'History is written by the victors' is a quote often attributed to Winston Churchill after the Allied triumph over Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in World War II.
But in the case of Barbarossa Unleashed: The German Blitzkrieg Through Central Russia to the Gates of Moscow: June-December 1941 (Schiffer Publishing), a book written by Craig Luther ’73, the perspective is from the losing – German – side. Barbarossa examines in fine detail the blitzkrieg advance of Germany’s Army Group Center through the central Soviet Union toward Moscow in the summer of 1941, followed by brief accounts of the Battle of Moscow and subsequent winter battles into early 1942. Military historian Dr. David Stahel, who has published four books on Operation Barbarossa, has hailed the book as a “landmark study.”
Luther took 12 years to research and write the book, which includes hundreds of veterans’ accounts and never-before-seen photographs taken by German soldiers.
The book offers new insights into Operation Barbarossa, Adolf Hitler’s attack on Soviet Russia that began in June 1941 and is the most detailed account to date of virtually all aspects of the German soldiers’ experiences in Russia in 1941.
Luther is a former official U.S. Air Force historian and Fulbright Scholar. His other books include Blood and Honor: The History of the 12th SS Panzer Division “Hitler Youth” 1943-45 and a new edition of the SS-Commando Otto Skorzeny’s memoirs.
Interestingly, while at CMC, Luther’s love of music took precedence over any interest in history.
“I spent many hours playing in rock bands, or simply playing around the campus with my acoustic guitar,” he says. “I wanted to be the next James Taylor! Shortly after I graduated, my agent and dear friend, Randy Groenke, another Claremont McKenna grad, got me an introduction to the president of Columbia Records. The man actually came to our apartment with his wife to hear me play and fell asleep while I was playing! His wife woke him up. The next day I sent off for applications to graduate school and never looked back.
In a wide-ranging interview with CMC Magazine, Luther discusses what initially went right and then wrong for the invading German Army and the defending Soviets as Germany attempted to create what Hitler referred to as Lebensraum (“living space”) in the East – and how the invasion affected the common German foot soldier.
CMC: What spawned that particular interest in World War II?
Luther: I was a typical child who loved to play with toy soldiers, and really my fascination with things military just grew from there. More seriously, war is the most extreme of all human endeavors; it brings out the very best, and the very worst, in human beings. This basic reality makes war, in general, a fascinating topic for serious contemplation.
I wrote several research papers on World War II while at Claremont McKenna, so I’d say that my professors promoted my interest in the field.
CMC: What do you feel is “unique” about the book relative to other books about Operation Barbarossa?
Luther: I think I can state with a certain pride of accomplishment that no one else has researched and examined this topic – that is, the drive of German Army Group Center through central Russia toward Moscow – in such depth and detail.
I took the time, many years, to locate, interview and gather information from dozens of former veterans of the fighting along the central front in the summer of 1941; perforce, this book includes literally hundreds of personal, first-hand accounts, a large number of them never published until now. Many of the 200-plus photographs in the book had also never before been published.
Moreover, my book aims for a comprehensive synthesis of the key topics, controversies and questions which historians have debated for decades as they pertain to Operation Barbarossa. Only four of the 11 chapters in the book actually provide a formal account of combat operations along the road to Moscow; the remainder address a broad range of issues, including grand strategy, Hitler’s reasons for attacking the Soviet Union, the vital roles played by logistics and intelligence gathering, military culture, German and Soviet war crimes, the controversies about whether Hitler’s attack was pre-emptive or preventative and so forth.
CMC: What major questions do you think the book answers or addresses about Operation Barbarossa?
Luther: The book lays out why Operation Barbarossa failed – the hubris of Hitler and his High Command, shoddy or incomplete planning and preparations on so many levels, inadequate force structure, and, not to be overlooked, the almost preternatural resiliency and regenerative powers of the Red Army, the Soviet state and its people.
The book also examines the highly controversial issue of war crimes, both German and Russian, and here I try to provide a more balanced perspective than offered today by many historians. Most significantly, however, the book treats Operation Barbarossa from the perspectives of German soldiers fighting along the forward edge of battle. Thus, the reader will get a view of the war “from below,” from the trenches, prepared in painstaking detail.
CMC: Were there some new revelations that emerged from your research about the topic that have not appeared elsewhere?
Luther: The book includes (hopefully) provocative and, at times, somewhat revisionist, discussions on a number of key issues. For example, was Operation Barbarossa justified as a pre-emptive or a preventative strike? Did the German Wehrmacht actually possess a legitimate “first strike” capability? What role did logistical failures play in the ultimate failure of Barbarossa? (A rather decisive one in my view.)
CMC: What was the most affecting story you heard from one of the German soldiers you interviewed?
Luther: I do recall a passage in one of the more recently published memoirs I used for the book. The memoir was written by a German officer, a battalion commander. This German officer had fought in Russia during World War I, and was well aware of the immense challenges posed by an attack on Russia. On Sunday, 22 June 1941, as he was making his way through the enemy’s concertina wire at the start of the Operation Barbarossa, he turned to his personal adjutant and exclaimed, “Remember this day. It is the beginning of the end for Germany!” He was only too right.
CMC: Many historians, with the benefit of hindsight, think that Hitler fatally overplayed his hand by invading Russia – that until that time, Germany was fighting a one-front war and had Great Britain pretty much bottled up. Do you agree?
Luther: Did Hitler overplay his hand? Well, with the benefit of hindsight, this question must be answered in the affirmative. However, in 1940-41, the strategic calculus looked much different.
Following the spectacular victory over France in June 1940, Hitler, in the months that followed, struggled to find a pathway to final victory. In this context, the aerial offensive against Great Britain had largely failed by September 1940, forcing Hitler to call off a planned invasion of the defiant little island. Moreover, the “Führer’s” diplomatic maneuvers vis-à-vis Franco’s Spain and Vichy France also fell flat by late 1940. As a result, Hitler found himself on the horns of a dilemma: Just what was he to do to maintain Germany’s momentum in the war and achieve final victory?
It soon became apparent to Hitler that his only path to victory lay through the East, through Russia. He was rightly convinced that America would enter the war against Germany soon, most likely in 1942. To have the means to counter Anglo-American sea and air power, Hitler needed the resources of the Soviet Union – the grain of the Ukraine, the coal and minerals of the Donbass, the oil of the Caucasus, and so forth. In other words, only by destroying Russia and ruthlessly exploiting its riches, would Hitler be able to establish the self-sufficient (autarkic) economic base he so desperately needed to wage the final, global struggle for world hegemony against Great Britain and America.
Looked at this way, Hitler’s decision to strike at Russia in 1941 was a logical one. Russia was not yet ready for war, but mobilizing at an alarming rate. Germany was at the top of her game militarily, and would never be in a stronger position relative to her adversaries. To sit pat in 1941 and do nothing would be to sacrifice the strategic initiative to his enemies, and this could only have meant defeat for Germany. For, by 1942, the strategic balance would have turned against the Third Reich, following America’s entry into the war and the fact that Stalin himself, as exciting new research into the Soviet archives has revealed, most likely would have attacked Germany in 1942.
Thus, Hitler’s only real option in 1941 was to exploit his narrow window of opportunity by seeking a decisive victory in the East.
CMC: Although military invasions on such a massive scale seem to be a thing of the past, what if any lessons can modern generals learn from Operation Barbarossa?
Luther: First and foremost, any nation preparing for war that underestimates its potential adversary does so at its own peril.
The Germans, blinded by their early successes (particularly against France, where the German military had accomplished in six weeks what it couldn’t do in almost four years from 1914-18), their own hubris and, of course, feelings of racial superiority vis-à-vis the Russian Untermensch (sub-human or “inferior people”), failed for the most part to take their Russian opponent seriously.
Secondly, the critical importance of meticulous, realistic and objective staff work at all levels cannot be overemphasized. Whether planning a campaign’s operational approach or its logistics, planners should never assume the best-case scenario will actually hold true. As the great head of the 19th century German General Staff, the Elder von Moltke, once posited: “No battle plan survives its initial contact with the enemy.” Hence, one must have second and third options, if the initial option proves to be a failure. This the Germans did not do.
Thirdly, and as a corollary to the above, always plan and be prepared for the unexpected. Commit enough resources of all types (soldiers, weapons, ammunition, fuel, reserves, etc.) so that the inevitable failures and setbacks can be rapidly overcome and the momentum of the campaign maintained. All of these things Hitler and his generals failed to do.
Visiting the German veterans of Barbarossa
During the 12 years it took for Craig Luther to research and write Barbarossa Unleashed, he made five trips to Germany and, in 2005, one to Rzhev, Russia.
In Germany, Luther traveled mostly by train when he visited veterans.
“As one might expect in Germany, they run on time,” he says. “The German WWII veterans were in their 80s, even their 90s when I visited them, and they expect you to arrive on time. It took many years to locate them and gain their trust, which is one reason the book took so long to complete.”
But Luther’s fieldwork was worth the effort. The insights the veterans provided as well as letters, personal diaries, eyewitness accounts and photographs, enrich the book.
“More specifically, these and other documents of the veterans of Operation Barbarossa give the book its unique character by offering an inside look at the war from the perspective of common German soldiers,” Luther says.
For Luther, a key research site was the German Federal Military Archives in Freiburg, where he located many of the official documents which form the foundation of the book.
According to Luther, nearly 17 million men served in the German Wehrmacht during WWII (with about 10 million of these fighting in Russia from 1941-44).
Luther says that among the veterans he interviewed, some remained unreconstructed Nazis (though not many) while others completely rejected their past and were members of the liberal German Social Democratic Party (SPD).
“Fortunately for my research,” Luther says, “in recent years many surviving veterans had finally decided to put down their experiences in words – for the sake of their children and grandchildren. As a result, I was able to collect a significant number of both published and unpublished personal memoirs which greatly enriched my book.”
Over the past 10 years, Luther says the window of opportunity to interview dozens of German veterans of the fighting along the Minsk-Smolensk-Moscow axis in the summer of 1941 has closed. “So few of the veterans are still alive today or in physically and mentally good enough condition that the unique opportunity I had is really no longer available to historians.
Excerpt from Barbarossa Unleashed (p. 389)
While it may well be overstated to posit that the German Landser in the Soviet Union was “tortured” by the tactics of his enemy, it is, nevertheless, accurate to assert that he was palpably discomfited by methods of warfare that were, hitherto, beyond his frame of reference. The Red Army fighting man soon became an “object of fear” for the German soldier – the psychological toll exacted by the “mind games” of the Russians evident from the following anecdote from the beginning of the campaign, gleaned from the memoirs of August Freitag:
In the evening we were to prepare to continue the march. A messenger brought us the news that a motorcycle messenger from the 14th Company, who had sat by a ryefield in a roadside ditch to spread a slice of bread, had been killed from behind by a Russian with the butt of his rifle. This happened only a few hundred meters from our resting spot, on the busy main route of advance. Caution was ordered and we were forbidden to go anywhere alone. For the high cornfields and the many forests offered the Russian stragglers protection right up to the edge of the vehicles and the roads.
We didn’t get far on this evening. … We bedded down in a clover field beneath a few trees. When the security detachments had taken up their positions, we lay down to sleep, one pressed up against the other, so that we didn’t need to unpack as many blankets. At midnight – I was just standing guard – a bloodcurdling, gurgling cry rang out through the silence, emanating from the middle of our sleeping comrades. We rushed over in the belief that Ivan already had one of them by the throat. But everyone was sleeping peacefully, except for a few, who had been wakened by the cry and were staring at us questioningly. Somebody must have just had a not particularly nice dream. And that could only have come from the message [about the motorcycle messenger from the 14th Company]. So we knew that the devious warfare of the Russian stragglers lay heavy on all our minds.
As this narrative has documented, however, the Russian soldier quickly became – begrudgingly, to be sure – an object of respect to the German soldier, who admired his adversary’s toughness, resilience, and individual fighting qualities, while deploring the enemy’s brutal methods.