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
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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. 

Clausewitz wrote that “no one starts a war—or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so—without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.” Stahel shows that when Hitler chose to “roll the iron dice” by initiating the war against the Soviet Union, he knew what he wanted to achieve but that his assessment of German and Soviet strengths was defective. The Red Army, despite its manifold problems, was not nearly as weak as Hitler believed, and the Wehrmacht was not as strong as he thought it was.

In addition, Hitler, along with his generals, made the fatal error of elevating an operational doctrine—blitzkrieg, by means of which the -Wehrmacht had crushed Poland in 1939 and the French and British armies in 1940—to a strategic concept. The combination of a defective net assessment and the conflation of the operational and strategic levels of conflict resulted in a flawed conduct of the war. As a result, Hitler plunged into an untenable strategic position from which even the operational excellence of the Wehrmacht was unable to extricate him. 

Hitler’s goal, of course, was to gain “living space” for Germans in the east by eliminating the Slavic Untermenschen and their “Jewish Bolshevik” overlords. He expected the Wehrmacht’s blitzkrieg to quickly destroy the Red Army. The Soviets, Hitler believed, would be especially easy pickings because of the perceived weaknesses of the Red Army, the leadership of which had been decimated by Stalin’s purges. Those weaknesses had become manifestly clear during the Winter War debacle against Finland (1939-40).

The early phases of Barbarossa seemed to vindicate Hitler’s thinking. During the first six months of the war the Ostheer inflicted irrecoverable losses (killed, missing in action, POWs) on the Red Army in excess of 3 million men. Indeed, Stahel cites estimates to the effect that more than a quarter of all Soviet troops killed in World War II died in 1941. Another 1.5 million were wounded or became sick. This means that of the 5.5 million men who made up the Red Army at the start of the war some 80 percent had become casualties by the end of 1941, a loss rate far in excess of any army in military history. 

But the vast manpower of the Soviet Union made the Red Army a hydra-headed monster: Despite the massive losses of the summer, the Red Army totaled 6.9 million by September 1941, and by the end of the year it had grown to 8 million. In addition, the Soviet Union pulled off one of the most remarkable feats in history, physically removing much of its industrial capacity from the western part of the country to the east, out of the clutches of the Nazis. The Soviets also had a numerical advantage in tanks and aircraft. Although the Soviet T-34 was actually superior to the tanks the Germans possessed at the time, much of the Red Army’s equipment was obsolete or obsolescent. But as Stalin is said to have remarked, “quantity has a quality all its own.”

Germany, by contrast, faced a serious manpower crisis and a weak economic base. The low birthrate during and following World War I meant that the pool of military manpower was limited. Indeed, by 1941, 85 percent of able-bodied Germans between the ages of 20 and 30 were already in the armed forces, which caused labor shortages for German industry. The economic situation was bleak as well. In 1939, Germany produced 10.7 percent of the world’s industrial output, Japan 3.5 percent, and Italy 2.7 percent; the Allies, by contrast, produced some 70 percent. Germany, woefully short of natural resources such as oil, was fatally unprepared for a war with the Soviet Union—especially when it became a war of attrition as the offensive power of the Wehrmacht declined after the costly battles of 1941.

More remarkable yet was the fact that, despite the demands of the war in the east, Hitler had directed a shift in arms production from the army to the navy and air force, a re-ordering of priorities to which the army high command had agreed, reflecting their hubristic view that the Red Army could be vanquished without additional production. As a result, from July until December 1941, production for the army declined by 29 percent. Hitler’s dubious mandate to fight a two-front war was accompanied by ludicrous production priorities on the part of a stressed economic system. 

Material costs were substantial, made worse by the weakness of the German logistical system. Tanks and motorized vehicles, damaged not only by Soviet military action but also by the abysmal Russian road system, often could not be repaired in a timely manner. The Ostheer faced a situation that Clausewitz had called the culminating point of victory: The further the attacker advances, the more his strength relative to the defender declines as the former’s lines of operation and supply become extended. Russia’s great strategic depth swallowed up the Ostheer as it had Napoleon in 1812 and Charles XII of Sweden in 1708-09. As Field Marshal von Rundstedt, commander of Army Group South, observed in an August 1941 letter to his wife, “the distances in Russia devour us.”

Nonetheless, by this time, the Ostheer’s Army Group Center had just effected two of the largest encirclements in military history, netting 600,000 Soviet POWs, and was two-thirds of the way to Moscow. Both the high command and the Ostheer commanders argued that Army Group Center should continue an all-out drive toward Moscow, contending that in addition to capturing the enemy’s capital, it would give them control of Russia’s arms center as well as the hub of Soviet communications and transportation. It also promised the destruction of the bulk of the Red Army massed for a defense of the city. 

But the strategic standoff between Hitler and his generals paralyzed the Ostheer for three weeks in August. Finally, when Hitler overrode his generals and directed them to shift the main effort from Moscow to Ukraine, Germany already faced a serious strategic predicament. Hitler now confronted the prospect of a two-front war, Germany’s strategic nightmare, exacerbated by an operations-strategy mismatch. Germany’s operational successes had not achieved the strategic goals of the war, and Germany would only get materially weaker while the Allies would get stronger. At the operational level, turning south presented an exposed left flank to the Red Army, stripped Army Group Center of the bulk of its tanks, and worsened supply problems. It delayed the advance on Moscow. And the Russian winter loomed. 

The German victory at Kiev has tended to obscure this reality. The battle itself was immense, involving on the German side three armies, two panzer groups, and elements of two air fleets, and on the Soviet side six armies, making it the largest and most costly battle of World War II up to that point. By the end of the battle, the Soviet Southwestern Front was completely destroyed, losing (by the Soviet Union’s own accounts) 616,000 men killed, captured, or missing. It was certainly the Wehrmacht’s single greatest set-piece battle of the war and a personal triumph for Hitler, whose military judgment once again seemed to be superior to that of his generals. 

But Stahel argues that this German victory was less the result of the -Wehrmacht’s operational excellence than of Stalin’s strategic mismanagement. In this respect the battle’s consequences transcended the battle itself: While the Soviet defeat caused Stalin to defer to his generals, Hitler’s generals found it more difficult to confront the Führer as his military decisions became more irrational. 

In any event, even the great success at Kiev could not reverse the fact that, by the end of the summer of 1941, the Ostheer was seriously overextended and Operation Barbarossa was a spent force. Germany was bogged down in a war of attrition just as Allied output was poised to begin massive war production. By the end of the summer, “Operation Barbarossa’s failure left Hitler’s strategy rudderless and, although unrecognized at the time, beyond repair.” 

Stahel’s account of Barbarossa and Kiev suggests a couple of lessons for Americans. First, “silver bullets,” whether operational or technological, are rarely the panaceas they seem: Germany bet on a single operational doctrine—blitzkrieg—that failed against the Red Army. We  all too often pursue the holy grail of technological superiority, the idea that emerging weapons and information technologies offer the promise of certainty and precision in warfare, which permits us to control events. And second, history teaches that those countries that expect to win a short war end up losing a long one. As the old saying goes, any plan of war that depends on the cooperation of the enemy is bound to fail.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College, editor of Orbis, the quarterly journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and the author, most recently, of U.S. Civil-Military Relations After 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain.