This is a splendid account of Operation Barbarossa, one of the most colossal and costly military operations in all of history. Sadly Barbarossa has also been one of the most misrepresented of conflicts, with wartime and post-war propaganda from both sides still distorting the story. This includes official Soviet accounts which varied depending on the orthodoxy of the day, and German accounts skewed either by the racist ideology of the Nazi regime, or by veteran’s attempts to shift the blame for their defeat onto Hitler or to try and deflect attention away from the large scale atrocities committed by the Germans. Any attempt to produce an account based purely on contemporary documentation was limited by the limited access to Soviet Records. This of course changed after the fall of the Soviet Union, and historians now have pretty good access to the sort of working wartime documents that needed to be accurate to be useful. Bergstrom had been able to use those records, combined with their German equivalents, to produce an unvarnished account of this campaign, which strips away the propaganda and misrepresentation of many other accounts.
Early on the author gives a good description of the split personality of the Soviet Union, which is well supported by the many memoirs I’ve read. At the top all was chaos, paranoia and cynicism, with Stalin at its heart, striking out against anyone he believed was a threat. The result was a high command that was largely unwilling to take risks, or act on its own initiative, in the knowledge that Stalin often killed those who did so. At lower levels large parts of the Soviet population were entirely convinced of the rightness of their way of life and their cause, and having read a fair few autobiographies from that period one can understand why - the message was one of progress and opportunity, leading to a shining modern future. This partly explains why the Soviet front line soldiers fought with such determination in the early battles, while above them their commanders struggled to cope.
There is excellent material on the atrocities committed on both sides, looking at their motivation, implementation and scale. This section helps to dismantle the idea that the two sides were as bad as each other – the Germans were committed to large scale atrocities from the start of the campaign, and committed mass murder of civilians and POWs on a scale that dwarfed the Soviet crimes. However the author also makes it clear that many of the worst offenders were the non-Russian inhabitants of the western Soviet Union, including the Ukraine and the Baltics, where anti-Communism and anti-Semitism were common. The section on the fate of POWs is especially useful, using verifiable figures to prove beyond any doubt that you were far better off as a German prisoner of the Soviets than you were as a Soviet prisoner of the Germans or any of their allies (even the Finns, whose treatment of captured Russian prisoners was appalling).
The account of the campaign itself includes a number of surprises, with the biggest (at least for me) being the crucial role played in the campaign by the Soviet air forces. Despite the crushes losses at the start of the campaign, and the general superiority of the Luftwaffe when the two forces met in the air, the Soviets were able to replace their losses with a mix of newly produced modern aircraft and vast numbers of older models from their stocks. As the front line expanded, the Luftwaffe was increasingly unable to cope with the heavy demands on it, so the Germans either dominated the skies or were almost absent, with many of their better units being rushed up and down the front line in response to each crisis. The author also dispels the idea of mass surrenders of Soviet troops, and instead shows that most of the huge number of POWs taken were captured in small groups, after some hard fighting. Finally the examination of the successful Soviet counterattack outside Moscow shows that the Germans weren’t outnumbered, had plenty of equipment, and were facing Soviet troops many of whom had been involved in earlier defeats.
This is a very impressive piece of work, that gives us a much more convincing account of Operation Barbarossa, with convincing reasons for both the German successes and their eventual failure.
1 - Hitler against Stalin
2 - Lebensraum
3 - The Wehrmacht versus the Red Army
4 - Towards the abyss
5 - Strike at dawn
6 - The first battles of annihilation
7 - Tank battles in the north
8 - The advance towards Kiev
9 - The advance towards Moscow
10 - The Blitzkrieg is halted
11 - Annihilation in the Ukraine
12 - Leningrad Holds Out
13 - The Finnish Front
14 - The final attempt against Leningrad
15 - Typhoon against Moscow
16 - The race for the 'Soviet Ruhr area'
17 - The battle of the Crimea
18 - The Red Army strikes Back
Results and Conclusions
I - The military scene
II - The war of annihilation
Author: Christer Bergström