Operation Barbarossa: Nazi Germany’s War in the East 1941-1945, by Christian Hartmann, Oxford University Press, 208 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-0199660780
This is a horrible book or, more accurately, it is a book about unimaginable horror – the experience of the German invasion of the Soviet Union which began on June 22nd, 1941, the so-called Operation Barbarossa, and the Soviet response, later known, for avowedly political and psychological reasons, as the “Great Patriotic War”. This reviewer read the book on two occasions and, on the second, found it even more disturbing than the first. On each reading, I had to pause regularly simply to take in the awfulness of the details being chronicled.
The author, Christian Hartmann, is a well-known military historian who teaches at a number of institutes including, significantly, the staff college of the German armed forces in Hamburg. His approach to telling this tale of what can only be described as a most extreme case of “man’s inhumanity to man” is a mixed one. He explores and distils the picture from above and below, that is, he chronicles the strategic issues involved while at the same time supplying many vignettes from soldiers and leaders on both sides which gives some dimension of the human side of the canvas, insofar as that adjective can be applied at all in this context. He also interweaves chapters which set out the chronology of the military events of the invasion with thematic chapters exploring the motivation for invasion (Hitler’s desire for Lebensraum and access to Soviet resources) and the experiences of those affected by it, for example, civilian populations, prisoners of war, the politically undesirable (to Stalin that is) and, most appallingly, the fate of the Soviet Jews. Perhaps most importantly of all, he is unsparing in his criticism and outright condemnation of the Führer (a term which he uses a little too frequently) and the Vozhd or self-styled “Generalissimus”, Stalin. Alongside their manic obsessions, paranoias and cruelties, he notes the stupidity of their taking supreme operational command of their respective campaigns. He makes this explicitly clear when, in one of two summary chapters he says: “As Commanders-in-Chief, both Hitler and, to an even greater extent, Stalin were complete amateurs.” This amateurishness was to cost millions their lives unnecessarily.
“Million” or “millions” are words that crop up all too frequently in Operation Barbarossa. In fact, one way to encapsulate Hartmann’s book would be to take the economist’s route and present a table of the “casualties” of various kinds of the invasion, subsequent war and ultimate defeat of Germany with the raising of the Soviet flag on the roof of the Reichstag at the end of April 1945 and the formal German capitulation on the night of May 8th/9th. However, such a table might be more in the nature of a spreadsheet and is, thus, not pursued here. Nevertheless, the elucidation of some of the possible headings and the corresponding figures that might appear will provide a useful shorthand for the impact of the war. These would include: the number of Soviet persons lost in the Second World War, the total number of German persons lost on the Eastern Front, the military component of these figures, the number of Jews murdered, the number of children killed and much more awfulness.
In all, some 26.6 million Soviet people lost their lives in the Second World War – which for them primarily consisted of the “Great Patriotic War” – of whom 11.4 million were soldiers “who died as a result of the fighting itself or in German captivity (around 3 million of the latter)”. Some 2.7 million German soldiers died on the Eastern Front and about 1.4 million German civilians “found their deaths as a result of fleeing or being driven from their homes”. The Jewish population of the Soviet Union suffered 2.4 million deaths and 1.3 million Soviet children were killed. These are only an indicative or overarching handful of the truly awful statistics of Operation Barbarossa and its aftermath. But, as Hartman notes:
These are merely thin neat lists of figures and we can only guess at the countless tragedies that stand behind them. Perhaps it would be easier to grasp if we reminded ourselves that this is the totting-up of something that could mean people shot, run over, burnt, slashed, mutilated, starved, frozen, hanged and much else.
In this short book Hartmann does not have the opportunity to explore these horrors in detail although he does advert to them and some of the vignettes he cites give a flavour of the horror. A couple of examples here will suffice. A German police secretary from Vienna – the police battalions were inferior troops who operated in the rear occupied areas – wrote home in October 1941:
Babies flew in great arcs through the air and we blasted them out of the sky before they could drop into the ditch or the water. Away with it this (Jewish) brood that has plunged all of Europe into war …
Hartman also discusses the plight of those who collaborated with the Germans – whether willingly or unwillingly ‑ and who, when the Germans retreated, were bound to follow. They were known in the jargon of their German masters as “useless eaters” and were often “driven off into the empty wastes”.
The empty wastes or vast steppes, of course, form a critical part of the story of Operation Barbarossa. Hartmann recognises early on this and the other key strategic features of the campaign, the Russian climate and the Soviet Union’s huge population. Napoleon and his grande armée (or at least the very small number of them who survived) could have told a thing or two about these factors after their experiences of swathes of scorched earth and “General Winter” in 1812. These strategic features and the manpower (four Soviet soldiers died in the campaign for every one German) and material resources eventually available to the Soviets, either by way of their own extraordinary feats of manufacture or supplied by their British and American allies, meant that ultimate German defeat was, more or less, inevitable, although this hardly seemed likely in the first weeks and months of the invasion when the Wehrmacht seemed unstoppable and the Soviet Union teetered briefly on the brink of collapse.
The reason they appeared unstoppable at that point was the unpreparedness of the Soviet forces – Stalin did not believe until the very last minute that an invasion by his erstwhile partners in the Non-Aggression Pact could actually happen. Moreover, the rapidly moving German army conquered huge swathes of territory in a very short space of time but laboured under two critical limitations. Firstly and predictably, there was the impact of the weather – at first huge sandstorms in the scorching summer heat and, then, rain and mud in autumn and the inevitable snow in winter, which slowed up and eventually halted their advance, allowing the Soviets time to regroup and begin to learn from their earlier tactical mistakes (Soviet learning as they fought is a feature that Hartmann identifies again and again). But what ultimately prevented early German success was Hitler’s (in)effective division of his armies into three with different foci, in particular, the oil and industrial resources of the Soviet southwest. This offended against Clausewitz’s maxim of concentrating your forces on one major target – in this instance that would have been Moscow. When Hitler eventually agreed to do just that it was too late; the impact of the weather and the impossibly extended German supply lines ensured that, by the time some of the German advance units got within 30 kilometres of Moscow, the assault was essentially blunted. This was not a mistake the Soviets were to make when they launched Operation Bagration (suitably labelled after the Russian hero of 1812) in 1944, when they focused their massive resources on the German Army Group Centre and created a breakthrough which ultimately led to the collapse of the Eastern Front.
Of course, much else occurred between 1941 and 1944 and Hartmann provides the details in his chronological chapters, details which more than repay a visit. Taken altogether though, the book is an unqualified indictment and condemnation of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. As Hartmann puts it:
It was during the war against the Soviet Union, if not before that Nazism showed its true colours. In contrast to previous campaigns, all political, legal or moral considerations that had previously been respected now fell away. Nazism revealed itself as a murderous utopianism – first for those it defined as enemies (and they were many), then for those who acted in its name (or for those on whose behalf it claimed to act).
The conclusion too is memorable:
One pivot of that global conflict (the Second World War), indeed the moment of its greatest intensity, was the war between Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union. For us to ignore or even forget that the world we would have to witness an event of comparable proportions. And may God forbid it.
Any reader of this fine, distilled book would neither ignore nor forget those terrible times.
Liam Hennessy is a former teacher. senior civil servant and currently works as a social policy and mental health researcher.