No one can doubt how successful the German Army was in the first two years of WWII. In fact, these successes were not only the result of a diligent two-decades preparation, but also of successful military innovation and adaptation during the interwar period. Military innovation surpasses the definition of technical change in doctrine and practices, induced by the adoption of new equipment, to a more evolutionary one involving the innovation in tactics and operational frameworks.1 Successful innovation, while being a long and complex process, encompasses a detailed study of one’s own and others’ experiences and a willingness to continually transform in the current moment, based on the relevant lessons from the past and those from realistic experimentations.2 In fact, not all military institutions were able to innovate during the 1920s and 1930s, and those who did, failed to adapt them during the early stages of WW2. However, Germany was the exception. Despite being placed under strict military limitations by the Treaty of Versailles, the German Armed Forces (Wehrmacht) proved itself to be the major belligerent’s national military capable of adapting its interwar military innovations, particularly an exceptional military culture and a potent mechanized doctrine, during the first two campaigns of WWII.
The leadership of General Hans von Seeckt created a fundamental change in military culture that fostered the innovation and adaptation within the German Army during the interwar period. After becoming the commander-in-chief, Seeckt placed the general staff, which represented the intellectual side of the Reichswehr, in control of the army with the primary focus of conducting a realistic, complete, and thorough study of WWI. In fact, more than fifty-seven committees were established to examine the lessons of the Great War.3 Additionally, Seeckt exploited the drastic downsizing of his Army, due to the Versailles Treaty, in making dramatic changes in the composition of his officer corps. Through a rigorous selection process, and by embracing the ideology of tactical, operational, and intellectual excellence, Seeckt created an officer corps that was completely different from that of WWI.4
The efforts of General Seeckt in leading the change in the Army’s culture created a climate within the officer corps that was receptive to innovation and reinforced by the tenants of Mission Command. In fact, the Reichswehr became a learning organization with a very supportive command climate. German officers had a unique approach to learn from their mistakes that were viewed as part of a learning experience and not as a chance for punishment or career-termination.5 Additionally, there was a sense of trust and honesty within the officer corps, in which leaders were not afraid to address their problems. Moreover, the Auftragstaktik, developed by Moltke the Elder, became a crucial aspect of the new military culture. The Germans believed that operations should be decentralized to the lowest possible level and that leaders should always conduct disciplined initiative and use their judgment on the battlefield.6
The German Army conducted experiments, researches, and exercises to address not only current problems, but also long-range operational and tactical ones. Seeckt knew that repeating WWI’s stalemate would only mean another guaranteed defeat. Therefore, he focused on innovating in ground war, especially that a two-directional land war confronted Germany.7 Even though the Germans had no tanks in the 1920s, they learned a lot from the British experiences in that domain, which ironically benefited them more that it did for the British. As a result, they conducted experiments within their own existing framework. In fact, they were more concerned in testing the doctrine and concepts instead of proving them.
The German defeat in WWI resulted in a new revolutionary approach to war, by which the Reichswehr, developed and implemented the most potent doctrine of mechanized and armored warfare in the 1930s. The Panzer Divisions became self-contained combined-arms formations and tanks were no longer restricted to the role of supporting infantry or conducting reconnaissance, as they did in WWI. Unlike their opponents’, the new German doctrine emphasized speed and exploitation, and Seeckt believed that the strength of the army was directly proportional to its mobility and not to its mass. Thus, the Germans developed the Panzer Divisions within their doctrinal framework. The result was new combined-arms units that had tanks as the main effort, which were supported by motorized infantry, engineers, artillery, and signal troops.
3 Big 299