Auftragstaktik, commonly translated as mission command or mission-type tactics, is a type of military leadership that has been associated with the German military since the mid-nineteenth century. It is an approach to the use of force in battle, in which a military leader sets mission goals to be achieved within a given timeframe and with a given set of forces, but leaves execution to subordinate leaders. The tactics is praised for its success in battle. It is criticized for the substitution of tactics (the use of forces in battle) for strategy (the use of battle(s) for winning war). Marco Sigg’s study is written for the military-minded historian, but even specialists may be misled by the title of his book. The eponymous ‘subordinate leader’, represented on the cover by the image of a platoon leader, refers in German military terminology to any subordinate leader irrespective of rank. In fact, the study is mostly concerned with upper- and middle-level leadership down to Regiments, although the occasional NGO and private first class enter the picture because of their decisive actions in the spirit of Auftragstaktik. In turn, this review uses the German term Auftragstaktik, because Sigg shows convincingly that its meaning is quite different from mission-style tactics. One of the differences is, as Sigg explains, that although regulations concerning leadership and command have affirmed the principle ever since the 1870s, the actual term was never used. Auftragstaktik starts out as a habitualized form of leadership that becomes formalized gradually and after the fact. However, it never loses its central ingredient—improvisation. Not a quality you would typically expect from the German war machine! In a first part of the book, Sigg explores Auftragstaktik as an evolving principle of leadership from the mid-nineteenth century to 1945. He emphasizes doctrinal continuity, but this focus is only modestly helpful. There was certainly a German way of war, but what he describes as characteristic features of Auftragstaktik in its infancy are literally a ‘floating’ (schwebend) and contradictory set of attitudes to be instilled in military leaders and, ultimately, in all soldiers. Above all, Auftragstaktik consists of habits and attitudes composed of a set of ‘military virtues’. Moltke post-1870 and Halder post-1945 agree that what makes German military leadership is ‘moral character’: decisiveness and bravery/audacity; offensive-mindedness and the will to engage in battle (Drang nach vorwärts); self-reliance and self-propelled action; discipline and (the word creeps in surreptitiously) ‘iron’ obedience; homogeneity in decision-making, but no standardization or schema; and last, but not least, the facility of judgment in decision-making. Socialization rather than regulation holds this contrary list of virtues together. Moltke still used the Kantian term Urteilskraft as key element of decision-making. He was serious about the power of judgment to a fault. He insisted that military leadership was a ‘creative activity’. The military leader necessarily was an ‘artist’ (sic!) rather than an ‘artisan’, because war was a contingent phenomenon, and while military decision-making adhered to scientific principles, the laws of strategy, their application changed from one situation to another. Hence, it is the facility of judgment as a prerequisite for decisive action that makes or breaks military leaders. Over time Urteilskraft was replaced by structured decision-making (Führungsvorgang) and subordinated to the imperative of decisive action. Sigg aptly highlights the later as (military) decisionism, though seemingly unaware of he concurrent legal and political use of the term. If the non-military historian will wonder how the military leader-as-artist squares with the usual image of the Prussian–German military, the military historian will question how this high-minded ideal, even if articulated by a Moltke, squares with military practice. Sigg makes clear that this kind of creative leadership was always the exception rather than the norm. But it turns out that cunning and self-willed judgment in decision-making was not at all the opposition to schematic leadership as theory would have it. In a second, and unfortunately somewhat perfunctory, part of the book he concentrates on the upper command level, operational leadership, and comes up with a portrayal that will disquiet military historians even more than the notion of military leadership as ‘art’. He shows that time and again—from 1870 to 1940—operations threatened to descend into chaos due to the high-handedness (Eigenmächtigkeit instead of Selbständigkeit) of subordinate leaders. Famously, the battle of the Marne ended in disaster, but even the battle of Tannenberg succeeded only by dint of luck and at a very high cost in men and resources due to the impervious actions of military commanders. The 1940 Sichelschnitt, the operation against France, was successful not simply due to courageous decision-making in the spirit of Auftragstaktik, but as result of outright disobedience that amounted to a revolt against superior military leaders by ungovernable subordinates like Rommel and Guderian and their ‘impulsive style of leadership’ (p. 243). This entire part of the book is a marvel of historiographic audacity that will need considerable vetting in detail. What the overview shows in my opinion is rather contrary to Sigg’s own intent. Rather than continuity, we find the instantiation of self-reliant leadership changing drastically between the 1870s and the 1940s. If in 1870/71 and even in 1914, the challenge was to reign in autonomous military commanders (often royals and aristocrats), each one effectively fighting his own war, the 1940 scenario showed a distinctly goal-oriented, efficiency-maximizing management, in which mobile field commands (e.g. Panzer Commands), often in lateral communication with each other, but not with the more stationary higher command, took over. Sigg comments perceptively that this pattern was justified as Auftragstaktik, but the word was in fact a guise for a power struggle over the control of military operations. It remains unexplained how we get from here to Hitler taking control. Instead a third and excruciatingly detailed section of the book takes us down to the divisional leadership of three very different divisions on the Eastern Front in 1942/43 in both offensive and defensive situations. What is striking is the similarity of military leadership across the spectrum. Character was still in high demand. Presence at the front (Führung von vorne, that is leadership from the front) had become an entrenched principle with the effect not just of very high levels of flexibility, but also horrendous casualties among military leaders. Above all, military command was now understood as an interactive process (Führungsvorgang), which involved superior and subordinate commands and careful preparation even in tight situations. While command decisions on a divisional level were still self-willed, they occurred within a decision-making process that was rehearsed by superior and inferior commands. Moltke’s ‘spirit’ was now incarnated in the structured decision-making of interdependent units and formations. It is this integrated leadership, which held together a de-professionalizing Wehrmacht after 1943. Structured decision-making as feedback process and leadership from the front was post-facto identified with Auftragstaktik. It has become the standard practice of almost every modern army, nowadays facilitated by advancements in communications. What gets lost in the process is what Moltke saw so clearly. It still takes the ‘virtues’ of creativity and judgment to make a good military leader. German historians will have to wonder whether they were wrong in their assessment of the Prussian–German military or whether Moltke envisioned an impossible ideal. They will also have to ask anew why military virtues were so devoid of ethical standards and plain humanity. Not least, they need to ask how and why Auftragstaktik as a structured decision-making process went global despite the military defeat of the German Army in the Second World War. © The Author(s) 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the German History Society. All rights reserved.
German History – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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