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on 1 June 2011
David Stahel, a contrarian and advocate of Clausewitz theory has written a book that will probably be contested in the historian community. This book written partially using the findings of an exhaustive study by the Bundesarchiv-Militarachiv in Freiburg Germany claims the German momentum didn't first lose steam at Kursk or Stalingrad or even in front of Moscow in Dec 1941. The main theme of his book is not to present the tactical events of Barbarossa per say but to suggest that the Germans lost all chance of defeating Russia by mid August 1941, after the strenuous battle at Smolensk. The Smolensk campaign includes coverage of the nearby cities of Yartsevo, Dorogobuzh, Yelnya and Roslavl. The author does skimp on the coverage and ramifications of Guderian's drive to Kiev.
Mr Stahel is very deliberate and meticulous; he doesn't begin the battle action until page 153. In his introduction, he describes the major research project the Germans performed in reassessing the war and describes his manner of research. He moves on to discuss a number of current theories by authors, showing good points and bad points of each. He makes special note of Stolfi's "Hitler's Panzers East" as being flawed. I thought Stolfi's book an interesting read but he failed to convince me of his position. Mr Stahel on the other hand presents a convincing case of his position and backs up his position with hundreds of primary source statements. The planning stage is next and the author spends a lot of time here describing the faulty thinking that went into the planning. Marcks, Lossberg and Paulus play major roles in the plans but all three were influenced by the distorted thinking of Halder. (I thought Halder was a puppet of Hitler but in the beginning he had influence on the dictator and plans were constructed to Halder's expectations on how he wanted the war prosecuted and not on reality. All variations of the plans were for a short war and many things were ignored.)

The author doesn't discuss the entire Operation Barbarossa but restrains himself just to Army Group Center under von Bock. He also limits himself to just three battle campaigns: the Minsk pocket, the battle for the Dvina-Dnepr River line and the Smolensk pocket. His attention is primarily on the Panzer Corps that were the spearhead of the invasion and the biggest reason for German success but the author will involve the infantry on a secondary level when their support was needed but were many miles to the rear.
It would not be apparent to the combatants or the world but by mid August, the Germans would no longer have a fighting apparatus capable enough to compete with the Russians. The main reason for its early success was it panzer spearhead and attack technique but by August panzer attrition was so severe combined by low tank production that would prevent the German army from ever having sufficient strength to destroy the Russians. Also Germany didn't have the huge pool of reserves or resources that Russia processed.
The Minsk operation occurred within two weeks of the start of the war but it clearly shows several major shortcomings of the Germany Army. The panzers arrived first and created a pocket around the Russian forces but without infantry the panzers were at risk and not strong enough to hold the Russians. Not having nearly enough transportation, the infantry were days behind the front line. By the time Smolensk was under control, the German Army was a shell of itself. A summary of each of these campaigns would involve pages so a summary of the errors of commission or judgment will be listed (The author clearly shows numerous examples of these faults being committed.):

Insufficient panzer divisions
Insufficient motorized divisions to carry infantry with the panzer spearheads.
Insufficient production capacity. Throughout the war Germany would lag far behind the Russians in production.
Insufficient human reserves.
Insufficient natural resources, especially oil.
Lower technology than the enemy. Russia's new tanks, the KV1s and T34s were much better and more powerful than the German Mks.
The attitude by panzer commanders, like Guderian, that were obsessive on forward movement without clearing Russian resistance continued to produce disastrous results to rear area units, supply columns.
Extremely poor coordination between panzer and infantry divisions.
Hitler's obsessive and relentless drive to continually over extend his forces, putting them in jeopardy to counterattack.
No long term strategy. Hitler would shift directions with the wind.
Poor coordination with the commanding generals. Each general had his own style and agenda that often worked against the others. Kluge was cautious while Guderian was reckless. They were always fighting.
Complete underestimation of the Russian soldier.
Savage treatment of civilians produced a lethal partisan reaction that killed many German soldiers plus destroyed communications with the front.

The narrative is completely German-centric. The pros and cons of the Russian army in 1941 is not specifically included in the author's calculations when this turning point occurred. The level of resistance the Russian Army could exert as well as the quality of tanks surprised the Germans and is mentioned by the author. Through inference the author uses this condition in his calculations but the primary basis for his conclusions is based on Germany's insufficient ability to recognize and correct the deficiencies mentioned above. By mid to late August it would be too late for the Germans to make corrections in their war doctrine, improve the capacities of their panzer and mobile units and increase production to a point that could compete with the Russians on a long term basis.
There are few photos and 16 maps. The maps looked very familiar; upon checking it turns out the maps were made by David Glantz. The maps are good, showing detailed dispositions of the troops on almost a daily basis. The daily change in closing the Smolensk Pocket is intense, glaring. The fighting in the Yelnya Salient is also noteworthy. The book also has many footnotes and a impressive Bibliography if further research is wanted.
In addition to the author's logical presentation of facts, he inserts hundreds of communiques, and diary entries to help support his position and to give the reader a better understanding of what the German command was experiencing and the level of apprehension that had been generated as the battle moved into August. While Hitler and Halder continue to think of ways of expanding the war, the field commanders like Strauss, Schweppenburg, Hoth, Guderian and others feared their forces wouldn't be able to hold the Soviets back. They were also clamoring for more fuel, ammo, engines and reinforcements but little would arrive.
The Germans would continue to have victories like Kiev, Uman, Vyazma, Branysk and Rzhev but with each campaign the life blood of the German Army was being drained and it didn't have the capacity to replenish itself but because it did not experience a terrible defeat it was not apparent that Germany no longer had the capacity to defeat the Russian Army. This would be proven at Moscow, Stalingrad, Kursk, Vitebsk (1944).

In the area of tactical problems of the Wehrmacht when facing the Soviets, Mr Stahel concentrates much of his presentation on the AGC sector. By expanding his attention to the rest of the line, additional evidence could have been provided that would have bolstered his position but I believe the author presents sufficient evidence to prove his thesis but even if you're not convinced, he clearly shows the weaknesses of the German Army and presents critical reasons for their eventual failure and for this reason alone the book is worth reading. His discussions of the key German commanders and the friction generated from within were also interesting and it helps you understand the early war. The profiles of Hitler, Halder, Bock, Kluge and Guderian were of special interest. This book has much merit and I hope the author will treat us with coverage of another campaign. This book is highly recommended to all serious students of the war.
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on 17 September 2011
Let me begin by saying that I have been studying, reading, researching and otherwise been fascinated by the German Russian war most of my life.

I feel that in reading this book, it is the book on the Russian campaign that I've been looking for all my life.

Over the last few years there have been a number of books of a `revisionist' nature dealing with aspects of the Third Reich and its wartime activities that have brought a great deal of new information out from archives, especially German and Russian archives, diaries and other primary sources of information. Much fascinating new information has come out that paints that conflict in a very different light to that accepted by what I would call the propaganda version.

However, I think this book is especially unique in that it combines excellent primary sources, both from the general point of view (literally from the point of view of the general staff) to the point of view of the ordinary soldier, and gives information on logistics, battle losses, state of mind of both the general staff and the fighting soldier, with excellent maps, that weave the whole story together into a narrative that makes complete and utter compelling sense.

I find his account so realistic in its depiction of the realities of the German invasion just four weeks into that invasion that it is almost an emotional journey into that reality. Having had to put up for so many years with unbelievably conformist, unbelievably conventional, bland and repetitive histories of that conflict, from historians who seemed simply to be content to copy from each other's works, the emotional impact of reading information and feelings of the participants in the way that introduces cause and effect directly into the narrative is astonishingly powerful.

I find myself page after page almost shouting at the generals `how could you have been so stupid?' The picture of the almighty invincible jackbooted Wehrmacht is I feel thoroughly squashed by his narrative. I think is important to understand just how incompetent, stupid, and egotistical the whole setup of the Third Reich was from the beginning. Astonishingly so.
Many have written on the genius of the German way of war. I'm begin to realise that while the ordinary German soldier was probably a cut above other soldiers of his generation in other countries in terms of training and organisation, his general officers were so deluded by their own sense of grandeur and infallibility and by the prevailing political ideology that they never really understood what they were getting into, probably never wanted to.

As far as they were concerned the Slav, the Russian was the untermenschen, and could therefore almost be ignored in the military calculus. These generals were so arrogant that they probably wouldn't even have listened to other Germans with more experience and a more sanguine approach.I sometimes believe that war is far too important to be left to generals, whether it is the German Russian conflict or our present conflicts in the Middle East.

Whenever I used to read about hundreds of thousands and millions of Soviet prisoners in the Germans took the first few weeks, and this was described as evidence of their invincibility I used to ask myself what happened to all those prisoners? I mean how do you feed and guard 1 million prisoners, when all your troops are in the front line fighting the enemy? When the author says that a large number simply slipped the net and became partisans in various ways, what he says makes a great deal of sense. His emphasis on the insecurity of the German rear areas is very realistic.

When you look at all those conventional maps of the German advance into Russia with all those silly arrows pointing east, as if to say this was the inexorable advance of the German juggernaut, no one ever seems to point out in these histories how difficult it would have been to deal with 1 million Soviet prisoners.

I am still astonished that the German generals were astonished that the Russians put up such resistance for so long, even when resistance was apparently futile. As the author points out in one of his excellently sourced quotes, the Germans who had been fighting the Russians during World War I and had occupied the country briefly in 1917 knew much more about the Russian and he fought, and about the Russian winter than those other generals who had no such experience. Of course in the euphoria of the victory of `the master race', no one bothered to bring the leaders down-to-earth to tell exactly how it was in the Soviet Union. The leaders probably wouldn't have listened anyhow.

All in all an historical and literary masterpiece!
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on 5 April 2010
I've read this book a while ago and let my impressions ripen before writing my review. Because this book shouts out to be reviewed and I wanted to do it justice. Not because it is the perfect title on Operation Barbarossa, or on the cause of its failure. No, much more because of the novel theory of the author about the German military being under the influence of Nazi ideology and the impact this had on the campaign planning and execution. Having just read Mr. Citino's Death of the Wehrmacht I feel there are other theories explaining the German defeat that are just as plausible, if not more so. But in the discussion I feel this book should be included, as mr. Stahel's theory needs testing. Now, I'm not claiming to be the person that will do this. That's up to you, the reader. All I want to do is to make you aware that this book is of interest to anyone who wants to form an opinion about why operation Barbarossa failed.

The book is divided in two parts, each of several chapters. The first part is about the planning of the operation (or lack of it) and the second part deals with the actual campaign. The part on planning gives the usual summary of the different plans, and describes how directive 21 came to be. I feel Mr. Stahel convincingly argues that the plan for Operation Barbarossa was flawed, but I do not agree with him as to why this was the case. Mr. Stahel argues that Nazi ideology led the German High Command believe they were superior beings to the Soviets, and therefor they would win (I'm simplifying here, I know, but basically this is his argument). I feel that this is only partly an explanation, as other authors have pointed out so well (e.g. Mr Citino), as did one of my fellow reviewerd: the performance of the Soviets against the Fins certainly was evidence againts Soviet capabilities. But read the chapter yourself and form your own opinion.
Included in the first part is a brief description of the German Panzer force, the german infantry and the Luftwaffe. This chapter mainly aims to show these forces were not ready for the task envisioned for them. I feel this judgement is somewhat harsh, as the cause of failure probably lies in the next chapter: logistics. In this chapter I feel Mr. Stahel shows in detail what the actual problem of Operation Barbarossa was: an inadequate logistical system. And this is also what Mr. Citino argued as a root cause for failure, so it's nice to put the two views together and to form an opinion.

The second part of the book describes events during the campaign, focusing mainly on the roles the higher commanders played. I found this an interesting approach, because usually books give descriptions of events only. I do feel however, that explanations given by Mr. Stahel about why certain actions were taken are not always in accordance with my own views. Mr. Stahel argues, as I said before, that senior German officers felt superior to their Soviet enemies because of Nazi ideology. I feel there could be other explanations as well, e.g. the ones given by Mr. Citino.
In this part there are chapters on the initial period of war, the drive to the Dvina and Dnepr, the Battle for Smolensk and the Battle for Yelnia. I found them all informative and a good read. But these chapters serve the purpose of supporting Mr. Stahel's theory and are not full accounts of the campaign.

But the bottom line is that I really found this book to be thought-provoking, and for that alone I think anyone interested in the Eastern Front, and particularly Operation Barbarossa, should give it a try. I also think Mr. Stahel has a point in saying that ideology is the main cause of the failure of Operation Barbarossa. I'm sure I'll read this book again soon.
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on 7 December 2009
David Stahel has written a most absorbing reassessment of Barbarossa, which is a must read for Eastern Front historians. Challenging orthodoxy and exposing new material, he has generated an intellectually challenging review. A tad pricey but worth every cent!
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on 29 July 2015
Extremely detailed and engaging book that assesses the fundamental causes of German defeat rather than their symptoms (ie, why they failed in 1941, rather than simply how the battles unfolded). The conclusions make a lot of sense and evidence is presented well (though Stahel could perhaps do with cross-referencing with Tooze's 'Wages of Destruction' to check German armament policy investment schedules; Tooze does a better job of illustrating why increases in equipment production were virtually impossible given the decisions taken pre-1940).

My one criticism is that for all of the evidence presented of how difficult was Barbarossa: the endless losses, difficulties, failure of supply and so forth, the Wehrmacht DID get a long way east and inflict significant damage on the Red Army. If, as at one point Stahel posits, the basic facts of the operation itself were more harmful than the Red Army and that all German operations hung by a logistical thread, how did they still manage to achieve what they did? This is answered to a degree, but it continues to gnaw a little after pages and pages of officers' notes about how everything was falling apart and another mile of advance would be impossible. If you knew nothing after September, you might conclude that the East was static thereafter, but yet there are further massive encirclement battles in the Autumn before the final advances to Moscow. Somehow, I could not reconcile this with the analysis in the book, though I agree with the argument that victory in Russia would require some form of political event and that militarily the Wehrmacht lacked the depth to inflict a decisive victory by battle alone.
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on 16 October 2011
The gradual realisation that the decisive battles of the Second World War were fought in Russia seems at last some 70 years or so later to be entering the minds of those in the West who have a passing interest in these things. The fact that WW2 has defined modern Europe and Western politics sometimes seems to have passed by those who rule Europe today. Even though we know the result of Operation Barbarossa this book is still a gripping read as the generals and Hitler dipute the facts and fanatasize about what might be, always ignoring the weakness of their own position. It sounds a bit like Europe today.
Those in the English speaking world who are 'fans' of the German Army and it's generals will be shocked,surprised and challenged by this very comprehensive review of the greatest military operation of WW2.
David Stahel has written a very well researched and highly objective critique of what happened before, and during Operation Barbarossa on the Army Group Centre front. He sets out in meticulous detail, using a vast amount of primary evidence, the planning and execution of this operation. It is clear that the German Army and OKW had woefully underestimated the challenge in front of them and he examines under a very bright light the stragetic tensions between the armed forces and Adolf Hitler and indeed the differences between various factions in the Army itself.
Anyone who has a serious interest in this theatre of war should read this book. I have read extensivey on the subject and agree entirely with the authors conclusion which is that Germany's armed forces were destined to failure the moment the operation began. It is a long road to travel for those who see the huge encirclment battles as great victories, to realise that the very nature of those battles would lead to a strategic defeat. The author plots that road with exemplary detail and for those who are in 'the other camp' the concluding chapter of the book shows that as with Napoleon in 1812 and the Schleiffen plan in 1914, although brave men may win a battle, inadequate logistics,poor planning and hubris will never suffice to win a war.
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on 15 January 2010

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on 16 July 2014
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on 8 February 2016
An interesting and fairly persuasive alternative to the conventional (older) view of the German attack on the Soviet Union up to the Battle of Moscow,
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on 13 December 2009
Well worth , a bit pricey but still a fantastic, well written full of information and a great addition to my library
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