Having read literally ONES of books on World War II, and perused literally TENS of Wikipedia articles on the subject, I have decided to use my vast expertise to write a bit about a common (at least so it is beginning to seem to me) misconception about Hitler’s decision to invade Russia. And since this isn’t just a cut and pasted post from an actual researched essay like my last post, there won’t be any citations, so everyone will just have to take my word for it.
It seems I have always heard that Hitler’s greatest blunder was invading Russia and that he did it too late in the year. Now, don’t get me wrong, without a doubt, Russia was THE reason the allies won, far more so than the United State’s prodigious production capability and the British victory in the Battle of Britain. Had Russia lost, Germany probably would have won. The main misconception about the Eastern front that I would like to address here was that the invasion of Russia was a poor decision on Hitler’s part.
While it is true that Hitler had always wanted to invade Russia, primarily because of their rich resources that he felt were necessary for the Germanic empire he envisioned, the decision made sense from a non-“empire building” standpoint as well. Communism and National Socialism were about as unlikely allies as could be, and there is no doubt that even had England made peace, the US not entered the war and Germany been content with its new European Empire, Russia still would have most likely attacked. The problem, as Hitler saw it, was that Russia was in no position to attack any time soon (what with almost all of its generals and officers killed by Stalin in purges) but soon would be. The Russian military had also doubled in size in the two years before the attack and Hitler rightfully feared what would happen if that military growth continued unchecked. If he waited for the Russian attack down the road it would be a very different Soviet army then the one he would face in 1941.
So, while no commander ever wants to wage a war on “two fronts”, Hitler was put in the unpleasant situation of being forced to do just that against an opponent who was no pushover (to put it lightly). Arguments for the invasion were convincing however. Britain was all but out of the war and the United States did not appear to be ready to fully commit to war against the Axis making the “two front” argument less compelling. Also, as mentioned, Russian forces were essentially leaderless, and the military was unprepared for an attack (Stalin refused to believe that the Germans would attack so soon).
These were the circumstances that led to the German attack on Russia on June 22nd, 1941. As I talked about earlier, this date turns out not to have been all that “late” to invade Russia. The standard thinking is that Germany got sucked into Italy’s failed Balkan campaign (primarily in Yugoslavia and Greece) and was thus critically delayed for 6 weeks. But (at least according to the books I read) Russia had had an unusually long rainy season in 1941 during which the roads turned to liquid and travel would have been nearly impossible, especially for the mobile operations the Germans needed for their invasion.
So, as nearly as I can tell, Hitler’s best choice really was to invade Russia at the time that he did, and he was not able to invade much earlier than his mid June start date. These were not his real blunders. As it turned out the Russian army really was about as crippled as Hitler thought it would be (though having greater numbers than their pre invasion estimates). Through brilliant encirclement battles the Germans were able to conquer hundreds of miles of Russian territory (they made it all the way to the outskirts of Moscow, and even further East in Southern Russia) and destroy almost the entire starting forces of the Russian army (nearly 6 MILLION men) in five months.
So why was the German campaign in Russia ultimately a failure? There are many reasons (as there always are in hindsight) but here are just a few:
- Germany did not expect the seemingly limitless mobilization capability of the Russian military. As one soldier put it, it was like an elephant fighting an ant colony.
- They did not expect the Russians to be willing to trade millions of lives month after month for paltry rewards (this was in part due to the German’s excessive cruelty to the Russian military (only 3% of Russian prisoners lived to see the end of the war) and civilians).
- Hitler’s goals for his generals after the massive land gains were hazy at best, Moscow only became a priority in the last half of the operation and valuable initiative was lost without a focused plan.
- The Russians were able to transport a large portion of their factories and production machinery East to the Ural Mountains before their land was captured (an astonishing accomplishment in its own right). Thus the expected decimation of Western Russia’s production capability did not happen.
- Even the capture of Moscow would not have guaranteed Russian capitulation if the tenacity and willingness of the Russian military to spend lives after already losing so much land was any indication.
- Worn down troops that were unequipped for the brutal Russian winter should have halted their advance and fortified their positions much earlier rather than pushing their attacks so far into the winter months (thus leaving themselves in very poor position for the Russian winter counterattacks).
- With the US Torch landings in North Africa and the subsequent invasion of Italy (and cemented by the D-Day landings) Hitler finally was fighting a war on two fronts.
- Most importantly, Germany could not win a long war (they lacked the manpower and resources), and by failing to take out Russia in 1941, that is exactly what they faced.
Though Hitler dug his own hole, there really was no better choice in 1941 than to invade Russia. If you want to blame Hitler for inept command decisions, there are plenty of examples starting around Stalingrad and becoming increasingly frequent as the end of the war approached. The invasion of Russia, however, was not one of them.
(If anyone is really interested by all this, I have to recommend John Keegan’s Second World War, an exhaustive yet entertaining read that will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about World War Two. It also seems fairly unbiased and doesn’t make many outlandish claims. Alan Clark’s Barbarossa is also good for just the Eastern front, but it is a bit drier and not as easy to slog through.)