Kiev 1941 – Book Review
Kiev 1941; Hitler’s Battle for Supremacy in the East. David Stahel. Cambridge University Press, 2012. 468 pp with 21 illustrations, 13 maps and 2 tables. $35.00
David Stahel’s latest work on WWII and the German war in the east is a tour de force of analysis, narrative and revisionism. Following on his successful book about Operation Barbarossa, in Kiev 1941: Hitler’s Battle for Supremacy in the East, Stahel turns his attention to the battle of Kiev. Though generally seen as a major Nazi victory, Stahel’s focus is on the strategic hollowness, indeed the Pyrrhic nature of that victory (though he himself calls it "Hitler’s most significant battlefield triumph"). According to Stahel, the idea that Kiev confirmed German dominance on the Eastern Front is misleading. "The battle was not the seamless encounter often portrayed, but rather one typified by hard fighting, embittered command disputes and an exacerbation of the already serious decline in the Ostheer‘s [the German army in the Eastern Theater] offensive strength.
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As David Stahel points out, the common historical wisdom is that Germany’s ultimate failure in WWII was a "close run thing," that they had opportunities to win even into 1942 and perhaps ’43. Yet he believes this is not true. The German high tide was actually much earlier and their plan to conquer the USSR "had long since failed." Russia’s successes later were merely "confirmation" of a circumstance already reached. Post-war scholarship lost sight of this fact, adopting "the tone set by the German generals, who were themselves simply echoing many of the triumphant phrases previously trumpeted by Goebbels."
In light of this understanding, Stahel is attempting to fill what he considers "gaps" in the historical literature. He wants "on the one hand, to provide the first intensive treatment of the battle of Kiev and, on the other, to chart the ongoing demise of Germany’s operational proficiency in 1941." He sees the collapse of Barbarossa, notwithstanding significant successes such as Kiev, as leaving "Hitler’s strategy rudderless and, although scarcely recognized at the time, beyond repair."
Chapter one of Kiev 1941 is an overview of the war up to the start of Operation Barbarossa with the goal of putting the weight of the eastern campaign into proper perspective. The overall importance of the Soviet effort in defeating Nazi Germany was inadequately emphasized for many years after the war. "While the role of the west in the defeat of Nazi Germany is certainly an essential one, no other nation suffered or sacrificed more than the Soviet Union between 1941 and 1945," Stahel writes. In emphasizing the importance of the Soviet effort, he also underscores the ineffectiveness of the British strategic bombing campaign. Far from disabling Germany, German weapons production actually increased. Even Churchill was frustrated with British inactivity, "while all the time Russia is being battered to pieces." There was just not the same level regarding troops and supplies in the west versus the eastern campaigns. It was German concentration in the east and the failure of blitzkrieg (leading to a war of attrition) that freed Britain to recover and remake its ground forces. "Indeed, from the Soviet perspective, the whole Anglo-American war effort up until the Allied landings in France in June 1944 was significant only in terms of how many German resources it managed to siphon off from the eastern front. In the late summer of 1941 that figure was pitifully small and, it may be said, contributed to the Soviet disaster at Kiev."
Soviet resistance, even though it led to huge losses of men and material, put a strain on the German forces that affected them for the future, even in the Kiev battle. "During the battle of Kiev, the continued resistance of the encircled pocket delayed the release of the German armoured forces and reduced their ability to rest and refit before the next major offensive."
One of the reasons, little acknowledged in histories of the war, for the great loss of war material by the Soviets early in the war was that they were using terrible, obsolete equipment. Tanks, trucks, guns were liable to break down, be unsupportable, disabled due to lack of fuel, etc. But these losses led to replacement by newer, better materials, tanks, planes, etc. "In the end it was their remarkable commitment to a total war effort, and prodigious readiness for toil and self-sacrifice, that is the real story of Soviet survival in 1941."
What Stahel wants to highlight most of all is that, for all the German successes early in Barbarossa, their ultimate position attained by the end of summer 1941 was fatally unsustainable. Germany’s futility can be explained by, first, its economic inability to sustain operations and second, the failure of its summer offensive and its devolution into a war of attrition. "As soon as the Wehrmacht lost its operational edge and the enormous war in the east became dominated by resources, instead of rapid manoeuvre and ‘shock’ tactics, the prospects for Germany’s war effort were fatally altered."
Food shortages and future economic inadequacies was one of the major reasons for Barbarossa in the first place. Much of these shortages were exaggerated as the war progressed. There was a lack of standardized equipment, leading to severe spare parts shortages when breakdowns occurred. Stahel stresses how Barbarossa had to succeed swiftly or not at all, since there was no adequate plan in the event it didn’t succeed quickly. With these shortcomings so fully documented, it’s hard to believe the Germans held out as long as they did. By the time of the battle of Kiev, these problems led to serious deficiencies and "denied the army the means to maneuver and rapidly engage the enemy." The German army was still capable of some mobility and tactical victories, like Kiev, but with the failure of the blitzkrieg in the east, strategic victory was out of the question.
In order not to repeat himself from his earlier book (Operation Barbarossa and Germany’s Defeat in the East, Cambridge University Press, 2009), which described summer failures of Army Group Center’s Panzer Groups 2 and 3, Stahel spends much time in this volume discussing General Gerd von Runstedt’s Army Group South. He specifically focuses on Colonel-General Ewald von Kleist’s Panzer Group 1, which encountered early failures and slowed advances due to intense defensive displays by Russian forces, especially the arrival of their far-superior T-34 tank. "A long-term campaign was now thrust upon the Wehrmacht for which it was impaired militarily and unsupported economically."
These difficult battles also adversely affected Army Group Center, with some units being pulled to the offensive in the south. The ability of the Soviets not only to offer a powerful defense but also to initiate offensive attacks, led to much stress put upon the Wehrmacht and losses in men and equipment without adequate means of resupply or reinforcement. Stahel explains that Soviet offensive capabilities were not something created from whole cloth in 1942 but were there in late summer 1941, and that German problems in parrying these thrusts could already be seen. He details not only supply and exhaustion problems, but all sorts of evils—disease, bugs, bad water, etc. This all before the well-documented and devastating inadequacies of the army in confronting the Russian winter later in the year.
All these problems, with the concomitant backbiting between generals Fedor von Bock and Heinz Guderian over strategic decisions, inevitably led to the failure of the campaign, a failure that both generals knew would be fatal. German strategic goals required a quick victory. A static war, a war of attrition, Germany could not win. But it was already too late by the time of Kiev, notwithstanding the battle’s remarkable results. "The war was clearly not all going Germany’s way, and even minor setbacks, when taken as a whole across the length and breadth of the eastern front, were proving costly enough to compromise the cutting edge of Germany’s offensive strength. Even once a crisis at the front had been surmounted and the situation restored, losses in both manpower and equipment were increasingly difficult to replace, meaning that many divisions found themselves in a steady process of irreparable decline. The implications were already evident in Guderian’s sluggish advance to the south, and the situation was even worse in some of the infantry divisions, especially from the battered Ninth and Sixth Armies."
Only one chapter in the book is really dedicated to the Battle of Kiev itself, which was an encirclement battle by somewhat weakened German forces against similarly weakened Soviet forces not given permission to retreat from a gathering pincer. Though numerous, incessant Soviet attacks were failures, and costly failures, they were also very costly to the Germans in men, material, unit strength, health and morale. The impression one gets is of a Soviet army much stronger, inflicting much greater pain and losses on the Germans than is normally acknowledged by historians of the war. The German victory at Kiev was not due to German superiority at this stage but in spite of German weaknesses, weaknesses that were not possible to repair long term. The loss at Kiev stems in part from Stalin’s refusal to allow tactical retreats or shortening of lines to cut off flanking maneuvers, aided by intimidated commanders.
The battle itself is brilliantly narrated, as is the aftermath and Stahel gives a harrowing description of the fate of Soviet POW’s. "In many ways they entered into a far more brutal world of torment with no possibility to defend themselves. Although no figures are available, one may surmise that only a small minority of those captured in the battle of Kiev ever lived to see liberation."
He concludes by briefly discussing Operation Typhoon, the attempt to capture Moscow at the end of 1941, laying out his belief that it never had a chance of success. In his view, the idea that Typhoon’s failure doomed the Wehrmacht’s strategy is misguided. It was already doomed by weaknesses in supply, manpower, strength of panzer units etc. The Werhmacht simply did not have the strength to accomplish such an ambitious strategy.
For a book this attractively published, with sturdy paper, numerous maps and illustrations, a pleasant font, there are a disconcerting number of printing errors. Yet it is a well-written discussion, not just of the Battle of Kiev, but of the progress and outlook for Barbarossa as a whole. "For all that it accomplished Kiev was the dictator’s greatest battle and yet it did not suffice to defeat the Red Army decisively, or bring the war in the east to a conclusion. Such a feat was already beyond Germany’s strength." To help understand why that was, this book is highly recommended.
About the Author
Douglas Sterling is a bookseller and freelance writer from Northern Kentucky who has published works on Julius Caesar’s army, the later Crusades, the Hundred Years’ War and World War II. He has Master’s Degrees in Military History and American History. In addition to several book reviews, his articles for ArmchairGeneral.com include "Erwin Rommel – Roots of Victory, Seeds of Defeat."