The Eastern Front: The Soviet-German War, 1941-45
Book reviewe by Charles Lutton (IHR.org)
This Spring marked the 40th Anniversary of VE-Day. In the United States, Britain, and other Western countries, there has been much self congratulation about how “we” won the Second World War. Yet, it was on the Eastern Front that the outcome of the war was decided. Had the best of Hitler’s forces not been fighting the Soviets, it is unlikely that there would have been any Allied victory in 1945, or anytime foreseeable thereafter. And it is well to recall that it took the Western Allies, despite their overwhelming superiority in men and materiel, eleven months to subdue the Germans. By way of contrast, in the Spring of 1940, inferior German forces conquered the same territory in about six weeks.
J.N. Westwood, a British military historian with over twenty published titles to his credit, has written a survey of the titanic struggle between Germany and the Soviet Union. Despite some flaws in interpretation, it provides a useful enough introduction to the fighting that went on in this crucial theater of the Second World War.
Westwood reviews the background to the conflict, pointing out that Stalin, confident that he was in a position of strength, took more of Eastern Europe than had been agreed to in the Russo-German agreements of 1939-including parts of Lithuania and Romanian North Bukovina. But the swift German victories in the Balkans in the Spring of 1941 alarmed Stalin and led him to adopt a softer line. This was too late, for Hitler, long suspicious of the Soviets, had already made up his mind to launch a preventive war against the USSR, before Stalin posed a greater threat to Western Europe.
In his discussion of the opposing balance of forces, the author cites their high standard of training as the key to German success. In terms of military hardware, much German equipment was run of the mill and there were relatively few Panzer and mechanized divisions in the Wehrmacht. Adding to this was the dispersal of German forces necessitated by commitments in the Mediterranean, the Battle of the Atlantic, and occupation duties in Western Europe. In fact, relatively modest German forces, along with units from Finland, Rumania, Hungary, Slovakia, and later, Spain and Italy, took part in the Eastern campaign.
Despite their shortcomings, the Axis forces captured thousands of square miles of Soviet territory during the opening months of the war and by November 1941 reached the suburbs of Moscow. Westwood is correct in charging Hitler with having failed in the planning stage to agree upon a long-term objective. The author summarizes the problem thusly:
This situation in fact doomed Operation Barbarossa …. It was a plan without a conclusioin. as the victorious German commanders discovered in September 1941. The foundation of the plan, a three- pronged attack against Leningrad and the Baltic, Moscow and the center, Kiev and the Ukraine, qwas agreed by all parties, although this had not been the first intention of the planners. But the objectives of the invasion were not laid out in any order of priority. Essentially, the trouble was that Hitler wished to achieve too many things and, even when asked, refused to say which he regarded as the most important, on the grounds that all were achievable. That is, it seemed that there were at least three “first” priorities.
The dispersal of Axis military resources over a broad front with multiple objectives was responsible for its failure to capture Moscow in 1941. By the end of that year, the United States entered the war and the Red Army launched a successful counter-offensive. A number of men close to Hitler even then concluded that Germany had bitten off more than it could chew. Among these insiders was Dr. Fritz Todt, Hitler’s armaments minister, who predicted that victory would go to the most primitive contestant, the Russians, because their endurance, especially of cold, was greater.
Indeed, the Soviet Union proved to be a far more resilient opponent than predicted. The Red Army was much larger than anticipated. Terror was deliberately employed to stiffen Soviet resistance. Westwood points out that, “From the top generals, subject to Stalin’s capriciousness, right down to the wavering foot soldiers executed by detachments placed in their rear for that very purpose, the Red Army was characterized by the large number of its men killed by Russian bullets.”
This touches on one of my reservations with what is, by and large, an even-handed narrative. Westwood admits that many Soviet casualties were inflicted by NKVD murder squads; by Red partisans against civilians who they feared might cooperate with the Germans; and by the Red Army commanders’ reliance on massed frontal attacks which took a heavy toll of front-line troops. Yet, in his final chapter, “The Drive to Berlin,” the author tries to excuse the brutalities perpetrated by the Red Army on the conquered people of Central Europe by repeating the claim made by apologists for Soviet behavior, that twenty million Soviet soldiers and civilians were killed in the course of the war: “By 1945 self- restraint could hardly be expected,” writes the author. Careful research, chiefly that of Nikolai Tolstoy, has unmasked this particular hoax. On many counts Stalin’s government can be held accountable for the frightfully high number of deaths suffered by Soviet subjects during the Second World War. Tolstoy’s thesis has been developed in his important book, Stalin’s Secret War (1981), which appeared in print before Westwood’s manuscript was completed. *
Westwood believes correctly, in my opinion, that the Soviet victory at Stalingrad in early 1943 was not the military turning point of the war. The monumental battle of Kursk in the Summer of 1943 confirmed that ascendancy had irrevocably passed to the Soviets. But even through the last weeks of the war, German regular troops and officers were, on average, superior to their opponents in the East and the West. The Wehrmacht was simply overwhelmed by the forces of the Soviet Union and her Western Allies.
Those looking for a summary of the war on the Eastern Front, describing the battles, equipment, and personalities involved, will likely find this lavishly illustrated volume useful. More detailed accounts of this epic struggle include: Barbarossa: The Russian- German Conflict, 194145 by Alan Clark (1965/85); The Russo-German War 194145 by Albert Seaton (1970/71); and John Erickson’s two-volume shady, The Road to Stalingrad: Stalin’s War with Germany (1975), The Road to Berlin (1983) and Leon Degrelle’s epic, Campaign In Russia: The Waffen SS on the Eastern Front (1985) published by the IHR.
Book: The Eastern Front: The Soviet-German War, 1941-45 by J.N. Westwood. New York: The Military Press, with maps, photographs, index, 1984, 192pp, ISBN 0-517 42314-6.
See Ltton’s dual review to Stalin’s Secret War and Pawns of Yalta by Mark Elliott, in The Journal of Historical Review, Vol. 5, No. 1, Spring 1984, pp. 84-94.