Book Review: Kiev 1941
by David Stahel
The great material wealth of the Ukraine (and the oil fields of southern Russia) acted as a siren call for Adolf Hitler in the summer of 1941, and that siren call shaped the progress of Operation Barbarossa, Nazi Germany’s massive attack on its erstwhile ally, the Soviet Union. Hitler’s generals were virtually unanimous in their objection to a southern campaign; they wanted to strike at Moscow and capture it, to stab at the heart of Russian operations and morale. Hitler overruled them, and enormous German forces converged on the Ukraine and its largest city, Kiev.
Traditional histories of the Second World War cite the operation that followed as a virtual textbook example of Nazi warfare. Panzer groups overran Russian resistance, decisive German strikes netted vast numbers of Russian prisoners, and all of central Ukraine was conquered in a little more than four weeks. David Stahl, in his riveting and scrupulous new history, Kiev 1941 rightly calls the Battle of Kiev “Hitler’s most significant battlefield triumph,” referring to the events of that July and August as “an epic of human endurance, strategic uncertainty and ceaseless carnage.”
It’s that ‘strategic uncertainty’ that gives hint of how Stahel’s account complicates and enriches the standard characterizations of the summer in 1941. The staggering figures of loss endured by the Russians – some 600,000 prisoners taken, four whole armies wrecked by the Wehrmacht – have for decades obscured the dire cost to the Germans: the 25,000 fatalities suffered by the invaders in the first nine days of the fighting is a stark and representative figure. Hitler’s plan of overwhelming force delivered with stunning speed and efficiency implicitly depended on getting the job done before the legendary Russian winter set in, and he was thwarted by the last thing he expected – the fighting tenacity of the people he dismissed as subhuman Slavs:
While there was an undeniable ideological bias governing German actions in the east that would in many respects never be expunged, there was, nevertheless, a certain qualification to Nazi propaganda that took place on the battlefield. Countless German documents and individual records make reference to the surprising and wholly unexpected fighting resolve of the Red Army. All of a sudden the supposedly inferior Slavs were proving more than a match for their German counterparts in sheer bravery and willingness for sacrifice.
The eye-opening achievement of Stahel’s book is to turn a fait accompli into the mother of all pyrrhic victories – by analyzing the sources and the data as no historian has ever before done in English, he manages to snatch a defeat from the jaws of victory. The show-piece Battle of Kiev, in his account, becomes not only a colossal strategic blunder but a tactical quagmire of nightmarish proportions. In putting forth the supreme effort to capture those Russian armies, Hitler was weakening his own beyond recovery:
The war was clearly not all going Germany’s way, and even minor setbacks, when taken as a whole across the length and breadth of the eastern front, were proving costly enough to compromise the cutting edge of Germany’s offensive strength. Even once a crisis at the front had been surmounted and the situation restored, losses in both manpower and equipment were increasingly difficult to replace, meaning that many divisions found themselves in a steady process of irreparable decline.
Stahel’s story is of course shot through with the horrors of war, the mowing down of troop-lines, the burning of villages, the ruining of cities. And because Barbarossa was characterized by such particularly intense fighting, it spawns equally grotesque scenes of depravity. In Kiev 1941, Stahel is acting primarily as a military historian of the facts-and-figures school, but even so, he regularly includes the human costs of war. Readers will be wearily unsurprised that the Germans constructed concentration camps (the first time that term was used) to house their Russian POWs – although ‘house’ is the wrong word, since these ‘camps’ very often consisted of simple fenced-off sections of open ground, with no shelter, no sanitation, no structures of any kind, and often no food or water. Killing these Russian prisoners outright would have been merciful by comparison, and here, as usual, the Nazis turn out to be merciless. We read of starving Russian prisoners being herded to detention camps in large groups, so hungry they would stop and rush over to the bodies of dead horses on the roadside and tear off chunks with their teeth, hurriedly bolting the rotting meat even while being shot at by German guards. We read of whole villages being slaughtered. We get several horrible pre-visions of the siege of Leningrad to come (the natural hope after reading this excellent book is that Stahel will stick with his subject and give us a big, bristling new account of that much-storied event).
At the Nuremberg trials, several of Hitler’s generals stubbornly re-iterated that they had never been in favor of the plan to turn away from Moscow and strike south, as Stahel relates:
It diverted the German effort from the main task to a second-rate operation, which involved an irreplaceable loss in time and strength. When Hitler then ordered the attack on Moscow, it was too late for it … Soon after [the start of Operation Typhoon] the winter cold set it, a series of military set-backs started, the deeper causes of which were to be found in the effects of the battle of Kiev, especially in the exhaustion of the troops, in the countermeasures taken by the enemy and in local errors in the command on the German side.
Stahel’s account vindicates the assessment, in terms that will no doubt stay authoritative for decades to come. Even readers familiar with the Russian theater of WWII will find much to intrigue them here, although the wonder of Stahel’s book is how accessible it is to the non-specialist; in addition to recounting the history of a pivotal battle, the author is very conscious that he’s telling a story as well. A dark story – two evil nations tearing each other’s guts out – but, in Stahel’s hands, a powerful and a necessary one as well. A highly recommended account.