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December 18, 2012

By Jim Werbaneth


Heinz Guderian is one of the most important German military leaders of World War II, and one who presents something of a problem for historians.  There is no doubt about his military abilities, or his role in helping to formulate the doctrine that would become the blitzkrieg.  Definitely not remembered as a Nazi supporter in the mold of Ferdinand Schörner or Walter Model, he still bore an understated complicity with the Nazi regime.  He is remembered as one of the “cleaner” of the German generals, when he was in fact tainted by his service, and loyalty, to Nazis.

Guderian was born in 1888 in Kulm, now Chulm, Poland, on the Vistula, the son of Friedrich Guderian, an officer in the 2nd Pommeranian Jäger Battalion.  The Guderians were not of the traditional officer caste; in his book Panzer Leader, Heinz Guderian states that they were mainly lawyers and landowners in East and West Prussia, and that his father was the only regular officer to whom he was closely related.[1]  He followed his father’s example though, embarking on a military career, and was sent as an ensign cadet to the 10th Hannoverian Jäger Battalion in Lorraine in 1907, which by then the elder Guderian commanded.  He then attended the War School at Metz and was commissioned a second lieutenant the next year.[2]

Guderian’s World War I service, significantly, includied work as a signals officer, on both the East and West Fronts.  This proved valuable, as he effective signals communication was key to coordinating mechanized operations in World War II.[3]  In addition, he witnessed the French use of tanks at Soissons in August 1918, an experience that left a deep impression.  [4]With the end of the war, he remained in the drastically downsized Reichswehr.   Guderian acquired more important experience for later mechanized combat, and in 1922 he was appointed Inspector of Motorized Troops.  He followed this up with command of a motorized battalion in 1930.[5]  His career accelerated with the rise of the Nazis, and in 1934 he became Chief of Staff to the Motor Troops Command, and in the same year, commander of the 2nd Panzer Division.[6]

Guderian made his own mark on the theory of mechanized warfare with the publication of Achtung-Panzer!: The Development of Armoured Forces, Their Tactics and Operational Potential in 1937, in which he built on the British and French employment of tanks in the First World War.  The next year, now a lieutenant general, he rose to command of the Wehrmacht’s panzer arm.[7]

His first combat role of the Second World War was as commander of XIX Army Corps, comprising the 3rd Panzer Division, along with the 2nd and 20th Motorized Infantry Divisions.[8]  His mission was to drive across the Polish Corridor toward East Prussia, cutting of Danzig and the Polish forces defending it.[9]  In his post-war memoirs, Guderian recalls his units’ success at this mission, and rather wistfully recalls a meeting with Adolf Hitler, in which the Führer recognized both this, and sight of Guderian’s hometown in the distance.[10]

Where Guderian really made is reputation though was in the next campaign, the invasion of France and the Low Countries.  This time his corps was larger, with the 1st, 2nd and 10th Panzer Divisions, reinforced with the Gross Deutschland infantry regiment.  However, Guderian perceived a struggle at the higher command levels, as few senior generals fully appreciated the full potential of combined arms warfare, supported by airpower.  He specifically names Gerd von Rundstedt and his immediate army commander, Paul von Kleist, as unappreciative this new form of mobile, mechanized warfare.  Only Erich von Manstein, in his view, was sufficiently appreciative of it to make bold, calculated risks based on the new blitzkrieg.[11]

Guderian proved to be one of the most dashing and aggressive commanders of the campaign, driving across the Meuse at Sedan, France.  However, during the phase of pursuit and exploitation, he was ordered to halt until the infantry of the Twelfth Army could move up and join his corps.  Guderian argued so strongly and heatedly with his superiors that on 17 May he threatened to resign, and was instead sacked.  However, he was quickly reinstated to duty, resumed his drive across northern France, and on 21 May arrived on the Somme, near the English Channel, at Abbeville.[12]

At this point, Guderian had established himself as a brilliant, visionary commander, and yet one with a strong, even egotistical confidence that bordered on insubordination.  All would come together in his next campaign, the invasion of the Soviet Union.  In Operation Barbarossa, he commanded the 2nd Panzer Group, within Army Group Center.  His first mission was to achieve a battle of encirclement on the Soviet border, driving east and then linking up with the 3rd Panzer Group, under General Herman Hoth, at Minsk.[13]  This succeeded, and Guderian’s army-sized group continued to press east.    In July Guderian fought another battle of encirclement, this time at Smolensk, fighting off strong Soviet counterattacks.  Again, this was in concert with Hoth and his 3rd Panzer Group.[14]

Following the victory at Smolensk, Hitler directed Guderian to move his group south, into the Ukraine, as part of an effort to surround and take the capital of Kiev, and once again surround the Soviet forces there.  Again, the Germans were victorious, taking the city and about 665,000 prisoners.[15]  David E. Glantz, the eminent American historian of World War II on the Eastern Front and a pioneer of using Soviet sources, states that while the Kiev operation diverted Guderian’s panzers from the center of the front and the drive on Moscow, the fruits of the German victories in the South were definitely worth this change in plans.[16]

After Kiev, the Germans made their final offensive toward Moscow.  By this time, units were worn down from the summer’s fighting, machinery was breaking down, and the invaders were racing the approach of the Russian winter.  This sprint, with diminishing resources, against the turn of the weather failed.  As the German offensive crested and the air grew colder, the Soviets planned a series of counter attacks against Army Group Central’s front, creating a real crisis for the Germans.[17]  These, together with the stiffening of Soviet resistance in general, shocked Guderian, and as a result he advocated withdrawing to more defensible positions.  He traveled to Germany to press this point with Hitler, and further argued with his superiors, Fedor von Bock and Gunther von Kluge, was relieved of command on Christmas 1941.[18]

Guderian’s operational career was virtually over.  Hitler did reinstate him as commander of panzer troops in 1 March 1943, but in this role neither he nor the panzer arm achieved anything close to the victories experienced from 1939 through the summer of 1941.  Their last major offensive in the East, at Kursk, was repulsed in July 1943.  Then on July 21 1944 he replaced General Kurt Zeitzler as commander of the General Staff, just in time to sit on a Court of Honor that dismissed hundreds of Wehrmacht officers from service, so they could be tried in the Nazi show court run by Roland Feisler.[19]

This is not the only instance of Guderian cooperating with a regime, and being rewarded by it, for which he had to have recognized its true nature.  Gerhard Weinberg makes a special point to single out Guderian as an officer bribed by the Nazis, besides linking him to Schörner and Model as generally congenial to Hitler.[20]  As Weinberg caustically writes, “General Guderian, for example, between commanding an army on the Eastern Front and becoming inspector general of armored forces, spent months travelling around Eastern Europe looking for an estate that the government could steal for him.”[21]  In his own memoirs covering this period of unemployment, Guderian makes no mention of this, instead concentrating on his growing cardiac problems and need for rest.[22]

Despite his reemployment and the promise of rewards from Hitler, Guderian continued to argue with his Führer over matters of strategy.  He was once again cashiered on 28 March 1945, as the Reich crumbled into ruins, and was captured by the Americans on 10 May.  While he was in captivity, Poland and the Soviet demanded that he be tried as a war criminal, but Guderian was released on 17 June 1948.  He lived another six years, and died on 17 May 1954.[23]

For all of his achievements in the Reichswehr and Wehrmacht, Guderian was underemployed after his relief before the gates of Moscow.    Despite the nominal titles that he bore as commander of panzertruppen, and then as chief of the General Staff, his real responsibilities were subordinate to those of lesser abilities, but greater talents for sycophancy.  Guderian could be outspoken on operational matters, then compliant politically, but never matched the sycophancy of Wilhelm Keitel or Alfred Jodl.  Thus they remained the men most likely to have Hitler’s ear.  Richard Overy makes the argument that Guderian, like Manstein, should have had more power and influence in Berlin, instead of the lackeys and yes-men with whom Hitler surrounded himself.[24]  Yet perhaps the better choice for Germany would have been to keep men such as Manstein and Guderian in the field, in operational command, ideally while getting rid of the likes of Keitel and Jodl.

Ethically, Heinz Guderian represents a convenient sort of German general for later analysts.  His brilliance, insight and overall accomplishment on the battlefield are undeniable.  No doubt too that he lacked the loathsome brutality of a Schörner, or the strongly pro-Nazi convictions of a Model.  Yet one must view him as a kind of scrubbed general, one for whom it is all too easy to laud the talent and achievement, while ignoring his accommodation with the Nazi regime, and readiness to be rewarded by it.  Thus when one digs below the superficial layer of his record, he is neither easy nor convenient.

[1] Heinz Guderian, Panzer Leader (trans. Constantine Fitzgibbon), (New York: Da Capo Press, 1996), 16. 

[2] Ibid., 16-17. 

[3] “The Eastern Front: Heinz Guderian,” The Eastern Front,  accessed 2 March 2012. 

[4] Charles Messenger, The Blitzkrieg Story (New York: Scribner’s, 1976), 64. 

[5] “Heinz Guderian,” Jewish Virtual Library,  accessed 2 March 2012.

[6] Ibid.

[7] “The Eastern Front: Heinz Guderian.” 

[8] Guderian, 65. 

[9] Ibid., 65-66. 

[10] Ibid., 73-74.

[11] Ibid., 90-91. 

[12] “Heinz Guderian.” 

[13] David E. Glantz, Barbarossa: Hitler’s Invasion of Russia 1941 (Charleston SC: Tempus, 2001), 37. 

[14] Ibid., 78-84. 

[15] Earl F. Ziemke and Magna E. Bauer, Moscow to Stalingrad: Decision in the East (Washington: Center of Military History, 1987), 34. 

[16] Glantz, 135-136. 

[17] Ziemke and Bauer, 137-142. 

[18] “Heinz Guderian.” 

[19] Ibid. 

[20] Gerhard Weinberg L.,  A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005)  455. 

[21] Ibid., 475. 

[22] Guderian, 272-275.

[23] “Heinz Guderian.” 

[24] Richard Overy, Why the Allies Won (New York: Norton, 1995), 278.



“The Eastern Front: Heinz Guderian.” The Eastern Front.  accessed 2 March 2012.


Glantz, David E.  Barbarossa: Hitler’s Invasion of Russia 1941.  Charleston SC: Tempus, 2001.


Guderian, Heinz (trans. Constantine Fitzgibbon). Panzer Leader .  New York: Da Capo Press, 1996.


“Heinz Guderian.” Jewish Virtual Library.  accessed 2 March 2012


Messenger, Charles.  The Blitzkrieg Story.  New York: Scribner’s, 1976.


Overy, Richard.  Why the Allies Won.  New York: Norton, 1995.


Weinberg, Gerhard L.  A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II.  New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.


Ziemke, Earl F. and Bauer, Magna E.  Moscow to Stalingrad: Decision in the East.  Washington: Center of Military History, 1987.