking down.
As a corollary to the selectivity of the Reichswehr, the training in the German army was extremely rigorous and well thought out.  Von Seeckt emphasized initiative, taking the principle of Auftragstaktik all the way down to the individual soldier. German soldiers were taught to think for themselves, to seize opportunities, and be able to lead when their superiors were incapacitated. According to the German manual on leadership, Die Truppenführung,
Situations in war are of unlimited variety. They change often and suddenly and only rarely are from the first discernable. Incalculable elements are often of great influence. The independent will of the enemy is pitted against ours. Friction and mistakes are everyday occurrences.
Von Seeckt realized that the dispersion demanded by modern firepower and the poor battlefield communications militated against close control of the troops. Any attempt to closely supervise operations would lead to confusion, slowness, and a lack of flexibility. Individual initiative was therefore a requirement of modern combat because it would be impossible to react to opportunities or problems with any kind of timeliness otherwise. Commanders would simply have to formulate plans that would take such flexibility by their subordinates into account.
The reduction in size of the Reichswehr therefore addressed Hans von Seeckt’s criticisms of undertrained and unwieldy mass armies. Now he could have the small elite army of well-trained experts that he preferred. The German army would expand later, and it did become the mass-based army that von Seeckt disliked, but the highly-trained men of the Reichswehr provided an experienced core upon which future German commanders could build. The German army’s emphasis on flexibility and initiative even among non-coms and junior officers would persist well into the Second World War, and in the words of Robert Citino, the Wehrmacht possessed “a seemingly uncanny ability to whip together an integrated fire team out of a handful of infantry, a single machine gun, and a light mortar.”17
Von Seeckt and the rest of the German general staff also undertook an intense examination of the First World War in order to formulate the tactics and strategies of the Reichswehr. Von Seeckt re-emphasized Bewegungskrieg, insisting that the trenches were an aberration and that the key to avoiding stalemate was a mix of individual initiative, surprise, energy in conducting operations, and combined arms. This last was most important, and the Reichswehr trained hard to integrate infantry, cavalry, and artillery on the battlefield. The Germans once again trained to avoid enemy strength, exploit opportunities, and to seek enemy flanks. 
Development of a Mechanized German Army
Mechanization was relatively slow to come to the German army, in part because of the limitations imposed by the Treaty of Versailles and because of simple poverty. Von Seeckt himself was something of a traditionalist and believed that exploitation of a breakthrough was a task for cavalry. Like most other militaries, the Reichswehr initially conceived of tanks as infantry support weapons—which was logical given the unreliability, slow speed, and short operational range of early tanks.18
Improvements in armor technology changed German minds, however. By the late ‘20s, the idea of giving armor primacy on the battlefield was beginning to take hold in the Reichswehr. Instead of subordinating tanks to infantry, and thereby limiting their tactical and operational speed, thought was given to finding ways to subordinate the other arms to tanks instead.19
The development of armor in Germany has long been associated with Heinz Guderian, who claimed to be the “father” of the panzers in his autobiography Achtung Panzer! Guderian was indeed an important figure in the history of the panzer forces, but he exaggerated his role. And while there was some resistance to the use of armor in the Reichswehr, it was not as marked as he claimed. Many other commanders and theorists had a more direct role than Guderian: men like Ludwig Beck, Oswald Lutz, Ludwig Ritter von Eimannsberger, and Ernst Volckheim among others. In fact the German military establishment had already agreed to use tanks as their main striking force before Guderian became involved in the panzerwaffe’s growth.20
Tanks and mechanized forces were eminently suited to the idea of Bewegungskrieg. Armored forces provided the necessary striking force that could punch through enemy defenses, and they had the mobility to exploit any breaches they created in the enemy line without losing their momentum. Thus, while the German adoption of armor was not perfectly seamless, it was more measured and more balanced than the theories in other countries, like Britain or France. Through studies and exercises, the Germans understood that tanks had not eliminated the need for combined arms. Unlike the British armor theorist J. F. C. Fuller, the Germans knew that tanks needed the support of artillery, infantry, and air power in order to overcome enemy defenses. So instead of advocating for an all-tank army in the same way that Fuller did, the Germans created the panzer division. This was an all-arms force whose main power came from tanks, but which was heavily supported by infantry, artillery, and logistical support mounted in trucks or other tracked or semi-tracked vehicles. Motorizing or mechanizing these supporting branches gave them the mobility to keep up with the tanks, especially during long operational maneuvers.21
The Germans also focused on the radio—a technology which promised to solve the problem of communications. Radio was wireless, which meant that individual units no longer had to rely on vulnerable telegraphs or telephones. Now commanders could keep in close touch with their forward forces, and it was easier to reinforce success or mitigate failure. The Germans equipped almost all of their tanks with radios, and widely distributed them to their units as well. Just as important as their practice maneuvers with tanks and infantry were their interwar radio exercises to test their communications procedures.22
The problems that the Germans ran into during their mechanization drive were not negligible and had an impact on their armor doctrine. The biggest problem they faced was that German industry could not produce the desired numbers of tanks, trucks, and transporters.23 German industry still failed even when Adolf Hitler came to power and prioritized military procurement—and nearly destroyed the economy of the Third Reich in the process.24
Guderian and Ludwig Beck, then chief of the German army, did indeed come into conflict, but not because Beck was an anti-armor traditionalist. Rather, Beck had a broader view of the situation than did Guderian, who was only concerned with the panzerwaffe. Beck was worried that concentrating all of the army’s heavy assets like tanks and motorization in a few panzer divisions would reduce the fighting ability of the rest of the army. He wanted to allocate some tanks to the infantry divisions to give them more offensive capability. Guderian resisted this, thinking that it would dilute Germany’s armored strength.25 He eventually won this debate, and Germany concentrated her mechanized and motorized assets into a few panzer and light divisions—the rest of the German army remained leg-mobile infantry not much different from their World War I counterparts. This would prove problematic in the long run but on the eve of war, it gave the Wehrmacht an elite, concentrated fighting force of great hitting power, mobility, and flexibility. The panzer divisions would serve as spearheads for the mass army.
The air arm was a crucial component of Germany’s success in World War II and its development during the interwar period should also be mentioned. The Luftwaffe has usually been thought of as an adjunct to the Heer, or ground forces, of Germany and not as invested in the strategic bombing fervour that gripped Britain and America.26 This is a simplification, since there were some commanders in the fledgling Luftwaffe (in the 1930s) that wanted to create a strategic bombing force along the lines advocated by such theorists as Guilio Douhet.27 Indeed, at the outbreak of the war, the Germans had a fleet of bombers like the He-111 or the Do-17 that were capable of reaching most cities within Central and Western Europe, and had the navigational aids to bring them there. These capabilities stood in marked contrast to the RAF or the USAAF, which had serious deficiencies in navigation, accuracy, and aircraft survivability despite their professed faith in strategic bombing.28 Hitler was himself a believer in Douhet-ian ideas of the utility of the terror brought about by bombing civilians, even if it is unclear whether he had ever read Douhet. Throughout the war he would advocate retaliation as a means of deterring strategic bombing on the Reich. This obsession would lead to technological and economic diversions such as the V-1 flying bomb and V-2 rocket.
However it was once again Germany’s central position which dictated strategy. Since the country faced the prospect of immediate invasion from any number of neighbors, it always had to use its air force in conjunction with its ground forces. At the very least it had to secure German airspace, and the Luftwaffe could certainly not afford to engage in strategic bombing to the detriment of other military requirements:
Thus it would scarcely improve Germany’s strategic position if-- at the same time that the Luftwaffe launched aerial attacks on London, Paris, and Warsaw-- Germany’s enemies defeated the Wehrmacht on the border and overran Silesia, East Prussia, and the Rhineland.29
There was also an important economic consideration to the development of the Luftwaffe-- Germany simply could not afford the “luxury” of a strategic bomber force with an independent mission.30 So even if the Germans did have a “medium” bomber force capable of carrying out what the US Army Air Corps or the RAF might deem as “strategic” missions, it could only do so in the context of greater operational considerations.
So like its armored theorists, German air advocates had a much more balanced and pragmatic approach to the use of air power. This was quite unlike the hyperbolic or grandiose claims of the decisiveness of airpower made by people like Billy Mitchell, Hugh Trenchard, or Douhet in other countries.
The Luftwaffe’s mission was essentially formulated by its first Chief of Staff, Walther Wever, a member of the General Staff who was transferred to the air force. And like a good German staff officer, Wevel’s focus was operational-- the German air force would help the German army in achieving its goals of war of movement but not by being tied to it in a limited “airborne artillery” manner or strictly as a close air support tool.31
The Luftwaffe would first win air superiority and thereby secure German airspace in order to provide its air, naval, and ground forces with the operational freedom to maneuver however they wanted. After winning air superiority, it would then constrain enemy operational maneuver through what would now be thought of as interdiction missions, or the bombing of enemy lines of communication, logistics networks, and follow-on or reinforcing units. Strategic bombing of enemy cities or economic assets would only be carried out in conjunction with these previous missions. For instance, terror bombing of cities would be carried out to paralyze enemy leaders and impede their decision-making cycle, not in order to win the war on its own.32
The result was a balanced air force of tremendous utility. The Luftwaffe could win air superiority, conduct various bombing missions, transport supplies or men, and perform reconnaissance-- all with great proficiency. Rather ironically, given its current reputation, the Luftwaffe was at its weakest in the close air support role.33
It must finally be mentioned that political and social factors come into play as well. The German armed forces were united with the Nazis in wanting to rebuild military power and embark on wars to restore German position. This position was widely accepted, and unlike countries like France or Britain, Germans were not anti-war.
The German desire for revenge for the slights of Versailles and her perceived humiliation combined with her armed forces doctrine of warfare. The result was an ability to engage in aggressive warfare that was far more balance and studied than that of Germany’s prospective opponents. The years of preparation also stood the Germans in good stead, and the Wehrmacht was generally better trained, had better procedures, and had far better integrated its equipment than its opponents.The German way of war was not perfect, and the test of war would show up its weaknesses in strategy, logistics, and intelligence among others. But in 1939, on the eve of war, it had a system of war that was had the advantages of efficiency and surprise. France, England, Poland, Russia, and many other countries would learn how well the Prussians had adapted their Bewegungskrieg to the new conditions of war.
- Keegan, John, The Mask of Command. USA: Penguin Books, p. 259.
- For a fairly representative view of blitzkrieg see: Fred Majdalany, The Battle of El Alamein. Philadelphia & New York: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1965, pp. 23-24; Robert Wernick, Blitzkrieg. USA: Time-Life Books, 1976, p. 23.
- Friesser, Karl-Heinz, The Blitzkrieg Legend. Trans. John T. Greenwood. USA: Naval Institute Press, 2005, pp. 4-5.
- This was drawn from Robert M. Citino, The German Way of War. USA: University of Kansas Press, 2005.
- Citino, The German Way of War, pp. 307-311.
- Jack Snyder, The Ideology of the Offensive. USA: Cornell University Press, 1984, pp. 41-106.
- The term is from Perry D. Jamieson, Crossing the Deadly Ground. Tuscaloosa, Alabama: The University of Alabama Press, 1994.
- Howard Bailes, “Technology and Tactics in the British Army, 1866-1900,” pp. 21-47. From Men, Machines and War, eds. Ronald Haycock and Keith Neilson. Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1988; Jamieson, Crossing the Deadly Ground; Robert Citino, Quest for Decisive Victory. USA: University Press of Kansas, 2002, pp. 31-132.
- With the notable exception of the French. See Robert A. Doughty, Pyrrhic Victory. USA and UK: The Bellknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005.
- Paul Gannon, “WW1: First World War communications and the 'Tele-net of Things'.” http://eandt.theiet.org/magazine/2014/06/links-for-victory.cfm, retrieved on 25 Sept. 2015.
- Keegan, Mask of Command, pp. 241-243 and pp. 251-252.
- Keegan, Mask of Command, p. 244.
- Citino, The German Way of War, p. 243.
- John Keegan, The Face of Battle. USA: Penguin Books, 1976, pp. 229-230.
- Jonathan Krause, Early Trench Tactics in the French Army. England: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2013; Paddy Griffith, Battle Tactics of the Western Front. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1994.