This is a major contribution to World War II historiography. It is fair minded, heavily researched and lucidly written. It will be of interest to students of World War II and the history of the German Army, as well as serving military officers. Melvin, a British major general who is fluent in German and has received German staff training, proves to be a capable scholar, producing a fascinating narrative of Manstein's life, his military career, his campaigns, his struggles with Hitler, and his post-imprisonment career as an author and consultant to the new West German Bundeswehr. Melvin also devotes considerable attention to Manstein's war crimes - both proved and unproved - about which there is still great controversy today.
Melvin does his best to present his subject as an integrated whole: Manstein's family background, childhood, education, personality, early army career, marriage and children are addressed in some detail, with useful comments by the author to explain to the English speaking reader several unfamiliar Prussian traditions which shaped Manstein's character and outlook.
While no phase of his career is short-changed, the meat of the book is, of course, Manstein's service to the Third Reich. Melvin gives careful attention to Manstein's famous "big idea" to win the campaign against France, the "sichelschnitt" attack through the Ardennes forest to the channel coast. The story of how this idea developed, the challenges within the German high command it faced, how Manstein's version differed from Hitler's, how Manstein sold it to both Hitler and Halder (chief of the German general staff) and even how Manstein took too much credit for it in his memoirs, is told with skill and verve.
So too is Melvin's account of Manstein's exploits as a corps commander in France and Russia. But he really hits his stride in describing Manstein's command of the 11th Army, its up and down battle for the Crimea, followed by his emergency appointment as commander of Army Group Don (later re-named, South) and his role in the incredibly bloody and dramatic battles beginning with Stalingrad in November, 1942 and ending with the encirclement of the 1st Panzer Army in March of 1944 (when he was sacked by Hitler). It was during the period immediately after the Stalingrad disaster that Manstein reached the pinnacle of military achievement, conceiving and orchestrating the brilliant counter-offensive that defeated the Soviet attempt to annihilate the entire German army in southern Russia, and restored the German front to roughly where it had been prior to the ill-fated summer campaign of 1942.
While Melvin clearly admires Manstein in many ways - especially his generalship and in some respects as a man - this is no hagiography. Though accepting Guderian's judgement that Manstein was Germany's "finest operational brain," the author criticizes him for mistakes which helped to seal the fate of the 6th Army inside Stalingrad as well as his handling of the Kursk offensive months later. He also faults Manstein in particular and German generals in general for failing to understand or acknowledge that the Red Army defeated the Wehrmacht not through numbers alone, and not only because Hitler was an incompetent generalissimo, but also (and perhaps largely) because - as the war went on - Red Army leaders like Zhukov, Rokossovsky, Vatutin, and others came to match and then outclass the Germans in their own strong suit, operational expertise. Melvin also believes that Manstein and his admirers are mistaken in claiming that Manstein could have stopped the Russians and achieved a stalemate in 1943 or '44 if only he had been appointed commander and chief of the entire Eastern Front or become Hitler's sole military advisor. The tide of war - in Melvin's view - had turned too strongly against Germany by this time for Manstein to do more than slow the Red juggernaut down.
Earlier I said Melvin admires Manstein. At the same time, he doesn't gloss over the damming evidence that Manstein was guilty of war crimes. Melvin strongly endorses modern scholarship proving that the German Army (and not just the Nazi SS & SD, as Wehrmacht apologists claimed for years) was guilty of countless atrocities, especially on the Eastern Front, including the murder of thousands of Jews and the savage treatment of millions of other Russian civilians which led to untold suffering and death. Nevertheless, Melvin takes a nuanced approach to Manstein's culpability in these events. After a detailed review of the charges against him and the evidence, pro and con, it's clear Melvin believes Manstein obfuscated and possibly lied outright to escape punishment. He seems to agree with the verdict of the British war crimes court which found Manstein guilty of some charges but not others (including the worst, such as ordering the murder of Jews in the Crimea). In essence, Manstein was convicted of failing to prevent atrocities, but not of causing or directing them himself. Even so, he was probably lucky to escape with an 18 year sentence, quickly reduced to 12, and finally to 8 to give the British (anxious, as the Cold War intensified, to conciliate West German opinion and gain support for a new German army) an excuse to release him in 1953, since he had been in some form of custody since 1945. (Of course, Manstein was even luckier not to be extradited to the Soviet Union, where he would have been executed or spent the rest of his life in prison.) In the end, though highly critical of Manstein's involvement in war crimes, Melvin simply tells what happened, eschewing a long, strident condemnation of his subject, and leaves it to the reader to decide the extent of Manstein's guilt and the appropriateness of his punishment. (A decision which, in this age of politcally correct posturing and moralizing about these crimes, terrible though they were, this reader appreciates.)
Again, this is a fine book, a valuable contribution to our understanding of a man who - no matter what we think about his crimes and punishment - was one of the greatest generals of World War II.