Among all the theatres of conflict in the Second World War, perhaps no other has inspired as many myths and false narratives as the Eastern Front. Many books and documentaries still engage in the time-honoured tradition of focusing on the image of the ill-prepared German soldier, freezing in the Soviet winter, with defeats here seemingly the first ‘stepping stone’ in the inexorable decline of the German Wehrmacht.
David Stahel’s latest book, Retreat from Moscow: a new history of Germany’s winter campaign, 1941-1942, is here to add vital nuance to discussion of the German Army in this crucial phase of the war. Over the last decade, his works on the Eastern Front have led the way in scholarly reassessment of Operation Barbarossa in 1941, demonstrating how Germany’s failure to decisively defeat the Red Army was a disaster, and left them in a highly vulnerable position for the winter of 1941-1942.
Retreat from Moscow argues that this winter period, rather than a period of further unmitigated disaster and retreat for Army Group Centre (the central Germany military group in the invasion of the USSR), was in fact a story of German strategic success.
Facing oblivion at the hands of the Red Army, they managed to withdraw to defensive lines, launch damaging counter-offensives, and emerge in the spring ‘unbroken and best placed to recapture the initiative for another major summer offensive’.
It almost defies imagination, but Army Group Centre actually escaped the winter without losing an army, corps, or division.
The book’s vivid narrative of the winter of 1941/1942 picks up as Operation Typhoon – the German Army’s failed push to take Moscow – come to an end in December 1941. Stahel renders the conflict in exquisite detail, breaking down the fighting to days and even hours to provide a blow-by-blow analysis. Clear, detailed maps assist the reader’s understanding of these events immensely.
For the Soviets, we hear time and again of General Zhukov’s chagrin at his men launching costly frontal assaults on German lines. For the Wehrmacht, what really stands out here are the stunning counter-offensives that repeatedly minimised Soviet gains.
On 9 December, Soviet forces had broken through the German lines north of Moscow and were at the gates of the town of Klin – a vital transport and supply hub for the Germans. At ‘this low point’, the 1st Panzer Division, led by General Walter Krüger, tore into the vanguard of the Soviet advance, and overran Soviet forces – 1,800 Soviets were killed and 950 captured.
Key moments like these define Retreat from Moscow, showing how German defensive warfare combined whenever possible with ‘a potent offensive element’.
The ideology of National Socialism was a potent force in the military culture at German high command. Men were encouraged to prize emotional hardness and complaints were signs of weakness that ‘reflected
more upon the man than the circumstance’.
This led to Hitler often being insulated from critical assessments from the Eastern Front, with generals self-censoring reports to the Führer, leaving Hitler to make sweeping pronouncements of victory. Stahel quotes one exchange when Hitler confidently told his propaganda minister that the Wehrmacht would reach ‘the Ural Mountains’ by the end of 1942.
Amid the fighting and dying on the Eastern Front, we learn of another fight for influence and control among the commanders of the German military. This stemmed, in large part, from a famous ‘halt order’, or Haltbefehl, delivered by Hitler on 18 December 1941, ordering all troops to cease withdrawals and hold the line.
Stahel really hits his stride here, unpacking the extraordinary dramas this created in German command structures – none more so than in the near collapse of the Ninth Army in the last days of 1941.
Facing huge pressure from advancing Soviet forces, Field-Marshal Günther von Kluge – commander of Army Group Centre – was forced to spend days negotiating and at times essentially begging Hitler to authorise a withdrawal. Hitler’s response embodied this borderline farce: he claimed the reports of the Ninth Army’s collapse were exaggerated and decided that more National Socialist ‘will’ was needed.
It is perhaps appropriate that the relentless Soviet advance eventually ended the debate and gave the Ninth Army no choice but to retreat.
Hitler’s orders, argues Stahel, were not simply obeyed without question at the front. Decentralised initiative, or Auftragstatik , was still alive and well in the German officer corps.
Through forensic research in German military archives, Stahel demonstrates that Kluge was very willing to countenance localised withdrawals without clear authorisation from high command. Kluge’s ‘middle solution’ involved a delicate mix of clamping down on subordinate commanders who outright disobeyed the halt order and requesting key withdrawals from Hitler. He then used this overall impression of loyalty to the Führer to give him room to allow unauthorised, phased withdrawals in the face of overwhelming Soviet advances.
The many key localised withdrawals included the pulling back of XXXXIII Army Corps near Kaluga in mid-December 1941 as the Soviet advance left Germans fleeing in chaos, and withdrawing the left wing of the Fourth Army in January 1942 as encirclement by Soviet forces seemed inevitable. Retreat from Moscow is, to some extent, a story of the triumph of Kluge’s command.
Soldiers are not just moving parts in Retreat from Moscow. Their letters and diaries are woven into the fabric of the narrative, localising the impact of the grand-strategic gambles and global events of the war. ‘We kept going nearly crazy with exhaustion,’ wrote one German soldier, fleeing from the aforementioned assault on Kaluga. ‘I held on to the tail of the horse in front to be pulled along at times.’
The book also regularly steps back from the battles themselves, devoting multiple chapters to conjuring up the uncertain, fluctuating world of a German soldier on the Eastern Front. We learn of their adaptations to being ill-equipped for the Soviet winter, including stealing equipment from captured Soviets, changing how they used their weaponry to prevent them freezing, and even resorting to the powerful methamphetamine Pervitin (for more on that read Norman Ohler’s ground-breaking 2016 text Blitzed: drugs in Nazi Germany).
In Stahel’s discussion of ordinary soldiers, the most compelling chapter examines the complex terrain of soldiers’ sexuality at the front. This is a topic unimaginable in military history texts until a few decades ago, and it is rightly now a key area of discussion in soldiers’ lived experience in war.
Homosexuality was not uncommon in the all-male spaces at the front, oft en without any significant punishment from military authorities (it was only from May 1943 that soldiers found to be ‘incorrigible homosexuals’ faced sentence to a concentration camp). Others entered into relationships with local women, in the knowledge that National Socialist ideology could see them punished for ‘tainting’ the pure Aryan race.
These relationships are contrasted sharply to the horrifying world of widespread sexual violence practised by German soldiers against local people.
Many soldiers committed terrible acts of depravity, aided in part by commanders turning a blind eye, and by the lax enforcement of laws on sexual violence by the military authorities. These accounts serve as a sombre warning from history about the darkest recesses of human behaviour.
Take, for example, an incident when three men of the 253rd Infantry Division raped a Russian woman in December 1941. Two of the men escaped imprisonment as the judge recognised their ‘long sexual abstinence’, adding that the victim would experience ‘no lasting damage or emotional distress’.
Overall, Stahel has created a wel-lresearched, compelling account of an oft -misunderstood period of the Second World War. The text comes alive in his discussion of the German high command and their struggle to pull off a defensive retreat from a position of extreme weakness, while trying to convince Hitler to accept the reality on the ground. Very few deficiencies, if any, stand out.
The narrative would have been aided by a timeline and a list of dramatis personae, helping the nonexpert reader to follow the ebb and fl ow of this richly detailed text.
Equally, the compelling chapters on ordinary soldiers feel somewhat cast adrift from the main argument of the book. The text would, perhaps, benefit from being structured in two parts: the first on military strategy and the second on ordinary soldiers’ experience. This would have added more momentum to Stahel’s argument, with each section complementing our understanding of the travails of the Wehrmacht in the winter of 1941/1942.
Nevertheless, this is a formidable piece of scholarship, unafraid to tackle assumptions about the war and build a more complex, nuanced picture of the German Army in 1941-1942. It is a text driven by perspective: those of the German high command, of ordinary soldiers, and of military historians concerned to conceptualise victory in war.
As winter started to break in 1942, the Wehrmacht was damaged but by no means defeated by the Red Army. To give Stahel the final word, ‘It was Hitler – not Stalin – who achieved his strategic goals for the winter.’
Review by Alexander Izza
This article was published in the February 2020 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.