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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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.