Book Review – Order in Chaos: The Memoirs of General of Panzer Troops Hermann Balck

Hermann Balck, Order in Chaos: The Memoirs of General of Panzer Troops Hermann Balck. Translated by Major General (ret’d) David T. Zabecki and Lieutenant Colonel (ret’d) Dieter J. Biedekarken. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2015. Maps. Photographs. Appendices. Notes. Index. Hbk. 578 pp.

Reviewed by Peter Randall, PhD Candidate, University of Reading

Balck

Prior to the publication of this volume, there has been very little in the English language about Hermann Balck and his military career, despite the high regard in which he was clearly held by his peers and those who studied the man. There is a 1979 interview conducted by Battelle, which revealed much about Balck and his insights into the conduct of the Second World War, but it was too brief and left one desirous of more information about the man and his perspective of the conflict. General Balck’s Chief of Staff between 1942 and 1944, Major General Friedrich von Mellenthin, whose memoirs Panzer Battles: A Study of the Employment of Armor in the Second World War have long been in circulation, rated Balck as being the German army’s ‘finest field commander’.[1] However, despite this reputation, and the successful publication of a number of German commanders’ memoirs, it is incredible that it has taken until now for a translation to be published – especially as the biographical sketch that appeared alongside his 1979 interview stated that his memoirs were due to be published in the United States – therefore, this volume is a welcome addition.[2]

That this is a high quality translation should be readily apparent to anyone who has read works edited and translated by David Zabecki in the past. With Bruce Condell, Zabecki translated and edited On the German Art of War: Truppenführung, which is the finest English-language translation of Heeresdienstvorschrift 300/1.[3] Joined in this translation by Dieter J. Biedekarken, Zabecki’s wealth of experience means that he is more than familiar with the subtle nuances of the German language and of specialised military lexicons. These are necessary to be understood in order to produce an accurate and faithful translation, and to avoid the errors present in other volumes made by otherwise excellent German language users who do not possess the same experience with military vocabularies.

While Balck is, of course, best known for his efforts in the Second World War, his memoirs cover not only this important period, but also covers his early life and military service from the beginning of the First World War. Having received the Iron Cross 2nd Class and 1st class, been wounded six times, and been nominated for the Pour le Mérite during the conflict, Balck’s First World War service is naturally of great interest, and provides a valuable background for understanding the tactical foundations upon which he expanded when provided with a command during the Second World War. Disappointingly, Balck’s father, William Balck, himself a Major General during the First World War, does not feature prominently in this section of Balck’s memoirs, despite him reporting ‘I saw my father frequently’ (p. 31) during 1914. If Balck discussed the prosecution of the war with his father, who would go on to write Entwickelung der Taktik im Weltkriege (Devlopment of tactics in the world war) after the war, he does not relate this.

Having Balck’s memoirs of the interwar period is also greatly valuable. Understanding this period within the German army is key to recognising how the organisation transformed itself from one that struggled to defeat France over four years in the First World War, to one that defeated France in just over six weeks in the Second World War, yet is a period that is often overlooked. Despite twice refusing to transfer to the General Staff (p. 148), Balck still provides an interesting insight into the German army of the time, especially following his appointment to the Mobile Troops Department. Balck claims that he noted a number of concerns about the newly constituted tank forces, that he made his superior, Colonel Adolf von Schell, aware of these, and details how the worries he had would then play out in the coming conflict. With memoirs such as this, one must always wonder how much prescience such as this was informed by hindsight. In Balck’s case, it seems right to give him the benefit of the doubt, as throughout his memoirs one is impressed by the man’s thoughtful consideration.

Understandably, it is the sections of Order in Chaos that cover the Second World War in which Balck comes alive. Detailing his experience in France, the Soviet Union, Italy and Hungary, the narrative elements ably yet humbly demonstrate the tactical brilliance of Balck across the entire conflict, at times against incredibly difficult odds. This is most apparent in the brief section covering Balck’s greatest victory, when his 11th Panzer Division, heavily outnumbered, essentially wiped out the Soviet Fifth Tank Army on the Chir River in 1942. In less than 10 pages, Balck calmly yet vividly relates the situation, his response and underlying principles that guided his decision, and the outcome. Maxims such as ‘Night marches save blood’ (p. 269) are not hyperbolic statements, but reflect the reality facing Balck’s 11th Panzer Division on the Chir, and the decisions that he had to take, not only to triumph but also to survive.

Perhaps reflecting the political mood of the Cold War era in which he edited his memoirs for publication, Balck’s memoirs are unfavourable towards Russia and Communism. The first chapter begins with Balck’s assessment of how Russia was the principal agent provocateur for the First World War. As such, the chapter detailing his experiences on the Eastern Front begin with a discussion of the ‘Russian problem’; throughout the book the assertion is made that Hitler had understood this problem better than leaders in the West, but that the execution of the conflict was based on faulty understanding of the necessities of such a conflict. When read with the understanding that Balck was editing his memoirs in the context of the Cold War, his discussion of such matters is understandable, especially given that he consulted with the US on tactical warfare in 1980, while preparing his memoirs for publication. Regardless of his view of the state and leaders for which they thought, Balck demonstrates a respect for his Red Army counterparts, for their ability to plan, prepare, and execute offensives and counteroffensives against German forces.

Bucking the post-war trend among Wehrmacht generals, Balck presents a nuanced view of Adolf Hitler and the effect of his involvement upon the army. While Balck acknowledges the interference of Hitler, he does not wholly castigate Hitler for this: excerpts from Balck’s wartime journal reveal a man who despairs of the criticism, no matter how justified, of the political leadership. Indeed, Balck states that ‘During the previous winter [1941-1942] Hitler had saved the army in spite of the generals’ (p. 291), a concession that few of his peers would have made. While Balck’s memoirs and wartime journals do reveal a man with loyalty to the political leadership, they offer nothing to support Hugh M. Cole’s ridiculous statement that ‘Balck long held the reputation of being an ardent Nazi’.[4] Indeed, it is apparent that Balck’s defence of Josef ‘Sepp’ Dietrich is based more upon his personal interaction with Dietrich, rather than being a vindication of Dietrich’s actions.

There are two characteristics of Hermann Balck that come across strongly when reading Order in Chaos. The first is his considered knowledge of the events he experienced, and the reasons for their outcomes. A strong scholar of history, both general and military, Balck draws interesting comparisons between historical events and his own experiences. The second is Balck’s surprising dry humour. While Order in Chaos is not going to elicit many laughs, one often finds a turn of phrase or dark observation that provokes a smile.

Order in Chaos is, at just over 500 pages, a surprisingly quick read, thanks to the easy and flowing style of Hermann Balck and the excellent translation. The appendices add to the story of Balck and his memoirs, though having only two items of correspondence in the appendix does leave one desirous of reading more. This translation is a welcome addition to the post-war memoirs of other German generals, and in some aspects is a definite improvement on the usual volumes. Again, one must commend Zabecki and Biedekarken for their expert translation, and for making the publication of Order in Chaos a possibility.

Citation: Peter Randall, ‘Review of Order in Chaos: The Memoirs of General of Panzer Troops Hermann Balck’, The Second World War Military Operations Research Group, 31 October 2015

A copy of the review can be downloaded here.

[1] Major General F.W. von Mellenthin, Panzer Battles (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1956), p. 252’

[2] ‘Translation of Taped Conversation with General Hermann Balck’ (Columbus, OH: Battelle Columbus Laboratories, 1979), p. 4.

[3] Bruce Condell and David T. Zabecki (eds.), On the German Art of War: Truppenführung (Boulder, CO: BLynne Reiner, 2001)

[4] Hugh M. Cole, The Lorraine Campaign: United States Army in World War II (Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, 1950), p. 230.

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One response to “Book Review – Order in Chaos: The Memoirs of General of Panzer Troops Hermann Balck

  1. Excellent review by Peter Randall. I will get this book based on this review as it appears to be useful for courses I instruct at the Army’s Command and General Staff College.

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