Monday, March 12, 2012

Kiev 1941: Hitler's Battle for Supremacy in the East by David Stahel

In “Kiev, 1941” historian David Stahel once more takes on the myths and legends that have been built up around the Wehrmacht’s Barbarossa campaign against the Soviet Union. In his previous volume Stahel did an excellent job reorienting the discourse surrounding the failure of the initial invasion by the time the Wehrmacht reached Smolensk (although mainly concentrating on the Panzer Groups of Army Group Center). This volume concentrates on Army Group South and parts of the southern wing of Army Group Center (mainly focusing on Guderian’s Panzer Group) while discussing the enormous difficulties encountered by the Germans and the position they found themselves in by the end of summer.

Although the battle of Kiev proper does not take up an enormous amount of ink, the lead up to the battle in some cases is more important than the battle itself. In some respects this lack of concentration on a battle that on paper netted over 600,000 prisoners of war has to do with the limited information available from the Soviet/Russian point of view and the mythical narrative in place that views the end result of an encirclement of so many soldiers a foregone conclusion. One hopes that will change in the near future, but since Stahel is limited to German and English sources the reader is presented with a heavily German oriented narrative. This is not to say that the author does not possess a rather large and in-depth understanding of the literature in English on the first year of the war and the Red Army in general from the Soviet side, on the contrary, his command of the literature rivals many of those who have been studying the topic from the Soviet side for years. Nonetheless, the limited concentration on Kiev itself once again reinforces the need for further studies on the Eastern Front and Operation Barbarossa.

Stahel’s main argument revolves around the idea that German generals continually fought amongst each other and with Hitler. Lower level commanders ignored orders and assumed risks that should have ended in their dismissal, yet the chaotic situation the Red Army found itself in allowed such risks to pay off in ever greater dividends with the end result a grievous catastrophe for the Red Army. According to the author, by the end of August Barbarossa was a “spent exercise, incapable of achieving its central objective of ending Soviet resistance” (1-2). The difficulties encountered by Army Group Center forced a rest period onto von Bock’s army group while Hitler vacillated about what action to undertake next. Many have argued that this period of rest cost the Germans the war, and this in effect is one argument Stahel aims to disprove. The “rest period” Army Group Center enjoyed, if one can call it that, featured numerous Soviet offensives against Bock’s forces that resulted in casualties, including destroyed and disabled equipment the Wehrmacht could hardly afford. Hundreds of thousands of Red Army soldiers lost their lives in battles few are even aware of (pointing out another aspect of the Eastern Front that needs further research).

Overall this is not a new argument, David Glantz made the same in his previous volumes on the war, but those hundreds of thousands of men could have caused tremendous damage to the Wehrmacht had Army Group Center decided to advance on Moscow (attacking entrenched German position is a wholly different story when compared to a Wehrmacht on the move), not to mention the over half a million men on the southern wing that would have had to be dealt with if Kiev was never surrounded. Considering the condition Army Group Center found itself in, according to Stahel, Hitler’s decision to turn south and deal with Kiev was the right move. Yet the drain on German forces and supplies by this point was best evidenced by the two panzer groups sent to encircle the Soviet south-western front. The panzer divisions that finally closed the trap on Soviet troops were doing so with minimal forces at their disposal because they were running out of fuel and tanks, as well as having to guard ever-expanding flanks. The initial encirclement was porous at best, reminiscent of the Smolensk encirclement that preceded it. But the trapped soldiers of the Red Army did not have as much time to escape, nor forces attempting to break into the encirclement from the outside (as occurred at Smolensk) to take the pressure off. The majority of the front found itself encircled and slowly split into smaller pockets as the Luftwaffe achieved aerial supremacy over the pocket and communications broke down between units and commanding officers. The results were predictable by the time the encirclement was tightened by additional German troops.

Although what resulted in the Kiev encirclement was never planned for from the beginning, in more than one instance Stahel points to Stalin being responsible for the continued postponement of the evacuation of Soviet forces behind the Dnepr - resulting in tens of thousands of more prisoners of war than the Red Army had to sacrifice - the results achieved reinforced the Hubris of both Hitler and the Wehrmacht in what they were capable of against the Red Army, momentarily forgetting their own weaknesses. That false sense of confidence would soon play itself out on the approaches to Moscow when an utterly exhausted Army Group Center would suffer a catastrophe of its own. Overall, an excellent addition to the literature on the Eastern Front.

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