The Blitzkrieg – Word and Concept

I never used the word Blitzkrieg because it is a very stupid word.

Adolf Hitler, 8 November 1941

The Word “Blitzkrieg”

In sober military language, there is hardly any other word that is so strikingly full of significance and at the same time so misleading and subject to misinterpretation as the term blitzkrieg. Its early history is already hidden behind the fog of legends. It was asserted again and again that Hitler coined this evocative term. Some think that it was cooked up in the propaganda kitchen of Dr. [Josef] Goebbels. It is also assumed rather superficially that the word cropped up only after the surprising successes of the German Wehrmacht at the start of World War II. Allegedly, it was coined in the Anglo-Saxon language, where, as the very first piece of evidence, an article from the 25 September 1939 issue of Time magazine about the Campaign in Poland is quoted: “This was no war of occupation, but a war of quick penetration and obliteration— Blitzkrieg, lightning war.”

This assumption is based on an error. A more careful analysis of military publications proves that this word was already known in Germany before World War II. The word blitzkrieg was expressly mentioned in 1935 in an article in the military periodical Deutsche Wehr (German Defense). According to it, countries with a rather weak food industry and poor in raw materials should try “to finish a war quickly and suddenly by trying to force a decision right at the very beginning through the ruthless employment of their total fighting strength.” A more detailed analysis can be found in an essay published in 1938 in Militär-Wochenblatt (Military Weekly). Blitzkrieg is defined as “strategic surprise attack” carried forward by the operational employment of armor and the air force as well as airborne troops. But such choice references are rare in German military literature prior to World War II. The word blitzkrieg was also practically never used in the official military terminology of the Wehrmacht (German armed forces) during World War II. It assumed significance only through propaganda journalism. Especially after the surprisingly quick victory in France in the summer of 1940, German papers were flooded with the word, as the following essay with the rather characteristic title “Blitzkriegpsychose” (Blitzkrieg Psychosis) shows:

Blitzkrieg! Blitzkrieg! Blitzkrieg! That word was flashed at us everywhere during the weeks between the defeat of France and the start of major air attacks against England. Whether in the newspapers or on radio, there was not a day when our enemies did not mention that word. It became so much a part of them that they did not even take the trouble of looking around for a corresponding word in their own language; no, the “linguistically skillful” Englishmen simply took the word “Blitzkrieg” from the German language and every Englishman knows what that means, he knows what he and his country face now, once Germany starts hitting hard and fast.

There is just one appropriate word for the events in Poland, Norway, Holland, Belgium, and France, and that word is “Blitzkrieg.” With the speed and force of lightning, our Wehrmacht struck and destroyed every obstacle.

But there was already a break at the end of 1941 after the failure of the German blitzkrieg against the Soviet Union. Henceforth, this word was frowned upon, and Hitler, of all people, energetically denied that he ever used it. Instead, the German press maintained that this catchword was merely a malevolent invention of British propaganda: “It was the British who invented the term ‘Blitzkrieg.’ It is wrong. We never said that this mightiest of all struggles could ever take place with the speed of lightning.”

In the meantime, the Anglo-Saxons began to like this onomatopoeic German word and varied it in a farcical fashion. The German soldiers were referred to as “blitzers”; and there were phrases such as, for example, “out-blitz the Blitzkrieg.” The German air raids on London were also called “the Blitz.” The vocabulary of the British tabloid press today cannot get along without the term blitzkrieg when it comes to dramatizing surprisingly quick victories in sports.

After the campaign in the west, the term blitzkrieg also showed up along with the word Panzer (tank or armor) in most of the major languages of the world. At the same time, an attempt was made to transfer this word into the particular language concerned. This term was also used for the categorization of campaigns after World War II. For example, Iraq’s failed surprise attack against Iran in 1980 was referred to in the press rather ironically as “the slowest Blitzkrieg of all time.” But the epidemic spread of this word did not help clarify the concept that was presumed to be behind it.

The Concept of Blitzkrieg

In his essay “Blitzkrieg Ambiguities,” George Raudzens differentiates seven different meanings of this rather scintillating term. He complains of an “anarchy in interpretation” but in the end must admit that he does not have any pat solution. That shows that the blitzkrieg exegesis has gotten lost in a semantic labyrinth. Because there is obviously no way out, there is only one possibility, and that is to pick up the famous thread of Ariadne in order to find the way back to the entrance to the labyrinth.

But before we go into the confusing semantics of blitzkrieg, we first of all want to explain the triad of tactical, operational, and strategic echelons.

Tactics means true command in the context of “combined arms combat.” It is the responsibility of lower- and middle-echelon command.

Conduct of operations (that is to say, far-reaching military movements and battles) is the task of the higher command echelon. According to the criteria of the Wehrmacht, the operational level of warfare commenced at the army (in exceptional cases, at the corps), whereas today a corps (in exceptional cases, also a division) can take over such command assignments. Tactical combat operations are planned and conducted at that echelon in the context of a higher-level operation; the latter, again, is aimed at strategic objectives.

Strategy is the responsibility of the top command; that is the echelon where we encounter cooperation among political, economic, and military command agencies of a country with a view to the politically defined wartime objectives.

Operational-Tactical Interpretation

“Blitzkrieg,” this form of modern warfare, which today is discussed all over the world, is a tactic that shaped up only in the course of various German campaigns . . . but that cannot yet be expressed in fixed strategic formulas.

Weltwoche (World Week), Zürich, 4 July 1941

An analysis of German military publications before and during World War II clearly showed that the term blitzkrieg as a rule was used in a purely military context, in other words, as an operational-tactical term. This brings us to the following brief definition: By blitzkrieg we mean the concentrated employment of armor and air forces to confuse the enemy with surprise and speed and to encircle him, after a successful breakthrough, by means of far-reaching thrusts. The objective is to defeat the enemy quickly in a decision-seeking operation.

The blitzkrieg was no political-strategic inspiration on the part of Adolf Hitler that his officers then transferred to the operational level and finally to the tactical echelons. Quite the contrary, this idea sprang up long before Hitler seized power; it was crystallized from purely tactical necessity. As will be shown later, the term was already contained in the Stoßtrupp-Taktik (stormtroop or assault team tactics) that were developed during World War I. In that way, the Germans wanted to put an end to rigid front lines involved in positional (trench) warfare and to return to mobile warfare. Above all the successes of the German general Oskar von Hutier drew attention to this tactic that aimed at breaking through enemy field fortifications. Somewhat exaggeratedly, Anglo-Saxon authors later referred to him as the “father of Blitzkrieg tactics.” At any rate, the blitzkrieg, as described later on, is nothing but the further development of the original assault team idea. Oberstleutnant Braun, for example, in an article published in 1938, already compares blitzkrieg to a “large-scale, powerful ‘Stoßtrupp’ mission.” But Stoßtrupp is a term used on the lower tactical echelons and as a rule refers to a platoon or a company.

Generaloberst Heinz Guderian is also called the founder of the blitzkrieg idea. He took over this Stoßtrupp-Taktik, whose prescription for success was based on speed and surprise, and combined it with the elements of modern technology, such as the tank and aircraft. In so doing, he was not concerned with the implementation of strategic ideas or political programs; his goal, instead, was to find a way back to mobile operations. To that extent, the term blitzkrieg is extensively a synonym for the modern operational war of maneuver.

Strategic Interpretation

The phenomenon of the blitzkrieg, however, was also interpreted in a much more comprehensive fashion. Many historians used this handy term to characterize Hitler’s strategy of conquest. A characteristic feature of this theory is its close tie-in with the military economy of the Third Reich that many authors referred to as a blitzkrieg economy. This assumption, which is rather hotly debated among historians, can be described as follows:

The German blitzkrieg strategy was allegedly intended, in the endeavor for world rule, to bridge the deep chasm between far-reaching wartime objectives and inadequate power potential by overwhelming the enemies, one after the other, in a series of individual, successive campaigns that would last only a short time.

The foreign policy objective was to isolate the particular opponent and thus to localize the conflict. In that way it would be possible to avoid the risk of a long, drawn-out, multifront war of attrition.

The domestic policy goal was to motivate the population for war and to avoid long, drawn-out wars that would be too much of a strain on the endurance of the people.

The economic objective was to mobilize the country’s own power potential in the context of a quickly available armament in width (coupled with a rather risky renunciation of any armament in depth). The indispensable prerequisite for a blitzkrieg, in other words, a strategic first-strike capacity, was to be created by at least a temporary armament lead over the enemy who was to be attacked by surprise.

The military objective was to overrun the enemy, after exploiting the element of surprise, by using fast, mechanized forces with air support; the encirclement of the enemy’s armies, in the course of broad-ranging encirclement operations, was to bring about a quick and decisive victory.

According to this theory, the blitzkrieg was a strategy of limitations and calculability of the following:




economic potential

military potential

In the view of quite a few historians, this “ingenious blitzkrieg strategy” that Hitler allegedly invented always made it possible to mobilize the country’s manpower and material resources only to the extent that was believed necessary to defeat the next particular foe. The alternation between short campaigns and pauses to exploit the newly conquered territories thus determined the rhythm of blitzkrieg strategy. The objective of this stage-by-stage procedure was supposedly to broaden continually the country’s own wartime economic base. Total mobilization was to be started only once the country’s own potential for conducting a world war seemed adequate. But when the blitzkrieg against the Soviet Union failed at the end of 1941, it was necessary to do that which was to have been avoided at all costs—namely, the premature switch to total war.

The theory of the blitzkrieg strategy turns up as an almost ideological, tightly buttoned up model of thinking. Alan S. Milward, one of its best-known advocates, had this to say in 1975: “Today it is generally recognized that the military strategy of National Socialist Germany can adequately be described as a ‘Blitzkrieg’ strategy.” That theory had already been developed in the United States in 1945 and was formulated mainly by Burton H. Klein. In the end, it also prevailed in Europe. For example, Andreas Hillgruber fell back on it and tied it in with his theory of the step-by-step plan, which he thought expressed Hitler’s program in the endeavor to achieve world power: “This was to be done in two big stages in the context of a ‘program’ that had been spelled out conclusively during the twenties: First of all, the important thing was to erect a European continental empire via the defeat of France and, subsequently, the conquest of the European part of Russia. This was followed by another ‘stage’ to build up a German ‘world power’ position with colonial territories in Africa, oceanic bases, and a strong sea power that, during the generation after Hitler, was to build the base for a decisive struggle between the ‘world power’ Germany and the ‘world power’ the United States of America.”

But a number of critics criticized Hillgruber’s step-by-step plan as being too deterministic and inadequately documented. According to Erdmann, the step-by-step plan suggested “a system that it is doubtful can be used in adequately characterizing Hitler’s visions and improvisations.” Hillgruber tackled the thesis of the blitzkrieg strategy rather gingerly and used it only to back up his step-by-step plan model, which Marxist historians above all increasingly exaggerated. As a result, this heavily overloaded term blitzkrieg finally drifted away from its military roots and was extensively shoved into the alien atmosphere of social-economic matters.

According to a more recent assumption, the idea of the blitzkrieg does not primarily go back to Hitler but was allegedly conceived in the executive suite of IG Farben, a market-dominating chemical corporation. In the stiff competition among the monopoly groups of the heavy and chemical industries, the latter prevailed in 1936. In this connection, IG Farben proposed to produce chemical substitutes to compensate for the shortage of Germany’s armament-related raw materials. According to this thesis, the resultant autarky was to make it possible for Germany to pursue limited blitzkrieg campaigns. This supposedly was the objective of the four-year plan that was adopted in 1936 and bore the signature of IG Farben.

In spelling out his expansion objectives, the dictator was also allegedly guided by a three-stage expansion program that reportedly had been drafted long before by industry. First of all, an economic core region in central Europe was to be created, and it was then expanded into a large-scale European region. But the traditional objective of world rule was to be the very end of this entire endeavor.

The theory of blitzkrieg strategy has been subjected to increasing doubt in recent years. In this connection, it can be argued that this involves a fiction that was put together by historians only after the fact. According to Timothy Mason, the blitzkrieg successes were based on a “fatal combination of domestic policy compulsion, foreign policy accident, and extreme adventurousness on the part of Hitler. The successes then gave the whole thing the appearance of a system although it was not.” Hew Strachan expresses this particularly clearly: “Blitzkrieg, therefore, may have had some meaning at a purely operational level, but as an overall strategic and economic concept it was non-existent.”

The Campaign in the West and the Origin of Blitzkrieg

Because of Germany’s unfavorable geographic position in the center of Europe, the German general officer corps was always trying to conduct so-called quick wars to force an immediate operational decision. Moltke had gained such a victory in 1870 in the Sedan encirclement battle. But, at the start of World War I, the Schlieffen plan, based on this same principle, simply failed. It gradually became clear that the nature of war had changed dramatically. On account of the enhanced effect of weapons, firepower dominated movement. Far-ranging operations were often nipped in the bud before they got started; they froze in the firestorm of machine guns and in the steel thunderstorm of the artillery. This was followed by a long, drawn-out positional war that was fought in the course of battles of attrition. Reluctantly, the generals had to admit that the significance of the art of conducting operations increasingly faded into the background because the decision had shifted from the battlefields to the factories. The struggle of hostile peoples took place in the form of a lengthy economic war in which the Western sea powers cut Germany off from its raw material sources by a blockade.

The German generals learned their lessons from the loss in World War I; they no longer believed that quick wars could be won against opponents of superior strength. In 1937, Oberst [Georg] Thomas, Chef des Wehrmachtswirtschaftsstabes (chief, War Economy Staff), made the following assertion: “The mistaken fixation upon a short war has been ruinous for us; we should therefore not be guided by the illusion of a short war in the age of air and Panzer squadrons.”

A scenario drafted by Großadmiral (Grand Admiral) [Erich] Raeder in 1937 indicated what ideas prevailed within the Wehrmacht high command as regards the nature of a future war: “and so, there can only be a kind of fortress warfare that boils down to alternating tactical successes and failures. In the cycle of changing fortunes arising from these tactical successes, final victory will then go to the state that has the larger population but, even more so, the state that has unlimited material and food. . . . Just exactly how this kind of warfare can affect Germany, if the missing raw materials cannot be procured continually, needs no special explanation considering our geographic location.” This is why he warned against the illusion of “seeking the decision in a single large operation.”

The general officer corps was definitely skeptical toward such military adventures. As indicated in a lecture note, General der Artillerie [Ludwig] Beck, Generalstabschef des Heeres (army chief of staff), made the following comment to Generaloberst [Walther] von Brauchitsch, Oberbefehlshaber des Heeres (commander in chief of the army), during the Czech crisis in July 1938: “The idea of a Blitzkrieg . . . is an illusion. One should really have learned from the modern history of warfare that surprise attacks have hardly ever led to lasting success.”

A study published in 1938 made the following categorical statement: “The possibilities of defeating an equivalent opponent by means of a ‘Blitzkrieg’ are zero. . . . In other words: It is not military force that is strongest; instead, it is economic power that has become the most important power in the modern world.” But then the miracle of Sedan happened in May 1940. The lightning victory during the campaign in the west triggered a radical change of opinions within the German general officer corps. That campaign was decided in a single operation that essentially lasted just two weeks, Operation Sichelschnitt (Sickle Cut). Like an earthquake, the campaign in the west caused numerous outdated doctrines to collapse; the nature of war was revolutionized on the battlefield. But it is such times of rapid and radical change in long-held ideas and concepts that constitute fertile soil for novel key words and slogans, as was stated so aptly by Goethe: “Where terms are lacking, a word crops up at the right time.”

The word that cropped up at the right time in the summer of 1940 was blitzkrieg. Rarely in military historiography has a term been so over-interpreted as this one. Upon closer examination, it is indeed a semantic trap. The word Blitz-Krieg (lightning war) promises more than it can deliver—looking at it in historical terms—because the term Krieg (war) suggests the presence of an overall strategic concept of war. But that concept remained mostly stuck on the lower operational echelon. It would have been semantically more correct to speak of Blitzoperationen (lightning operations) or Blitzfeldzügen (lightning campaigns). Of course, the idea was to achieve a strategic objective, in other words, to bring the war to a quick end; but the means were provided only at the operational and tactical levels.

In an exaggerated form, blitzkrieg signifies an attempt to turn strategic necessity into operational virtue against the background of shortages in economic resources. But this operationally construed strategy, with its strategically construed operations, contained an inherent contradiction. Now Hitler and some generals indeed believed they had found the secret of victory in blitzkrieg, in other words, an operational miracle weapon that could be used to defeat even an economically—and thus strategically— far superior opponent by means of quick battles of annihilation (Schlieffen). The enemy, superior in the long run, was to be defeated by a surprise attack, that is, a knockout in the first round. This thinking was illusionary in an age of industrialization and had a fatal effect later on when it came to designing the campaign against the Soviet Union.