Karamanski on Stahel, 'Retreat from Moscow: A New History of Germany's Winter Campaign, 1941-1942'

David Stahel
Theodore Karamanski

David Stahel. Retreat from Moscow: A New History of Germany's Winter Campaign, 1941-1942. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019. 560 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-374-24952-6.

Reviewed by Theodore Karamanski (Loyola University Chicago) Published on H-Environment (November, 2022) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=58297

Few campaigns in military history are more associated with the impact of the environment on victory and defeat than Operation Barbarossa—Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union. In standard histories of World War II, climate’s role is often emphasized in the repulse of the Wehrmacht in the snow drifts before Moscow in December 1941. David Stahel’s new history of that event is part of a revisionist trend that places the winter campaign in a new and more complex perspective. Stahel rejects the notion that the German repulse and retreat before Moscow was, as it has often been portrayed, Adolf Hitler’s “first defeat” (p. 4). Rather, he argues that Germany was strategically defeated before the final assault on Moscow began because its depleted armies had failed to knock the Soviet Union out of the war. Hitler had to win a quick and decisive victory against Joseph Stalin or the mismatch in human, natural, and industrial resources between the Nazis and their enemies on two fronts would condemn the Third Reich.

Stahel’s careful analysis of the massive Russian counterattack that saved Moscow complicates our understanding of both German and Soviet military operations. Shoddy German intelligence left their army unprepared for the three new Red Army groups that spearheaded the winter offensive. Yet the million-man assault was less formidable in the snow than it appeared on paper. These were reserve troops with little combat experience led by tactically naive officers and with inadequate logistical support. Their initial success largely flowed from encountering overextended German units, exhausted from months of constant combat and ill equipped to fight in the Russian winter. However, over the course of the Soviet offensive, from December 1941 through February 1942, it was the Germans who often held the tactical advantage. Poorly coordinated Red Army human wave attacks often broke with massive casualties on stubbornly held German defenses, and when successful, they were not supported by armor units and hence did not achieve decisive breakthroughs. Stahel deflates any notion of the winter battles as a great Soviet victory when he reports 1.6 million casualties for the Red Army in these winter battles.

Stahel provides a nuanced appraisal of the German Army’s response to the unexpected Soviet attack. Famously it was in December 1941 that Hitler issued the first of his unrealistic “no retreat” orders. German commanders at the time regarded the directive as “a military disaster” but one that, in many cases, they did not follow (p. 7). In fascinating detail, Stahel documents how officers at the front ignored the führer, sometimes blatantly more often by obscuring their actions as they responded flexibly to the relentless pressure of Red Army attacks. This studied disregard of Hitler’s orders was, according to Stahel, the key to the survival of German Army Group Center. It was done, however, out of military necessity not out of any flagging support of Nazi political objectives.

Chapter 16, “Making a Virtue of Necessity: Surviving the Russian Winter,” explores the impact of the brutal environmental conditions in which the winter battles were fought. In December alone, Army Group Center lost ninety thousand men to frostbite. Frontline German troops were without proper winter gear and were forced to improvise ways to keep equipment operational and themselves alive. Soldiers prized the felt boots of Russian troops, and in the aftermath of battle Red Army dead were routinely stripped. Even Soviet propaganda leaflets were used to create an effective insulation between undergarments and overgarments. Lines of trenches were impossible to construct in the frozen earth, but foxholes were blasted out of the ground with explosives. Yet men and weapons could not be long deployed in such defenses when the temperature plunged to twenty or thirty degrees below zero. Heavy machine guns and most troops sheltered in heated bunkers made from confiscated peasant huts. While much of the fighting area had been depopulated by earlier campaigns, Soviet civilians who remained, often women and children, were ruthlessly turned out of their homes and into the sub-zero temperature. What Communist propagandists called “General Winter” did not always benefit the attacking Russians. Then as now heavy artillery bombardments were a critical prelude to any Russian attack; however, deep snow drifts muffled the fragmentation effect of exploding shells. The hastily assembled Soviet formations were not all equipped for winter conditions, including some of the Siberian units. The forbidding winter conditions made the battle brutal for both sides.

The authoritarian regimes of Hitler and Stalin exasperated the trials of the men on the ground with ill-conceived and ideologically driven operational directives. Nazi ideology was obsessed with the power of the “iron will” to overcome all obstacles. The best thing that could be said about orders emanating from Hitler’s “Wolf’s Lair” headquarters in East Prussia was that the dictator and his toddies were hopelessly out of touch with the situation deep in Russia. Stalin was equally unrealistic. He saw the winter offensive as a war-winning drive that would shatter the frozen Nazi military machine. Yet he insisted on squandering the combat power of the Red Army by launching multiple offensives on all fronts, none of which achieved decisive results.

For Stahel the retreat from Moscow was not the beginning of the end of the war in the East but rather a continuation of a grinding attrition conflict that would consume millions of lives over the next three years. In the end it would determine the result of World War II in Europe. Retreat From Moscow is a military not an environmental history but its deeply researched analysis of the period from November 1941 to March 1942 makes it a valuable resource for a deeper exploration of the role of nature on the eastern front.

Citation: Theodore Karamanski. Review of Stahel, David, Retreat from Moscow: A New History of Germany's Winter Campaign, 1941-1942. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. November, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=58297

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