Germany has no shortage of famous generals in its history. During the Second World War, numerous Germans became famous for their victories against the Allied powers. While perhaps not as famous as Erwin Rommel, Heinz Guderian was probably the most skilled of the German tank commanders. His innovative tactics and strategic insight were fundamental to the development of modern warfare.
Guderian was born on June 17th, 1888, into a military family. He became an officer cadet in 1907 and served in signal units and on the General Staff during World War I. Due to his aptitude, he was one of the 4,000 officers selected to remain in the German Army after the reductions forced upon it by the Treaty of Versailles. During the 1920s he became involved in the development of armored warfare, writing papers on the subject. In 1931 he became the Chief of Staff of the Inspectorate of Motorized Troops. Throughout the rest of the 1930s he developed theories of armored warfare that would influence Blitzkrieg tactics. Under his superior Oswald Lutz he wrote Achtung-Panzer!, a book which outlined armored warfare theory. In 1938 he commanded armored forces that took part in the occupation of Austria and the Sudetenland. He became friends with Adolf Hitler, further advancing his career. During the invasion of Poland he led the XIX Corps in successful operations against the Polish Army, for which he was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross. Guderian developed the plan for the armored invasion through the Ardennes, a forest which was thought impassable for armored units. His successful push through the Ardennes and race to the channel coast cut off the British and French forces in Belgium and ensured the fall of France. During the invasion of the Soviet Union Guderian’s units encircled and destroyed huge concentrations of Soviet troops, most notable around Kiev. However, he failed to capture Moscow and because of that was relieved of command of Army Group Center. In 1943 he was appointed Inspector General of Armored Troops and was charged with rebuilding the German Panzer forces. He was successful in correcting flaws with some of the newer tanks and introducing tank destroyers, but mounting losses and the destruction of German industry by Allied bombing prevented any expansion of the armored force. Following the failed plot to assassinate Hitler, Guderian was appointed Acting Chief of General Staff in 1944. In this position he Nazified the army, expelling many officers whose political views were opposed to those of Hitler. He also may have been involved in the ordering of reprisals after the Warsaw Uprising. He surrendered to the Americans on May 10th, 1945.
Heinz Guderian was interned for three years following the war. However, he was never convicted of war crimes due to a lack of evidence. He remained a German nationalist and never criticized Nazism. He wrote several successful books and memoirs before his death in 1954. His stubborn defense of Nazism tarnishes his image. Like most WWII German generals, they cannot only be remembered for their accomplishments. Their adherence to an evil ideology must be remembered as well. They may have been good tacticians, but they certainly were not good people.