The early German victories in Poland, Norway, France, the Low Countries, the Balkans, North Africa, and the Soviet Union form an impressive list of military triumphs. What was more, these triumphs were accomplished with great speed and fairly modest cost to the Germans. Indeed, these victories were so striking that they gave rise to the myth of German military supremacy—a myth that has persisted to this day.
The early German successes have long been closely associated with the catch-all (and catchy) term of blitzkrieg—the “lightning war.” What was blitzkrieg? John Keegan’s definition of it is fairly representative of the popular conception of the German warmaking style:
“[Blitzkrieg was] essentially a doctrine of attack on a narrow front by concentrated armor, trained to drive forward through the gap it forced without concern for its flanks…”
Keegan’s typically reductivist definition of the term encompasses most of the popular stereotypes of blitzkrieg: speed, aggression, and the massed use of armored fighting vehicles, specifically tanks. The popular view of blitzkrieg also assumes it was a new tactic, one that arose out of the stalemate of trench warfare during World War I. The Germans were the only ones to find the “correct” way to use tanks and aircraft and created a strategy or tactic that enabled them to win wars quickly and cheaply.
The historical reality was somewhat more complex. While the German military was indeed concerned with speed and maneuver in warfare it is probably not true that their style of fighting was either doctrinaire or even new. First, a formal and established doctrine of blitzkrieg probably did not exist in the German military. The term “blitzkrieg” appeared only rarely in official Wehrmacht literature before or during the war and the term seems to have much more popular with foreign journalists. Second, the tactics of maneuver and speed in warfare were not an interwar discovery by the Germans, but were a reversion to traditional German/Prussian styles of warfare.