Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Could Germany Have Defeated Russia in the Summer of 1941? An Exchange on the July -August 1941 Battle of Moscow that was never fought


The History of the Exchange

In December 2013 the New York Review of Books published a review by Cambridge Professor Richard J. Evans attacking a new book by Paul Kennedy. [Paul Kennedy, Engineers of Victory: The Problem Solvers Who Turned the Tide in the Second World War (2013)]


The NYRB printed my letter of reply and Evans’s response in their February 2014 issue but I didn’t see the exchange for some years later until I happened on it by chance on the internet. Recently I polished up my unpublished reply to Professor Evans and I emailed him asking if he would like to continue the conversation. I received no reply .


What follows is the relevant section from Evans’s original review article, followed by my reply, his reply to mine and finally my unpublished reply to his.


A. from Professor Evans’s original article



Kennedy speaks of “the folly of the cruel Nazi treatment of the Ukrainians and other ethnic groups within Stalin’s loathed empire.” But such treatment was more than “folly”; it was built into the Nazis’ war aims. Similarly, it would be missing the point to see a strategic error in the diversion of German resources into the extermination of the Jews. In the deranged vision of the Nazis, Germany’s war was being waged above all to destroy a worldwide conspiracy against the “Aryan” race orchestrated by international Jewry, of whom Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin were the willing tools. This was a racial war, in which the extermination of six million European Jews, not dealt with at all in Kennedy’s book because it did not seem to belong to the normal arsenal of military strategy, was a paramount war aim, to be extended ultimately from Europe to America itself, from which, Hitler supposed, the world conspiracy against Germany was being orchestrated.


Struggle, conflict, aggression, and violence were central to Nazi ideology, which envisaged endless war as the only way of keeping the “Aryan” race supreme. In the face of irrationality of this order, it is rather beside the point to suggest, as Kennedy does, that the Germans might have won the war, or to claim that without the contribution of this or that logistical, organizational, or technological innovation, “victory would remain out of grasp.” Defeat was pre-programmed for the Axis by the very nature of its war aims, not just by the means through which the Axis powers sought to achieve them. Like every book that treats World War II as a rational conflict along the lines of the Seven Years’ War or the Franco-Prussian War or the American Civil War, which were fought for clearly defined ends that either side might have achieved, Engineers of Victory in this sense is fundamentally misconceived from the outset.


B Ronald Bleier replies to Professor Evans, followed by his reply to mine.




Professor Richard J. Evans dismisses Paul Kennedy’s suggestion that the Germans might have won the war as “beside the point,” writing that “defeat was pre-programmed for the Axis by the very nature of its war aims” [“What the War Was Really About,” NYRB, December 5, 2013].


Regarding Japan few would doubt that her resources were unequal to destroying US might, nor that its “brutal and sadistic behavior” in pursuit of a Co-prosperity Sphere served to doom its prospects.


But Germany is another story. Evidence suggests that it wasn’t horrific Nazi war aims, but radical interference by Hitler himself that brought German ruin. Early victories in Operation Barbarossa unveiled remarkable and still not adequately explored possibilities. Bevin Alexander (How Hitler Could Have Won WWII: The Fatal Errors That Led to Nazi Defeat, 2000) writes of Army Group Center’s “astonishing success” advancing 440 miles in only six weeks.


With few Soviet troops in their way, Guderian’s and Hoth’s tanks were only 220 miles from Moscow when Hitler issued orders that amounted to self-sabotage. He ordered a halt to the drive on Moscow, forcing instead Center’s panzer groups south to the Ukraine and north to Leningrad. Guderian was so outraged by Hitler’s deflection orders that he struggled, ultimately unsuccessfully, to force Hitler to allow him to proceed to Moscow beforehttp://cdncache-a.akamaihd.net/items/it/img/arrow-10x10.png the end of the summer.


Surely the possibility of an early Nazi victory over Stalin and the prospect of Hitlerian world domination is a topic worthy of continued research.


Ronald Bleier
New York City 


C Richard J. Evans replies:

Mr. Bleier’s points are all dealt with in my review, which I urge him to re-read. Far from there being few Red Army troops in its way, the German army met with stiff resistance at every stage. The Army Supreme Command ordered a halt to the advance on July 30, 1941, because the troops were exhausted, losses totaled more than 200,000, and supplies were running low.


It was only on August 21 that Hitler ordered the diversion of some forces to the Ukraine. Already on August 2, Army Chief General Franz Halder confessed: “We have underestimated the Russian colossus.” Every time a Russian division was destroyed, he confided to his diary, “The Russians put up another dozen.” He was already thinking of how to get winter clothing for the troops at this point.


The capture of Moscow would have made as little difference to the situation as it did to Napoleon’s Grand Army in 1812. In any case, Mr. Bleier seems not to have grasped my main argument, which is that since Nazi war aims were without limit, involving perpetual warfare, first in Europe and then, in the event of success, against the US, defeat at some point was inevitable.



D  Ronald Bleier’s unpublished reply to Professor Evans


In my response to Evans I emphasized one of the decisive moments of the war, the battle for Moscow that could have begun in late July up to mid-August 1941 when German forces were at their peak. That battle, which I call Moscow Summer 1941, was never fought because Hitler blocked it.


By not allowing Moscow Summer 1941 to be fought, Hitler ensured that his Eastern campaign would not be over before the Russian winter and would continue indefinitely. In his reply, Evans takes up the question of winter clothing but he doesn’t mention that in 1941 Hitler repeatedly refused his generals’ timely requests to provide his troops with winter clothing and winter provisions, ensuring that many of his soldiers would freeze to death and much of his armor would be immobilized during the bitter cold Russian winter.


In my letter I noted Army Group Center’s “astonishing success … advancing 440 miles in only six weeks” of June-July 1941.  Professor Evans noted an error which that I had copied from Alexander. I wrote: “With few Soviet troops in their way, Guderian’s and Hoth’s tanks were only 220 miles from Moscow when Hitler issued orders that amounted to self-sabotage. He ordered a halt to the drive on Moscow, forcing instead Center’s panzer groups south to the Ukraine and north to Leningrad.”


Evans  points out that it was incorrect to say that there were “few Soviets troops” ready to defend Moscow. Later I found evidence to support my larger point that despite all the available men and resources Stalin was able to scrape together to defend Moscow the best defence that he could manage was not likely to stand up to the powerful German forces that could have been marshalled against him if Hitler had allowed it.


According to U.S. historian R.H. S.  Stolfi, Hitler’s Panzers East: World War II Reinterpreted (1991), by August 5, 1941, about 45 days into the war, the Germans


 faced weak Soviet field armies, [of] a combat strength of thirty-five divisions, compared with sixty intact individually superior German divisions.” [cites Halder diary, vol 7, p.22]

The Germans knew [the Soviets] had put together a total of 28 new divisions, moderately well-armed though badly trained.

                                                                             Stolfi, p. 181


In Stolfi’s view, “That the Soviets concentrated their strategic reserve around the capital, does more to buttress the theme that they had lost the war by early August than perhaps any other argument.” (p. 181)


Only in one place on the eastern front – in front of Army Group Center – is the enemy really smashed. … Now is the time to attack with all of the mobile troops toward Moscow.

 –General Fedor von Bockm Commander of Army Group Center on 13 July 1941., Tagebuchnotizen Osten I.    – Quoted in Stolfi, p. 76.



Evans’s second sentence of his reply reads: “Far from there being few Red Army troops in its way, the German army met with stiff resistance at every stage.” It’s not clear what Evans is referring to by “stiff resistance at every stage.”


As is well-known and as he has written himself in The Third Reich at War (2009), the unprepared Soviet Union suffered terrible losses especially in the first days and weeks of the war. The map he provides shows very clearly the vast amount of the Western Soviet Union territory won by Germany by the end of August.


In the first two weeks of the war, Germany had cut through Soviet defences like the proverbial knife thru butter so much so that it appeared to all the world, including to Hitler and his High Command, that the war was essentially over if the German army simply continued Army Group Center’s attack toward Moscow.


Not only were Soviet troops demoralized – though they struggled heroically – but Stalin actually had a breakdown, well aware that he had crippled the Soviet military in the 1937-1940 purges of more than 30,000 of the cream of his officer corps, and had refused to heed alarms from his own intelligence services about the coming Nazi attack. At the end of June, six days into the war, he retired to his dacha and refused to come to work. Three days later, when his Kremlin subordinates came to beg him to resume his duties, his first thought was that they had come to arrest him.


It doesn’t seem much of a stretch to opine that Stalin’s depression had much to do with the clarity of his understanding that due to his mismanagement he didn’t have the resources to block Hitler from taking Moscow and winning the war. Just before he left Moscow for what might have been the end of his career, he admitted to his brain trust, “We’ve fucked it up.”


Evans’s next sentence reads: “The Army Supreme Command ordered a halt to the advance on July 30, 1941, because the troops were exhausted, losses totalled more than 200,000 men, and supplies were running low.”


Evans’s formulation, “The Army Supreme Command” could give the impression that Hitler was somehow uninvolved in blocking the summer attack on Moscow. I follow those historians who believe that the Army High Command (routinely labelled OKH, Obercommando des Herres [Army]), to distinguish it from Hitler's Supreme Command (labelled OKW, Obercommando der Wehrmacht) did not make independent decisions. In fact, Hitler micro-managed the war in the East (down to the battalion level in some cases), and OKH always took orders from Hitler.


Against the wishes of his Chief of Staff Franz Halder, his Army Commander- in-Chief Brauchitsch, his brilliant panzer commander Heinz Guderian, his Commander of Army Group Center (AGC), General Hoth; and remarkably in the case of Moscow Summer 1941 even his sycophantic aide, General Alfred Jodl, Chief of his Operations Staff, it was Hitler's order, not OKH’s, to halt the drive on Moscow in August 1941,


Of this decision, noted historian Ian Kershaw: “The tenacity and stubbornness with which [Hitler] refused to concede the priority of an attack on Moscow, even when for a while, at the end of July, not just the army leadership but his own closest military adviser, Jodl, had accepted the argument, was quite remarkable.” (Hitler 1936-1945 Nemesis 2000, p. 417)


Evans writes that German army losses at the end of July 1941 totaled 200,000. While this is technically true, it misrepresents the situation confronting Hitler's Army Group Center. The 200,000-figure referred not to AGC but to the three large Armies, Army Group Center, Army Group North and Army Group South, comprising 1.3 million men when Operation Barbarossa began on June 22nd. In context, the 200,000 German casualties up to the end of July were relatively light compared to almost a million Soviet casualties, about 15 to 1. 


New York, December 2021 


No comments: