Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Danse Macabre
The Russian – German War 1941 – 1945, Part 3
Hitler’s “Fatal Error”

Operation Barbarossa
June 22 - December 1, 1941

In two previous postings I discussed aspects of what was probably the greatest war ever fought; The Russian German war on the Eastern Front. The huge size of the armies the horrific scale of the casualties and the almost unbelievable scale and wickedness of the atrocities. Certainly in terms of the scope of the battlefront and sheer scale no war in history could match it and very few wars could match it in terms of atrocity and horror.1

In this campaign of unimaginably huge size and horror the question is asked: was German defeat inevitable? Some historians and other writers since the war have basically argued that that was indeed the case and that Hitler was unbelievably foolish to have undertook it.2

Actually that is hindsight speaking. The proper way to evaluate whether or not a particular decision was at the time and under the circumstances a reasonable or foolish decision. In this case if we look at what was believed at the time things begin to get complicated.

First invading the USSR was not just Hitler’s idea. The notion was percolating in the minds of many members of German High Command at the time. And far from being irrational there was a sort of logic to the invasion.

Hitler was faced by late 1940 with a truly difficult position. Despite his great victory over France and his [Hitler’s] subsequent supremacy in Europe his strategic dilemma remained. He could not get at Britain. Especially now that Britain was being propped up by the United States. The British blockade impeded the flow of essential raw materials like oil and rubber and further Hitler was unable to get much economic benefit from holding Western Europe due to the blockade. Of course through his de-facto alliance with Russia he was able to get certain very important raw materials like rubber and oil but that made him dependent on Russia to a certain extent. Not a position liked by Hitler.  In order to break out of the economic straight jacket he was in Hitler felt he needed to seize the economic resources of European Russia. Of course attacking Russia would also fulfill Hitler’s psychotic fantasies of “Living Space” and his war against the mythical beast of “Judeo-Bolshevism.”3

And to be blunt Hitler’s generals had very little opposition to attacking Russia. The German High Command too were accustomed to seeing Communism has the Manichean enemy that had to be destroyed. And even more importantly they thought, like Hitler, that Russia would be overwhelmed quickly. They thought that the campaign would be basically over in a few months. This delusional notion was not just believed by Hitler and the German High Command it was believed in much of the world that Russia could not hold out under a German attack.4 If attacking Russia was foolish it was a foolish idea held by many other people other than Hitler.

The idea that Russia might collapse after a few months of campaigning was not as foolish has it seemed later. After all Russia had in fact been defeated during the First World War and had collapsed into chaos and revolution. What was forgotten was that Russia collapsed from a combination of massive social dislocation and serious internal problems. The Tsarist regime was fragile and had only a shallow base of support. The society of Tsarist Russia was ripe to collapse under the pressure of war. It was not military pressure alone that produced disaster but the socio-economic stresses on an anachronistic and weak political and social system. Even so the collapse was a nearer run thing than often supposed a slightly different constellation of events might have produced a German collapse before a Russian collapse.5

As it is The German High Command tended to think something might similarly happen if they attacked. They of course ignored that Stalinist Russia was not Tsarist Russia. They of course knew about the brutalities of the Stalinist system and its many atrocities leading them to assume that the system lacked support and would collapse at the first blow.6 They ignored that brutal political systems do frequently have significant popular support. They also neglected to notice that patriotism just might overcome dislike of the regime.

Thus when the plans for Barbarossa where drawn up very little thought was paid to the possibly that the campaign might to be prolonged. Hitler is often criticized for not planning for the possibility of a winter campaign. Well it wasn’t just Hitler, basically the entire German High Command was of a similar view. Neither they nor Hitler thought that the campaign would be prolonged into winter. The general consensus was that the campaign would be over quickly and then it would be a mere matter of marching.7   

Neither Hitler nor his generals thought that Russians would resist for a prolonged period of time and certainly the idea that the attack would fail was not one that was believed or taken seriously by the German High Command or Hitler. Also outside of Russia and Germany the general belief was that the Russians would be overwhelmed by the German attack. The fact that the attack would fail was not the general belief until after the attack had in fact failed.8

So Hitler’s attack on Russia was not just one man’s lunatic idea it was a popular notion believed in by many. So the German generals when they blame Hitler for the attack are so to speak distorting reality. This “lunatic” idea was shared between Hitler and his Generals.

But then this tactic of blaming Hitler is one that so many of the German Generals put forth after the war. This was part of the tradition of the post war German generals blaming Hitler for losing the war. It is interesting that they blame Hitler for attacking Russia and then proceed to blame Hitler  for not letting them win the war in Russia for him.

That is of course a continual refrain of this lying literature. So many of the German generals deny any responsibility and much of the time knowledge of the atrocities committed by the regime and at the same time whine about how if it wasn’t for Hitler’s interference they would have won the war for him. Thus indicating rather clearly their willingness to fight for the Nazi regime and that the only thing they regret is losing the war.9

One of the seminal decisions that supposedly Hitler made that lost the war was the stop at Smolensk in August – September 1941. Instead Hitler switched German forces north and especially south to avoid having exposed flanks. This resulted in the crushing German victory at Kiev which resulted in the loss of 600,000+ Soviet troops. A victory the German generals consider to be a useless delay.10

According to many accounts of the German Generals Moscow could have been taken in early September and the result would have been the collapse of the Soviet Union and victory. The idea was that only supply problems had halted the German advance at Smolensk and that Soviet resistance was ineffectual and weak at that point.

All of the above now that we have much greater access to Soviet sources is open to dispute. It wasn’t just supply problems that halted the Germans around Smolensk it was hard fighting by the Soviet armies. In fact it appears that by the time Barbarossa entered it’s sixth week it was in serious trouble. The Germans had not made sufficient, or in fact much allowance, for the both the sheer size of the Soviet Union or the existence of a very large trained numbers of reserves. The Germans thought the Russians had only c. 200 divisions. In fact they had well over double that number.11

In both the North and South the Germans were experiencing much greater difficulties then those anticipated. This left the central army group with exposed flanks. The result was that by early August 1941 Barbarossa was in serious trouble.

Soviet forces in front of Smolensk were strong and capable and it is unlikely that the German armies would have achieved the same success in August that they did in early October 1941 if they had advanced on Moscow. Further leaving a wide open southern front with powerful Soviet armies would have been very foolish if not suicidal.12

The bottom line was that eliminating the Soviets from both from the north and south of the central army group was absolutely a prerequisite to an advance on Moscow by the centre. Also the simple fact is that the Germans needed at least a few weeks to build up their forces in the centre for an advance on Moscow.

Further the Soviets ground up their armies in pointless and expensive fighting in front of Smolensk which then made the advance on Moscow when it did happen much easier. Also the Kiev disaster drew off Soviet reserves and also made the advance easier.13

Thus contrary to much received opinion Hitler’s decision, in the teeth of much  opposition by the German High Command, to divert and destroy the Soviet armies around Kiev was not a mistake but instead a required precondition to any attack on Moscow in 1941. It resulted in a crushing German victory.

That victory was not the result of just Hitler’s insight but also the result of Stalin’s stubbornness in refusing to allow a retreat. In the subsequent disaster in operation Typhoon Stalin’s stubbornness aided by poor tactical planning by the Soviet High Command and the weakening of the Soviet forces by fruitless attacks would produce another great German victory.

All of this would not be enough to take Moscow or win the war for Germany. The Soviets were always able to scrape up enough divisions to  hold the line.

Since it now appears that Barbarossa was in trouble by early August and that by then the chances of German success in the campaign was minimal. An attack on Moscow leaving on the flanks powerful Soviet armies was without a doubt foolish. Hitler’s decision was sensible and did not lose the war. In fact the war was already lost unless great luck or Soviet stupidity played into German plans.

It appears that the great victory at Kiev if anything increased the chances of German success. That combined with the success of operation Typhoon gave the Germans a slight chance for success in 1941. That in both cases foolish decisions by Stalin and the Soviet High Command played into Hitler’s hands are also important. If the Soviets had handled their armies at Kiev and in front of Smolensk better the Germans would have failed much more quickly.

Hitler did not lose the war by not advancing on Moscow in August 1941. Instead he made a decision that in effect restored a small chance of the victory that had slipped away from him by early August 1941. And Hitler owed Stalin a lot for this fleeting chance.

So contrary to the German military memoir literature it appears the in fact that the chances of success of Barbarossa were never that good and that failure was clear much earlier than usually thought, and Hitler’s decision to delay the advance on Moscow was not the turning point of success turning to failure but instead a decision that helped by Stalin’s foolishness gave Hitler a small fleeting chance of success in 1941.

Scene from Siege of Leningrad 1941
1. See Here  and Here.

2. See for example Liddell-Hart, Basil, The Other Side of the Hill, Pan Books, London, 1999. (Originally published 1948).

3. Tooze, Adam, Wages of Destruction, Penguin Books, London, 2006, pp. 396-460.

4. Glantz, David M., Operation Barbarossa, The History Press, Stroud Gloucestershire, 2001, pp. 11-15, and Glantz, David M., & House, Jonathan, When Titan’s Clashed, University of Kansas Press, Lawrence KS, 1995, pp. 15-27.

5. See Stevenson, David, 1914 - 1918, Penguin Books, London, pp. 301-319.

6. Stahl, David, Kiev: 1941, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2013, pp. 48-65.

7. IBID, Footnote 4, Glantz, 2001.

8. Stahl, pp. 19-26.

9. See Here.

10. Fuller, J. F. C., A Military History of the Western World, v. 3, Da Capo, New York, 1956, pp. 433-434.

11. Glantz, 2001, pp. 204-206, Glantz et al, 1995, pp. 58-61, 74-75, Stahl, pp. 152-170.

12. IBID, Glanttz et al,1995, pp. 75-81, Glantz, 2001, pp. 68-92, 111-132.

13. IBID, and Footnote 11.

Pierre Cloutier

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