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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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.