How Hitler Could Have Won

  • The Greatest Battle
    by Andrew Nagorski, Simon and Schuster, 366 pp.
  • Moscow 1941: A City and Its People at War
    by Rodric Braithwaite, Knopf, 398 pp

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….”

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. 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. 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.

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.” 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.

Both sides began the conflict appearing to believe in the certainty of victory. The Germans, with their faith in their own racial superiority, knew they could not lose. The young men of the Red Army, steeped in the teachings of scientific Marxism, went into battle convinced that communism had to triumph. Yet as the battle for Moscow approached, that certainty began to waver in Russia. As Nagorski explains,

“If there’s one overarching theme in the official accounts of the Great Patriotic War, it’s that the Russian people never wavered in their fight against the German invaders, no matter how desperate their situation or how great the sacrifices demanded of them. They believed, so these versions tell us, in the justice of their cause and the inevitability of victory, however long it would take…. But no single day shatters that myth more decisively than October 16, 1941.”

The day before, the Wehrmacht began attacking the outer defense lines around Moscow with what Braithwaite describes as “overwhelming force.” On the morning of October 16, with the Germans just a few miles away, Muscovites awoke to a transformed city. There were no buses, no trams, no Metro, no mailmen, no police. The streets were covered with ash, the result of hundreds of bonfires: bureaucrats, politicians, and ordinary people were burning their documents, Party cards, Marxist tracts, even portraits of Stalin, in anticipation of the German arrival. Workers were turned away at the factory gates. In some places, machinery was being packed for evacuation. Rumors began to spread: of a coup d’état, of Stalin’s arrest.

Most unusually of all, though, people began to talk. According to one journalist, writing in his diary at the time,

“Everyone is boiling with indignation, talking out loud, shouting that they have been betrayed, that “the captains were the first to abandon ship” and took their valuables with them into the bargain. People are saying things out loud that three days ago would have brought them before a military tribunal…. People are beginning to remember and to count up all the humiliations, the oppression, the injustices, the clampdowns, the bureaucratic arrogance of the officials, the conceit and the self-confidence of the party bureaucrats, the draconian decrees, the shortages, the systematic deception of the masses, the lying and flattery of the toadies in the newspapers….”

He then posed a question that must have echoed all the way up to the Kremlin: “Will it be possible to defend a city where such moods prevail?” Had the Germans actually managed to enter Moscow on October 17 the answer might have been negative. True, the Soviets had made preparations to blow up key factories, and the authorities were training saboteurs to act from behind the lines. Some were told to infiltrate “fascist sport and youth organizations,” others to conduct “acts of terror against German army officers.” Nagorski tracked down a troupe of NKVD agents who had actually been taught juggling and acrobatic tricks: the idea was that they would offer themselves as entertainment at the victory celebrations—”Germans like art, especially if it is not too serious,” their NKVD instructor explained—and then throw grenades at the laughing German officers during the finale.

But, as immediately became obvious to ordinary Muscovites, anyone with the means to do so was also leaving the city as fast as possible. Evacuation instructions went out to factory managers and officials. Bigwigs, party bosses, anyone with a car began to drive east, taking their families, sofas, phonographs, bric-a-brac, and light fixtures with them. Ominously, those without cars began attacking them, in some cases mobbing the vehicles and beating up the fat-cat passengers. Never before had the deep divide between the privileged Communist elite and the downtrodden proletariat been so obvious. Riots broke out in the street, fights started in food queues. At one factory, the workers began to unpack crates of machinery, to prevent any further attempt to remove them. Others refused orders to join trench battalions, on the grounds that the party leaders had “sent their own families away, and now they’re trying to send us off to dig ditches!” In the history of the Soviet Union, such scenes were almost without precedent.

Not since the Kronstadt uprising of 1921 and the peasant rebellions of the civil war era had the workers openly denounced the leadership. Nor would they do so again until the uprisings in three gulag camps, following Stalin’s death in 1953. Yet as the Germans approached, the Kremlin once again fell strangely silent. Some of the leadership had indeed left: Georgi Dimitrov, the head of the Comintern, took a train east with Molotov, the foreign minister, and later recorded in his diary that “everyone is contemplating the imminent capture of Moscow by the Germans.” Artists and writers had been sent into exile too. Even Lenin’s embalmed body had already been removed from its sacred position in Red Square.

But Stalin himself was sending out mixed signals. Nagorski records that Stalin, like Hitler obsessed with 1812, was reading a biography of Field Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov, the general who had defeated Napoleon. With German bombs ringing in his ears, he underlined a passage: “Until the last minute, no one knew what Kutuzov was going to do.” Apparently, he resolved to follow the same tactic. Preparations were certainly made for his evacuation: a bunker was built in Kuibyshev, where most of the government was already in residence, and a special train was prepared. Allegedly, the Soviet leader even went to inspect the train personally, walking up and down the platform but refusing to enter the carriage itself.

But—in what may have been the most important decision of the war—he didn’t leave Moscow. He stayed in the city, possibly reckoning that if it fell, he would fall too. And waiting it out turned out to be the right decision, though he could not necessarily have known it would be. As Braithwaite writes:

“By now the Germans had advanced more than six hundred miles into the Soviet Union. They had occupied the most industrialized part of the country, home to nearly half of the Soviet population, a territory as large as Britain, Spain, Italy and France rolled together. They had blockaded Leningrad and captured Kiev. And in the course of their headlong retreat since June the Russians had lost nearly four million men dead and wounded, 20,000 tanks, some 17,000 aircraft, more than 60,000 guns and mortars—almost all the stocks of weapons that they had built up in the years before the war. But on the very outskirts of Moscow, the Germans had run out of steam. ”

Though they kept fighting into December, the Germans were worn down by the weather, lacked supplies for the winter, and were exhausted from the long struggle and the diversions. They failed to enter the city. Moscow did not fall, Stalin was not captured. On the anniversary of the revolution he made his speech on Red Square. If there were still doubters, that speech, and the subsequent withdrawal, proved to the nation the truth of Communist doctrine and the falseness of Nazi propaganda. The cracks that had appeared on that panicky October day were papered over.

Slowly, the tide of the war began to turn. Had Hitler wanted to see it, the battle for Moscow could have served as a warning to the Germans of what was to come. The Germans kept making progress elsewhere, having, as Braithwaite notes, blockaded Leningrad and captured Kiev. In 1942 they swept into the Caucasus. But the failure to capture Moscow dealt the Wehrmacht a psychological blow every bit as significant as the boost it gave to the Red Army. If the victory papered over the cracks in the Soviet Union, it opened them up in Germany. In the wake of the failure to take the city, one of the German pilots declared that “after Moscow, we were absolutely without any hope, and we felt that this was a great catastrophe.”

By this, Nagorski points out, he meant “the entire war, not just the one battle.” Braithwaite draws the same conclusion: The Battle of Moscow demonstrated what none of the Western armies had yet been able to demonstrate, that the German army, the finest and most experienced in the world, could be beaten, ground down, and comprehensively defeated. The myth of invincibility was dispersed. As it became clearer that the German army would not enter the city, Hitler began angrily dismissing any general who delicately called for anything that could be characterized as retreat. Among others, he removed General Heinz Guderian, who had badly wanted to drive straight for Moscow during the summer and who, by December, wanted to pull back into a more easily defended position. When Guderian told Hitler that his soldiers were still in summer uniforms, that “there was never such cold as we are now experiencing,” and that digging in for the winter would lead to the sacrifice of “our officers, our non-commissioned officers and of the men suitable to replace them,” Hitler told Guderian that he had grown soft. “You have been too deeply impressed by the suffering of the soldiers,” he said. “You feel too much pity for them.”

But the shattering of the myth of German invincibility affected ordinary soldiers most profoundly. As late as mid-October, German privates were still looking forward to the Nazi parade on Red Square on the anniversary of the Russian Revolution. By January, all such illusions were shattered. The propagandists could go on describing the Soviet Union’s “Slavic-Tartar body” and its “Jewish head,” but it was no longer possible to portray the Wehrmacht as inevitably superior, or the Red Army as destined to fail.

The Battle of Moscow also provided the Germans with the first hint of the tactics Stalin would ultimately use to win the war. Some two million Red Army soldiers died in the battle for Moscow, and this was no accident. In the absence of sufficient weaponry—it took several years for Soviet war production to reach adequate levels—the Red Army would throw waves of men at the enemy, relying on sheer numbers to hold them back. At one point in early December, when the Germans again seemed likely to break through the Soviet line, Stalin received a call from his envoy to the commander of the Western front. As Braithwaite tells the story, the generals were asking permission to move their headquarters east. “Comrade Stepanov,” said Stalin, “ask them whether they have any spades.” After a silence, and another exchange, the man came back on the line. “Yes, there are spades, Comrade Stalin. What should they do with them?” “Comrade Stepanov, tell your comrades to take their spades and dig themselves some graves.”

The headquarters were not to leave Moscow, no matter what the human cost. And the human cost was, and would remain, extraordinarily high. Even the German officers, who didn’t exactly coddle their troops, were amazed by the sacrifices of their Russian counterparts. One wrote in his diary that “women have often been seen in combat,” and was shocked by the fact that the Russian political commissars egged on their troops by claiming that Germans killed all their prisoners. As a result, they fought bitterly: “Russian officers have shot themselves to avoid being captured,” he marveled.

Perhaps because this reliance on sheer manpower was so risky, perhaps because the defense of the city so nearly failed, the Battle of Moscow has always inspired lovers of counterfactual history. What if the Germans had launched their drive on the city earlier in the year? What if Stalin had left Moscow to be overrun? What if Stalin himself had been captured? Most have argued, convincingly, that the Soviet government would have reconstituted itself in the East, that the Soviet Union’s superior manpower and resources would still have triumphed over a Wehrmacht that was already stretched thin. Many Soviet armament factories had already been moved beyond the Urals, and much of the population would have fled there as well. On paper, the Soviet Union should of course have been the victor, whatever the outcome in Moscow, simply by virtue of its geography and demography.

Nevertheless, the story of wartime Moscow, and particularly of the panic in wartime Moscow, will surely continue to intrigue historians of the future, just as it captured the imaginations of Braithwaite and Nagorski. For if nothing else, the story of Moscow in 1941, proves that not all wars are won or lost according to assets that can be measured on paper. Because of the centrality of ideology to both Nazism and Communism, psychology mattered deeply to their conflict, maybe just as much as did geography and demography. Both Hitler and Stalin needed military success to maintain their legitimacy. Both Hitler and Stalin knew that military failure could end not only their lives, but their regimes.  Indeed, the loss of the war did eventually lead to the collapse of the Nazi regime. Perhaps the fall of Moscow would have led to the collapse of the Soviet Union as well.  

Notes

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

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

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

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