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Post Guderian and Wehrmacht Culpability
Created by John Eipper on 02/08/13 11:51 AM

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Guderian and Wehrmacht Culpability (Timothy Ashby, Spain, 02/08/13 11:51 am)

I thank Istvan Simon for bringing up General Guderian in his post of 7 February.

Immediately after the War, Guderian and other senior officers spent many months being interrogated by the US Army Historical Division. Guderian shared prison quarters with two other general officers, General Leo Geyr von Schweppenburg (another great Panzer commander and one of Guderian's very few friends in the Wehrmacht) and Generalfeldmarschal Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb. I believe that these three officers were quartered together because the Allies knew them to be "dissidents" (my term) within the Wehrmacht high command. The quarters were bugged by the US Seventh Army Interrogation Center and conversations recorded. One of these transcripts, a discussion about National Socialism, is particularly interesting in light of our WAIS discussion:

Geyr: "Any objective observer will admit that National Socialism raised the social status of the worker, and in some respects even his standard of living as long as that was possible."

L (Leeb): "This is one of the great achievements of National Socialism. The excesses of National Socialism were in the first and final analysis due to the (warped) personality of the FUEHRER [capitals in the original script]."

GUD (Guderian): "The fundamental principles were fine."

L: "That is true."

These men were not referring to Nazi persecution of Jews (none were known to be anti-Semites), but to what they saw as the necessary rehabilitation of the German economy and the restoration of German pride.

After the war Der schnelle Heinz was often invited to attend meetings of Allied veterans' groups, where he analyzed past battles with his old foes. During the early 1950s he was active in advising on the redevelopment of the Bundeswehr (his son--who had been a Wehrmacht Panzer officer--became a general in the new West German army). The remark quoted by Istvan Simon may have been made during one of these meetings, as Guderian was probably the only German general who respected Charles de Gaulle, whose work on maneuver warfare he had read before the War and personally translated into German to be shared with fellow officers. (Guderian was fluent in both English and French).

A personal (family) note about Guderian: Some historians have criticized him for a remark recorded at Hitler's Midday Situation Conference on September 1, 1944--"I'm all for racial purity." Having met--and had long conversations with--two of Guderian's officers in 1980 (one was a staff officer), I am aware from their warm memories of him that Der schnelle Heinz had a dry (distinctly un-Prussian in my opinion) sense of humor that went over the heads of most of his contemporaries. I think this remark was a quip, given that Guderian was the target of a whispering campaign by his enemies in the Wehrmacht and Nazi Party, who claimed that he was of Armenian descent because of his unusual name and therefore not "racially pure" (actually the name derived from "Guderjan" [Guter Jan]), which means "Good Jan").

Given Guderian's constant battles with his own superiors, including Hitler, I think the following quote is brilliant: "Der Kampf gegen die eigenen Oberen macht manchmal mehr Arbeit als gegen die Franzosen" (It is sometimes tougher to fight my superiors than the French).

Returning briefly to our discussion about Wehrmacht culpability in war crimes, a couple of final biographical notes about Guderian's post-war roommates seem appropriate:

Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb was openly anti-Nazi during his military career and was involved in putting down the Beer Hall Putsch. Hitler despised him but needed good generals, so he tolerated von Leeb for awhile. Before the Battle of France, von Leeb was the only German general to oppose the offensive through the (neutral) low countries on moral grounds. He wrote: "The whole world will turn against Germany, which for the second time within 25 years, assaults neutral Belgium! Germany, whose government solemnly vouched for and promised the preservation of and respect for this neutrality only a few weeks ago." When von Leeb failed to capture Leningrad quickly in the winter of 1941-42, Hitler impatiently commented, "Leeb is in a second childhood; he can't grasp and carry out my plan for the speedy capture of Leningrad. He fusses over his plan of assuming the defensive in the northwestern sector and wants a drive in the center on Moscow. He's obviously senile, he's lost his nerve, and like a true Catholic he wants to pray but not fight." When von Leeb heard of this comment, he asked Hitler to relieve him of his command, and it was announced that he had stepped down for health reasons (similar to Guderian's dismissal three years later).

Leo Geyr von Schweppenburg, who commanded Panzer Group West during the Normandy Invasion, was previously a military attaché, serving in Brussels, the Hague and London between 1933 and 1937. He was in London at the time of the Rhineland crisis, from where he sent messages back to Berlin warning the German government not to underestimate the British. He was also bold enough to warn about the dangers of Hitler's adventurous foreign policy, earning an official rebuke and Hitler's long-term distrust. After D-Day, Hitler proclaimed Geyr to be a defeatist, and he was relieved of his command.

JE comments:  WAISers will remember that Tim Ashby is a distant relative of General Guderian:  Tim's great-great grandmother was the General's great aunt:


It's funny:  I always assumed Guderian was an Armenian name!  I worked for years in a building named after an illustrious Armenian (Alex Manoogian, inventor of the single-handle "Delta" faucet), so anybody named X-ian is Armenian in my book.  Until today:  I thank Tim for setting the record straight.

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  • Is Guderian an Armenian Name? (Cameron Sawyer, Russia 02/09/13 5:22 AM)
    When commenting Tim Ashby's post of 8 February, JE wrote:

    "I always assumed Guderian was an Armenian name! I worked for years in a building named after an illustrious Armenian (Alex Manoogian, inventor of the single-handle 'Delta' faucet), so anybody named X-ian is Armenian in my book. Until today: I thank Tim for setting the record straight."

    I'm betting that Heinz Guderian was descended from Armenians. Guderian/Gederian/Giderian/Guderyan etc. is a fairly common Armenian surname (Armenian is written with its own very ancient alphabet, so any given Armenian name might have a lot of variations in Latin letters, especially in cases where, like the case of Armenians from Poland, as are the likely ancestors of Heinz Guderian, the name came through Russian first.)

    "Guter Jan" does not seem like a plausible German origin of the name to me; for one thing I don't think this "d"/"t"/"th" substitution is characteristic of the Eastern forms of German. It would be an exceptionally odd coincidence that a very unusual German name like this, formed in a unique way, would coincidentally resemble a common Armenian surname. I don't buy it.

    Heinz Guderian was born in what is now Chelmno, Poland, near the geographical center of present-day Poland. Guderian's father was born in Wielka Klonia not far away, and Guderian wrote in his memoirs that as far as he knew, all of his ancestors were landowners and lawyers from West and East Prussia. There has been a significant Armenian community in Poland for many centuries. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Armenians_in_Poland . It is true that the Teutonic Knights who conquered the region (episodically) and established a German presence in this geography did not mix very much with the local populations, but it was not unheard of. This area of West Prussia was more under Polish (and therefore often Russian) control than under German control, over the four or five centuries previous to Guderian's birth. As time went on, the German landowners and nobles did intermarry sometimes with Polish landowners and nobility of similar social status. Armenians in Poland were quite often landowners and there were a number of Polish-Armenian noble families. Whether there were any Guderians or Gederians among them I have not been able to determine, but I bet the data is available somewhere. Here is a whole history of the Polish-Armenian noble familes: http://www.wbc.poznan.pl/dlibra/docmetadata?id=72812&from=publication . But it is in Polish, which I can't read.

    I'm guessing that "Guderian" really is an Armenian name; that the "Guter Jan" story was invented later for Aryan credibility.

    JE comments: When Aldona wakes up, I'll pester her for a reading of the above. I'm puzzled that by the confusing race ideology of the Nazi era, an Armenian name would carry a stigma: aren't the Armenians more "Caucasian" than anyone, except perhaps for the Georgians?

    Another question:  did the Nazis use "Caucasian" as a race term, together with the vaguely Indo-Iranian "Aryan"?  According to Wikipedia, the notion of a "Caucasian race" originated in Germany, around 1800.

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    • Is Guderian an Armenian Name? (Timothy Ashby, Spain 02/10/13 3:50 AM)
      I tend to agree with Cameron Sawyer (9 February) that the Guderian surname is probably of Armenian origin (some genealogists have suggested this as well).

      The Third Reich enlisted Armenians (mainly Red Army POWs) as a foreign unit of the Wehrmacht during World War II (the Armenische Legion or 812th Armenian Battalion), and Alfred Rosenberg, the Reich Minister for Occupied Territories, officially declared that Armenians were Indo-European, or Aryans, and thus subject to conscription. However, there is no doubt that Hitler and other senior Nazis considered Armenians to be "Non-Aryans" and therefore racially "impure." Hitler said "In spite of all declarations from Rosenberg and the military, I don't trust the Armenians either" (Dallin, Alexander [1981]. German Rule in Russia: 1941-1945: A Study of Occupation Policies. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. pp. 229, 251).

      This bolsters my theory that Guderian was highly sensitive to his family background. How he managed to survive amidst the inner Nazi circles given this factor as well as his insubordination is a historical mystery.

      By the way, among anecdotes related to me by his former officers, they said that Guderian was a "soldier's soldier" who enjoyed being in the field, and could drive a tank and operate a cannon or machine gun as well as any man in the Panzerkorps. He was also fond of quips--the officers I met repeated Nicht Kleckern sondern Klotzen! ("Don't do things by half") with smiles. (I didn't really get this, but apparently the old Panzer soldaten loved it!) So, I think Guderian was exercising a bit of very risky sarcasm in the "racial purity" conference with Hitler.

      Here is what his friend General Leo Freiherr Geyr von Schweppenburg said about Guderian after he died of congestive heart failure in 1954: "Sixty per cent of what the German Panzer Forces became was due to him. Ambitious, brave, a heart for his soldiers, who liked and trusted him; rash as a man, quick in decisions, strict with officers, real personality, therefore many enemies. Blunt, even to Hitler. As a trainer--good; thorough; progressive. If you suggested revolutionary ideas, he would in 95 per cent of cases say 'Yes,' at once."

      JE comments: Guderian's maverick personality, tactical genius and popularity among his troops remind me of that great Confederate cavalry general, Nathan Bedford Forrest. (Though I was hoping to be the first to make the connection, scroll down to "Trotsky" [?] at the following link: http://www.alternatehistory.com/discussion/archive/index.php/t-116245.html )  Forrest was self-taught and semi-literate, though, and my understanding of Guderian is that he was from a patrician background.  Still, imagine what Forrest would have achieved in command of a Panzer division.

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      • Compare Guderian to Nathan Bedford Forrest? Don't (Cameron Sawyer, Russia 02/10/13 9:28 AM)
        Ah, don't compare the elegant and dashing Guderian with Nathan Bedford Forrest! [This is what I did at the conclusion of Tim Ashby's post of 10 February--JE.]

        Forrest was one of our great military geniuses, there is no doubt, but by all accounts, as a person, he was a nasty piece of work. In contrast to the refined and aristocratic Robert E. Lee and other Confederate generals, Forrest was rough and uneducated, and was a slave trader by profession. His cruelty and bloodthirstiness are legendary. He is notorious for the Fort Pillow massacre, and for advertisements he placed raising troops for his regiment, calling for men with good horses who would like to "have some fun and kill some Yankees"; reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino's revolting Inglorious Basterds.

        Although there is some historical controversy about it, he is generally considered (in Tennessee, at least) to have founded the Ku Klux Klan. His cruelty extended to his own troops, who feared and hated him. He was, however, the greatest military mind of the war, probably. But don't compare him to Guderian!

        JE comments:  I vaguely recall from a Forrest biography read years ago that the General agreed to serve as head of the KKK with the understanding it was a Confederate mutual benefit and "pride" organization, but resigned when the Klan's racist policies became evident.  Be that as it may, that Forrest was a slave merchant prior to the Civil War is widely known.  Interestingly, even slaveholders looked on the traders with contempt.

        I'll let Tim Ashby, whose relatives fought in both conflicts, be the judge here:  should we draw any parallels between Generals Guderian and Forrest?

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