All through July and August 1943, the continual hammer blows by the numerically superior enemy had put the German army on the defensive and threatened a breakthrough along the entire front. By late September, it had become clear that the hopes of the spring had been dashed: the great offensive had been shattered; the U-boats proved unable to block the flow of American troops and materiel to Europe; the resource discrepancy between the warring sides continued to grow; the defection of its alliance partners left Germany isolated; and both troop and civilian morale had plummeted. Faced with such realities, the German leadership was forced to concede that “ultimate defeat was now likely unavoidable.” “With the fate of the German people at stake,” the only option left was to seek an armistice and immediate peace negotiations. The leader who voiced that sentiment, as Bernd Wegner has noted, was not Adolf Hitler in 1943 but Erich Ludendorff in 1918. Now, precisely twenty-five years later, thoughts turned back to the events of that fateful autumn. Although British intelligence analysts optimistically expected a repeat of the 1918 scenario, American assessments were more skeptical, seeing a German collapse as highly unlikely. In contrast to 1918, the Americans argued, the Nazi regime had at its disposal better material and agricultural reserves, suffered no debilitating morale crisis, and faced an Allied demand of unconditional surrender.
In Germany, too, thoughts of 1918 were not far from the surface. Although SD reports indicated that some circles in Germany yearned for just such a compromise peace, the obstacles were formidable. In practice, the unconditional surrender doctrine meant an end to his regime and, thus, gave Hitler an incentive to fight on, especially since, in conscious rejection of 1918, the Western allies explicitly refused any negotiations. Moreover, although Germany could no longer win the war, it might be able to stalemate it long enough to split the brittle Allied coalition. In any case, Hitler had long vowed, and continued to insist, that another November 1918 would never again happen. Finally, and perhaps of decisive importance, the realistic American report also stressed a key, but often overlooked, point: Germany had much more reason to fear Allied retribution than in 1918. Genocide now loomed as the ultimate barrier to any negotiated peace.
The Führer had long proclaimed that this was an ideological war, a “life and death struggle,” a view confirmed as more than mere bombast by his merciless war of annihilation against Jewish-Bolshevism. “On the Jewish question, especially,” Goebbels had noted already in early March 1943, “we are in it so deeply that there is no getting out any longer. And that is a good thing. Experience teaches that a movement and a people who have burned their bridges fight with much greater determination and fewer constraints than those that still have a chance of retreat.” The Nazis had, indeed, burned their bridges. As Christopher Browning has noted, the great majority of the Jews who perished in the Holocaust, some 75–80 percent, were murdered in an extraordinary spasm of killing lasting roughly from spring 1942 to the early summer of 1943. Moreover, if the victims of Einsatzgruppen shootings in 1941 are included, the percentages move even higher. By the time military events turned decisively against them, then, the Nazis were well on their way to accomplishing their murderous goal. Given such facts, Hitler understood that the logic of events in 1943 pointed in only one direction: further radicalization of the war.
Nor was the principal target of this radicalization in doubt. After all, in his total war speech, Goebbels had already raised the specter of “Jewish liquidation squads” overrunning Germany in the event of defeat. All Jews under Nazi control, without exception, thus had to be killed, a point made explicitly by Hitler in an early February 1943 speech to Reichsleiter (Reich leaders) and Gauleiter. All through the spring of 1943, in fact, Hitler seemed even more than usually obsessed with the Jews. On the German Memorial Day, 21 March, he again raised his extermination prophecy and demanded its fulfillment, while, in mid-April, Goebbels noted, “The Führer issues instructions to set the Jewish question once more at the forefront of our propaganda, in the strongest possible way.” Central to this renewed emphasis was the discovery in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk of a mass grave containing the remains of thousands of Polish army officers murdered by the Soviet Security Police in 1940. The Nazi press claimed that “Jewish commissars” had carried out the murders, further proof, it alleged, that “the extermination of the peoples of Europe” was a “Jewish war aim.”
Back in Berlin for the early May funeral of SA chief Viktor Lutze, Hitler exhorted the assembled faithful to “set anti-Semitism again at the core of the ideological struggle,” while, in mid-May, Goebbels recorded the Führer’s extensive musings on the Jewish threat. The Jews, Hitler asserted, were the same all over the world and simply followed a basic racial instinct for destruction. They had unleashed the war, with all its devastation, but were now on the verge of a catastrophe, their own annihilation: “That is our historic mission, which cannot be held up, but only accelerated by the war.” On 16 May, just a few days after this conversation, Hitler received the news of the eradication of the Warsaw ghetto following a month of fierce fighting. His satisfaction at this triumph was mingled with anger at Jewish resistance and a fear of Jewish subversive activity; just a month later, he told Himmler that the destruction of the Jews had to be carried through to its radical conclusion.
Needing little prompting, the Reichsführer-SS worked strenuously to complete the destruction of the Jews of Poland. By the autumn, with the conclusion of “Aktion Reinhard,” some 1.5 million Jews had been killed at Treblinka, Belzec, and Sobibor, while the remaining Jews in the Lublin district had been murdered as part of Operation Harvest Festival (Erntefest). In all, 3–3.5 million Jews had perished in the six death camps, with roughly 750,000 killed by various murder squads. Speaking frankly to SS leaders on 4 October at Posen, Himmler boasted that “the Jewish evacuation program, the extermination of the Jews,” was “a glorious page in our history,” although one that “can never be written.” Then, connecting the alleged Jewish threat to the war, both present and previous, he asserted: “For we know how difficult we would have made it for ourselves if, on top of the bombing raids, the burdens and deprivations of the war, we still had Jews in every town as secret saboteurs, agitators, and troublemakers. We would now probably have reached the 1916–1917 stage.” “We had the moral right . . . , the duty to our people,” he insisted, “to destroy this people which wanted to destroy us.” Two days later, Himmler pushed the same theme in the same hall in an address before the Reichsleiter and Gauleiter, stressing that all Jews, including women and children, had to be killed in order to prevent a generation of “avengers” from growing up. In both addresses, and in a further series of speeches before Wehrmacht officers from December 1943 through June 1944, the Reichsführer not only justified the Final Solution with reference to self-defense but also emphasized the joint responsibility of all in attendance. They were all complicit in genocide and, thus, had no choice but to fight to the end. As the official communiqué put it, “The entire German people know that it is a matter of whether they exist or do not exist. The bridges have been destroyed behind them. Only the way forward remains.”
Through the winter of 1943 and into the spring of 1944, SS leaders turned their attention to the acceleration of the Final Solution in all areas of the Nazi Empire, pressing for the evacuation of Danish, Slovak, Greek, Italian, Rumanian, and, especially, Hungarian Jews. Although long allied with Nazi Germany, Hungary had under the leadership of Admiral Horthy effectively become a sanctuary for the Jews, with nearly a million in the country by early 1944. This situation was increasingly intolerable to Hitler, sensitive as he was to alleged Jewish subversion. His fears were seemingly confirmed when German intelligence supplied evidence that Horthy was negotiating with the Allies to take his country out of the war, which would endanger the German position in the Balkans. Faced with such open treachery, Hitler resolved in mid-March on a German occupation of the country. Initially unable in a tempestuous meeting on 18 March to browbeat the aged admiral into acquiescing in this action, the Führer simply stepped up the pressure until Horthy agreed to install a puppet regime. The next day, 19 March, German troops occupied the country.
At one stroke, not only had Hitler secured vital raw materials and labor for the German war effort, but also, as he told Goebbels two weeks later, the Jewish question could now be solved in Hungary. Eichmann’s men entered the country with the German troops and within days began organizing the roundup, ghettoization, and deportation of Jews. At the end of April, the first train left for Auschwitz, with full-scale deportations from the Hungarian provinces, at a rate of 12,000–14,000 deportees a day, commencing on 14 May. The crush of victims was so great that the gas chambers and crematoria at Auschwitz worked around the clock; one crematorium even broke down under the strain. Urged by the new Hungarian prime minister in early June to stop the deportations, Hitler responded with a tirade. The Jews, he screamed, were responsible for the death of tens of thousands of German civilians in Allied bombing raids. As a result, “nobody could demand of him that he should have the least pity for this global plague,” for he was only applying “the old Jewish saying, ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.’ ” By the time the deportations stopped on 9 July, almost 438,000 Jews had been sent to the death camps, with roughly 394,000 exterminated immediately. Of those selected for work, few would survive the war. In Budapest, perhaps 250,000 Jews clung tenuously to life, still awaiting their fate. Though the military events of 1943 had put the Germans on the defensive, Harvest Festival and the closing of the Operation Reinhard camps showed that Hitler had gone a long way toward winning his other war, that against the Jews. The stubborn prosecution of what had become an unwinnable war—both Goebbels and Ribbentrop suggested in September 1943 that peace feelers be put out to Stalin and the British—thus offered the Führer the chance to complete his “historic task.” To Hitler, the trauma of 1918 had been the work of the Jews; by destroying this threat once and for all, he would ensure that this “shame” would not recur.
That the Reich could continue the war at all was largely due to an unexpected upward turn in military production in late 1943. Despite the setback to armaments output caused by the Allied bombing raids of the summer, by the autumn the gloom had lifted a bit. Instead of remaining focused on industrial targets in western Germany, RAF Bomber Command shifted to an ultimately fruitless effort to create another “Hamburg” in Berlin. For its part, the U.S. Eighth Air Force continued to hammer at industrial facilities, but improvements in German technology and defense tactics resulted in such a heavy toll of bombers that, in October, the Americans were forced temporarily to halt operations. By the end of the year, the sense of crisis had passed as the Allied bombers had clearly not crippled German production. After months of stagnation, in fact, all indices of armaments production began to shoot upward in February 1944, with spectacular increases in the output of aircraft, ammunition, and weapons.
Nor had the feared collapse of morale occurred, even though Fortress Europe seemed to many Germans a fortress without a roof. In 1943, the Allies dropped on Germany more than double the tonnage of bombs as had fallen in the previous three years combined, a figure that would be dwarfed by the 1944 and 1945 numbers, yet the German civilian population stubbornly adapted. Despite Speer’s concerns about the difficulties posed by bombed-out workers and Goebbels’s frustration at Hitler’s unwillingness to visit the afflicted cities, the “terror bombing,” as the propaganda minister astutely realized, brought the Volksgemeinschaft closer together. The bombed out, the “proletarians of the aerial war,” Goebbels thought, received valuable lessons in National Socialism through the activities of the NSV and other agencies that provided aid. In addition, the experiences of “terror from the air,” he believed, made average Germans tougher and more unyielding.
Further increases in production, however, depended not only on the morale of the civilian population but also on larger numbers of workers and an enhanced work rate. The size of the German labor force, however, had actually shrunk because of conscription of men into the military, with much of the shortfall made up by foreign workers. As part of planned withdrawal actions in the east in the autumn of 1943, German authorities once again envisioned the forced conscription of civilian labor to the Reich. As German troops abandoned their often long-held positions, they took as many as 1.5 million men and women capable of work with them, leaving the remainder—the sick, elderly, and young—to an uncertain fate. Although this brutal evacuation of civilians aimed at a substantial increase in workers for the German war effort, the local demand for labor to construct defensive fortifications (an estimated 500,000 workers, e.g., were needed to construct the Ostwall) as well as to perform support duties often meant that relatively few of these people were sent back to Germany, thus forcing officials to search elsewhere for workers.
Already in the summer of 1942, as we have seen, Himmler had sought to build his SS empire through the use of slave labor; by 1944, almost 500,000 concentration camp prisoners were regarded as fit to work, although Jews, considered the arch racial threat, had been explicitly excluded from such labor. The frantic search for new workers now took an ironic twist, one that offered some Jews a glimmer of hope of survival. Within weeks of the German occupation of Hungary, the possibility of using Hungarian Jews in the aircraft industry was being openly discussed at the Führer’s headquarters, with Hitler deciding, in early April, that he would “personally contact the Reichsführer SS [Himmler] and ask him to supply . . . 100,000 men . . . by making available contingents of Jews.” Himmler himself acknowledged in late May 1944 the paradoxical nature of the situation, remarking to a group of generals: “At this time—it is one of those things peculiar to this war—we are taking 100,000 male Jews from Hungary to the concentration camps to build underground factories, and will later take another 100,000.” Amazingly, then, just eighteen months after his decision to make Germany Judenrein (free [lit., cleansed] of Jews), Hitler now decided to bring Jewish workers back to Germany, albeit under draconian circumstances. The working and living conditions of the workers varied substantially according to the type of job, the attitude of the management, foremen, and guards at the individual firms, and the reaction of the local population, many of whom regarded the Jews with fear, suspicion, and hostility, often urging that harsh measures be taken against them. Still, perhaps 120,000 Jews survived the war as forced laborers, although those engaged in armaments production had a far better chance of survival than those forced to carve the tunnels for rocket production.
The period on the eastern front from the autumn of 1943 to the summer of 1944 has, with considerable justification, been termed the forgotten year of the war, a time of debilitating German retreats and equally inglorious Soviet victories bought at horrendous cost. Despite his stubborn determination to hold the line in the east, Hitler found his hand forced by events as now began what seemed an endless series of grinding defensive battles, punctuated by brief pauses, that continued until the end of the war. The summer fighting had left the Wehrmacht an organization clearly in decline. Its panzer and air fleets had been greatly reduced, while its infantry was in desperately poor condition, with few troops, inadequate antitank defenses, and declining mobility. This latter, in turn, constantly left the choice of two evils: either stand and fight, and face destruction, or withdraw prematurely in order to save heavy equipment and artillery. Army Groups North and Center, forced to transfer units to Army Group South, were in an especially acute situation, dangerously undermanned, with many of their divisions reduced to regimental strength, and with virtually no tanks or air support. Even the spurt in industrial production at the end of the year could do little but patch a broken machine. Moreover, constant Soviet pressure meant that the Germans had to throw their newly raised infantry and tank units into battle before they were fully prepared, resulting in abnormally large casualties among the inexperienced troops. These losses then forced commanders to call in the next wave of reinforcements prematurely, thus starting a vicious cycle. For its part, the Soviet leadership, with a decisive numerical and material superiority, made ambitious plans for offensive actions and breakthrough operations. In the event, these tended to be poorly executed, with the Red Army, unable to pull off decisive encirclement operations, reverting primarily to bloody frontal assaults with masses of men and tanks. The Germans were able (barely) to fend off these assaults with nimble tactics, but the sheer weight of the enemy onslaught forced them inexorably back.
Despite Hitler’s outward show of optimism and repeated vow to hold out with an iron will, the defeats of the summer on all fronts meant that Germany had finally, definitively, lost any freedom of action. The surest indication of this was Hitler’s newfound willingness to sanction the construction of the so-called Ostwall, a line of fortifications running from Melitopol on the Sea of Azov along the Dnieper and Desna Rivers to Chernigov, then almost due north to Narva on the Baltic. Although he had categorically rejected the idea earlier in the year, on 12 August he issued Führer Order No. 10, which belatedly ordered work to begin on this defense system. There was less to this decision, however, than met the eye, for Hitler still struggled with the implications of building a defensive barrier. Not only did he fear that the construction of the Ostwall would encourage a “withdrawal psychosis” among his troops, which perhaps explains why the system was quickly renamed the Panther position (or the Wotan position in the extreme south). More importantly, he continued to insist that German forces could not evacuate the Donets Basin for strategic-economic reasons, a position supported by other powerful voices in the regime. Luftwaffe officials stressed the loss of key airfields that would hinder the German ability to strike at Soviet industrial areas while putting eastern German war production within range of Soviet bombers. At the same time, some segments of the armaments industry feared the consequences of the loss of foodstuffs and the coal resources of Ukraine. This, they argued, would have an immediate negative impact on food supplies for the troops, the operation of the railroads, and iron and steel production, which, in turn, would undermine armaments output. Although Speer evidently had already discounted the resources of the Donets Basin in his calculations, Hitler certainly regarded them as of key economic importance, a point he used to chide his military advisers. “My generals,” he remarked with open contempt to Zeitzler that summer, “think only of military matters and withdrawals. They never think of economic matters. They therefore have absolutely no understanding. If we give up the Donets area, then we lack coal. We need it for our armaments industry.”
Compounding the tension in the German leadership was the fact that, although he still proclaimed the east to be the “decisive front,” after the defeat at Kursk Hitler was clearly losing interest in the Ostkrieg as his concern grew about an Anglo-American invasion in the west. At best, in strategic terms, he could aim to defeat the second front in France and, perhaps, prolong the war in the hope that their divergent interests would lead to a falling out among his opponents (although, curiously, he did little to exploit these tensions). In any case, the need to build a Fortress Europe in the west meant that the Führer had little choice but to transfer units from east to west, thus further thinning the already dangerously overstretched German lines. This was confirmed by Führer Directive No. 51, issued on 3 November 1943, which, for the first time since the invasion of the Soviet Union, gave precedence to the war in the west. Despite the continued significance of the struggle against Bolshevism in the east, Hitler now declared that a greater immediate danger had arisen in the west: the threat of an Anglo-American invasion. “In the most extreme instance,” he said, Germany could still sacrifice territory in the east, but in the west any breakthrough would have ruinous consequences “in a short time.”
In issuing this directive, Hitler clearly sided with the OKW against the OKH, which had hoped to retain the resources necessary to at least stabilize the Ostfront. Although faced with a potential threat in the west, Hitler’s directive left the OKH to deal with an actual danger in the east with only limited resources, which had catastrophic consequences for the Ostheer. Although it continued to suffer the great majority of the Wehrmacht’s casualties (some 90 percent to the eve of the Normandy invasion), it now disposed of only 57 percent of German forces. With barely 2.6 million troops to defend against almost three times that number in the Red Army, each division of the Ostheer now defended a ten-mile stretch of front. On the western front twenty-five years earlier, by contrast, each German division covered only two miles; moreover, on a front four times longer, the Ostheer had fewer artillery. Nor did the material situation offer much comfort, for, despite the undeniable German gains in output, Soviet production, combined with Lend-Lease deliveries, added up to an overwhelming Russian superiority in tanks, artillery, aircraft, and motor vehicles. The constant wearing-away process on the eastern front, as well as the new demands in the west, also meant that the Ostheer could not maintain its strength despite increased armaments output. Moreover, in spite of his intimation that he would trade space for time in the east, in the event Hitler was not prepared to make the strategic withdrawals that would have significantly shortened the front and freed up precious manpower. Nor had Guderian been able to convince him, in view of the poor state of the infantry, to use the qualitative superiority of the new German tanks to build a mobile panzer reserve to backstop the infantry. In any case, given the vast preponderance of enemy strength, Guderian’s remedy of an operational reserve consisting of only eight panzer or panzergrenadier divisions supported by a few infantry divisions with tank sections, whose place in the line would be taken by security units or Rumanian and Latvian divisions of dubious quality, seems in retrospect naive at best.
Although there was a certain truth to Hitler’s complaint that his generals lacked faith in him, which left Goebbels to ponder Stalin’s solution—the shooting of his generals—with a greater appreciation, military contingencies had a way of simplifying the great strategic problems with which the Führer grappled, as he was rather unceremoniously reminded by Manstein. Although himself favoring a mobile defense, in a meeting with Hitler at Vinnitsa on 27 August, the field marshal pointed out that his troops had suffered 133,000 casualties but received only 33,000 replacements and that, without reinforcements, he could not possibly hold on to the Donets Basin. Perhaps most significantly from Hitler’s point of view, Manstein, with Kluge present and in support, proposed a unified command in the east under his, Manstein’s, direction, for the purpose of conducting an effective fighting retreat. The idea of ending the rivalry between the OKH and the OKW and instituting a single command structure certainly was sound but, as the two field marshals must have known, had little chance of approval. This step would not only deprive Hitler of day-to-day command in the east but also undermine his ability to play the OKH and the OKW off against each other, thus enhancing his authority. In the end, Hitler merely used the challenge to reinforce his control, ordering that, henceforth, all troop transfers between OKH and OKW areas be subject to his personal approval. Manstein’s effrontery, however, would not go unremarked as the field marshal’s suggestion was seen by the Führer not as a valid operational proposal but as a sign of defeatism and opposition. His star now began rapidly to wane.
At a meeting a week later at the Führer Headquarters, Manstein was even blunter in his implicit criticism of Hitler’s conduct of operations. “Mein Führer,” he told Hitler pointedly on 3 September, “you no longer have the decision as to whether the Donets area can be held or not. You only have the decision as to whether or not you will lose it along with an army group.” On the eighth, with a crisis brewing on the eastern front, and the same day Anglo-American forces invaded Italy, Hitler flew to Manstein’s headquarters at Zaporozhye, the last time he was to set foot on occupied Soviet territory. Although he once again forbade Manstein’s request for a speedy withdrawal of his threatened forces, events soon outpaced his will. On the fourteenth, in the face of Soviet breakthroughs, Manstein acted to avert catastrophe, summarily informing the OKH that, in order to avoid destruction, the next day his armies would begin retreating to the Panther position. Disturbed by this independent assertion of authority, Hitler on the fifteenth summoned both Manstein and Kluge to his headquarters. He was, however, again unable to counter Manstein’s blunt observation that it was no longer a matter of holding an economically important region but a question of “the fate of the eastern front.” With that, Hitler reluctantly approved a withdrawal behind the Dnieper but insisted that it be as gradual as possible.
Kluge, for his part, was not unsupportive of this decision since Army Group Center had been able since late August to hold its front largely intact while conducting a dogged fighting retreat. The basic problem, however, the law of numbers, was insoluble: the Germans were trying to stem the tide against an overwhelmingly superior enemy force. In hammering operations from Smolensk in the north to Chernigov in the southern sector of the front, the Soviets, although able to achieve breakthroughs along the line, proved unable to pull off a decisive success. In the process, moreover, the Red Army suffered striking losses. The three simultaneous offensives against Smolensk, Bryansk, and Chernigov cost the Soviets almost 225,000 permanent losses (dead, missing, and prisoners) and well over 2,000 tanks and assault guns. Although the corresponding German figures were a fraction of these losses, even these were unsustainable. On 10 September, for example, the Second Army reported that all its infantry divisions combined could muster fewer than 7,000 combat troops. The response of the OKH was to order it to attack to close a gap in its line.
From mid-September, however, the situation deteriorated rapidly as Kluge struggled to avert a catastrophe with only sixteen fully combat-ready divisions (eleven infantry, one panzer, and four Luftwaffe field divisions of dubious value). Soviet pressure forced him to evacuate Bryansk on the seventeenth, while Smolensk, the scene of such bitter fighting two years earlier, was lost virtually without a fight on the twenty-fifth after a series of Soviet penetrations. More worrisome, the inability of most of his units, equipped only with horse-drawn transport, to withdraw quickly meant that any race to the Dnieper was bound to be lost, especially since they had to herd over 500,000 civilians and 600,000 head of cattle to the rear. The extraordinary mobility of the Wehrmacht, which had proved so decisive in earlier triumphs, had vanished; most Landsers simply walked without stopping back to the Dnieper. Hitler’s faith in his panzer divisions to close gaps in the front through swift counterattacks also proved misplaced since they could not be moved from place to place quickly enough to plug the gaps. Not surprisingly, the Soviets won the race to the Dnieper, achieving the key breakthrough on 22 September when they pushed spearheads across the river at Chernobyl, north of Kiev. By 1 October, they had managed to seize the city and widen their bridgehead. Although a counterattack regained the city three days later, the Germans were unable to reduce the bridgehead itself, an “open wound” that stretched thirty-six miles along the Dnieper to a depth of eighteen miles, a sad testament to Hitler’s failure to authorize a timely withdrawal.
For all the drama in Army Group Center’s sector, the focus of the enemy offensive lay in the south as the Soviets sought to liberate, and Hitler desperately to retain, the valuable economic area of the Donets Basin and Ukraine. For the Battle of the Dnieper, the Soviets had massed 2.6 million troops, more than twenty-four hundred armored vehicles, and almost twenty-nine hundred aircraft, figures that represented 50 percent of the troops and aircraft and 70 percent of the tanks available to the Red Army. With such numerical superiority and the far greater mobility afforded by their stock of Lend-Lease trucks, the Soviets might have been expected to strike to the south to trap large numbers of the enemy east of the Dnieper. Instead, perhaps wary of previous German lessons in the art of counterattack, Stalin insisted on driving the Germans out of eastern Ukraine in a frontal push. The irony, as Karl-Heinz Frieser has noted, was that, early in the war, the Red Army engaged in all manner of risky adventures that overtaxed its operational abilities; now, with many German units barely capable of putting up resistance, the Soviet High Command had grown cautious.
On Army Group South’s southern flank, the initial Soviet attempt to cross the Donets River at Izyum had been successfully repulsed by the First Panzer Army in late July. Renewed enemy efforts beginning on 16 August also achieved little, despite concentrations of artillery fire described by the Germans as the heaviest yet seen in the war, but enemy breakthroughs to the south undermined the First Panzer Army’s efforts. On the eighteenth, the Red Army repeated its pattern of intense artillery bombardment on a narrow front, this time pushing through the depleted Sixth Army defenses on the Mius. Without a single tank, the Sixth Army stood little chance of resisting the onslaught of over eight hundred Soviet armored vehicles and could only watch helplessly as on the twenty-seventh enemy spearheads turned south to the Sea of Azov, temporarily trapping the Twenty-ninth Army Corps. Nor was the situation any better in the First Panzer Army’s sector. By 23 August, its strength at Izyum reduced to fewer than six thousand combat troops, the First could not even maintain a continuous line. Forced to give ground by the retreat of its neighbor to the south, it still put up a stubborn defense until 6 September, when an enemy breakthrough at Konstantinovka opened a gap between the two armies and resulted in the loss on 10 September of the key railroad junction at Sinelnikovo, just east of Dnepropetrovsk. Once more, however, the Red Army was forced to absorb a harsh lesson as German counterattacks at Sinelnikovo on 12 September pinched off and drubbed Soviet forward units.
Despite enemy progress in the south, the army group’s brittle northern flank posed the most serious concerns. The Eighth Army reported in early September that it could no longer hold a continuous line, opting instead to establish a system of strongpoints supported by patrols. One of its divisions reported a strength of only six officers and three hundred men, while among all the troops exhaustion and apathy had taken hold, with the “most severe measures” unable any longer to stiffen their resistance. If anything, the Fourth Panzer Army to the north was in even worse shape; the infantrymen, it reported at the end of August, were “completely exhausted and physically and psychologically at the end of their strength.” Although confronted with a yawning gap to its north as the Second Army retreated, it could create only a few islands of resistance in its open left flank, primarily around the key juncture of Nezhin, to the east of Kiev. Its loss on the fifteenth touched off a near panic at Führer Headquarters as Soviet units pushed toward the Dnieper at Chernobyl. By the middle of September, faced with the possibility that its entire front could be rolled up from the north, and with a defense east of the Dnieper clearly impossible, Army Group South also began a withdrawal to the Panther position. Still, the Soviet frontal assaults had proved as costly as they were inelegant, the Red Army losing in roughly four weeks of fighting nearly 170,000 dead and missing, along with 2,000 armored vehicles and 600 aircraft.
Welcome as it was, the decision to go behind the Dnieper posed enormous problems for Army Group South that tested its organizational skills and fighting abilities to the limit. Its three armies occupied a four-hundred-mile-wide front stretching from Chernobyl to Zaporozhye yet had only five major crossings of the Dnieper, itself at places over a mile wide. In practice, this meant that the armies not only had to disengage in the face of enemy forces pressing hard on their fronts but also then had to be funneled to the few major bridges over the river. Once across, the troops then had to fan out quickly behind the river before the Russians could get bridgeheads of their own on the undefended west bank. In addition, very little had been done to improve the crossings or to make available engineers and additional bridging equipment. As part of the withdrawal, moreover, some 200,000 wounded, along with medical personnel and field hospitals, over 500,000 civilians (technical specialists, forced laborers, Ukrainians fearful of the return of Soviet authorities, and ethnic Germans, with their motley possessions), along with thousands of head of cattle, embarked on a trek westward. Large quantities of goods were also sent west, causing even further congestion at the crossing points. Further complicating matters, Hitler insisted at the last moment that the First Panzer Army should defend a bridgehead east of the river at Zaporozhye in order to protect the nearby manganese mines at Nikopol, a decision that forced Manstein to move precious reserves that could have been better used plugging the numerous gaps in his front into a tactically worthless position. Finally, all this was accompanied by the systematic destruction of Soviet infrastructure, villages, and anything of economic value to a depth of twenty miles along the east bank of the river.
By the end of the month, Army Group South had withdrawn the last of its troops across the Dnieper, an action that marked the end of a two-month period in which Army Groups Center and South had been forced back an average of 150 miles along a roughly 650-mile front. In the process, they had lost the economically most valuable territory they had conquered. In an effort to deny the enemy any advantage from the reconquest of this area, Hitler ordered a scorched-earth policy to destroy anything of potential economic value. Using as a precedent the similar Soviet action in the summer of 1941, the Germans, in a characteristic mix of professional ability, military necessity, individual rage, and an ideological will to destruction, proceeded to lay waste to large areas. The troops were instructed not only to evacuate or destroy potentially useful industrial equipment but also to blow up or burn buildings, villages, individual dwellings, bridges, wells—anything that could be of use to the enemy. In addition, all men between the ages of fifteen and sixty-five were to be taken along by the troops as labor for the construction of field fortifications, while able-bodied women were to be sent back to Germany as forced labor.
What followed, in many areas, was an orgy of destruction, as the Germans left behind only smoking ruins and heaps of rubble. “Orel,” wrote a Landser to his fiancée in mid-August, had been “leveled to the ground,” its inhabitants “driven to the rear areas.” Six weeks later, the same soldier noted, “The Russians will find only the rubble from blown up buildings and bridges. . . . People and animals from an enormous area . . . are streaming to the west. The Russians will find only an empty, barren land.” “Everything has been burning fiercely for days,” confirmed another Landser to his wife from the Dnieper, “for . . . all the towns and villages in the areas that we are now evacuating are being set ablaze, even the smallest house in the village must go. All the large buildings are being blown up. The Russians are to find nothing but a field of rubble. . . . It is a terribly beautiful picture.” In a similar vein, Helmut Pabst enthused during the retreat toward Kiev, “The villages burned. They burned with raging power. . . . Long before evening the sun was already red, as it hung sick and thirsty over the march of destruction. . . . It unfurled war in all its terrible splendor.” More prosaically, but perhaps more honestly, another Landser stressed the spontaneous, personal nature of scorched earth: “In the event we just go into the houses and simply take what is there.” Agreed another, “Better that we have it [food] in our bellies than the Russians.”
Although justified by Hitler on military grounds, this extraordinary effort at scorched earth in fact raised a number of problems. From a purely tactical viewpoint, burning buildings and blowing up installations signaled only too clearly to the enemy the German intention to withdraw, thus complicating the effort to disengage in good order. Moreover, the work of destruction, combined with the effort to evacuate civilians and goods, wasted considerable time and energy, further burdening troops already exhausted by nightly retreats, the hasty construction of trenches in the mornings, and daily skirmishes with the hard-pressing enemy. Under this strain, some troops chose simply to retreat on their own, without waiting for orders, when the situation began to look critical. Nor, for all the effort, did the Germans accomplish anything decisive. At the end of September, Army Group Center reported that it had succeeded in evacuating only 20–30 percent of the economic goods in its areas, while Army Group South almost certainly did worse. Many power plants, factories, railroads, and bridges had, in fact, been destroyed, but many had never been fully restored following the Soviet retreat of 1941. By the same token, the lack of personnel meant that the Germans never came close to stripping the evacuated areas bare of grain and livestock; in the event, they were forced to leave behind far larger quantities than they were able to carry off. As a result, the Soviets quickly exploited the newly liberated areas both for grain resources and for replacements for the Red Army.
Caught in the middle, as always, was the long-suffering civilian population of the affected areas. The exploitation, plundering, evacuation, and conscription of the local peoples formed an integral part of scorched earth, for human as well as material resources had to be denied the enemy. Combined, the four German army groups forced over 2 million civilians out of the territory east of the Panther line; at the same time, tens of thousands of superfluous eaters—the elderly, the sick, mothers with young children—were either left behind amid the vast desolation or driven into “bandit areas.” Those capable of work—men between fifteen and sixty-five and women from fifteen to forty-five—were then divided, with the women often sent to Germany for compulsory labor service and the men dispatched to work camps to build field fortifications and perform support duties. Those caught in the roundup were treated as prisoners of war, which meant that anyone attempting to resist or escape was liable to be shot. In most areas, as well, the luckless civilians became part of a larger tug-of-war as local commanders often ignored orders to send them back to Germany in order to put them to work—twelve hours a day, seven days a week—at backbreaking construction tasks at the front.
For the troops, scorched earth contributed to a further radicalizing process, resulting in growing indiscipline, brutalization, and a sharp increase in violence and the will to destruction. For many Landsers, the initial actions came as a rude shock; after all, fighting an armed enemy was one thing, but driving the sick, elderly, and young children into the wild was something else again. In addition, while the troops were exhorted (and ordered) to destroy anything of value as they retreated, there was a very thin line between denying the enemy valuable resources and plundering, burning, and murdering out of a destructive lust. As the retreat, in places, threatened to become a rout, company and battalion commanders struggled to retain discipline over their men, reminding them constantly that only things of military or economic value were to be destroyed. In practice, however, this meant virtually everything, with many Landsers falling victim to the temptation. “We also moved through the villages and shot pistol flares in the dry straw roofs,” admitted one participant after the war. “In this way we were able in a very short time to burn down entire villages.” The similarity between the methods used in combating the partisan war and scorched earth often enabled soldiers to rationalize their actions, although that hardly helped officers in restraining the destructive rage. Even as many tried to preserve discipline, however, they were instructed that “the complete removal of the labor resources [of these areas] is essential to the conduct of this war. How much more cruel and brutal would be the mayhem directed at the German people by the Soviets if they entered our country because we had neglected, out of a cheap humanitarian sentiment, to organize all labor resources to enforce the final victory.” Whoever failed to carry out these measures, it was warned, would be regarded, and treated, as a “traitor to the German people.” Littler wonder, then, that the average Landser came to believe that the scorched-earth policy gave him a “free zone” in which anything could be justified by considerations of military expediency.
This desperate retreat behind the Dnieper, during which the Germans had fended off repeated, reckless Soviet frontal assaults that invariably cost the Red Army many times the losses of the Germans—but losses that were made good within a dishearteningly short time—inevitably raised doubts about the possibility of victory in the minds of many Landsers. What, then, kept German soldiers doggedly fighting, not only in the autumn of 1943, but to the end of the war? This is not an easy question to answer, for, as in any large organization, there was a complex mix of motives among the men and often within individual soldiers as well. Loyalty to Germany, support for Hitler or National Socialism, racist and anti-Semitic attitudes, primary group attachments, patriotism, fear of Bolshevik revenge, brutalization, and the embrace of a destructive passion—all these and more played a role. The very cheapness with which the enemy evidently regarded his own life seemed to confirm Nazi racialist arguments. Political education and indoctrination also played a role, as one Landser revealed in March 1942: “This is a matter of two great world views. Either us or the Jews.” “The Jews,” wrote another in May 1943, “must actually be behind all those that want to destroy us,” then a few weeks later noted incredulously, “It surely cannot be that the Jews will win and rule.” “We will win because we must win,” Jodl put it with a characteristic mixture of pathos, credulity, and ideology in November 1943, “for otherwise world history has lost its meaning.” As the front moved closer to Germany, a note of fear also crept in, infusing racialist beliefs with a sense of desperation to defend the homeland from the Jewish-Bolshevik Asiatic hordes. If Germany was defeated, warned one Landser in August 1944, “the Jews will then fall on us and exterminate everything that is German, there will be a cruel and terrible slaughter.”