THE DEFEAT OF THE WEHRMACHT IN RUSSIA: A “DEEP PENETRATION” ANAYLSIS
By Tom Lovell
Submitted to the Raleigh Tavern Society
If historians are correct in christening World War II the “defining event” of the Twentieth Century, then Adolph Hitler’s controversial decision to invade the Soviet Union in June of l941 brooks few challengers for the title of the “defining event’s” defining event. I make this judgment in the face of momentous “also rans” such as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, America’s Manhattan Project, the Allied invasion of Normandy, and Hitler’s declaration of war against the United States.
But it was the Fuhrer’s quest for Lebensraum in Eastern Europe bound up with his determination to exterminate, in his words, the “Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy,” which set in motion a conflict without peer for barbarity and sheer destructiveness. When it ground to a close, after four long years, the cost in lives and property was incalculable. The experts manage to quibble, still, over the millions of people lost here and those others slain there. One tote board lists some 25 million Soviet dead, including both military and civilian losses. On the German side it is estimated that more than three million soldiers alone lost their lives, not to mention countless civilians whom, toward the end, were forced to submit to the unforgiving savagery of revenge-hungry Soviet troops. And these statistics do not include the hundreds of thousands of German allies--the woebegone Italians, Hungarians, Rumanians, Croatians, Slovakians, etc.--who perished on the journey to and from Stalingrad and hundreds of other snow-driven sites, which dotted the Soviet heartland. Nor do I include in these figures the hundreds of thousands of Soviet prisoners of war who either turned their coats and fought for the Germans or else survived as slave laborers, only to face upon liberation, either summary execution or a trip to the Gulag—practices actually enacted early on by a Stalin busily set upon re-defining the meaning of the word repatriation.
One can better appreciate the enormity of this “Battle of the Titans” when reminded of Gerhard Weinberg’s estimate that, counting the progeny which would have been born to those who perished, the totality of lives prospectively lost in World War II approaches the l00 million figure. Thus, by any measurement, the conflict waged between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia supplied a hefty portion of the war’s overall butcher’s bill. And, finally, it needs to be remembered that the slaughter of a goodly chunk of the Polish population, not to mention the Jewish Holocaust killings, was largely carried out as a direct consequence of Hitler’s move to the East.
Long after the German leader’s suicide in his shell-pocked Reich Chancellery, an abundance of poignant “what if” questions relating to the epic struggle on the Eastern Front remain on the table. For example, what if the Japanese, instead of suffering a crushing defeat in l939 at the hands of Soviet forces under Georgi Zuhkov, had prevailed in an often overlooked clash on the Mongolian border, thus whetting their appetite for expansion into Siberia rather than Southeast Asia. This scenario, quite conceivably, would have forced Russia into a two-front war in which Stalin would have been left defending Moscow in December of l941 bereft of his vaunted Siberian army.
Or what if Hitler had taken the advice of his Navy chief, Admiral Erich Raeder, and foregone a direct assault on Russia in l941 in favor of striking the British in the southern Mediterranean? In tandem with their Italian allies and with a compliant Vichy and Franco cheering in the wings, Raeder predicted the Germans were capable of crushing Malta, outflanking Gibraltar from Morocco, pushing the British from Egypt, capturing the Suez Canal and laying hold to the oil of the Middle East. This, he prophesied, would inexorably compromise Turkey and Iran, permitting Germany to strike Russia, at its leisure, from the south.
The success of such a campaign, Raeder argued, would jeopardize the continued existence of the British Empire and compel Churchill to sue for peace. And, after all, a live-and-let-live peace with Great Britain was what Hitler had been angling for as early as Mein Kampf.
And it was Germany’s inability to make a deal with the British and, then later, invade and conquer that island kingdom that convinced Hitler to turn east to finish off the Soviet Union, even if this meant fighting a war—albeit only momentarily--on two fronts. In the Fuhrer’s calculus the British remained an obstinate foe, in part, because of their tenuous reliance on an ambivalent United States, but, also, because of a flickering hope that the Soviets might see through German intentions and elect to disavow their non-aggression agreement with the Third Reich. To insure the British defeat, Hitler was convinced that the Russians had to be destroyed sooner rather than later. Incidentally, recent unearthing of British documents suggests that Winston Churchill was much more inclined to strike some kind of deal with Hitler—if not after Dunkirk, then following the British misadventure in Greece and subsequent loss of Crete in May of l941--than has hitherto been thought possible.
The most deliciously controversial of all these “what if” scenarios deals with Hitler’s decision in the fall of l941 to countermand the wishes of his generals and deflect his panzers from Moscow in order to crush still viable Soviet hosts, most of whom were located in the Ukraine. And in so doing, or so the legend goes, he forfeited the only real chance the Germans had to end the war on a quick and decisive note. Because of the saliency of this question I am bound to return to it later in this paper.
The fact that these and other similar inquiries hover out there in the historical ether (as one might have expected, there are several Internet sites where the struggle on the Russian front is war gamed and re-fought with as much vigor as is that of the American Civil War) springs not only from the pixilated curiosity questions such as these engender but from their ultimate seriousness. One need not be a determined historical moralist to envision an entirely different rendering of the Twentieth Century if Guderian’s panzers had over run Moscow in l941, and, in so doing, forced upon a defeated Soviet Union--at the very least--a negotiated peace a la Brest-Litovsk. Such an eventuality would, of course, have transformed the ultimate outcome of World War II.
Another reason why these kinds of questions still resonate involves the changed image of the Soviet Union wrought by the Cold War. During World War II, certainly in America, friendship with Russia became a major leitmotif of war propaganda. The heroism and gutsy resistance of the Russian peasant soldier was widely celebrated from the cover of Life Magazine to sympathetic portrayals dished out by Hollywood. Thus when the American populace was, in due course, apprised of the actual evils of the Soviet system and the palpable threat it posed to American security, it became less intolerable to revisit the struggle between the Nazis and Soviets from a more pro-German perspective. Pat Buchanan’s recent controversial comments regarding World War II fall into this category.
Ironically, this kind of attitude is the very thing the Nazis clung to as the end drew near, i.e., the conviction that the British and Americans would eventually wake up to the threat posed by a victorious Bolshevik state and begin to rethink their collusion in the destruction of Germany.
A much more idiosyncratic response triggered by the Nazi-Soviet war is the ability to feel a weird twinge of sympathy, not for Hitler and the gullible and culpable German people, but for the German army, the Wehrmacht. In part, such an attitude stems from the aforementioned anti-Communist mindset. But it is also rooted in the pervasive myth of innocence that has historically been draped over that portion of a German officer corps perceived to have been dedicated both to country and a high-minded moral code--one underscored by the role it played in the attempt to assassinate Hitler. This is by way of seeing the German military hierarchy as the personification, writ large, of the aristocratic virtues of a Graf von Stauffenberg.
The reality was, of course, markedly different. The German army leadership, from Hitler’s ascension to power in l933, and certainly following his murderous purge of the SA soon thereafter, was joined at the hip with a Furher committed to rebuilding Germany’s military might. And even such high-ranking traditional conservatives as Baron von Fritsch and Ludwig Beck expressed sympathy with many tenants of Nazis ideology; they differed with Hitler primarily in their opposition to what they considered his precipitous preparations for war, first against Czechoslovakia and then later France. Like the rest of the doubters, they were disarmed, if not won over, by the magic of Hitler’s diplomatic coups, beginning in the Rhineland, and thereafter in Austria and Czechoslovakia, and by the relatively bloodless victories scored over Poland and France.
As to the invasion of Russia, the military leadership early on proffered a mixed reaction: some were privy to intelligence pointing to the large inventory of Soviet war-making materiel, particularly in planes and tanks, and thus quietly demurred. And, then, of course, the spectral bogeyman of a “two-front war” loomed large as a restraining presence. Others, however, fell victim to a fever of over confidence following so many German successes in the field. And, as with Hitler, the generals were encouraged by the presumed deficiencies in the Soviet ability to make war. The Red Army’s poor showing against the Finns in the Winter War was dwelled on at length, as was the obvious impact on the Soviet army leadership exacted by the l937 purge, where, from the brilliant Marshall Tukhachevsky down to the brigade level, thousands of experienced officers were either shot or else marched off to the Gulag, victims of the latest round of Stalinist paranoia. As we shall see later in this paper, once the decision was made to invade Russia it would be the generals, not Hitler, who would prove the more daringly committed to the task at hand.
Evidence of the complicity of the German military in war crimes committed inside the Soviet Union is even more damning. From acquiescence in the infamous Commissar Order of May l941 (here Red Army political officers and other communist officials, upon falling in German hands, were to be summarily put to death) to the participation in the roundup and slaughter of Soviet Jews and other civilian innocents, the record reveals the Wehrmact--as distinct and apart from the SS “killing squads”--a willing and active participant Most damning of all was the calculated mistreatment of Soviet P.O.W.s, of whom, upwards of three million perished while in the custody of their German captors.
In three separate Hollywood films of the not-too-recent past, I recall seeing Marlon Brando, John Gavin and Michael Caine, respectively, portray German army officers righteously expressing outrage at atrocities perpetrated by German troops. In each case, the characters they played heroically attempted to put a stop to the crimes. In real life German officers who behaved in such a capacity were clearly the exception.
But once this is said there comes a point in the narrative of this titanic struggle where one is compelled to bestow an accolade or two upon the Wehrmarct, not for its evil actions, but for its discipline, elan, and downright efficiency as a fighting force. Studies have long shown, for example, that man for man the individual German soldier inflicted more causalities upon his opponents than any other World War II warrior. Success of this kind usually has been attributed to the sterling quality of COs and non-commissioned officers produced by a training regimen designed to foster initiative and independent decision making at the combat eschlon level.
The existence of all this professionalism and traditional celebration of the military arts, so emblematic of the German Army and a German nation which had produced the likes of a Clausewitz, a Blucher and a von Moltke, begs a fundamentally important question which just happens to provide the main scaffolding for this totally disorganized paper: namely, what went wrong? Leaving aside for the moment the question of the mistake Hitler made in thinking he could quickly crush the Soviet empire,· how is one to explain the willing cooperation of the Army High Command in what, at least with perfect hind sight, appears a thoroughly loony gamble in grand strategy?
The simple answer to the above question is, of course, to dismiss the role of the Army altogether in order to concentrate on the failure of Adolf Hitler as a war leader. But before a rush is made to catalogue the military blunders frequently and fairly attributed to the Austrian corporal, due consideration needs to be refocused upon the Army leadership and what led to its collaboration in its own dissolution.
In a recent book, the American military historian Geoffrey P. Megargee goes a long way in dismantling the myth of the genius of the German military hierarchy. He claims that the Prussian general staff, the “jewel in the crown” of German military tradition, suffered from its inception, not only from a hubris over its presumed perfectibility, but from a “narrowness of vision” which tended to approach war almost exclusively from the standpoint of tactical operations.
In this kind of mental universe, problems raised by such basic concerns as logistics and material were to be overcome by force of will. In Megargee’s view the lessons learned by the German military following World War I were to continue doing business pretty much in the same old way. Not wrong-headed strategic decisions made at the top, but a failure of operations in battles such as the Marne and Verdun, was where the trouble lay.
The High Command’s post-war analysis then was pretty much focused on the intermingling of weapons, tactics, and operational concepts in a way that might have broken the stalemate in the trenches. But not entirely! Psychological warfare and the application of the same in maintaining civilian morale received due notice, as did recognition of the importance of organizing the nation for Total War.
To satisfy the latter two points, army dogma in the inter-war years mandated the establishment of an authoritarian government “but one that would accept the General Staff’s primacy in military matters.” Furthermore, success in future wars was to lie in “total mobilization, central direction, and rapid operational victory.” In the course of World War Two, Germany would experience, only belatedly, the first of the above; vexingly endure hit-and-miss versions of the second; and enjoy, but fleetingly, the fruits of the third. But for a certainty the Army got its authoritarian government, albeit at the price of forfeiting, at least in the long run, the desired “primacy in military matters.”
Following up on the latter point, it is breathtaking how readily the German military raced to put itself at the disposal of the Fuhrer: we learn, for example, that it was not Hitler but sycophantic high-ranking generals such as Werner von Blomberg and Walther von Reichenau, who--in return for Hitler’s neutering of the Brown Shirt leadership--engineered the infamous officer’s oath of loyalty to the Fuhrer in l934.
Megargee notes that by this juncture the spiritual unity enjoyed by the Reichwehr (the Army during the Weimar Republic) had already begun to slip away. In part, this stemmed from the increasing number of officers who had hitched their wagon to the star of National Socialism. But an even greater problem, from the point of view of the Army’s autonomy, lay in the growing chasm between the War or Defense Ministry (OKW) and the Army High Command (OKH).
Pick up any book on the German Army in World War II and one is faced with the task of unsnarling this intramural scramble for decision-making power. An analogy, although admittedly a tortured one, requires positing an American military establishment riven between the authority of the joint chiefs, embodied in the chairman, at one pole, and that of the chief of staff of the Army at the other. But in the German case, tradition mandated the supremacy of the latter over the former, not the other way around.
Under Hitler, however, the supremacy of the Army High Command was soon put at risk, first by a pair of personnel appointments gone bad, and, later, by two bizarre scandals. In the first instance, an attempt was made to prevent the OKW from poaching on the prerogatives of military planning and the setting of defense policy traditionally enjoyed by the OKH. Beck, the Army chief of staff, arranged for the appointment of Brigadier General Wilhem Keitel and Colonel Alfred Jodl to the OKW staff, where, Beck hoped, they would represent the best interests of the Army High Command.
Beck was in store for a major let down. The two officers soon turned their back on their benefactor and did their best to augment the authority of the OKW at the expense of the OKH. And, eventually, it was through the auspices of the former, staffed with a coterie of slavishly pro-Nazi generals, that Hitler slowly widened his domain over the German Army. For the uninitiated, Keitel and Jodl, in time, proved to be Hitler’s closest and most loyal military advisers—a closeness and a loyalty, it should be noted, that eventually landed the two in the dock at Nuremberg, from whence they were consigned to the hangman.
The Army’s traditional autonomy within the Third Reich was further eroded in l938 following two embarrassing incidents involving members of the top brass. Blomberg, an early Hitler favorite who had been made a field marshal and posted to head the OKW, was discovered to have married a prostitute. Hitler, who appeared as a witness at the wedding, expressed genuine outrage at having been conned by a member of the aristocratic officer corps. His petit bourgeois sense of propriety violated, he demanded Blomberg’s resignation. Finally, in order to hush things up, he paid the field marshal to take a world cruise.
This episode was soon followed by allegations that Werner von Fritsch, Beck’s superior as commander-in-chief of the Army, was consorting with a male prostitute. The affair involved a case of mistaken identity and von Fritsch vigorously defended his honor. But those in Hitler’s inner circle--men like Hermann Goring and Heinrich Himmler--determined to undermine the privileged position still enjoyed by the High Command, played it for all it was worth.
Humiliated, von Fritsch stepped down; and although he was later cleared of the charges, Hitler chose not to reinstate him. The general promptly took a field command only to be killed shortly thereafter in the Polish campaign. Beck, meanwhile, rather baldly opposed the Fuhrer’s threatened war with Czechoslovakia and secretly plotted Hitler’s overthrow as a contingency in case such a conflict materialized. But when the appeasers finessed Hitler at Munich, making it possible for him to bag Czechoslovakia without firing a shot, the chief of staff threw in the towel and tendered his resignation. Blomberg, meanwhile, upon hearing of the fate of von Fritsch, urged the Fuhrer himself to take charge of the Wehrmact, an option the German leader eventually followed through on.
While other capable officers went on to man the battlements of the High Command—men, for instance, like Walther Brauchitsich and Franz Halder—none demonstrated sufficient gravitas, will power, or pure undiluted backbone, to seriously challenge Hitler. Brauchitsich proved pathetically weak; Halder, pathetically indecisive.
It would take until almost the end of the war for the
major practitioner of the blitzkrieg, Colonel General Heinz Guderian, to go to the mat with Hitler in his capacity as newly appointed chief of staff. In point of fact, during the stalemate before Moscow in l941, Hitler had sacked Guderian upon learning the panzer leader has purposely ignored one of his “no retreat” orders.
By the time of this latest and last protest, hope of changing the Fuhrer’s mind was all but academic. And Guderian’s chutzpah notwithstanding, most of the stuffing had been knocked clean out of the Army leadership long before the failed July 22, l944 attempt on Hitler’s life. Years of brow beating, personal insults, and an agonizing history of failed attempts to overcome the Fuhrer’s wrong-headed views on strategy and tactics had taken their toll.
From the start, Hitler foresaw a clash with the monocled aristocrats he disdainfully viewed as dominating the Army hierarchy—a prediction that, over a stretch of ground, proved a self-fulfilling prophecy. But that was only part of the story. Although a cliché and stereotype, one cannot underestimate the genuine loyalty the German Army felt compelled to confer on the head of state. Such a deep-seated commitment provides a sufficient, if not the ultimate, explanation for the Army’s ongoing submission to Hitler’s will. And if any officer needed a further incentive to defer to the leader, he had only to reflect on the public disrepute heaped on the Army following the so-called Kapp Putsch--an aborted effort made by renegade officers in l920 to unseat the Weimar Republic—to know where his loyalties ultimately must lie.
Although erosion of the Army’s autonomy had begun early in the Hitler regime, the Fuhrer reserved sufficient good judgment to grant the High Command considerable independence to plan and conduct the victorious campaigns in Poland, Norway, France, and even later in Yugoslavia. To be fair to the Fuhrer, however, one needs to point out that--in regard to the attack on France--it was Hitler who overruled the Army’s original rather pedestrian plan in favor of the daringly unorthodox strike through the Ardennes. Cooked up at the last minute by the brilliant General Erich von Manstein, this famed exercise in blitzkrieg proved decisive in bringing France to its knees in record time.
But invading France was not the equivalent of taking on a country possessed of the largest landmass in the world. And by the time the German panzers rolled into the Soviet Union, the problems hinted at above, those of a suspect military doctrine and squishiness over who was ultimately in charge were to prove catastrophic.
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The story of Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union rises to the highest level of historical drama; in one sense it’s a suspenseful tale of mighty warriors, worthy of a blighted Homer. But viewed from another perspective, it translates as a grim and grisly epic, etched in blood, presided over by an evil presence. To this day the ominous code name: Operation Barbarosa conjures up an aura of dread and foreboding mixed with a perverse sense of high expectation. One seeks in vain for just the right set of adjectives to do it justice.
By the way, I am excluding here from my meaning of the term “invasion” the greater portion of the Nazi-Soviet war. The sieges of Leningrad and Sevastapol, the struggle for Stalingrad, the determinative reversal of fortune suffered by the Germans at Kursk in l943, and, eventually, the Russian race for Berlin, are, for my purposes, beside the point.
I do this for the obvious sake of brevity but also because the fate or the “defeat of the Wehrmacht” was pretty much sealed before most of these other events took place. My focus instead will be on the lead up to the invasion, the actual crossing of German troops into Soviet-occupied territory, and the Wehrmacht’s subsequent race eastward. My unoriginal contention is that between June 22 and early December, l941, the German Army lost the war in Europe.
This tale, to be told properly, must begin by placing it against the backdrop of the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August, l939. This ill-famed agreement freed Hitler to launch his attack on Poland and then later hurl his tanks and planes against France and Great Britain without fear of attack from the East.
The “friendship” between the two totalitarian states, of course, proved transitory. The Israeli historian, Gabriel Gorodetsky, in a recent book has teased out every last strand of nuanced diplomacy conducted by Britain, Germany and Russia—not to mention Italy, Rumania, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Turkey--on the eve of Germany’s attack. This reader, evoking the ghost of Woodrow Wilson, comes away chastened by the extent to which each of the countries mentioned—right up to the eve of the June 22 assault--was prepared to double cross each other if necessary to achieve what they then considered to be in their own best interest.
There are moments in Gorodetsky’s book when one is prepared to believe that if Stalin had been less aggressive in enforcing the secret protocols of the non-aggression pact, i.e., if he had not grabbed for the Baltic states and portions of Rumania with such gusto, Hitler might have been tempted to turn his imperial gaze elsewhere. And, after all, because of the British naval blockade, Hitler needed the grain, metal ores and oil Stalin was pouring into Germany in compliance with those portions of the pact dealing with mutual trade.
One is also reminded of the efforts mounted by the pro-Soviet lobby attending Hitler, including Reich Marshall Hermann Goring, Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and the Fuhrer’s favorite theoretician on race and resident dim bulb, Alfred Rosenberg, all three of whom sought an ongoing modus vivendi with the Soviet Union. Ribbentrop went so far as to entertain the prospect of an alliance between Russia, Japan, Italy and Germany against the Anglo-Saxon West. Even the German ambassador to the Soviet Union and long-time Russophile, Count Werner von Schulenburg, left no stone unturned trying to maintain the peace.
So why did Germany invade Russia? More to the point, why did Hitler give the order to invade? Some of the answers touched on earlier bear repeating: the need to expand in the East so as to better accommodate the Reich’s burgeoning population (this Lebensraum theme was deep-rooted in German folk myth)·; Hitler’s megalomanical vision that Bolshevism was the stalking horse of the Jewish drive for world domination, and thus must be extirpated at all cost; and the rather obvious and thus all the more stupefying exercise in grand strategic overreach which held that Britain could only be brought to her senses by the defeat of Soviet Russia. One is inclined to read the last point as more of an attempt to conciliate Hitler’s deeply held personal desires rather than any legitimate search for an obtainable end. Hitler’s passion for conquering Russia would have existed whether Britain existed or not; it was simply intertwined in his DNA!
I would add to this list the Fuhrer’s personal conviction that time was of the essence. Hitler was a man in a hurry! A hypochondriac, who fretted over a family tree sprinkled with short-lived forebears, the Fuhrer feared his lifeline was shrinking. He worried that there might be insufficient time remaining to fulfill his imperial dreams. Moreover, his geopolitical and military successes had, up to that point, been accomplished largely as a result of his ability to take the initiative so as to throw the opposition off balance. He felt with justification, that, if he simply treaded water, he was doomed. The German economy was worsening by the day. As in World War I, the British blockade was forcing the German people to tighten their belts; food was already being rationed, and the federal government had devolved into a Rube Goldberg operation dominated by those provincial gauleiters and other Nazi Party functionaries, who, at any given moment, enjoyed access to the Fuhrer. In short, the war had the effect of diverting the public’s mind away from problems at home.
Furthermore, Hitler’s timetable of aggression had been predicated on the conviction that Germany was ahead in the race to rearm and that such an advantage must not be frittered away by allowing his foes the opportunity to catch up. Although German military intelligence had informed him of the quantity of arms in the Russian military arsenal, he had also been led to believe that much of the weaponry was obsolete.· And he certainly did not want to give the Russians time to modernize their war-making capability or reconfigure a command structure gutted by Stalin’s purges.
Hitler was also ready to believe that if he did not strike Russia, and soon, that Stalin might very well jump the gun and launch his own preemptive blow against Germany. German revisionist historians have, over the last decade, seized upon this as a real possibility. A handful of books—one by a former KGB official—have lent credence of a kind to this notion. However, the only supportive hard evidence brought to bear on the subject has been to cite the expected Soviet offensive contingency plans and a chauvinistic pep talk Stalin gave to a gathering of Red Army officers in Beloyrussia weeks prior to the German attack. Most of the available historiography amounts to speculation and theory mongering.·
Gorodetsky devotes much of his book to pouring cold water on such a notion. He describes the distance Stalin traveled to avoid believing that Hitler was actually going to invade. Gorodetsky relates how the British, in their effort to turn Stalin against Hitler, over played their hand in attempting to forewarn the Red leader of the imminent German assault. The harder Churchill tried to persuade Stalin that the impending invasion was the real McCoy, the more the Red leader became convinced such reports were an exercise in disinformation designed to sow seeds of discord between the two dictators. (At the bottom of a dispatch from a Russian agent confirming the truthfulness of the German invasion, Stalin had scrawled that the man who provided such worthless information should go and “fuck his mother”.) The Party Chairman was soon to realize the magnitude of his error.
Two rather contradictory quotes are attributed to Hitler on the eve of the invasion: both are prophetic and employ metaphor. In the first, he eerily muses about walking through a door into a darkened room, not knowing exactly what lies on the other side of the threshold; the other, and more famous, has the Fuhrer proclaiming that “all we have to do is knock down the door [of the Soviet Union] and the whole rotten structure will come tumbling down.”
The first, I submit, denotes a side of the Fuhrer that took hold during the war with Russia, that of a cautious and tentative commander-in-chief; the second, and more familiar, is that of the bullying, risk-taking gambler who has won pot after pot by pure audacious bluff, guile and intimidation. The second Hitler is the Hitler of legend; the first is not immediately recognizable.
The American military historian R.H.S. Stolfi goes a long way toward unmasking this “Hitler nobody knows”. He avers that there were two Hitlers from the very beginning. And one was defensive minded, indecisive, and obsessed with securing economic resources and contiguous territories on his flanks, attitudes that reflected--in Stolfi’s words--Hitler’s “fortress mentality”.
As early as July, l940, the initial plan for what was soon to become Operation Barbarosa was drawn up by the Army High Command. It envisioned a short war kicked off with a surprise attack across the newly constituted western boundary of the Soviet Empire. The Wehrmacht, led by columns of armor and tactical air, would knife through and then behind the Soviet troops, cutting their communications and sealing off avenues of escape. The key to the plan, however, was a proposed drive on Moscow; once in control of the Soviet capital, the Germans would be in a position to sever communications to Leningrad and other population centers, block railroad lines and river traffic on the Volga, destabilize the seat of government, and gravely interfere with the command and control capabilities of the Red Army’s Stavka or high command apparatus. Applying this scenario, the plan called for the war to be brought to a successful conclusion within approximately seven to sixteen weeks.
Hitler took exception to this plan almost from the start. The Fuhrer favored an attack on a broad front that would focus more on controlling the Baltic coast and capturing Leningrad in the north so as to link up with the Finns, while, simultaneously swooping down on the Ukraine with its grain and industrial-rich Donets Basin.
Remarkably, soon after the invasion began, the decision remained up in the air as to which plan was to have priority. Stolfi faults the entire general staff and Halder in particular for not marshalling every last bit of leverage the generals still possessed to convince the Fuhrer of the rightness of their plan.· As it turned out, the initial attack was made on a wide front, and, while overwhelmingly successful, it would take a full month before the Germans had advanced to a point where it became absolutely necessary to decide whether or not to strike for Moscow.
Arriving in Smolensk in late July, just over 200 miles west of the Russian capital, the panzers were reined in on order of the Fuhrer and valuable time was wasted while Hitler divined what to do next; when he finally made up his mind, it was to send his tanks north and south to protect the Army’s flanks. The road to Moscow, meanwhile, was left wide open and practically defenseless. The Russians were thus allowed 72 additional days to mount a defense of Moscow before the Germans returned to the attack. Stolfi has certainly not been the first, nor will he be the last, to cite this decision as the key to Germany’s defeat in Russia.
Williamson Murray, the co-author of a recent history of World War II, has described the paucity of strategic planning involved in the invasion, or, for that matter, a willingness once the campaign had begun to consider the need for ongoing improvisation of existing plans. He writes that during the debate in July and August between Hitler and the Army that “there was no discussions of the long-term implications of the campaign thus far, no apparent suggestion that the conquest of the Soviet Union might not be achieved in a year, no consideration of the need to prepare for a possible winter campaign, and no recommendation that the panzer and motorized infantry divisions be husbanded for refitting and reuse in l942. Instead everyone simply agreed to push on into the depths of the Soviet Union regardless of the lateness of the season; the only disagreement was over which direction that advance should move.”
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D-Day, as students of the war will recall, began in the wee hours of June 22, l941, when over three million German troops and their allied auxiliaries, lined up from the Baltic to the Balkans and pushed across a two-thousand mile front into Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe.
The Russians were famously caught flatfooted. Part of the surprise was the product of an adroit campaign of disinformation mounted by Joseph Goebbels. Part was due to the fact that Germany’s earlier invasions of Yugoslavia and Greece, combined with the prospect of her aiming a blow at the British in the Mediterranean, provided plausible deniability for the large movement of troops in the vicinity of the Soviet border. And, as noted, no amount of warnings, regardless of their source--whether from the always-reliable Sorge spy ring in Tokyo or in the form of deciphered gleanings from the British code-breakers--proved sufficiently palatable to the criminally myopic Stalin.
To borrow a vulgarity from the profane utterances of General George Patton, the Germans went through the Russians “like shit through a goose.” Some of the terminology drawn from those first three months of German victories still possess the power to excite the pulse: panzers, blitzkrieg, Mark IIIs, the German 88, pincer movement, encirclement, “cauldron”, 300,000 Russian prisoners, 400,000 Russian prisoners, Stukas, Einsaztsgruppen commandos, the fall of Minsk, Katyn Forest, Babi Yar, Smolensk, Lake Ladoga, the fall of Kiev, Hoth, Guderian, von Runstedt, von Bock, and on it goes.
Two huge army groups struck north of the Pripet Marshes, one headed for Leningrad on the Baltic, the second and largest, Army Group Center, moved inexorably east, down the Moscow corridor; a third army combination generaled by Gerd von Runstedt pushed more slowly in the direction of Kiev in the Ukraine. In a matter of weeks, Hermann Hoth and Guderian’s panzers had encircled whole Russian armies and commenced bagging hundreds of thousands of prisoners. This scene was repeated time and again as the Russian forces, thrown in almost total disarray, either surrendered, fell back, or were crushed. In these so-called “cauldrons” casualty rates ran as high as 25 to l against the Soviet troops.
The early German successes were the result of a culmination of German assets and Soviet blunders. The element of surprise, for example, was made even more effective by the fact that Stalin, in order to fasten control over the peoples and territories gained by the non-aggression pact, had brought his armies right up to the newly delineated border. This made it much easier for the Germans to punch a hole through a thoroughly over-stretched line of Soviet defenders. And once Stalin came to his senses and realized that the invasion was for real, he foolishly ordered his generals to stand fast, thus making the Russian armies all the more susceptible to being cut off and encircled.· .
So once again, notwithstanding the failure to attack Moscow in July of l941, I’m compelled to return to my original question, what went wrong? With surprise on their side; with an overwhelming advantage in tactical air power; with an aggressively, fine-tuned mechanized and motorized force supported by millions of first-rate warriors, facing a poorly trained, poorly led and poorly positioned foe, why didn’t the Germans prevail? After all, they had been victorious over the same enemy in World War I; why not in World War II?
Most of the answers to this question advanced so far in this paper touch on the weaknesses and mistakes committed by the Germans. The time has come to enlist those advantages enjoyed by the Soviets and see if they can bring a convincing sense of finality to the issue. For openers, the superabundance of manpower and womanpower capable of handling everything from a shovel to a submachine gun thoroughly undid German hopes and expectations. The “humongous” number of Soviet losses incurred early in Byelorussia and the Ukraine were consistently made up—to the unending consternation of the Wehrmacht--not only from the stock of Russian and Ukrainian peasant soldiery, but from a seeming unending supply of troops from the Caucuses and non-Europeans from the Asiatic steppe lands of the USSR. It wasn’t until late l943 that Stavka became aware of a serious shortage of manpower and henceforward acted with restraint before routinely throwing away lives as cannon fodder.
The Soviet troops were themselves a frequent source of wonderment to their German counterparts; their stolid hardiness, including the ability to withstand the cold and the pain of battle wounds, was legendary. And their penchant for exacting revenge, e.g., paying back Nazi barbarisms in kind, including castration, was not lost on the German soldier.
Then there was the incredible productivity of the Soviet armaments industry, which all but rivaled that of the United States in its ability to crank out unending supplies of guns, ammunition, tanks, and planes. The Germans never really caught up!
Also cited with great frequency as a Soviet asset is the bringing on line of the formidable T-34 medium tank, which, with its high caliber cannon, high speed, maneuverability, low silhouette and heavy armament, proved to be one of the most effective weapon systems produced in the war. And I haven’t even begun to detail the rebuilding of the Soviet tactical air force, which toward the end roamed unchallenged over the Russian Front.
Then there are the depressing landscapes, the vast distances, the poor roads, the different railroad gauges, the bitter cold and lengthy supply lines, all points which manage to be mentioned whenever the topic of Germany’s defeat comes up.
But I must bring this to a close with an explanation of what proved as conclusive as anything else in determining the German defeat. I refer here to everyone’s favorite big time Hitler screw up, namely his decision to turn the war against Russia into an ideological Armageddon. Once he threw down the gauntlet in favor of “exterminating the brutes”, he sealed his fate and that of Germany.
With the occurrence of the mass atrocities, first in Poland and the Baltic states, then in the Soviet Union itself, the prospect of settling the war via a negotiated settlement was foredoomed and the German leadership knew it. Furthermore, if the Poles and Russians were subhuman material, logic dictated that so too were the Ukrainians, Cossacks, and other Soviet minorities. But in their joint quest to free themselves from the Communist yoke and establish their nationalist bona fides, minorities such as these would have gladly joined forces with the Germans in the destruction of the Red Army. Some attempted with limit success to do just that!
Of course, the Germans to their lasting infamy handed the minorities not bread but a stone by treating them in the same horrendous fashion they had the Poles and Russians. In so doing they planted a crop of dragons’ teeth which would later spring up behind German lines in the form of battalions of partisans. But Hitler would not hear of allying Germany with the likes of the Ukrainians! After all, it was Slavs like these who were destined to work as helots on future German plantations scattered throughout the East; independent nationalism for such wretches then was verboten. As the end of the war approached, the policy changed only slightly to allow for the presence of General A. A. Vlasov, a captured Russian commander who defected to the Germans and was awarded command of an army of captured Soviet soldiers willing to fight their former comrades. But Hitler never allowed Vlasov’s force to become more than an ersatz propaganda device. What a waste! What a mistake!
· Or was it a mistake? At least one military historian claims it was a reasonable decision that just barely fell short of the mark.
· Hitler’s meaning of Lebensraum incorporated in the term a sense of autarky or economic self-sufficiency.
· Actually, German military intelligence was a disaster. Intelligence officer, as was the case in the French Army, were looked down on and treated only as information gathers without any seat and the table for making policy. Invariably intelligence estimates of the Soviet military were wrong by a factor of at least five on estimating almost everything from weaponry to troop strengths.
· This is not to say that the Soviets did not have any contingent offensive plans of their own. They most certainly did; Tuchachevsky had pioneered an offensive-defensive strategy that was not all that different from the blitzkrieg formula first brought to light in the l920s in Germany. It called for the Russians to fall back from the frontier at the first sign of a German attack; at that point special armored columns purposely staked out a strategic points in the Soviet rear would launch “deep penetration” drives into and behind the German lines to wreck havoc and sow confusion. Such a plan was indeed in the works at the time Germany struck but not yet fully implemented.
· It would not be until the German Army was deeply involved in the Stalingrad debacle that Halder would bow out and Hitler assume practically the entire responsibility for running the military. From that point forward the German generals basically became ciphers.
· It’s ironic that as the war in Russia progressed Hitler increasingly exercised greater and greater control over the German Army and the worsening of the situation correlates with this enhanced authority; in the case of Stalin, the Russian leader, while committing egregious blunders early in the day, appeared to learn from his mistakes and increasingly tender more and more authority to his generals with the result being more and more victories.