Manstein: Hitler's Greatest General

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9780312563127: Manstein: Hitler's Greatest General

Among students of military history, the genius of Field Marshal Erich von Manstein (1887–1973) is respected perhaps more than that of any other World War II soldier. He displayed his strategic brilliance in such campaigns as the invasion of Poland, the Blitzkrieg of France, the sieges of Sevastopol, Leningrad, and Stalingrad, and the battles of Kharkov and Kursk.

Manstein also stands as one of the war's most enigmatic and controversial figures. To some, he was a leading proponent of the Nazi regime and a symbol of the moral corruption of the Wehrmacht. Yet he also disobeyed Hitler, who dismissed his leading Field Marshal over this incident, and has been suspected by some of conspiring against the Führer. Sentenced to eighteen years by a British war tribunal at Hamburg in 1949, Manstein was released in 1953 and went on to advise the West German government in founding its new army within NATO.

Military historian and strategist Mungo Melvin combines his research in German military archives and battlefield records with unprecedented access to family archives to get to the truth of Manstein's life and deliver this definitive biography of the man and his career.

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About the Author:

MAJOR GENERAL MUNGO MELVIN is Senior Directing Staff (Army), Royal College of Defence Studies, London. He has directed the British Army's Strategic and Combat Studies Institute, managed the Higher Command and Staff Course at the Joint Services Command and Staff College, and served as Director of Operational Capability in the Ministry of Defence.

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Manstein
1 Son of Prussia 'A clever but very serious young man.' Martha von Sperling-Manstein Family and Early Life Erich Fritz von Lewinski, named Manstein, was born in 1887, a year of birth he shared with none other than the British soldier Bernard Law Montgomery. Both learned their trade in their nations' general staffs during the First World War, became noted tutors of staff and trainers of men and won great victories in the Second World War; both earned their field marshal's batons in the process and wrote controversial memoirs afterwards, remaining contentious figures thereafter; both forged their nations' post-war armies in their mould: such were their enduring legacies. Manstein's and Montgomery's characters also exhibited further similarities: critical of others, to many their very self-confidence bordered on conceit. Their well-organized and highly capable staffs, however, were intensely loyal. Unsurprisingly, notwithstanding their exceptional military abilities, both Manstein and Montgomery managed to annoy their diverse superiors with uncommon regularity, a trait, it must be observed, rather more apparent in the latter. That said, there was little else in common between the aristocratic Prussian officer's son-born to serve the German Kaiser-and the son of a modest Anglo-Irish parson, who took the King's commission. Patrician Manstein, on the losing side, became a convicted war criminal; in his opinion, and that of many others, a victim of 'victors' justice'. Humbler Montgomery, in birth if not in attitude, on the winning side, was feted as a national hero. They never met despite Manstein's best efforts at the war's end to surrender personally to Montgomery on the Lüneburg Heath in early May 1945.1 Fifty-eight years earlier in the small Thuringian town of Rudolstadt, a curious telegram arrived from Berlin: 'Today a young boy is born for you. Mother and child well. Best wishes. Helene and Lewinski.' Thisbrief communication announced the birth of baby Erich on 24 November 1887, the tenth son of Eduard Julius Ludwig von Lewinski (1829-1906) and fifth child of his second wife Helene, née von Sperling (1847-1910).2 Before Erich's birth his mother had arranged for her childless younger sister Hedwig (1852-1925) to adopt the baby if it were a boy. This sort of pragmatic pact seemed to run in the family: previously Hedwig, married to Georg von Manstein (1844-1913), had adopted Martha, the young daughter of her recently deceased brother and naval officer Erich von Sperling (1851-89). The Lewinski, Manstein and Sperling families had strong aristocratic roots and were proud of their long, loyal service to the Prussian Crown, producing officers in every generation. A particularly notable exemplar was General Christoph Hermann von Manstein (1711-57), who had fought with distinction against the Austrians during the Seven Years War. Despite being blamed-somewhat unfairly-for the Prussian defeat at Kolin (18 June 1757), he was judged generously by Frederick the Great in his assessment of Prussian generals as 'très bon'.3 The royal connection was maintained in the latter half of the eighteenth century when a lieutenant colonel von Manstein served as ' Generaladjutant von der Infanterie' to King Frederick William II, acting as an equerry who handled the sovereign's military correspondence.4 Manstein's grandfather Albrecht Gustav (1805-77) commanded the 6th Prussian Division in the wars of 1864 against Denmark and 1866 against Austria. During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, he commanded IX (Schleswig-Holstein) Corps, distinguishing himself particularly at the battles of Gravelotte and Le Mans. The city of Altona (now part of Hamburg) made him a freeman in 1872. So the Manstein name in the final quarter of the nineteenth century had at least local, if not regional, fame: the 84th Infantry Regiment stationed in Schleswig was called the 'Mansteiner'. Schleswig still has its Mansteinstrasse today, as do Berlin and Hamburg. Military traditions ran as deeply in the Manstein family as they did generally in Wilhelmine Germany. On retirement, Albrecht Gustav von Manstein was presented by his grateful corps with a commemorative dagger. Engraved with the battle honours Düppel, Alsen, Königgrätz, Gravelotte, Orléans and Le Mans it represented a gazetteer of the most famous actions of Prussia's wars of unification. Following the example of his forefathers, Manstein carried the memento throughout his career. His natural father Lewinski served on the Prussian staff in the wars of 1864, 1866 and 1870-71, retiring as a general of artillery in 1895.5 His maternal grandfather Major General Oskar von Sperling (1814-72) waschief of staff of the Steinmetz and Goeben armies during the Franco-Prussian War. Meanwhile, the brothers of his adoptive mother were all officers. Hedwig's younger sister Gertrud von Sperling (1860-1914) had married in 1879 no less a catch than Paul von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg (1847-1934), the victor of Tannenberg and national hero of the First World War, and late Reich president between 1925 and 1934. With all these close military connections, as Manstein himself remarked, it was 'little wonder that he had wished to become a soldier from an early age'.6 The family in which Erich grew up was relatively well to do. Although the Mansteins had lost their landed estates in East Prussia several generations before, both his grandfathers (Manstein and Sperling) had received substantial grants from the German parliament (the Reichstag) in recognition of their meritorious service in the Franco-Prussian War. So the family, if not uncommonly rich, enjoyed a certain status and financial independence. Manstein's adoptive father was a Prussian officer of the old school. And yet his strictness, maintained his son, albeit moderated by a dry humour, disguised a fundamentally kind heart. Hence Erich von Manstein appears to have enjoyed a genuinely close family life. He knew and accepted his position as an adoptive child, enjoyed the tender affection of his adoptive mother in particular, whilst retaining a link to his natural parents through visits to Schloss Burgwitz-Trebnitz in Silesia. Manstein records that he was surrounded by love and happiness on both sides of his family, natural and adoptive, and he enjoyed a close relationship with Martha (1884-1956), three years his elder. The warmth of feeling was mutual: Martha von Sperling-Manstein's memoirs portray a picture of genuine sisterly love and deep affection, of happy if not halcyon childhood times together at home and on holiday. Within the family, Erich was known throughout his life as 'Erli'; his early attempts to say Martha came out as 'Atta', a nickname that stuck. Both children called their adoptive parents 'father' (using the more familiar Väterchen rather than Vater) and 'mother' ( Mütterchen rather than Mutter) as opposed to uncle or aunt. The majority of aristocratic families had at least one son in the army, bound by oath and tradition to the Prussian king and German Kaiser. Manstein's character reflected the norm found in a close-knit circle of Prussian military families, in which duty, honour, obedience and a sense of responsibility for others were all dominant virtues. Such qualities also reflected the sober, no-nonsense German-Prussian work ethic in which Manstein was brought up. As he later mused, his heart lay in the vast, if not often monotonous landscape of northern Germany, in the quiet forests and lakes of the Mark [Brandenburg], Pomerania and Prussia, in the German seas, in the wide expanse of the eastern plain and in the mighty brick [church] domes of the north that, like castles, watch over the east.7 Young Manstein was a bright, temperamental and somewhat tender child, who despite his conventional family upbringing, resented the dumb authority of school. Whereas he accepted the word of his family and of his adoptive father in particular, 'encouraged' by the occasional punishment, he was argumentative and difficult at times with his peers and teachers alike. Not being a physically strong youngster, he tended to live on his wits. He was forthcoming and lively enough in class but not particularly industrious. Unsurprisingly, his school reports reflected the familiar refrain: 'with more application ought to do much better'. We see here also the origins of Manstein, who in his own words was in later life 'not a simple or easy subordinate', wishing to discuss and debate an issue on its merits rather than accepting a matter 'because it is so'.8 Manstein, as he later freely admitted, could often appear 'cool and sharp in tone', attributes that did not always engender him to others.9 As a result, and particularly to those who did not know him well, Manstein could be regarded as a cold and unfriendly individual. Only the moderating influence of his wife, his dear Jutta-Sibylle von Loesch whom he married in 1920, he declared, helped suppress his 'tendency to egotism'-another uncanny similarity to Montgomery.10 Manstein's early school years were spent in the successive garrison towns of his adoptive father, who served in the Prussian-controlled lands of eastern, northern and western Germany. These included Rudolstadt in the minor principality of Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt within the modern-day federal state of Thuringia; in Schwerin, the capital of the former Grand Duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin; and, latterly, in Strasbourg in Alsace. Following the Franco-Prussian War, with the German accession of the French provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, Strasbourg had become Strassburg in Elsass-Lothringen, a Reichsland or imperial territory. The Strasbourg of Manstein's childhood remained very much a militarized frontier city, housing the best part of an army corps, on account of its geostrategic situation and mixed Franco-German history and heritage. His father commanded the 132nd Prussian Infantry...

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