Friday, December 30, 2016

How To Fire A Field Marshal

Adolf Hitler's Tips and Tricks for Getting Rid of that Annoying Field Marshal

German field marshals Kroll Opera House ceremony
Berlin's Kroll Opera House, 19 July 1940. Adolf Hitler and his new field marshals.
So, you've just made the very wise decision to acquire a brand new country from us. Congratulations! The workers have spent hundreds of years assembling our product to meet your conquering needs. Please be sure to review the included FAQ and the Quick Install Guide, which should cover most commonly encountered issues. We are sure our product will provide you with countless days of supreme rule, until either your foreign enemies or internal ones decide to upgrade your country with a new ruler.

There are some unique situations encountered by many in your position which are not adequately covered in the other materials we have included in the packaging. These are legacy issues deriving from obsolete officers for whom updated drivers are unavailable. These officers, typically (but not always) field marshals, can cause irritating operational bottlenecks and seriously hamper the conduct of your campaigns. Even worse, these field marshals can linger in the background, waiting to be activated in nefarious ways by new circumstances when you least expect it - to your detriment. Unless these obstructions are removed pursuant to the proper network protocols, grave damage may be caused to your system.

German field marshals von Witzleben Beck
The perils of errant field marshals: Erwin von Witzleben (right) joined with the conspirators led by former Chief of the General Staff Ludwig Beck (left). © ABB. AUS DEM BESPR. BAND.
One thing we urge above all else: respect your field marshals. Your press agency has spent years building up their status, and that can be a bad thing when it comes time to make some changes. Your own power derives from public support, and having to fire the people you chose as the best makes you look bad, too. If a field marshal suddenly disappears, people will notice. The chilling effect on others will stifle the input of good ideas and magnify the problem. Plus, errant field marshals who have not been properly deleted from your system may resent it and cause other system malfunctions as they interact in harmful ways with otherwise benign applications.

To address this issue, and illustrate how to handle the Legacy Field Marshal issue, we herewith provide you with our custom guide - courtesy of Adolf Hitler and a few others - "How to Fire A Field Marshal."

Our Case Studies

There were no active field marshals in the German Army (Wehrmacht) when Adolf Hitler conducted his mass field marshal promotions on 19 July 1940 (aside from several retired officers and Hermann Goering, who is a special case more akin to a Vice President). On that date, Hitler promoted the following individuals to the rank of field marshal (Generalfeldmarschall):

  • Fedor von Bock
  • Wilhelm List
  • Walther von Brauchitsch
  • Albert Kesselring
  • Wilhelm Keitel
  • Günther von Kluge
  • Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb
  • Walther von Reichenau
  • Gerd von Rundstedt
  • Hugo Sperrle
  • Erwin von Witzleben
  • Erhard Milch
For purposes of this article, we shall take this list as our universe of field marshals (though a few more names will creep in as confirmation of the factors discussed). Information about these field marshals is plentiful (not always the case elsewhere, particularly in nations which weren't later conquered such as the Soviet Union). They all were able to serve a normal service span of time under reasonably stable conditions. While Hitler later also promoted several other Generals to the rank of field marshal, their stories and fates, by and large, are not dissimilar to those of the men listed.

German field marshals Kesselring Colonel Hippel
Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, left, with Oberst (Colonel) Ferdinand Hippel in Italy, August/September 1944. Kesselring was quite possibly the most successful of Hitler's field marshals because he kept it light, smiled a lot, never really questioned Hitler, and got the job done when that was possible (Demmer, Federal Archive).
Of the twelve field marshals on the list, several performed to Hitler's satisfaction - generally with slavish devotion - and more or less served until the end of the war despite some having occasional periods of time "on the outs" (Kesselring, Keitel, von Rundstedt, Sperrle). Others either resigned, died suddenly, committed treason, or were superseded by others because they never really filled the function of field marshal in the first place (von Leeb, von Brauchitsch, von Kluge, von Witzleben, von Reichenau, Milch). That leaves Fedor von Bock and Wilhelm List, both of whom were active field commanders working diligently for the good of the Fatherland at the time of their dismissals. They both were maneuvering large armies against the enemy when they were summarily relieved of their duties, never to receive employment again. The reasons for their downfall were obscure and subject to differing interpretations, but there were some overriding factors which are outlined below.

German field marshals Erwin Rommel
Johannes Erwin Eugen Rommel is everyone's favorite field marshal (elevated at the height of his success on 22 June 1942) because of his opposition to Hitler and the fact that both the German and British media turned him into a propaganda hero. The things that made him an outstanding field general - a focus on reality and not wishful thinking, firm opinions, priority on results and not currying favor with his superiors - turned him into a mediocre field marshal who ultimately joined the conspirators (Otto, Federal Archives). 
There are great similarities in the way that Hitler managed and then terminated von Bock and List. There were unique pressures faced by German field marshals throughout the war which led to its cataclysmic defeat in the Soviet Union. Let's take a look at them.


German field marshals Fuhrer Directive No. 21 Operation Barbarossa
An original copy of Fuhrer Directive No. 21, "Operation Barbarossa," issued 18 December 1940. In this directive, the plan was to occupy the Soviet Union up to the line of the Volga. This meant that Stalingrad was as far east as the Wehrmacht was supposed to go.
There are many ways to conduct a war. You may, for instance, create extremely detailed plans, with everything properly planned out in advance. There can be step-by-step objectives spelled out in carefully constructed operational orders, all united behind one supreme effort evincing a national commitment to achieve a significant, well-defined objective of true strategic value. If this does not lead to satisfactory results, the blame accrues to the person who stupidly decided to invade that massive country with the really cold winters in the first place.

This is not how the German offensive of 1942 was conducted.

German field marshals Keitel Hitler Halder map table
Field Marshal Keitel (left), Colonel General Halder and Hitler. The Fuhrer would base all of his decisions on a 1:1000 map which often created misimpressions, such as lines indicating roads that actually were little more than goat-tracks (Russian Defense Ministry).
Or, on the other hand, you can simply stab at the map and say, "Take Leningrad! No wait, don't take Leningrad yet!" while constantly shifting large formations hither and yon and making it virtually impossible to achieve all of your objectives. This makes taking the initial objective almost irrelevant because every time it drifts into the realm of possibility, the objective shifts to somewhere else. Or, if the initial objective does fall, the amount of force used to take it can be challenged: since things went so well, why did you use so many troops that were needed elsewhere?

This latter case is essentially the situation faced by our two field marshals, Fedor von Bock, and Wilhelm List.

Von Bock

Fedor von Bock commanded Army Group Center during the first six months of Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. During the advance toward Moscow, von Bock commanded his forces well. Many leading commanders in the German Army (Heer) always had preferred the main effort in the direction of Moscow. It was the administrative and transportation center of the entire Soviet Union. Hitler, however, had made clear that he preferred to focus on capturing Leningrad, then work his way south toward Moscow only later. Hitler to one extent or another finally realized that Moscow was important, but only after finding that his forces could not take Leningrad.

German field marshals Fedor von Bock Time Magazine
Field Marshal Fedor von Bock on the cover of Time Magazine, 8 December 1941. He became famous worldwide during the failed 1941 drive on Moscow.
Once Operation Typhoon, the assault on Moscow, was launched, Von Bock's advance on Moscow in mid-October came as close as the Wehrmacht ever did to routing the Red Army. Panic gripped the elites in Moscow. However, the German success was an illusion, as Soviet Premier Josef Stalin had sufficient reserves and unexpected armor forces to slow the Germans down long enough for the weather to rob the Wehrmacht of its advantages. After Hitler's late change of heart, logistical issues for Operation Typhoon ate up valuable campaigning weather and gave the Soviets time to fortify Moscow. The end of 1941 found the Germans with neither Leningrad nor Moscow and no prospects for taking either. On 18 December, Hitler relieved von Bock from his command of Army Group Center (along with numerous other generals), assigning to them the blame for his own errors.

German field marshals Hitler von Bock
Adolf Hitler and Fedor von Bock.
While an ornery character who tended to be outspoken, von Bock also was extremely capable. When another field Marshal, Walter von Reichenau, passed away from a heart attack, Hitler returned von Bock to command, this time of Army Group South, in mid-January 1942. Having been led prudently by Field Marshal von Rundstedt during the majority of Operation Barbarossa, Army Group South was in the best shape of the three army groups. Hitler decided to make his main effort using this force in 1942 while the other fronts more or less remained static.


During the spring of 1941, Field Marshal Siegmund Wilhelm Walther List led the German forces involved in Operation Marita, the conquest of Yugoslavia and Greece. List proved particularly suited to this task. It involved delicate negotiations with the Bulgarians, who were terrified of upsetting the Soviets by allowing Wehrmacht troops on their territory. Given command of 12th Army, List's forces - including four armored divisions and 11 panzer grenadier divisions - swamped both the Yugoslavian and Greek armies. It was the last unalloyed German military success of the war. However, many later historians blame this operation for depriving the main Wehrmacht forces involved in Operation Barbarossa of such a large force during what could have been the decisive opening campaign of the war against the Soviet Union. That wasn't List's fault, he just did what he was told to do, and did it well.

German field marshals German 1942 campaign Caucasus
The 1942 German summer offensive was about one thing and one thing only: oil. Stalingrad was important to the Germans only as a place to block Soviet counterattacks as forces further south - led by Field Marshal List - seized the oil. 
Hitler's plan for 1942 involved a focused effort to capture the oil fields in the Caucasus. He commented that he wanted "only the best commanders" involved. Hitler chose List, who had remained so successfully in the Balkans, to command a large force that he was planning to split off from Army Group South in order to accomplish this mission. This force, which was assembled under the cover name Coastal Staff Azov, eventually became Army Group A. Its mission was to occupy the entire Caucasus region from Rostov south to the Turkish border. If this were accomplished, it would assure Germany's oil supplies forever.

Step 1: Give The Field Marshal a Vague Mission of Huge Importance, But Change the Mission as it Starts to Succeed

Von Bock

The blueprint for the advance of Army Group South under Field Marshal von Bock in the summer of 1942 was contained in Fuhrer Directive (Weisung) No. 41, "Case Blue" (the code name later changed due to a security breach, but that is how everyone remembers it). Case Blue projected an offensive in four stages, proceeding from the north (the vicinity of Voronezh) to the south (the Caucasus). The directive contained sweeping objectives which barely took into account Soviet military resistance; successful attainment of the initial objectives, upon which all subsequent operations depended, was simply assumed. In fact, the directive made assumptions about the Soviets, in particular, that they would stand their ground and wait to be encircled southwest of Rostov.

German field marshals von Bock
Field Marshal Fedor von Bock.
While the German high command built up forces for the advance into the Caucasus, the Soviets launched a major offensive against von Bock's troops. Their aim was to capture Kharkov, the center of the German position in the south. This turned into a disaster for the Soviets, as the Germans adopted Hitler's favorite strategy of "holding the corner posts" of a Soviet breakthrough, then sealing off the eruption at its base. The Germans took hundreds of thousands of prisoners, and a huge gap opened in the Soviet lines right where the Germans had planned to attack. It was a stroke of luck.

German field marshals Voronezh 24 Panzer Division
Field Marshal von Bock expected a battle for Voronezh, and prudently prepared accordingly. Here, 2,/Krad. Btl 4 of 24 Panzer Division reconnoiters Voronezh in early July - and finds virtually no Soviet troops there at all.
As set forth in the Blau directive, the first phase of the offensive was for von Bock to send his forces due east to take Voronezh. The rain was more of a hindrance to the German advance than Soviet resistance because the Soviet soldiers ran for the Don River as soon as the Germans attacked. Stalin was worried about Voronezh; while the Germans were looking at the map and focusing on the south, Stalin looked at the same map and saw that Voronezh was an excellent jump-off point for an encirclement of Moscow from the south. Accordingly, he shifted the 6th, 60th, 63rd, and 5th Tank Armies out of reserve and toward the line of the Don. The stage seemed set for a massive battle for Voronezh, and von Bock shifted his armored forces toward the city, from south to north.


Field Marshal List spent the first half of 1942 watching the Balkans, where he was the Southeastern Theater commander. Fuhrer Directive 41, which outlined the overall strategy of the summer campaign, was dated 5 April, but not even Army Group South - which it impacted directly - received it until 10 April. On 14 April, the OKH began creating an army group staff for him, but it is unclear when, exactly, he found out that he was going to assume a vital command at the spearhead of the summer offensive.

German field marshals List Hitler
Hitler reviewing operations in Poland with Colonel General List. Wilhelm Keitel and Alfred Jodl are behind Hitler (Heinrich Hoffmann).
From the start, there was massive confusion about what List's Army Group A was going to accomplish. Army Group South issued Directive No. 1 at the end of April which projected List's army group would be the one responsible for taking Stalingrad, and then driving south into the Caucasus. Army Group B, meanwhile, would be tasked with the important mission of holding the north flank of the acquired territory from Voronezh down to the vicinity of Stalingrad, freeing Army Group to handle all operations from Stalingrad south to the Turkish border. OKH gradually built up a special force for List behind the lines, all part of the fictional "Coastal Staff Azov." Field Marshal von Bock, commanding Army Group South, did not know what troops were there, or where they might be located. On 9 July, List's Coastal Staff Azov became Army Group A, and his troops went into the line.

German field marshals Panzers steppe
The Soviets were retreating, and the Germans were scattered all over the steppe looking for them.
Meanwhile, however, things had changed. The Soviets were retreating everywhere, barely pretending to make a stand forward of the Don River. Army Group B's main force, Sixth Army, encountered almost no opposition as it drifted south - its main problem was getting fuel for its tanks. At this stage, according to the original plan, Sixth Army should have advanced to just north of Stalingrad and stopped. However, Hitler and OKH believed that it was time to throw out the original plan and take advantage of the evident Soviet military disintegration. However, they did keep part of the original plan - the wrong part, the part that was uncannily similar to the attempted encirclement to the north that had ruined von Bock. The original thinking for Blau was that the strong Soviet forces at Rostov - the ones that had kicked the Germans out of there at the end of 1941 - could be surrounded as they were slowly pushed south of Rostov. This, of course, assumed that they would stand and fight for Rostov again - any thought to the contrary was inconceivable to Hitler and his cronies. So, Hitler insisted on sending forces west after they had hooked around Rostov on the east (this is very similar to the Allied plan during the breakout from Normandy, incidentally). However, there was a problem - the Soviets weren't staying in Rostov any more than they had stayed west of the Don on von Bock's front. They were heading south, all right, but as fast as their trucks and legs could take them. Instead of a river, there was the security of the mountain range along the coast in this sector. Rather than drift south and be captured, as Hitler expected, they ran like mice being chased by a cat. Some slow Soviets got caught south of Rostov, sure, but not nearly enough to make the encirclement worthwhile. Heading west just gave the Soviets to the southeast time to rebuild their forces, and also caused - you guessed it - supply problems for the Germans It also wasted time - which was becoming precious because winter was coming, and quickly in the mountains.

German field marshals Hitler Paulus
Hitler discussing strategy with General Paulus, to Hitler's left. While Hitler thought very highly of Paulus and even promoted him to Field Marshal at the end of the Stalingrad battle, Paulus was militarily uncreative. He turned Stalingrad into a street fight that his stretched forces could not win, and he refused to start a breakout himself while still feasible because nobody would order him to do it.
At this point, two military terms come into play. One is "maintenance of the objective." Because the Soviets were running - reports on the Soviet side suggest that everyone was living out of trucks so they could escape quickly - Sixth Army had an easy time coasting down the Don toward Stalingrad. On the 17th, Hitler suddenly expanded Army Group B's responsibilities to include "gaining ground in the direction of Stalingrad." On 19 July, the objective changed again: Sixth Army was to leave skeleton forces along the Don River line and "take possession of Stalingrad by a daring high-speed assault." Thus, Army Group B's relatively light force, worn out by first advancing to the Don, then marching down it, was to both hold the Don River and take Stalingrad.

German field marshals Maykop oil fields burning
The commander of a Panzer III observes the burning oil wells of Maykop. Hitler was obsessed with getting the oil, and indeed his men took the ground - but the oil was unrecoverable (Federal Archive).
The second military term that comes into play is "mission creep." The original plan for Army Group A of taking Stalingrad and then heading south now expanded dramatically. Rather than take care of the original Blau III itself (the capture of Stalingrad), Army Group A was to engage in an entirely new multi-stage mission to the south. Called Operation Edelweiss, Army Group first would trap the enemy forces holding out south of Rostov. Then, it would take the Black Sea coast and the oil fields around Maykop. Finally, it would separate off a large force to head southeast to Baku, the true prize in the Caucasus - hundreds of miles away. And, all this was to be accomplished with only another two months of good campaigning weather left in 1942 and the panzers already having trouble getting fuel.

German field marshals Stalingrad railway line
The end of the line at Stalingrad. The Wehrmacht could not survive in areas without railroads, as virtually all their supplies and reinforcements flowed over them. They spent countless man-hours building and repairing rail lines (Heine, Federal Archive).
It is tempting to pooh-pooh qualms about this mission creep with the truism "hindsight is 20/20." However, it was obvious at the time - to the few who saw it developing. Field Marshal von Bock gives two gifts to the military historian: he had an outstanding grasp of basic military strategy and confiding it to his diary, and he wasn't shy about telling his opinions to others from time to time, either. With Army Group B heading due east toward Stalingrad, and Army Group A to the southwest - to cut off the retreating Soviets - he observed that the battle now was "sliced in two." Regardless of how respective forces were juggled, the German summer offensive now became two completely different offensives - both relying on the same supply line (a single intact railroad line, in fact). It does not take a von Bock to see what kinds of trouble this could invite.

German field marshals Caucasus mountain troops
Winter hits very early along the Caucasus mountain range. List warned that the snow begins there around mid-September. Winter 1942/43 (Poetsch, Federal Archives).
At first, things went well - sort of. However, when Sixth Army ran into resistance at Stalingrad, Hitler transferred a big chunk of List's armored forces (most of General Hoth's Fourth Panzer Army) to encircle the city from the southwest. Since the Soviets were still running, though, this did not seem like a big deal. And the Soviets were still running - List did not capture the Soviet defenders south of Rostov as planned, because they literally "ran for the hills" - the Caucasus mountain range which includes the highest mountain in Europe. List's forces took Maykop on the fly and then got halfway through the mountains. There were several mountain passes to choose, and he sent detachments through several of them, one group toward Tuapse and another two further east. The Soviet resistance started stiffening in the mountains, but the offensive was far ahead of schedule.

Step II: Meet with the Field Marshal - and Bamboozle Him

Von Bock

With Army Group South advancing rapidly toward the Don River, von Bock swung his forces north in the direction of the only substantial objective north of Stalingrad: Voronezh. A glance at a large-scale map shows that Voronezh stands, very roughly, about midway between Stalingrad and Moscow. With their main force concentrations arrayed to protect Moscow, it was the logical spot for a Soviet stand, particularly as it stood on the far bank of the river. Knowing that the rest of the river line would be relatively easy to occupy once Voronezh was secured, von Bock decided to make sure that he took and, more importantly, held the city.

German field marshals Soviet anti-tank troops
Von Bock expected Voronezh to be defended by hordes of Soviet units like these Soviet soldiers using PTRS-41 (Simonov) 14.5mm anti-tank rifles. What he found was quite different.
At this point, Hitler decided to pay von Bock a little visit - and it was a very little visit indeed. Flying to von Bock's headquarters at Poltava, Hitler seemed to be in a good mood - at least to von Bock. Without giving von Bock any orders or appearing concerned about anything, Hitler put von Bock "at liberty" to not take Voronezh if it would involve too much effort. This seemed fine to von Bock, who appreciated receiving dispensation in advance should problems develop at the city. After spending only about an hour or two at Bock's command post, Hitler got back in his Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor and flew back to East Prussia without uttering any indication of displeasure.

German field marshals Hitler Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor
Hitler arriving at a typical meeting. He only wanted people around him who admired him and displayed devotion - his pilot, Hans Baur, for instance, called him "our dad" (Unser Vati).
Everything seemed to be going well for von Bock at this point. He had taken his army group's main objective, and now just had to occupy and garrison one of the largest rivers in southern Russia. However, you know the old expression - maybe it's going too well. Despite some momentary scares, von Bock's large force easily crossed the Don and took Voronezh without firing a shot. For whatever reason, the Soviets had decided to abandon the city. This fed Hitler's belief that the Soviets were now completely defeated, as for why else would they so easily give up such a strategic city? Leaving infantry to guard the city, Von Bock then somewhat belatedly sent all his armor and Sixth Army southeast along the Don.

German field marshals wrecked Soviet vehicles Don River
The panzers could crush Soviet columns when they encountered them - as here in July 1942. However, getting at them was a problem when there wasn't enough fuel for the tanks. (Baur, Federal Archive).
This is when problems developed. Hitler's appetite for conquest had expanded dramatically due to the lack of Soviet resistance. He now felt that the Wehrmacht could occupy all of the southern Soviet Union. To do this, however, he needed his panzers several hundred miles south of where they were - around Voronezh. The problem that developed was not the Soviets, who were still running literally for the hills (and the rivers) - it was motor fuel. The tanks around Voronezh started grinding south toward Stalingrad, but weeks were lost along the way because there wasn't enough fuel allocated for them. Still, this seemed like only a minor problem, as Sixth Army's infantry was grinding southward and actually outpacing the tank formations.


With List halfway through the Caucasus mountain range, suddenly things changed: the Soviets stopped running. Instead of abandoning Stalingrad, the Soviet high command (Stavka) decided to mount a major defense of the city. In addition, sufficient forces had retreated to the far side of the Caucasus mountain range for the Soviets to mount a solid defense. It greatly helped them that there were no roads that crossed the mountains - the all at one point or another degenerated into narrow goat paths. The German panzers were useless in the mountains, and the only way to take the coast was over the mountains. The developing problem at Stalingrad hurt List's advance because the attack on the city drew off all of his air support. This turned the fight for the mountains into a pure infantry exercise at which the German army had no particular advantage over the Soviet soldiers. List warned on 26 August that, without substantial reinforcements and the return of his air support, further advances in the mountains before the snows there began in the middle of September were extremely unlikely.

German field marshals List
Field Marshal List.
At this point, Hitler decided to have a talk with List. Summoning him to his brand new Werwolf headquarters just north of Vinnytsia in Ukraine on August 31st, Hitler was in a great mood. Hitler praised List for his performance so far, and mentioned only in passing that he would "rather have had the mountain corps (meaning the two detachments in the passes to the east) somewhat closer to the Tuapse road." List left the meeting with the impression that Hitler was solidly behind him and would let List decide the best approach to reaching the Black Sea coast beyond the mountain range. Hitler even helped out by authoring Bluecher II, the crossing of the Kerch Strait by German infantry and Romanian mountain division, which would increase List's ability to get over the mountain range.

German field marshals German mountain troops Caucasus mountains
German troops trying to blast their way over the Caucasus mountains, September 1942 (Ang, Federal Archives).
So, everything seemed fine for List. However, his major concern had not been addressed: there wasn't sufficient time to get across the mountains before the passes became snowed in. Hitler, however, still expected the coast to be taken. Within a week, List made the highly unusual request for OKW operations chief General Jodl to meet with him at his headquarters at Stalino (which, to be truthful, was almost as far behind the front as Hitler's headquarters). List convinced Jodl that further advances were impossible - further advances were impossible. Jodl duly went back and gave Hitler the bad news.

Step III: Dismiss the Field Marshal with a Peremptory Telegram and Never Speak to Him Again

Von Bock

As the Germans headed southeast from Voronezh and other forces headed north toward them, they kept expecting to trap large pockets of Soviet soldiers. By exerting continual pressure, the thinking went, the Soviets would be rounded up like sheep, with Sixth Army pushing them southward into the waiting arms of First Panzer Army. The two German armies would meet at Starobelsk (Starobil's'k), an insignificant administrative center south of Voronezh and east of Kharkov.

German field marshals von Bock Hoth
Field Marshal von Bock and General Hermann Hoth, commander of 4th Panzer Army, June/July 1942.
However, the Soviets weren't stopping at Starobelsk or anywhere nearby - they were heading east to get on the far side of the Don River as fast as they could trudge through the dirt. On 10 July, OKH changed the orders to head further east, and on the 11th a further move of the meeting about a hundred kilometers east to Millerovo (but double that on the few roads in the area) was planned - and General Hermann Hoth was told to "create conditions for an advance to Stalingrad." However, there was nothing special about Millerovo - it was just another dusty town in the middle of nowhere. Getting further east to the Don River while the Soviets were retreating made sense; wasting time on places like Millerovo was counterproductive.

German field marshals Don crossing 24th Panzer Division
Panzer III Auf Js of the 24th Panzer Division crossing the Don River. By the time the panzers were fueled-up and had reached the Don in the vicinity of the Don bend, the fleeing Soviets were long gone.
It was obvious to everyone what was happening - Hitler was standing over his map table and simply picking spots in the middle of nothingness where the Soviets "must" be trapped. He had been able to do this in the past when he could just ring up the panzers and have them drive around the fleeing Soviet infantry. In effect, he was trying to justify his original idea that his armies could surround and capture the Soviet forces as they had at Kharkov in May. It all looked so clean and simple on the map. "Just get the tanks to this place - no, that place - no, this other spot - why are they running out of fuel?"

German field marshals 24th Panzer Division motorcycle
Hitler sent his troops to meaningless spots in the middle of the steppe because he thought the Soviets could be surrounded. His fast troops, such as the 24th Panzer Division here, went hither and yon to no purpose simply because Hitler assumed the Soviets would stand and fight and be encircled - maybe right here, in fact. Anyone on the ground could see the Soviets weren't stopping until they got across the river. So, the Panzer divisions burned up their scarce fuel in the scrub brush, and the men got to sleep in the middle of nowhere on their sidecars - or under them when it rained. Then, Hitler blamed von Bock for their fuel problems. August/September 1942 (Sautter, Federal Archive).
However, the "fast troops" such as the Grossdeutschland and 24th Panzer Division were immobile in the valley of the Tikhaya Sosna for lack of fuel, and others were lagging as far back as Voronezh for the same reason. A major problem was the lack of roads - two spots could be 100 km apart on the map, but require a roundabout drive of 170 km, sometimes running into other German troops crossing in another direction. Plus, the roads weren't that great in the first place, often dusty cart paths. Vehicles broke down, ran out of gas, ran into retreating Soviets - it was not a situation conducive to fast movements. That meant the Germans had to rely on their infantry (who turned out to be faster than the vehicles), who at least could keep moving. However, they were no faster than Soviet infantry. Basically, the Germans were trying to out-march the Soviets, who were running for their lives and had a head start. The German infantry wasn't going to outrun a fleeing enemy who saw the protection of the Don River just ahead.

German field marshals German machine gun troops Don River
German Heavy MG 34 team at the River Don bend. Russia, July 26, 1942. Von Bock felt that aiming at random points in the middle of the endless steppe was pointless - far better to stop at the rivers and use them as both a defensive line and a place to round up Soviet prisoners. The war in southern Russia was a war of river lines, something Hitler took a long time to grasp.
Field Marshal von Bock could see all this developing, and, being a cantankerous and outspoken type, could not abide the lack of vision being displayed by his superiors - namely, Hitler. After watching this unfold for a few days, he sent OKH Chief of staff General Halder a telegram on the morning of the 13th. Trying to cut off the fleeing Soviets at Millerovo or anywhere else was profitless, he wrote. Instead of Millerovo, the panzers should head to Morozovsk, far to the southeast in the great bend of the Don River - more to set up further operations than to try to capture prisoners. The idea of surrounding troops ahead of you who are fleeing as fast as they can and are just as fast, if not faster than you are, he implies, is vapid nonsense.

German field marshals Soviet T-60 tank
The Soviets were hurrying east and letting nothing stop them. Here, a horse and wagon pass a T-60 tank (N 264 plant production) which has been abandoned by its crew near the Don River in July 1942.
That telegram sealed von Bock's fate. The problem wasn't that he was wrong - it was that he was right, and anyone in possession of the facts could see it. Hitler's strategy depended upon defeating and eliminating Soviet forces, not just driving them to more defensible positions. The ground itself was of little value to the Germans and just represented more territory over shaky supply lines to occupy and defend. In effect, von Bock implied that Hitler was completely mistaken about what was possible, that his tactics were faulty and all of this endless talk of encirclements was pointless. Such dissension was not permitted within the German hierarchy, as Hitler was never to be questioned or challenged.

German field marshals Weichs von Greiffenberg
Maximilian von Weichs, here with General Hans von Greiffenberg in 1942, later became a field marshal (1 February 1943) and commanded the withdrawal in the backwaters of Greece and Yugoslavia. He was quite capable, and Hitler hated him because, among other things, he was Catholic (Nieberle, Federal Archive).
As soon as Hitler saw von Bock's telegram, he went into a rage. He ranted about the Kharkov battle in May, when Hitler - knowing about the presence of the secret force buildup in the area for Army Group A, something kept secret from von Bock - had directed a huge victory by destroying a Soviet breakthrough while taking a huge gamble that von Bock - out of the loop - had advised against. He also raved about the fuel crisis in the panzer divisions which was preventing them from cutting off the fleeing Soviet troops on the near side of the Don - something out of von Bock's control. Field Marshal von Bock had committed the crime (in Hitler's eyes) of achieving his objectives, but not foreseeing that the Soviets would run rather than stand and fight. Shortly after the daily Fuhrer situation conference, the OKH sent von Bock a telegram relieving him of command of Army Group B (in favor of General Maximilian von Weichs, commander of 2nd Army who oversaw the catastrophe of Stalingrad) and, for good measure, transferring Fourth Panzer Army to Army Group A (a decision partially reversed before the end of the month).

German field marshals von Bock Time Magazine cover
Fedor von Bock on the 21 September 1942 cover of Time Magazine. The Germans did not publicize their command changes, so the Allies had no way of knowing that von Bock had been out of any active command for over two months.
After handing over command on the 13th of July, von Bock never commanded troops again. Hitler would have nothing to do with him, and he disappeared from view. Months later, Hitler still was fuming at von Bock, who he said (in a recently discovered transcript of a conversation on 18 September 1942) had "failed completely." However, von Bock had one of the best minds in the Wehrmacht, and his loss was felt on operations.


The advance past Rostov to the south had given the Germans possession of large amounts of largely worthless territory. There was plenty of oil there - but the Soviets had wrecked all the equipment and capped the wells. It would take years to get any production flowing, and the Soviets had plenty of other oil resources. The fields near the Don were full of grain, but the Germans did not hold them long enough, nor have the manpower, to get much of that, either. As they had further north, the Soviet troops hadn't bothered trying to defend the open steppes when a clear line of defense lay ahead: the Caucasus mountain range. The Germans took Novorossiysk at the northwestern entry to the coastal region, but there the Soviets blocked any further advance. If the Germans were going to take the coastline and its valuable ports, the only way to do so was over the mountains.

German field marshals Soviet cavalry Caucasus mountains
Russian cavalry in the Caucasus mountains, 1942. If you are wondering, "But why not use the highways?" - you're looking at one.
There were several problems with getting across the mountains. First, the passes were extremely easy to defend, and the Soviet troops had retreated in good order and had plenty of men to guard all of them. Second, the German offensive had started relatively late in the campaigning season, and already winter was approaching in the mountains - making advances even harder. Third, Stalingrad was turning into a nightmare, drawing off troops and planes. Without aerial support and sufficient trained mountain troops, getting through the passes was virtually impossible. At his meeting with General Jodl on 7 September 1942, Field Marshal List laid this out in a convincing manner. The truth was obvious: no further significant advance over the mountains was possible in 1942, and that the attempts to break through in the more southerly passes should be abandoned and the troops brought back essentially to winter quarters.

German field marshals List Halder
Field Marshal List (left) and OKH Chief of Staff General Halder.
Jodl was not a Hitler crony, but he basically just worked with whatever ideas Hitler threw out and did his best to make them successful. However, when he reported to Hitler on the 8th, he said that he agreed with List. In this, Jodl was absolutely correct, but agreeing with List meant that he disagreed with Hitler. As with von Bock, Jodl was a senior officer calling Hitler's generalship into question.

German field marshals List prison
Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm List (left) and (right) General der Pioniere Walter Kuntze after the war during the Hostages Trial. Field Marshal List was convicted of war crimes from his time in the Balkans, but was out of prison by 1952 and lived quietly until 17 August 1971.
Hitler quite predictably flew into a rage, just as he had when he received the von Bock telegram. How Jodl survived with his position intact is a mystery (surviving transcripts show that Hitler on 18 September 1942 intended to replace Jodl with General Paulus of Stalingrad fame after he took that city, but Paulus' loss was Jodl's gain), but List did not. General Keitel - the true Hitler lackey in the high command - called upon List at his headquarters and quietly fired him. Other heads rolled soon afterward, including Halder's (of whom, in the 18 September 1942 transcript, Hitler says he "cannot decide if an attack is to be made with 100 men, with six battalions or two divisions"). and Hitler showed his utter contempt for the entire officer class by taking over command of Army Group A himself. Hitler viewed operational command as of trifling importance - "This little matter of operational command is something that anyone can do," he had said when assuming command of the army from von Brauchitsch in December 1941. Events, though, proved List (and Jodl) correct - the offensive had reached its limit and would yield no more successes. Field Marshyal List, like von Bock, disappears from history after this, but he was not forgotten by his former boss: in the 18 September 1942 transcript, Hitler called him a "flabby leader."


There are many lessons to be learned from this segment of the Russian campaign. Probably the principal takeaway is that Hitler was incorrect - operational command is not something that just "anyone can do." Hitler proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that he understood nothing about operational command beyond a few general theories which worked until the Soviets grew wise to his thinking, and beyond those general concepts he was a hopeless amateur. By violating numerous military principles of strategic doctrine, and refusing to consider that anyone else might have better ideas and taking their counsel, Hitler wound up single-handedly ruining an otherwise successful campaign.

German field marshals Ferdinand Schorner
Field Marshal Ferdinand Schörner (date of rank 5 April 1945) was notorious for sending Hitler positive reports - "We cannot help but have the greatest success" - as the Reich's defenses were collapsing in 1945. He refused to talk about his World War II service in later years, only discussing his World War I deeds.
Another lesson is that it does not matter how highly placed you are - if you challenge a superior who cannot countenance being challenged, you will forfeit your position. To someone like Hitler (or Stalin), a field marshal had no more real value or power than a private. They were as disposable as men left to die in "fortresses" that were nothing of the kind. This is something to bear in mind in all spheres of life, not just the military one.

German field marshals Walter Model
After 1942, Hitler increasingly turned to men like Field Marshal Walter Model (date of rank 30 March 1944), who knew better than to cast the slightest doubt on Hitler's generalship.
Incidentally, this isn't just about Hitler (though most of it of course is). You can see some of the same general patterns being followed in other armies. In late 1940, Air Marshal Dowding was forced to attend a pointless meeting at which he had to promise to work better with the people who were actively trying to undermine him (Sholto Douglas and Leigh-Mallory). The meeting was a farce, and he was replaced shortly thereafter (and Dowding was left out of official histories of the Battle of Britain for good measure, to Prime Minister Churchill's consternation). AVM Keith Park attended the same meeting and met the exact same fate. On the other side of the pond some years later, President Truman had a high-profile meeting with General Douglas MacArthur at Wake Island on 15 October 1950 to discuss the Korean campaign, leaving MacArthur with the impression that they now were on the same page regarding strategy. Truman fired him shortly thereafter. In these ways, the manner of their dismissals was similar to those of von Bock and List. There is a definite protocol involved in canning your top military leaders that holds true across national boundaries.

German field marshals Truman MacArthur
President Truman and General MacArthur at Wake Island ( Truman has that look of, "If you only knew what I was really thinking."
The German campaign of the summer of 1942 provides a perfect lesson in the military art of what not to do. You cannot launch a massive offensive and hope to succeed if you continually change your objectives, re-allocate large forces based on day-to-day results, and completely disregard the counsel of the professionals. By firing von Bock and List, Hitler was making a statement to everyone else - do not challenge me or call my generalship into question. While he continued to work with (and fire) his other field marshals, Hitler from this point forward elevated men such as Walter Model and Ferdinand Schörner who did not question his orders but simply executed them no matter how disastrous and short-sighted they might be. The field marshals who foresaw the disastrous consequences of Hitler's amateurish generalship and challenged or even disobeyed his orders, such as Erich von Manstein (who later replaced Weichs) and Paul Ludwig Ewald von Kleist (who eventually replaced List), eventually met the same fate as von Bock and List.

German field marshals von Kleist
Field Marshal von Kleist (elevated 1 February 1943, the same day as Weichs) was perhaps the most underrated German field marshal. Hitler fired von Kleist for refusing to follow pointless Hitler orders to sacrifice his troops to no purpose. Von Kleist alone of the top German command actively supported treating the Soviet population with kindness and thereby gaining their support - perhaps the only thing that could have turned the tide. This infuriated the Soviet leadership, who later sent him to a Gulag, where von Kleist died of mistreatment.


To answer the question posed at the beginning of this article, the way to fire a field marshal is to force them, through your wayward decisions and rank amateurism, to challenge your decisions for the good of the country.  Then, hold a sham meeting at which you deceive the target into thinking everything is great, and tacitly encourage them to continue down the same path. Once you have managed to do that, a simple telegram or visit by one of your flunkies will suffice.

Anyone who has worked in a bureaucracy knows the drill.

We hope you have found this practical guide on how to fire field marshals useful. As you no doubt noticed, it sets forth how not to conduct a military campaign, along with the steps that you should not take when managing your field marshals. Basically, if you do the opposite of the steps set forth above, your operating system should return to normal function quickly.

To summarize our lessons:
  • Do not give your field marshals vague objectives that constantly change, and then later accuse them of wrongly working toward the original objectives when those were the objectives you set for them;
  • Listen to the counsel of field marshals who may, even if only occasionally, have an idea or two that would be useful and maybe even better than your own;
  • Do not assume that you alone are the authority on everything in your field and that you know more than the experts, as that is the sure road to ruin.
Thank you for reading, and we hope you rule your country with wisdom for many years. But remember... there are no refunds.

Hitler at Landsberg in 1924
Hitler had been in Landsberg Prison, put there by Army officers for instigating the failed 1923 Putsch.

Hitler returns to Landsberg as Fuhrer
Hitler had a long memory. He viewed himself as perfectly capable of running the entire Wehrmacht, individual army groups, armies and everything else in the German state - by himself. It no doubt gave him satisfaction to be able to fire even the mightiest of Army officers.


Sunday, December 11, 2016

Leni Riefenstahl, Enigmatic Auteur

Woman of Mystery

Leni Riefenstahl

Leni Riefenstahl is one of the best-known names in cinema. She also is one of the most controversial and perhaps misunderstood. Anyone who wants to understand filmmaking and the artistic process would do well to learn a bit about Leni's career. Not everybody liked or likes Riefenstahl, and not everybody admires her. However, Leni Riefenstahl created some of the most memorable films of the 20th Century and is a seminal figure in the film industry.

Leni Riefenstahl Lutz Long
Leni Riefenstahl with German long jump Olympic athlete Carl Ludwig "Lu(t)z" Long at the 1936 Olympics. Long gained notoriety within Germany during the Olympics by befriending American Jesse Owens. KIA 14 July 1943, Sicily.
Let's sweep away some of the cobwebs of time and politics to see what we can learn about the enigmatic auteur named Leni Riefenstahl.

Leni Riefenstahl
Leni working on "Triumph of the Will."
Leni was born Helene Bertha Amalie Riefenstahl on 22 August 1902 in Berlin. Her father, Alfred, was a successful businessman and saw her future as taking over his business. Leni, supported by her mother, Bertha (Scherlach), was not interested in heating and ventilation supplies, and instead began to paint and write poetry at an early age.

Leni Riefenstahl
A wartime postcard of Leni, playing off of her reputation derived from her breakthrough films "Der Heilige Berg" (The Holy Mountain) (1926) and "Das Blaue Licht" (The Blue Light) (1932).
An athletic girl, Leni participated in sports (swimming, gymnastics), and in 1918 she saw a dance portrayal of "Snow White" (long before Walt Disney's film) and decided to become a dancer. Bertha enrolled Leni in the Grimm-Reiter Dance School in Berlin. Her love of athletics paid off handsomely in her dancing, and before long Leni was traveling with a dance troupe produced by Harry R. Sokal. While not a big celebrity, Leni was making good money for the time. The rest of Germany was suffering under the burdens of war debts and economic, but, not for the last time, Leni danced her way above all that.

Leni Riefenstahl

As any serious dancer will tell you, the Achilles Heel of any veteran is indeed the heel and feet. Like many talented dancers before and since Leni's feet eventually gave out and she required surgery. Fortuitously, while on her way to a doctor's appointment, Leni spied a poster for "Der Berg des Schickals" (The Mountain of Destiny" (1924). This inspired Leni to investigate the film scene, and she soon met Luis Trenker, one of the actors in the film, and also the film's director Arnold Fanck. Things did not just fall into Leni's lap: she made things happen. Arnold Fanck liked the plucky young dancer and cast her in some of his films, including "Der Heilige Berg" (The Holy Mountain) (1926) and "Der große Sprung" (The Big Leap) (1927). In no time at all - just like that - Leni Riefenstahl was one of the biggest names in German cinema.

Leni Riefenstahl

Like so many actors, Leni wasn't satisfied with being a pop star with a growing fan base overseas: she also wanted to direct. The annals of filmdom are littered with celebrity actors who thought they would make better directors than the professional directors actually directing them, but ultimately couldn't; Leni Riefenstahl does not fall into that group. She formed her own production company - Leni Riefenstahl Produktion - and hired Béla Balázs to help direct and write "Das Blaue Licht" (The Blue Light) (1932). The film's theme resonates quite closely with Leni's own life in some ways, as it portrays an earnest young woman who is misunderstood and hated and, ultimately, betrayed. Balázs - a brilliant Jewish Communist who had helped adapt Bertolt Brecht's "The 3 Penny Opera" for the cinema - basically collaborated on the project in both writing and directing. Harry R. Sokal - the man who had brought her to fame originally in his dance troupe - co-produced with Leni.

Leni Riefenstahl

"The Blue Light" was a decent film, using a new R-Stock Agfa film and with the entire production filmed on location, practically a first for a sound feature. A typical German "mountain film," it even won the Silver Medal at the Venice Film Festival. However, the local critics were not kind (though overseas critics in, for example, The New York Times, The New York Herald Tribune, and The New York Sun loved its raw beauty). Leni - like many creators before and since - blamed the critics. Leni passed the entire project off as hers and later had both Balázs and Sokal removed from the credits. Was it because Leni was an egomaniac, or because they were both Jewish? Nobody can say for sure. However, there also is a possible third explanation: it may just have been a marketing decision. By 1938, when she removed the two men from the credits, Leni was a huge star, bigger than ever before, because of the intercession of one man: Adolf Hitler. However.... it definitely is bad form to do that, no matter the reason.

Leni Riefenstahl

Hitler loved "The Blue Light." As a boy in Vienna, Hitler had often climbed the nearby mountains and admired the craggy Austrian scenery. "The Blue Light" is chock full of stark vistas and moody scenery that were evocative to someone who had spent much of his boyhood in those mountains. Hollywood also was calling - Leni next starred in a US/German co-production "SOS Eisberg" (SOS Iceberg), a Titanic picture - but Leni did not want to leave Germany. After hearing Hitler at a rally in 1932, Leni became a fan, and the feeling was mutual: Hitler reportedly felt that Leni Riefenstahl was the ideal German female. They began to correspond, and there were rumors that they became more than just pen-pals (rumors Leni later hotly denied).

Leni Riefenstahl

Hitler did not just want to correspond with Leni, he also wanted to use her (no, not that way... well, maybe that way). He asked Leni to make a documentary about the upcoming 1933 Nuremberg Party Rally, with all costs covered by Hitler's NSDAP. Leni was reluctant to take the offer. As Riefenstahl later recalled:
Shortly after he came to power, Hitler called me to see him and explained that he wanted a film about a Party Congress, and wanted me to make it. My first reaction was to say that I did not know anything about the way such a thing worked or the organisation of the Party, so that I would obviously photograph all the wrong things and please nobody - even supposing that I could make a documentary, which I had never yet done. Hitler said that this was exactly why he wanted me to do it: because anyone who knew all about the relative importance of the various people and groups and so on might make a film that would be pedantically accurate, but this was not what he wanted. He wanted a film showing the Congress through a non-expert eye, selecting just what was most artistically satisfying - in terms of spectacle, I suppose you might say. He wanted a film which would move, appeal to, impress an audience which was not necessarily interested in politics.
Leni accepted Hitler's offer, and the result - "Der Sieg des Glaubens" (Victory of the Faith) (1933) - was good enough to cause Hitler to ask Leni to film the following year's party rally as well.

Hitler with Leni Riefenstahl
Hitler in a lighter moment with Leni Riefenstahl.
However, Hitler came to loathe this film because it featured footage of Ernst Röhm, head of the SA (Brownshirts) - who Hitler had just had shot after confronting him personally during the "Night of the Long Knives" purge. Hitler ordered all copies of the film destroyed. One print alone survived, and it was found somewhat ironically in Great Britain. Hitler, despite his best efforts in 1940, could not get his hands on that copy to destroy it. The copy was only there because Leni had visited England and left a print as part of a promotional tour. The film was not re-discovered until around 2000 but now is widely available again due to finding that single copy.

Leni Riefenstahl
Photo of Leni Riefenstahl by Martin Munkacsi.
Unlike "The Blue Light," "Victory of the Faith" was a box office success. Of course, nobody in Germany at the time could say anything bad about the film for obvious reasons, but it really is a competent, artistic depiction of a typical mass rally. Unfortunately, it is virtually impossible for anyone to watch films about Party rallies and praise them without bringing politics into it, so objective viewpoints are scarce. "The Victory of the Faith" does suffer from being a rush job, with Leni basically just showing up at the last minute with a film crew. In any event, "Victory of the Faith" was merely the appetizer before the main course.

Leni Riefenstahl
Martin Munkacsi, Leni Riefenstahl, 1931. Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery.
The 1934 Nuremberg Rally was slated to be the largest of them all, with over a million participants. Hitler had liquidated all opposition earlier in the year during the Infamous Night of the Long Knives, and President Hindenburg had passed away without being replaced, removing all pretense that Germany was anything but a dictatorship. Thus, the 1934 Party Rally had special significance in the history of the German state.

Hitler with her patron, apparently at the Berghof.
According to Riefenstahl in later years, Hitler had to talk her into directing another film about a party rally, and she did it only on the condition that she would not have to do anymore. As with so many things about Leni Riefenstahl, whether the Fuhrer had to do much persuading at all is... enigmatic.

Leni Riefenstahl

Rather than starting from scratch, Leni used "Victory of the Faith" as a framework for the new film, a structure to which she added emendations, embellishments, and new techniques. Given a budget of about 280,000RM (approx. $110K USD 1934, $1.54M 2015), Leni was able to make use of many other talented artists of the time who were being compensated by the Propaganda Ministry.

Leni Riefenstahl
Feb. 17, 1936 cover of TIME magazine featuring Leni Riefenstahl, who by now was an international film star (photo by Martin Munkacsi).
The foremost of these collaborators was Hitler's personal architect, Albert Speer. It was Speer who came up with the remarkable "cathedral of light" shows, for instance, which involved banks of searchlights. Riefenstahl had time and money herself, though, to come up with numerous innovations. These included digging pits in front of speaker platforms so that she could get good camera angles, tracks, and dollies for moving shots, and many other techniques. The Propaganda Ministry supplied all sorts of logistical help, giving her an immense film crew and access to virtually anything that she wanted.

Leni Riefenstahl
A German postcard featuring Leni Riefenstahl showing her, as usual, in climbing gear.
However, all these techniques required some compromises. Sometimes things weren't filmed adequately at the time so Leni would bring speakers back into the film studio to "recreate" their performances. Thus, not everything seen in the film is exactly "as it happened." This creates some doubt as to whether the resulting film, "Triumph des Willens" (Triumph of the Will) (1935), is really a documentary, or rather a purely propagandistic effort.

Leni Riefenstahl
An early glamor shot of Leni Riefenstahl.
Most would admit, in any event, that "Triumph of the Will" really is a triumph in the sense that it delivers. Many very subtle political techniques are introduced that are still used to great effect to this day. The prime example is the way Hitler is shown flying to attend the rally; everyone is waiting for him as he flies over the Fatherland. In one sequence, this absolutely stamps the entire country as Hitler's, and his arrival as the highpoint of the film. When you see politicians in the present era making a big show of driving to the venue while everyone sits and waits for them, or showing up to an adoring crowd in their fancy airplanes, they are simply practicing the same techniques as Riefenstahl uses in "Triumph of the Will."

Leni Riefenstahl
A young Leni Riefenstahl with her younger brother.
With the dramatic success of "Triumph of the Will," Leni was the top documentary filmmaker not just in Germany, but in film history. Despite her later protestations that she never wanted to do any more Party films, she followed up "Triumph of the Will" with a little-known film about the 1935 party rally, "Tag der Freiheit: Unsere Wehrmacht (Day of Freedom: Our Armed Forces). The following year, Hitler would preside over the Olympics, and he asked Riefenstahl to immortalize that as well. Leni went all-out, even visiting Greece to show the first leg of the torch relay and amplifying upon all the techniques used in "Triumph of the Will."

Leni Riefenstahl

The resulting film, "Olympia," was groundbreaking. Riefenstahl combines athleticism with art to create one of the most beautiful depictions of the human form ever committed to film. By using extreme close-ups and slow motion, Riefenstahl celebrates the human form in a way that never has been duplicated. Of course, these now are recognized as "Fascist imagery," but they are still beautiful outside of the political context. Other techniques that have been copied, but never topped, include underwater shots, panoramic shots of the stadium, and brilliant editing.

Leni Riefenstahl

"Olympia" is widely acclaimed, and deservedly so. However, the complaints raised about "Triumph of the Will" are even louder. Many shots were "recreated," so that if the print of the actual event wasn't good enough, the athlete simply did it again for the film crew later. Other shots were taken from preliminary competition heats or even from non-competitive practices. Some scenes apparently were created out of whole cloth, though the results of the competitions are not changed. These techniques, some viewers believe, take "Olympia" out of the realm of "documentaries" and into a nebulous region lying somewhere between fact and fiction. Most people, however, probably view "Olympia" as the best documentary of all time, bar none.

Leni Riefenstahl

"Olympia" premiered on 20 April 1938, Hitler's birthday, and was an astounding success. It later was broken up into two separate films. Riefenstahl went on an international publicity tour. This included a stop in bustling Detroit, where she met Henry Ford, who was very current on events in Germany and in fact received a personal award from the Reich that year. Leni also visited Hollywood, where Walt Disney, a hot commodity following the recent success of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves," personally gave Leni an extended tour of the creative process going on during the production of "Fantasia" (1940). Leni conceivably could have just stayed in Hollywood like so many other German émigrés of the 1930s, but she chose to return to Germany to make more documentary films for Hitler while also pursuing her career as a feature film star.

Leni Riefenstahl

The following year, Germany invaded Poland. Leni followed the troops to film war scenes. In an infamous incident, Leni was present during a massacre of 30 Poles in the town of Końskie. As with so many other things relating to Leni, what that meant to her is unclear - she later claimed that a Wehrmacht soldier brandished a gun at her to stop her from filming, though there doesn't seem to be any other evidence of that (everyone knew that she was Hitler's favorite, and a German soldier threatening her in any way seems unlikely). She filmed Hitler's victory parade a few weeks later. The entire affair, however, seems to have dissuaded her from making any more films chronicling the Reich's military activities.

Leni Riefenstahl
Leni with Georg Gyssling, the Germans' man on the scene in Los Angeles.
The fact that Leni did no more filmmaking for the Reich, however, does not mean that she suddenly turned against the regime or the war effort. In fact, she sent a congratulatory telegram to Hitler on 14 June 1940 - the day that Paris fell - full of ecstasy for the advance of the Wehrmacht:
With indescribable joy, deeply moved and filled with burning gratitude, we share with you, my Führer, your and Germany's greatest victory, the entry of German troops into Paris. You exceed anything human imagination has the power to conceive, achieving deeds without parallel in the history of mankind. How can we ever thank you?
As with many other things, Leni later had difficulty explaining this. She passed it off as simply being glad that the war (she thought) was over.

Leni Riefenstahl

With her reputation secure and no longer interested in filming for the Germans, Leni returned to normal film-making. She filmed "Tiefland" (Lowland) in the fall of 1940, and this embroiled her in more controversy. Filmed at Krün near Mittenwald, "Tiefland" required the use of numerous extras to play gypsies. She could not film in Spain for political reasons, but there were many suitable candidates close at hand: in the Maxglan concentration (transit) camp. Numerous Roma were interned there, and Riefenstahl convinced the camp commandant, SS Sturmbannfuhrer Anton Bohmer, to let her use 68 of them on a continuing basis. The story goes that one of them, a ten-year-old girl named Rosa Winter, escaped from the camp but later was recaptured. Riefenstahl apparently got upset that the girl would have inconvenienced her production and demanded an apology. It was a weird intersection of reality and fantasy that perhaps only another filmmaker would appreciate. Rosa and her mother eventually got sent to Ravensbruck, where her mother perished. Rosa later commented:
I can never forgive her for the fact that although it was totally in her power to save her extras and knowing the fate they faced, she did nothing.
World War II was full of stark moral choices for everyone in Germany.

Leni Riefenstahl

Jealousy also reared its ugly head. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's Minister of Propaganda, did not like Riefenstahl. Why he felt this way is not completely clear, but Goebbels was a well-known skirt-chaser who may have tried to chase Leni's skirt... and failed. He now did everything that he could to ruin Leni's "Tiefland." When Leni asked G.W. Pabst, who had directed her years earlier in "Die weiße Hölle vom Piz Palü" (The White Hell of Piz Palu) (1929), to direct her own scenes in Tiefland, Goebbels intervened and hired Pabst away for other projects. Arnold Fanck, her original mentor, agreed to help, but then suddenly - for unknown reasons - changed his attitude during filming and left for "creative differences." Goebbels then booked the interior sets that she needed at Berlin's Studio Babelsberg for another film which he claimed had better propaganda value (Hans Steinhoff's tedious "Ohm Kruger" (1941)). Later, studio supervisor Fritz Hippler destroyed the sets that she needed, with Goebbels pointedly claiming to have had nothing to do with it. All sorts of other delays stretched the production out for two years, but even with Hitler's consistent support and funding from Martin Bormann, the film production struggled.

Leni Riefenstahl
Leni Riefenstahl directing "Olympia."
The "Tiefland" saga drained Riefenstahl. She relocated the production several times, filming in Spain, setting up quarters in Kitzbuhel, venturing to Poland's Barrandov Studios to escape the bombing. The same problems erupted there; the sets she needed would suddenly become unavailable, and key people such as cinematographer Albert Benitz became unavailable. In 1944, she saw Hitler for the last time, when she married a stuntman, Major Peter Jacob (they divorced immediately after the war). Her father and younger brother perished on the Russian front. Through all this, Riefenstahl continued working on "Tiefland," and by fall she was into post-production. The collapse of the German state was almost inconsequential - she simply kept editing in Kitzbuhel. Anybody involved in the creative process can recognize how single-minded and focused you can get on a project, but this was the ultimate in self-absorption. Finally, weeks after Germany's surrender, the film was completed.

Leni Riefenstahl
"The Blue Light."
Riefenstahl sent the film negative to Bolzano for safekeeping (much of it became lost after it was confiscated by the French authorities) and went to Mayerhofen, a small village in the Tyrol. Her old "friends" turned their backs on her, viewing her as a Hitler supporter. The Americans finally tracked her down and arrested her while she was hitchhiking with some men. After that, the record becomes a blur; apparently, security was lax, and she escaped (several times) from her holding camp. Author Budd Schulberg interrogated her and was not impressed when she flatly denied being "political." Walter Winchell called her "pretty as a Swastika." Ultimately, the Americans decided that she was merely a "fellow traveler" and released her from house arrest in 1948.

Leni Riefenstahl
Leni Riefenstahl working on a project in Spain during the war.
The war was over, and so was Leni's film career. She ultimately forced the French to return her old film stock, but "Tiefland" was a mess. She pulled it together as best she could and released it on 11 February 1954 in Stuttgart. The public was indifferent, and while she claimed that the attendant publicity tour in Austria was a "rousing success," nobody was interested in bankrolling her for more films. Jean Cocteau, however, liked the film and got it into the Cannes Film Festival. While Cocteau remained a friend and potential colleague, they never collaborated on any films.

Leni Riefenstahl
"Triumph of the Will."
The next decade was full of attempts by Leni to re-start her film career, all of which fell apart. She began traveling to Africa, where she lived among the Nuba tribes. Her photographs appeared in magazines. Life as a photojournalist was hard, dangerous work, but the Sudan government made her a citizen for her work publicizing the country.

Leni Riefenstahl

Riefenstahl continued with photojournalism, publishing in 1974 a book of photographs called "Die Nuba" (The Last of the Nuba). The book won her a gold medal from the Art Director's Club of Germany, and many of the pictures also appeared in German magazines. She branched out into celebrity photographs, with memorable shots of Mick and Bianca Jagger and Siegfried & Roy. Leni also photographed the two Olympic Games in the '70s, though apparently, the organizers did not see fit to bring her back to later Games.

Leni Riefenstahl

Leni's final major interest was underwater photography. She took beautiful color photographs of fish and coral, publishing some shots in "Korallengärten (Coral Gardens) (1978) and "Wunder unter Wasser" (Wonder under Water) (1990). Her final major project was the 2002 film, "Impressionen unter Wasser" (Underwater Impressions), which essentially summed up her underwater explorations. Leni's final years were not just a grand round of successes, however; the Roma sued her late in her life for her claims that they had not been mistreated while she filmed them for "Tiefland," and one of her last public acts was to issue an acknowledgment of their hardships. She also barely survived a helicopter crash in Sudan in 2000 while checking up on her old Nuba friends.

Leni Riefenstahl

Leni Riefenstahl lived to be 101. She was in great pain during her last years from cancer and passed away in her sleep on 8 September 2003 at her home in Pöcking, Germany. However, she remained in charge of her affairs until the very end.


Leni Riefenstahl is like a Rorschach inkblot: everyone sees in her what their mind and background compels them to see. There is no question that Leni knew about the camps and what was happening to people there, and even witnessed some of it personally. She also availed herself of the ephemeral benefits she could accrue from that evil system. Her post-war claims that her 1930s documentary films were "apolitical" ring hollow, as there was no question that she understood that Hitler's intent was to glorify the Reich and the Aryan race. Riefenstahl performed valuable - perhaps invaluable - services to the German state, and only disowned her associations with Hitler and the German propaganda mill when they became personally inconvenient. Sometimes, fellow travelers are the most dangerous of all.

Leni Riefenstahl

The best summation of Leni Riefenstahl is that she indeed was a traveler, but of a different sort: she was an artistic tourist through life. She saw her role as simply documenting what was, not altering it. If bad things were happening in Germany, that was not her doing, and she took no responsibility for improving them or even merely sympathizing with the victims. Is that cause to condemn her? Opinions will vary. She fought vigorously throughout her life to protect her reputation, filing some 50 libel suits.

There are some undeniably positive things to say about Leni Riefenstahl. First and foremost, she was a survivor. Through thick and thin, whether it be the collapse of the German Empire, the fall of the Weimar Republic, the destruction of the German state, helicopter crashes, illnesses, all of these were simply life's challenges to overcome. She also pioneered or at least popularized new techniques in both politics and documentary filmmaking which remain in use today. Basically, Leni Riefenstahl was a dancer who, given the opportunity, showed that there can be a lot of talent behind a pretty face. What perhaps we can all agree to as well is that Leni Riefenstahl was a brilliant talent who singlehandedly revolutionized her genre, and whose work will still be studied long after all of us are gone.

Leni Riefenstahl