From Parameters, Spring 1999, pp. 150-64.

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"All summer they drove us back through the Ukraine; Smolensk and Vyazma soon fell . . . . By autumn we stood with our backs to the town of Orel."[1]

On 22 June 1941 the German armed forces crossed the Polish border to begin the largest land battle in history. Six months later, Hitler's exhausted panzers ground to a halt on the outskirts of Moscow itself, never to advance farther in the three and a half years left of the Nazi regime. For more than 50 years, the settled verdict of history has been not merely that the Wehrmacht failed to defeat the Red Army and win the Second World War, but that it could not.[2] The conventional wisdom is that German planners grossly miscalculated the task before them, embarking on a mission impossible to achieve and one leading directly to gotterdamerung for the German people and dismemberment for the German state.

Yet the truth may be altogether different.[3] Distorted not only by the Allied victory in the west, but also by Russia's eventual, crushing victory in the east, the cold evidence suggests something quite different. In fact, the German army stood on the threshold of a shattering victory in August 1941. Only Hitler's decision to send the panzers of Army Group Center away from Moscow and into the Ukraine robbed the Wehrmacht of a victory that would have changed the world for generations. For five decades, a skewed interpretation has led American military thinkers to ignore and denigrate the wellsprings of German military power. The best lessons of World War II may well lie, largely ignored, in the ashes of history.

The Panzers Advance

At 0330 on 22 June 1941, the German army surged from its Polish and East Prussian assembly areas to rupture Russian defenses all along the invasion front (see Figure 1).


Army Groups North and Center advanced north of the vast Pripet Marshes toward Leningrad and Moscow, while Army Group South struck south of the Pripet toward Kiev and the Ukraine. In front of the armored spearheads, the Luftwaffe smashed artillery positions, command posts, and resupply columns on the roads in a spectacular reprise of its performance in France the year before. Everywhere the Soviets were taken by surprise; everywhere the border defenses collapsed.


Sixteen hours after the opening of Operation Barbarossa the German army in the east had virtually unhinged two Soviet fronts, the Northwestern and Western. At the junction, the Soviet 11th Army had been battered to pieces; the left flank of the 8th Army and the right flank of the 3d Army had been similarly laid bare, like flesh stripped from the bone which lay glistening and exposed. The covering armies in the Soviet frontier areas were being skewered apart.[4]

Figure 1. Operation Barbarossa.

In the north, Field Marshal Ritter von Leeb commanded Army Group North, with two armies (16th and 18th) and Panzer Group 4 (later renamed 4th Panzer Army, consisting of two panzer corps).[5] Four days into the campaign and moving at lightning speed, General Erich von Manstein's 56th Panzer Corps had breached the Dvina, 185 miles from its start point.[6] By mid-July, Von Leeb had largely cleared the Baltic States. Having averaged 18 miles a day, the army group stood only 60 miles from the prize--Leningrad, the former winter capital and cradle of the revolution.