«Военная Литература»
Военная история



Chapter One.

Hitler's Decision to Attack the Soviet Union:
Reaction to British Survival or Drive for Final Supremacy in the East?


"For success the operation depended heavily on daring and surprise. Those elements won campaigns but were not enough to win wars."

Earl F. Zlemke, The German Northern Theater of Operations


"On July 7th... I ordered an immediate attack across the Dnieper, Kluge appeared at my headquarters... absolutely opposed to my decision... and ordered that the operation be broken off... I told him my preparations had already gone too far to be cancelled ... furthermore, I was convinced that the attack would succeed and decide the Russian campaign in this very year."

Heinz Guderian. Panzer Leader

Could the Second World War have been won by operational decisiveness, daring, and surprise, or was it preordained that the logistical enterprises of the Western Allies and the systematic battering of the Soviets would triumph? Through bold operational concepts, daring, and surprise, the Germans won victories from 1939 to 1941 that led toward victory over a Soviet Union on the verge of military collapse in the summer of 1941. Had the Germans defeated the Soviet Union in 1941, the historical interpreter would have been presented with a montage of brief ground battles leading in a short time to complete German control over Europe and victory in the Second World War. Presented with such a picture, he would generalize that the Germans won battles more effectively than any other combatants,{1} but that the hypothetical German victory depended on elements of chance and personality unique to the times-a rare combination of Prussian military tradition and the messianic political leader, Adolf Hitler-to explain the hypothesized German victory. The Germans did not win, but it is my thesis that they came so close that the premier lesson of the Second World War is how near to victory the German held armies were in the battle for Russia in July 1941. It is tempting to generalize, for example, that the Soviets took almost four years to recover from the first four weeks of Barbarossa, a traumatic time exemplified by the German entry into Smolensk, on the land bridge to Moscow, on 16 July 1941.

Hitler's Decision-Making

Probably the most important decision that Hitler made from 1919 to 1945 was to invade the Soviet Union, Clearly the most important military decision that Hitler made in the Second World War was to abandon the great operational concept of destroying the Soviet armed forces in the forefield of the Moscow-Gorki space during the battle for Russia and to substitute limited operations with limited goals for the destruction of the Russian armed forces and collapse of the Soviet state. These two generalizations are indispensable for understanding Hitler, a man still incompletely understood, and reinterpreting the Second World War in Europe. Such a reinterpretation can show the decisive possibilities in Barbarossa and reshape the war into a more realistic story from which accurate historical lessons can be extracted. At the most general level of interpretation, for example, the lessons of the Second World War are not so much that the Allies won and how they did so, but that the Germans came so close to winning.

With Hitler, it can be shown that he made decisions from 1919 to 1945 in which his own life was at stake, others in which the survival of the National Socialist movement in Germany was questionable, and finally some in which the survival of Germany was affected. Hitler's judgment to seize political power by armed force in Munich on the evening of 8 November 1923 placed his life in jeopardy and threatened the existence of national socialism in Germany not only though the possible death of its leader but also because of damage to the party.{2} The decision was so important that it could have destroyed Hitler and national socialism. One could argue that the decision to make the Putsch (armed uprising) and the correlated determination by Hitler after release from fortress detention to steer the National Socialists into power legally, constituted judgments that, through luck and skill, set him on his meteoric rise to national and international prominence. The clearest argument supporting Hitler's most important decision, however, would probably be that in which the greatest immediate consequences of Hitler's action could be shown.

The Putsch of November 1923 and Hitler's related decision of 1925 to enforce a National Socialist strategy of attaining legal control over the German government had immediate consequences, largely in Bavaria, and were not as important on their own merits as later decisions. Hitler garnered great publicity in the German press from writers covering the trial and became a nationally known figure, but the Putsch affected Germany largely because of the newsworthiness of a Bavarian uprising rather than its decisive impact on German politics. In February 1933, shortly after becoming chancellor of the German Republic, Hitler decided to hold new elections to the Reichstag and use the anticipated gains to push through a change to the constitution, proroguing the legislature and enabling him to enact and promulgate legislation. This decision had immediate and direct consequences for Germany, giving him and the National Socialists effective control over the state by Christmas 1933. Several important centers of power eluded this process of synchronization with the party, principally the army and the church. As important as Hitler's decision was to gain control of the German state, it had no direct, immediate consequences for Europe similar in magnitude to those in Germany. As Hitler consolidated his control, he developed a forceful foreign policy, including a coherent drive to control Europe that would lead toward several of the great political and military decisions of the twentieth century.

As Hitler's successes mounted, he made decisions with ever-greater impact on the world. His decisions in the great military campaigns of 1939-1941 escalated from those affecting Bavaria to those influencing Germany, Europe, and the world. His bold decision to move German troops back into the German Rhineland in March 1936, with its attendant risk of war with France and Britain, closely parallels in its essential qualities of risk, breadth, and consequences the even greater decision to invade Poland in 1939. Hitler did not intend in either case to draw Germany into a war with France and Britain. He won the first gamble, but lost the latter and found himself in a war with two major European powers on 3 September 1939. In control of Germany and its armed forces, and on the offensive from 1939 to 1941, Hitler made his most important decisions concerning Germany and Europe. Within the strategic calculus of a Europe-wide war after 3 September, he made grand political decisions, and, as self-appointed commander of the German armed forces since February 1938, he made self-imposed military decisions that would determine the outcome of the war. Because of Hitler's accumulated power by 1939. these decisions would determine the survival of Germany and the future of every state in Europe.

Faced with the 1939 British guarantees to Poland and the French alliance with that state. Hitler nevertheless ordered the invasion of Poland to begin on the morning of 1 September 1939. He made this political decision-when and where to go to war-based on his political masterstroke of several days earlier, the Russo-German nonaggression pact. That pact isolated Poland and made it difficult for any rational statesman in the west to fight a war to safeguard the territorial integrity of Poland. Faced with the British and French ultimatums of 2 September 1939 to halt military operations against Poland, Hitler decided to continue the battle of Poland. The British and French governments declared war on Germany on the afternoon of 3 September 1939. The decision by Hitler to invade Poland and expand the invasion into an Europe-wide war, with time and place largely choices of the Western Allies, might have been Hitler's final great action had it not been for the astounding military successes of the Germans in 1939 and 1940 and the continuation of the German offensive into 1941.

Instead of leading to the defeat of Germany. Hitler's decision to continue the invasion of Poland led to the defeat of the armed forces of Poland, Denmark, Norway, Luxembourg, Holland. Belgium, and France and the physical occupation of those states by early July 1940. The German army's war-fighting style and weapons technology won battles against those armed forces. The German armed forces' planning and execution of great surprise offensives drove everything before them and presented Hitler with the opportunity in July 1940. after the battle of France and the retreat (evacuation) of the Allied amphibious force from northern Norway, to make what would be his most important political decision. In July 1940, Hitler held the initiative in the war in Europe to make a single decision that could result in German political control over the continent. Hitler chose the correct one in July 1940, to attack the Soviet Union-a decision that, if executed successfully by his armed forces, would give Germany control over the space and resources of Europe from the French coast to the Urals.

The Strategic Potential of Britain In Europe In 1940: A Study in Weakness

Hitler made the correct judgment in July 1940 to attack the Soviet Union, but not, as it might have been projected at the time, because Britain would be forced into some face-saving accommodation with Germany. He made the right judgment because defeating the Soviet Union would have been a decisive event notwithstanding virtually any action taken by Britain to stay in the war. After Germany defeated the Soviet Union, any British posture, even with the continued support of the British Empire, would be meaningless in the face of German control of the fuel, iron ore, and agricultural resources of the entire continent. It could be generalized that Britain would have suffered fatal deficits in strategic space and resources in Britain and fundamental disadvantages in any continued ground campaign in North Africa. In the latter case, powerful, continent-scaled German air and ground forces freed from the continent could be projected into North Africa from closer German-controlled and Italian space.

German destruction of the Soviet armed forces and seizure of the bulk of industrial and natural resources of the Soviet Union would have been the most decisive event of the Second World War in Europe because of the enormous space and productive capabilities coming under German control. The advantages for Germany would have been so great that Britain's traditional trump-sea power and naval blockade-would have been rendered obsolete. In the circumstances, Germany would have been self-sufficient with the contiguous resources of Europe, a situation of economic autarky, which was Hitler's basic reason for expansion into European Russia. The term used by Hitler and others in describing this expansion-Lebensraum, or living space-is misleading because it implied that Germany was overcrowded. Hitler's concept was far more decisive, for it saw that Germany lacked resources within its 1914 boundaries and would require greater resources to survive as a great state.

Britain, then, was outmatched after the German victory in Soviet Russia but held two other possible trumps that might have been played. In its European war Britain had been joined by the empire, whose vast but distant resources must be counted in Britain's powers of resistance. Perhaps the single most important comment on the empire is that it was spread worldwide, and under the postulated circumstances Germany, without a land front, could have concentrated air and naval resources against the limited British Isles and blockaded it effectively enough to prevent the empire from sustaining a war. The other possible British trump, one played with decisive effect in April 1917, would have been drawing the United States into the war. After the planned German victory over the Soviet Union of September 1941 and the threatening strategic situation for the United States in the Pacific, the trump would not have been promising for a U.S. declaration of war against Germany. Even with the (unlikely) intervention of the United States at the end of 1941, it is questionable that Britain could have supported "spatially" the effort required to conduct a successful amphibious operation against the three million square miles of territory under the control of the Germans, with a German army free to concentrate against that landing.

Hitler's Use of Britain After the French Campaign (1940) to
Justify an Attack Against the Soviet Union

When Hitler made the decision in July 1940 to invade Russia, he must have sensed that victory there, in and of itself, would have ended the war in Europe. Yet from July 1940 to June 1941, he reiterated with impressive consistency the argument that the Soviet Union was Britain's last hope for continuing the struggle and that its defeat would force Britain out of the war. Based on ample sources, historians and analysts trumpet a consensus that Hitler attacked the Soviet Union to deny Britain its last potential strong ally on the continent.{3} That interpretation has not been challenged, yet it does not stand up to the logic of the imbalance in resources between Britain and a German-dominated continent and to views formulated by Hitler in writing as early as 1924. With awe-inspiring consistency, Hitler made it clear that German destiny would be realized one way or another in European Russia- the east. Hitler was impressed with the economic power that Germans could extract from the east; he perceived economic self-sufficiency resulting from German control over European Russia. He lavished twelve months of preparation on the campaign, which included widespread deception and an unprecedented concentration of forces for a military offensive.

During the long period of planning and concentration for the attack, Hitler monotonously repeated the theme that the invasion of the Soviet Union was forced on him by continuing British resistance. This does not mean that in his own mind it was the real or the most important reason for the attack. Hitler has been quoted as saying no person would ever know what he was really thinking.{4} The most important decision he made prior to the order to begin planning for the invasion of the Soviet Union was his decision to attack Poland, with the resultant outbreak of the Second World War. From the autumn of 1938 through the last few days of August 1939, he hewed to the line that Germany required the return of Danzig to the Reich and certain other changes in the territory held by Poland in Pommerania, referred to as the "Polish corridor." Shortly before the invasion, Hitler succinctly commented, with virtually no later elaboration, that the invasion of Poland had nothing to do with Danzig{5} but was intended to smash the Polish state and realize the German destiny in the east.

Many people in the political and military spheres close to Hitler in his capacity as the supreme decision-maker in Germany remarked that they never knew what Hitler was really thinking, for example, the cool and brilliant Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein, in the second volume of his memoirs. In a similar vein, the intelligent, tough, political soldier of fortune, Hermann Goring, commented that when it came to making important decisions in the Third Reich, he and all others had as little to say about those decisions as the stones on which they stood.{6} Goring's comment implies that not only were those around Hitler unable to influence the great decisions, but also that they were unaware of the thought processes, rationale, motivations, driving forces, and ultimate goals behind them.

A thesis of this work is, however, that the Barbarossa decision was the most important made by Hitler. First, it was made extraordinarily soon after the fall of France, which occurred in the last days of June 1940, but slightly in advance of serious, coherent preparations for a projected amphibious operation against England. As usual, the beginning of any process is important, and a sapient question is: In July 1940 did Hitler envision the leisurely start of alternate possible future operations, or did he see himself willing Barbarossa to commence at the earliest time and with the best weather for effective campaigning in the east in 1941? Strong arguments support views that Hitler never intended to launch an amphibious attack against England{7} and had no realistic opportunity for such an invasion because of the approach of autumn and adverse weather. But the idea that Hitler did not have his heart in an amphibious invasion of Britain does not help to prove either that he conceptualized Barbarossa as independent of Sea Lion (code name for the projected amphibious attack) or as a means to the end of defeating Britain. Even before he could be certain that Britain would continue a war at sea and in the air. but no land war on the continent, he had alerted the army for an invasion of the Soviet Union. This and the unwavering emphasis he placed on Barbarossa from July 1940 onward support a thesis that he considered the campaign in the east the primary direction for German war strategy independent of Britain and the sea-air campaign in the west.

The fact remains that Hitler gave the successful conclusion of the war with Britain as the rationale for the battle of Russia. As a successful German politician and leader of a patriotic movement, and later as dictator. Hitler was acutely sensitive about his popular image and the effects of his actions. He portrayed Danzig and the corridor as causes of the confrontation between Germany and Poland in late 1938 and 1939, and ordered an elaborate "incident" to serve as an immediate stimulant for launching a counterattack in defense of the Reich. Why, considering Hitler's political acumen and decisiveness, did he not announce to the German public that the time had arrived to smash the Polish Slavs and expand into Polish space? Hitler seems to have been driven by a finely tuned sense of what would satisfy most Germans, not just national socialists, as the reasons for war and the various campaigns during the German initiatives from 1939 to 1941. Hitler was dismayed by the lack of enthusiasm in Berlin for the war in Poland on the morning of 1 September 1939.{8} He must have been frustrated that his demands against Poland had been moderate, at least until the last days of August 1939. and that these demands were not enough to result in a popular decision against an opportunistic, chauvinistic neighbor, which had expanded at German expense after the First World War.

On 22 June 1940, armistice day between (victorious) Germany and France, one sees Hitler in an immensely strong position and on the verge of making the great decision of the war-to attack the Soviet Union. He faced a defeated France and a crippled Britain and was already ordering the final, decisive move. He informed a few around him on 21 July 1940 of his intention, from which he never varied down to the predawn of 22 June 1941, when the earliest attack began in Army Group North. Since Hitler personally directed the commander in chief of the army, Generalfeldmarschall Walter von Brauchitsch, on 21 July 1940 to prepare a campaign in the east, he must have formed his decision earlier than that date, probably sometime after the armistice with France. Based on documented comments and known wartime outcomes, many have propagated the interpretation that Hitler stood mesmerized by Britain and its continued resistance in the war and, as evidenced by the Sea Lion directive of 16 July 1940 for the invasion of England, bent all efforts to defeat it.

Based also on documented comments and known wartime circumstances, an alternate interpretation suggests that Hitler turned immediately toward the final great showdown with the Soviets (ideologically) and the Russians (spatially), having defeated France and neutralized Britain. It would be more in accord with Hitler's consistently avowed goal of expansion in the east, and the defeat of France and neutralization of Britain, to see him moving east immediately to accomplish the self-appointed task of seizing the resource base for a thousand-year Reich. Hitler was a middle-aged man in a hurry, driven by personal fear of an early death through incurable disease, his primary concerns probably being cancer in the early 1930s and heart problems thereafter.{9}

Hitler Faces the Historical Necessity to Attack In the East In 1941

In any event. Hitler made the decision in July 1940 to attack the Soviet Union. The decision came after two decades of rhetorical philosophizing about the eastern solution to the German problem of living space and followed Hitler's self-willed judgment to smash Poland. Hitler then faced a declaration of war by the British and French governments, a western decision that mirrored Britain's determination to fight a war against Germany at the time and place of its choosing rather than at some other, less opportune time. Hitler found himself in the nightmarish situation, described in his writings and discussions in the 1920s and 1930s, of being forced to fight Britain and France. In Hitler's writings, these two powers, through hate. envy, and fear, would not allow Germany to gain living space in the east necessary for Germany's long-term security and development. Hitler voluntarily took the first step toward eastern expansion on 1 September 1939 and two days later found himself in an unwanted but forecast war with Britain and France. Nine months later, he had maneuvered himself into strategic freedom of movement to complete the drive to the east.

Hitler found it circumspect to portray the crisis over Poland in 1939 as one thing (friction over Danzig and the corridor) while actually heading relentlessly toward a different goal of either smashing Poland in a quick battle or enticing it into joining an eastern crusade against Bolshevik Russia. Despite his penchant for being decisive politically and grandiose ideologically. Hitler was deeply concerned over what reasons Germans would accept for his great independent decisions-those which he had full freedom to conceptualize and control. In Czecho-Slovakia in March 1939, he gave the reason for the invasion (and resulting Blumenkrieg, or flower war) as the inability of the Czech government to maintain order, which few can accept today as real. In Poland, under virtually identical political conditions of sudden invasion, he likewise misrepresented the real reasons-which were difficult for the German people to accept-for a military invasion. One must suspect that Hitler did not believe he could present the actual reasons for the invasions of Czecho-Slovakia (March 1939); Poland (September 1939); and the ultimate move, Barbarossa planning and the invasion of Soviet Russia (July 1940-June 1941). Conventional wisdom on the buildup, outbreak, and early progress of the war rather contemptuously ignores Hitler's reasons for the occupation of Czechoslovakia, utterly rejects Danzig and the corridor as the motivation for Hitler's invasion of Poland, but then accepts without reservations Hitler's statements that he invaded the Soviet Union to force Britain out of the war.

When the British government, through pique, pride, annoyance, and concern, determined that there would be a Europe-wide war on 3 September 1939, Hitler found himself hurtling toward the final showdown in the east several years ahead of his probable 1943-1945 schedule. He also found himself in a war with France and Britain that did not promise much hope of success, let alone quick success. Retrospectively, it is easy to forget that the German plan (Fall Gelb, or Case Yellow), for offensive operations in the west from October 1939 to February 1940 was a woefully inadequate document. The German plan of attack was a half-measure that almost certainly would have mired in a stalemate in northwestern France with the additional hazard of a British naval blockade. It is difficult to state conclusively what the outcome of Fall Gelb would have been in its original inadequate form, but one can generalize that Hitler would have had precious little opportunity to extricate himself from a war of attrition in the west, leaving him no chance of attacking in the east.

In the event, through a rare combination of luck and strategic insight. Hitler adopted Manstein's ideas for the offensive in the west. Using Manstein's concepts, in a revised operations plan, the German armed forces knocked France out of the war and handled Britain so roughly that they presented Hitler with the initiative to make the next move. Few can doubt that Hitler saw his ultimate political mission as the invasion and conquest of European Russia. The task was historic and legendary, based on the towering presumption and idealism of national socialism, an idealism so great that Hitler consciously adopted the anomalous position that no one would ever know what he was really thinking. One could say that if Hitler had been presented with the opportunity to attack in the east after the frenetic pattern of 1938 and 1939, he would have seized the opportunity with his typical political decisiveness and moved east. This can be said with special confidence because Hitler made the decision in July 1940 to attack the Soviet Union.

Yet, in counterpoint, Hitler also made it clear in writing and conversation that Germany's most important enemies were Britain and France. In this apparent inconsistency among Germany's most important enemies. Hitler saw not only Bolshevik Russia but also Britain and France as dangers because the two countries would probably never give Germany a free hand in the east. It is difficult to understand how Hitler hoped to solve this dilemma, particularly with the half-measure qualities of the original Fall Gelb- which lacked even the goal of defeating the Allied armed forces on the continent-and his devastating indecision during the Manstein Plan evolutions. Having come full circle through various exoteric analyses of Hitler's decision in July 1940 to attack the Soviet Union, one can suggest the revision that if Hitler's great final goal were the conquest of European Russia, and French defeat and British neutralization in June 1940 presented Hitler with that opportunity, the consensus that Hitler attacked the Soviet Union to finish off a partly crippled Britain is not credible.

A basic difficulty with the current interpretation is that it places the horse and the cart of the known strategic situation in reverse; it makes a wounded Britain (the cart) more important than the Soviet Union (the horse). It is difficult to accept that Hitler did not see the defeat of the Soviet Union as the decisive event of the war after June 1940, Hitler conceived the invasion of the Soviet Union "is a complete surprise, out of peace into war in overwhelming strength, obsessed by the ambitious national socialist goal to colonize large areas of European Russia. The reasons for the invasion were so radical that Hitler could not pass them to either his distinguished senior military commanders and staff or the German people to explain the attack. At the risk of being trite, one can suggest that had Britain not been in the war in July 1940, Hitler would have had to invent it as a convenient, plausible, and acceptable explanation to attack the Soviet Union.