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  • Military History at the Operational Level: An Interview with Robert M. Citino
  • Donald A. Yerxa

ROBERT CITINO, WHOSE ESSAY ON THE GERMAN WAY OF war appeared in the November 2010 issue of Historically Speaking, is one of the most perceptive military historians writing today. In the last decade he has a written a number of important books on modern military history, particularly the German military experience. These include: Quest for Decisive Victory: From Stalemate to Blitzkrieg in Europe, 1899–1940 (University Press of Kansas, 2002); Blitzkrieg to Desert Storm: The Evolution of Operational Warfare (University Press of Kansas, 2004), winner of both the American Historical Association’s Paul Birdsall Prize in European Military and Strategic History and the Society for Military History’s Distinguished Book Award; The German Way of War: From the Thirty Years’ War to the Third Reich (University Press of Kansas, 2005); and Death of the Wehrmacht: The German Campaigns of 1942 (University Press of Kansas, 2007). In 2007 Citino was named the best university teacher in the U.S. in a poll. After reading all the books listed above, senior editor Donald Yerxa interviewed Citino in March 2011.

Donald A. Yerxa

: What prompted you to become a military historian?

Robert M. Citino

: I always like to answer this question by saying that my father fought in World War II. Of course, that’s no answer at all, because in the time and place I grew up (born on the West Side of Cleveland in 1958), everybody’s father had fought in World War II. When we played in the neighborhood, we played “army,” and the war we fought out was World War II. I guess I just took it a little farther than most of my friends—and for that I blame my parents, who gave all of their children a love of reading. I started reading books on World War II as a child and I have never stopped. So parents, if your child is reading too much, beware!


: Why did you focus on German military history?


: I didn’t go to college to be a military historian. I wanted to be a historian of the Weimar Republic, and was especially enthralled by its culture—Brecht and Zuckmayer and the great filmmakers and musicians. That’s why I decided to learn German. As my scholarly interest in military questions grew, I found myself turning more and more toward German military history, and realized that there was a vast literature auf deutsch that most military historians were not using at all. It seemed like a natural fit.


: Would it be fair to say that the single most important theme common to all your recent books is the value of appreciating military history at the operational level? And if so, how is operational military history distinguished from other genres of analysis?


: Yes, that’s a fair statement. The middle ground between low-level tactics and high-level strategy, what we call the operational level of war, is what my books emphasize. If “tactics” discusses battles, and “strategy” analyzes the war, “operations” refers to the campaign, a series of maneuvers and battles involving big units: divisions, corps, and armies.

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From Friedrich August Dressler, Moltke in his Home (John Murray, 1907).


: What insights emerge when you look at military history at the operational level?


: I don’t make any special claim for operational-level analysis. It isn’t a magic key to understanding warfare, but it has traditionally been underserved in the literature, especially the English-language literature. The Wehrmacht’s signal victory in France in 1940, Case Yellow, for example, is pretty hard to understand if you just look at tactics. French tanks and British aircraft were for the most part superior to the German machines they were facing. Strategically, Germany was in a nearly hopeless situation; without a fleet, Germany had embarked on a long war against the world’s great naval powers. In that middle “operational” ground, however, the Germans came up with a daring campaign plan (sending their panzers though the Ardennes forest) that completely flustered their enemies, a victory...


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