It has long been a facile judgment of semi-informed people that Hitler lost the war in the east because he was a megalomaniac who would not heed the advice of his experienced Prussian generals.
“Hitler should have listened to his generals!” However, as the moral obligation to find fault with Hitler fades into the past, eroded by easily available historical truth in the Age of Internet, one begins to hear more and more that wisdom was on the side of Hitler in that disagreement, that Hitler’s strategic plan in Operation Barbarossa was quite sensible, and that it was the generals — specifically Halder and Bock — who fouled up a good plan.
Even with flawless execution of Hitler’s plan, a victory over the Soviet Union would have been remarkable, due to the enormous imbalance of quantities favoring the Soviet side, but it was some generals who made this difficult situation even worse.
Why invade the Soviet Union at all? Contrary to what the old propaganda says, Hitler’s fundamental motive in 1941 was not to gain the Lebensraum about which he had written in 1925. To the extent that people are willing to believe that Hitler undertook an unnecessary invasion of the USSR with the war against Britain still ongoing, they have assumed that Hitler was very foolish. Hitler was not so foolish, and the invasion of the USSR in 1941 was not optional. It was necessary. It had to be done because the Red Army was deployed for attack in 1941, and the best hope for saving the situation was a war of prevention. See “Hitler’s Policy toward the USSR Justified,” republished below.
Hitler’s Policy Toward the USSR Justified
Passages from Heinrich Haertle, Freispruch für Deutschland (1965), translated, redacted, rearranged, and somewhat rewritten by Hadding Scott, 2010. (To read a fuller presentation of Haertle’s writing go here.)
Hitler’s Calculations in 1939
Hitler as chancellor assumed that a clash between National-Socialist Germany and world-revolutionary Soviet imperialism would be inevitable, and that he must do everything to prepare for this danger.
The gathering of all Germans into a Great Germany (Großdeutschland) and Hitler’s policy of reconciliation with the West, especially his offers of friendship to England, served this purpose.
However, when England and France had demonstrated through their guarantee to Poland that they were unwilling to tolerate a Germany that would have been strong enough to stand up to the growing Soviet colossus, Hitler began to reorient his foreign-policy overtures from West to East.
In mid-1939 when England and France were trying to complete their encirclement-policy by enlisting even the Soviet Union in an alliance against the Reich, Hitler saw only one escape from the trap: conciliation with Russia. Through that alone, he believed that he would be able to avert a two-front war.
Meanwhile, Stalin was counting on the certainty of a war waged by England and France against Germany, from which he could at first remain aloof so as to prepare his military might, and at the favorable moment enter the war and win, either with the Reich against the capitalist West or, even more advantageously, with the capitalist West against the national-socialist Reich. It turned out that Stalin had much less time to prepare than he could have expected, because Germany conquered Poland and France with unprecedented speed.
Stalin’s calculations in 1939-40 were based on hostility between Germany and France and England. When, however, Stalin saw Germany making peace-offers to France and England in late 1939 and 1940, the Bolshevik dictator began to ally himself with England and America against the ever-stronger Germany, so as to expand the Soviet dictatorship into Europe and Asia with the help of “democracy” and “capitalism.”
Precisely on account of the repeated German peace offers to France and England, Stalin feared the end of Europe’s fratricidal war and therefore from fall 1940 directed his aggression also against Germany, in violation of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The American Secretary of State Byrnes writes in his memoirs: “It is obvious that the Soviet Government has concluded this pact with the clear intention of breaking it.” Even [Czechoslovakian President Edvard] Beneš affirms in his memoirs that the Soviet Union concluded the “non-aggression pact” only to gain time, i.e. so as to enter into the war later, when the warring parties had been weakened.
Molotov’s November 1940 extortion attempt in Berlin already practically signaled Stalin’s determination for war. He was pressuring Germany, which was still at war with England and already in a de facto war with the United States, to hand over to the Soviet Union the Balkans, the Baltic Sea, and above all the war-deciding oil supply in Romania, thereby making it clear that he would stab Germany in the back at the first opportunity.
Already in 1940 Stalin had begun negotiations in Moscow with the English representative Sir Stafford Cripps, thus with the enemy of a still allied Germany.
In spring 1941 the anti-German coup in Yugoslavia, which mortally threatened Germany’s position in the Balkans and therewith its oil supply, had been instigated and supported by Moscow together with England.
The Red Army increased its divisions in Germany’s rear from 65 divisions in September 1939 to 153 divisions and 36 motorized brigades in 1940-41.
The Preemptive War
Germany’s preemptive war forestalled a gigantic Soviet offensive. The Bolshevik danger was even greater than could even be reported previously. One of Hitler’s enemies, Chief of Staff Franz Halder, demonstrates that. He affirms that Hitler’s conviction “that Russia was preparing for an attack on Germany” was justified, and declares, “We know today from good sources that he was right about that.”
At Nuremberg General Winter testified under oath: “We had at the time the subjective impression that we were striking into an offensive deployment in progress.” Field Marshal von Rundstedt is also a witness to that.
In a secret session of the House of Commons in 1940, Churchill rationalized his rejection of the German peace offer and his decision to broaden the war, with the affirmation that he had at that time, because of the negotiations conducted by the ambassador Sir Stafford Cripps in Moscow, obtained the explicit pledge that the Soviet Union would enter the war on the English side.
Jewish journalist Alexander Werth, who was a correspondent in Russia and in his heart still stands on the Soviet side, reports about Stalin’s speech of 5 May 1941:
All my sources agree in fundamental features with the most important points of Stalin’s speech: the conviction that the war “almost unavoidably” would be decided in 1942, wherein, if necessary, the Soviets must seize the initiative.
The testimony of Senior-General Jodl at Nuremberg is thereby proven correct on all essential points by the Soviet side.
In his conversation with Hitler, in fall 1940 when the possibility of a preemptive war against the Bolshevik threat first came up, the motive of acquiring Lebensraum was never mentioned.
At Nuremberg Senior-General Jodl testifies: “The Fuehrer has never named in my presence even just one hint of a reason other than the purely strategic.” For months on end Hitler continuously repeated to Jodl’s face:
“There is no doubt now that England puts her hopes in this last mainland proxy; otherwise she would have already called off the war after Dunkirk…. Agreements have certainly already been made. The Russian deployment is unmistakable. One day suddenly we shall be either coldly blackmailed or attacked.”
What Germany Gave Up for the Preemptive War
Jodl himself had placed great hopes in the famous negotiations with Molotov, since with a neutral Russia in the rear — which furthermore would help Germany with economic supplies — the D-Day Invasion would never have been possible. No statesman and no field-marshal could sacrifice such a favorable situation without being forced by circumstances. It is a fact that Hitler “for months struggled inwardly in the most serious way with this decision, certainly influenced by the many opposing pictures that both the Reichsmarschall and the Supreme Commander of the Kriegsmarine as well as the Foreign Minister raised.”
That the actions of 1941 were a preemptive strike in defense of Germany, permitted under international law, is most strongly proven by the strategic situation. It would have been political and military madness that contradicted all accomplishments of the German leadership up to that point, if one had given up the victory over England, certainly possible at the time [by pushing British forces out of the Mediterranean, which would have caused Britain to sue for peace], in order to attack Russia, if the German leadership had not been compelled first to fight off the threat in the east.
How the Final Decision was Reached
The foreign-backed coup that overthrew the pro-German government of Yugoslavia, the hostile doings of the Soviet Government in combination with England, compelled the final decision. Jodl testifies:
“Until then the Fuehrer still had doubts. On 1 April and no sooner … his decision to conduct the attack stood firm, and on 1 April he gave the order to expect the launch of Operation Barbarossa for approximately 22 June.”
Why Didn’t Germany Simply Prepare a Defense?
To his defense-attorney’s question, whether later discoveries had proven the military necessity of this decision, Jodl testified:
“It was without a doubt a purely preemptive war. What we later established was in any case the certainty of an enormous Russian military preparation facing our borders. I want to forgo details but I can just say that we succeeded in achieving tactical surprise with the day and hour of attack, but not strategic surprise. Russia was fully prepared for war.”
Continuing, Senior General Jodl again named an essential reason for the preemptive war:
“We were never strong enough to be able to defend ourselves in the East; events since the year 1942 have proven it. It may sound grotesque, but in order to cover this front of over 2,000 kilometers we would have needed at least 300 divisions, and we never had that.
“If we had waited until we had been caught perhaps in the pincers of a simultaneous Allied invasion and Russian attack, with certainty we would have been lost….”
Nuremberg defense-attorney Dr. Exner argued that a preemptive war was justified:
“The true preemptive war is one of the essential means of self-preservation. It was also indisputably permitted according to the Kellogg-Briand Pact. Thus was the right of defense of all signatory states understood.”