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Downsizing: Historians and the Battle of Kursk

By Robert M. Citino 
Originally published under Front & Center Blog. Published Online: June 17, 2010 
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Sometimes it hurts to smash the icon.  One of the things historians have to do for a living is take a well known or heroic story and pick it apart.  It usually starts with minor details, but it doesn't always stop there, and by the end of the process, a professor can often find himself with a class filled with some fairly disgruntled students.  I am typing this while riding on an Amtrak (the train, not the amphibious vehicle) over the Delaware river, and I'm thinking about Emanuel Leutze's famous painting of George Washington and his boys on their treacherous night crossing at Trenton in 1776.  I'm thinking about how that painting BECAME the event to succeeding generations of Americans, even though so many of the details in it are inaccurate (wrong boat, wrong flag, lighting that would do justice to a Hollywood set, etc. etc.)

But I'm also thinking that no matter what people say about Leutze's painting, it's still going to be how people picture Washington crossing the Delaware.

Last week we discussed Kursk–the "greatest tank battle of all time," a watchword for the destructiveness of modern warfare, a struggle of fiendish intensity, with each side aware that he was in a kind of "last ditch" and that was no substitute for victory.  For years, it was the battle among aficionados and scholars of the war in the East.  Let the others obsess about Stalingrad or their other favorite battles.  Those of us in the know about the Eastern Front were certain that Kursk had been the true turning point of the war, the "swan song of the German panzers," the moment when it became clear just who was dictating to whom in this war. 

Recently, however, scholars have been cutting Kursk down to size.  Adding a welcome new voice to the discussion have been Soviet researchers who managed to gain access to the sources only after the fall of communism.  To this group I would add the name of the inestimable American scholar, David Glantz.  He knows Russian, has cultivated his sources inside Russia, and, armed with the work ethic of a U.S. Army Colonel (which is exactly what he is), he has churned out book after book revising our views of the German-Soviet war. 

These scholars have told us a lot of things that I can also confirm from the German side.  Kursk was never a last ditch anything  The Germans were not seeking some dramatic breakthrough there.  Indeed, their attack was fairly localized, consisting as it did of just two regular armies (9th and 4th Panzer) plus a "provisional" one (Armee-Abteilung Kempf).  In 1941, the Wehrmacht had attacked the Soviets on an immense front from the Baltic to the Black Seas.  Its losses in that campaign meant that, by 1942, it had to chose a single sector, and it went south with multiple armies.  Its losses in that campaign–the complete destruction of its largest field army at Stalingrad–mean that by 1943 it had been reduced to launching a kind of spoiling operation:  trying to destroy those Soviet forces conveniently deployed in the Kursk salient.  Success here would ease some of the pressure on the creaking eastern front, dislocate Soviet plans for a new Soviet offensive out of Kursk, and result in a shortening (Verkürzung) of the line, freeing up urgently needed German forces for use elsewhere. 

Sure the combat was terrible and losses were high–mechanized mass armies have a way of mauling each other when fighting this type of close-range positional warfare.  But that apocalyptic battle at Prokhorovka?  Apparently it didn't happen.  At least it doesn't appear in any of the German-language sources, and only a handful of Soviet ones.  There was fighting there, yes, but in its traditional form–the "immense knotted mass of tanks," the furious melee, the wildest single day in the history of armored warfare–Prokhorovka doesn't really exist.

A spoiling operation?  Easing of the pressure?  Shortening their line?  The battle of Kursk?

Sometimes I hate smashing the idol.

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17 Responses to “Downsizing: Historians and the Battle of Kursk”


  1. 1

    [...] the original post:  Downsizing: Historians and the Battle of Kursk » HistoryNet Post a [...]

  2. 2
    Luke Truxal says:

    I like the idea of a spoiling operation. Dr. Citino how did Kursk become known as the greatest tank battle ever? Was this a product of German or Soviet propaganda or did a group of historians add that label to the battle? If so was it because the original historians believed it to be as crucial a battle as it is made out to be or was this a method used to help sell books or an idea? Something that you've mentioned a lot is that historians sometimes have to make changes when selling books because certain words or phrases sell better than what the historian originally intended. I am just curious to know how the traditional view of the Battle of Kursk came about.

    I did notice your Kursk lecture was about as short as your siege of Stalingrad lecture. That's comparing it to other operations that you covered in class.

  3. 3
    Bill Nance says:

    I think that some fell in love with Kursk due to the climactic battle idea. The thought that one great battle decided the course of the war. Unfortunately, since Sedan, this has been a hard concept to realize. However, it DOES fire the imagination somewhat doesn't it? I could see a Jerry Bruckheimer movie made about Kursk.

    That said, why does the narrative shift from what actually happened? I'd say partially, it has to do with people seeing the class of boxes on maps, then translating that into an image in their heads, whereas in reality, the clash of two great armies is marked by a thousand small engagements down at the platoon and company level.

    I remember when I first started really studying WW II history. I was dissapointed because the big battles were 'missing' at the narrative level. However, with a little more personal experience, I've discovered the big battles were there, just most modern battles are comprised of a number of smaller engagements all rolled into one big furball.

  4. 4
    James Odell says:

    you know Bill, it does seem to always come back to the infatuation with maps, disrupting our view of the real situation. We seem to have an expectation that when large formations make contact that the full weight of their power is going to be involved, all at once (and as we visualize it, all together).

    Perhaps we are all somewhat hobbled by the image of massed formations of troops engaging each other over open ground (WWI imagery certainly shaped my own mental impressions of battles)?

    Though the realities are perhaps even more compelling; as small desperate fights all play out and determine the outcome of the "large battle". Granted the purposes of this particular operation are rather pedestrian, and nowhere near the "big push" we all enjoy talking about…

    Perhaps someone should dig into period Soviet propaganda to see if there are any indicators that the battle was played up to suggest that the Germans had been defeated in a hard-fought and spectacular single melee?

  5. 5
    Luke Truxal says:

    Bill something you and Dave have told me is that civilians and soldiers view battles differently. Could this be a case of German civilians and government officials reading more into this battle than what the army's actual goal was? I know you and Dave constantly remind me what I see on television isn't what is actually going on and maybe that could have played a role in the building up of the Battle of Kursk. I don't know I am just throwing ideas and theories out there.

  6. 6
    Gary Dickson says:

    This was THE German offensive of 1943 – hardly a spoiling attack. It's almost a game among fans of WWII and writers to try to come up with the 'biggest' battle, as if that really meant something. I don't think anyone is denying that Kursk was a big deal, just the claim that it was the biggest tank battle of WWII. There are several contenders for that title, and a lot depends on one's definition of a 'battle' in time and space. Kursk overall, including the northern and southern sectors and including a three-week period, may indeed have had the most tanks in combat, but Prokhorovka, defined as the 5th Gds Tank Army's attack on July 12, 1943, was probably not the largest one-day tank battle. But that doesn't take anything away from its significance.

    I think the change in perception started in 2000 with Niklas Zetterling's book KURSK 1943, A STATISTICIAL ANALYSIS. Up to that point historians tended to take the strength estimates of the Germans and Soviets at face value, which was sloppy.

  7. 7
    Paul says:

    I think the "downsizing" of the Kursk battle is a consequence of the orginal interpretation of the battle using the limited information available while the Cold War War was going on (especially on Russian side) and books like "The Tigers Are Burning" that imprinted on the public's mind what the battle was like.(masses of Tigers and T-34s charging at each other with total abandon). Throw in a healthly dose of Soviet propaganda and you ennd up with the greatest tank battle of all time. Now that historians have access to more and better info and time and distance give them the freedom to reevaluate the battle it can now start to be placed in it's true context.

  8. 8
    Trevor Sproston says:

    Apparently, one of the principal sources for the myth of Kursk in the West was the author Martin Caidin, who used the soviet references quite uncritically in his book.

  9. 9
    Nikoli says:

    Having done "some" research into Kursk and reading von Manstein, I don’t think the German general staff ever looked at Citadel as an offensive. Back in the day of hex board games I laid out the OB for Kursk and from the start and considering the entrenchments of the Russians, the German position is obviously bleak. Manstein eventually was relieved by Hitler over the dispute of tactics. Manstein would have chosen to hold the armor in deep reserve and counterstrike the Russian tank formations more in accordance of fellow Prussian Von Clauswich and the concept of "intrinsic defense".

  10. 10
    jeannick says:

    .
    Kursk was a straightforward operation , conceived by Manstein as a follows up on Kharkov , as soon as he had replenished his forces and the mud had dried ,all his forces were close to position and the Soviets were still overstretched after their winter offensive
    …..6 weeks delays top .
    Zeitgler , got all fired up with the idea and presented it to Hitler as a surgical strike to demonstrate the potency of the Wehrmacht .
    It would be a display of power , no allied ..only Germans troops would show the world how it's done
    Manstein got worried with the ensuing delays , even Model , hardly a battle shy commander stated to have some very serious doubt .
    the clean cut of May became a full set production , baptized the German summer offensive .
    It ended up an operation that nobody really controlled anymore , it had taken a life of it's own where the last operational reserves of the OKH would be wasted , , the shortage was so great that Das Reich went to battle with a battalion of salvaged T-34
    the rebuilding of the panzer in number was frittered away .
    much to the despondency of Guderian
    Model had lost plenty on the north side for even less gain , same for Kempf who had a lot of trouble advancing to joint the SS corps
    during the Soviet counter offensive the rear workshops Orel and Belgorod were lost with the machines under repair there

    As for Prokorovka , there was a tank battle between the fifth tank Army and the SS panzer corps in a rather small area .It was only part of both formations but it must have been a lot
    the son of Ribbentrop was a tank commander at the very front of the battle and was suitably impressed
    Katukov was reprimanded for his handling of the battle so , considering the " acceptable " Soviet attrition rate , it must have been bad .
    Liebstandarte was send to Italy minus its tanks , which had to be left for her sister divisions to share , again , a sign of depleted numbers
    Totenkopf and Das Reich were send on the Mius front where they painfully prevailed , loosing more tanks than at Kursk .

  11. 11
    jeannick says:

    .
    Errata …I got the the fifth commander wrong of course

  12. 12
    bobe says:

    I got the book from GLANTZ "THE BATTLE OF KURSK" it is full of pure LIES or distortions from the soviet point of view.
    it is a deservice to HISTORY to have somebody like GLANTZ printing pure LIES about KURSK and PROKHOROVKA.
    reading this article i just conclude that you are very uninformed about this battle, i have been studying WWII for more than 30 years and trying to puzzle together from all sides(although soviet is so misleading and false), i have accounts from the WAFFEN SS that fought there and other sources british authors(unbiased and accurate) and new book from LLoyd Clark due 2011 lights more about this battle.
    So please inform yourself more and everybody can gain from that .
    if i wanted to read fiction (that where should be Glantz book of Kursk) i rather read HARRY POTTER.

    • 12.1
      bobe says:

      I don't know what bite me that day but i am re reading GLANTZ The Battle of Kursk, it is a great book took very long time to make it, it is a CLASSIC, if there are some problems about it the blame goes to the COMMUNIST PARTY that probably edit or bullied the soviet generals to modify DATA, i just can guess.

  13. 13
    jim says:

    Don't see much about Zhukov's memoirs where he obviously prepared for a Nazi offensive in the Kursk region. This was aided by UK Enigma reports showing Nazi forces shoring up the 9th Army, on the northern sector. Zhukov innocently prints a report from Lt-Gen Khrushchev about masses of tanks waiting (under Hoth/Kempf) in the south. Strange that Zhukov should virtually ignore the presence of the 4th Panzer, Hitler's top-panzerarmee, in the Belgorod area.

  14. 14
    Johan says:

    Hello, i am doing a history internal on the Battle of Kursk, Can anyone help me by answering these 3 questions, any information would be greatly appreciated,
    1. Why was it crucial that Soviet Russia defeated Nazi Germany?
    2. To what extent was it crucial that Hitler defeated Soviet Russia, in order to regain initiative and save his reputation?
    3. To what extent did the Lucy spy ring help the Russians defeat Germany?

    Thankyou for your help, any information relevant to my questions would be greatly appreciated

    • 14.1
      bobe says:

      Question 1: Soviet Union under LENIN/STALIN knew that it was matter of time before western powers would attack them, so they prepared for TOTAL WAR by 1938 they were ready for it. Whoever attacked USSR either BRITISH EMPIRE and its allies or GERMANY(the least probable of them) USSR was ready to fight them for one goal only TO SURVIVE, it is relevant to add that the RED ARMY had in 1945 almost 3 million communist commissars attached to its immense army numbering more than 10 million men.
      Survival of a regime that was a threat to DEMOCRACY around the world.
      Question 2 : your question is out of touch, but will try to answer it, first when ?which year are you talking?
      Germany needed 3 things to survive and prevail, OIL and FOOD and MINERALS, before BARBAROSSA USSR got to close to RUMANIA so to deny Hitler essential OIL, the USSR was starting to build defenses along POLISH BORDER, they sure expected Hitler attack in 1942(not in 1941 so close to MUD/FALL and ICE/WINTER).
      After STALINGRAD Hitler's allies started defecting and making alliances with STALIN, like FINLAND(important source of minerals to Germany)
      hitler was fighting in 2 fronts in 1942, big mistake, had to defeat USSR before USA enters the war(Hitler declared war on USA, by this time he was very sick and just performed well under injections of VITAMINS/AMPHETAMINE, his mind was BLURR, made bad decisions one after another). USA alone industrial production would make 2000 divisions.If HITLER defeated USSR he would had won the war, with immense supply of oil, minerals and food, V2 project alone was so advanced for the time the germans would have INTERCONTINENTAL BALLISTIC MISSILES before 1950, and jets and so…
      Question 3: At KURSK the spy ring gave informations to the soviets but they already had information about all german formations from partisans, from air survey, from captured german soldiers , from spies inside german HIGH COMMAND, to me made no much difference at all except to confirm to soviets information they already had, but on the other hand information was crucial in a 400 mile front, ZHUKOV had huge formations ready to be moved to hot spots.



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