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2008 Research Paper Page 1 of 14
“When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, "Come!" I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague…” – Revelations 6:7-8
On June 22, 1941, the greatest campaign in the history of human conflict began as the vanguard of the German Army crashed across the Soviet border, crushed the border guard, and drove deeply into the open plains of Belarus and the Ukraine. The titanic struggle that began there drew the attention of the world for four years and cost millions of lives. In this paper, I will outline the various historians’ conclusions from their research, expose the inevitable contradictions, and present a conclusion well supported by their evidence. The historians I will reference are Alan Clark in his book Barbarossa, Magenheimer in Hitler’s War: Germany’s Key Strategic Decisions, and Stolfi’s Hitler’s Panzers East. In particular, Clark argues the point that the Wehrmacht had the capability to conquer the Soviets but, due to unforeseen difficulties and the underestimation of the Soviet reserve system, were unable to capitalize on their ability. Magenheimer, echoed by a few others, claims that the Germans severely overestimated their own capabilities and marched headlong into inevitable defeat. As a counterpoint, Stolfi presents a revisionist view of the conflict, attempting to avoid conclusions based on Soviet propaganda and American denial. He claims that the OKW realistically estimated the Soviet strengths and objectives, plotted achievable goals to quickly end the conflict and executed the plan to near perfection in the first month of combat, the results of which were the absolute collapse of any significant, coordinated Soviet counteroffensive.
Christopher Frueh History 363 12.16.2008 Research Paper Page 2 of 14 The first point of contention is the reason or rationality of the invasion. The universally accepted view, one espoused by most amateur historians, is that the delusional mind of Hitler decided to turn on the peace-loving Soviets after he was denied the opportunity to invade Britain. Fortunately, the authors examined do not hold to that view as it ignores the professionalism of the entire German general staff. The complete ignorance that would be required from dozens of senior officers would have made the Polish, Scandinavian and French campaigns impossible. How could the Germans win anything from September 1939 to October 1941 with Hitler’s nervous instability, British possession of Ultra, and the incapability of the Italians to conduct their part of the war? The answer lies partly in the need to reevaluate upward the quality of Germany’s trumps… The battle-winning capabilities of the German army… must be seen as extraordinary because the army had to overcome first-class opposing armies and the unique combination of factors noted above. (Stolfi 28) Clark, however, brings up a perfectly reasonable explanation for such an assault. The British were strongly pressing both the Americans and the Russians for assistance similar to the American intervention that saved the Triple Entente in the First World War. OKW was almost certainly aware of the diplomatic entreaties and, according to Clark, decided to strike at the Russians before any diplomatic destabilization occurred. Stolfi adds an additional reason as he points to the Russian deployment patterns as being completely lopsided for anything but an offensive. In particular, the lack of established defensive strongpoints along the border and the lack of a mobile reserve lend
Christopher Frueh History 363 12.16.2008 Research Paper Page 3 of 14 strong credence to the idea that the Russians were planning an offensive of their own in the near future. All agree that the Soviet government deployed an immense army in the path of the Germans in June 1941 and entrenched it in so peculiar a way that it could be interpreted as being ready for defense or offense… Any interpretation in which the Soviets were committed in advance exclusively or even just largely to defend against a feared German attack is difficult to maintain. (Stolfi 69) I disagree somewhat with Stolfi’s assessment of the multipurpose nature of the deployment on the basis that the Red Army had no mobile or armored reserve and the strong armor they did have was deployed in salients that rendered them extremely vulnerable to deep offensive armored counter-thrusts. This deployment, compounded by the occupations made during 1939-40 demonstrate a clear move by the Red Army westward while the lack of defensive measures characterize the move as aggressive towards their Teutonic neighbors. Clark, after ceding this point, states that, although the Germans had made a reasonable decision to invade, the limitations of time and manpower with which they had to work rendered victory impossible. This is an extremely important point that will color his interpretation of events to be expounded upon later. The main point of contention between Stolfi and Clark is the inevitability of events and the individual actions to be examined are merely the examples or counterexamples. A few quick points need making before anything else. Primarily, Stolfi does not address the popular contention that the British intervention in Greece and Yugoslavia
Christopher Frueh History 363 12.16.2008 Research Paper Page 4 of 14 distracted the Germans for several critical weeks and siphoned off up to 14 divisions from what would become the Eastern Front. This point is rebutted by M. Stanton’s book Blacklisted by History in which he shows the influence various Soviet espionage rings had on the course of World War II. Of particular influence here is his passage about the Soviet agents in Cairo. These men, secreted high in the levels of the British diplomatic and military services, were attempting to sway the British government’s opinion on the best resistance group in Yugoslavia to support. To accomplish this, they fabricated the number of German troops that Marshal Tito, the communist leader, had pinned down. Secondly, Stanton points out the specific reasons the Soviets had to believe that the Japanese would not militarily support a German invasion. Two Soviet agents in the upper echelons of the Japanese dictatorship directed the Japanese military seeking relief from the American embargo to look towards the south. This allowed the movement of Far East divisions from the Siberian front to the Moscow front, a movement that Clark claims is the pivotal point and blunted the steel of the German panzers. Stolfi tended to ignore this as his entire point is that the Germans would have been in Moscow by September, two months before the Far East troops would even have arrived. Lastly, in regards to the objectives of Barbarossa, Lt. Colonel Hooker, in his paper “The World Will Hold Its Breath”, spotlights two weaknesses in the Soviet ‘defensive’ deployment if it were indeed defensive. The most obvious are rail systems and communication lines that both had their nexus in and around Moscow. In 1941 Moscow served as the communications hub of European Russia, with rail lines and highways radiating outward in all directions to connect the capital with
Christopher Frueh History 363 12.16.2008 Research Paper Page 5 of 14 principal population centers. The only significant lateral communications were those which ran through Moscow; without them, Stalin would lose the ability to shift strategic reserves to meet the gravest threats. With Moscow lost, a defensive campaign west of the Volga would be impossible at the strategic level. (Hooker 4) Moreover, Moscow’s weakness was not merely strategic. Hooker notes that the political system of the time was an authoritarian pseudo-cult in which independent thought and action was strictly forbidden. This would make a strike towards Moscow particularly dangerous as any sign of weakness could waken the millions of repressed minorities from their stupor and highlight to them the fallibility of the dictator. In his many years in power Stalin had created a cult of personality which stressed his personal leadership as the source of Soviet progress. But his savage treatment of the kulaks, land-holding Soviet peasants starved by the millions in the early 1930s, and his paranoid purge of the military a few years later, created legions of enemies smarting for revenge. (Hooker 4) As to the invasion itself, we have already established the various opinions as to the feasibility of the act but, in stark contrast to the previous and future disagreement, all of these scholars are united in the belief that in a quick, destabilizing drive towards Moscow stood the best chance of ending the conflict quickly. Stolfi and Hooker mention that the insecurity and fragility of the rail and communication system alluded to earlier, recommended Moscow as a prime target. In addition, approximately 35% of the Russian manufacturing capacity was located in the area west of the Leningrad-Moscow-Rostov line.
Christopher Frueh History 363 12.16.2008 Research Paper Page 6 of 14 Soon after the invasion, the Russian weakness was exposed for the world to see. The poor dispositions, inadequate support and inefficient chain of command turned a retreat into a rout. The mindless “never surrender, always attack” orders that flowed unceasingly from Moscow turned the rout into a debacle. After two weeks of absolute chaos, Stalin reinstituted and strengthened the office of the commissars that, in combination with the officer purges, served to lobotomize the front line commanders and rendered them hesitant lest they be accused of treason. Stolfi implicitly equates this politicalization of the battlefront with Hitler’s later Nazification of the frontline commanders and his own “no retreat” policy. “Unlike political questions of why, where, and when to fight wars, winning wars revolves almost entirely around military means and military strategy.” (Stolfi 81) This single sentence condemns both sides for their mantric elanism that condemned hundreds of thousands needlessly. Where Stolfi and Clark run starkly divergent is in the aftermath of the first two weeks. The numbers cited by each demonstrate titanic battles with tremendous losses for the Soviets and the complete disintegration of their front. After a number of extremely successful Kesselschlacht battles, the Red Army was in complete disarray and the Wehrmacht tore into the rear areas wreaking havoc. Clark, however, says that at this point, the Panzer armies needed a rest and refit from the casualties sustained. Stolfi disagrees adamantly and refers to the effective strengths of the Panzer corps after these intensive combats. He says that of the 1700+ battle tanks that were available on the 22nd of June, 80 percent were still active or were only in the repair shop. When one compares this to the absolute carnage inflicted upon the Soviet tank corps and their relative
Christopher Frueh History 363 12.16.2008 Research Paper Page 7 of 14 strengths at the time, the Germans could still command an effective local superiority through more skillful use of lighter tanks and the mass employment of antitank weaponry. I tend to believe that Stolfi has the more convincing arguments based upon the performance of the German tactical battle plan in France and North Africa where Panzers outnumbered by as many as 3:1 maintained momentum to disrupt the inflexible plans of their opponents. In Russia, in particular, the indecisive nature of the Red Army General Staff played right into the hands of the German ‘panzer leaders’ and their hyperaggressive style of combat. It may well have been the correct decision to keep them entirely off balance and constantly unprepared for any move. This would presuppose the strength of the Panzers was up to the task and the generals in command capable of this sort of combat. I strongly believe that both of these conditions were fulfilled. However, overly cautious generals in the upper echelons ordered the panzers to make unnecessary halts or to support the taking of irrelevant objectives, a process that allowed respite to an enemy who used it well enough. In the drive towards Leningrad, Hoepner and Manstein opened a fracture in the enemy lines that, were it exploited, would very probably have led to the complete enclosure of Leningrad in July of 1941. As it happened, the forces in question were squandered at Jakobstadt forcing a bridgehead across a river towards less important objectives. Manstein sat tamely in his bridgehead, losing seven irretrievable days that should have been used to deepen the shock in the opposing field armies and tear up the command and control capabilities of the Soviet Baltic military district. (Stolfi 52)
Christopher Frueh History 363 12.16.2008 Research Paper Page 8 of 14 It was in the forked advance of Guderian’s forces that “lay the seeds of trouble that might grow with alarming suddenness if the Russian Army were to recover its balance…” (Clark 82) It was this very halt that returned some semblance of order to the Russian lines, allowing them to bring up forces to defend the Leningrad metro area. Manstein’s failure to support the key direction of advance delayed the enclosure of the Leningrad for two months while accomplishing nothing in his sector. Immediately after this halt, Hitler sent the entirety of the Army Group Center’s panzer detachment to close of the Kiev pocket. While this led to over half a million prisoners taken, the rest afforded the Moscow armies was enough to allow them to stabilize their lines and bring up reinforcements. The necessity of keeping a running enemy running cannot be stressed enough. The very core of the blitzkrieg strategy demands destabilization of the command structure. This was the true failure of the Kiev onslaught. Even with six hundred thousand prisoners and rapid advances on the southern front, Hitler jeopardized and perhaps even compromised the entire campaign. …it is believed with certainty that the line Leningrad-Moscow and to the south can be reached [by October 1]… [However] the conduct of all operations is being controlled from the very highest level. Final decisions have not yet been taken concerning the future course of events. (Clark 94) –von Bredow, on 30th July This shows the constraints that OKW and Hitler in particular had placed on the operational mobility of the army unit commanders.
Christopher Frueh History 363 12.16.2008 Research Paper Page 9 of 14 Clark points at what all agree is a gross misstep and says this was the point of no return. The Far East troops mentioned earlier had been on the move since June and would arrive in the Moscow area in December. Clark implies that the Wehrmacht could no longer beat these troops to the Moscow-Gorki space even as he says that there was no significant threat from any of the Soviet units in front of Moscow. From the point of view of equipment and training, the armies with which the Stavka found itself fighting were the weakest the Soviets had ever put into the field. (Clark 149) Directly in Hoepner’s path there were three skeletal Russian infantry divisions. They had left their artillery on the west back of the river, had no tank strength whatsoever… for the most part exhausted and demoralized from units that had been smashed in the previous weeks’ fighting… it is plain that the Germans enjoyed a crushing superiority of numbers to leaven their material ascendancy (emphasis added). (Clark 158) Note that as Stanton mentioned, the troops that came to reinforce these weak reservists were only mobile because of the actions of Soviet agents in Japan. These agents were acting under the previously stated intention of the Soviets to invade Germany at some indeterminate time in the future and the side effects of which, the mobility of the eastern troops, were not relayed to the German allies. From the authors’ evidence and narratives presented, it is possible to recreate in one’s mind the chaos of those few months in an effort to understand the decisions made. Fortunately for their readers, the authors so far presented do not commit the common
Christopher Frueh History 363 12.16.2008 Research Paper Page 10 of 14 mistake of believing Hitler to be entirely delusional. Clark presents a clear and cogent explanation for the fluctuating of the Fuhrer’s decisions. As a preface to his point, there are three possible targets for a military attempting to eliminate another country’s warmaking capacity: the political center, the economic or resource centers, and the army itself. As was presented earlier, the original battle plan targeted the political nerve center of the country and weighted the schwerpunkt towards Army Group Center. However, the target of the plan for the French invasion in 1940 was focused more on the destruction of the field armies, the mobile divisions moved into Belgium. As such, as the panzers in the center encountered some resistance brought on in no small part by the field commanders’ own timidity, Hitler perhaps reverted to what had worked previously. Clark refers to this new battle plan as a “super Cannae” because the wide sweeping drives on the northern and southern wings would enclose the entirety of the Russian army in the greatest kesselschlact in history. However, Clark skirts the issue of the plan in execution. Obviously, none of this was conveyed to the men on the ground for use in making strategic decisions but why did Hitler become so preoccupied with Leningrad and Stalingrad? There appears to be some vast inconsistency if one presumes Hitler is not operationally senseless: a shift from the political target is irrational unless one were engaged in the complete destruction of the Red Army, ill advised though this switch of objectives was. However, if the destruction of the Red Army was the aim, the investment and entanglement at Stalingrad and Leningrad become equally irrational. The only two conclusions disagree with Clark: either Hitler was operationally incompetent, a difficult conclusion to make entirely on circumstantial evidence, or he was insecure in any of his
Christopher Frueh History 363 12.16.2008 Research Paper Page 11 of 14 decisions. I believe the latter conclusion fits the admittedly circumstantial pattern of Hitler’s actions more closely. This, however, changes none of the capabilities of the Army or the General Staff in its war-fighting although it does require additional examination. To briefly summarize, Magenheimer presents the ‘common sense’ understanding, namely that regardless of variables of leadership or execution, the Wehrmacht was completely incapable of assaulting the Soviet Union in 1941 with any hope of success handicapped as they were by engagements elsewhere and operational mishaps. Clark says that while the German Army had no chance of victory in a quick campaign, it was because the strain of combat would wear down the strength of the army leaving them short of victory as the Far East reinforcements would shore up Moscow’s defenses against the exhausted Panzer corps. Stolfi and Hooker counter by pointing to specific instances in which the army’s strength was diverted from the war-winning objective. They try to prove that Moscow is indeed the jugular of the Soviet state and, given this, that the Wehrmacht was capable of cutting it quickly. It is an unattractive possibility to imagine, that the most organized force of ruthless evil the world has ever known came within a hair’s breadth of cementing operational security in the battle for the fate of the world. However, hard as it is, I believe that possibility is just what was faced in 1941. The arguments that Clark makes, though supported, do not fit with other engagements. The point about the ‘exhausted panzer corps’ in particular holds no sway considering the rapid and decisive gains that General Rommel was to attain in Africa with a pair of under-equipped panzer divisions. The momentum of the drive would have guaranteed more than Clark cares to admit.
Christopher Frueh History 363 12.16.2008 Research Paper Page 12 of 14 These two obviously conflict with the position advanced by Stolfi and Hooker and require an in-depth look at the circumstances surrounding the invasion. To refute or affirm Clark’s main position, it would be necessary to examine the records of the panzer units and the rear echelon detachments that supported them. Primarily, one would look for the records of the active and battle-ready tanks at the points of contention to which Clark points. The rear echelon reports would give the researcher a picture of the turnover of the panzers: the sooner the tanks return to battle, the more a leader can gamble with his current forces. Clark, however, would also need to address the possibility that the panzers could achieve significant gains with very little if they maintained momentum. To explore this concept further, I would direct the reader to the records and historical expositions of the campaigns in Africa and France. To further investigate a possibly significant point, the structure of the Soviet tank forces needs to be examined. If the tank detachments were as diffuse as the French tank units were, Stolfi’s argument about the capabilities of the German panzers would be strengthened due to the concentration of the panzer units and the subsequent ability to gain local superiority regardless of overall strength. In contrast, Magenheimer completely ignores the French invasion of Russia. The French troops were able to march several hundred miles to the doorstep of Moscow, a feat the magnitude of which Germans need not have equaled. The Wehrmacht was fighting an enemy that did not understand the concept of strategic withdrawal and, subsequently, destroyed the vast majority of their experienced units. Secondly, the Germans did not need to capture Moscow to end serious chances of resistance. If Hooker’s claims about the Soviet rail and communication lines were correct, a point
Christopher Frueh History 363 12.16.2008 Research Paper Page 13 of 14 easily corroborated, the Germans need only break into the Moscow-Gorki space to render resistance at Leningrad futile. Lastly, the Soviets did not dare employ a scorched-earth policy in 1941 for fear of destabilizing the government beyond what the June and July territorial losses and military defeats had already done. Inclusion of these points in Magenheimer’s equation would lead to a radically different picture, one closer to Clark. To flesh out a better argument, I would also examine the previous and concurrent blitz campaigns noting in particular the extreme ‘disruptability’ of the panzers’ breakthrough. If Magenheimer were correct, why are all subsequent battles of maneuver based upon the blitz model? As for Stolfi, his main points of contention deal with the diversion of the panzers first towards the east when support towards the north might have accomplished similar goals in a more advantageous mode and, secondly, the amputation of the Kiev salient. Were I to attempt to cement his position, I would examine the make-up of the units facing these panzers. While he quite rightly shows the possibility of the German advance into Leningrad in July and Moscow in August, he ignores the units that would not have been eliminated in the Kiev pocket. Stolfi cannot claim to know their effect on the stability of that final drive. In addition, I would investigate the Soviet battle plans for the invasion of Germany. It appears very well supportable that the Red Army was deployed in preparation for such a strike but had not finished the build-up of the units necessary for it. Thus, Stolfi might better be able to plot the recoil of these combat troops from the border and determine which might have remained intact had the encirclements he notes been avoided. In this way, he would get a picture of events that would presume the Soviets,
Christopher Frueh History 363 12.16.2008 Research Paper Page 14 of 14 while caught unawares in the aforementioned preparations, would not foolhardily throw rested and capable units piecemeal into the German meat grinder. This would remove the fundamental logical flaw from his argument: he investigates his counterfactual on the premise that only the Germans would act intelligently. While he has some basis for this, most notably the authoritarianism in the joint military-political structure and the purges in the ‘30s, he would do best to provide equal footing for his assumptions. To close this reflection, it could do little harm to read the memoirs of the soldiers and politicians involved. While some may be somewhat self-exonerating, the greater understanding that these personal insights could bring would, in my opinion, far outweigh the errors that the books would inevitably have. In conclusion, each of the authors brings up well-supported points that, even in the inconsistencies, provide direction for one’s future research. The sum of their research lends me to believe that the Wehrmacht could have driven into Moscow long before either the Russian winter or the Far East reinforcements would have made any difference. However, the altering of this battle plan raises some very pointed questions that would be very difficult to answer so, though Stolfi and Hooker present the strongest case, much research remains to be done in understanding the chaotic conflict that took place in 1941 as the world held its breath.
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