Barbarossa’s failure to deliver the knockout blow and the subsequent failure to take Moscow suggest that December 1941 was the moment Germany lost the war. At best, it could expect a long war of attrition in a struggle against the combined might of the United States, the British Empire, and the Soviet Union, with predictable consequences. At the risk of being accused of Anglocentrism, I suggest that the failure to destroy or capture the defeated British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk, and certainly the failure to invade England in the summer of 1940, marked the moment when Germany’s chances of winning the war were, if not fatally damaged, at least severely undermined. Granted, as von Manstein has explained only too clearly, the risks of Operation Sea Lion were enormous, but if successful, the rewards would have been stunning. That Hitler was prepared to attack the Soviet Union before Britain had been eliminated is doubly puzzling. First, it suggests that Hitler did not consider the threat posed by Britain serious enough to warrant giving it immediate priority. Second, the risks of attacking the Soviet Union and failing were far greater than the risks of attacking England and being defeated. Here, the factor of time was critical for German ambitions: if the Soviet Union could be defeated in a short campaign, the full weight of German arms could then be turned against Britain. The longer the campaign on the Eastern Front lasted, the more resilient Britain would become and the greater its capacity to mobilize British military might. An alliance between Britain and the Soviet Union would then be a near certainty. That the British were a meddlesome force in the Balkans and a ubiquitous and aggressive presence in the Mediterranean in the months immediately before Barbarossa, though frequently thwarted by German intervention, was evidence enough of what lay in store for Germany if Britain was not checked.
Instead of invading England and, if succeeding, changing the strategic situation in Europe to his overwhelming advantage, Hitler turned east. The Blitzkrieg failed, and by the middle of December 1941, Germany found itself at war with the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union. The advantages of surprise and the benefits of ruthless treachery that had served Hitler so well since 1933 had now been exhausted. The military, technological, and doctrinal advantages Germany had enjoyed from September 1939 to December 1941 were now being matched and surpassed by its opponents.
Reasons for the Failure of Barbarossa
The factors that contributed to the failure of Barbarossa can be summarized as follows: (1) time, space, and terrain; (2) inconsistent attitudes toward nationalism; (3) the brutal treatment of Soviet prisoners of war and commissars; (4) the role of the Einsatzgruppen (the mass murder of Jews); (5) plans for agricultural exploitation and the retention of Soviet collective farms; (6) the assumption that the Soviet Union would collapse very quickly; (7) Hitler’s failure to make a radio address to the Soviet people; and (8) failure to pursue military objectives—the capture of Moscow—to the exclusion of everything else, as recommended by Guderian and other generals.
Time, space, and terrain, along with weather, are factors in the planning and execution of all military operations. The Blitzkrieg doctrine was best suited to the distances and terrain found in western Europe. Even though there were natural and artificial terrain obstacles in the western theater of operations, these could be overcome, as the Germans demonstrated, without losing momentum because the operational area was so much smaller. Moreover, the advanced infrastructure of western Europe—highways, roads, railways, and bridges—facilitated and accelerated the Blitzkrieg, since the invader could exploit them for the rapid deployment of men and equipment and for purposes of resupply. Another advantage arising from the smaller operational area in western Europe was that the invader could seize assets—arms factories, power stations, dams, ports, ships, and food production plants—in a coup de main before they could be destroyed. In western Europe a scorched-earth policy was neither realistic nor psychologically acceptable to the inhabitants. On the Eastern Front, however, there was often time to evacuate major assets, especially plants and factories further east; where evacuation was not possible, industrial assets such as dams could be prepared for demolition. In the east the invader had to reckon with poor-quality roads and rail lines that were often rendered unusable by rain and snow.
The German invasion of the Soviet Union was also characterized by inconsistent and duplicitous policies toward nationalist movements. In the planning phase of Barbarossa, nationalist movements in Ukraine were exploited by the Abwehr, and the threat posed by these movements was taken very seriously by the NKVD. In contrast, the highest levels of the RSHA (the main terror and police agency of the NS regime) regarded nationalist movements with suspicion, and German planning documents make it clear that there was never any serious intention to abolish the Soviet collective farm system; this would be retained to maximize agricultural production for Germany.
However, there is evidence that some German administrators were willing to grant a degree of local autonomy in the occupied areas. One of the more interesting experiments took place in the Orlov district. The 2nd Panzer Army permitted the creation of the autonomous Lokot region, based on the village of Lokot. By the end of the summer of 1942, the Lokot self-governing region had expanded to include eight regions of the Orlov and Kursk districts, with a total population of about 581,000. All German troops were withdrawn, and the region was given self-governing status. To quote the recent work of a Russian historian:
German troops, headquarters and command structures were withdrawn beyond the borders of the district, in which the whole spectrum of power was conferred on an Oberbürgermeister, based on a ramified administrative apparatus and numerous armed formations made up of local inhabitants and prisoners. The only demands made of the self-government were that supplies of foodstuffs were delivered to the German army and that it prevented the growth of a partisan movement.
It turns out that the Lokot self-government even had its own political party, Narodnaia Sotsialisticheskaia Partiia Rossii (The People’s Socialist Party of Russia), and its main aim was the destruction of the communist system and the collective farms. The leaders of this experiment saw a self-governing Lokot as the basis for the rebirth of Russia. One can only imagine the frenzy of hatred this experiment aroused in Stalin and Beria when they eventually got wind of it.
The question arises: to what extent did the existence of this self-governing region assist the Germans and impede the Red Army before and during the battle of Kursk in 1943? Once the battle of Kursk was over, there is no question that the whole area would have been scoured by SMERSH for any official who had worked in the administration. The fate of the 581,000 inhabitants after the Germans withdrew is not clear. It would have taken SMERSH many months, maybe years, to filter all those it considered unreliable, and this must have generated a massive amount of documentation, which is apparently still classified. German initiatives such those in Orlov would have been far more effective had they been launched from the outset.
Harsh treatment of Red Army prisoners, often stemming from callous indifference, was a disastrous mistake. Such treatment was predicated in part on the assumption that the campaign would be over quickly and that any mistreatment of prisoners would have a negligible impact on German operations. The Germans’ attitude toward prisoners and commissars soon became known on the Soviet side of the front, and the longer the campaign dragged on, the more such policies hardened Soviet resistance. Combined with the mass shootings of Jews by the Einsatzgruppen, the treatment of Soviet prisoners of war helped the Soviet regime. These killings supported a sense of Soviet solidarity that could possibly overcome the ethnic heterogeneity and fissiparous nature of the Soviet Union. To this end, Hitler’s failure to make a radio address to the Soviet people immediately after the invasion must be seen as a lost opportunity. A direct radio appeal (reinforced by a massive airdrop of leaflets) in which he promised self-rule, abolition of the collective farms, restoration of the church, and an end to communism and in which he urged the people to turn against their oppressors—the NKVD, the commissars, and the party—would have caused utter panic among Stalin’s entourage. But this did not happen, and the peasants were exploited just as ruthlessly by the German occupiers, which undeniably helped the Soviet regime.
A year later, on the eve of the Stalingrad counteroffensive, the consequences of this German error would be fully grasped by the utterly cynical Commissar Getmanov in Grossman’s Life and Fate: “It is our good fortune that the Germans in the course of just one year did more to make themselves hated by the peasants than anything the communists did over the last 25 years.” Getmanov rather conveniently ignores the civil war and the genocide in Ukraine, but there is much truth in what he says. With victory secured, there would be time enough for the German occupiers to renege on these tactical, time-buying promises. The time for implementing the ideological program would have been after the Soviet state had been knocked out. Nonmilitary objectives that were launched before the Soviet Union had been defeated complicated and compromised the essential task of accelerating the collapse of the Soviet state. Again, the full force of the German propaganda machine should have been used to send the message that the German army had come to liberate Russia from communism. The failure to do so was probably based on the belief that such assurances would not be necessary, since the campaign would be a short one. Such considerations bring us to the question of what the primary military objective should have been in 1941.
One question that continues to engage historians of the Barbarossa campaign is whether Hitler’s decision to head south in August 1941 predetermined the outcome of the eventual resumption of the drive on Moscow. For example, Glantz argues that Germany’s best chance to take Moscow was in October 1941.13 In contrast, Guderian and others maintain that the August 1941 decision to go to Ukraine was the main cause of the failure to take Moscow. Citing various factors that he believes would have thwarted German plans to take Moscow in September, Glantz nevertheless concedes that the Germans might have captured the city then. However, that would have been just the start of the Germans’ problems: surviving the winter in a devastated city, protecting their exposed and extended flanks, and withstanding an attack from a Red Army now numbering 5 million men.
The obvious riposte here is Guderian’s insistence on the pressing need to go all out for Moscow. Given the requirements of modern war, the defense of Moscow in 1941 relied on the Soviet rail network. In fact, the critical importance of the rail network for offensive and defensive purposes was well appreciated by Triandafillov, who identified fast and effective rokirovka (lateral troop movements) as crucial for deployment. The loss of Moscow would have meant the loss of all rail and river links to other parts of the Soviet Union, thus effectively preventing the necessary rokirovka and interfering with the movement of reinforcements from the Soviet Far East. Moreover, any Soviet threat to the German flanks and rear was predicated on a supply chain for the Red Army and the Soviet High Command’s ability to move men and equipment by road and rail. If the German attack had succeeded in September, no buildup of offensive forces would have been possible, and the threat posed by millions of Red Army soldiers would have been reduced, since they would have been cut off from their supply bases.
The other factor to consider is the political impact on the Soviet Union if the Germans had taken Moscow. Guderian made a case for an all-out attack on Moscow in a meeting with Hitler:
I explained that from a military standpoint it came down to the total destruction of the enemy forces that had suffered so badly in the recent battles. I depicted for him the geographical significance of the Russian capital that was, I said, completely different from Paris, for example, the traffic and communications center, the political center and an important industrial region, the fall of which, apart from its having an obviously shattering effect on the morale of the Russian people, must also have an impact on the rest of the world. I drew attention to the mood of the troops who expected nothing else than the march on Moscow and who, so inspired, had already, I said, made all the necessary preparations to this end. I tried to explain that after achieving military victory in this decisive thrust and over the main forces of the enemy the industrial regions of Ukraine must fall to us much sooner when the conquest of the Moscow communications network would make any possible deployment of forces from north to south extremely difficult for the Russians.
Guderian also pointed out that the German supply problem would be easier to deal with if everything were concentrated on Moscow. In addition, it is was essential to move before the onset of the rasputitsa.
Guderian’s views find some support from von Manstein, who maintains—with the benefit of postwar hindsight—that Hitler underestimated the strength of the Soviet system and its ability to withstand the stresses of war. The only way to destroy the system, he argues, was to bring about its political collapse from within: “However, the policies that Hitler permitted to be pursued in the occupied territories by his Reich Commissars and the SD—in complete contrast to the efforts of the military circles—could only have the opposite effect.” This is an obvious point to make, but how do von Manstein’s objections to German policies in the occupied territories fit with his own order issued on 20 November 1941? This lapse in memory notwithstanding, von Manstein’s assessment of the policies being pursued by Hitler underlines the inner contradictions: “So while Hitler wanted to move strategically so as to destroy Soviet power, politically, he acted in complete opposition to this strategy. In other wars differences between the political and military leadership have often occurred. In this situation both elements were controlled by Hitler with the result that the Eastern policy conducted by him ran strictly counter to the requirements of his strategy and perhaps denied it the chance of a quick victory.” Von Manstein believed that the defeat of the Red Army would achieve Germany’s economic and political goals. However, capturing Moscow was the key component: “After its [Moscow’s] loss the Soviet defense would be practically divided into two parts and the Soviet leadership would no longer be able to conduct a uniform and combined operation.”
The period from 1 September 1939 to 22 June 1941 lends some support to Colin Gray’s view that, although it is an intellectual convenience to accept a strict demarcation between war and peace (the title of Tolstoy’s classic novel War and Peace is an indicator of how deeply this binary division is embedded), there can be a situation in which there is neither peace nor war or, rather, there is peace in war and war in peace.19 In this situation, the conditions for a future war are being created amid circumstances that, to most people not immediately involved with problems of war, appear to be peace. This view suggests that peace is not permanent; it is merely a transitional phase during which old conflicts can be reignited or new conflicts can emerge, often unforeseen, because they are driven by political and technological change.
Diplomacy plays a crucial role in this transitional phase. It is in the diplomatic arena that new conditions and new threats arising from these new conditions are perceived or, rather, are open to being perceived. In these conditions, diplomacy can function as either an instrument to avoid war or one to prepare for war, a policy pursued by Hitler and clearly identified by Churchill and Isserson. Thus, Gray’s thesis of war in peace and peace in war implies some modification of the Clausewitzian idea that war is a continuation of policy by other means. War is not merely a continuation of diplomatic policy by other means: war and diplomacy are not discrete entities; they constitute a single entity used by all states to further their interests, assert their honor, and deal with their fears. This entity is power. Thus, in the conditions we traditionally call peace, a state uses diplomacy to advance its interests (moderately or aggressively), and in the conditions we traditionally call war, the state uses force to advance its interests. Both policies, war and diplomacy, are parts of the same entity we call power. The origins of the relationship between diplomacy and war and the nature of power were first enunciated by Thucydides, and they have certainly been modified and reformulated by Machiavelli, Bismarck, and, more recently, Kissinger. However, in the twentieth century, Hitler’s recognition that diplomacy and war are a single entity, and the degree to which this entity became an instrument of his will, remains one of the most important legacies of the NS regime and the planning for Barbarossa.
Finally, and most importantly, there was the human cost. What made Barbarossa and the war on the Eastern Front so appalling was not, to quote Omer Bartov, that “Nazi Germany exercised barbarism on an unprecedented scale” or that “its declared intention was extermination and enslavement.” What made it so appalling was that both Germany and the Soviet Union demonstrated a shocking capacity for barbarism, extermination, and enslavement. Clearly, this was an ideological war, but the first moves were not made on 22 June 1941. The first moves toward this Weltanschauungskrieg were made by Lenin’s Soviet state. By effectively declaring the Soviet state free of all international norms, free of all moral and ethical obligations in its pursuit of global domination and class war, Lenin promulgated an intoxicating, nihilistic idea that was fully apprehended and applauded by the author of Mein Kampf and informed his own cult of German exceptionalism based on das Herrenvolk.