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Operation Barbarossa and Germany’s Defeat in the East

 by David Stahel, Cambridge University Press, England, 2009, $99

For those interested in the history of the Eastern Front and particularly the opening moves of the German campaign in the east, Stahel has written a detailed account of Nazi operations through the fall 1941 decision to move against Leningrad and the Ukraine rather than Moscow. The academic and somewhat boastful introduction may discourage some readers, but this is a first-rate history. Stahel has thoroughly researched the planning stages, the preparation of the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe, the ideological underpinnings of the campaign and its pursuit by Army Group Center.

At war’s end, several German generals wrote detailed and thoroughly dishonest memoirs about why their nation had lost the war. Many of the field marshals and colonel generals responsible for operations in the east placed blame solidly on the man they had followed obediently to the bitter end in 1945. For them, Adolf Hitler’s decision to turn the Second and Third Panzer groups to the south against the Ukraine and to the north against Leningrad, respectively, represented the turning point in the war. If only he had listened to their advice, the Wehrmacht would have driven on successfully to Moscow and ultimate victory. Regardless, as historian Gerhard Weinberg has repeatedly pointed out, the war would have lasted another six months, and the United States would have dropped the atomic bomb on Germany rather than Japan.

In fact, the Nazi defeat in Russia was largely the result of extraordinary hubris on the part of the German military. The planning for Operation Barbarossa rested on several flawed assumptions: that if the Germans could destroy the Red Army in the border areas, there would be little resistance as their forces drove into the depths of the Soviet Union; that Soviet military equipment would prove inferior to that of the Wehrmacht; that the Soviets would not be able to reconstitute their armies after the first defeats; and that the whole campaign would be over by the fall.

Stahel also addresses the abhorrent racial and ideological basis of the whole invasion— the extermination of the Jews in the east and the enslavement of other “subhuman” populations in the region, a conceit enthusiastically promulgated by the Wehrmacht and its leaders.

Focusing on these assumptions and the conduct of operations over the first nine weeks of Barbarossa, Stahel underlines the extent of German miscalculation in these early days, which all too many historians have described as dazzlingly victorious. That the Germans (barely) managed to reach the Smolensk/Dnieper line without suffering a major defeat was largely due to the extraordinary incompetence of Red Army officers and their political masters in Moscow. Stahel succinctly sums up the deep troubles the Germans had run into by the end of August:

Even in August 1941, when the supply system was greatly overextended, the army group’s [Army Group Center] offensive strength widely dispersed and the refitting process [of panzer divisions] incomplete, the generals argued for an offensive toward Moscow, which in practicable terms was impossible to realize. The fatal inability to recognize the limitations of the forces under their command was inherent to the campaign itself, but what is surprising is the slow learning curve among the generals at the front who were confronted with the day-to-day problems of the advance.


Originally published in the November 2010 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here