Was Hitler right to invade Russia in 1941?
By Andrew Wright
It is commonly believed that the invasion of Russia was one of Hitler's
greatest strategic blunders. Up to that point the German war machine had
conquered and subjugated all her enemies (except for Britain), while at the
same time Russia had been providing her with much needed resources such as oil
and wheat. England's position was deteriorating quickly and the United States
was still neutral. The invasion of Russia cut off those precious supplies, and
even though the Russians took unprecedented losses the Germans ultimately
failed to take Moscow and suffered heavily in the winter that followed. While
this event is usually judged by the results, it must be remembered how close
the Russians came to collapsing, and had Hitler concentrated on taking
Moscow instead of switching the axis of advance during the campaign, the
Germans would have likely won the war. The invasion of Russia in 1941 offered
Hitler the best chance of winning World War 2.
To understand why Hitler invaded Russia it is necessary to go back to the
spring of 1941 and look at the general situation in Europe. After lightning
campaigns against his enemies, Hitler controlled Western Europe, Central
Europe, Scandinavia and most of Eastern Europe. A further campaign against the
Balkans during the spring secured his southern flank. After witnessing its
continental allies fall one by one, England was fighting for mere survival,
never mind taking the fight to the enemy. This left Germany with only two major
threats, the United States and the Soviet Union. The former was neutral and
wanted nothing to do with what it saw as a purely European conflict, but the
latter was just across the border and fielded the biggest army in the world.
Thus it is obvious that Russia was not only the greatest threat to Nazi
Germany, but also the last major obstacle to German domination of Europe. It is
likely that the only reason Stalin never attacked Germany was because of the
pathetic state of the Red Army at the time. Despite this logic, some historians
have alleged that Stalin was bent on attacking Germany during the summer of
1941 and insists this is why so much of the Red Army was massed near the border
during the time of the German invasion. Either way, given certain strategic,
economic and ideological considerations, there is little doubt that war between
the two powers was inevitable.
During the spring of 1941 time was not on Germany's side. Although isolated and
nearing bankruptcy, England was no closer to suing for peace than she had been
the year before. America, though neutral, was not only supplying Britain with
much needed war materials, but drifting closer into a state of war with
Germany. Russia might have appeared docile at the moment, but that was not
guaranteed to last. As for German industry, after many years of rearmament and
war, it was showing signs of strain and running low on precious resources,
especially oil. Though Germany was getting substantial oil from Russia and the
Ploesti Oilfields in Romania, it was not enough.
Given her lack of oil, and the potential threat of fighting on two fronts,
Germany had to make a choice of whether to finish off England, or attack the
Russia. This left the Germans with two strategic options:
1) The Mediterranean option: Essentially, Rommel would receive massive
reinforcements and supplies and the Axis would attempt to overrun Egypt, the
Suez Canal and finally the Oil Rich countries of the Middle East. Germany and
Italy are much closer to Libya than England is to Egypt and would therefore
find it easier to supply their forces. However, this could only be done
effectively if British-held Malta, located between Sicily and Libya, was either
neutralized or invaded. Considering Germany did neutralize Malta for long
periods during World War 2, it is possible the Germans could have reinforced
their army in Libya with enough men and resources to take over the Middle East,
fix their oil shortages, and turn the Mediterranean into an "Axis Lake."
2) The Russian Option: An all-out attack on Russia. Russia's armies would be
destroyed before winter in huge battles of encirclement, Moscow would be taken
and the Germans would occupy Russia from Archangel on the White Sea to
Astrakhan on the Caspian Sea. Defeating Russia would depend on the successful
use of Blitzkrieg: Destroying or neutralizing the enemy's air force in the
first few hours of attack, paralyzing the enemy's command and communications,
quick advances behind the enemy's frontline designed to surround and destroy
their armies, etc.
Both options offered a solution to the oil problem, and both had the potential
to defeat one of Germany's enemies. The only question is which one had the most
potential for safeguarding the Reich.
It is a sound strategic principle that when it comes to war, the strongest
enemy should be dealt with first. Between, Russia and Britain, there can be no
doubt that the Russians were the bigger threat to Germany. The Russian army
alone had the manpower and resources to challenge the German army. Even if
Britain was backed by a powerful American army she would have little chance of
defeating Germany. With hindsight it is questionable whether or not even Russia
could have defeated Germany on its own, but it is very probable that Britain
and America could not have.
Another consideration is whether it would have been easier to defeat England
after Russia had been subdued, or easier to defeat Russia after England had
If the Germans would have attacked Britain via the Middle East in 1941 and
managed to knock them out of the war, Russia's position would have been worse
off, but not hopeless. She would still have all her territory, all her armies
and more time to prepare. Additionally, it is possible that America would have
been so frightened by Britain's collapse she would have sent as much military
aide to Russia as possible. It should also be remembered that Stalin and his
Generals were implementing many wide-ranging reforms during 1941 that would
have borne fruit in 1942 and the Russian army would have displayed much more
competence and skill than it managed to do when the Germans actually invaded.
With these considerations in mind, it is likely that Russia would have been in
a better position to resist the Germans in 1942 than 1941.
But what chance would Britain have had if Russia had been attacked and defeated
first? She would have had no allies on the continent to support, and even if
the U.S. would have joined the war and fielded an army, the two combined would
not have been able to land on the continent and defeat the Germans. It is even
likely that the intervention of the United States would not have been enough to
avert the defeat of England in the case of Russia being defeated in 1941. It
would have taken years (as it did) for the U.S. to build forces in the United
Kingdom to any significant degree. In that period of time, Germany could either
have built a large enough air force to defeat the R.A.F. and invade England,
built a big enough U-Boat fleet to starve England into submission, or maybe
even both. It is even possible the defeat of Russia could have convinced the
British to give in, assuming Churchill was kicked out of office.
Even if we completely disregarded the sound strategic and economic reasons for
the invasion of Russia, the ideological differences between the two states
alone could have been enough to make war inevitable. It is ironic that Nazi
Germany and the Soviet Union, likely the two most wicked and amoral regimes in
the world at the time, were poles apart in their politics, beliefs and values.
Fascists and Communists are sworn enemies and the feelings of the leaders and
people on both sides towards each other ran from indifference at best, to
undying hatred at worst. Both countries wanted to become the sole arbiter of
Europe. The Russians signed the Molotov-Rippentrop Pact so they could secure
territories in Eastern Europe while Germany fought what Stalin believed would
be a war of attrition against France and Britain. He hoped that the combatants
would wear each other down to the point where Russia could defeat them and
dominate Europe. Hitler, for his part, had clearly laid out his plans for
European Hegemony in "Mein Kampf." In his book, Hitler spoke about securing
"Lebensraum" (living space) in the east, which could only mean invading Russia.
Additionally, there was no attempt on the part of the Nazis to mask their
venomous hatred of the Slavs, Communists and Jews. Though the Russians never
displayed the same amount of hatred for other races, they certainly did not
like the Germans or even Jews (despite their huge numbers in Russia); though it
should be remembered that anti-Semitism was rife all over Europe at the time.
Now that it has been established that war between the Germans and Russians was
inevitable, and that the best chance for Germany to defeat Russia was in 1941,
the question remains, could they have won? Most countries at the time certainly
thought so. Churchill's Generals estimated the Russians would collapse in six
weeks; the Americans gave a similar figure. If there ever was a stunning
mismatch of forces in the history of warfare, it is the Wehrmacht and the Red
Army in 1941.
The Wehrmacht was unequivocally the best army in Europe at the time, while the
Red Army was likely the worst. The Russians may have had more men and tanks,
but the Germans were better trained, better equipped and better led. Hitler may
not have been the greatest commander in chief, but at least he did not shoot
the flower of his army like Stalin did during the purges. The Germans were also
taught to think and take the initiative, while the Russian soldiers were
paralyzed by rigid procedures and political commissars who could overrule
commanders on the spot. German communications and coordination between the
services were harmonious, while the Russian systems were primitive or
non-existent. The only advantages the Russians enjoyed (superior numbers and a
vast country) were wasted when Stalin insisted that his armies were not to
retreat and would fight to the last man. Given the German superiority listed
above, there was only one likely result.
More advantages that the Germans enjoyed were the loyalty of the populace and
the confidence of their army. Hitler remains the most popular leader in German
History (this is not to say he is still popular in Germany today, just that he
was more popular during his time than any other German leader was during his).
Opposition to Hitler was always very small, while most Germans fought loyally
to the bitter end. The fact remains, as long as you were not a Jew, a Gypsy, a
Homosexual, a Communist (the list goes on), in other words, as long as you were
a normal German, life was good in the Third Reich, and it is a sad fact that
whenever life is good for the majority of citizens in any country, they will
tend to turn a blind eye to the evils of the state. Yet happy citizens make
good soldiers, and good soldiers with battlefield experience make confident
The same cannot be said of the Russians, or at least of all the peoples of the
Soviet Union. Stalin was a bloodier dictator than normal. While most dictators
do not shy away from bloodshed to maintain their grip on power, Stalin's
excesses went far beyond the reaches of realpolitik. It is estimated that he is
responsible for the murder of 14 million Soviet Citizens. While many people in
the Soviet Union were either naïve about the communist dream, felt that the
sacrifices were worth it, or were used to living under a brutal leader (Russia
is not known for soft leaders), a great deal of the masses were scared of
Stalin and so desperate to escape his wrath that even Hitler looked like a
savior. When the Germans invaded, most people from the Ukraine and the Baltic
States saw them as liberators. Many willingly fed and supplied the Germans, and
many even volunteered to fight against Russia. During the war more than one
million Soviet Citizens took up arms against their former leaders.
The planning of "Operation Barbarossa," the Invasion of Russia, reflected the
confidence of the Germans. It was assumed the Red Army could be destroyed in
huge battles of encirclement and that most of Russia west of the Ural Mountains
could be occupied before winter.
The plan was simple, but as Clausewitz says "everything in strategy is simple."
Given the size of Russia, the German army would be divided into 3 groups. Army
Group North would advance through the Baltic States towards Leningrad, Army
Group South would move into the Ukraine and then the Caucasus to take the wheat
and oil fields of Russia, and Army Group Center would advance through White
Russia towards Moscow. While all the Army Groups would move independently and
all had their own objectives, there were only enough resources, especially
Panzer Divisions, to ensure that only one of the groups received priority to
complete their final objectives at any one time. For example, although Army
Group North and Army Group South could make much progress on their own, they
could not seize their final objectives (Leningrad or the Caucasus Oil Fields)
without the massive Panzer forces which we assume would be concentrated in Army
Group Center for the main effort against Moscow.
This limitation became the cause of many heated debates between Hitler and his
Generals and proved disastrous for "Operation Barbarossa." When a country goes
to war, it is only sensible that the Government and the Military have already
determined the enemy's "Center of Gravity", and have already planned on how to
neutralize it. The enemy's "Center of Gravity" can be their armed forces, their
capital, a powerful ally, etc.
Hitler and his Generals disagreed from the start about what Russia's "Center of
Gravity" was. The Generals thought it was Moscow, while Hitler thought it was
Ukraine and the Oil fields of the Caucasus.
Hitler's reasoning, if it can be called that, was based on history. Napoleon
had taken Moscow, but the Russians had not given in, and in the end Napoleon
had to retreat, with disastrous results for his Empire. Hitler was determined
not to repeat that mistake; he was going to head south, take the Ukraine and
the Oil fields, and deny the Russians the resources he felt they needed to
continue the war.
His Generals could not have disagreed more. They argued that Russia was so
vast, and capable of replacing whole armies, that only the capture of Moscow
would destroy the Soviet Regime. They argued that Moscow was the political and
logistical hub of European Russia, and if it was taken, the Russians would not
be able to continue the war west of the Urals. A simple glance at any world
atlas will indeed show that in Western Russia, "all roads lead to Moscow."
Since most of Russia's population, resources and industry are located west of
the Urals, even if the Russians elected to fight on, it would be a lost cause.
Finally, they argued that Stalin was so feared and despised, that if the Red
Army was destroyed, and Moscow taken, the people would overthrow him and sue
While Hitler was the head of state and commander in chief, and therefore had
the last word, in this case he was absolutely wrong. The attempt to seize of
Ukraine in 1941 was by itself ambitious, but to try and take the Caucasus
oilfields as well was truly blind optimism, at least as long as there was a
Russian Government in Moscow. Even if the Germans had taken Ukraine and all of
the oilfields, the Soviet Regime would still be intact and worse, given the
still considerable Russian armies to the north and the long lines of
communications the Germans would have in the south, the Russians could have
possibly cut off the German army in southern Russia as they actually did in
But the seizure of Moscow would have been decisive. Not only would the Russians
have put every available soldier in front of it giving the Germans the
opportunity to destroy the Red Army, but as listed above, its capture would
have likely spelt ruin for Stalin and his regime, or at least destroyed it as
an effective entity.
Now all that remains is to show what happened when the Germans invaded, and why
they failed to defeat Russia in 1941.
Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. Despite the fact that
all the intelligence given to Stalin pointed to a German attack, plus the
obvious preparations the Germans were making, the Wehrmacht achieved complete
surprise. In the first day alone more then 1000 planes were caught on the
ground and destroyed (more planes than the German Air force managed to destroy
during the whole "Battle of Britain"), while the German Panzers were already
slicing through the Russian lines, beginning the first of many encirclements of
the Russian Armies. Since a large part of the Red Army was massed along the
border, the German Army managed to capture or destroy whole armies. On the 28th
of June they took Minsk and managed to surround 15 Soviet Divisions, which
later surrendered. On July the 15th, the Germans took Smolensk, and on August
5th they captured the 250,000-300,000 Russians soldiers encircled around it.
Similar progress was made by Army Group North in the Baltic States, while Army
Group South's advance was slow but steady.
While the battle around Smolensk had been hard fought and took longer to clear
up then the Germans had hoped for, the road was now clear for an advance on
Moscow. Unfortunately for Hitler's Generals, Nazi Germany, and in the end
Hitler himself, it was not to be. Instead of ordering Army Group Center to
continue its advance on Moscow, Hitler ordered that the Panzers, and thus the
axis of advance, be switched towards the Ukraine. When Heinz Guderian, the main
commander of the Panzer Armies, flew to visit Hitler and pleaded to let him
advance on Moscow, Hitler replied "my generals know nothing about the economic
aspect of war." What followed is probably the greatest example of gaining a
magnificent tactical victory, at the cost of strategic success. Guderian's
Panzers advanced south, took Kiev on September the 19th, and netted 650,000
more prisoners on the 27th. At the time, it was the greatest defeat ever
suffered by an army. But for Germany, it was a hollow victory.
Once the Ukraine had been secured, Hitler finally relented and continued the
advance to Moscow on October the 2nd. Between the 2nd and the 30th of October,
when the advance had to be halted, the Germans took more than 600,000 Russian
prisoners. Although the German army had scored another significant victory,
they had still not reached Moscow. A final, last ditch offensive, "Operation
Typhoon," began on November 25th and by the time it finally wore out, the
Germans were within 20 miles of Moscow, or 2 days march according to many of
the commanders. In fact, Fedor von Bock, the Commander of Army Group Center,
could see the Spires of the Kremlin through his binoculars.
But it was too late. On December the 5th, 1941, the Soviets, reinforced with
fresh forces from Siberia and commanded by the able General Zhukov launched a
massive counteroffensive. While the German army did not disintegrate like
Napoleon's "Grande Armée" before it, it took horrific losses and had to retreat
a significant distance from the steps of Moscow. Never again did the Germans
threaten Moscow, and it is likely that from there on the war was lost.
In 1941, Hitler gambled that he could defeat the Soviets, and lost. But does
the result by itself mean he was wrong to have tried, or that he was doomed to
fail? Considering the losses suffered by the Russian Army, and how close the
Germans came to taking Moscow, surely not.
During 1941, the Russian Army lost somewhere around 4,500,000 casualties. Of
this, at least 2,400,000 were prisoners of war. Their total losses surpassed
the amount of men they had in arms when the invasion began. During the campaign
the Germans inflicted casualty ratios on the Russians from 10-1 to 20-1. The
Germans captured around half of Russia's industry and two fifths of their
population. To suggest that Germany had no chance of winning is absurd.
But Germany did not win, and it is necessary to ask why. Why did they not
succeed after destroying countless armies, seizing important cities and
overrunning vital economic and industrial sectors? How could an army so
superior to its enemy in almost every way not defeat them? How was it possible
that a people so confident in their soldiers and their leaders fail to conquer
a disillusioned people scared of its own soldiers and leaders?
The answer is remarkably simple: Hitler's failure to observe the sound
strategic principle of "maintenance of the objective." The Germans had to
defeat the Russians before winter arrived. As explained above, the only way to
decisively beat them would be the seizure of Moscow. In the summer of 1941,
wherever the German army advanced, it destroyed everything in its path. What
stopped the Germans from taking Moscow was the arrival of winter. Had Hitler
let his Generals advance on Moscow after the "Battle of Smolensk" it is
probable that Moscow would have been captured and the Soviet Regime destroyed.
It was Hitler's decision to switch the "Axis of Advance" to the Ukraine during
the middle of the campaign that ultimately saved Moscow. Considering how close
the Germans came to taking it in October and November, it is more than likely
they could have taken Moscow in September if they would have advanced on it
instead of Kiev.
Whether or not Hitler would have taken Moscow and won the war if he had
continued the advance to it after the "Battle of Smolensk" is one of the big
"what ifs" of military history. However, Europe, the free world, and especially
Russia are all eternally grateful that they never had to find that out.
Written by Andrew Wright. If you have questions or comments on this article,
please contact Andrew Wright at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the author:
Please take the time to visit Andrew Wright's site at www.section117.com
About the author:
Andrew Wright is attending his second year at the University of Regina,
majoring in History and minoring in Political Science. His hobbies include
reading, writing, politics, history, Halo (X-Box) and other strategy games like
Chess, Axis and Allies etc. He has lived in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada most
of his life, but have also lived in London England for a year and travelled
around Europe including: United Kingdom, France, Germany, Holland, Belgium,
Italy, Greece. He has an extensive military history book collection (500 or
more books). He is the author of After Iraq: A Year in the Middle East.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MilitaryHistoryOnline.com.