General Olbricht, who Philip knew only by reputation, proved to be even more of a surprise. He had been one of the first officers to earn the Knight’s Cross, newly created in 1939, and awarded for personal courage and outstanding leadership during the Polish Campaign. In a legendary operation, he had seized the bridges over the River Wartha before they could be demolished. The high explosives were already in place and might have detonated at any moment, but he loaded troops onto his staff car and personally led his improvised combat unit against heavy machine-gun fire to take control of the bridge. By the time he reached the next bridge over the river, Olbricht had improvised motor transport for all of his leading units and took the bridge by storm before the Polish Army had evacuated the town of Lowicz. He thereby captured not only the bridges, but also a full troop train.
Philip expected an officer like Guderian----brusquely self-confident, militarily blunt—and chafing at, if not actually bitter about, being tied to a desk rather than leading fighting troops. Instead, a mild-looking general with pale-framed glasses and thinning hair confronted him. General Olbricht came around the front of his desk to receive Philip. Philip saluted, and the General shook hands, indicating a small round table between two of the four windows in the spacious and sunny office overlooking the courtyard.
The General opened by remarking that Werner Schrader had recommended Philip specifically for the post he was about to assume. Philip hardly knew what to make of this. He hardly knew Schrader and couldn’t remember anything he had done that might have impressed the Major—beyond making that remark about the “moral depravity of the Regime” in his presence. However, before he could think through any possible implications, the General had already asked Philip if he was truly fit for his new duties, with such sincere interest that Philip found himself giving more than a perfunctory answer.
The General’s eyes flashed with restrained amusement as he replied, “I fear you underestimate the stress of the tasks you are about to assume. You know that the invasion of the Soviet Union is impending?”
Philip started visibly. There had been talk and even some planning for an invasion of the Soviet Union throughout the fall, but he had been told repeatedly that Hitler did not intend to actually invade. All the troop dispositions on the Eastern borders were “preventative” or “bluff.” He found himself staring at General Olbricht, unsure whether his opinion was expected or not.
“You don’t look delighted,” Olbricht observed, with a look of amusement in his eyes that encouraged Philip to be honest.
“Herr General, we’re overextended as it is—bogged down in a war without visible end with the British Empire, fighting Italy’s battles in the Mediterranean; and now, without cause, we’re going to take on the largest land army in the world?”
“You aren’t familiar with Mein Kampf, I gather,” the General answered dryly.
Olbricht’s reference to Hitler’s treatise was so unusual for an officer that Philip instantly raised his guard and answered stiffly, “The Führer denounced a two-front war as the greatest idiocy of the Kaiser’s government.”
“He denounced the war with England, to be precise—which led to a two-front war—but we already have that. My point was that his writings are filled with demands for ‘living space’ in the East and saturated with his rabid hatred of Communism, which he frequently equates with international Jewry.”
Philip took refuge in the safety of purely military arguments. “But, it’s too late to start a war against the Soviet Union. By October, our panzers will be immobilized in mud. Why not wait until we at least …” Philip stopped himself, unable to go on talking nonsense. What was the point of talking about weather and postponement? This was yet another war of unjustified aggression that could only end in senseless bloodshed and very probably defeat. “And the non-aggression pact of 1939?”
“Why respect that treaty any more than the others?” the General answered with a shrug. In the next moment, his eyes focused intently on Philip, who, for the first time, caught a glimpse of the troop commander who could go straight for an objective with single-minded resolve. “Surely, you aren’t surprised to discover our Head of State is disregarding international law?”
“No,” Philip acknowledged, “I’m not surprised by the illegality of breaking a treaty, but by the magnitude of the disaster such a foolish blunder could bring. We can’t possibly win a war against the Soviet Union with the resources we have.”
“I’m sorry to have to tell you that that appears to be the minority opinion in the High Command. Although I, along with Generalobersts Beck and Hammerstein, share your opinion, most of active generals, including the gentlemen at OKW, believe Russia is a paper tiger—as the war against Finland has supposedly proved. They believe we will be in Moscow before the autumn rains mire our panzers in mud.”
Philip now knew where Olbricht stood, and he dared to ask, “Have they all gone mad?”
“That opinion has also been expressed in certain circles,” Olbricht noted, “but I’m afraid it does not change our duties. Perhaps you now understand why your responsibilities here will be more difficult than you imagined.”
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