Book Review – Panzer Leader – Heinz Guderian (Abridged Edition)

Panzer Leader is the autobiography of Heinz Guderian, a German general, mainly of Panzer troops, in the second World War. The book gives some rough background at its start, but really it’s about WWII. The story begins to develop when Guderian is transferred to the general staff in a position that allows him to view and aid in the development of mechanized and armored forces. It talks for a bit about his prewar ideas, then moves into his actions directly before the war. The book picks up when the war starts, and goes on to explain in great detail his actions in the Polish, French, and Russian campaigns, then his later appointment as Inspector-General of Panzer Troops, and Chief of the Army General Staff.

It's surprisingly hard to find the cover of the edition I have

It’s surprisingly hard to find the cover of the edition I have

While the main point of the book seems to be “look how much I was right” (more on that later) there is quite a lot of interesting information regarding how the war played out, especially in the early war when he wasn’t as high a rank. In several cases, he points out how historical figures misrepresented the situation, such as Winston Churchill talking about heavy tanks and heavy artillery marching into Vienna, when in fact none existed in the Germany army at the time. And, in several cases, he states things that are very false as if they were fact.  For instance, the famous myth that Polish cavalry charged at German tanks is listed. Not only did that never happen, but the Polish army had tanks at the time, so the cavalry was at least remotely aware of their capabilities, and even if, as was the case in many armies at the time, the cavalry thought the tanks inferior to them, they would know better than to charge them from the front, as it would result in similar slaughters as the cavalry charges on the trenches had. So the words in the book need to be taken with a grain of salt. The book was published in America in ’57, before all of the information now known about the war had come to light. The version I read is also an abridged version (from ’65) unfortunately, so I can’t comment on several of the parts that may have been omitted that were of importance.

Still, with the book being published (and written, I believe) in the 50s, everything can be seen with the benefit of hindsight, or perhaps with an element of cynicism. Like I said previously, one of the main things Guderian does in the book is go over, sometimes at length, how right he was about a certain situation, or about the inability of the OKH/OKW (the High Commands) to come up with a stable plan (That was likely Hitler’s fault, but still…), or about Hitler making the exact opposite decision to what he was just requested to do. And I’m not going to say that he was wrong most of the time, though he sometimes was (When Guderian argued against Rommel about having a mobile reserve, I’m fairly certain that Rommel’s argument, that the Allied air power wouldn’t permit it, even if the reserve only marched at night {which it didn’t, contrary to everyone who knew anything, but not Hitler’s, orders} was more sound). Still, his going round and round with this talk can be infuriating. If even a few of his positions as described in this book were reality, and I was in his position, I would have resigned long before the majority of the events.

His talks with Hitler are an oddity in historical writing. Every other book I’ve read about peoples’ interactions with the man were very different. According to Guderian he talked matter-of-factly with Hitler, disagreed with him, and attempted to persuade him to the right course of action, all of this done when no one else seemed to dare. He also reports multiple times when Hitler admits (several months after it mattered) that it was Guderian who was correct and he who was wrong. This seems distinctly unlike the modern picture of Hitler (though what is that beyond a faded memory of the face of absolute evil to us?), and it makes it all the more infuriating during the reading when Hitler continues to question and undermine the orders of someone who, according to him (according to the book) has been right in every past scenario. It truly sounds like working with someone who is a madman or a child.

And yet the book doesn’t have Hitler sitting away in a fantasy land (most of the time), pretending to attack with paper formations of troops holding ground behind enemy lines. Indeed, while Hitler didn’t visit the front, he knows very much about what is going on there, and himself ordered the creation of the “paper formations”. Guderian seems unimpressed with this, and really doesn’t attempt to hide his irritation. The early parts of the book seem to read like “we completed the impossible task before us relatively quickly, with minor casualties.  We were then immediately asked to do twice as much, twice as fast, with no time to recuperate or fix our equipment, and we did the next impossible task with half the equipment of the previous one” and the second half like “Everyone’s job was to pretend he had a job, we discussed what to do, Hitler made the decision all of us agreed was the worst possible course of action, and then we were made to complete our impossible orders within our positions that held no power.” In that sense it reads like every historical book about the German military in the second World War.

Guderian’s perspective is obviously biased, both towards Germany (how could it not be?) and to justifying his decisions (read last parenthesis). He skirts around things, like whether or not he approved of Hitler before the war, or how his “gift” of Polish/Prussian land was obtained. The book is constrained almost entirely to military matters, and he goes to great length to show how little damage the troops under his command did to all countries they invaded. I’m not saying he was a true Nazi, or that he didn’t respect the past of the places he ended up. He obvious wasn’t a Nazi, and acted on the field as a most respectable general, but no man is perfect, and certainly Guderian doesn’t admit to any imperfection in this book. He still acts humble, and grateful to his troops, but he is stubborn in defining his positions.

That still isn’t a knock against the book. It is certainly an interesting dive into the man’s mind, and his recollection of the events of the conflict. His perspective is interesting and helps to create a clearer picture of the time. The book is also well written. I don’t know if it was originally in German, or another language, but the English version reads fantastically, with the exception of some of the harder-to-translate German spoken sentences. It’s fast-paced, and sucks the reader into the world presented, and that’s something many fiction writers can’t do. If I have one bad thing to say it’s that there is quite a bit of space devoted to simple, detached sentences of things going on in far off fronts, and too many unit numbers to follow. Each event is recorded as if it is as important as all others when often it is not. This can lead to some confusion as to what units are where doing what, and a disconnect that isn’t present in the rest of the book. When reading exciting talk about his own movements in the center of the German line, a single sentence about the progress in the North seems out of place, and takes one aback for a moment. Even then, the book holds together and is readable.

Overall I’d say the book is a fairly fast, enjoyable, and interesting read. It doesn’t have wide appeal, but is certainly a must for those investigating the personalities and strategies of the second World War. It’s a good book, and I’m glad read it.

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