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Was Hitler right to invade Russia?
WWI: Was Britain Justified?

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 been defeated.

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 soldiers.

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 for peace.

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 late 1942.

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.

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Show Footnotes and Bibliography
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© 2024 Andrew Wright

Published online: 08/26/2007.

Written by Andrew Wright. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Andrew Wright at:

About the author:
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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.

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