December 19

This Day in History

World War II

Dec 19, 1941:

Hitler takes command of the German army

On this day, in a major shake-up of the military high command, Adolf Hitler assumes the position of commander in chief of the German army.

The German offensive against Moscow was proving to be a disaster. A perimeter had been established by the Soviets 200 miles from the city—and the Germans couldn't break through. The harsh winter weather—with temperatures often dropping to 31 degrees below zero—had virtually frozen German tanks in their tracks. Soviet General Georgi Zhukov had unleashed a ferocious counteroffensive of infantry, tanks, and planes that had forced the flailing Germans into retreat. In short, the Germans were being beaten for the first time in the war, and the toll to their collective psyche was great. "The myth of the invincibility of the German army was broken," German General Franz Halder would write later.

But Hitler refused to accept this notion. He began removing officers from their command. General Fedor von Bock, who had been suffering severe stomach pains and who on December 1 had complained to Halder that he was no longer able to "operate" with his debilitated troops, was replaced by General Hans von Kluge, whose own 4th Army had been pushed into permanent retreat from Moscow. General Karl von Runstedt was relieved of the southern armies because he had retreated from Rostov. Hitler clearly did not believe in giving back captured territory, so in the biggest shake-up of all, he declared himself commander in chief of the army. He would train it "in a National Socialist way"—that is, by personal fiat. He would compose the strategies and the officers would dance to his tune.

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