For all the advances made against the Germans in the west between D-Day on 6 June 1944 and the crossing of the Rhine in March 1945, postponed by the disaster at Arnhem in mid-September and the Ardennes counter-offensive in the winter, it was on the Eastern Front that the war against Germany was won. Between Operation Barbarossa and December 1944, the Germans lost 2.4 million men killed there, against 202,000 fighting the Western allies. The cost of inflicting such casualties was uneven: between D-Day and VE Day (Victory in Europe Day, 8 May 1945), the Russians suffered more than 2 million casualties, three times that of the British, Americans, Canadians and French fighting forces put together. It is worth considering whether democracies could ever have tolerated that level of sacrifice, or whether – as seems likely – it required the whole horrific apparatus of the NKVD and domestic terror to keep the Soviet Union in the war.
After the Wehrmacht’s convincing defeat at Stalingrad and the capture of Field Marshal Paulus’ Sixth Army in February 1943, and then the withdrawal with unacceptable losses – albeit fewer than the Russians suffered – at the battle of Kursk six months later the scene was set for a series of enormous Soviet offensives across the eastern part of the Eurasian land mass that were only to end with Germany’s surrender in Berlin in early May 1945, after Hitler’s suicide there on 30 April. In its 1943 summer offensive after the successful defence of Kursk, the Red Army recaptured Orel, Kharkov, Tagonrog and Smolensk, forcing the Germans back to the Dnieper river and cutting off the Seventeenth Army in the Crimean peninsula. Hitler came under pressure from Field Marshal Erich von Manstein and the Romanian dictator Marshal Ion Antonescu to evacuate the German and Romanian forces from the Crimea, which could have been used in the defence of Romania and Bulgaria, but his obstinate refusal to do so meant the fall of both countries in short order, and the eventual destruction of the army group there. Hitler had a scheme for the Crimea to become a solely Aryan colony from which all foreigners would be permanently banned, and he hung on to his dream for it long after military considerations dictated that they needed to be – at the very least – postponed.
Nicolaus von Below wrote of this period: ‘Hitler foresaw threatening developments on the Eastern Front earlier and with greater clarity than his military advisers, but he was determined with great obstinacy not to accede to the request of his army commanders to pull back fronts, or would do so exceptionally only at the last minute. The Crimea was to be held at whatever cost, and he refused to entertain Manstein’s arguments in the matter.’ A quarter of a million troops were therefore lost to the German line. It did not affect the outcome of the war, of course, and perhaps only meant, as one historian has argued, ‘that large numbers of German soldiers ended up in Soviet captivity instead of being killed in the fighting’. Nonetheless, according to its own lights it was a strategic error. Like the decision to leave German troops on the Kerch peninsula in order to try to recapture the Caucasus one day, it was actuated by Hitler’s hope for a new assault on the southern USSR, long after such an attack was rationally possible.
For the German soldiers on the ground, in their long, bitter withdrawal from their high-water mark at Kursk, survival took on greater meaning than any lingering hopes of victory. For the Russians, liberating their cities and towns involved discovering the horrors of the German occupation. At Orel, which was a typical example, half the buildings and all the bridges had been destroyed, and there were only 30,000 survivors from a pre-war population of 114,000, the rest having been sent to Germany as slave labour or shot, or having died of disease or starvation. For sheer ghoulishness, little could beat the discovery of eighty-two headless corpses and eighty-nine human heads in Danzig’s Anatomical Medical Institute, however, where soap and leather had been manufactured from Russian, Polish, Jewish and Uzbecki corpses. The nearby Stutthof concentration camp had little problem providing the bodies – 16,000 prisoners died of typhoid there in one six-week period, for example – and human soap was in production when the Institute received official visits from the Reich education and healthcare ministers. Small wonder that the Red Army hardened its already rock-like heart still further against the enemy, encouraging it to see them as subhuman, and instilling a determination to punish all Germans – civilians as well as military – now that the jackboot was on the other foot. The innocence or otherwise of individual Germans was immaterial, because it was not so much they who were being punished as their husbands, fathers and sons. Human pity was now beside the point.
‘A series of withdrawals by adequately large steps would have worn down the Russian strength, besides creating opportunities for counter-strokes,’ General Kurt von Tippelskirch stated of this immediate post-Kursk period. ‘The root cause of German defeat was the way her forces were wasted in fruitless efforts, and above all, fruitless resistance at the wrong time and place.’ Manstein did his best with a mobile defence across southern Russia – often at odds of seven to one – that seems to have been too subtle for Hitler, who constantly issued ‘Stand or die’ orders freezing the defensive lines, such as at Kharkov after the Soviets broke through on 3 August 1943.
It took no fewer than seven conversations – often face to face after long flights – for Manstein to get Hitler’s permission to retreat to the line of the Dnieper. Falling back there, Manstein ignored Hitler and allowed Kharkov to fall on 23 August, putting his loyalty to his troops and the German people higher than that to OKW and his Führer. This was felt further down the line of command: Major-General Frederick von Mellenthin, Chief of Staff of the XLVIII Panzerkorps which was retreating to the Dnieper, complained bitterly of the way that ‘During the Second World War the German Supreme Command could never decide on a withdrawal when the going was good. It either made up its mind too late, or when a retreat had been forced upon our armies and was already in full swing.’
Given enough warning, the Wehrmacht was in fact excellent at strategic withdrawals. It made thorough preparations improving roads, bridges and river crossings; it camouflaged assembly areas and made precise calculations about what equipment could be moved and the amount of transport necessary, and about what needed to be destroyed; then command posts, headquarters, medical and veterinary posts were established to the rear before the withdrawal began; telephone lines were removed; supplies, rations and night-traffic control were organized; demolitions, roadblocks and mines were readied, and lines of resistance mapped out. (The problems were of course multiplied once the Wehrmacht was forced back on to German soil, because millions of panicky refugees wanted to escape the Red Army too.) The Wehrmacht was also expert in the policy of scorched earth, of which Army Group South’s retreat to the Dnieper between the end of August and October 1943 was the exemplar, and for which Manstein received an eighteen-year jail sentence in 1949. (He served only four years.) ‘The wide spaces of Russia favour well-organized withdrawals,’ recalled Mellenthin. ‘Indeed if the troops are properly disciplined and trained, a strategic withdrawal is an excellent means of catching the enemy off balance and regaining the initiative.’ Yet, for all its expertise, Hitler gave the Wehrmacht as little time as possible to organize such retreats, on those rare occasions when he authorized them at all.
The Kuban bridgehead on the Taman peninsula fell in October 1943, leaving the Caucasus safe for the Soviets and effectively turning the Sea of Azov into a Russian lake once more. ‘Towards the end of 1943 at the latest it had become unmistakably clear that the war had been lost,’ wrote General Halder. ‘Would it not have been possible even so to beat off the invasion and thus provide the basis for a tolerable peace? Had the “Fortress Germany” no hope of consuming the enemy’s strength on its walls? No! Let us once and for all have done with these fairy tales.’ He was right; having taken on four of the world’s six greatest powers, Germany was doomed. Yet it was to take a further eighteen months of unimaginable horror and slaughter before the war finally came to an end. The blame for this can largely be put down to the efficiency, determination and obedience of the Wehrmacht. Had Hitler passed over ultimate decision-making to a committee of its best brains, and appointed Manstein as supreme commander of the Eastern Front, all that it would have meant at that stage was that the defeat would have taken longer and cost many more German and Russian lives.
Almost throughout this period the Germans inflicted higher casualties on the Russians than they received, but crucially never more than the Soviets could absorb. Attacks were undertaken by the Red Army generals without regard to the cost in lives, an approach which German generals could not adopt because of a lack of adequate reserves. ‘The Russians were five times superior to us poor but brave Germans, both in numbers and in the superiority of their equipment,’ complained Kleist from his Nuremberg cell in June 1946. ‘My immediate commander was Hitler himself. Unfortunately, Hitler’s advice in those critical periods was invariably lousy.’ In Hitler’s defence, Alan Clark has pointed out that from December 1943 the Führer had been aiming at breaking the Allied coalition through emphasizing ‘the apparent impossibility of its task and the incompatibility of its members’, and that seen in this context his defence of every inch of territory in the east was perfectly explicable. Yet ever since November 1941 Stalin had been making speeches about Hitler’s aim of using fear of Communism as a way of splitting the Grand Coalition against Germany. The Soviet Information Buro (Sovinform) had been issuing statements since June 1942 lauding Russia’s alliance with the Western Allies, and there is plenty of evidence for how fully this was reciprocated in Britain and America. If Hitler had had a better understanding of the true nature of the alliance against him, he would have realized that its desire to extirpate him and his New Order would always be greater than any mutual suspicions and antipathies within it. To believe anything else was mere desperation, for as he had written in Mein Kampf: ‘Any alliance whose purpose is not the intention to wage war is senseless and useless.’