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Thread: Controversies of the Russo-German War

  1. #1
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    Default Controversies of the Russo-German War

    Controversies of the Russo-German War

    by David H. Thornley

    There are many things about World War II that have been debated, and I have firm opinions on some of these. This is my attempt to answer certain questions, of greater and lesser importance.

    Was the Soviet Union preparing to attack Germany in 1941?

    No. The Soviet goal was clearly to survive; after solidarity failed at Munich in 1938, they settled on being economically indispensible. The Army and Air Force were not prepared for extensive operations, and they were wrongly positioned. The bulk of Soviet forces was in the South, while offensive actions against Germany would have required concentration in the North. Further, if the Soviets had been planning an attack, they would have gathered more information about German activities, and would not have been taken by surprise on June 22, 1941. I do not think the Soviets were going to attack until the summer of 1942, at earliest.

    Was Hitler correct in ordering the Kiev encirclement?

    Yes. The original plan had been for the Germans to come in like gangbusters and destroy the Red Army. Diverting Guderian's panzers to form the Kiev pocket helped in this, and cleared a very large Soviet force from the map. This allowed Army Group South to advance, and cleared the flank for Army Group Center to continue.

    A little background: During the summer of 1941, German Army Groups North and Center were advancing satisfactorily, but Army Group South was facing heavy resistance while not being as strong as the other two. The result was that a very strong Soviet force was pushed aside, more or less, into the south of the Pripayet Marshes. In the meantime, Army Group Center bagged over half a million prisoners in the Smolensk pocket. The leading mobile elements of Army Group Center were stopped at Smolensk. The General Staff was generally in favor of pushing on towards Moscow, but Hitler overruled them, and directed Guderian's forces southward. This bagged over half a million prisoners and freed up Army Group South to continue. It also took Army Group Center's mobile forces out of its drive for a couple of months.

    It has been argued that Army Group Center could have taken Moscow if the diversion had not taken place. In the event, AGC almost did, in late fall and winter, so it seems likely that they could have taken Moscow in the fall if so ordered. On the other hand, this advance would have had a very long right flank. Kirponos' armies were battered but mostly intact, and they had lines of communication, if tenuous, with the Soviet rear. They could have held up Army Group South for a long time without Guderian's assistance, and this would have stretched German lines very, very thin.

    Assume that AGC could have held its lines and taken Moscow: what then? Moscow was the capital, and a major population, industry, and transportation center, and its loss would have hurt the Soviets greatly. It does not seem likely that capturing Moscow would have won the war for the Germans. Army Group South would have been delayed, so it is likely that the German army would have taken less territory in total. The Soviets probably would have suffered less with Moscow in German hands than the whole of the Ukraine. The German lines would also have been stretched much thinner for the Soviet winter counteroffensives, and those counteroffensives might have been much more devastating.

    Historically, Hitler ordered the diversion over the advice of his generals, the Germans never took Moscow, and the Germans lost the war. After the war, it became convenient for surviving German generals to blame Hitler, and this was a convenient decision to malign. We don't know what would have happened if the panzers had continued towards Moscow, and it is easy to claim that it would have made German victory possible. This is one reason why the arguments on this decision are so muddy.

    Was Hitler correct in ordering the late fall attack on Moscow?

    No. The capture of Moscow, while useful, would not win the war. The German army would have been better served in preparing for the winter, with the goal of resuming the attack in the Spring.

    Was Hitler correct in ordering the German armies to hold fast in 1941?

    Almost certainly not. Army Group Center was driven back tens of miles almost everywhere. Certainly it would have been better to do some of the retreats with better planning and in milder weather.

    When had the Germans lost the war?

    This is something of a trick question: it assumes that the Germans had a good chance to win in the first place. In studying the campaigns, I have not been convinced that they did. It is difficult to see how things could have gone much better in the 1942 campaign (excepting Stalingrad), and the Germans were nowhere near victory. The answer must, then, be sometime in 1941. Some German generals were considering the campaign lost in the summer of 1941, when the Red Army kept putting together new armies in front of the Germans. Some people have argued that the fall decision to send Guderian south was potentially decisive, but I don't think so. The last decisions made in 1941 were the decisions to continue the attack on Moscow as long as possible, and the decision to hold ground. These decisions were bad, and so it is reasonable to say that the Germans had lost by the end of 1941, if not earlier.

    How instrumental was lend-lease in the Soviet victory?

    Not at all. In the previous question, I claimed that the Germans had lost the war by the end of 1941. By this time, the Soviets had not received significant Western assistance. What lend-lease did was change how the Germans lost, and helped make sure the Soviet Union stayed in the war. Stalin continually threatened to make peace with the Germans, although I do not think he ever would have, and lend-lease helped keep him in the Allied camp. Ironically, it was lend-lease that permitted the Soviets to advance into central Europe. The Red Army ran primarily on Studebaker trucks, and the elite Soviet Guards mobile corps tended to use American tanks. Had the West choked down on aid to the Soviets in 1944, the results of the war would have been more favorable to democracy.

    Why is the Red Army not given due credit?

    Colonel David Glantz is an actual authority, if you don't believe me. (I recommend everything he's written on the Eastern Front of World War II.)

    During World War II, the Soviet Union was an indispensible ally in the fight against Germany. This did not mean that the West actually liked the Soviet Union, or vice versa. The Western public was inclined to give credit to the valiant British or American soldiers.

    After the war, the Germans became "good guys", our allies against the evil Soviet empire. The horrors of Naziism started to fade. Many German officers retired in the West, and began writing memoirs. Not only the Soviet war records, but also the German ones were unavailable.

    Memoirs can be valuable to the historian, but they must not be relied on. They are typically written as the memoirist remembers things, or as the memoirist would like to have things remembered. To be useful, they must be checked against the record, which was missing for World War II on the Eastern front.

    The memoirists were typically German officers, who had no love for Hitler. They had been instrumental in a losing struggle, and needed to find reasons for their loss. Under the circumstances, Hitler was an easy scapegoat, and therefore Hitler was blamed for losing the war. They had fought the Russians, and the concept of a "Russian horde" was easy to sell to the public. von Manstein, for example, inflated his estimates of the size of the Red Army by factors of three or four.

    Finally, they were limited to the war as they saw it. The failure of the German Army was a failure at the very highest levels, including Hitler and the top General Staff. The German Army was incredibly good at conducting operations. Any student of its history must marvel at some of the things it was capable of bringing off. However, these were seldom coordinated. von Mellinthin, in his well-written book Panzer Battles, discusses the exploits of his Panzerkorps in early 1943, and they were indeed impressive. What he does not so much as hint at is the fate of other sections of the line. While his excellent troops were occupied with probing attacks, Army Detachment Hollidt and the Italian Expeditionary Force were being mauled.

    The Germans were the best in the business at the level the memoirists tended to write about, and so their books are full of heroic feats. All the bad stuff is happening offstage, somewhere else. The Red Army was greatly superior in the higher levels of strategy, and was able to defeat the Germans without great numerical superiority. I could argue that, given the superior German fighting ability, that the Red Army successfully launched offensives against superior fighting power. The German memoirists did not realize that their top strategy was flawed, and that the Soviet top strategy was superb, because they were interpreting the war according to their own pre-existing mindsets.

    The Germans had lost, and had a natural tendency to find excuses. They did not understand why they had lost; they had done great things, but it all came to nothing. Hitler was easy to blame, and so the whole "Hitler lost the war with his military meddling" came about.

    Who committed atrocities?

    Atrocities are common in wartime, but this section of the war was particularly bad. The Soviet Union had not bound itself by the Geneva Conventions, and therefore Germany was not bound by them in treating Soviet prisoners. Further, the German goal was to conquer the European sections of the Soviet Union, and then kill off the "untermenschen" (most of the Soviet ethnic groups were considered Slavic and therefore barely human). On top of that, there was a fierce partisan war going on.

    The role of the German army was mixed. The Army had been indoctrinated that they were to have no consideration for Soviet citizen's rights, and various orders were issued in support of this position. To the credit of some of the German generals, they tried to suppress these orders. They did not completely succeed. The role of the Germans who administered the conquered territories behind the lines is not mixed at all, but extremely brutal and murderous.

    In 1944 and 1945, the German Army was driven out of the pre-war Soviet Union. The Red Army was suffering from an extreme shortage of soldiers, for various reasons, and recruited from the liberated areas as they went. This meant that a large number of the Soviet soldiers invading Germany had lived under the horrors of German occupation, and were eager to "pay back" atrocity for atrocity. The Red Army, in general, did not try to maintain discipline in Germany, except for combat operations. Even with this hatred on all ranks, it is worth noting that German civilians suffered far less than the Soviet civilians did.

    There is far more than enough blame for everybody involved.

  2. #2
    Banned user Kitsune's Avatar
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    In the Garden of my Turbulence


    All of the sudden Hitler wasn't so bad as a military leader, eh?

    Hitler IS responsible for the German defeat. It is not so much his smaller strategic decisions, to press for moscow, to expand the front to the southwest in 1942, ot to let the 6. Army be sourrounded although that would have been avoidable (Stalingrad is a hugely overstated battle, not the cause for the German problems at the eastern front but a symptom of the huge discrepancy of the supply situation between the Wehrmacht and the Red Army. The Battle itself was more of a phyrric victory, Soviet losses were very high, indeed).

    Hitler is responsible because it was his flawed GRAND strategy, that caused the defeat. There is the myth that Germany was a highly militarized state when WWII began, that would use everything at her disposal for war...and that is exactly wrong. I don't know, what created this myth, it probably was a convenient way to explain the superb German military performace, that lead to the conquest of Europe in a short time. Added to this the Nazis liked parades of any kind for show.
    But the opposite is the truth: The Wehrmacht had been founded in May 1935. Nearly every weapon, every plane, every tank, nearly all pieces of artillery and ships of war the German armed forces had at their disposal when the war started, was built during the 4 years before it. And Hitler was EXCEEDINGLY slow to set the German economy on warfooting: Even in 1942 the German industry produced more civilan goods than weapons. Even in 1943 Britain produced more war material than Germany! The apex of the German weapons production was only reached in summer 1944, at a time when the Sovietunion, Britian and the US all were producing tanks, guns and fighterplanes like hell. Germany was not ahead, it was back as far as total war was concerned (the fact notwithstanding that the term "Total War" was coined by a German, as far as I know it was Luddendorf with his book "Der Totale Krieg", that came out in 1936, and refered to WWI).

    Hitler did not want to start a world war...he exspected to get away with the conquest of Poland (which was to be the revising of the main territorial loss the German Reich had suffered after WWI). After the French and British declaration of war against Germany he realized that he had led the nation into a desperate situation, reminiscient to the one Germany had been in 1914. Since the Soviets and the Nazis, treaty or not, were still enemies, and both knew that the other side could not be trusted, the war on two fronts threatened to become a reality again.

    But Hitler, as always, relied on gambling: He had gambled with the Polish campaign, because for the conquest he used so many troops that the west of Germany was left nearly unprotected, that included the essential Rhine and Ruhr area. Had the French attacked, Germany would have been in dire straits. But they didn't.
    He gambled as he attacked Norway (neccessary to protect the supply of scandinavian ore for Germany), the British fleet was three times as big as the German one, a fact that could have let the whole campaign end as a desater. But it didn't.
    He gambled with his attack on France: The French army was bigger and supported by the Bitish Expeditionary Force. All depended on a tight timetable, like the Schlieffenplan that had failed in 1914 had been (even tighter actually and this time it was the v.Manstein plan). But the Wehrmacht made it (one of the very few instances which an army had triumphing over Murphy's Law in a campaign of this size).

    That is the problem with gambling: You have to know when to stop. But everything is alright, as long as you win. And that may seduce you to try it again and again. And Hitler did. After the French campaign, he thought himself a genius (and those who doubted that, were reminded of the fact, that all the sceptics, who had said the French campaign would be a desaster had been totally wrong). Hitler decided to tackle his one true target (he never wanted war with Britian, and would not even risked the one with France if not the West had opened hostilities): the Sovietunion. Not only did he leave the British "buisiness" unfinished (trusting that the Sovietunion would be beaten fast), nor was Germany in any way prepared for an lenghty endurance struggle (no war economy, no other preparations). In fact the Wehrmacht was not even prepared that the war could last duriing the wintertime, they were not equiped for the cold months in any way !
    And even worse: as the Soviet losses reached astronomical height dring the first weeks of the Russian campaign, Hitler was certain it was already as good as over. He had the industrial allocation for the army REDUCED. The Soviets of course did the opposite: for them it was a fight for survival from the start, and they frantically increased their industrial military output.
    The Sovietunion came close to breakdown in 1941 (porobably even the weeks lost with helping the Italians in the Balkan campaign may have been the decisive factor...another gmabling of Hitlers I did not mention), but the winter and muddy springtime gave the Soviets time to recover from the shock of the onslaught. It is debatable how big the chance was to defeat the Sovietunion in 1942, but from 1943 on the initiative was lost.
    Had Hitler (aside from not attacking at all) ordered an increase in military production shortly after Barbarossa began, instead of leaning back and reducing output...things might have turned out differently.

    Even so. Germanies various armed forces lost 2.9 million soldiers during the whole of WWII, the Soviet armed forces (Red Army and NKVD guard units) around 12 million (both sides fought against other enemies of course). The bear was more than just scratched a bit when the war ended.
    The Red Army was suffering from an extreme shortage of soldiers, for various reasons, and recruited from the liberated areas as they went.
    (One of those "various" reasons might have been that quite a few had been killed by the Germans )
    The high numbers of losses vexed the Soviets until the end of the USSR...because allegedly the Soviet system (and with it communism) was to be superior to "fascism and capitalism", and therefore Russians should be more efficient than the fascists even man to man. So their have been numerous tries to rework history, belittle the German efforts (who only caused problems because they sneaked up the peaceful Red Army with their 100.000 tanks) and heroize the Russian ones (who won the war only because of their superior virtue, with which communism had infused them). And they had 45 years to paint things differently.

    But it is truth, that in turn, the Western powers (and here one must include even West Germany) have downplayed the fact, that WWII was to around 70% and Russian-German war. As the Cold War began, the Soviets were the new enemy after all. So one decided not to give to many laurels for defeating the Nazis to them.

    History is often seen through the lense of contemporary politics, 40 years ago as well as today.

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