Thursday, 5 July 2012

Hitler turns east against Russia

As early as the 1920s, Hitler had openly declared that the destruction of Soviet Bolshevism was his ultimate and over-riding aim. The breaking of the Russian Empire would also open up vast tracts of land in the east for German expansion, known as lebensraum or ‘living space’. With Operation Barbarossa, Hitler was to make his attempt to put this ambition into practice. His plans were meticulous, clever and stood a fair chance of success. In the event it was Hitler himself who was to undermine them and cause ultimate defeat.

By the late summer of 1940 Hitler had decided to launch an attack on Russia in 1941. It is likely that he had always planned to mount a rolling war of successive campaigns. First Poland was to be crushed in the east, then Britain and France were to be defeated in west, then he could turn east again to take on Russia. Driving this strategy was the traditional, and very rational, fear of a war on two fronts. If Hitler was to be certain of success he would need to concentrate the entire armed might of the Wehrmacht against one opponent at a time.

This guiding strategy started to go wrong when Britain did not, as Hitler had expected, make peace after the fall of France. The continuing defiance of Britain meant that the Kriegsmarine, the navy, needed to be sent into the North Atlantic to attack convoys and the Luftwaffe had to keep forces in France to launch bombing raids on Britain. More seriously, the lack of a western peace forced Hitler to keep army units in France, Belgium, Holland, Denmark and Norway to prevent a British invasion. These were, on the whole, reserve units rather than the elite of the army, but they were nevertheless tied down in the West and were unavailable for the war in the East.

In July 1940 Hitler held a meeting with his senior commanders. He gave a sweeping overview of the strategic situation, then came to a surprising conclusion. “Britain’s hope lies with Russia and the United States. If Russia drops out of the picture, America is also lost to Britain because the elimination of Russia would free Japan in the Far East. My decision is that Russia’s destruction must be made a part of this struggle. The sooner Russia is crushed the better. If we start in May 1941 we will have five months to finish the job.”

In one sense, Hitler’s strategic conclusions were correct. Germany had the vast majority of her armed might in the army, not in the Kriegsmarine or the Luftwaffe. Britain could not be invaded or defeated by the army, so it would be best to use this superb fighting machine elsewhere. The defeat of Russia would, as Hitler argued, totally change the world situation and might very well have brought peace with Britain. But Hitler had not, at this point, undertaken a practical review of what was involved in defeating Russia. The question was, could Russia be beaten?

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