Tuesday, April 17, 2012

10 Things That Books (Not Movies) Taught Me About the Nazis

  1. The decision to invade Russia was stupid only in retrospect.

  2. They weren’t emotionless drones.

  3. They weren’t a ruthlessly efficient killing machine.

  4. (Despite what George Bush might say) Things aren’t easier in a dictatorship.

  5. Nazi ideology was … flexible.

  6. Along the lines of Point 5, the Nazis were neither Christian nor Atheist.

  7. The holocaust didn’t just happen in concentration camps.

  8. Despite the billion Hollywood movies about D-Day, north Africa, Italy and the Pacific, the deadliest (and arguably most important) front in the war was in Eastern Europe.

  9. Many westerners preferred Hitler to the Communists.

  10. Hitler’s early successes were the worst thing that could have happened to him.

Taken one at a time …

1.  The decision to invade Russia was stupid only in retrospect.

We can, with the benefit of hindsight, clearly see that, as I shall detail in Point 4, the ravages of the Eastern Front proved disastrous to all of Hitler’s schemes.  Everyone knows the reasons why it’s not a good idea to invade Russia, centering mainly on the fact that a) it’s fucking cold, and b) it’s a huge country.  There were many people within his own Inner Circle (particularly generals) who realized the potential for a great folly, but (as I’ll go into in Point 10), Hitler didn’t listen to those few who dared to object to Operation Barbarossa (the official name for the attack on Russia).

However, I’d like to point out three very sound, logical reasons for invading Russia that, in the Spring of 1941, made a rather compelling case for the invasion.

One: The Russians had just fought a long, hard-fought and narrowly-won war against … Finland.  Read that again if it seems a bit hard to fathom.  As the Russians swept west into Poland with the Nazis, they also eyed Finland as territory they felt should be re-incorporated into the Russian Empire.  The invasion of Poland went pretty well, so the Russians expected to breeze past the pitiful Finnish army.

And then they didn’t.  The Russian Army was vastly unprepared to fight the Finns, who used superior scouting and maneuverability to get the upper hand over the massive Russian forces.  It was a telling preview of Hitler’s invasion of Russia; Russian forces were not ready to navigate the frozen north, and neither were they tactically prepared to fight an unconventional war.

The Finns fought bravely, but ultimately had to give in to the inevitable, resulting in a Russian victory.  Still, the Russians had been outfoxed and supremely embarrassed in front of the whole world.  Hitler especially took note of the Soviet Army’s public shaming.  He reasoned, and not without cause, that if the Soviets had such a tough time against the Finns, they would be annihilated by the Wehrmacht (Germany Army).  The Soviets were clumsy and leaderless and surely wouldn’t be able to overcome German superiority, especially in the air.

Now, as to the “leaderless” issue …

Two: Stalin’s great purges of the 1937-1938 eviscerated the Army’s officer corps and left it extremely vulnerable.

Joseph Stalin was paranoid.  And in another grand understatement, the sun is hot.

In the 1930’s, Stalin became greatly suspicious of the officer corps in the Russian Army.  Never one to dally, Stalin started purging the Army of many of its best and most qualified leaders, arguing that they were plotting treason (doubtful) and that they were a threat to his leadership (possible).  Any figure of prominence from the Bolshevik past was fair game for the murderous dictator.  This paranoia (or ruthless practicality, more like) led to great show trials (perhaps the first “show trials” in the modern sense of the term).  This was no group of a dozen generals; Ronald Hingley, in his book Russia: A Concise History, numbers the casualties at “tens of thousands of officers, including the majority of those who held the rank of colonel and above (179).”

Here’s an idea:  try playing a game of chess with nothing but a king and 8 pawns.  This isn’t an inaccurate picture of the Russian Army in 1938, just three years before the Germans crossed the border.

Three, Stalin was not expecting an invasion, and it caught the Army by surprise.

In 1939, the Nazis and Soviets had signed a mutual Non-Aggression Pact, an event that seemed, to the rest of the world, as likely as George Bush and Saddam Hussein entering into a civil union.  Everyone knew that the Russians and Germans hated each other, and the only question seemed to be which leader would be the first to betray the other.

Stalin wasn’t expecting an invasion.  It’s unlikely that Stalin trusted Hitler, but it’s possible that he thought he could predict him.  It’s not that the German buildup went unnoticed; word was sent to Moscow from several different sources remarking on a general German buildup along the border.  Horror in the East, a BBC Documentary on the Eastern Front, mentions a telegram sent to Stalin trying to warn him of a possible invasion.  In his own hand, Stalin scrawled an obscenity on the note.

Hitler’s attempt at a surprise invasion succeeded, and the Nazis were at the outskirts of Moscow by November.  Was this really a stupid mistake?

As it turned out, yes.  Because although the three points outlined above were valid, Hitler also made a number of disastrous mistakes, including (but not limited to):

  • Not equipping his troops for the Russian winter.  Hitler’s dangerous optimism led him to believe that he could dispatch the Russians as quickly as he did the French. Again and again through the ensuing years, Hitler would refuse to consider even the possibility of a defeat, turning ordinary military setbacks into utter disasters.
    The description of the German soldiers’ plight is horrific to read.  I never thought I’d ever come across the phrase “congelation of the anus,” but I did, in Michael J. Lyons’ World War II:  A Short History (123).  (FYI:  Don’t poop outside when it’s -60 Celsius.)
  • Confused strategic aims that resulted in splitting his forces.  Hitler’s generals wanted him to choose between heading for Moscow and heading south for the rich oil fields in Georgia.  Hitler vacillated and ended up choosing both, creating a defensive line thousands of miles long that managed to fail at both objectives.  He blamed the generals (who were right below the Jews on the list of Hitler’s scapegoats).
  • Underestimating Stalin.  Despite the Finnish setbacks, Stalin proved much better able to adapt military defeat than his German counterpart.  He recognized the need to delegate power (and trust) to competent generals, which he managed to do, most successfully with Georgi Zhukov.  He also learned from his Finnish misadventures; this was not the same army (nor the same leader) that had been embarrassed on the Arctic coast.
    Hitler, by contrast, was never able to learn from his military setbacks, not only because of his refusal to accept any responsibility for them, but because he increasingly began to inhabit a protective bubble which the rules of war and reality could not penetrate.

The Germans were at the outskirts of Moscow in the winter of 1941 and came perilously close to taking the city.  It’s interesting to imagine how the rest of the war would have played out had they accomplished their goal.  Would they have been able to take Stalingrad?  Could they have relocated troops to the Western Front in a final attempt to overwhelm Britain?

As for me, I can’t see the Germans winning the war even if they do take Moscow, mainly because Stalin would have kept fighting, extending their supply lines and probably employing the scorched earth policy that proved so successful in turning back Napoleon.  But that narrow miss in the winter of ‘41 may have shortened the war by as much as a year.


Seeing as Point 1 took much longer than I anticipated, I’ll be back later with the rest of the Points.

No comments: