The Beginning of the End, the Battle at the End, and the End

On 22 June 1941, Nazi Germany surprised the world by suddenly attacking its own ally, the Soviet Union. Certainly the Soviets were surprised, in that dull-faced flat-footed way the treacherous are always surprised by treachery. The German offensive was in its first few weeks a textbook success of the patented Blitzkrieg type; Minsk, Gomel, and Kiev all fell immediately to the advancing Wehrmacht, and Wolfram voin Richthofen’s Luftwaffe destroyed the ragged Russian air force with contemptuous ease. Prisoners of war were taken in vast numbers, burgeoning croplands were avidly coveted. The guiding objective of all this summer slaughter was obvious though at first unstated: to capture Moscow before the worst of winter set in, to knock the Russian bear out of the fight in the first round. This had worked before – Poland, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands, France, Belgium: all had fallen with a speed that astonished both themselves and international onlookers.

The move should not have surprised careful watchers of Adolf Hitler. Mein Kampf demonstrates at tediously ample length the precise geographies of his hatred. As much as the Jews are reviled in that breathless, terrible text, the Bolsheviks and Slavs are no less so; only the most foolishly optimistic Moscow diplomat could possibly have hoped that Hitler meant them no harm. They may have pinned their hopes on simple practicality, or on the chance that Hitler was as attentive a student of history as he endlessly proclaims himself to be in his book. History itself is chary of absolutes, but military history is replete with them, and the loudest of these was learned at bitter cost by generals from Alexander to Crassus to Richard Lion-Heart to Napoleon Bonaparte: don’t invade the East.

Hitler’s decision to do just that was based on his own warped version of practicality. His technologies of warfare – long-range communications, rapid troop-transport and resupply, strategic concentration, all the ligaments of lightning – had served him with unparalleled efficiency to date. Countries with proud military traditions but antiquated hardware had surrendered in weeks, sometimes days, until only the island of Britain held out. Hitler must have looked at the vast grain fields of the Ukraine as a breadbasket waiting to be emptied – and the farmlands themselves as the rightful spoil of pure Aryan blood. His troops would displace and liquidate the “beastly” inhabitants of those wide new frontiers, and then he would deal with the recalcitrant England at his leisure. It all made perfect sense if you concentrated on the glorious departure of Napoleon’s forces bent on invasion (Hitler had timed the start of his invasion, Operation Barbarossa almost to the exact same day) and avoided thinking about how the campaign of 1812 ended.

That string of early victories would have softened the judgement of a far more balanced man than Hitler, and there was also the needling of provocation. The Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939, a union of voracious dictatorships based solely on territorial gain, was not a thing built to last. The Russians almost immediately began probing its elasticity, inching toward a Baltic hegemony that the Nazis couldn’t allow. Betrayal was the natural gambit of both players in the pact, and in 1941 Hitler made his greatest gamble, sending almost 3 million troops into Russia despite the fact that he would now technically be fighting a war on two fronts. England was supine and at bay, and Russia’s defeat was supposed to be pro forma.

The first successes were euphorically fast. Michael Jones, in his absorbing history of the campaign, records the testimony of a Russian supply officer watching the debacle at the frontier:
I saw one of our generals standing by a crossroads. He had come to review his troops, and was wearing his best parade uniform. But his soldiers were fleeing in the opposite direction. He stood there, forlorn and alone – without even an adjutant by his side – while the troops flooded past. Behind him was an obelisk, marking the route of Napoleon’s invasion in 1812.
Jones has gathered an eye-opening number of tape-recorded reminiscences and first-hand accounts that combine to make his book a worthy if close-focused companion to Paul Carell’s Hitler’s War on Russia and Alan Clark’s Barbarossa. Jones’ research paints a vivid picture of that euphoria, and of the chaos that attended the sheer speed with which the Germans overran their initial opposition. One panzer company closes on Kalinin: We dashed on, through scenes of total disorder. Red Army commanders swore at us from their vehicles, believing that we were Russians fleeing from the front. Enemy vehicles cut into our column, joined us for a while, and then, realising our identity, swerved off again. It was all quite incredible. We reached Kalinin without any losses, having amassed an astonishing array of booty – hundreds of Russian trucks and artillery pieces – on our 100-kilometre raid.

The invasion, Operation Barbarossa, and the assault on Moscow, Operation Typhoon, were military and industrial expressions of that Blitzkrieg euphoria, and they took into account all variables except the possibility of their own failure. Russian resistance, at first non-existent, soon began to stiffen – fierce pockets of resistance at Vyazma and Bryansk and elsewhere were never entirely quelled, and Josef Stalin capitalized on patriotic fervor to mobilize an ever-increasing number of fresh troops and to fire up those already under arms. And as with Bonaparte, so with Hitler: a Russian winter of a ferocity not seen in living memory swept down on the invading forces with six-foot snowdrifts and temperatures plunging to –30 degrees Celsius. German regiments were being hurried to the Eastern front with no heavy coats, no gloves, no scarves, often no head covering, and both new and seasoned troops were succumbing to frostbite and disease. Fuel and equipment froze solid in such weather, and when even Hitler was prepared, by January, to order a large-scale withdrawal, much of the retreat had to be effected in horse-drawn wooden carts. Thousands of German troops perished of the elements, and millions of Russian prisoners of war were allowed to starve to death. In 1942 a Wehrmacht priest asked, “Will it be possible to atone for the crimes we are committing?”

The impetus for those crimes had been victory, and Nazi victories began to end in 1942 and early 1943. The Germans lost the Battle of Stalingrad and were routed out of North Africa and the Mediterranean. Sicily was recaptured by the Allies, U-Boat attacks were shut down all over the Atlantic, and on 6 June 1944 the invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe began. By March of 1945, Allied forces were crossing the Rhine and the Russians were rushing to Berlin from the East. Hitler had concentrated his forces in a desperate attempt to preserve his thousand-year Reich, now increasingly being defended by hastily-armed Hitler Youth brigades and detachments of the Volksstrum militia, largely untrained and poorly-equipped young boys and old men. These rag-tag forces must be credited with a forlorn kind of courage, even despite the fact that that they were often coerced into patriotism. Military historian Edward G. Longacre’s War in the Ruins tells the fascinating story of the American Army’s 100th Infantry Division and its yard-by-yard slog along the west bank of the Neckar River, where it met with pockets of just such forlorn resistance in the ancient city of Heilbronn. The city had been a major industrial hub for the Nazis throughout the war, and it did not go quietly into the the night of general surrender. Longacre takes the now familiar “Band of Brothers” approach to telling the story of how the disparate hang-dog members of the 100th’s various regiments endured the artillery fire, sniper attacks, and often brutal weather in their conquest of the city.

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