From knock-out blow to blitzkrieg

A couple of weeks ago, I showed how the blitzkrieg became the Blitz. Now I'll show how the knock-out blow became the blitzkrieg.

Despite the abandon with which the term blitzkrieg is thrown around these days to describe the "lightning" German campaigns of the early years of the Second World War, it turns out that it was not a word much used at the time by the German army or German strategists (though neither was it entirely unknown). It's even been denied that there was even such a strategic concept as blitzkrieg, whether known by that name or not -- certainly not until after the German conquest of France, usually held to be the classic example of blitzkrieg. Karl-Heinz Frieser, in his revisionist (but well-received) book The Blitzkrieg Legend opens by saying that

In sober military language, there is hardly any other word that is so strikingly full of significance and at the same time so misleading and subject to misinterpretation as the term blitzkrieg. 1

On Frieser's account, the attack against France and the Low Countries owed less to some innovative pre-war doctrine and more to individual initiative and astute tactics, resulting in a surprising (and strange) victory. 2 He argues that rather than thinking of blitzkrieg as strategic in nature -- a way to win a war -- it might be better conceptualised as an operational idea -- a way to win an operation or a campaign (Blitzoperationen, perhaps). This is important, because (according to Frieser), after the fall of France Hitler and his generals made the mistake of thinking they could blitz their way to quick victories, without paying attention to the longer-term economic foundations of a war economy. They fell into the 'semantic trap' of blitzkrieg. Hence Barbarossa.

Frieser also discusses the origins of the term blitzkrieg, albeit briefly. He notes a fairly common claim that it was actually coined in English, by Time in an account of Poland's fate:

For this was no war of occupation, but a war of quick penetration and obliteration -- Blitzkrieg, lightning war. 3

and disposes of this by pointing out examples of the term in German publications in 1935 and 1938. A Journal of Military History article by William J. Fanning, Jr, "The origin of the term 'blitzkrieg': another view", goes into the pre-1940 uses of the word in much more depth. He likewise rebuts the claims that it originated in 1939 Western press accounts, along with other theories (e.g. that Hitler invented it); but by the same token, he doesn't think there is much evidence for a German origin either, as it was used only sparingly in German publications before the war. It may actually have come from the Soviet military: Fanning cites uses of the phrase or similar expressions in the works of Tukhachevsky, which were translated into German by the mid-1930s. There are other possibilities, though -- blitz/lightning was attached to many terms as part of a natural linguistic ferment: lightning thrust, lightning offensive, and so on. But what made me sit up and take notice is Fanning's contention that when blitzkrieg did start to come into relatively widespread use in the late 1930s, it was usually in reference to my particular obsession, the knock-out blow:

The German terms "blitzkrieg," Überfallskrieg, and the French attaque brusquée were all used prior to 1 September 1939 primarily to describe the concept of the "knockout blow" theory created during the early 1920s and associated with the emergence of air power [...] Although given different labels, they all described the same thing: a sudden, rapid strike against an enemy, destroying in a matter of hours or days his ability to resist, completely shattering his morale, and forcing him to sue for peace in order to escape further devastation. 4

As he describes it, airpower was only a predominant element in the knock-out blow, rather than completely dominating as is my understanding; but this may be a British peculiarity derived from living behind an ocean barrier.

According to Fanning, blitzkrieg first began to appear (outside of Tukhachevsky) in English-language publications around the time the Czech crisis, which peaked in September 1938, and began to be used with increasing frequency up until the outbreak of war: 'In almost every instance, the meaning was consistent with the strategic concept of the "knockout blow".' 5 I can supply a supporting example not mentioned by Fanning, from The Times of 14 June 1939 -- incidentally, the first instance in that newspaper (and one which predates the Time article quoted above):

The opinion that civilian defence, and not active defence, is "the true answer" to the Blitzkrieg, or "lightning blow," of German air strategy is expressed in a bulletin entitled "The Nature of the Air Threat," issued by the Air Raid Defence League. 6

And also:

Even if the Blitzkrieg were not now a commonplace of German military thought, it should have to be concluded that a main part of the strategic design was a belief that the new weapon could procure victory before the war settled down to the long struggle of armies and blockade assumed by French and British strategy. 7

So it seems that prior to 1940, the knock-out blow and the blitzkrieg were pretty much the same thing. In the previous post, I suggested that the Blitz was not a corruption of blitzkrieg as the British then understood the term. If Fanning is right, then the qualification is almost unnecessary: there's a fundamental continuity between the Blitz of 1940 and the blitzkrieg of 1938-9. On this view, and taking Frieser into account, 8 it's the blitzkrieg of 1940 and after which is the corruption. Now that's not the conclusion I thought I'd be reaching when I decided to write about the relationship between blitzkrieg and the Blitz!

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  1. Karl-Heinz Frieser, The Blitzkrieg Legend: The 1940 Campaign in the West (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2005), 4.[]
  2. This helps explain the otherwise puzzling halt of the panzers before Dunkirk -- the German high command lost its nerve as it had lost control of its lower-echelon commanders. It wasn't the first time they'd tried to slow the panzers down, which were usually running far ahead of the mostly non-mechanised infantry.[]
  3. Time, 25 September 1939.[]
  4. William J. Fanning, Jr., "The origin of the term 'blitzkrieg': another view", Journal of Military History, 61 (1997), 291-2.[]
  5. Ibid., 299.[]
  6. The Times, 14 June 1939, p. 9.[]
  7. Ibid.[]
  8. Although it must be admitted that Fanning and Frieser don't mesh perfectly: in particular the former sees blitzkrieg as a strategic concept whereas the latter sees it as operational.[]

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