The conventional wisdom on World War II in Europe sees little prospect of the Germans winning in 1939-1940 and virtually none after the attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941. This wisdom uses the term blitzkrieg to describe the intellect, discrimination, and style of Adolf Hitler from 1939 to 1941 and marks the turning points of the war as the battles associated with Alamein, Stalingrad, and Kursk. I reject this view and present instead a fundamental reevaluation of the period, inviting a new perception of World War II.
Most historians have considered victory beyond the capabilities of the Germans. My purpose is to show that the German armed forces had beaten the Soviet field armies defending Moscow in June to July 1941, and could have advanced through Moscow into the Moscow-Gorki space in August to October 1941. The corollary of this thesis is that the main concentration of the Red Army would have been destroyed and Soviet mobilization terminated by the German advance, leading to the revisionistic view that the Germans would have defeated Soviet Russia by the end of October 1941. By the magnitude of the victory and its timing, the Germans would also have won the war in Europe.
The political and social consequences of this outcome would have been epochal-the suffocation of liberal democracy on the European continent and the probable extinction of marxian socialism. Notwithstanding the eventual defeat of the Germans, if it could be shown that they had the capability to win the battle of Russia in June to August 1941, we would have to reevaluate the significance of these events. One lesson to be drawn from my interpretation is that the superiority of the Germans in war-fighting tactics and operations was greater than previously thought. Consequently, German tactics and operations as exemplified by the vast battles at the beginning of the advance into the Soviet Union deserve to be studied more thoroughly for application in future conventional war.
In recasting World War II to include the thesis that the Germans had the physical capabilities at the right time and place in Europe to win, I was forced to reinterpret the turning point in the war and the mentally and style of Adolf Hitler. I credit the substantial German capability to win in August 1941 to strength in men and weapons, skill in tactics and operations, and effecting surprise and concentration of effort by seizing the strategic military initiative. The Germans exerted these factors against the Soviets in the summer of 1941 and had the opportunity at that moment to win the i war in Europe. At a time when France was defeated and Britain crippled, isolated, and with little chance of bringing the United States into the war (June 1941), the Germans had the single opportunity in time and place to win against the heavy odds they faced during the period.
The Germans had no comparable opportunity to win the war between 1939 and 1945. It follows that the turning point of World War II occurred in the opening stages of the Barbarossa initiative, in the brief period from the opening day of the advance to approximately 29 July 1941, a day on which Hitler had only to order the continuation of the attack toward Moscow to inflict fatal damage to the Soviet state. It will become apparent that the battles of Alamein, Stalingrad, and Kursk were only incidental junctures in a war lost by Germany in August 1941 and irretrievable thereafter.
Barbarossa, whether successful or unsuccessful, had the tactical, operational, and strategic qualities that make it the hinge of fate in World War II. For several decades, I have believed that the Germans had the fundamental physical strength to defeat the Red Army and seize the Moscow-Gorki mobilization space, and yet, they neither took Moscow nor won the campaign. At that time, the Soviets had no control over their own destiny, fighting hard but ineffectually against German field armies that advanced relentlessly through their defense. Under such circumstances, the Germans must have failed for some reason, some outlandish misjudgment or aberration demanding a fundamental reevaluatlon of World War II.
Adolf Hitler alone made the decision. In that judgment, he halted German Army Group Center and misdirected it away from Moscow. His procrastination added to the time lost by the Germans in making the eccentric move south into the Ukraine. Virtually every officer in the German army having an opportunity to influence the decision opposed it. Hitler came close to reversing it. Had he gone on vacation in June and July 1941 or been incapacitated, it is difficult to resist the conclusion that the Germans would have won in Europe in 1941.
Hitler's decision was less whimsical and aberrant than might appear at first glance. He operated in a pattern largely unsuspected to the present day, but which is obvious when the Ukrainian decision is connected to other important ones in 1939 to 1940. Universally considered to have been directing a blitz war from 1939 to 1941, Hitler must be reevaluated as having had no such war in mind. In the great campaigns in which he intervened militarily in the German phase of the war-Norway, France, and Soviet Russia-it is not possible to explain several of the more important decisions from the viewpoint of a blitzkrieg strategy. Hitler conceptualized a quick victory over Norway not as part of a blitz war against Britain and France but to secure Swedish iron ore. Initially, he ordered an attack in the west for 12 November 1939 but conceptualized it as a push into Belgium to secure that state as a buffer for the industrial Ruhr. He directed a surprise attack against Soviet Russia, demanding a quick victory, but defining success in terms of seizing Leningrad, center of an important industrial area and key to control over Baltic communications but scarcely a blitz victory in the east.
The Germans nevertheless executed largely blitz-style military operations in the Norwegian, western campaigns and the opening stages of Barbarossa. The campaigns are usually viewed as elements of a series directed toward a lightning defeat of the British and French in the west and the Soviets in the east. The French campaign illustrates especially well the potential for misinterpretation. During four decades, observers have analyzed the quick German victory in the west and linked it to a German intention to knock France out of the war. The original German plan in October 1939 for an attack in the west was not intended to defeat France, let alone quickly. The Manstein plan, approved in February 1940, the follow-up of the original plan, was designed to defeat France quickly, but few German officers had confidence that it would achieve so extreme an end. Most importantly. Hitler did not intend the plan to result in the conquest of France, seeing the operations as a better means to achieve his original objective of seizing Belgium. Hider's intentions remained ultraconservative; to improve the siege position of Germany by systematically expanding the siege lines around it. Such a mentality-Hitler as siege Fuhrer-explains the earlier decision to take Norway and the later one to pace an attack against the Soviet Union to the conquest of Leningrad and the Ukraine.
In this work, I found myself in the unenviable position of proving a case rather than dispassionately presenting events within a chosen historical period. Hitler's Panzers East presents a new interpretation of the European war that claims the Germans were capable of winning in the opening stages of Barbarossa and that Hitler was governed during the war by a siege rather than a blitz mentality. These interpretations demand convincing arguments. I advance the arguments to support an interpretation of the war that explains the observable historical phenomena of 1939 to 1941 more effectively than the existing conventional treatments.
During the years of research for this book, I examined materials at the library and archives of the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace, the adjacent libraries of Stanford University, and the special collection of German records of World War II on microfilm at nearby San Jose State University. These materials, together with interviews with participants, and supplemented by documents examined in Freiburg, Germany (National Military Archive and Military Historical Research Office), are the basis for my arguments.
The greatest potential for bias in the results probably lies in my conscious decision to concentrate on German documentation to support conclusions about the summer of 1941. The dearth of materials from the Soviets on this period caused me to make a virtue out of necessity and use original German sources-diaries, memoirs, war diaries, supplementary message traffic, and prisoner of war interrogations, among others. I consider it fundamental to the thesis that the Germans controlled events during the summer of 1941 to the degree that most significant points needed for verification can be derived from German sources. The Germans were so strong relative to the Soviets and so successful in overrunning battlefields, taking prisoners, seizing documents, conducting aerial reconnaissance, and intercepting Soviet radio-and even telephone message traffic-that German records provide a picture of the possibilities for Soviet survival.
R. H. S. Stolfi
Pebble Beach, California