Lost Victories by Field Marshal Erich von Manstein

I read this book a while ago and wasn’t sure I’d review it here. I’ve always had a fascination with history, which is why I read it book in the first place. But as it’s not directly related to the usual topics of this blog, I wasn’t sure to publish this post. I’ll cover why I did so anyway in a bit. Here’s the review.

Field Marshal Erich von Manstein

Field Marshal Erich von Manstein

Field Marshal Erich von Manstein was one of Hitler’s most brilliant commanders and a keen strategic mind. He had a distinguished career and played a crucial role throughout WWII: The Battle of the Bulge, the Crimean campaign, The battles of Leningrad and Stalingrad, Operation Citadel, to name but the most notorious. Given the many victories he obtained, it’s safe to say he was one of the key commanders of the German forces throughout the war. He was later dismissed by Hitler, served a prison sentence after the war and acted as senior adviser to Western Germany after his release. For a bit more information, check out his Wikipedia page.

Lost Victories” starts out with the German campaign to conquer Poland. Von Manstein goes into detail about the political reasoning behind the decision to invade the country and why the German troops were so successful. This chapter is pretty short as, well… That campaign didn’t take all that long to achieve its objectives…

The next part covers the Western campaign. This section is larger than the previous and gives a detailed account of operations in Belgium and France. Von Manstein once again goes through the time line step by step, not shying away from explaining the mistakes the Germans made.

But the meatiest part of the book, 275 pages, describes his view on the war on the Eastern front. If you’re not up to speed on what happened there, it’s one of the darker pages of Europe’s history and you might want to read up on it a bit. The author goes into great detail to recount the events as he perceived them but also the “behind the curtains” stuff: political maneuvering, backstabbing and flat out incompetence of the highest ranking German leadership.
One of the most interesting chapters in this section is “Hitler as supreme commander” in which the author analyzes Hitler’s strengths and weaknesses ad the supreme military authority. This chapter alone, coming straight from one of the few who had the balls to tell Hitler to his face that he was wrong, is worth the price of the book.

The book ends with several appendices that will make the eyes of history buffs water.

Interest:

Here are a couple of things to consider on this book and my review of it, first the “bad” stuff:

  • This is von Manstein’s military autobiography and he could have written anything he damn well pleased. Perhaps he did, perhaps he left out crucial information or edited his words to paint his own role in a brighter picture, I don’t know. That’s for the military history professionals to determine. So take his words with a grain of salt and check other sources before you accept them as gospel. I’m not saying he’s lying, only that he might obviously not be totally objective.
  • The tone of his writing sometimes gets a bit apologetic. It could be his writing style but I got the distinct impression on numerous occasions that he tried to exonerate himself for the atrocities the Germans committed during the war. On the other hand, he often takes the high road when speaking of others who clearly don’t deserve his gracious portrayal of them. So maybe I’m reading too much into this and you should make up your own mind.
  • This is both good and bad: the book is filled with charts and drawings to illustrate the strategy and tactics both he and the opposing forces used. If you aren’t used to these, they can get quite confusing. If you are, you’ll love the attention to detail.

The good:

  • Provided we accept this book is a truthful account of what happened, von Manstein gives an amazing “behind the scenes” look of every key operation of WWII. He pulls no punches in his criticism of German leadership and each time he gives a detailed analysis of why they’re wrong. It’s a fascination look into the mindset of a brilliant strategist.
  • You get tons of data for every campaign: the number of killed and wounded, lost or gained weapons, rations, etc. Once again, from a historical point of view, this is pretty cool.
  • The book is filled with tidbits of advice, sometimes off-hand remarks that give you food for thought when you scale them down to self-defense. For instance, von Manstein gives the best strategic quote I’ve read in years:

Now it is generally recognized that defense is the stronger of the two forms of fighting. This is only true, however, when the defense is so efficacious that the attacker bleeds to death when assaulting the defender’s positions.

After years and years of disagreeing with the cliché of “the best defense is a good offense” I was pleasantly surprised to read this. And then to find out Prussian military leaders considered this a “Duh!” truth…

This book review is slightly different form others as it covers martial arts in the most literal sense: Arts of war. Though the book is not a tale of hand-to-hand combat techniques, nor does it teach you any super-secret-fighting techniques, it does have immense value for the modern martial artist. It’s a true-to-life tale of what mortal combat is like, seen from the position of the one ordering soldiers to go out and die. That alone should give you some things to chew over when you’re thinking about self-defense.

The other point of interest is the strategy and tactics von Manstein explains. As martial artists, we love to talk about these things, often forgetting that military leaders actually study this topic for years. Then they are trained to apply these lessons with thousands of lives at stake, which they’re forced to do when war brakes out. That’s a far cry from figuring out if you better throw a right cross or go for the single leg takedown against your sparring partner. This book gives some well-needed perspective there. But if you read with an open mind and think things through, there are dozens of gems of strategic advice for you to discover. All of them applicable to self-defense or full contact fighting sports. It’s definitely worth the work.

Combine all of this and you get a very interesting book that you’ll re-read often to ponder the wisdom and implications of it’s content. Recommended to the extreme!

Quality:

All the pictures and illustrations are perfectly clear. Great work.

Buy it here

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Comments

  1. Another WWII memoir that you may like is: “Panzer Battles : A Study of the Employment of Armor in the Second World War” by F. W. von Mellenthin.

  2. Another WWII memoir that you may like is: “Panzer Battles : A Study of the Employment of Armor in the Second World War” by F. W. von Mellenthin.

  3. Glad you enjoyed the book. Sorry for loosing touch. Car crash on the highway! It should have been the end of me BUT when my conscious mind lost it, my training with Maurice and you took control. Next thing I know, a guy in the ambulance is explaining how lucky I was to hit the concrete wall with my left hand (badly broken in the crash, which gives you an idea of what my unprotected head would have looked like) protecting my head from side shock and my right arm and elbow (sounds familiar?) intercepting flying shards of glass. Told me also that when he saw what remained of the car he “knew” they would just retrieve a corpse. Self défense is much more than I thought it was. And they say boxing and martial arts are bad for health?!

    Cheers

    • Hey Etienne, been ages! Damn, sounds like you “lived in interesting times”… Glad to hear you’re doing better now. Let me know when you have some time and we’ll meet up.

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