The victorious siege commander of Sevastopol garners a formal, meticulous new study.
Melvin, a British major general (Royal College of Defense Studies, London), emphasizes Erich von Manstein’s (1887–1973) operational skill as well as his problematic ethical decisions while commanding assaults on the Eastern Front during World War II. Born to an aristocratic East Prussian family with a strong military tradition, Manstein was schooled at the Royal Prussian Cadet Corps, trained as an officer in Berlin’s War Academy and wounded during World War I. He amply absorbed the “twin punch of defeat and deprivation” suffered by the Germans after the armistice, believing as many did that the Versailles Treaty was a “shameful Diktat.” Manstein became one of the rising stars in the quietly expanding Reichswehr between the wars, and was swept up into the general euphoria of Hitler’s rise to power, though he did reveal contradictory positions by composing a letter in 1934 protesting the ban on the employment of Jewish officers. A member of Hitler’s General Staff during the years of 1935–38, when Germany undertook breathtaking modernization and plans to build a “storm artillery,” Manstein was posted to command in Silesia, then enlisted in the invasion of Poland. He was key in forming the “triumphant invasion plan in the West,” though he claimed in his considerable late-life memoirs that he was not consulted in planning the ill-fated Operation Barbarossa. Nonetheless, he spearheaded the siege attacks on Sevastopol, Stalingrad and Kursk, to ferocious Russian resistance, and his mounting frustration with Hitler’s leadership prompted him to tender his resignation several times. The “scorched earth” policy he implemented upon retreat and other crimes committed by the Nazi leadership gained him conviction at trials in Nuremberg and later Hamburg; he served eight years but was largely rehabilitated by his memoirs and work in bolstering the Bundeswehr during the Cold War.
Too thick for casual readers lacking a strong interest in European history, but Melvin provides a fair, thorough reappraisal that carefully considers Manstein’s military prowess while challenging his moral amnesia.