♦ Counterfactuals ♦

The Nazi-Soviet War: A 1941 German Victory


Hitler and his generals ponder the situation on the Eastern Front (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

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It may well be said that the turning point of the Second World War was reached on the day that Nazi Germany invaded the USSR: 22 June 1941. At that moment the Grand Alliance (as Churchill called it) of Britain, America and Russia became possible, for it seemed only a matter of time before the United States would enter the war as well. And by December 1941, when the USA did come in, the failure of Germany's drive to the east was obvious to all. The USSR had not been defeated in a single blitzkrieg campaign; indeed, it was the German Army that was fighting for its survival. And the Grand Alliance having become a reality, faced with its overwhelming power Germany could no longer hope to win the war.

But might things have turned out differently? Could Germany have defeated the USSR in 1941? This question has been debated since the war ended in 1945. Those who think that a German victory was never possible offer powerful arguments. They point out that Germany’s military advantages in 1941 constituted a wasting asset, bound to dwindle and disappear, while the USSR’s military potential was enormous, particularly in alliance with the UK and the USA. Those who think that a German victory was possible tend to point the finger of blame at Hitler, whose meddling, they assert, threw away Germany’s one chance to knock out the USSR.

Whether Nazi Germany could have defeated the USSR at all is a doubtful question, whoever was commanding the former’s armies. If we assume, however, that the Army High Command (Oberkommando des Heeres or OKH) had been given free reign to conduct Operation Barbarossa as it saw fit, the 1941 campaign may well have been brought to a successful conclusion with the capture of Moscow. This was the objective of the preliminary invasion plan, code-named Otto, known informally as the Marcks Plan after its principal author, that was drawn up by the OKH in 1940. As the map shows, it envisioned an operation in four phases, defeating the Red Army in the western USSR, capturing first Leningrad, then Moscow, and finally advancing to the  A-A (Arkhangelsk–Astrakhan) line, bringing most of European Russia under German occupation. Two army groups would carry out the offensive, one north and one south of the Pripyat Marshes.

But Hitler was dissatisfied with the Marcks Plan and in his Directive 21 for the invasion of the USSR he amended it to provide three army groups, two of them making the main effort north of the Pripyat Marches with Leningrad and Moscow as simultaneous primary objectives. As a necessary preliminary, the Red Army formations standing in the western USSR would be encircled and destroyed before they could withdraw to the east. The A-A line remained the ultimate, albeit vaguely defined, objective. This revised plan was given the code name Barbarossa.

Operation Otto, the preliminary OKH plan for the invasion of the USSR (Department of History, USMA West Point)

Operation Barbarossa commenced on 22 June 1941, and the Red Army forces in the western USSR were soon routed, suffering astronomical losses in both men and material. But neither Leningrad nor Moscow were captured and by late July OKH realized that it had seriously underestimated the strength of the Red Army. For every division destroyed, a new one appeared in the enemy’s order of battle. It was true that many of these divisions were hastily organized and poorly trained. Some were formed with personnel drawn from the various branches of the NVKD; others consisted of “workers’ militia” units. Many lacked artillery, antitank guns—even mortars and machine guns. And Soviet troops who'd been bypassed or encircled continued to resist tenaciously, posing a worrisome threat to the Germans' vulnerable flanks and lines of communication. It was clear that the Red Army, if down, was not out.

As for the German armies, heavier-than-anticipated casualties and growing supply problems were beginning to make their effects felt. The all-important mobile forces especially—the panzer and motorized infantry divisions—were in urgent need of rest and refitting. An operational pause was clearly necessary so that the armies could be resupplied and reinforced before resuming the offensive. It was during this lull that the strategic dispute between Hitler and the OKH played itself out.

Brauchitsch, the Commander-in Chief of the Army, Halder, the Chief of the OKH, Bock, commanding Army Group Center, and Guderian, commanding Second Panzer Group, believed that an attack on the Moscow axis would compel the enemy to stand and fight, resulting in a decisive battle that would destroy the main body of the Red Army and end with the capture of the Soviet capital. But Hitler disagreed: He desired to capture Leningrad, then switch the main effort to the southern sector of the front. The Führer believed that capturing the economic resources of the Ukraine would irretrievably cripple the USSR, adding that those resources were essential to the long-term German war effort. He also insisted that it was necessary both to eliminate the surrounded enemy forces behind the German front line and to destroy the still-formidable Red Army forces facing Army Group South in the Ukraine. He was deaf to OKH’s argument that victory on the Moscow axis would secure those objectives in any case.

Needless to say, the Führer's opinion prevailed: Army Group North was instructed to resume its advance on Leningrad, and in late August the main effort was switched from the central to the southern sector of the front. Though the Leningrad offensive soon stalled, the Germans scored a resounding victory in the Ukraine. Hitherto the Red Army in that region had put up a stout fight against Army Group South, maintaining its cohesion despite losing ground. But the intervention of Guderian’s Second Panzer Group, descending upon the enemy's rear in the Kiev area, caused the defense to collapse.

Operation Barbarossa: Initial German deployments and first phase (Department of History, USMA West Point)

The First Battle of Kiev, which ended in the third week of September cost the Red Army more than 600,000 casualties. But this German success, though impressive, was not decisive. Thanks to the lateness of the season, for the Germans there were no vital objectives within reach east of Kiev. The Russians, however, could still trade space for time, and with mobilization reaching full flood and reinforcements coming in from the eastern USSR, they could still replace their losses. The German main effort was therefore switched back to the Moscow axis, the drive on the capital resuming on 30 September—unsuccessfully, as things turned out.

However, had the advance to Moscow been resumed in late August, after the German armies in that sector had been rested, reinforced and resupplied, things could have turned out very differently. At that date Red Army forces on the Moscow front were still in shaky condition and a timely attack by Army Group Center might well have smashed them. And in that case what might have happened? First, it would probably have led to the fall of both Moscow and Leningrad. The Soviet capital was the nexus of rail and road communications in central and northern Russia. Its capture by the Germans would have isolated the Leningrad region, leading to a more or less automatic collapse of the Red Army in that sector. Second, the fall of Moscow and a further eastward advance by the Germans toward Gorki would have menaced the northern flank of Soviet forces in the Ukraine, compelling them to retreat eastward, possibly as far as the Volga.

Still, in strictly military terms even so gigantic German victory would not necessarily have finished off the USSR. But as Clausewitz noted, war is the continuation of politics by other means, so the political consequences of Moscow’s fall must also be considered.

In that connection it should be noted that Stalin himself harbored grave doubts about the USSR’s staying power in a war against Germany. He realized better than anyone that such spectacles as the Five-Year Plan and military parades in Red Square concealed potentially fatal fragilities. The deprivations of the 1930s—crash industrialization, the collectivization of agriculture, the Great Purge—had levied a hideous toll of death and suffering on the Soviet peoples. Stalin knew that he and his regime were widely hated; he had good reason to fear that in the event of a German invasion, the people might turn on the Party. Moreover, he knew that thanks to his purge of its officer corps, the Red Army was quite unprepared for war. Stalin believed that at all costs, war with Germany, however inevitable in the long term, had to be delayed for as long as possible. That was why the Soviet leader took such pains to maintain good relations with Germany between 1939 and 1941, and why he was deaf to credible intelligence concerning Hitler’s real intentions.

So if Moscow had fallen in the summer of 1941, the political fallout might have secured victory for Germany. After presiding over such a catastrophic defeat, it's plausible to think that the Soviet regime would have collapsed, perhaps with a cabal of generals putting Stalin and his cronies in front of a firing squad. Or if Stalin managed to weather the debacle he might have thrown up the sponge, accepting harsh peace terms as the price of survival, with the option of renewing the fight another day. Who can say? Certainly a case can be made for the German capture of Moscow in late August-early September of 1941—but that, had it happened, would have cleared the way for a near-infinity of alternate histories.

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Copyright © 2020 by Thomas M. Gregg. All Rights Reserved

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