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«Introduction On 3 February 1941 Hitler hosted an important military conference in preparation for Operation Barbarossa – Nazi Germany’s upcoming ...»

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Cambridge University Press

978-0-521-76847-4 - Operation Barbarossa and Germany’s Defeat in the East

David Stahel


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On 3 February 1941 Hitler hosted an important military conference

in preparation for Operation Barbarossa – Nazi Germany’s upcoming

invasion of the Soviet Union. Although Hitler was determined to crush

the Soviet Union in a short summer campaign, this was destined to

become a titanic clash between two ruthless empires, leading to the largest and most costly war in human history. Hitler was sufficiently aware of the profound scale of the conflict and the momentous consequences it would induce, even in the shortened form that he conceived for it that by the end of the conference he ominously pronounced: ‘When Barbarossa begins the world will hold its breath.’1 Nor was this just another bombastic outburst, typical of Hitler’s unrestrained hubris. In a radio address on the day of the invasion (22 June 1941) the British Prime Minister, Winston

Churchill, told his people:

So now this bloodthirsty guttersnipe must launch his mechanized armies upon new fields of slaughter, pillage and devastation... And even the carnage and ruin which his victory, should he gain it – though he’s not gained it yet – will bring upon the Russian people, will itself be only a stepping stone to the attempt to plunge four or five hundred millions who live in China and the 350,000,000 who live in India into that bottomless pit of human degradation over which the diabolic emblem of the swastika flaunts itself. It is not too much to say here this pleasant summer evening that the lives and happiness of a thousand million additional human beings are now menaced with brutal Nazi violence. That is enough to make us hold our breath.2 If the spectre of an expanding Nazi empire caused the world a sud- den collective gasp, Churchill’s words of defiance signalled Britain’s 1 Hans-Adolf Jacobsen (ed), Kriegstagebuch des Oberkommandos der Wehrmacht (Wehr- ¨ machtfuhrungsstab), Band I/1: 1. August 1940–31. Dezember 1941 (Munich, 1982), p. 300 (3 February 1941). Hereafter cited as KTB OKW, Volume I.

2 Max Domarus, Hitler. Speeches and Proclamations 1932–1945. The Chronicle of a Dictator- ship, Volume IV: The Years 1941 to 1945 (Wauconda, 2004), p. 2458; Winston S. Churchill, Never Give In: The Best of Winston Churchill’s Speeches (New York, 2003), pp. 289–293.

Also available online: www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/ww2/churchill062241. html 1 © in this web service Cambridge University Press www.cambridge.org Cambridge University Press 978-0-521-76847-4 - Operation Barbarossa and Germany’s Defeat in the East David Stahel Excerpt More information

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determination to go on opposing Nazism and at the same time offered an open-ended alliance to the Soviet Union. It was an alliance born more of necessity than of pre-existing goodwill, for these were the darkest days of World War II. Nazi Germany had amassed the greatest invasion force in history. In the string of preceding campaigns the opposing nations of Europe had fallen in short order to German aggression, leaving the Soviet Union as the sole remaining continental power. With the planned conquest of Soviet territories, Hitler stood to gain immeasurable raw materials, freeing him forever from Britain’s continental blockade and providing him with the strategic freedom to wage truly global warfare.

Yet the Soviet Union was a very different adversary from any of Germany’s previous opponents and Hitler was well enough aware that Germany’s internal constraints, most notably on the economic front, necessitated a short, victorious war. Thus Operation Barbarossa was designed to defeat the Soviet Union decisively in the summer of 1941.

The importance of Hitler’s new war in the east was understood by all sides at the time as the definitive moment in the future fortunes of the expanding world war. Either Hitler would soon stand almost untouchable at the head of an enormous empire, or his greatest campaign would falter (something no government at the time believed to be likely) resulting in the dangerous Allied encirclement Hitler was aiming to eliminate forever.

It is therefore not an overstatement to say that the German invasion of the Soviet Union represents an extraordinary turning point in world affairs, central not only in our understanding of World War II, but indeed as one of the most profound events in modern history.

Many histories have sought to understand the failure of Operation Barbarossa by tracing the movement of armies through to the great battle of Moscow in the winter of 1941/42. The central importance of this climactic battle in studies on Operation Barbarossa is effectively explained by its common acceptance as Germany’s first major defeat in the war against the Soviet Union. Germany’s sequence of unprecedented battleeld victories, ending in the ill-fated drive on Moscow, has sufficed to persuade many historians of its fundamental significance and fixated their attention on the winter battle as Operation Barbarossa’s crucial point of demise. Long before the first snows of winter began to fall, however, and even before the first autumn rains brought most movement to a halt, in fact as early as the summer of 1941, it was evident that Barbarossa was a spent exercise, unavoidably doomed to failure.

Germany’s failure in the early weeks of the campaign is perhaps not immediately apparent because it does not include the conventional historical benchmark of a great battlefield defeat. Indeed, according to most histories, the period is characterised by apparently extraordinary successes for the German armies. Encirclements at Belostok–Minsk, © in this web service Cambridge University Press www.cambridge.org Cambridge University Press 978-0-521-76847-4 - Operation Barbarossa and Germany’s Defeat in the East David Stahel Excerpt More information

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Smolensk and Uman are often framed by emphatic references to the impending collapse of the Soviet Union. Accordingly, it is with a measure of scepticism that some readers may first judge the paradoxical claim that it was in fact Germany whose demise was being assured in the summer of 1941. A short explanation of Germany’s defeat in this period might best be provided by a simple theoretical concept devised by the renowned German strategist and historian Carl von Clausewitz.

Based in large part on his first-hand observations of the Napoleonic wars, Clausewitz’s timeless study Vom Kriege (On War) established numerous maxims of war, which in many cases are still upheld today. Clausewitz’s theory of the culminating point of the attack provides a useful intellectual framework through which to view Operation Barbarossa. Put simply, Clausewitz established that most attacks diminish in strength the longer they continue, whereupon a critical point is eventually reached at which the power of the attack is superseded by the strength of the defence. This he determined to be the culminating point or climax of the attack, which he then added was usually, but not always, followed by an extremely powerful enemy counter-blow.3 This basic hypothesis formed an intriguing theoretical starting point for my own questioning of the literature concerning Operation Barbarossa and posed the problem of whether it was possible to pre-date the German military failure in 1941. As a result, Clausewitz’s culminating point formed a conceptual beginning to what I believe subsequent research has confirmed – that German operations in the east had failed by the middle of August 1941.

Attempting any manageable re-examination of the Barbarossa campaign requires both a clear sense of purpose and a certain limitation of scope. Confronting the immense scale of Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union has been made somewhat easier by the relatively small number of motorised divisions which made up the German Army in

1941. These were concentrated into four ‘panzer groups’ upon which the success of the Barbarossa blitzkrieg was made dependent. This study focuses mainly on the two largest panzer groups (Panzer Groups 2 and 3) assigned to Army Group Centre in the middle of the German front. The study seeks to use these vital formations as a test case through which one can understand the overall success of German offensive operations in the earliest period of the war.

The bulk of the research was conducted in Germany at the German Military Archive (Bundesarchiv-Milit¨ rarchiv) in Freiburg im a Breisgau, with additional resources provided by the Military History Research Institute (Milit¨ rgeschichtliches Forschungsamt) in Potsdam a

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© in this web service Cambridge University Press www.cambridge.org Cambridge University Press 978-0-521-76847-4 - Operation Barbarossa and Germany’s Defeat in the East David Stahel Excerpt More information

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and the Humboldt University in Berlin. The study is divided into two parts. In the first, there is a broad assessment of the conceptual planning for the campaign, as a basis for what would need to be achieved in the war itself. The second part, and the main body of the work, deals with the first two months of the war and follows the progress of the panzer groups towards their respective goals.

Research was concentrated on the four highest tiers of the army’s field commands; Army Group Centre, the subordinate two panzer groups, the five corps making up the panzer groups and their constituent sixteen divisions. The wartime records for these various commands are not always complete with valuable elements sometimes unavailable. This either means the documents were destroyed in the war, have simply not been found and remain ‘missing’, or that they were captured and remain in Russian custody (where access for scholars has sometimes been limited or withheld). Nevertheless, the period covering Barbarossa is well served for detailed primary research on the motorised elements of Army Group Centre.

Once located the files reveal themselves to be something of a mixed bag.

From the army group down to individual divisions all command structures were required to keep a daily war diary, but oddly there appears to have been little standardisation in content or style. Most of the war diaries were typed, but in some cases, as for example with XXIV Panzer Corps, the whole diary was recorded in a barely legible handwritten script. In many diaries entries were made continually throughout the day with the exact time of each entry recorded in the margin; in some cases, however, a single entry was recorded summarising the whole day. The content of the diaries also varied greatly. Some diarists limited themselves to recording strictly factual details (often only an updated positioning of the various units) without any other commentary. Others offered a more general coverage of the situation and even on occasion gave tactical details on the battles themselves. The diversity between the various war diaries suggests that there was no standard format for record keeping beyond what the diarist saw fit to include. A guideline was reported in the war diary of the 3rd Panzer Division, but more than likely it applied only to this division (perhaps because more than one man was charged with making entries or to ensure conformity with the express wishes of the commanding officer). At the top of specially printed pages for the war diary was the heading: ‘Descriptions of the events (Important: Assessment of the situation (enemy and own) times of incoming and outgoing reports and orders)’.4 Even so, and atypically of the normal rigidity of

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© in this web service Cambridge University Press www.cambridge.org Cambridge University Press 978-0-521-76847-4 - Operation Barbarossa and Germany’s Defeat in the East David Stahel Excerpt More information

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German military bureaucracy, widespread discrepancies remain between the war diaries, making a large sampling essential to an accurate overview.

Beyond the war diaries themselves, there was also much to be gained from files containing numerous appendices, often only discussed in brief in the war diaries. Yielding further value were the files filled with incoming and outgoing daily orders (Tagesmeldungen).

Supplementing the archival research, there are a number of published primary materials that proved invaluable to this study. Among the most useful were the assembled collection of documents edited by Erhard Moritz in Fall Barbarossa, and Hugh Trevor-Roper’s edited English translation of Hitler’s War Directives 1939–1945. The OKW war diaries and the three volumes of Halder’s own war dairy are standard works, but indispensable to any comprehensive study. The published version of Bock’s diary is a trustworthy translation and another vital primary reference.

A selection of post-war memoirs have also been used, but it is important to add that a distinction was made between those sources produced at the time of the war (i.e. diaries, military reports/orders, speeches etc.) and those published after the war, usually by former German generals. These men generally sought to cast themselves in a more favourable light, either with full prescience of political and military events or as innocent functionaries subject to the baneful effects of Hitler’s military interference.

Accordingly, these post-war accounts are in many cases tainted, distorting their historical objectivity. Nevertheless, as problematic as they are, World War II memoirs cannot be entirely excluded as source material because the authors sometimes provide the only existing record of certain historical events. When used, they have been considered critically and backed, whenever possible, with collaborating evidence.5 Although this study is essentially a ‘top-down’ history focusing on events at the highest level, the ‘bottom-up’ perspective of individual soldiers has also been included. Using a wide selection of letters, war diaries and memoirs, the soldier’s view is interspersed throughout the discussion of the military campaign.

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