Downsizing: Historians and the Battle of Kursk

By Robert M. Citino
6/17/2010 • Fire for Effect

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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