The Longest Battle: Operation Barbarossa

In his volume Barbarossa historian Alan Clark describes the Eastern Front as “the greatest and longest land battle which mankind has ever fought.” The outcome of this titanic struggle “recast the world balance of power and completed the destruction of the old Europe, which World War I had begun.” The Russian-German conflict from 1941-45 involved more men and material than any other theater of operations in World War II. It was costly, not only in terms of military casualties but also the horrific scale of Nazi genocide and subsequent Soviet atrocities. At the same time, soldiers on both sides displayed tremendous heroism amid the challenges of combat and climate over vast frontlines that ran from the Arctic Circle to the Caucasus. The Eastern Front saw innovative tactics and weaponry. It was the theater not only of the largest ground battles of the war, but also the largest air battles.
First published in 1965, Clark’s account is not the most detailed nor does it encompass more recent research. Yet it is a highly readable chronicle (at under 500 pages, relatively compact for the subject) and recommended by British historian John Keegan. The author concentrates on four major phases of the conflict: Moscow (1941), Stalingrad (1942), Kursk (1943), and Berlin (1945). More than a sweeping survey of Barborossa, Clark offers expert – but never overly intrusive – analysis of leaders and participants. He was one of the first to argue that Hitler’s “intuitive” management of quick victories was more competent than previously admitted. It wasn’t always a case of wise generals battling an incompetent dictator, though certain decisions by Hitler, like the subordination of the military to the goals of the Nazi party and his inability to plan long-term strategy, ultimately contributed to Germany’s defeat.
The book starts with a description of the moral disunity and weakness of the German Army under the Hitler regime, which is key to understanding its wartime conduct. In 1934 Hitler and his SS carried out a purge that circumvented both the law and the regular armed forces. Instead of protesting, the military meekly submitted. It tended to ignore political issues and divert its energies into matters of technical and administrative finesse. While some officers resisted Hitler, most were content to pursue their careers even at the price of complicity in Nazi occupation policies. As for the Soviet military, at the onset of Hitler’s invasion it was formidable in both size and in potential. Unfortunately its officers’ ability and morale had been eviscerated by Stalin’s insane purges of the 1930s. The individual Russian soldier proved himself far more tenacious than Germany’s other opponents, but often that ability was squandered by the incompetence (and callousness) of Soviet commanders.  At the same time, German euphoria over stunning early victories gave way to the sobering realization that despite incredible losses the Soviets could keep throwing men and material at the Wehrmacht. In the end German quality would succumb to quantity (and emerging quality) on the part of the Russian army.

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