Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas:  jgo.e-reviews 5 (2015), 2 Rezensionen online / Im Auftrag des Instituts für Ost- und Südosteuropaforschung in Regensburg herausgegeben von Martin Schulze Wessel und Dietmar Neutatz

Verfasst von: Mark Edele


David Stahel: Kiev 1941. Hitlers Battle for Supremacy in the East. Cambridge [etc.]: Cambridge University Press, 2012. XVI, 468 S., 21 Abb., 13 Ktn., 2 Tab. ISBN: 978-1-107-01459-6.

When did the Germans lose the war against the Soviet Union? In 1944, when Army Group Center was destroyed? In 1943, when the battles of Stalingrad and Kursk ended with victories of the Red Army? In late 1941 and early 1942, when first the advance got stuck in the mud, and then Stalins army went on the counter offensive in the battle of Moscow? Or on 22 June 1941, when the Wehrmacht attacked a numerically and economically superior enemy with a determined and ruthless leadership not likely to budge? Economic historians like Mark Harrison, Richard Overy, or Adam Tooze have argued for the latter interpretation: that the entire project of the war against the Soviet Union was ill-conceived and doomed to failure from the start. Historians of military operations, by contrast, often opt for later turning points, giving the Germans some chance for victory, speculations which make writing detailed battle histories worthwhile to civilians in the first place. The most likely candidates for a decisive turning pointif one is willing to give the Wehrmacht a chance at allare the battles of Moscow, Stalingrad, and Kursk. David Stahel argues for an earlier decision, symbolised by the (first) battle of Smolensk in July and August 1941. In his first book, Operation Barbarossa and Germanys Defeat in the East (Cambridge, New York 2009), he developed the operational equivalent to the economic arguments of Harrison, Overy, or Tooze. The Wehrmacht, he contended, was doomed Long before the first snows of winter began to fall, […] even before the first autumn rains brought most movement to a halt, in fact as early as the summer of 1941 (Operation Barbarossa, p. 2). While Smolensk can serve as a convenient shorthand for the timing of the German demise, it was not the result of any one decision or battle, but rather as the general consequence of many factors broadly represented by the harsh terrain, vast distances, fierce Soviet resistance and internal German weakness (Operation Barbarossa, p. 24). This thesis prompted the eminent historian of the Soviet Unions war effort, Ewan Mawdsley, to point out that Smolensk was […] followed by two or three more overwhelming German victories, at Kiev in September, at Viazma-Briansk in October, and north of the Sea of Azov in November (English Historical Review 75 [2010],  pp. 773–776;  here p. 776). The book under review is Stahels answer to such criticism, a book-length elaboration of what he had sketched in the conclusion of Operation Barbarossa.

In this renewed blow against the myth of the Wehrmachts unbroken series of victories in the east to the very gates of Moscow (p. 9), Stahel again argues against historians such as R.H.S. Stolfi, Andrew Nagorski, and John Mosier, who assume that the Germans could have won in 1941. Their accounts, he contends, reflect the German generals postwar mystifications. German military files, he adds, instead support the Soviet version of fierce resistance of Stalins army in 1941. Here, he explicitly builds on the work of David Glantz and John Erickson. The basic argument he develops is three-pronged: first, he summarises the economic debate which conclusively shows the slim chance of the Germans in the long run; second, he documents the heavy losses and the fierceness of fighting, using German archival files and witness accounts; finally, he stresses the poor use the Soviet leadership made of the considerable resources at its disposal, which helps explain why the Wehrmacht did so well despite the odds. The battle of Kiev of August and September 1941, he contends, was not so much a German victory than a Soviet defeat, prompted by ill-conceived decisions by Stalin himself. Like in his first book, he stresses the brutality of the fighting from the first days of the war, the tenacity of many Soviet units, and the policy of ceaseless counter-attack, which hemorrhaged German forces from the get go. While the losses of the Soviets were apocalyptic, the Germans also suffered from large-scale destruction of people and materiel, which thinned Hitlers already inferior fighting forces: by the end of September, they had lost over half a million men in the east, or 16 per cent of the total Barbarossa invasion force (p. 311).

Kiev picks up the story where Operation Barbarossa left off, in the late summer of 1941, and follows it to the start of Operation Typhoon, the attack towards Moscow in early October. There are considerable overlaps in argument with Barbarossa, but in Kiev Stahels operational-cum-economic history is embedded to a much larger extent in a military history from below”, a view from the trenches which makes the entire account more graphic and concrete. Stahels narrative is animated with well chosen quotations from participants recollections, letters, and diaries. His description of the road to Kiev, the battle itself, and its aftermath is military history with the war left in: suffering and dying; war crimes of both sides; rats, lice, mosquitoes and flies; dirt, mud, dust, and contaminated water; thirst and hunger; terrible injuries and festering corpses; dysentery, cholera, malaria, and typhus; forced marches and harrowing battlesit is all there. The result is a vivid account of the hopelessness of the entire operation, the battle of Kiev yet another exemplification of the overarching point: what looked like victories were indeed won at extremely high cost against an enemy of vastly superior resources.

Stahels study is based on wide reading in secondary sources in German and English, on research in the German military archive in Freiburg, and on study of published letters, diaries, and memoirs. The German side is much better developed than the Soviet war, an imbalance which not only reflects Stahels training as an historian of Germany, but also the unequal development of the historiography. Historians of the Soviet war have simply not produced a literature of the same breadth, depth, and subtlety as their counterparts concerned with Hitlers army. Stahel at times gets trapped by the contradictions within the existing historiography. In chapter one, for example, he follows those who believe in the overwhelming loyalty and the determined fighting spirits of the Soviet people; some two hundred pages later he cites the evidence of severe discontent, desertion, and even outright rebellion a competing interpretation of the Soviet war effort has collected. These tensions never get resolved, which leaves the undeniable tenacity of the Soviet forces something of a mystery.

Overall, then, the book can be recommended for anybody interested in this war. Even those readers who were already convinced by the argument of Stahels first book will find a wealth of new material illustrating its point. The combination of fluid writing, colourful sources, and a polemical edge make this stimulating reading for specialists and non-specialists alike.

Mark Edele, Crawley, Western Australia

Zitierweise: Mark Edele über: David Stahel: Kiev 1941. Hitler’s Battle for Supremacy in the East. Cambridge [etc.]: Cambridge University Press, 2012. XVI, 468 S., 21 Abb., 13 Ktn., 2 Tab. ISBN: 978-1-107-01459-6, http://www.dokumente.ios-regensburg.de/JGO/erev/Edele_Stahel_Kiev_1941.html (Datum des Seitenbesuchs)

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