• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

How Hitler Could Have Won

Hitler invaded the Soviet Union at 0400 hours on June 22, 1941. By June 23, the Wehrmacht had destroyed the entire Soviet air force. By June 26, the Soviet commander of the Western front had lost radio contact with Moscow. By June 28, German troops had entered Minsk, the capital of Soviet Belarus. And on the morning of June 29—just a week into the invasion—Stalin failed to appear in the Kremlin.

Until that moment Stalin, though stunned by the attack, had appeared to be more or less in control. He had not yet made a public statement—Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin’s foreign minister, was the one assigned to announce the invasion to the Soviet people—and Khrushchev later said he had looked, throughout that period, like “a different Stalin, a bag of bones in a grey tunic.” Still, he had been stable enough to order the rapid evacuation of the western regions of the country, once his generals convinced him that the invasion really was something more than a diabolical provocation.

But the fall of Minsk, less than a week after the start of the war, seems to have left him in despair. “Lenin left us a great inheritance and we, his heirs, have fucked it all up,” he told his entourage, before disappearing to his dacha. When he failed to show up in Moscow the next day, the Politburo members tried to call him. “Comrade Stalin’s not here and is unlikely to be here,” his secretary responded. He didn’t appear the day after that either.

Worried, the Politburo met in secret, and determined to approach Stalin themselves. Nervously, they made their way to his “Blizny” or “Nearby” dacha, in a wooded area outside of Moscow. Anastas Mikoyan, one of Stalin’s inner circle, later described the scene:

We found him in an armchair in the small dining room. He looked up and said, “What have you come here for?” He had the strangest look on his face, and the question itself was pretty strange too….1

Mikoyan implies, and others have since asserted, that Stalin assumed they were coming to kill him. He was wrong: they had decided to set up a committee that could make rapid decisions during the war, bypassing the rest of the government, and they had come to tell Stalin that they wanted him to be its leader. Stalin, wrote Mikoyan, “looked surprised, but made no objection.” If there was a low point in Stalin’s career, surely it was this moment. He believed that the war might be lost—and that his hitherto docile subordinates were about to murder him as a result.

Four and a half months later, on November 7, 1941, the world would see a different Stalin: standing on a tribune beside Lenin’s mausoleum in Moscow’s Red Square, defiantly marking the anniversary of the October Revolution with the traditional parade. The Germans were, at that precise moment, only a few dozen miles away, and their artillery could be heard throughout the proceedings. The soldiers marching in Red Square were actually combat troops, who had been pulled away from the front at the last minute. The thick snow muffled Stalin’s voice, and few present could understand what he was saying (indeed the speech would have to be restaged the following day, for the benefit of the cameramen and sound technicians).

Nevertheless, the parade’s propaganda effect was extraordinary: “For many Soviet citizens, it was a moral turning point,” writes Rodric Braithwaite in Moscow 1941. “It was very important for us to see that our leader chose to stay with us in Moscow,” a former soldier tells Andrew Nagorski in The Greatest Battle. “This made us march with the kind of determination as if we were nailing down the coffins of the advancing Nazis.”

In between Stalin’s despair at the dacha and his triumph in Red Square came the opening weeks of the Battle of Moscow. Though almost ignored until recently—the battle contained too many Soviet errors for the taste of Soviet historians, and the truth was too deeply buried in closed archives for everyone else—the battle for Moscow has come to be seen, in recent years, as one of the most decisive of the war. And no wonder: to understand how the Soviet Union, stunned and battered by the Wehrmacht, nevertheless resisted the German assault on Moscow is to understand how Stalin and the Red Army recovered, militarily but above all psychologically, from the shock of Hitler’s invasion.

It is therefore no surprise that both Nagorski, a Newsweek senior editor with decades of experience in Moscow and Central Europe, and Braithwaite, a distinguished former British ambassador to Moscow, have now chosen to write histories of the battle.2 Using a wealth of new material—not just archives but interviews, memoirs, and letters—both tell the story in fresh ways. Each has slightly different areas of emphasis—Braithwaite is more deeply attuned to the city of Moscow and its culture, Nagorski to the Allied diplomacy that shaped the broader, global picture—but each provides a new and beautifully researched account of what had been a poorly understood part of the war.

True, it isn’t a straightforward story, not least because it contains more errors and missed opportunities—on both sides—than strategy and valor. The first and most gratuitous errors were those of Stalin himself. As Nagorski demonstrates very well, the Soviet leader was warned over and over again of the impending attack. In April 1941, both the US ambassador to Moscow and Winston Churchill himself tried to warn Stalin that Hitler was planning to attack Russia. “They’re playing us off against each other,” Stalin said. In May 1941, Richard Sorge, a high-ranking Soviet spy masquerading as a Nazi correspondent in Tokyo, reported that a German attack was imminent. Stalin called him “a little shit who has set himself up with some small factories and brothels in Japan.” When a German deserter crossed the lines on the night of June 21, Stalin ordered him shot.

As a result, the invasion itself came as a total surprise, at least to Stalin. So did the rapidity of the German advance. In the first month, the Wehrmacht drove 450 miles into Soviet territory, and Hitler’s generals were gearing up for what seemed like the final battle.

Yet just at that moment—just when the Germans seemed most assured of victory—Hitler started making mistakes too. Instead of telling his generals to carry on straight for Moscow, he sent them south. Partly this was because, he said, he wanted to capture the coal and oil fields of eastern Ukraine. But Moscow’s historic significance also seems to have made him nervous. Hitler’s chief of staff, General Alfred Jodl, attributed this anxiety to Hitler’s fear of history repeating itself: “The Fuhrer has an instinctive aversion to treading the same path as Napoleon,” he explained: “Moscow gives him a sinister feeling.” Whether for psychological reasons or because of unexpected Soviet resistance in Smolensk and elsewhere, Hitler avoided a head-on confrontation and delayed the push toward Moscow until late September, by which time the Red Army had regrouped, posing a much tougher obstacle than it would have done a few weeks earlier, and Stalin had recovered his nerve.

This fatal mistake was not immediately apparent. When the Wehrmacht finally did launch Operation Typhoon, as the assault on Moscow was code-named, it initially won some spectacular battles. In early October, German troops encircled and entrapped seven Soviet armies near the cities of Vyazma and Briansk, just to the west of Moscow, killing or capturing over a million men. So huge were the Red Army’s losses that no one could cope with the enormous task of burying the dead, who were left where they had fallen.

Yet by mid-October, when the Wehrmacht was finally approaching Moscow, the Soviet government had mobilized hundreds of thousands of civilians to build up defenses—new fortifications, anti-tank trenches—that prevented the predicted easy rout. Still, even when the weather grew colder and the first snows fell—an ominous sign to anyone worried about repeating the events of 1812—the Germans remained confident. “We will break them soon, it is only a question of time,” Hitler exulted. And indeed, by October 15, it looked like the end was near. German troops stood just outside the capital—so close that today, the monument marking the Wehrmacht’s final tank position is well within what are now the city’s suburbs, easily visible from the highway that leads into central Moscow from Sheremyetevo airport.

What happened next—what happened on October 16, 1941—is quite possibly one of the most important stories of the war. It is also one that was until recently rarely ever told.

From the first hours of Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, the propagandists on both sides of the conflict portrayed the struggle in stark, Manichaean language. The totalitarian nature of both regimes made this inevitable. On one side stood Hitler, fascism, the myth of German supremacy; on the other side stood Stalin, communism, and the international proletarian revolution. Both sides claimed ideological and moral supremacy, both sides brooked no internal or external dissent. The struggle between them could not be a mere military engagement: this was a battle for the very existence of their respective ideologies. During his first major post-invasion speech on July 3, Stalin portrayed the Germans as the heirs of world capitalism, arguing that the Nazis were

out to restore the rule of landlords, to restore Tsarism, to destroy national culture and the national state existence of the Russians, Ukrainians, Byelo-Russians, Lithuanians, Letts, Esthonians, Uzbeks, Tatars, Moldavians, Georgians, Armenians, Azerbaidzhanians and the other free people of the Soviet Union, to Germanize them, to convert them into the slaves of German princes and barons.3

Hitler, meanwhile, spoke of the Soviet Union as a country with a “Slavic-Tartar body” and a “Jewish head,” a country by its very nature opposed to the German fascist state. At the 1936 Nuremberg rally, he had put it more elaborately:

Bolshevism has attacked the foundations of our whole human order, alike in State and society, the foundations of our conception of civilization, of our faith and of our morals: all alike are at stake.4

These attitudes filtered down to ordinary people as well. As the historian Catherine Merridale has described eloquently, Soviet soldiers and citizens often used the language of official propaganda to express their anger following the invasion, and their determination to fight back. “We will not work for landlords and noblemen,” declared a collective farmer at one public meeting. “We will drive that bloodstained Hitler out, bag and baggage.”5 The historian Christopher Browning has also described, in his work on the morality of ordinary German soldiers, how Nazi condemnation of “Jews and Bolsheviks”—the two were considered indistinguishable—was repeated by German commanding officers, and successfully used to persuade soldiers that they had not just a right but a sacred duty to murder as many “Jews and Bolsheviks” as possible.6

  1. 1

    Quoted in Dmitri Volkogonov, Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy (Prima, 1991), p. 411. There is also a detailed account of this meeting in Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (Knopf, 2004), pp. 331–334.

  2. 2

    Another new account of the battle appears in Geoffrey Roberts, Stalin’s Wars: From World War to Cold War, 1939–1953 (Yale University Press, 2007).

  3. 3

    Stalin, Soviet Premier, Broadcast to the People of the Soviet Union, July 3, 1941,” Soviet Russia Today, August 1941.

  4. 4

    On-line collection of Hitler’s speeches, www.humanitas-international.org.

  5. 5

    Catherine Merridale, Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939–1945 (Metropolitan, 2006), p. 89.

  6. 6

    Christopher Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 103 and the Final Solution in Poland (HarperPerennial, 1993), p. 11.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print