The Magazine

Turning Point

Hitler lost the war the moment he invaded the Soviet Union.

May 14, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 33 • By MACKUBIN THOMAS OWENS
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The German assault against the Soviet Union, Operation Barbarossa, was the largest military undertaking in history. Adolf Hitler expected the Ostheer, the German Army of the east—organized into three army groups consisting of 136 divisions, the bulk of Germany’s panzer (armor) units and air forces, and some three-quarters of a million troops from Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, and Italy—to achieve a rapid victory over the Red Army, after which he could partially demobilize the army to provide much-needed manpower for German industry. 

Photo of German infantryman surveying the wreckage of a Soviet tank, 1941

German infantryman surveys the wreckage of a Soviet tank, 1941.

Bundesarchiv / Johannes HÄhle / CC-BY-SA

Barbarossa, launched on June 22, 1941, is usually portrayed as a seamless string of German victories that brought Hitler’s forces within sight of the spires of Moscow before the onset of winter and a massive Soviet counteroffensive combined to put the Germans on the defensive. The conventional narrative holds that the tide only really began to turn against the Germans at Stalingrad during the winter of 1942-43. 

But David Stahel, an independent researcher based in Berlin, has argued that the standard narrative is flawed. In 2009 he published Operation Barbarossa and Germany’s Defeat in the East, in which he claimed that the seeds of Germany’s defeat were sown as early as the summer of 1941 at precisely the time the conventional narrative holds that the Ostheer was systematically destroying massive Red Army formations in a series of giant encirclements: Kesselschlachten or “cauldron battles.”

Like his previous book, Kiev, 1941 is a magnificent work of historical revision, a first-rate example of how military history ought to be written. It is an excellent contribution to the field of specialized operational studies. It also places Barbarossa in general, and the Battle of Kiev in particular, into a larger strategic context. As Stahel remarks, his purpose in writing is twofold: to provide the first intensive treatment of the Battle of Kiev, and to chart the ongoing decline of German operational proficiency that was occurring as early as the summer of 1941. On the surface, his thesis is unremarkable. Excellence at the operational level of war—the realm of military campaigns, the series of movements, battles, and logistic support designed to achieve a strategic goal within a -theater of war—cannot redeem a flawed strategy. Historians generally agree that (in Stahel’s words) although the Wehrmacht was the “most refined and professional fighting force in the world, its battlefield superiority at the tactical and operational level did not make it infallible strategically.” 

More controversial are his claims that the Ostheer’s offensive power was in serious decline even as it was achieving its great victories in the summer and fall of 1941; that for all their distortions and falsifications, Soviet accounts were in many cases closer to the truth regarding the actual state of affairs on the Eastern Front than the German accounts upon which much of what Stahel calls the “flawed orthodoxy” of the Anglo-American perspective on the war is based. He also believes that Hitler’s decision to shift his focus southwest toward Ukraine, contrary to the desire of his generals, was not so much a strategic masterstroke as an acknowledgment of Germany’s weakened position. 

Perhaps his most controversial claim is that, while Joseph Stalin was responsible for much of the Red Army’s failures against the -Wehrmacht—Stahel essentially asserts that the Soviet dictator was Hitler’s secret weapon when it came to German military success—he was remarkably successful in mobilizing the Russian people. Certainly fear and intimidation played a role, but as one author cited here observed, “tyranny alone could not make heroes out of frightened men.” Stalin did this by appealing to Russian patriotism, something disdained by Communist dogma. The result was a superhuman effort by the Russian population and stiff resistance by Red Army units far beyond what the Germans expected. 

Although Kiev was a great victory for the Wehrmacht and Hitler, Stahel argues, it was a pyrrhic victory, revealing the serious shortcomings of Germany’s military instrument, including not only disputes between the Führer and his generals but also among the generals themselves. But embittered command relationships were only the tip of the iceberg; more critical were Germany’s economic weakness and logistical shortcomings, which resulted in a serious decline in the Wehrmacht’s offensive strength well before the onset of winter and the Soviet offensive of December 1941.