A million and a half soldiers dead defending Moscow alone. Three million and a half soviet troops out of a total of 5 million captured were subjected to a little mentioned holocaust at the hands of their Nazi captors. And that was a fraction of the horrors endured during the War in the East. The invasion of the Soviet Union commencing on June 21 1941 was arguably the worst war in human history.
When Harry Donaghy suggested to me that the best history of the War in the East was the two volume tome by Erickson, I took him at his word and was not to be disappointed. It has been suggested that this is not a good starting point for people trying to understand Operation Barbarossa given its detail and at times technical presentation, but I can think of no better and I have been through a few. I have been reading about the opening days of Operation Barbarossa over the course of the last 40 years. I have watched documentaries so often, there are no surprises. Yet the tension of the build up weaved into his narrative by Erickson causes a tingling which is only relieved as the forces of the Wehrmacht complete their push across the Polish border and into a vastness that would swallow them up before spitting out what remained and finally mopping it up four years later at a bunker in Berlin.
All the pre-Stalingrad battles are covered by Erickson including the siege of Sevastopol where the bravery of the Red Army troops should have served as a forewarning of what lay ahead the deeper the German penetration of Soviet territory advanced. There is one glaring omission: the role of the Einstatzgruppen. It was such a feature of the invasion from the moment it started, with the Wehrmacht up to its neck in mass extermination under the instruction of Walther von Reichenau, that how it barely featured here is somewhat puzzling. It was certainly known of. Think of the trials of Einsatzgruppen leaders.
Erickson excels when describing the build-up to the June 1941 invasion. Despite compelling evidence Stalin had deluded himself to the last minute that it was all a ruse by the Nazis to squeeze more out of the Soviets. Determined to maintain the Molotov- Ribbentrop pact he wanted no provocations of the Nazis whatsoever. He knew war with Germany was inevitable but felt he had to keep pushing it back until his armed forces were ready.
Part of his problem was self-inflicted, lying in the fact that he had earlier murdered Tukachevsky, purging the Red Army of its best leader and leaving a soft military underbelly that would feel the cold steel of the Nazi sword many times before the hilt came up against the Russian winter. Men of the calibre of Klim Voroshilov, who thought the mechanisation of war so advocated by Tukachevsky was a utopian distraction, would prove no match for the mechanized surge of the Barbarossa Blitzkrieg.
Stalingrad is often described as the turning point in a war that the Soviets went on to win decisively. But the city was not freed from its Nazi presence until January 1943. Perhaps the more decisive battle was not so late in the War in the East but at the start when the Nazis failed to take Moscow. It was the centre of everything. Without it's gravitational pull the disintegration of the USSR beckoned. Kietel, before swinging at Nuremburg, was asked at what point did he realise that Operation Barbarrossa could not be completed successfully. He replied with one word – ‘Moscow.’
Stalin was considering moving out of the capital. The Nazis were close and could see the Kremlin from their positions. Yet in the face of the seemingly unstoppable onslaught, it was there that a number of Soviet military and Communist Party members decided that come what may they would hold their ground and defend the city against fascism to the last.
It was from the defence of the Soviet capital that the most crucial commander of the war would emerge. Georgi Shukov, both brilliant and bellicose, had the keen eye of a military strategist. His taciturn response to the German advance on the capital ‘it gets worse by the hour’ failed to convey the real apprehension that he and his senior colleagues must have experienced. But for his acumen the task would have been much more difficult. Shukov held military affairs together throughout with great defensive operations which saw the German assault grind to a halt.
Freed from the gross incompetence of intervening fools like Lev Mekhlis, who for too long had been allowed to make decisions that were as inexcusable as they were inexplicable, costing numerous lives and ceding strategic initiative, Shukov and colleagues commanded a territory that was too deep, too wide, too tenacious, for the Nazis to succeed.
Much has been written since Erickson produced this and a follow up volume. Greater access to Soviet archives has facilitated a more rounded appreciation than Erickson might have been able to offer. Often new insights are gained by standing on the shoulders of giants. Erickson was a giant in the field of understanding the War in the East.
John Erickson, 1975, The Road To Stalingrad. Publisher: Cassell. ISBN 978-0-3043-6541-8