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Chapter Fourteen.
World War II: Barbarossa, the Hinge of Fate?


"Coupled with the earlier Allied victories at Midway and in North Africa, Stalingrad prompted Churchill to observe: 'the hinge of fate has turned."

Forster, Recent Europe: A Twentieth Century History


In 1941, the Germans did not launch an attack against the Soviet Union to lose; they launched the attack to win and to win immediately. The dominant thesis of this work (Hitler's Panzers East) is that they had the clear possibility in August 1941 of doing just that.

IN any war in which one side won and the other lost, there had to be a time interval during which the war turned to the disadvantage of the ultimate loser and after which he was locked into defeat. This chapter searches for that interval in the Second World War in Europe and discovers it in the summer of 1941. That brief time can be designated the turning point and is offered as an event demanding reevaluation of the European conflict.

Popular Identification of Turning Points of World War II in Europe

Among the turning points of the Second World War in Europe, the Stalingrad battle is the one that most agree was decisive.{1} Western military commentators and East European and Soviet Communists agree that Stalingrad "was not simply a big victory," but that it marked a turning point in the Second World War.{2} This consensus is not particularly useful because almost every battle of major dimensions pointed analysts toward a following different phase of the war. Few doubt that Stalingrad was a "big victory" and a turning point, but the great question is whether the battle was the turning point and hence a matter of unique concern in interpreting the war. Soviet historiography would have us believe that Stalingrad "marked a decisive turn of the tide in the whole Second World War."{3} Although most Western historians and commentators consider Alamein (October-November 1942) and Stalingrad (November 1942) as the turning points in the war, if pressed to choose only one, they would probably select Stalingrad because of its greater dimensions and more direct consequences for Germany{4}.

There are other contenders for the turning point. Both Eastern and Western European writers have made strong cases for the Kursk battle (German Operation Citadel) as decisive in the Russian campaign, and probably also in the war in Europe.{5} Among the East Europeans, Soviet writers stress the importance of Kursk and create the impression that dualism has been forced on Soviet commentators because of the similar, obvious importance of Stalingrad and its reflected extravagant praise. Forced to take propaganda advantage of the victory at Stalingrad, the Soviets have been forced ever since to expand the dimensions of the victory to include the claim of turning point. Inundated by Soviet claims and assailed by the great but exaggerated dimensions of the victory{6} most historical opinion in the West on the Second World War in Europe considers Stalingrad the turning point in the East. Noting the similar importance of El Alamein, which by chance was fought concurrently, the same Western interpreters have convinced themselves that the two battles were the hinge of fate in the war in Europe. However, Kursk could not easily be ignored as decisive in Europe because of the battle's dimensions.

Kursk as Contender for Turning Point In World War II in Europe

In the early postwar period, noting the Soviet emphasis on Kursk and other knowledgeable evidence on the war in the East, a few Western commentators pointed out that both Stalingrad and Kursk were important battles, and a shift in consensus developed. The shift, never completed, was toward Kursk as the more important of the two.{7} Stalingrad fails as the turning point in the east, however, because the Germans regained the strategic initiative in the aftermath of Generalfeidmarshall Eric von Mansteiris post-Stahngrad counteroffensive, retaking Kharkov in March 1943, four months after the Soviet encirclement of Stalingrad. From the Kursk perspective. Stalingrad was a Soviet offensive from which the Germans recovered quickly. Only six weeks after the 6th Army capitulated (2 February 1943), the Germans had regained the initiative in the war in the east. Considering the Stalingrad battle from that perspective, it can hardly be claimed that it "marked a decisive turn of the tide in the whole Second World War."{8} It came months prior to Operation Citadel, a great German strategic offensive near Kursk in July 1943. When the Germans offensive at Kursk roughly handled but did not defeat the defending Soviet forces, the strategic initiative shifted finally to the Soviets. From that time on (July 1943), the Soviets generated uninterrupted offensives to the end of the war, and logic demands, at least if Stalingrad and Kursk are accepted as the crucial battles in the eastern campaign, that Kursk be the turning point.{9} The following points support that view and a reevaluation in favor of Kursk:

1. The centerpiece of the Stalingrad battle-the envelopment and destruction of the German 6th Army-pales in comparison to similar action against Soviet forces in Barbarossa. At Bialystok-Minsk (June 1941), Smolensk (July 1941), Kiev (September 1941), and Vyasma-Bryansk (October 1941), the Germans captured approximately 1,920,000 Russians, compared to 90,000 German prisoners at Stalingrad (November 1942-February 1943). Although extended Stalingrad operations resulted in 240,000 additional casualties in killed and evacuated wounded among the German troops in the pocket, the encirclements in Barbarossa caused similar immense additional casualties in killed and evacuated wounded among the Russians in the pockets and during unsuccessful attempts at breaking out. The Soviet prisoner bag at Stalingrad in 3.5 months is small compared to the brief "coordinated" series of encirclements in Barbarossa in 3.6 months.

2, The Soviets expanded their operations at Stalingrad to include additional offensives designed to collapse the German fronts in the Caucasus (south of Stalingrad) and along the Don River to Voronezh (north of Stalingrad). The great Soviet strategic offensive, however, overextended itself and was collapsed by the Manstein counterstroke of March 1943, which forced the Soviets to assume the defensive in the war in the East.

3. Only after Kursk did the Soviets seize the strategic offensive, and then largely because of German exhaustion resulting from the failure of Operation Citadel, rather than the earlier disaster at Stalingrad.

These arguments suggest then that if the turning point in the Russian campaign were dependent on utility, it would be the Kursk battle. However, the turning point in the war in Europe is uncertain because of the difficulty in measuring the contribution of the eastern front to the entire war. Athenian-style Western allies-especially Britain and, after December 1941, the United States-were conducting massive sea and air operations against the Axis powers in the Atlantic. Mediterranean, and in the skies over Germany. Notwithstanding the penchant of the great naval powers for a strategy of indirect approach, the Western war effort- sea, air, and land-was concentrated in 1941 and 1942 on the land campaign in the Libyan and Egyptian coastal regions. The unanswered question of the turning point of the conflict in Europe and its application to reinterpretation of the war is; What is the relationship between El Alamein (October-November 1942) on the one hand and Stalingrad (November 1942) and Kursk (July 1943) on the other?

Since the El Alamein and Stalingrad battles were virtually concurrent, it is tempting to accept most of the existing interpretation and consider Alamein and Stalingrad as a joint turning point in the war. Despite the convenience of this interpretation in mollifying both Western and Eastern war analysts, Stalingrad does not meet reasonable criteria even as the turning point in the Russian campaign, let alone the entire war. Eliminating Stalingrad from contention, one must relate Alamein to Kursk and then reach a decision on which was the turning point or whether the two must be considered joint turning points.

Sorting Out Alamein, Stalingrad, and Kursk

Just what is the value of pitting El Alamein against Kursk and considering the somewhat academic issue of the turning point of the war in Europe? Almost immediately a competition can be seen to exist between West and East on the issue of whether the Soviet victory at Kursk was more important than the Western triumph at Alamein. A natural competition is brought out by the question, and it is surprising that little argument has taken place over this issue. Soviet historiography has presented the greater importance of Kursk (and Stalingrad), while Western historians assigned equal importance to Alamein, Stalingrad, and Kursk. It is difficult to assign equal importance to battles so different in background and circumstance as Alamein and Kursk. Perhaps it is possible that Alamein was the turning point from the view of the Western Allies in the war against Germany, and Kursk the turning point from the view of the Soviet Union.

Such an interpretation, associated with an era of propaganda, peace, pacifism, and conservation, blurs the picture that might be more usefully painted of the turning point in the war. Most strategies depend on battle-land battle-for their final success. The Western Allies would have preferred to maneuver the Germans into surrender by blockade, aerial bombardment, and accumulating pressures-anything to avoid decisive major ground engagements with them. They were forced, however, to fight great decisive ground engagements by the logic of war pieced together by the great nineteenth-century philosopher of war, Carl von Clausewitz.

If the war in Europe can be viewed as a coherent whole dominated by several concurrent ground campaigns, it is easier to judge the turning point. Considering the Mediterranean and English Channel as western geographical areas of operation, the antitank ditches of the channel and Mediterranean and the south Alpine remoteness of Italy presented special defensive strengths to the Germans. The Germans could collapse with relative impunity in Norti. Africa as they could not in the central Ukraine, a scant 375 miles flora the 1941 Russo-German boundary. If the Second World War in^Europe were looked at as a coherent whole, the Kursk battle would earn the palm as the turning point in the war, a conclusion within the traditional framework of interpreting the war-as it were, on the basis of the Newtonian historical physics of Alamein, Stalingrad, and Kursk.

Rejecting Alamein, Stalingrad, and Kursk as the Turning Point of the War In Europe

When commentators apply the modest rigor of defining turning point in practical fashion, problems develop with the above picture. They face even greater problems if they research the Russian campaign because it is apparent the Germans had a strong possibility of winning the Russian campaign in the first weeks of the fighting in 1941, when they were strongest. After all, the Germans did not launch an attack against the Soviet Union to lose; they launched the attack to win and win fast. It is my thesis that they were clearly succeeding on 22 June 1941. Looking back, it is difficult to acknowledge the high probability of German victory, largely because it is necessary to march back through a series of German defeats. The events, however, did not take place retrospectively. They began in the summer of 1941 with a German offensive of unprecedented magnitude and a set of psychological and physical interactions between the German and Soviet armed forces in which the Germans dominated.

As Barbarossa unfolded, the war in Europe was ready for the turning point. To define the narrow window in which a war turns finally to the advantage of the eventual winner has a ring of the platonic to it. It suggests, indeed demands, that the war ideally have a single turning point. The concepts of time and physical and psychological circumstance are important in that definition. There is a special time in every war for the attacker to win, after which his failure to do so swings the war into a new phase to his detriment. That is especially true of the blitzkrieg attacker. The Germans combined operational boldness and initiative uneasily with thinness and inefficiency in war production, paucity of productive resources, and subjection to strategic maritime blockade. They could not fight a long war with reasonable prospects of success.

It can be generalized that the Germans entered the Second World War with a significant chance of victory, which increased with the blitz victories in 1939-1941 and the great "offensive-defensive"{10} achievements of Erwin Rommel in North Africa in 1941, and which neared certainty during the opening stages of Barbarossa. The near-certain German victory rests on the contention that continuing the German attack toward Moscow in early August 1941 would have led to its seizure the same month, defeat of the Soviet armies defending it, and control over additional territory, causing the political collapse of the Soviet Union. This revises the present consensus, in which numerous turning points are noted-Dunkirk, the battle of Britain, Moscow (December 1941), Stalingrad, Kursk, and the battle of the Atlantic. The conventional view suggests a war in which the Germans muddled about until a grand coalition eventually collected itself and trounced them. It pictures the Germans as gradually worn down after a series of largely meaningless early victories, only incidental actions prior to an Allied wartime effort preordained to win. The implication of certainty in the Allied victory is based on the attrition style of coalition members and the demonstrable lack of German war production and resources.

The Summer of Barbarossa

Such a view of the Second World War may seem reasonable, having been repeated by so many, so often, from so different ideological directions, from Western democratic to communist authoritarian. Recreating the Second World War, historians dismiss the logic and realism of the period of German victories, treating them as an interesting prelude but one that led nevertheless to German defeat. If. however, Operation Barbarossa were the juncture in the war at which it could be shown that the Germans were clearly capable of winning, then the preceding German victories must have contributed substantially to the possibility of success. The German victories lead toward Barbarossa, and each increased the probability that, in the finely drawn German style in war as operational battles (instead of logistics enterprises), Barbarossa would succeed and bring victory. The German victories in the Second World War have meaning only as they relate to Barbarossa and contributed to the German capability for victory in that operation.

Reinterpreting World War II as suggested by this study, one can diagram historically the early German victories, Barbarossa, and the aftermath. The probabilities of German victory in the war are general approximations of realistic historical possibilities (as opposed to technical mathematical probabilities with confidence levels) for both sides in World War II. That indicates that the Germans had a significant possibility of winning a Europe-wide war from the beginning. It also shows that each successful German campaign increased the possibility of German victory up to Operation Barbarossa because the Germans held the initiative and fought battles largely of their own choosing. The diagrammed interpretation is most challenging to the conventional wisdom at the extreme interval of change, where the possibilities of German success veer from almost certain victory (about 31 July 41) to near-certain defeat (about 31 August 41). During this time. Hitler's dilatory orders strayed from the army strategic concept to smash immediately the Soviet armies defending Moscow and move into the Moscow-Gorki space. He missed the golden opportunity to defeat the Soviets quickly and shifted the entire war into one of attrition, logistics, and production.

It might be argued that this historical reanalysis concentrates too much on the ground warfare of the great German offensives of 1939-1941 (excepting the amphibious operation in Norway) and does not address air and naval strategy. The argument is important but not germane to the German offensives. With almost complete initiative in the war, the Germans could impose on adversaries their style of warfare-short, decisive ground battles with powerful tank and infantry armies supported by a strong tactical air force. German initiative and success in ground and tactical air operations from 1939 to 1941 negated at least two potential Allied trumps, strategic air operations (and strategy) and naval operations (and strategy). Once the Germans faltered in Barbarossa's ground and tactical air operations, Western strategic air and naval operations and several ground campaigns would become roughly as important as Soviet ground operations in the eventual defeat of Germany,

Ground Versus Naval and Air Strategies for Germany

Without adducing convincing arguments, historians emphasize the lack of German strategic air and naval power, noting opportunities missed by the Germans in the battle of Britain (1940), the Mediterranean area in late 1940 and 1941. and even in the Russian campaign. They aver that a strong German strategic air force and suitable strategy would have given the Germans a better chance of defeating Britain after June 1940. Similarly, they argue that the same hypothetical strategic air force might have been crucial in the defeat of the Soviet Union in 1941. That argument is strained, however, because the tactical air force that the Germans built from 1933 to 1941 could support the German field armies in the battles of 1939-1941, with little strength left for strategic missions and with inappropriate aircraft. Given the limited German economic resources on balance with those of the potential enemy states, the Germans could choose either an effective tactical air force or a strategic air force, not both. The Germans debated the issue in the 1930s and. probably correctly, developed an air force designed for operational support of great offensives launched by ground forces. It is also doubtful, considering the characteristics of conventional strategic air attack as long-range bombardment, that the British would have been seriously hurt by German aircraft that might have been produced had they pursued the strategic air option between 1933 and 1940. It was extremely doubtful against a large, more primitive ground opponent like the Russians.

Historians also note that the Germans failed to develop an effective maritime strategy, claiming they missed opportunities for greater success politically and militarily in the period of 1898-1945. Historians criticize the German governments in 1898-1914 for developing a strong navy rather than seeking Britain as a diplomatic ally, using its navy to defend Germany against the Franco-Russian coalition arising from the military convention of 1894. The same historians note the German lack of awareness of the significance of navies in modern wars and the possibilities of an effective naval strategy. The Germans can indeed be criticized for not pursuing an alliance with the British, but few countries have reacted with more intransigence to the expansion of influence of another state than the British during the same period{11}.

The Germans can be faulted for not pursuing a more effective diplomatic and naval strategy toward the United States in the First World War, appearing inept in their decision to pursue unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917. Still, the same Germans defeated the British tactically in the last major surface navy gun engagement on the final day of May 1916 off Jutland and had come dangerously close to defeating them through submarine warfare by April 1917.

Under revolutionary and post-revolutionary republican governments in the interwar period (1918-1933), the Germans were largely paralyzed by the Treaty of Versailles in developing surface ships and submarines. With Hitler in power in 1933. they began to slowly catch up in naval armaments, although they managed a striking diplomatic victory-signing the Anglo-German Naval Treaty of June 1935. This allowed them to build a surface fleet up to 35 percent of the size (tonnage) of the British and 100 percent of the number of submarines. Between the advent of Hitler and the outbreak of the war, the Germans produced only a modest-sized surface and submarine fleet because of the even greater necessity to produce ground weapons and tactical aircraft in the recovery from the disarmament controls of the Versailles treaty. Forced to choose between a large navy or a large army, the Germans chose the army-and the continental strategy for its employment. Geographical factors and resource limitations forced the choice, and as long as they held the initiative they could force their ground strategy on opponents and reduce the effects of sea power and strategic air attack. Once German ground offensives had seized the space and resources of the two great land powers of Europe- France and the Soviet Union-they would be in position to reduce the effects of naval blockade and long-range air bombardment to manageable proportions. Possessing the resources of the continent, the Germans could have ignored the British, perhaps using a formula similar to Leon Trotsky's "no war, no peace." Unlike the Bolsheviks, the Germans would be dealing from strength and would have had the initiative to pursue such a policy.

My arguments support a view that the German ground strategy, supplemented by the successful invasion of Denmark and Norway and the alliance with the Italians in the Mediterranean, was sound. The central position of Germany in continental Europe provided the opportunity to take over the resources and space of Europe from the Atlantic Ocean to the area east of Moscow. Possessing this space, with or without Britain, Germany could have negated the maritime blockade associated with naval strategy because it would not depend on overseas imports. It is also hard to resist the condusion that a viable British strategic air offensive would have been improbable based on the limited space available to them, and it would have been natural for the Germans to adopt such a strategy themselves after smashing the French and Soviet ground forces.

The Germans' Style Made Them Independent of the Usual Attrition Logic

The Germans' fighting style made them independent of the usual attrition logic that numbers and productive capacity predominate in war. Commentators and historians, overwhelmed by the coalition victory in the war, have failed to discern many lessons from military operations that marched to a drumbeat different from that of the Allies. From the beginning of the Polish campaign, historians and commentators of the former Allies have dominated the interpretation of events, largely ignoring Poland based on their contention that German numbers and productive capacity ensured a German victory. In a cautious war and with little regard to time, that attrition logic is faultless. The Germans deemed it necessary, however, to end the war as quickly as possible and use a bold attack to achieve the immediate victory. The superior German economic production and output of war materiel could not be applied to winning the campaign in the little time demanded by the Germans. In Poland, and ultimately also in Norway, France, the Balkans, and the Soviet Union, the opening battle was everything. The Germans were clearly unprepared for the war in 1942-1945. when they were finally defeated, but they won the opening battles in Poland, Norway, France, the Balkans, and the Soviet Union in 1939-1941. They suffered almost negligible losses, measured by the results achieved on the brink of victory in August 1941.

Although these generalizations can be argued further, they suggest a lesson of the Second World War in Europe: Being capable of winning battles may be more important than being prepared for winning wars. It would be ideal, of course, to have both these factors in hand to assure a successful defense policy. In striking disregard of the ideal situation, the Germans produced among their trump weapons only 1.368 armored vehicles and 10,371 military aircraft in all of 1940.{12} This effort is feeble compared with British production alone in 1940, which amounted to 1,232 tanks and 15,049 military aircraft;{13} and German capabilities later, in the defensive stages of an attrition-style defensive war against the Allies, in which German production amounted in 1944 to 19,326 armored vehicles and approximately 40,000 military aircraft.{14} The Germans won the opening battles in Poland, Norway, France, and the Balkans so decisively, however, that what should have been (by Allied logic) lengthier campaigns proved not even to be campaigns. The Germans won the opening battles so decisively that the campaigns never separated from their opening stages. In effect, the Germans won the war from 1939 to 1941 not by winning campaigns but by winning the openings of campaigns; not by producing weapons and ponderous logistical gather-strokes but by winning battles.

The German fighting style in the Second World War can be characterized as battle-winning rather than war-fighting. It evolved from the sensitive multifront strategic calculus, in which Brandenburg, Prussia, and then Germany found themselves for a quarter ofa millennium. The ultradecisive, mission-oriented style of the technically skilled German army of 1939-1941 combined with the political leadership of Adolf Hitler to produce astounding results. Hitler contributed much to the synthesis, but his role in the successes of 1939-1941 has not been weighed accurately because of elements of misunderstanding on the European war-the Newtonian historical physics still fastened on the period. This book provides a unified field of explanation in which Hitler intended circumscribed campaigns during 1939-1941 designed to improve the siege position of Germany during a lengthy encirclement. The subtlety that has eluded us in the past is that the army conducted utterly decisive blitz campaigns, while Hitler, with no man comprehending his motives, conducted utterly circumscribed siege operations. Dominated by concern over the flawed resources situation of Germany at war with varying combinations of Britain. France, and the Soviet Union, he pressed the army at a dizzying pace into campaigns mistakenly seen as blitz oriented but designed by Hitler to expand the siege lines around Germany to acceptable proportions. This outlook links the German victories of 1939-1941 with the half-victories and defeats of 1942-1945 and transforms previously inexplicable event and strained interpretation into credible new shapes. Most important for the reality and lesson of World War II, the new outlook shows that German blitz operations in summer 1941 must now be considered to have given Germany an overwhelming probability of victory over the Soviet Union and resultant triumph in the Second World War in Europe.