By Robert Messenger
The Weekly Standard, February 18, 2008
Edited by Andy Ross
The Greatest Battle
Stalin, Hitler, and the Desperate
Struggle for Moscow that Changed the Course of World War II
Simon & Schuster, 384 pages
A City and Its People at War
by Rodric Braithwaite
Vintage, 448 pages
Soviet Russia in the Second World War
by Chris Bellamy
Knopf, 848 pages
The history of the Prussian and German state through 1945 is one in which
war is the main outcome of national policy. It was the country's principal
export over two centuries.
The operational excellence of the German
and Prussian general staffs is the stuff of hundreds of excellent military
histories. But this brilliant style of war masked an inability to see
national war as the last resort.
Frederick the Great began the Seven
Years War by marching into Saxony. Wilhelm II sent his corps into Belgium
and Russia in hopes of maintaining German industrial and social prosperity.
Hitler repeatedly used the army as the crutch for mounting the steps in his
climb to global power. Each ended in disaster. The German state never
existed as anything other than a militaristic enterprise, which led to its
own devastation in 1945.
In April 1941, Germany was master of Europe.
She faced only an isolated and nearly helpless Great Britain. Hitler had
brilliantly employed both war and the threat of war to reach this height.
Once he brought Britain to the peace table, created a permanent defensible
barrier in the east, and settled the grand matter of Bolshevism, Germany
would permanently dominate Europe.
That war would come in the east
was never a question for Hitler or his generals. He had been calling for it
from his earliest preaching. Less than a month after France formally
surrendered to Germany, and with the preparations for an invasion of Britain
underway, Hitler ordered the drawing-up of plans for an invasion of Russia
in the spring of 1941.
The Soviet Union, too, was manically preparing
for war, expanding the Red Army and producing innovative weapons like the
T-34 tank and the Katyusha rocket-launcher. But Stalin did not want it to
come for years. To keep the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact in place, he was fully
prepared to make huge concessions in 1941.
T-34 tank with 76 mm gun
Katyusha rocket launcher
German invasion of the Soviet Union began on June 22, 1941. It involved
three million men: 152 divisions in three army groups, 3,350 tanks, 2,000
airplanes, 7,000 pieces of artillery, 600,000 motorized vehicles, and
625,000 horses. The initial efforts matched such numbers. In three weeks,
Army Group Centre advanced 400 miles and captured the whole of Belorussia.
Russian armies lost nearly 5,000 tanks, nearly 10,000 artillery pieces, and
Flugabwehrkanone/Flak 88 mm
Eleven days after the
invasion began, the army chief of staff, Franz Halder, made a famous entry
in his diary: "I am therefore not exaggerating when I say that the campaign
against Russia was won in 14 days." If Barbarossa had been a war game, all
would have been over. Yet the Russians didn't play by quite the same rules.
On August 11, Halder would write: "Overall, it is clearer and clearer that
we have underestimated the Russian colossus, which had prepared itself for
war with an utter lack of restraint which is characteristic of the
The Barbarossa plan supposed that, if the army
groups won big battles and the SS killed the intelligentsia in large
numbers, the state would collapse. The problem of enemy capitulation as a
strategy is that it requires not the killing of large numbers of your
opponent's armies but the desertion of your opponent's soldiers.
Hitler and his generals were relying on the Russians' welcoming them as
liberators. They believed in this so implicitly that they never bothered to
gather the operational intelligence to discern if it was true. The Germans
also made little attempt to win the hearts and minds of the Russians,
diverting all resources in the captured territories back to Germany,
executing hundreds of thousands, and leaving the rest to starve.
lack of a coherent strategic plan cannot simply be blamed on Hitler, as
Germany's surviving generals were keen to do after the war. The Barbarossa
plan, developed by the General Staff, called for a lightning three-month
campaign that reached a line stretching from Rostov, along the Volga, to
Archangel. There were no terms under which such a campaign was physically
possible for an army that employed 3,350 tanks but 600,000 horses.
Barbarossa exposed the problem. The Russians kept fighting, and the Germans
kept getting further down the logistical road. By August, the German advance
had slowed from 20 miles a day to 5. It was obvious that the campaign could
not continue on three fronts.
A pause was viewed as necessary to
reconstitute the divisions battered by the fighting and for the supply lines
to catch up. There is no evidence that the capture of Moscow would have led
to Soviet defeat. Considering the battering German troops had taken in five
months of fighting, and the weakness of supply lines, it is just as likely
the Battle of Moscow would have been the 1941 version of the Battle of
When Dwight D. Eisenhower was touring Germany as the
first head of NATO in 1951, he issued a statement drawing a line between the
German army and Hitler: "I have come to know that there is a real difference
between the regular German soldier and officer and Hitler and his criminal
group. For my part, I do not believe that the German soldier as such has
lost his honor."
Moscow was a place the Red Army was prepared to
defend in force. Nearly two million German soldiers were mustered with
14,000 guns and a thousand tanks. The panzers went on the attack on
September 30 and the main assault began on November 2. What followed was
another pair of textbook-perfect battles of encirclement. The route to
Moscow was open and the Soviet leadership was struggling to find troops to
But the Germans were struggling, too. By mid-November, the
Germans were only 40 miles from Moscow, but they were scarcely advancing
thanks to stubborn Soviet resistance and the exhaustion of their
ill-supplied troops. The Napoleonic resonance of being caught deep in Russia
with winter coming on wasn't lost on Germany's highly intellectualized
students of war.
Moscow is one of the defining battles of World War
II, the first legitimate defeat dealt to the German army. Nagorski and
Braithwaite are both popularizers, part of the torrent of publishing on the
war in the east which has followed the opening of Soviet and East German
Absolute War is a lively and resoundingly clear account of
how the war was planned and managed: "Stalingrad was not the turning point
because once the United States became involved, Germany had no chance of
winning, anyway. ... However, from December 1941, while it had gained a
breathing space, Russia could still lose ... After the catastrophic defeat
at Stalingrad, with German forces and those of their allies stretched to the
limit, there was no hope of a German victory in the east."
through on every page of Absolute War is the utter inhumanity of the
German-Soviet war. The Germans began in barbarism and the Russians replied
in kind. The numbers are difficult to digest. The German army left 4 million
men on the battlefields of Eastern Europe, but they killed 27 million. The
Red Army lost 11.5 million soldiers, and 15.5 million civilians died in the
territories occupied by the German army.
In his November 6, 1941,
speech marking the anniversary of the Russian Revolution, Stalin vowed that
the Soviet Union would give back in kind: "The German invaders want a war of
extermination against the peoples of the USSR. Well, if they want a war of
extermination, they shall have it."
Moscow was still under threat as
he spoke, but Stalin's vow would be fulfilled. In four years of terrible
slaughter, the Red Army did not just defeat Hitler and National Socialism,
but also put an end to Prussian militarism. It was a Soviet victory over
something that had menaced Europe for two centuries.
AR Ghastly story. Glad I wasn't there.