Many people regard Erich von Manstein as National Socialist Germany’s best general. Soviet Marshal Rodion Yakovlevich Malinovsky said:
“We considered the hated von Manstein our most dangerous opponent. His technical mastery of every, and I mean every, situation was unequalled.”
British historian Liddell Hart regarded Manstein as the “ablest of all the German generals,” based on his “superb strategic sense.” German General Adolf Heusinger said that Manstein “could accomplish in a single night what other military leaders would take weeks to do.”
This article will document Manstein’s heroic efforts to save Europe from Soviet Communism during World War II, and his efforts to defend the German military after the war.
Erich von Manstein grew up in a relatively well to do Prussian family with a long history of producing military officers. Manstein entered the Royal Prussian Cadet Corps at the age of 12. He spent the first two years of his military education in a junior cadet school, followed by four years at Prussia’s senior cadet institution at Gross-Lichterfelde in Berlin.
Manstein joined the Third Prussian Foot Guards regiment upon completion of his cadet training. He undertook a period of specialist training at a military school and was soon promoted to second lieutenant. Manstein served successfully as adjutant of the fusilier battalion of Third Foot Guards until his entry into the War Academy in Berlin. His battalion commander described him as “the best adjutant I’ve ever had.”
Manstein entered the highly selective Royal Prussian War Academy in Berlin in October 1913. Following the outbreak of World War I, Manstein experienced fierce fighting on both the Western and Eastern Fronts until he was severely wounded in action in Poland. It took Manstein seven months to fully recover from his injuries. Manstein next fought on the Eastern Front until he was transferred to the Western Front to participate in several battles of attrition. Germany’s defeat and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles after World War I helped shape Manstein’s career after the war.
The Treaty of Versailles limited Germany to a 100,000-man army and imposed numerous severe restrictions on Germany’s military. Manstein felt that since Germany had been forced to sign the Treaty of Versailles, it had no moral force and was to be renounced as soon as possible. Manstein was assigned the task of usurping the limitations required by the Versailles Treaty. Germany secretly developed new weapons in close cooperation with the Soviet Union in violation of the Treaty’s provisions. Manstein’s initiatives, which preceded Adolf Hitler’s accession to power, provided a strong foundation for Germany’s subsequent expansion of land and air forces.
Manstein had been promoted to Lieutenant General when Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. He served as Chief of Staff to General Gerd von Rundstedt’s Army Group South during the Polish campaign. The Polish campaign was highly successful, with the last Polish military units surrendering on October 6, 1939.
Hitler was eager to make peace once Great Britain and France declared war against Germany. However, when all of Hitler’s peace offers were rejected, Germany was forced to continue the war. Manstein conceived a brilliant plan to defeat the Allies. Bevin Alexander writes:
He saw that the Allies expected the Germans to attack into northern Belgium because they could not succeed in a direct attack through the Maginot Line, a massive series of interlocking fortifications built by the French along the German frontier in the 1930s. To block this anticipated advance, the Allies were certain to rush their mobile formations at full speed into Belgium the moment the Germans crossed the Belgium frontier.
Manstein accordingly drew on the ancient axiom of warfare, stated as early as 400 B.C. by the great Chinese strategist Sun Tzu: “Make an uproar in the east, but strike in the west.” The Germans, Manstein insisted, must stage a huge “uproar” in northern Belgium and Holland with as noisy and as obvious threats as possible to convince the Allies that the main attack was coming there, just as they expected. This would cause the Allies to push up to the Dyle River, a little east of Brussels, to meet the onrushing German army.
Meanwhile, the true German offensive, led by seven of the 10 panzer divisions the Germans possessed, would proceed inconspicuously through the heavily wooded Ardennes mountains of Luxembourg and eastern Belgium, a region the French had declared to be impassable. Shielded on the north by two panzer divisions, one commanded brilliantly by Erwin Rommel, the panzer corps led by Guderian would emerge from the Ardennes and cross the Meuse River at Sedan. Guderian would now be behind the Allied front, and could strike out directly west for the English Channel, 160 miles away, against virtually no opposition, and thereby could cut off all of the mobile armies in Belgium and force either their surrender or swift evacuation by sea.
Manstein’s plan was adopted by Hitler despite opposition by many in the German high command. The German campaign in the West in 1940 was stunningly successful, with France surrendering to Germany in only six weeks.
Manstein assumed command on March 15, 1941 of the newly established LVI Army Corps. His new command enabled him to lead a combination of panzer and motorized infantry divisions during the German invasion of the Soviet Union.
Manstein began the Russian campaign in the forests of northern Russia. He was appointed as commander of the German Eleventh Army on September 12, 1941 when its previous commander was killed in action. Over the next 10 months, Manstein swiftly captured most of the Crimea, thwarted Soviet attempts to liberate it during the winter of 1941/1942, and captured Sevastopol in mid-summer 1942. He was promoted to field marshal on July 1, 1942 for his highly successful and skillful leadership.
Stalin opened an offensive against German forces during the latter part of 1942. With German forces concentrated in the immediate vicinity of Stalingrad, and with ill-equipped allies holding the flanks north and south of the city, the German Sixth Army was soon encircled at Stalingrad with little prospect for relief. The surrender of the Sixth Army in February 1943 doubled the total German losses up to that time on the Eastern Front.
Hitler called upon Manstein to help restore the situation. Manstein’s arrival at Army headquarters on November 27, 1942 was crucial to the eventual recovery of the German southern flank. The Germans had been in retreat for almost the entire winter, falling back 250 miles in three months. Manstein proposed a plan to not only stop the German withdrawal, but also to launch an offensive to eliminate substantial enemy forces and regain considerable territory.
Dana Sadarananda writes concerning Manstein’s highly successful counteroffensive:
In 33 days, February 18-March 23, Army Group South successfully eliminated the danger to its line of communications across the Dnieper, wrecked Soviet plans to bottle up Army Group South and isolate the southern flank from the rest of the front, and delivered a crushing counterblow which reversed the trend of events that had threated the entire German position on the Eastern Front for nearly four months. In the process, the Soviet Sixth Army and Third Tank Army and Mobile Group Popov were wiped out…
Manstein’s counterstroke had regained the initiative for the German side and brought German forces back to the approximate line they held in the summer of 1942.
The Soviet Union’s numerical superiority eventually led to Germany’s defeat. Reflecting on Germany’s “lost victories” on the Eastern Front, Manstein bitterly wrote:
At the outbreak of war there was no German numerical superiority, only a partial one in equipment. Certainly, Soviet commanders learnt during the war. But at the end of the day, their successes were predominately due to their overwhelming superiority in numbers, quite apart from errors made by the supreme German command. When the odds stand at 5:1, or even 7:1, then there is no place left for military art. The Soviet commanders possessed blood and iron in sufficient quantities to obviate largely the need for the art of command.
MANSTEIN’S RELATIONSHIP WITH HITLER
Manstein was not a National Socialist. As a traditional German brought up to serve Germany, Manstein originally disliked Hitler, his entourage and regime. Manstein in his memoirs even said he feared for his own life during the period immediately before the Night of the Long Knives on June 30, 1934.
Manstein was not in favor of Hitler’s Commissar Order. While acknowledging that Soviet commissars encouraged the greatest possible degree of cruelty in Soviet fighting, carrying out the Commissar Order threatened the honor and morale of the German troops. It also would incite the commissars to resort to the most brutal methods and make their units fight to the end. Manstein in his memoirs said he refused to implement this order within his command.
Manstein also modified Hitler’s order to execute German soldiers who abandoned battle. Manstein suspended the death sentence for these soldiers for four weeks with the agreement of the regimental commander. If a condemned soldier redeemed himself in action during this time, Manstein quashed the sentence; if a soldier failed again, the death sentence was carried out.
Manstein also complained about Hitler’s military leadership. British Major General Mungo Melvin writes:
He complained about Hitler’s lack of understanding of the need to conduct operations, particularly defensive ones, “elastically.” Such an approach required a willingness to surrender “conquered territory,” which Hitler consistently opposed. Secondly, in Manstein’s view, Hitler never really grasped the “rule that one can never be too strong at the crucial spot, that one may even have to dispense with less vital fronts or accept the risk of radically weakening them in order to achieve a decisive aim.” In retrospect, the errant diversion of Eleventh Army to Leningrad was but a further operational symptom of this strategic malaise. Simply put, the Führer failed to grasp the fact that the essential corollary of concentration of force in one place was the need to economize effort elsewhere.
Manstein was the only man who told Hitler that he should relinquish military command. Manstein argued with Hitler so persistently that Hitler dismissed him as an army group commander at the end of March 1944. Despite his dismissal, Manstein described Hitler after the war as an extraordinary personality who had a tremendously high intelligence and an exceptional willpower. Manstein also said after the war, however, that defeat by Soviet forces was avoidable if Hitler had in good time handed over supreme command of the entire Eastern Front to him.
WAR CRIMES TRIALS
Manstein worked long hours at the main Nuremberg trial proposing various tactics and arguments to defend members of the German military. He was emphatic that German commanders from the beginning to the end had fought against the armed forces of the enemy according to military law. He produced several hundred pages of material at Nuremberg titled “Contributions to the Defense of the General Staff” to help defense counsel.
Manstein’s testimony at the Nuremberg trials began on Friday, August 9 and ended on the morning of Monday, August 12, 1946. He denied that he knew anything about an intention to exterminate Jews. Manstein continued to maintain under oath that the German military had fought a conventional, clean war in accordance with military law.
Following his testimony at Nuremberg, Manstein was transferred back into the custody of the United Kingdom. The British Cabinet eventually decided to prosecute Manstein for war crimes. Manstein said to his British defense counsel before his trial held in Hamburg, Germany:
I am not particularly concerned as to what happens to me; in any event my life is over. I am concerned for my honor and the honor of the German army I led. Your soldiers know that when they met us we fought like honorable soldiers. You have been convinced by Bolshevik propaganda that in Russia we fought like savages. That is untrue. In a terribly hard war we maintained firm discipline and fought honorably. I am determined to defend the honor of the German army.
Manstein’s commitment to defending the German army was confirmed by his defense attorney, Reginald T. Paget, who wrote after Manstein’s trial:
“Whatever else may be said of Manstein he never tried to hide behind anybody, and was interested only in defending the honor of his army.”
Manstein appeared as a witness in his trial for 10 and one-half days, the last seven of which were under cross-examination. He was followed by 16 defense witnesses to help in the defense of his 17-count indictment.
The Judge Advocate in Manstein’s trial began his speech summing up the evidence on Monday, December 12, 1949, and concluded his presentation on December 19. Manstein was found not guilty of eight of the most serious charges. Six of the other charges had their wording amended so that Manstein was guilty only of crimes of omission rather than of commission. Manstein was found guilty without amendment on three of the charges, and was sentenced to 18 years of imprisonment. He was released from prison in May 1953.
Mungo Melvin writes about Manstein’s career:
The Field Marshal’s career, which encompassed service to the Kaiser’s Army, the Reichswehr, the Wehrmacht, and after an interlude of eight years in British custody, advice to the nascent Bundeswehr, was in many ways emblematic for many other German soldiers, perhaps thousands. But what made it so special was that Manstein as a military commander not only enjoyed the respect and confidence of his peers and the enduring trust of his troops for his various triumphs, but also was highly regarded by friends and foes alike for his intellect, judgement and adroit decision-making in both victory and defeat. He was a devout Christian and supported the Wehrmacht chaplaincy within his army and army group. Although he never achieved the “cult” status of Rommel, unwittingly crafted by a poorly led British Desert Army, Manstein was by far his superior at the operational level in the much wider and darker canvas of war on the Eastern Front. As such, Manstein deserves far greater recognition.
Manstein’s critics fail to realize that the British improperly convicted Manstein of war crimes. Reginald Paget wrote:
“To summarize he [Manstein] was convicted of a failure that was neither deliberate nor reckless to exercise supervision of back areas during the Crimean battles and of failure during the guerilla war to prevent the execution of High Command orders that were in accordance with our own military manual and he was convicted during the retreat of taking actions that were necessary to his survival in a 20th-century war, but would not have been necessary in the 19th-century wars contemplated at The Hague and for this he was sentenced to 18 years.”
Liddell Hart wrote after Manstein’s trial:
“I have studied the records of warfare long enough to realize how few men who have commanded armies in a hard struggle could have come through such a searching examination, of their deeds and words, as well as Manstein did. His condemnation appears a glaring example either of gross ignorance or gross hypocrisy.”
Manstein’s military strategies resulted in the quick defeat of France and the prevention of an early collapse of German forces on the Eastern Front. Manstein should be recognized as a hero whose military brilliance prevented the enslavement of all of Europe by Soviet Communism.
 Melvin, Mungo, Manstein: Hitler’s Greatest General, New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2010, p. 5.
 Sadarananda, Dana V., Beyond Stalingrad: Manstein and the Operations of Army Group Don, New York: Praeger, 1990, p. 10.
 Melvin, Mungo, Manstein: Hitler’s Greatest General, New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2010, pp. 10-14.
 Ibid., pp. 16-19.
 Ibid., pp. 20, 23-32.
 Ibid., pp. 52-53.
 Ibid., pp. 116-118, 126.
 Alexander, Bevin, Inside the Nazi War Machine, New York: Penguin, 2010, pp. 5-6.
 Ibid., pp. 6-7.
 Melvin, Mungo, Manstein: Hitler’s Greatest General, New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2010, p. 198.
 Ibid., pp. 185, 227.
 Sadarananda, Dana V., Beyond Stalingrad: Manstein and the Operations of Army Group Don, New York: Praeger, 1990, p. 8.
 Ibid., pp. 8, 151-152.
 Ibid., p. 146.
 Melvin, Mungo, Manstein: Hitler’s Greatest General, New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2010, p. 57.
 Ibid., pp. 68, 143.
 Manstein, Erich von, Lost Victories: The War Memoirs of Hitler’s Most Brilliant General, Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1994, pp. 179-180. See also Paget, Reginald T., Manstein: His Campaigns and His Trial, London: Collins, 1951, pp. 135-136.
 Ibid., p. 222.
 Melvin, Mungo, Manstein: Hitler’s Greatest General, New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2010, pp. 277-278.
 Paget, Reginald T., Manstein: His Campaigns and His Trial, London: Collins, 1951, p. 3.
 Goldensohn, Leon, The Nuremberg Interviews, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004, p. 356.
 Melvin, Mungo, Manstein: Hitler’s Greatest General, New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2010, pp. 456-457.
 Ibid., pp. 436-437.
 Ibid., pp. 440, 444, 448.
 Ibid., pp. 451, 459.
 Paget, Reginald T., Manstein: His Campaigns and His Trial, London: Collins, 1951, pp. 75-76.
 Ibid., p. 133.
 Ibid., pp. 182-186.
 Melvin, Mungo, Manstein: Hitler’s Greatest General, New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2010, pp. 481-490.
 Ibid., p. 505.
 Paget, Reginald T., Manstein: His Campaigns and His Trial, London: Collins, 1951, pp. 194-195.
 Ibid., p. 199.